Magazine Review #9: The Coffin Factory, Issue #1


The Coffin Factory bills itself as the “magazine for people who love books,” and there is no better way to describe this magazine. Based in Brooklyn, and published three times a year, The Coffin Factory debuted this fall, and the first issue is an outstanding collection of fiction, essays, poetry, art, and interviews.

One of the high points of this issue is a surreal story by Belgian writer, Bernard Quiriny. The story, “Blood Orange,” involves an encounter between two men at a hotel restaurant, strangers until the narrator finally approaches the other man and engages him in a conversation. The other man then proceeds to tell a fantastical story about a romantic encounter with a woman who has skin like an orange:

She took off her sweater, and I was confronted with the most extraordinary spectacle ever mine to behold. From her belly to her throat, she was covered by the skin of an orange. The carapace clung to her perfectly, like the tunic to Nessus. Stricken with panic and desire, I didn’t know how to react: was I to bend my lips close and taste her supernatural skin, or simply admire without touching? She left me little time to decide, for already she was lifting her hips to pull off her pants; transfixed, I saw on her thighs and legs the same crust as on her torso. Only her extremities were spared: the orange skin grew thinner and thinner as it approached her ankles, wrists, and neck, until at last it ended in a border like a cuticle.

It’s always exciting to encounter a fabulist story, especially in an American publication, where they often seem to be lacking. But beyond the surreal world, this story is intimate and engaging, intriguing, and simply a pleasure to read. Each piece of fiction in this issue, including work from José Saramago and Joyce Carol Oates, is completely different from one another but there is a consistency to the issue that feels carefully curated.

There are two fantastic interviews included in this issue: “Fifty One Questions” with Justin Taylor (A few questions for example: “Borges or Unamuno? Fitzgerald or Hemmingway? Melville or Poe?), and a lengthy interview with New Directions Publishing’s Barbara Epler (President and Publisher) and Tom Robarge (Publicity Director).

The New Directions interview is inspiring, not only for book lovers, but also for writers who aspire to find the perfect house for their book. New Directions, an independent publisher, has been around since 1936, and this insightful interview delves into what makes the small publishing house tick. When talking about the history of New Directions, Epler says:

[Founder James Laughlin] had the idea of “new directions;” he studied with Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, and he truly believed in the experiment of one-world literature, and the need and purpose of creating a space where literary experiments can be carried out in public. He began by publishing some anthologies, and then quickly became the publisher of Pound and the first publisher of Nabakov, Céline, and Neruda. We have an incredible backlist, and incredible wealth of great books. The history of the publisher is this inherent belief that if you just publish very very good books, they’ll find readers.

This idea, that if you “publish very very good books, they will find readers” is a driving motivation of every writer, and precisely what one hopes for in a publisher. This interview is filled with this kind of idealism and optimism; it’s nice to see a small publisher like New Direction thriving while publishing challenging fiction, reprints, translations, poetry, and experimental prose.

One of the difficulties with a magazine that is entirely devoted to an in-depth analysis of books is that it can feel somewhat exclusionary. I am the target reader for this magazine; I have an M.F.A., I am writing a novel, I read pretty much constantly. So it’s not surprising that I would connect to this magazine. But I have the strong sense that in order to enjoy this magazine, one must be not just an avid reader, but an academic-level book-obsessive. There is an essay in this issue about Roberto Bolaño, as well as a piece written by Bolaño. (In fact, he comes up incidentally several other times in the issue.) The underlying assumption with this magazine is that the reader will have read all of Bolaño, and not just The Savage Detectives, but the more obscure Antwerp and Between Parenthesis. And not only will the reader have read all of his books, but they will also know that Duchamp is regularly referenced in much of Bolaño’s work.

I’m certainly not opposed to holding these kinds of expectations of a reader, but I do wonder if The Coffin Factory will be able to connect with a broader audience. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe being knee-deep in the book world is the point of the magazine. After all, they want to connect with people who love books. The Coffin Factory publishes writing that appeals to the folks who spend all their free time roaming around books stores, clicking through literary blogs, and tinkering away at their own writing projects. These are the people who will love this magazine.

Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: More from this author →