Contemporary Journals

F(r)iction: Challenging the Rules of Traditional Literature

Report by Jack VanderGriend

F(r)iction is a magazine that starts and carries conversations that challenge mainstream literature. On its website, the about page claims that it, “is at the heart of our mission to increase literacy rates and engagement with storytelling that pushes the boundaries of convention” (www.brinklit.org).Through this dedication to #PublishWeird, F(r)iction functions as a catalyst for fringe writers and the avant-garde. By breaking traditional forms of writing, redefining the boundaries of literature, and exposing the work of authors and artists that may have never seen their efforts published, F(r)iction offers a safe and nurturing community for creative minds with ideas so strange that no mainstream magazine would take them.

The material that F(r)iction publishes is not just nontraditional in the sense of its subject matter. While many of the pieces do tackle subjects that are often overlooked or avoided in more mainstream literature, the magazine’s unique selection of works is uncommon in its variety of forms as well. In F(r)iction No. 9, editor in chief Dani Hedlund describes in an editor’s note that as the reader looks through the content of the magazine, “you start to realize that this journal is converging a lot more than just genre.” F(r)iction publishes poetry, short fiction, and creative non-fiction, but also displays a variety of other modes of publication, both conventional and experimental, such as graphic novels, author interviews, and short memoirs. Even the editor’s note, from which the above quote was taken, displays F(r)iction’s unconventional repertoire. The editor’s note—as well as the final piece of the issue, “You Die at the End,” by Nicole Hebdon—is written in a choose-your-own adventure style in which the reader is given choices every paragraph or so. While this serves a primarily comedic role in the editor’s note (each choice gives the reader the option of just putting the issue down in order to “run in fear,” or “eschew foreign ideas”), the piece at the end of issue number nine uses this experimental form to invite readers into a type of interactive literature that suggests a blurred distinction between protagonist and partaker. Through a game-like narrative and second-person point of view, Nicole Hebdon bars her readers from simply observing the story, and forces on them what some might consider an uncomfortably close look into the life of an obsessive romantic. F(r)iction offers a unique literary experience through these experimental forms. Its graphic submissions allow readers to experience narratives not only through words, but through visuals as well, and its even more experimental forms suggest that the editing team is not afraid to publish any form that offers a new or different way of telling a story. Not only does this allow a platform for avant-garde writers to share their work with each other and with the literary community, it questions the unspoken rules of the mainstream that provide structure for the way that stories are traditionally told.

However, it is not only writers benefit from this platform. F(r)iction publishes the work of artists as well, pairing original artwork with literary publications. The result is a harmony between the written word of the author and the imagery of the illustrator in which new meaning arises from the juxtaposition of writing and illustration and the collaboration of the writer and the artist. In F(r)iction, literature is more than just the words that tell the story. By accepting art alongside (and within) textual submissions, F(r)iction suggests that literature lies on a spectrum between the visual and the verbal.

Perhaps where this blurring of boundaries is the most obvious is in its publication of graphic storytelling. In F(r)iction No. 9, author and illustrator Arthur Asa’s short graphic story “Elf Queen” demonstrates an interplay between its campfire dialogue and dark anime illustrations that create unique and powerful meaning that could not be captured in either of the two forms alone. In the middle of the story, the narrator describes the memories of a soon-to-be killer coming back to him after a supernatural experience. The dialogue of the narrator reminds the reader that the narration is a ghost story being told around a campfire, but the images that accompany it—two pages of the killer’s face captured head-on in eight frames that become progressively blurrier—lend the story an eerie and dark realism. As the image and words go out of focus, the tone of the narrator’s dialogue seems to grow darker and more somber.

F(r)iction No. 4 glorifies the juxtaposition of art and narrative as an alternative form of literature in its token graphic story as well. In this issue, Jonas McCluggage uses the design principle of color and contrast in his graphic story “Follow the Leader” to establish the conflict between a band of cannibal children and the mafia whose operations they continue to upset. The head of the mafia, Arnold Paris, is consistently represented in shades of blue and green throughout the story. In the panels that mark his introduction, everything is rendered in a light green, and throughout each scene in the town, the bar, the church, and the forest, whenever Paris is the subject of a frame, the primary hue of the image hovers in similar cool shades. Conversely, whenever the cannibal children or talk of the cannibal children are the subject of frame, the primary hue becomes a menacing red. Occasionally, when the subject of a frame is a combination of both Paris and the Cannibal children, these two color sets mix in striking ways. In one scene, while Paris and his mafia friends are discussing their flesh eating foes in a bar, every shadow in the scene is a dull red while everywhere that light is cast, sharp green highlights pop out from the page. In another scene, the band of mafia decide to finally venture into the forest where the cannibal children live. The frames start out a dull and peaceful green, but gradually, large red shapes in the forms of fish slash across the panels and paint the scene red as each mafia member is systematically picked off by their enemies. In “Follow the Leader”, the use of color and contrast creates a subtext in the literature that suggests when groups are in conflict or when one group takes power over another.

Like “Elf Queen”, the affordances of art in this piece are essential to the way that the story is told, and F(r)ction’s dedication to publishing these graphic stories suggests a similar dedication to the unique relationship between art and text. By creating a platform for these artists and authors, F(r)iction offers a stage for the employment of multimedia juxtaposition in literature that is hard to find in the world of literary magazines.    

Whether it’s artists or authors, F(r)iction also publishes a wide range of experience levels and diversity. Just by looking at the artist and author bios in the back of each issue, it is apparent that the editors make sure to balance big names with hidden gems. For example, the author of “Follow the Leader” in F(r)iction No. 4 is a self-proclaimed couch surfer with no college experience or prior publishing history, and his work is published right next to author Paul Kennebeck, whose novel Last Night’s Farm landed him a National Endowment for the Arts grant. F(r)iction has published the work of big name contributors like Kirsty Logan and Jeff VanderMeer (F(r)iction No. 9), but the magazine is not exclusive to this caliber of writers, providing room for both the glorification of amazing writers and artists and the discovery of amazing writers and artists.

Likewise, F(r)iction publishes the work of contributors from diverse backgrounds. Although most of the authors and artists are American, a few sport origin and upbringing in other countries. Arthur Asa, whose artwork and writing has been published in multiple issues of F(r)iction, was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. Similarly, author Lorna Walsh whose short story “Becoming” was published in F(r)iction No. 4 was born and raised in the United Kingdom. Although these examples are in the minority, they do suggest that as an American magazine, F(r)iction is at least partially concerned with introducing the voices of outsiders into its anthology.

F(r)iction also introduces diversity into its publication by highlighting the work of other organizations. On the magazine’s website, the about page explains that, “Each issue features work from a community partner, spotlighting marginalized and underrepresented voices that are often ignored by the mainstream publishing industry” (www.brinklit.org). In F(r)iction No. 9, six pages are dedicated to poems by LGBTQ+ writers from Lambda International, and in F(r)iction No. 4, another six pages are dedicated to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, featuring poetry and an author Q and A. Through these partnerships, F(r)iction fosters a more welcoming writing community that both seeks out marginalized and underrepresented voices, and advertises a safe space to publish the work of marginalized or underrepresented authors and artists.

For a magazine that publishes a wide range of forms, genres, artists, and authors, F(r)iction is surprisingly deliberate in its publication. The magazine demonstrates a wide breadth, but each piece seems to be chosen with care. F(r)iction’s mission might be to #PublishWeird, but its organization is anything but this. In its dedication to push “the boundaries of convention,” it never loses sight of its dedication to creating a strong and cohesive literary community of artists and writers that aren’t afraid to challenge the rules of traditional literature.

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