The Titillating Story of Titular Journal
Titular Journal (2009-2014) was an online lit mag which published short fiction titled after novels, films, and television shows. I remember when I first came across the site; it was love at first sight (haha). Not only was the conceit of the journal inspired, the list of contributors featured a who’s who of writers I admired, and the design (courtesy of Gene Morgan) was clean, beautiful and yellow.
I knew I had to have something published here. I immediately proceeded to write a story based on my favourite movie of all time: The Lion King. Before submitting it, I took one more scroll through the archives and I discovered something terrible! Steve Himmer had already written a story with that title for the site. I emailed Jimmy Chen (the founding editor) to tell him what had happened. He kindly offered to read the story anyway and while he didn’t publish that piece, he did eventually publish a story that I wrote with my father called The Wire. Working with him on editing the piece was a great experience which just made me love Titular even more.
Some other contributors told me a few of their memories of Titular:
[Titular was] One of the first online journals I ever discovered and utterly devoured. Curiously, it was edited anonymously, and years later when I was let in on the secret it suddenly all made sense. #JimmyChenForever #TitularForPresident2016
My memory is that the original founder/editor of Titular, Jimmy Chen, was a very vocal advocate for web native forms of publishing, of using the internet to create publishing experiments that would not be possible on the page, and Titular’s original design—an ever-growing archive of all of these titles laid out on a single, minimalist page, clustered in categories—seems in keeping with this commitment.
I remember discovering Titular and feeling really entranced, clicking, exploring, reading, returning—a much different experience than a linear lit journal that you might read or skim once and then toss. At this point, I think that whether or not literature should contend with popular culture is a much less interesting question than how it goes about this, and in what ways, and Titular provided multiple compelling answers. I liked that some pieces used the appropriated titles solely as a language prompt, while other works had a more direct relationship with the original text’s content or characters (I’m a big fan of literary fan fiction or fan fiction as literature when done well, esp. when it involves an explicitly queer relationship to the source text). Titular was like a giant, multi-tiered and ongoing writing prompt.
The set of interlocking pieces that provide the spine for my Rose Metal Press chapbook “Evan’s House and the Other Boys who Live There,” which all take their titles from books, films, television shows, etc., with the word “house” in them, actually would never have materialized without Titular. Although none were published at Titular, it was Titular that got them rolling.
One thing I loved about writing for Titular was that I wrote, specifically, for Titular. I sat down, with my mind wrapped around some title, and wrote to that. And there was the pleasure of reading titles like “Full House” and “Coming to America” and the discovery, the mind game of trying my best to erase the original, but of course how could you not “not” think of it? Sometimes, I confess, I didn’t know the original. I remember thinking I would write a serious story called “Charles In Charge” but I never did.
It’s impossible for me to think of Titular without thinking of that time in my writing life when the Internet seemed magic. I didn’t grow up with it, I didn’t even grow up with cell phones. Back then, it was newer, and it was a thrill to be solicited for work; I imagine I’m not alone in this. There I was, living in a run-down place with faulty electric wiring and yet there were people to write to and for, and I could sit in a cramped room and work myself around words from Virginia Woolf and people would read. There was something wonderful about the idea of a journal simply built around this one idea – not any other, no other categories, just – titular. And it was playful, fun.
I remember when I first started writing seriously and wanted to find publications, titular was one of the first places that published my work. they published a story I wrote called ‘saved by the bell.’ it felt good to be published, mostly because I didn’t think there were places that would accept ‘weird’ writing or whatever. it motivated me to continue. I remember enjoying the website overall and feeling interested in continuing to read it. also, it seemed, and still does seem, good to me that a place like that existed because it provided something to do that felt meaningful. with that said, I hope jimmy chen falls facefirst into a pile of fresh dogshit. just kidding, wuddup jimmy!
– Sam Pink
Jimmy Chen answered some questions I had about the site:
Why did you start Titular? And how did you come up with the concept for it?
A combination of being bored at work, enlivened about online literature, and the desire to be an influential figure in the community. A writer has to be accepted (that is, published) to be a writer. Editors just have to reject writers to be editors. It seemed easy, fun. I was to discover this was not so.
Regarding the concept, though in hindsight it seems a bit hokey—that is, the postmodern compulsion to constantly reference popular culture, under the guise of being hip, which in a way is oddly sentimental—I was, at the time, interested in the capacity that original titles had to impart meaning to pieces named after them; but not only that, to exploit the arbitrariness of the resultant subjects, and in a way the artifice of writing at large.
How did you source the writing you published on the site? I know that at one point you switched from having open submissions to only publishing solicited material. Why did you make that change?
At first, I solicited the “big names,” and after a brisk read to ensure that the story didn’t completely suck, immediately published them, knowing that the lowly and hungry would soon pour in. They did. I shan’t get into the food chain-y economics of any industry, especially online literature, towards which the histrionic and idle tend to gravitate.
When a journal switches to only publishing solicited material, it can only be one of two things: they are about to become defunct; or, they have become an exclusive club. In both case, they have lost their spirit.
When you first started Titular you were running it on your own. Eventually you brought some other editors on board. Why did you choose to do that? What was it like working with them?
A mere downgrade from autonomy to efficiency. There were two editors, then for a brief stint, at the journal’s incipient demise, another person, the latter with whom one of the two former was tentatively smitten. Such is the way of life. I didn’t really work with them. I chose them because their sensibilities seemed aligned with the journal. Each person was given the login requisites for both the submissions and posting platforms, and free to reject and trash, or accept and post, anyone they wished. The only requirement was to trash rejections so they wouldn’t be accepted by the other, and to somehow keep—in some manner, I can’t remember—acceptances so they would not be subsequently trashed. I would occasionally poke into the sent folder just to make sure we weren’t being assholes. We weren’t assholes, but taints, which was close enough.
You published some of your own work on the site. Did you have any qualms about that?
Yes, since for its entirety, I remained anonymous as founding editor. I’ll tell you a secret: I even nominated myself, along with two others, for a Pushchart prize, though this was essentially to ingratiate myself towards the others, if only by esteemed association. It was pathetic of me.
What was your favourite part of running the site?
Making a “nobody” very happy by accepting a very good story of theirs.
Are there any pieces you are particularly proud to have published on the site?
I was proud of “Nine Stories,” for which solicited writers were asked to title a piece after one of J.D. Salinger’s stories in said collection. The stories were published in order of their original appearance, and so what resulted was a kind of predetermined Exquisite corpse.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
We could have used more widgets.
Why did Titular come to an end?
The quick answer is I got tired of it. The quick n’ dirty answer involves feelings about the climate of online literature that I have since processed and expunged from my system. If I seem bitter, it is less with any party than with myself, for being so affected by people I probably wouldn’t care to know in real life. I prefer to hate follow now.
The site is no longer online. Do you still have access to the archives? And if so do you have any intention of ever making them public again?
I don’t have access to the archives, nor would I make them public again; the writers owned and will always own the work, so I would expect the most diligent ones to have kept records.
What have you been up to since Titular? Any other editing or publishing projects? Some of your own writing people should check out? Taken up any interesting hobbies?
There is nothing novel to speak of, other than a novel which may or may not be published by a publisher who had once, short of any contract, told me they would publish it, a sentiment I subsequently solicited for reassurance. It feels in bad form to pester them anymore. I think of Pessoa, whose posthumous work we discovered inside a chest. “Could it think,” he said, “the heart would stop beating.” He knows nothing of what’s inside this chest.