Little Brother No. 5
For a new and relatively small Toronto-based literary magazine, Little Brother has been extraordinarily successful. The magazine, which recently launched its fifth issue, has published work by the likes of Jeet Heer, Haley Mlotek, Mariko Tamaki, and Andrew Kaufman. Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote about Little Brother (and Hazlitt) in The Globe and Mail—a rare honour for a Canadian lit mag. Jess Taylor’s story “Paul,” in issue three, won the Gold National Magazine Award for Fiction, beating older and more-established writers, such as Michael Winter, Jessica Westhead, and Pasha Malla. Dazed & Confused listed LB as one of “the best alt-lit reads from Canada right now” (though Little Brother doesn’t really publish alt-lit).
I met LB’s co-founder and art director, artist and graphic designer Charles Yao, to talk about the magazine and retrieve a few copies. Shortly thereafter, we had the following online conversation.
Gavin Tomson: How did Little Brother get its start?
Charles Yao: Emily [Keeler] used the money she got from a freelance assignment to make the first Little Brother. That was in August 2012. The plan was that she’d solicit the writing (we didn’t—and still don’t—do open submissions, per se), and I would take care of the art directing. Those are our individual strengths, so it was a good match. We also live below this great printer named JP King, who runs Paper Pusher. He literally lives above us. He printed the first issue on his Risograph. I have a video of us hand-collating the first issue!
GT: You and Emily are both entrepreneurs, in a way.
CY: Yeah, I guess so. We just have this attitude of, why wait? If something doesn’t exist, and we think we can do it, let’s just do it. Making a print magazine is expensive, yes, but it’s not that expensive if you’re smart about it.
GT: That reminds me of Sheila Heti. One day, after perusing a store for a book on what women wear and leaving empty-handed, she decided that she wanted to write a book about women in clothes, hence Women in Clothes.
CY: Yeah, that’s about right. I think the reason to make things—at least for us—is that we want to see that thing in the world. So we do it. I mean, that can lead to a lot of not great stuff—the impetus to go for broke, be spontaneous—but I think it turned out okay for us. With Little Brother, we didn’t want to make a magazine that was “as good as” something that already existed. Or to be this-year’s-version of a thing that people already like. We wanted to make something that, to our minds, didn’t exist before, at least not the way we’ve made it (because obviously lit mags are not new!)
GT: What makes Little Brother different?
CY: I think the writing is markedly different than in other journals. Even if the writers have contributed to other places, we ask them to do stuff a little outside of their wheelhouse. So it’s about knowing the writers, their strengths, and then, for that extra Little Brother bend, asking them to do something different. In the meta issue [no. 5], Andrew F. Sullivan wrote a fantastic, fantastically dark sci-fi piece which was maybe atypical of the kinds of stories he usually does. And, of course, each issue features a 10,000-plus word essay, which I don’t think is too common. In LB3, we ran a big essay by Puritan co-editor Spencer Gordon on professional wrestling, authenticity, and the Canadian writing community. And, maybe most famously—though famous is maybe not the right word—we ran Kelli Korducki’s 28-page essay on hot dogs, which people still talk about! You know, sometimes it’s maybe quirky, or quirkier, subject matter, and it’s far-ranging, but the writing is good. The pieces are edited over the course of months.
Kelli Korducki praises the Toronto dog in Little Brother #4
GT: I told my friends about that essay today, while walking passed a gentrified hot dog place on Bloor!
CY: Yeah, it’s hard to read Kelli’s essay and not want to rush to a hot dog vendor!
I think I ate more than 30 hot dogs over the course of working on the layout.
GT: I want a hot dog now!
CY: I’m eating one as I type!
GT: To nudge or lead a writer in a new, somewhat uncomfortable direction—to get Kelli Korducki to write about hot dogs, for example—requires a familiarity with their work, their style, their temperament. How have you and Emily built such strong relationships with the writers and artists from whom you solicit work?
CY: Emily just knows writers, through some process I don’t fully know. She’s very invested in the Canadian writing community. She’s done quite a few reviews. When she worked at US-based sites, like The New Inquiry or The Millions, she was always trying to hype up Canadian writers. Not in an uncritical rah-rah way—just to get the word out. Back to your question about knowing writers, and their strengths. Right. We basically approach people we respect, whose work we’ve followed, who we know might be a good fit, and then we ask them to do something that a) they’d probably want to do but haven’t done yet, and b) works within the context of Little Brother. So it’s about being hyper-aware of writers at various stages of their careers, waiting for the right moment, and then approaching them.
Same for the art. Whereas most magazines tend to simply run previously-shown art work, I actually work very closely with the photographers and artists to make original work for the mag. The design side, in that regard, reflects the editorial side.
GT: You and Emily approach writers like scouts …
CY: I suppose it’s like scouting. But that might suggest that we only run the triple-A baseball equivalent of writers—the up-and-comers! We also publish established people. In LB5, we asked Jeet Heer to review the issue—since it was the meta issue. Why not? He’s definitely not an up-and-comer! I guess the scouting thing also suggests that Little Brother is a stepping stone-type place, which is fine if it is. But, for example, Jess Taylor won the Gold National Magazine Award for Fiction with her story that ran in Little Brother [“Paul”] over writers in more established magazines.
GT: I just meant “scouts” in the sense that you watch a writer as she progresses and know when to approach at the right time.
CY: Oh, for sure! We’ve published everyone from Mariko Tamaki (who is amazingly talented, and who has her own following) to a six-year-old (Andrew Kaufman’s daughter)!
GT: In the introduction to Little Brother’s first issue, Emily writes, “I believe there is a future for print, a future for literature, a future for great criticism.” She adds that “there is still space to be made for the new … there will always be room for work that’s really good and comes from love.” Similarly, in the latest issue, LB5, she writes in an afterword that what running a magazine “comes down to is talent.” Is talent the primary quality or skill that you and Emily value in a writer?
CY: That sounds about right. The qualities are: Can they write? On a sentence-by-sentence level, are they great? Do they have new ideas? Are they fearless and unafraid to take risks when needed, both formally and in the content? Probably the most important quality—though it’s amorphous—is excitement. When you hear they have a new piece out somewhere, do you get excited? Do you want to read it immediately?
GT: That makes sense.
CY: So talent plays a part in that. It’s hard to tick off all those boxes and not, at core, be super talented. To get back to excitement. That’s one of the animating features of the mag as a whole. Are people excited when Little Brother comes out? That’s what we aim for.
GT: How much does being excited to read a piece by a certain writer have to do with that writer’s personality? I ask because in Sarah Nicole Prickett’s write up of Little Brother she argues, “… in an economy that’s the most saturated, the most precarious, and the least compensated it’s ever been, a writer’s ‘voice,’ or personality, or what used to be a personality and is now a ‘personal brand,’ is more important than ever.” Do you agree, at least to some extent? Does being excited to read a piece by a certain writer have to do with that writer’s “voice” or “personal brand”?
CY: Well, “personality” and talent are not mutually exclusive. For some authors, you want to read everything they write—not simply because they wrote it, but also because they’re talented. Haley Mlotek wrote the main essay in LB5 about women in media and the death of print. I think I’ve literally read everything she’s ever written. Part of it is because, yeah, it’s her. But more importantly, her writing is consistently excellent!
GT: In the afterword to LB5, Emily admits, “the phrase CanLit has always tasted sour to me.” Later, “The nation that most matters to writers exists across history, and only in the mind; CanLit, as a calcified genre, constricts the readers and writers who live on the broad patch of earth between the 49th and the 77th North parallels. Little Brother was founded because the borders don’t matter, even though what happens within them matters immensely. There is enough talent on this patch of grass to make something great, twice or even 365 times a year, for the rest of my life and beyond.” What is Little Brother’s relation to—and stance on—‘CanLit’?
CY: Tying it all back to the excitement thing (though maybe that’s too simplistic), CanLit, to us, is simply not exciting. I’m snoring just thinking about it. There’s just an oatmeal-like ‘good-for-you’ quality to CanLit. And it’s permeated many aspects of the Canadian literary scene. It is the scene. And Little Brother, in some ways, is saying there’s great writing in this country that doesn’t fall into what is traditionally associated with CanLit. CanLit is not the totality of writing in Canada!
GT: Is CanLit to you, then, a kind of genre?
CY: For many people it’s synonymous with writing in Canada. It is the genre.
GT: So what type of talented Canadian writing does not belong to that genre?
CY: Well, stuff that runs in Little Brother, of course!
GT: Emily has said that she does not want to call Little Brother a journal. “A journal is a dead thing.” Do you know what she means by this? Does it have something to do with CanLit? What should Little Brother be called?
CY: Little Brother is a magazine. Magazine just seems more “alive.” When I think of journals, I think of these objects with the table of contents printed on the cover, that are filed away, and maybe used a few times over its lifespan for research-type purposes. A magazine, on the other hand, is something you—oh man, here’s that word again—get excited to read. You live with it; it’s part of your life.
GT: Yes, that all makes sense. Excitement is obviously key, and when I think about it, excitement is what leads me to pick a book out of a bookstore. Lately, I’ve been excited to read fiction by Heidi Julavits, just because every non-fiction piece of hers that I’ve read has been—and now I’m basically parroting what you said about Haley Mlotek—so consistently excellent. The people I like or love most—my friends and family and so forth—their names actually glow when I see them printed. And the writers I like most, their names glow, too. I see their names on a book in a bookstore and I don’t care what the book is about—their names glow, so I buy their books.
CY: That’s right. Get excited. Embrace that feeling! It’s a hard quality to fake. It’s a rare enough feeling in our world, that if you feel it, act on it. And Heidi Julavits is great! The Believer is great. We actually chose our printer because they do The Believer!
GT: I think Little Brother is, physically, a beautiful object—probably because I like the writing in it, the magazine itself glows. But the glow also has much to do with its design and appearance. How much excitement goes into designing it? Tell us about your principles and thoughts behind designing.
CY: Thanks for the kind words. We are very deliberate in designing it to be a beautiful object, yes. We wrap the covers in neon-bright colours, we pay for the smoother paper, we use new typefaces (not that anyone cares about typefaces), and, generally, we design the pages in a way that is conducive to reading. Hopefully, they telegraph our position that “this writing is important—look at all this space around it!—and it will stand the test of time.”
GT: It shows.
CY: A big influence on the magazine was this graphic design magazine in the ’80s and ’90s called Émigré, out of Sacramento. Little Brother actually looks nothing like Émigré, to be honest. Émigré was an oversized magazine, and type would be flowing everywhere, and every issue was totally redesigned. But it really showed what was possible in terms of designing a magazine. Little Brother looks relatively conservative next to that more experimental stuff. But the point of Little Brother’s design is to prop up the writing: the writing’s the thing!