It's a common story in the arts. Young, fresh, and brash group hits the scene, be it a band or a theater company, a visual arts group or a magazine. The group burns white hot for a time—six months, a year, maybe even a few years—before the fire burns out, the collective splits apart, and a new venture, hopefully, takes its place.
So you may consider it a minor miracle that Rain Taxi—the iconoclastic literary arts magazine dedicated to uncovering the best the world of print has to offer, no matter how obscure—published its 50th issue this summer.
"It's not typical for a literary venture like this to last," says Eric Lorberer, who has written for the magazine since its inception and has served as the journal's editor for many years. "It is largely dependent on people who have the energy to fight the system for a while. But there eventually is a danger for burnout, or not developing the level of funding you need."
Every quarter, about 18,000 copies of Rain Taxi are distributed nationwide, putting it in the middle of the market—large for a literary magazine of its type, but a far cry from the major players, like the New Yorker or Harper's.
Then again, considering its esoteric bent, its modest circulation shouldn't be surprising. Rain Taxi is a place to learn about Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish or to read an interview with music and cultural critic David Hajdu—you won't find reviews of Dan Brown's latest opus or this week's celebrity tell-all.
"There is a community for this writing, even though it's in a lot of little small pockets. If you aggregate them," Lorberer says, "you get a sense of the vitality of what is going on. If you look at it in dribs and drabs it may not seem impressive."
These are dicey times for serious literary writers, publishers, and reviewers. Many newspapers have drastically cut back their book review sections. And between increased media consolidation and the shrinking of independent booksellers, it seems as though non-mainstream works have been shut out of the discussion.
"I think the death of a lot of indie booksellers is hurting the culture," Lorberer says. "There is less choice and access. Writers and publishers who have something serious to say and have the tenacity to persevere will eventually persevere. We are trying to be a part of the voice for that and a mechanism for those endeavors to stay healthy."
Rain Taxi exists to explore these cracks in the facade. Since the beginning, the journal has championed little-known works.
"Generally there is a dearth of criticism for non-mainstream books. We are about shining a spotlight on non-mainstream publishing—work that has a smaller audience but has a real literary need," he says.
Still, Lorberer sees some promising avenues worth exploring in the book world. "Chapbook publishing is the underappreciated sibling in the community. These are small books [often 16 to 20 pages] that are printed in small runs. There's been a real explosion of them in the last few years."
Meanwhile, graphic novels and other comics continue their fight to get out of the superhero "funny book" ghetto. "We're seeing creators in this medium really pushing their boundaries, in the same way that poetry or visual art did in the early part of the 20th century."
Visitors to Rain Taxi's annual Twin Cities Book Festival this year on October 11 will get a chance to hear about the growth of that medium with Jaime Hernandez, who has worked on the leading edge for nearly three decades, either as the co-founder and contributor to the comic magazine Love and Rockets or in a bevy of limited series in the past three decades. "He's really been a part of the aesthetic maturity of the medium," Lorberer says.
The daylong event has a number of other attractions as well, including public radio commentator and writer Alan Cheuse and novelists Valerie Martin, Ana Clavel, Jess Winfield, and Bragi Olafsson, whom eccentric pop music fans with long memories may remember from his days with the Sugarcubes, but who has crafted a second career as an award-winning fiction writer. The event also includes the local launch of a book of selected poems by Olav H. Hauge, featuring Robert Bly and Robert Hedin; panel discussions; and an expo hall packed with books new and used.
Lorberer has no doubt that the Twin Cities is a perfect home for the festival and for a journal like Rain Taxi. The area has a strong writing and publishing community (and, Lorberer notes, a fine mainstream critical community), which help foster the environment.
"The greatness of the Twin Cities is the mixture we have. There are obviously large presses and organizations here, but there are also tiny and grassroots things happening," Lorberer says. "The book festival is a way to gather that ecosystem in one room for a day."
The eighth annual Twin Cities Book Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, October 11, at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, 1501 Hennepin Ave. The event is free. For more information, visit www.raintaxi.com.