I've had the recent pleasure of poring through 80-plus issues of 44 small-press literary magazines, and I return from the experience impressed - and chagrined. How do they manage, on minuscule budgets, invariably understaffed and overworked, to orchestrate the variety and confusion of free-lance contributions and the convolutions of postal delivery?
The answer, I suppose, is that there are a lot of stubborn idealists out there - people who really do believe that contemporary writers must be given a forum, no matter how great the expenditures or how small the returns. It would be appropriate to salute them all - but I'll have to settle for paying special attention to five, which I've rather arbitrarily chosen as ''the best.''
I've written previously in praise of the well-edited, modestly priced Georgia Review - and recent issues give me no choice but to repeat myself. The high quality of Georgia's poetry may be glimpsed in Baron Wormser's adroitly eerie ''Werewolfness'' and in Mary Oliver's wonderful visionary poem about a Florida animal park, ''At Loxahatchie.'' Its fiction has a partial Southern slant - examples are recent stories by Barry Hannah and Ernest J. Gaines. Of the essays, I especially liked James B. Twitchell's amusing ''Frankenstein and the Anatomy of Horror,'' Arno Karlen's ''The MacGregor Syndrome and Other Literary Losses'' (revaluations of several ''unjustly ignored'' books), and a selection from the book reviews by the late Flannery O'Connor.
The Iowa Review is notable for its periodic ''Small Press Review'' and for general book reviews that are often agreeably unconventional and combative. A similar eclecticism shows up in the essays: It is seen in: Clark Blaise's pungent memoir of a cross-cultural childhood, ''Tenants of Unhousement,'' and a feature on W.S. Merwin that comprises an interview; an excerpt from Merwin's family memoir, ''Unframed Originals''; and several poems, including the moving verse short story ''The Houses.'' Iowa's fiction seems concentrated on adolescent and young-adult coming-of-age experiences (Denny Hoberman's ''A Line of Light,'' Erin Jolly's ''The Keepers''), and its poetry displays both ingenious uses of colloquial speech (Ron Block's ''Ballade of the Back Road,'' and lyrical pieces such as Sandra McPherson's ''The Anointing'').
The Boston Review, a monthly that includes coverage of the local cultural scene, also tackles such subjects as dance (Suzanne Gordon's ''Ballet: The Brutal Art'') and the graphic arts (novelist Italo Calvino's appreciation of Saul Steinberg's drawings) and offers vigorous fiction, poetry, and criticism. David Bosworth has contributed to its ''Essays on Distinguished American Writers'' series a fine piece on novelist Don De Lillo. Other recent gems: an account of a teacher strike in Montreal, an essay on Beatrix Potter, and an account of a meeting with Samuel Beckett.
The Virginia Quarterly Review features fine reviews and essays that manage remarkable universality despite their Southern bias: two good examples are Arthur F. Kinney's description of his research trip ''In Search of Flannery O'Connor'' and William C. Harvard's ''The Journalist as Interpreter of the South ,'' in which he argues that writers like Hodding Carter, P.D. East, and James J. Kilpatrick have elevated journalistic assignments into ''penetrating historical and philosophical interpretations'' of their place and time. From the fiction, which is of consistently superior quality, I'll select for special mention T.R. Pearson's ''Kindred'' and Barry Targan's ''Fearful Symmetry.''
Targan's ''Caveat Emptor,'' a knowing portrayal of a small-time home-front entrepreneur during wartime, stands out among the richly various fiction and poetry that appear regularly in the Missouri Review - where there also appeared Sharon Olds's brilliant, unsettling poem ''Saturn.'' Missouri's superb interviews have included a conversation with Robert Stone that adds up to a valuable explication of his novel ''A Flag for Sunrise.'' Add to this recent focuses on Indian novelist R. K. Narayan and on the embattled Jerzy Kosinski, and it's apparent that this is one of the most versatile and flavorful of all the literary periodicals.