Shelf Life: Let’s Review

I’m often asked how I come across new magazines and books for the Utne Reader library. Credit is occasionally due to a helpful friend, a Listserv, or a press release, but I make most of my discoveries while I’m reading publications that allocate generous space to reviews of independent books, zines, music, and films. I usually read magazines like Broken Pencil and Punk Planet from the back, where these nuggets are buried, and scour from cover to cover the handful of publications that dedicate themselves exclusively to reviewing small-press works.

It’s a fortunate side effect that these review publications help keep the Utne Reader library thriving and up to date. Primarily, the reviews help alternative sources reach a wider audience by drawing attention to books and publications that aren’t found in big-box bookstores, and by helping libraries to maintain and expand their collections of independent books and periodicals. Perhaps just as important, they also foster community among members of the independent press, cultivating discussions about what’s out there, what’s working, and what isn’t.

Small Press Review, an energetic newsprint rag that Len Fulton began publishing in 1967, has long been a reliable source for reviews of books and magazines, as well as for writer-friendly information on literary contests and new publishers.

Most of the books it reviews are poetry and fiction, including an impressive number of chapbooks. I generally hurry through them to the magazine section, where I find that nearly half of the titles are new to me. This made more sense after I talked to Fulton, who estimates that he sifts through 7,000 books and magazines submitted to him each year. ‘I look at everything that comes in–everything,’ he says. ‘I owe it that.’

The most promising-looking items are bundled up and sent to his cast of 30 or so volunteer reviewers. (Others are added to the 40,000 volumes that fill his home’s custom-built 500-square-foot library.)

The bulk of the magazine’s 3,000 subscribers are publishers and libraries. ‘Small Press Review‘s job is to inform people of what’s out there,’ Fulton says, ‘to show them the shape of this universe.’ The magazine doesn’t make money, but it does ‘just about break even’; the profitable part of Fulton’s business lies in the small-press directories he publishes each year. ‘I keep doing the Small Press Review because it’s fun,’ he says.

$25/yr. (6 issues) from Dustbooks, Box 100, Paradise, CA 95967;

NewPages is the web’s alt-press playground. It’s tough to stop by for a quick visit; you may go for the reviews, but you’ll stay for the guides, with pages upon pages of links to alternative magazines, small book publishers, and independent bookstores.

New reviews of literary magazines are posted every four weeks or so, with books, zines, and magazines reviewed less frequently. NewPages publisher Casey Hill notes that the site’s recent focus on lit mags has attracted new readers in droves; he attributes a ‘big percentage’ of last year’s 3 million page views to teachers, students, writers, and others interested in the genre.

The NewPages reviewers, all volunteers, select the items they write about. They tend to choose magazines they’re familiar with, often examining them in the context of the publication’s history and, in some cases, within the category at large. Jim Scott, writing about Paris Review, characterized a growing ‘inevitable and necessary’ division in literary magazines: ‘There are those that treasure new voices and are a beacon of hope to the unpublished, and then there are those that serve as a seemingly untouchable golden palace upon a hill to be envied from afar.’ (Paris Review, of course, falls into the latter category: ‘one of the most blindingly golden palaces in all the land, with a statue of George Plimpton standing watch’).

Zine reviews are abundant; if you read zines, you usually end up reading about what their authors are reading, as many zinesters make space in their own works to discuss at least a few favorites. For zine reviews en masse, two end-of-the-alphabet titles loom large: Zine World and Xerography Debt.

Zine World is thick, a tangible result of its mission to review just about everything that’s sent in; this adds up to a whopping 200 to 300 reviews per issue. Most reviewers display enough personality, even in these brief snapshots, to indicate whether their taste is sufficiently similar to your own. (Admissions like ‘I am easily put off by pointless political poetry’ are particularly helpful.)

In fact, the appeal of the personality-driven zine review is what inspired editor Davida Gypsy Breier to organize Xerography Debt by reviewer rather than by title. Sometimes a zine is reviewed by several writers, and what’s ‘kinda funny, sorta creepy’ to one is ‘steeped in heavy sarcasm and a bleak outlook on the human race’ to another.

Zine World: $10/3 issues from Box 330156, Murfreesboro, TN 37133; Xerography Debt: $9/yr. (3 issues) from Davida Gypsy Breier, Box 11064, Baltimore, MD 21212; free download at

From the Stacks…

Every once in a while, a few witty people get together and decide to create a magazine–because, you know, it might be fun. That seems to be the case with The Crier, a lively new magazine of politics, culture, and arts. Each of the three issues I’ve read so far has buzzed with the fresh energy of writers who genuinely have fun with their pieces; in the latest issue (1.3), well-written (but not overwritten) essays report on a group of female wrestlers in Bolivia, an indie rocker in Brooklyn, and a ‘democracy of drunkenness’ at a bar in Durham, North Carolina. I love Blade Runner aficionado J. Gabriel Boylan’s discussion of Vangelis, the New Age musician who composed the film’s score and whose name, apparently, ‘is perhaps second only to John Tesh in its ability to strike fear into the hearts of true record freaks and music geeks.’ A music geek himself, Boylan struggles with loving Blade Runner‘s score–‘one of the most sublime works of music I know’–while despising the genre from which it came. $28/yr. (4 issues) from 220 DeKalb Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11205;

It’s become fashionable for people to write about their crappy jobs of the past (and present); the problem with tales of mundane tasks, of course, is that they’re often a bit boring themselves. The annual journal Workers Write! offers an escape from the doldrums with a simple twist on the dominant narrative: fiction. The third installment (2007), ‘Tales from the Cash Register,’ includes 12 short stories from the trenches of grocery stores, a Home Depot, a deli, and other behind-the-counter jobs. ‘Shift Work,’ by Sierra Bellows, acquaints readers with a contented doughnut-shop heroine, whose friendly (and effective) service stems from imagining ‘every customer as a potential suicide victim. A smile, a nice word, is their salvation, and she is their savior.’ Cost varies; $8 this issue from Blue Cubicle Press, Box 250382, Plano, TX 75025;

One of the hippest, artiest magazines in our library, Theme, has tapped into the power of the nerds. Or at least it claims to. By my standards, the subjects of its Spring 2007 ‘Nerds’ issue–fashion designers, artists, writers, and musicians–aren’t so dorky, but perhaps that’s a different discussion. This lavishly designed issue continues the Theme tradition of lengthy, full-page photo essays. This time, a series of lighthearted images depict table tennis players at a training facility, while portrait-style photos capture another genus of nerds in their natural habitat: the New York Comic Convention (‘We come here for the mouth breathers’). There’s also a fantastic short piece on comic artist Kikuo Johnson, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Night Fisher, who insists (unconvincingly) that his obsession with comics makes him a nerd. $19/yr. (4 issues) from 203 Rivington St., 1D, New York, NY 10002;

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