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The Demise Of 'Tin House'


There was a cry of grief in the bookish Twitterverse recently when it was announced that literary magazine Tin House will cease publishing print editions next June. That coincides with the 20th anniversary of the publication that's set out to shake up the often stodgy world of literary magazines. And by all accounts, Tin House succeeded, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: People don't go into the business of publishing literary magazines for the money. Freelance writer Lincoln Michel should know. He once started one with a group of like-minded friends.

LINCOLN MICHEL: We published it purely out of our own pocket. And, you know, every time we put out an issue, we would throw a party and sell beer to pay for the issue. But we never made any money from it.

NEARY: Even the most prestigious literary magazines, such as The Paris Review or Granta, have a limited circulation. But, says Michel, among the most dedicated readers are some crucial players in publishing - agents and editors looking for new talent. And that makes literary magazines a vital lifeline for writers.

MICHEL: When writers write, we sit alone in a room. And we spend all our time on something that no one else sees - maybe a friend or two. And literary magazines are normally the first way that people get something published and actually have strangers read it.

ROB SPILLMAN: We are a gate keeper. We find the work. And then agents latch onto that voice. So we've made careers that way.

NEARY: Rob Spillman and his wife, Elissa Schappell, are two of the co-founders of Tin House. Schappell says they always knew they wanted to do something different with the magazine.

ELISSA SCHAPPELL: When we first started talking about this, Rob said, if you really want to change publishing, then you have to get inside the machine and blow it up.

NEARY: At the time, Spillman says, literary magazines didn't have a very appealing reputation.

SPILLMAN: They were kind of like castor oil. They were supposed to be good for you. So, like, take your medicine. So they didn't have a lot of art design. They didn't have a lot of humor. So we wanted to interject both of those things.

NEARY: One of the most striking things about Tin House is its beautifully illustrated covers, full of fantastical images and vivid colors. But Schappell says the changes they wanted to make went well beyond the cover. They set out to publish new writers in every issue. And they wanted to find the kind of writers who are often overlooked by publishers

SCHAPPELL: Because, historically, women and people of color - any other targeted communities - literary publishing hasn't been that welcoming. So we really did have to go out and say we want to offer you a home. We want to publish you

NEARY: And Tin House was also open to writing that blurred the lines between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy.

KAREN RUSSELL: So my feeling has always been that Tin House magazine is a place where writers are encouraged to let their freak flags fly.

NEARY: Writer Karen Russell, perhaps best known for her novel "Swamplandia!" - Russell says she was rejected several times before finally getting her story published by Tin House. Eventually, she taught in one of their workshops where she also met her husband. Russell says you never knew what you would get when you opened a copy of Tin House. And she felt a kinship with contributors like Kelly Link and Aimee Bender.

RUSSELL: Tin House was so inviting, so beautiful and so playful. You know, there was a different feeling when you picked up an issue. I think that you sort of felt like readers all are welcome here, and these are your people. These are the lovers of language, the super weirdos, the poets and the wizards that you want to be with.

NEARY: Tin House will continue its workshops and book publishing business. And there will be a digital version of the magazine. But for a lot of people, both readers and writers, it just won't be the same. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.

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