Recent issues of the San Francisco literary journal Zyzzyva have included names such as Rebecca Solnit, Daniel Handler, Kay Ryan — and Daniel Tovrov. Don’t fret if that last one doesn’t ring a bell. Daniel Tovrov's piece, which won a prestigious Pushcart Prize, was his first ever in print.
Zyzzyva, founded by editor Howard Junker in 1985 (it's named after a tropical beetle, the last word in many dictionaries), has a venerable history of publishing wonderful established writers side by side with emerging voices. Haruki Murakami was one of those newcomers, as was Kobo Abe.
When Junker retired in 2011 after 25 years, Zyzzyva could have faded away. But instead he turned the magazine over to another emerging talent, editor Laura Cogan. At only 29, Cogan had never run a literary magazine before, but she teamed up with Oscar Villalon, formerly the San Francisco Chronicle’s Book Editor, and together the pair has built on Zyzzyva’s strong foundations and revivified the institution.
This year is the journal’s 30th anniversary and there is plenty to celebrate. Besides the Pushcart Prize for Daniel Tovrov, the journal has won numerous awards and has been widely anthologized. Subscriptions are holding strong at 1,300 and their milestone 100th issue, published last year, sold out on newsstands. “That’s the first time ever,” Oscar Villalon says, beaming.
The 30th year festivities begin Tuesday night (Jan. 13) at City Lights Books where renowned playwright Octavio Solis will perform from "Retablos,” his piece in the current issue. Novelist Josh Emmons will read as well. Then the magazine is headed to New York City at the the end of the month where it will hold two more events, another first for the proudly West Coast Zyzzyva.
I chatted with Oscar Villalon at Zyzzyva’s offices above the Mechanics' Institute Library in downtown San Francisco about the journal’s upcoming plans and the challenges of being an independent arts organization in a changing city.
Are you seeking a more national audience?
We have a national profile but now we want to embrace it. Laura and I have opened it up a bit. We still publish mostly West Coast writers, but if we like something by someone who happens to live in New York, like Daniel Tovrov, we’ll take it. We’re a San Francisco journal of national repute. If you’re a New York writer and want to get published, we’re a good option. It doesn’t always have to be that you feel like you have to be legitimized by being published in a N.Y. journal.
How does Zyzzyva and its legacy fit into the national literary scene?
It’s always been about paying attention to voices that otherwise might have been overlooked. It wasn’t just folks from the West Coast not getting attention from New York, but writers of various ethnicities, sexualities, transgressive-type writing. Howard published Sherman Alexie. There was queer, African American, Latino, and Asian writing. From the beginning the journal was there championing those people, giving them the spotlight.
The other idea is that San Francisco could be this beacon for the entire region, to help give it identity through its literature. Los Angeles is lousy with writers. But at the end of the day it’s an industry town. It’s about entertainment. It’s about Hollywood. You could get eclipsed. We like the idea of shining a light on all of these people.
How do you feel about the changes San Francisco is experiencing?
Now we’re sort of becoming an industry town. What do I feel about it? There’s an anxiety in the sense that it’s not clear how folks who aren’t in tech are going to be accommodated in the city — where our place is going to be -- if we do have a place.
We’re still committed to the idea of San Francisco being an important cultural center and precede accordingly. I want to believe that this is going to shake out and everything is going to be OK. Maybe like with the original 49ers, once they make their money they’ll suddenly be interested in investing in the community where they live, assuming the community they want is not a bedroom community. If it is, we’re screwed. But if it is the S.F. that all of us have come to embrace, one of diversity, of nonconformity, of surprise, then we’ll be OK.
There’s a lot at stake…
Yes. And it’s all still to be decided and not only by the people in the industry but by whoever sets policy, policy that could nurture or in this case protect the creative communities in this city. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. Someone decides rent control is extended or not. Someone decides we curtail the Ellis Act evictions or not. This isn’t organic or natural. It’s not a typhoon.
You took over the magazine four years ago. What have you learned about literary publishing in the digital era?
What we do as a print journal is not affected greatly one way or another by digital. We have a web presence, but it isn’t our main focus or future. What we’re making is a print product.
What we’re doing isn’t mainstream. Our audience isn’t going to be huge. It’s a cottage industry. We’re making artisan cheese, not Velveeta. If it was mainstream that would be awesome — and I’m not just speaking about Zyzzyva, but for every journal — because that would mean that every American wanted to read serious literature.
What are you most proud of in your first four years?
Not letting this San Francisco institution fall by the wayside. We’re an independent, non-profit literary journal with no backing from a university or institution. That’s not easy to do.
What is your goal for the future?
The idea is to make Zyzzyva so indispensable that when the day comes that Laura and I leave, it’s still here and someone can take it over.
ZYZZYVA's Winter Issue / 30th Anniversary Event is January 13, 7pm at City Lights Books in San Francisco. For more information visit citylights.com.