Hawk & Whippoorwill: The Little Reviews

(Part 1)

In Writing Fiction (The Writer, 1946), August Derleth — Wisconsin’s famous writer, teacher, and bookman — described a pivotal experience in his career, contributing to the small press magazines known as “little reviews”:

Within the first year of my initial publication in such little reviews … I had letters of inquiry about book-length work from the editors of such well-known houses as Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and Harper’s. Within the same period I had inquiries about short stories from magazines of national circulation which included Collier’s and McCall’s.

Cover of "Writing Fiction" by August Derleth

Britannica defines a “little review” as “any of various small periodicals devoted to serious literary writings, usually avant-garde and noncommercial.” They flourished after 1880 and throughout most of the 20th century, having much in common with contemporary journals distributed through amateur press associations and the burgeoning phenomenon of (especially science fiction-oriented) fanzines.

Today the bulk of this activity has moved to the Internet in the form of informal blogging and the posting of electronic reviews — for example, here at the Allied Authors website and at Amazon or Goodreads.

Derleth had shared his experiences years earlier in “A Salute to the Little Reviews,” appearing in the August 1941 edition of American Author. There he recalls that he once shocked a budding author with the advice that “he must expect to give a great deal of his work away.” He also emphasizes that avant-garde or other seemingly unsalable material “commercial outlets would not dare publish” is often “cheerfully printed by the little magazines.”

Derleth’s larger point is as follows: “Editors of all the best publishing houses watch the little reviews with care, and I do not think that there exists a first-rate beginner who has not received a letter from at least one publishing house after his appearance in a little magazine.”

He concludes with this prediction: “Contributions to the little reviews are like bread cast upon the waters; postulating only talent, and the ability to work and take criticism, they are certain to come back in loaves.”

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Many years later, in the lecture-essay “On Being an All-Round Bookman” (1971), Derleth validates all he had been saying with this recollection of his own earliest experiences as a professional editor:

Editing at Fawcett Publications involved considerably more than simply passing on manuscripts and conducting a column; it meant working with writers, revising manuscripts, writing something publishable when not enough material was at hand … I discovered that editing a little review — The Midwestern, published here in Madison in 1931, for all the difference between the professional and the amateur, involved pretty much the same kind of work, with the added task of improving circulation and helping to meet expenses.

Coming next: “Hawk & Whippoorwill: Derleth’s Little Review” (Part 2)

John D. Haefele contributed this article.
© 2016. All rights reserved.

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3 responses to “Hawk & Whippoorwill: The Little Reviews

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