Now that New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria) has ceased
publication, I feel free to reveal the true story behind its life and death, a story that will surely astonish the legions of fans NYLR (formerly Etheria) attracted in its brief but dazzling moment in the literary sun.
When I was just another aspiring writer and not the literary light I’m constantly told I have become, I confronted the frustrations of getting
published. As is now an oft-told tale of literary lore, it was those
very difficulties that spurred me to start a magazine. It was the
most inspired thing I’d ever done, far more inspired than anything
I’d ever written. It was my greatest epiphany, my greatest creation
– because the magazine I started, New York Literary Review
(formerly Etheria), was a fanciful work of fiction. It never
Yes. I know this will shock the countless literati who so embraced NYLR in its heyday. Only because I am now a major figure in the cultural landscape of America can I confess this secret without consigning myself to the slush pile for all eternity.
The idea for New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria) came when I began submitting stories and poems to magazines and was rewarded with a flood of rejections. Like every writer who ever fretted over a cover letter, I rejected out of hand the possibility that the quality of my work could be a factor. No, I thought, it had to be something much more sinister.
That’s when I decided to start Etheria.
Here’s how I did it: I informed writing magazines and Facebook groups and other Internet sites that list places to send poetry and fiction of a new magazine. I called it Etheria, an inside joke with myself, by making up a word that appears to be an obscure back-formation of “ethereal,” probably poetic, an antiquated Elizabethan orthography like “compleat” – when in reality it’s little more than a pretentious variant I invented.
Then, in creating Etheria, I had the kind of revelation I wished I’d had in my writing: the name of my magazine should not be memorable but eminently forgettable, as generic as possible, precisely the opposite of what one seeks in a product name. It should sound like something you heard of or, better, should have heard of. So I renamed my nonexistent magazine New York Literary Review, adding “formerly Etheria” to make it more hauntingly familiar.
The next step was a website. I designed the logo myself – a huge tablet with a chiseled image that is vaguely Greek, terribly obvious from
mythology but that one can’t quite place. Next to it was written “New
York Literary Review (formerly Etheria)” and the address
of a post office box I rented.
Underneath, in big letters, it said: UNDER CONSTRUCTION
In two days my new post office box was bursting with manuscripts. Not a single person subscribed or purchased a sample copy. I was swamped
with cover letters that said how much New York Literary Review
(formerly Etheria) had meant to the writer over the years. Many quoted from the description I had concocted:
Though we often publish established writers, we are always open to new voices. Don’t be afraid to give us your best, but if we can’t use it that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Our standards are high,and the competition is keen. New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria) publishes the very best writing we can find, and we strongly urge you to read several copies before submitting. But do try us, and if we reject you, please don’t take it as a “rejection.”
I was particularly proud of the last sentence, since it makes absolutely
no sense yet would be meaningful to any writer. And that it was hard to have work accepted was definitely true, because New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria) had never, and would never, publish anything.
I enjoyed my work as editor. I spent hours with manuscripts, not because I took time with any of them but because there were so many. I sent each back with one of three rejection slips:
1. Thank you for submitting your work to New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria), but it does not meet our needs at this time.
2. Thank you for submitting your work to New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria). Although it does not meet our needs at this time, please let us see more in the future.
Or a third, which I consider a masterpiece of the genre:
3. Your work is compelling, and we enjoyed it immensely. You have a wonderful grasp of the essentials of writing and a quirky, original style that sets you apart. It is rare that a work makes such a lasting impression on us, and we were all profoundly moved. However, though your submission was a gift we will cherish forever, it does not meet our needs at this time.
Good luck in placing it elsewhere.
I sent them out based solely on whim, which, from the vantage point of every unpublished writer, is how every magazine makes that decision.
In my own my writing life, I added to my query letter that I was editor of New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria) and had a poem accepted by a magazine that had rejected it twice before. I was invited to literary events: a seminar at Columbia on the state of literature today, a colloquium sponsored by The New York Times on the political responsibilities of magazine editors. As judge for a famous national poetry contest, I saw another endless stream of
The most interesting event was at the 92nd Street Y, where I gave a
well-attended talk on whether there was a “Literary Magazine School of Poetry” today.
“We don’t publish much poetry in New York Literary Review,” I said, perhaps the understatement of the evening. I elaborated on the role of poetry, an ancient form born of romantic passion yet buffeted by a heartless business environment to which it is invisible.
“Sometimes it’s like we don’t exist,” I added, as a hundred heads nodded sadly in agreement.
Afterward I was besieged by people proffering the manila envelopes I was coming to dread. I said I could only accept submissions by mail — and was working on allowing electronic submissions. I also urged everyone to subscribe to NYLR. Most said they were already long-time subscribers, while others copied down the address.
No one subscribed, though I did recognize some handwriting in the deluge of envelopes that gushed in over the next few days. More than one referred to how much they had learned from my talk.
By now I was exhausted. I never realized how much energy it takes to open an envelope and slide a rejection slip into it; no wonder magazine editors all look so tired and world-weary. And don’t think my job was one bit easier because the magazine didn’t exist.
So I came to a sad but inevitable decision: it was time to fold
On the website I posted this “Note To Subscribers”:
With great sadness, the next issue of New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria) will be our last. We take great pride in knowing that we treated all submissions in a fair and evenhanded manner. We would also like to thank our subscribers, without whom we would not exist.
That afternoon I got a call from the owner of a trendy club in SoHo
asking if she could host a party for the final issue. It was the kind of snooty nightspot I’d always been terrified of walking into. Of course I had to agree.
Everybody who was anybody in the cultural world was there, including a few celebrities whose names I knew but couldn’t recall. A woman with an enormous hat wept as she told me how compulsively she read every issue of New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria).
Flowery speeches were made. One tearful man became so demonstrative he had to be helped back to the wine bar. The death of New York Literary Review (formerly Etheria) was viewed as the collapse of Western Civilization, along with the loss of independent bookstores and at least three international crises, one of which the history professor on the dais with me never heard of. Poems were read in my honor. My favorite was the villanelle by a startlingly thin woman who explained how New York Literary Review had kept her alive during a painful breakup with a novelist who thought he was too good for her because he had been published in NYLR.
“But I won’t hold that against you,” she said, smiling sweetly, as the audience chuckled.
She raised a glass and toasted “the legendary magazine and the legendary man who created it.” Glasses clinked. “New York Literary Review had something no other magazine has,” she said. “Hard to put your finger on, perhaps, but that’s why we loved it so.”
Before the evening was over I had an offer to teach at a prestigious liberal arts college. They said they wanted me to revitalize a moribund English department and bring the prestige of my magazine, which had long been a favorite of the department chairman.
They hinted rather broadly that I should revive New York Literary
Review (formerly Etheria) on campus. I said that if I did it would be a magazine the likes of which they’d never seen.
They said that was exactly what they had in mind.
– Published in Cervena Barva Press