Innovation on a shoestring is the rule for little mags

In the old movie musicals, a group of energetic youngsters (usually including Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland) would get together and say, ''Hey gang, I know what let's do. Let's put on a show. We can use Mr. Jenkins's barn, and Sally and Mary can make the costumes, and . . .''

And so it went. Nowadays, those same youngsters might instead be saying ''Let's start up a little magazine.'' For all across the land, in converted garages and book-lined basements, these undaunted organs of opinion and enthusiasm keep springing up: No sooner is one slain (by rising production costs , let's say, or vanished financial support), than two others pop up to take its place. More than 1,500 examples of this species currently exist; and, however endangered individual varieties are, there's no doubt that the little magazine as an institution has become a healthy survivor.

Nor am I saying that many numbers of such publications are amateurish, though the producers of Volcano Review, a California town's communal self-portrait, and of Muscadine: A Seniors' Literary Magazine, cheerfully admit that they're mainly having a good time. In fact, the general level of professionalism seems remarkably high. The real point, though, is the spirit of gritty resourcefulness that keeps these vital, valiant, necessary publications going. So, here's an attempt to sort out some salient characteristics and identify some of the best of the little magazines.

There are, of course, special-interest publications aplenty: political periodicals like the Bookings Institution's Studies in Defense Policy; scholarly and semischolarly journals such as Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, an engagingly plain-spoken and cranky specimen of the breed; all sorts of ''voices'' chanting the virtues of particular disciplines or avocations. There's World's Fair, which announces forthcoming exhibitions and memorializes people like George Ferris, who invented the Wheel; Moody Street Irregulars, devoted to the work and life of the late Jack Kerouac; Alaska Geographic, alive with gorgeous color photography; and very many others.

Formerly silent minorities are now represented by such magazines as Maze: Xicano Art and Literature, and Callaloo: A Black South Journal of Arts and Letters, which has recently featured fiction by Kristin Hunter and James Allan McPherson. The concerns of black women have received special attention in several women's publications, such as the excellent Sunbury, whose recent tenth issue was, I'm sorry to report, its last; The Creative Woman, with its fascinating essay ''Black Women of the West 1820-1920'' by Addie Harris; and Helicone Nine, which celebrates the achievements of jazz musician Mary Lou Williams, among others.

Regional interests are served by mainstream magazines like the Arizona Quarterly, Little Balkans Review, and the ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), as well as such off-beat productions as Mississippi Mud (from Oregon) and the Bloomsbury Review, which emanates from Denver and specializes in literary activity in the Southwest. Southern Exposure celebrates its region with refreshing candor (see Alice Walker's challenging polemic ''Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine''). Stoney Hills: The New England Small Press Review documents the continuing growth of the movement. Snowy Egret, the venerable nature-oriented publication, typifies an increasing agrarian-ecological emphasis and the use of graphic art along with prose and poetry.

Budgets permitting, even the smallest magazines manage occasional ambitious special issues. The Volcano Review, for example, has produced a documentary collage memorializing a 1922 fire (''The Argonate Mine Disaster''). Pacific Moana Quarterly has done an admirable double issue on ''African Writing Today.'' The Quarterly Review of Literature and Michigan Quarterly Review have given us hefty anthologies of modern and comtemporary poetry.

Poetry is the major component of academic quarteries like the Chicago and Wisconsin Reviews, Field (on ''poetry and poetics''), the estimable Pequod, and the Black Mountain II Review (a continuation of a long-established experimental journal), and numerous others. The bimonthly American Poetry Review, presumable leader in its field, prints work by such international eminences as Boris Pasternak and Yannis Ritsos as well as current poets while covering America's native territory via enthusiastic and chatty reviews and interviews.

Fiction, essays, and literary criticism of all varieties appear in a wide range of general literary magazines. Story Quarterly and Readers' Choice, both from Canada, do their best to keep the short story alive; so do Epoch at Cornell University, and the Caroline Quarterly and Second Coming, both from San Francisco. The Agni Review has featured work by the great Anglo-Irish writer James Hanley. The New England Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review offer diverse and excellent written work from all over the globe. Salmagundi, Sun and Moon, and the revived Kenyon Review fight the good fight on behalf of literary experimentalism. The Boston Review has featured fascinating symposia on the impact of computer technology and the threat of the nuclear age.

Like the harried editors of all these publications, I'm fast breaking my word limit. Let me therefore, single out four magazines which seem to me especially worthy of attention. Pulpsmith, an offshoot of the ''Revolutionary'' Smith Press , seems dedicated to restoring the glory -- if that's the word -- of the old pulp magazines. Eccentric fiction, bawdy limericks, even a serial novel (Richard Mason's ''The Soforth Saga'') make Pulpsmith lively and entertaining. The Missouri Review attracts major writers and features thoughtful, informative book reviews. Ploughshares, which often offers packed special issues, has recently featured the refreshingly witty poems of Charles Simic.

The best of them all is the amazing Georgia Review: modestly priced, superbly conceived and edited, filled with unusal and colorful material like the recent essay on ''Jean Renoir in Georgia,'' a delightful interview with Erskine Caldwell, and much marvelous fiction and poetry. It's the supreme example of what the producers of the little magazines can accomplish.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.