publisher interview, unlikely stories, experimental publishing

Jonathan Penton: Experimental Publishing With Unlikely Stories

July 9, 2019, 12:37 p.m.
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Unlikely Stories Mark V’s Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Penton started his web magazine two decades ago at 23 years old. At the time, he specialized in neo-pulp literature, but has since broadened his scope to transgressive and experimental publishing. He has written poetry chapbooks, including Standards of Sadiddy (Lit Fest Press, 2016), and also runs Unlikely Books. After speaking to Jonathan, the Prolitfic team was struck by his attention to the craft of writing and its connections to different art forms.

There weren’t many web magazines when you started Unlikely Stories. How did you become a pioneer?

I began writing poetry when I was 19. When I began seriously pursuing poetry, I paid more attention to craft, especially playing around with form and tone. I never took classes on craft because student loans always were a barrier, though I did take advantage of Zoetrope workshops. I liked those because the writers came from diverse backgrounds and the courses didn’t have an academic bent.

Do you experience any setbacks, not having gone through formal writing education?
I have to pay full price for literary conferences, that’s for sure. I miss out on some networking opportunities, but there are now networking opportunities available through the Internet, and writing groups online. I get feedback mostly through a few trusted advisors and friends when available.

What’s an example of a submission that immediately turned you away?
There was a story by a white guy who felt obviously superior to the people he was analyzing. He had an attitude of arrogance and unawareness that was a deal-breaker. Other than that, we don’t censor any words or set limits at any specific amount of violence.

What standards do you use to curate your submissions?
We look for works that are transgressive, activist, and experimental. We’d moved toward a more political, activist direction in the Bush era, but we became more aggressive after the recent election.

Of course, we want ethnically and racially diverse submissions, and even though the “diverse” focus is on the subject rather than the author, diversity stems from different backgrounds. Unlikely Stories also strives for gender parity, keeping in mind that men submit more often and more aggressively than women do. It’s important to include women’s voices, too, so if we see we’re lacking, we’ll put out calls encouraging those particular submissions.

What are some publishing trends you’ve perceived?

I see a lot of content warnings, which I dislike. If you’re coming to a literary website, you should understand what you’re getting into.

Regarding poetry, there’s this weird mix where poetry is becoming increasingly confessional while the word “confession” is still considered gauche. Inexperienced readers have the misunderstanding that the narrator is the author, and now we’re seeing the idea that the narrator should be the author.

As for prose, I love the trend toward dystopia, which is partially motivated by my love for soft sci-fi. The label “YA” is frequently associated with dystopian fiction, but that’s just a marketing term. Nothing really differentiates “YA” and “Adult,” but marketing towards teenagers is fantastic as long as you make the teens come up rather than talk down to them. For example, I hate seeing the author include a long explanation of character motivations without giving the reader any credit.

Where are you at right now? What are you reading?

I mostly read poetry and dystopian fiction. For prose, I look to NOLA dystopian writers and am reading We Cast a Shadow, which is about a father in a near-future Southern city who will do anything to protect his son, even turn him white.

I also read literary biographies to learn how to see the world in a different way. I’m also interested in how form accentuates, complements, and motivates subject matter. I look to Robert Duncan for that.

And what’s next for you?

I’m working on a series of ekphrastic--writing based on visual art--poems. For example, a piece on each sculpture in the NOLA sculpture garden.