Amherst Magazine

Literary Locavore

Editor's note: In the print version of this article, the title ZYZZYVA is misspelled several times. The spelling has been corrected in the online version, below. We apologize for the error.

In 1985 Howard Junker ’61 started a literary journal with a funny name. He’s still—for a few more months—slogging through the slush pile.

By Jennifer Acker ’00

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[Literary journal]  Howard Junker founded ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco-based literary journal featuring West Coast writers and artists, as an “act of desperation” in 1985, when he was laid off from a dead-end job at an engineering firm. To be both contrary and definitive, he chose for his journal’s title the last word in the American Heritage Dictionary.

Junker tried to retire earlier this year and looked forward to being succeeded by his managing editor Amanda Field ’96. But she moved to Brooklyn, the economy crashed, and Junker believed the magazine could best stay afloat if he remained at the helm, maintaining relationships with the advertisers, subscribers and donors who pay the printer and his salary. “Luckily, when I looked into the abyss of retirement, I realized that I would probably just continue to read, look at art, have lunches,” he says. “In any case, someone has just turned up whom I think will be perfect. Negotiations are under way, and I look forward to her taking over at the end of the year.”

For now, Junker still reports to his basement office, where he slogs through the slush pile from which he fills each issue. He long ago stopped soliciting work from famous writers, for whom ZYZZYVA’s 2,500-copy circulation is too small. Instead, he publishes authors whom he can help more than they can help him. Out of the 100 manuscripts he reads every week, he usually buys one.

Reading, culling and editing is the heart of any literary magazine. “I think I have to be a benevolent but absolute tyrant,” Junker says, “a Big Ear listening for that lone voice in the wilderness.” Personal taste rules: “I’m desperate to have my deepest, most inaccessible dreams and desires articulated.”

Junker’s imprimatur depends in large part on his “discoveries”—writers who eventually become successful enough that they no longer need small magazines to publish them. Junker is credited with publishing in English for the first time Po Bronson, Chitra Divakaruni, Haruki Murakami and F.X. Toole, who went on to write Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, the short stories that were adapted into the movie Million Dollar Baby. Each issue of ZYZZYVA contains a “First Time in Print” section for new authors. The magazine’s inclusion of images—some 30 black-and-white recent works on paper per issue—also makes it distinctive, as does its regional focus. Publishing West Coast writers and artists is “a bit like being a locavore,” Junker says. “I deal with the regional growers.”

Junker blogs on the ZYZZYVA website every day, but he believes the overall influence of digitization on literature is corrosive. A print magazine, he says, is a rare literary encounter, both of-the-moment and carefully curated. “ZYZZYVA is like a bespoke shoe,” Junker says. “Unnecessary. An absolute luxury. But for the precious few, it’s a delicate, delightful fit. You know who the shoemaker is; you must put up with his idiosyncrasies. He offers you a unique product that (almost) no one else has.”

Acker is the founding editor of The Common, a new literary magazine (www.thecommononline.org) based at Amherst.