Electric Feels: Halimah Marcus Has a New Story to Tell with Electric Literature
By Molly McArdle
“We have a new story,” Halimah Marcus tells me over lunch in the Flatiron, a few blocks away from Electric Literature’s office, which it shares with the publishing venture Catapult. (One of EL’s founders, Andy Hunter, is Catapult’s publisher and chief operating officer.) Marcus would know—she’s been with Electric Literature since 2010, as long as she’s been in Brooklyn and only a few months after its founding. Now, six years later, she is its first executive director.
Marcus, 30, arrived in New York to start an MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College, an alma mater she shares with Electric Literature’s founders. “I started as an intern,” she says. “Officially, I went full-time in September 2014, though I was putting in the equivalent or near-equivalent of full-time hours since May 2012.”
“The basic tenets of our outlook haven’t changed,” she says, reflecting on her new role, announced this past March, as well as Electric Literature’s becoming a nonprofit in 2014. “Now that we’re a nonprofit, we can call them our mission. We want to preserve the place of literature in popular culture. Our commitment to new technology has never changed. And we do it all with the optimism that the Internet will not kill the book.”
“Electric Literature would not be the thriving, dynamic enterprise it is today were it not for Halimah,” Hunter tells me via email. It’s easy to map the effects Marcus has had on the organization. In 2012, as managing editor, she co-founded Recommended Reading along with Ben Samuel, then Electric Literature’s online editor. While the first issue of Electric Literature sold an impressive 10,000 copies in the four years after its publication, Recommended Reading—which publishes a free short story a week on Tumblr—reaches 116,000 subscribers with each post. Marcus has published authors from A.M. Homes to James Hannaham (as well as hundreds of emerging writers) in Recommended Reading, all of whose stories are selected by prominent writers and editors—one week Kelly Link, another Michael Cunningham, and so on.
Novelist J. Robert Lennon, who edits another Electric Literature magazine—Okey-Panky—reiterates the common sentiment: “Halimah Marcus is one of the finest fiction editors I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”
Marcus and Samuel conceived of Recommended Reading when the attention of Electric Literature’s founders started shifting away from the quarterly journal. “We had the idea to sell original stories and call them ‘Loosies.’” She laughs. “As we gamed that out, we realized they should be free and they should not be named after cigarettes.”
She also saw new possibilities in online publishing. At first, Marcus explains, “the website was a blog attached to whatever we were publishing at the time.” After a redesign and a relaunch in 2014, the website now gets 4 million visitors a year. These milestones are in keeping with Electric Literature’s founding spirit.
“When we began with the quarterly anthology,” she says, “releasing it on all platforms—it’s hard to believe, but we were the first people doing that.” Now, it’s ubiquitous.
“Going on a platform like Tumblr, going all-digital, going all-free serves our readers,” Marcus argues. She mentions another major change. Electric Literature announced in early April that it was moving to Medium as one of the platform’s inaugural publishing partners, alongside Pacific Standard, The Awl, and The Ringer, Bill Simmons’s new publication. Marcus sees this as a natural extension of Electric Literature’s friendly and flexible relationship to technology. “Even in 2012,” she explains, referring to the creation of Recommended Reading, “it seemed more popular to do page-through PDFs. Fortunately we made the decision to go with Tumblr,” a platform that proved both enormously successful and forward-thinking. Marcus is excited about the possibilities Medium offers. “We don’t have to pay server costs. We don’t have to worry about upkeep. It has great mobile display. It’s got branded content networks, so potentially more ad revenue.”
What ultimately drew her, she says, are the fundamentals. “Medium is built for long form and it has a built-in audience.”
As for the future? “We have a new focus on the publishing ecosystem. Now we want you to read an excerpt, and buy the book, and follow that writer, and check out that publishers’ other books.”
In a city, and in a generation, where jobs rarely last a year or two before the next, Marcus’s longevity at Electric Literature hints at a relationship that is, miracle of miracles, both satisfying and functional. “I’ve always been able to stay challenged,” she says. Along with Lincoln Michel, Editor-in-Chief of electricliterature.com and the only other full-time employee, Marcus is at the center of a constellation of writers and editors who, she says, define the organization. It’s clear she’s found a place she loves.
“It’s funny,” Marcus reflects, smiling. “I wrote an essay for my MFA application about loving the short story, and now I edit a short story magazine.”
“I would venture there are many more perfect short stories than perfect novels. You can fall in love with a short story and keep it in your pocket for your whole life. Relationships with novels are very different.” And, she adds, “short stories are the most conducive format for our reading habits today.”
And the success of Electric Literature, Recommended Reading, and Okey-Panky, are where she sees this demonstrated. “We’re the proving ground.”