For readers and writers of the short story, literary magazines are an ideal platform. They give new writers an opportunity to show their work and build a readership, and give better established authors a place to experiment with form and ideas.
Magazines and journals are often more inclusive and diverse than publishing houses – lighter on their feet, able to challenge and speculate. Each magazine has its own distinct identity, and each attracts a following of readers passionate about the short story. Few of them seek outside funding, fewer still receive it, often operating on a minimal budget, and yet they soldier on.
Their editors are the gatekeepers who spend their time reading submissions, producing the magazine, finding new readers and organising events. So, we decided to try and get inside the heads of these unsung heroes of the short-story world in a series of interviews. In the third of this series, David Frankel talks to Phil Robertson of Prole Magazine.
Conceived after a weekend of Guinness fuelled frenzy, Prole approaches its 26th issue with the aim of making quality writing engaging, entertaining and challenging for a wide range of readers. Prole has a reputation for spotting new talent. Since its inception, it has garnered much praise including an award for Best Magazine in the Saboteur Awards.
Phil Robertson: Prole is our baby. It’s grown from an idea into something that is a part of life and routine. It’s not reached its teenaged years yet – so still pretty well behaved. Brett and I came up with Prole soon after we met. I suppose it’s framed a friendship.
The boring answer is: it’s a journal of poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction. From the start, we wanted Prole to be accessible to both readers and writers. There are many journals out there, and some excellent ones at that, but many seem to publish style over substance and on occasion disappear up their own fundament. We think we publish quality writing that, as our mantra goes, engages, entertains and challenges. Many journals have a readership of writers, and that’s fine, but we’d like to stretch further than that and that’s what we are working towards.
Starting a magazine and then keeping it keeping it alive and well is hard work. Why would an otherwise sane person do that to themselves?
That’s a very good question. Prole started because Brett and I both write and submit. Actually, I don’t anymore; I don’t have the time. Brett still does and is having increasing success, with his second pamphlet about to be released. He’ll hate me for saying this – but he has talent in spades.
Anyway, one afternoon in the pub we were talking about publications we liked and those that appeared to publish obscure, stylish pieces that might be of interest to a small group of academics, also those who seemed to publish a revolving door of ‘names’. On top of that, based on some research, we were amazed at the number of publications that took Arts Council funding and did not even pay their writers. We thought – could we set up a journal that was inclusive, paid its writers and stood on its own two feet? We were drunk. We had no idea. It wasn’t a sane decision, but we took it, and it’s been a great adventure.
So, you’re co-editors. Who does what? How does the workload get split? How often do you argue?
We’re both busy and fit things in around work, family and other commitments.
Brett reads all poetry submissions and then sends his choices to me. I read all prose submissions and then send all my choices to him. For a piece to be selected for publication, we both have to like it. I’d say about half of our personal choices are approved by the other.
Brett spends a lot of time promoting Prole via social media and does a brilliant job. He also does a lot of visits to the Post Office. I do the techie stuff and I’m still learning after starting from a knowledge base of zero.
We argue remarkably little – but usually about whose round it is.
What do you enjoy most about your roll?
There are stories and poems that really stick with you – and as any reader knows – that’s a gift. I suppose the most exciting part is seeing a new issue arrive through the post. I have a shelf reserved at home for every issue and other publications we’ve made.
Not necessarily my roll, but people are the most enjoyable part of Prole. We’ve worked with, met, laughed and drunk with lovely people we’d never have met otherwise. And then there’s Brett. I don’t think Prole would work if we weren’t friends – and time with Brett is also a gift.
How do you go about shaping each issue?
We don’t do themed issues. All we look for is quality that engages, entertains, challenges. Once the pieces are selected, Brett stirs them all up and suggests an order. It’s not a skill I have – or can even sensibly have a go at. But there is often a loose thread after he’s done his stuff.
Prole has a real energy. The stories are eclectic in terms of style, subject, settings etc , but if there is one thing that unifies them it is an emphasis on storytelling, as opposed to experimenting with form or language. Do you have this in mind when you shape an issue, or in general? Do you aim for a particular audience?
For a specific issue, we don’t have a particular audience in mind. For every issue, we do. In honesty, we’d like every man and his dog to read Prole. We know that’s not going to happen. However, as I’ve mentioned before, we always want Prole to be accessible. You shouldn’t need a degree in comparative literature, the classics or history to engage with good writing. That’s not to say we prefer pieces that are unintelligent – just that you shouldn’t have to be running off to Google every two minutes. Good writing speaks to a wide spectrum of readers.
In both prose and poetry I’m not against experimentation of any kind. What we’re looking for isn’t experimental work, it’s excellent work in any form – experimental or otherwise. Beautiful or striking language, unusual form, fine – but if it says nothing – or pushes the reader away rather than pulling them in – then it’s not for us.
How personal does it get? Do the stories you select reflect your own taste or broader considerations?
Good question, and one I often ask myself. The honest answer has to be that my personal preferences must influence my choices. That’s just part of being human. I do try very hard to approach every piece with an open mind and there are always those three words to guide me. Here they are for the third time: engaging, entertaining, challenging. There’s one thing, other than plain bad writing, that does turn me off pretty fast – dream sequences. Ergh.
There is a strong tendency amongst literary journals to mix stories and poetry, Prole publishes both but keeps them separate. Does this give you more freedom in terms of assembling each issue?
I’m not sure if does or it doesn’t. What it does do is fulfil three different identities for readers. Some readers enjoy both poetry and prose, some just one or the other. Having poetry and prose separate gives readers interested in only one a definite chunk to turn to – and if they happen to dip into the other and enjoy, all the better.
How much do you work with authors in terms of the editing of their stories?
Some pieces come in fully formed and need nothing more than a quick proof. We also receive pieces that, while excellent, need a thorough proofing. Then there are pieces we see huge potential for but in their current state don’t quite work or could work better. We are active editors and often do suggest changes, deletions, additions. Some writers are quite happy to go along with that, some aren’t.
The name ‘Prole’ implies an egalitarian aim and I’ve noticed that, unlike many literary magazines, you don’t print bios of the authors that you feature. Is this a conscious effort to put the emphasis solely on the stories and poems you present?
We used to post bios on a blog, but this was hard to maintain and received little traffic. The content of Prole should speak for itself. I’m not sure it matters if a particular writer has had umpteen previous publications and a novel with an agent. What matters is that the writing speaks to the reader. It is something we review from time to time.
I don’t think any short-story writers expect to get rich, but Prole is one of the few literary journals in the UK that pays contributors. Why was this important to you? And, while we’re on the subject of money, how is Prole funded?
We started Prole with a few simple rules.
One: Prole would fund itself, neither of us are wealthy, and if we were, would likely blow the cash on something else. If literature has value, it should earn that value. If what we produce couldn’t earn an audience large enough to fund it, it simply wouldn’t be worth doing. While we’re both very proud of Prole, this has never been a vanity project. We both invested about £170 to get going, and since then, Prole has paid for itself.
Two: Prole would be independent, i.e. we would not apply for funding. Personally, I’m not against Arts Council funding, but having researched it (a little) I sometimes wonder what happens to the money, especially when many funded journals don’t even pay their contributors. So – to rule three.
Three: We would pay our contributors. If literature has a value, then those who create it should be recognised. We operate a royalty payment system. After four months, we calculate profit and share out half of earnings with our contributors. Each contributor receives an issue balance statement where they can see in basic terms what has been spent and earned. No one is going to retire from having something published in Prole – but it is often enough to pay for a celebratory drink.
Rule four has nothing to do with money – but while I’m on rules – we decided we would never publish our own work. At the risk of offending some well established names – I mean come on, really?
So, Prole funds itself through sales and also revenue from competitions and events. If this ceased to happen, Prole would cease to exist.
Your annual prose competition (The Prolitzer Prize), your poetry prize and, more recently your Pamphlet Competition, are a big part of what you do, and they’ve gained an important place in the writing calendar. How do the competitions compliment what you’re doing with the magazine?
The Prolitzer Prize is currently on hold. Something we will likely return to. We hope the competitions widen our appeal and the number of readers we reach. They are another way of getting our name out there.
To those writers who submit work, please try and support publications by reading them. Not just us, but others too. We’ve never asked submitters to buy a copy first, nor will we ever, but supporting us and other publications keeps them alive. If you like what you see, shout about it, tell someone you think might be interested, whack it on Facebook or your blog. Prole and other publications don’t have huge advertising budgets. (In fact, ours stands at £24 for the year after having flyers printed!) Word of mouth is what most publications rely on.
It might seem odd to say but competitions are also a big risk. There’s the obvious financial risk – what we promise in prizes and judges’ fees may not be recouped – but also as we have independent judges, we let go of editorial control. So far, we’ve had great judges who have chosen well. In basic terms, competitions help us finance Prole. While each issue since issue two has made some profit, there are other and many overheads.
The competitions do bring greater awareness and encourage writers to submit work. We’ve been very lucky in receiving so many excellent submissions. We are only able to accept about five percent of them. We can only be as good as the pieces we are offered. So please, keep them coming – or try us out for the first time. We try very hard to respond within four weeks. Very occasionally we slip beyond that, but very often we are a lot quicker.
You also publish poetry pamphlets through your Prolebooks imprint. How did that come about?
Every few weeks Brett and I meet up and thrash out new ideas. New ideas can sometimes mean new opportunities. The same ethos exists in our attitude to pamphlets as it does to Prole itself. The work comes first, the name of the writer is irrelevant. One of our most successful poetry publications was Caboodle: six pamphlets in one book. Doing different things opens different doors. Caboodle found us at launches in Sheffield and London. On a personal level, we met many great people. For Prole, we were exposed to people who had not previously come across us.
You mentioned the events and readings that you run. Is the performance aspect of writing important to you?
I’ve been amazed how some works, which I’ve always admired, come alive in different ways when performed. It’s also a celebration. There is something grand about being in a room with a group of people who are there determined to enjoy writing.
In October, we are running our third Prolewrites event. In these we host writing workshops delivered by ‘Prolers’ we really respect, followed by an open mic event. Again, it opens different doors – and they are fun. Prole needs to be fun.
Has your experience of being an editor changed your views on short stories, or changed the way you write yourself?
PR: It’s certainly changed how often I write. Between work, family and Prole, I have time for little else. It’s not a regret, but something I do miss it from time to time. My taste in stories, long or short, has always been eclectic. I still don’t like stories with dream sequences!
Do you remember the first short story that really made an impression on you?
As an adult, yes. Many years ago, the first John Irving book I read was The World According to Garp. Contained in it there is a story called The Pension Grillparzer. Perhaps shaped by the story around it – but that’s the first that really stuck.
What can readers expect in the future?
Hopefully, more excellent writing in Prole, which is at the core of what we do. We’ll continue with our two poetry competitions and perhaps bring back the Prolitzer Prize. We are looking to host a mini literary event, possibly next year. That’s going to take a few sessions in the pub to sort out.
Where can we find a copy?
Hard copy and PDF copies of everything we publish can be purchased from our website: www.prolebooks.co.uk
Phil Robertson works, edits and occasionally writes in his adopted hometown of Bolton. He co-edits Prole with poet, Brett Evans.
David Frankel’s short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including Unthology 8, Prole, Lightship Anthology and The London Magazine. His creative non-fiction and reviews have been published in various journals and publications both online and in print. He also works as an artist and edits work for other writers.