The Common: A Lit Journal for a Modern Audience

Posted by Demetria Monachino, Fiction Reader and Art Curator for Issue 4.1

Before working on the Gandy Dancer, I didn’t know what a literary journal was. I didn’t know that there were publications out there dedicated to collecting individual works by writers and artists. I just sort of thought that one wrote a book–a novel, a collection of short stories or poems, a memoir–sent it to publishing houses, and got lucky. I knew that some people wrote short stories, essays, and poems, but I didn’t know where those works went, where they belonged, if not in a book.

It turns out that these pieces of literature find their homes in literary journals all over the world, one of which is The Common. Based in Amherst, Massachusetts, The Common has a rather uncommon goal: to achieve “a modern sense of place.” Unique to the world of literary journals, The Common is all about location, location, location.

common-9Upon first look, The Common has a striking appearance. Its readers know that when the receive their issues they can expect a minimalist, modern, and clean-looking journal that features a bold color and a “common” object on the cover, along with The Common’s signature square logo. What readers can’t predict is what exactly that eye-catching color and everyday object will be. I find that The Common’s consistent yet unpredictable approach to the appearance of their journal mimics what can be found in the pages of the journal. Yes, readers can expect to read and view pieces with a strong sense of place, but they can never know what those places will be. Just as there are endless objects in the world to choose from, there are endless places to write about. These places could be geographical, like Issue 9’s portfolio of works centered on Bombay/Mumbai, or local, like Issue 7’s “Your Parent’s House” by Zeina Hashem Beck. Or place might provide the conflict by separating two people as it does in Masha Hamilton’s “God’s Fingernail,” in Issue 9. It could even be about searching for a place to belong or something to hold on to. This is the case with Issue “In Search of Bazena Nmcova” by Kelsy Parker, which I read in Issue 7.

But The Common is also about innovation, innovation, innovation. It achieves its modern feel both through its aesthetic and in its timely content, and underneath the contemporary feel of the journal is a charming thread of worldly tradition. Issue No. 9’s Bombay/Mumbai portfolio gives us contemporary narrators who are connected to a cultural past, and even includes traditional recipes. There is a definite vibe of coziness that accompanies any literature focused on place or travel, but there is also a feel of excitement, because pieces in The Common get readers pondering the possibilities of place–it is something usually so immobile and stagnant into something that can in fact be dynamic, shared, and changeable.

The Common has an online component, too, as many literary journals do, but The Common goes further than most. Complete issues can be read online on the website, which is something that many literary journals do not provide, and readers can navigate through the website to see some truly innovative and interactive options. As a lover of all things art myself, I appreciate The Common Studio, a sort of online art gallery featuring select artists who have also written pieces to accompany their visual work. The Dispatches sections of the website transports reader to specific places around the world with short travel journal-like pieces. The Common’s efforts to bring literary journals into classrooms is a smart idea. By offering sample lesson plans, free desk copies and an interview with The Common’s Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Acker, the journal makes teaching contemporary literature an exciting reality, while calling attention to the great writing appearing in literary journals.

Each semester the Gandy Dancer staff has the opportunity to interview the Editor-in-Chief of a single literary journal. In the past the staff has talked with Vern Miller at Fifth Wednesday and Michael Palmer at Iron Horse. This semester we had the privilege of interviewing Jennifer Acker at The Common. Acker had great advice for GD, a young journal with an even younger staff, many of whom aspire to careers in the editing and publishing fields. Friendly, open, and supportive, Acker advocated for the necessity of having both a print journal and an online component, as well as explaining her job as an editor at The Common. The staff got to ask a myriad of questions on many topics concerning the specific choices made at The Common in order to learn different about the journal’s techniques and mission.

In its merging of tradition and innovation, The Common is an impressive journal. It provides both compelling reading material and an excellent introduction to literary journals. The staff here at Gandy Dancer has developed a deep respect and admiration for The Common and has learned about the range possibilities and potential of literary journals.

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