Fun with Words: Literary Magazines Thomas Jones Peruses the Best of the New Journals-But Doubts If Any Will Rival the Great Periodicals of the Past

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The magazine I work at, the London Review of Books, celebrates its 25th anniversary this autumn. "A quarter of a century," as Marilyn Monroe's character, Sugar Kane, says in Some Like It Hot, "makes a girl think." You might think 25 is less of a milestone for a literary magazine than it is for a starlet: the Times Literary Supplement, after all, is 102. But longevity isn't everything: many, including some of the best and most influential periodicals, don't last that long. T S Eliot abandoned the quarterly Criterion in 1939, 17 years after the first issue (which contained "The Waste Land") appeared. The 30 issues of Ian Hamilton's Review came out over a period of less than a decade; his New Review, where both Ian McEwan and Jim Crace were picked out of the slush pile, ran for only five years before it closed in 1979. And magazines are being started all the time, though few of them seem about to become the new Criterion (not to be confused with the New Criterion, as it was for a while in 1926), or even the new New Review.

Not so long ago there was a periodical called Butterfly, a design-heavy literary/lifestyle magazine edited by Dan Crowe; one of its gimmicks was getting novelists to review their own novels. Last September, there appeared the first issue of Zembla (www.zemblamagazine.com), a design-heavy literary/lifestyle magazine edited by Dan Crowe; one of its gimmicks is getting novelists to review their own novels. Another is holding interviews with dead people: Henry James, Houdini, Robert Louis Stevenson and Nietzsche so far--next up, Jimi Hendrix. The magazine is named after the "distant northern land" of which the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire may or may not be the king in exile. It comes out an eccentric five times a year, and its slogan is curiously grim: "Fun with words". Zembla has called itself "the literary magazine that people actually want to read". A pity that Vince Frost's design doesn't make it especially easy to distinguish the words.

Zembla's letters page tends to consist mostly of messages of praise from readers, with a few spam e-mails reprinted as if they were genuine correspondence (ho ho). The best letter so far is from an anonymous book publicist: "I read your lovely new magazine with interest. Particularly your interviews. I am sure I am not alone as a publicist in wishing that more of my authors were dead." But there has been little evidence of a readership seriously engaged with the magazine's content. It is unspeakably trendy: celebrity contributors to the current issue include Rachel Weisz, Larry Clark and Brian Eno; Manolo Blahnik is a contributing editor, and his shoes are advertised, alongside Dior, Marc Jacobs, Nicole Farhi and Gucci. The big problem is that the whole thing seems so overwhelmingly reactive: too busy pursuing what is already cool to be properly innovative itself.

Zembla is published by Simon Finch, seller of rare books. He would know the proper meaning of the title of "The Real Reader's Quarterly", Slightly Foxed (www.foxedquarterly.com). As the magazine's editors, Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood, explain in the first issue (spring 2004), the name is "an antiquarian book-seller's term for a volume whose pages time has discoloured with brown spots".

The magazine comprises a couple of dozen reviews "for adventurous readers--people who want to explore beyond the familiar territory of the national review pages and magazines". So each contributor has a thousand words in which to enthuse about one of his or her favourite books. Among the volumes recommended in the first issue are J H Prynne's collected poems; Henry Green's memoir, Pack My Bag; novels by Penelope Fitzgerald and Paula Fox; and Beatrix Potter's Tale of Mr Tod. In the second number (which tells you when the books under consideration were published, a slightly frustrating omission from the first issue), you can read about Patrick Leigh Fermor's despatches from Greece, and Karel Capek's from England; Gainsborough's letters; and the fiction of Zola. …