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Free, Flowing Narrative

One of S.F.'s newest lit mags is online and free of charge,

I'm heading to the gym on my lunch hour and I have nothing to read on the stair-climber. Rather than drop $5 on a magazine, I log on to www.narrativemagazine.com and pull up a short story by new writer Min Jin Lee. It takes a minute to open the file, so I minimize the window in case anyone walks by. Once it's loaded I hit print, cringe as it spools over 20 pages, and rush to the printer to grab it before my boss notices.

The story prints beautifully, without ads or big, ink-consuming graphics. There is a small headshot and a bio of the author on page one, but otherwise just clean pages of regular type as if neatly snipped from a book.

Narrative went live only a couple of months ago, and its format is still not finalized, but the concept is a literary journal with old-school standards and 21st century accessibility. It's free, and because it's online there are no editions. The content is rotated and archived; old stories are always available and new ones go up as soon as they're ready.

The format has its drawbacks. The PDFs look great when printed, but they're cumbersome on screen and can be difficult to scroll down. The editors, Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian (pictured above), are working on simpler HTML versions. Users have complained about having to log in to read the magazine. There's still some tinkering to do.

But Narrative looks promising. It already boasts work by well-known authors--Rick Bass, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, Tobias Wolff--thanks to Jenks and Edgarian's connections in the publishing business. Its precocious reputation has attracted at least 100 submissions in its first two months, and 2,000 subscribers.

Overhead costs are obviously lower without printers and distributors to pay, but if readers don't pay for the magazine, who does?

Writers, for one. They have to cough up a $20 submission fee per story. Some believe struggling writers should never be asked to pay a reading fee, like the editors of Writers Weekly, who ran a disapproving note about the fee in its "Whispers and Warnings" section shortly after Narrative launched. Edgarian and Jenks defend the fee, saying it "helps with the cost of maintaining a small editorial staff and with funding our annual Narrative Prize" of $4000. They point out that they charge nothing for subscriptions and don't sell ads. They also recently established "open submission" periods--the months of February, March and June--during which writers can submit without paying. (These submissions won't be considered for the prize.)

Writer Min Jin Lee says fees are part of the cost of being a writer, just like paper, postage and hardware. A former student of Jenks and Edgarian, she was thrilled to be published on Narrative, because she feels the story "will not only get attention, but will also be improved and refined."

Jenks and Edgarian, who are married and live in San Francisco, dreamed up Narrative six or seven years ago. The project was postponed while Jenks and Edgarian had two daughters, now seven and two years old, and focused on teaching, writing and editing. Jenks has a been an editor for over 20 years and mentions "Ray Carver" and "Toby Wolff" so casually, you half-expect "John-my-main-man Updike" to saunter along and slap Jenks a high five. He's worked on several collections of short stories and essays and taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop and the University of California, Irvine, among others. Edgarian is the author of the novel Rise the Euphrates, and has written for Vogue, Allure and Travel and Leisure.

The pair runs a teaching and editing business out of the basement office of their big yellow Victorian on Cathedral Hill. Narrative was originally launched in September as an addition to their Web site that touts their classes and editorial services. Reader feedback has since prompted them to make Narrative its own magazine, but links from the magazine draw traffic to the promotional site, titled "Narrative Resources."

The aesthetic of Narrative is traditional. Jenks and Edgarian go for pieces that are more structured than those in the popular McSweeney's, and the magazine is less visually driven than San Francisco-based Zoetrope. But the quality of the work is just as high, and it's free and convenient. If you're a literature lover, and your boss is forgiving of personal use of office toner, print something off Narrative and judge for yourself.