The Girls of Forever Magazine Have No Editorial Standards
Some say the lit mag is dead. Madeline Cash and Anika Levy of Forever Magazine aren’t so sure.
During New York’s pandemic-era lockdown, the downtown literary set began hosting small readings in walk-up apartments and half-closed community gardens in an effort to feed an appetite for physical connection. From this growing interest in writing divorced from the mainstream came a wave of new-age literary magazines: some irreverent and lo-fi like the guerrilla newspaper The Drunken Canal, others dedicated to rigorous longform criticism like The Drift. Magazines like Astra amassed an avid readership and a formidable suite of contributors who they were able to compensate fairly thanks to generous, no-strings-attached funding from their Chinese parent company. Then, in November of 2022, Astra unexpectedly announced its closure after only two issues. The Drunken Canal also folded, citing its desire to return to a world they “no longer needed to print into existence.” What to many felt like the death knell was the abrupt shuttering of Bookforum following its older sister mag Artforum’s purchase by media conglomerate PMC. The loss was felt immediately, and its closure lent an “it could happen to anyone” pall to the already tenuous lit mag landscape.
Forever was born of the now-infamous 2020 reading Cash and Levy held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a dubious omen given the fate of their peers. Still, its founders see their publication as “too small to fail,” a knowingly self-conscious adage that sums up their DIY ethos. The background of Forever’s kitschy aesthetic—the first edition of their website intentionally resembled a GeoCities page—offsets the writing inside, with voice-y and iconoclastic short fiction and essays centered on esoteric single-issue themes like “Love & Loss” and the forthcoming “Daddy Issue.” In this conversation with our digital editor Jake Nevins, Cash and Levy break down the state of the lit mag, the future of Forever (potentially “weirdly medical and Cronenberg-y”), and why AI can’t replace them just yet.—CAITLIN LENT
JAKE NEVINS: Hey, guys.
MADELINE CASH: Hey!
ANIKA LEVY: I can hear you now. I went into the part of my apartment where the reception reaches.
NEVINS: So, I’m really interested in what it takes to make a magazine, especially a print magazine, in this day and age. Astra, a magazine I loved, just folded a few weeks ago. Then Bookforum. It’s an inauspicious time for the literary magazine.
CASH: Absolutely. I’ll begin on the state of the art and the threat of print extinction, which is really imminently facing us. It’s something we think about a lot. A lot of the angle of what we talked about for this conversation is the idea of just being too small to fail and not really trying to scale our operation. As you obviously know, Anika, Forever started in Los Angeles, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where we put together a reading. It was 2020, mid-pandemic, outside. But still, a lot more people showed up than were anticipated and we are perennially banned from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. But from that, we saw this appetite for these kinds of events and a physical publication came out of that.
LEVY: There was definitely this thing of responding to what we felt was a real cultural void, particularly after having been locked down. And so many of the new projects that were starting up were on the internet. It felt pretty evident that literary movements need face-to-face readings. And I think a lot of the early events and the lore-building that we’ve done is just as a result of the authors that we’ve been able to bring in who’ve really generously given us work. Our first New York City event included Nico Walker, and it was his first reading after getting out of federal prison. He’d never given a reading in his life, and it was so special after all of the excitement around Cherry to get to be in the room with him. We literally wrote to his parole officer so that he could leave the state.
CASH: Yeah. Speaking to this lore-building, we always joke that we have to write ourselves into this narrative, that we didn’t come from money, our parents are no one, there’s nothing in our bank accounts. If we fell, it wouldn’t be from that high, so it would be pretty easy to get back up. I was joking with Anika, “The dinosaurs went extinct, but the salamander survived.”
LEVY: And we also had never conceived of this as a potentially viable business arrangement. We’ve done this while juggling full-time jobs and being in school and moving across the country and our creative director being very sick. And this is not something that we would be working on if we didn’t really, really love it. I think, in a lot of ways, the editorial work that we do at Forever is our studio practice. This is the time that we’re devoting to making stuff.
CASH: Absolutely. A big part of our narrative also is that we have learned everything the hard way. Nothing in this process has come easy. We just have to fall on our faces over and over. We have learned so much, but we’re an absolute mess. Putting together the magazine is a game of Operation. We’re shaking with tweezers trying to put something in place and always hitting the side and it’s lighting up red.
NEVINS: How did you two meet?
LEVY: We met in high school in a creative writing class with a very lecherous writing teacher, and I was a huge fan of Madeline’s work then and a friend of hers. And then, I guess, cut to a decade later, during the pandemic, we started talking again and it just became evident that we were both still trying to write. And Madeline was writing these fucking incredible short stories, which were just as good as I had remembered them being. She was also sending me all of these books in the mail, sending me Tyrant books, which I had just found out about. We were in California, nothing was happening, and the whole literary scene felt so far away and separate from us. And then I moved to New York for school, and suddenly there was just this massive void. People weren’t really going to concerts yet, but it seemed like you could hold a literary reading and there would be a real appetite for it. We started doing that, with the approach of, “Readings should be fun, they should be mercifully short, they should be social events, and this is something that we could just get away with.” And we did it very cheaply and very organically.
CASH: Our friendship really was at the crux of this project. In high school, Anika had blue hair and I was really un-endearingly into anime and we were not really cool, and then we found each other again and we’re on the same beat—
LEVY: We were still uncool.
CASH: Yeah, we hadn’t gotten any cooler, but the culture had caught up with us. We tried a couple other projects before Forever. We were going to make a movie, we had all of these little adventures, and then this just felt right. Again, it’s never easy. We fight constantly. There’s always drama. I’ve taken a couple HR certification classes on how to best talk to a team. But we’re a fucked-up little family and I’m really glad to work with you and Nat [Ruiz], who is our designer that Anika brought on about a year in because we both didn’t know how to work in design.
LEVY: It’s basically a three-girl operation. It’s us and Nat, who’s our creative director, who does all of the art. Beyond the masthead, there’s just countless people who have laundered credibility and clout for us at the beginning of what we were doing because we were just so excited. I think the idea of publishing feels so formal and institutional that we had this momentlike, “Oh, we can actually just print this out and call it a magazine and it is.”
CASH: There’s no barrier to entry. There is no gate. We say Forever is this de-virtualized world. It’s the most exciting thing happening online and the best part of it is that it’s ephemeral. We know that the print renaissance won’t last forever. I don’t know what is going to be popular next, probably sustainable farming—
LEVY: Looking for water.
CASH: Right. Shooting guns in a field or maybe. Something weirdly medical and Cronenberg-y.
LEVY: Repopulating the earth after the “event.”
CASH: Seriously, we can all be milk maidens. But, speaking to Astra folding, and also The Drunken Canal, people have asked us if we’re discouraged or if this movement is over, and I don’t think it’s over. I think it’s just changing. Forever can be whatever we need. If we need to turn into a band or an arms manufacturer or a streaming service, fine.
NEVINS: Earlier you said you’re “too small to fail,” which I like. Is Forever somewhat inured to the vagaries of the publishing industry because it’s such a small operation?
LEVY: I would just say it’s the result of our own ineptitude. We’ve gotten lucky because I think people respect our refusal to professionalize. They respect the fact that we’re not risk-averse. And ultimately, I think people are breaking off into smaller and smaller communities and they’re happy to be a part of something that’s just a few-thousand people who they think are cool and are interesting compelling artists. You can smell that we’re not necessarily trying to scale it.
CASH: If you have no editorial standards, you can only pleasantly surprise people. But it’s not even a morality thing. We’re not taking money from Peter Thiel because we haven’t been offered any money. We are constantly being asked if our dads are paying for the magazine, if we’re heiresses, where the money’s coming from. And we’re like, “There is no money.” That’s the thing.
LEVY: My dad surprised me recently by saying he would purchase a magazine. I don’t want to sound too destitute, but a lot of it is just this scrappiness and experience having shitty jobs and having to claw our way out of the San Fernando Valley.
LEVY: Having a project like this that’s so sacred to us that we all bring so much reverence and dedication to is just a really special thing. And it feels like you just want to protect it and make it really good.
NEVINS: It seems like there’s no major criteria for the sort of pieces you commission and publish, apart from a cheeky tonal irreverence. But what sorts of texts are you guys most drawn to?
CASH: You should kick this off.
LEVY: A big thing, and this is just obviously sort of plagiarized from Tyrant, is style over plot. We really care about language and at this point we receive a lot of submissions. It’s just us in that inbox. If the first sentence isn’t killer, I’m not going to read it. ‘Cause I’ll probably be drunk on the floor of the bathroom when I’m looking at submissions. We have such little time for this. And then in terms of the magazine itself, the print magazine, I think the thing that’s been really important to us is doing these sort of themed issues that we all take turns curating. The current issue that just came out is “Lost and Found.” The upcoming issue is The Daddy Issue. So I think our themes are maybe a little bit more prescient than respectable literary magazines.
CASH: Definitely. For print versus web there’s a little bit of a delineation, although we’re opening the parameters. When it started and it was truly cobbled together, I made the website out of lines of code I copied and pasted on Reddit to try to make it look like a GeoCities page. And then I would literally go on Tyrant’s website and find the emails of different authors that they’d published years ago. We’re just trying to keep this ineffable voice alive. These days they call it “alt-lit,” but I think that it’s more than that.
LEVY: Well, it’s prose that isn’t risk-averse. That’s our whole kind of ethos. And it’s not necessarily the most transgressive, post-woke short story.
LEVY: This is the thing that’s seductive about autofiction. You want to see that they sort of have something to lose.
CASH: Right, yeah. Putting something on the line. It doesn’t necessarily have to be transgressive, like you said. But I do like an element of risk or a lack of editing to let someone just go off.
LEVY: I think that we’re both embarrassingly invested in this idea of literary celebrity, which is so close to the heart of what Interview was doing when it started. Interview was the first place for micro-celebrity to really blossom. It’s the return of the public intellectual, and it’s not who you think it is. It’s Nico Walker, it’s Marie Calloway. Marie Calloway was an incredible Tyrant writer who wrote this really unhinged work of autofiction and was sort of banished from the literary community in some circles. And she disappeared and she gave her first public appearance in 10 years at our Issue Three launch and it was such an honor.
CASH: Writers used to be the prominent celebrities before digital media. It’s coming back in an interesting way where writers are more prominent than ever. It’s probably a reaction to the pandemic. People were reading and having to partake in more solitary activities and now [they’re] doing it together.
LEVY: One thing that feels exciting to us is that it feels like literature or literary sensibilities are sort of penetrating other modes.
CASH: Culture is just becoming more self-referential in general. If everyone is a writer, then no one is. It’s like in the 2010s, when everyone on Tumblr was a photographer. It starts to become more difficult to tell who actually is. But everyone is, and I’m fine with that. I think that the more cooks in the kitchen, the better. Everyone should have a magazine, everyone can write autofiction. It’s all good by me. Maybe it won’t be a profitable career path, but then we’ll just go into finance or something. Soon the AI will be able to do all of this anyway.
LEVY: Yeah, we’re here for a good time. Not a long time.
CASH: We’re also here forever.
LEVY: In a way, there’s so much less to lose. In the early age of social media, people were like, “Make sure there’s not a picture of you drinking out of a red Solo cup or you’ll never get into college.” And your reputation could be so tainted by one thing. But now there’s so many images on the internet and so many images produced every single day. And I think that’s one of the reasons that our readerly sensibility has become more unhinged. It takes more to get our attention.
NEVINS: Is our threshold for provocation higher than ever? At least among the downtown literary set, there’s been a sharp turn against the liberal wokism of the 2010s.
LEVY: I think it’s a cultural pendulum.
CASH: Absolutely. It’s people just trying to react to what was popular previously.
LEVY: Our new thing is liberal feminism, actually. I think that’s going to be huge in 2024.
CASH: I have held the same middle-of-the-road Democratic views. I voted for Hillary in the primaries in 2016. I’ve never, ever been outspoken.
LEVY: We’re not a political magazine, but obviously I guess literature’s political. You said, “If The Drift is the new left and Compact is the new right, Forever is the old center.” It’s a very Didion approach.
CASH: “Reject modernity, embrace tradition.” I think that’s reflected in what was initially the sort of godly aesthetic of the website. And now we kind of just want it to be an expansive heaven, something symbolic of “forever.” Instead of looking to politicians, it’s just a higher power. We’re throwing our hands up in a way.
LEVY: There’s a lot of cultural shortsightedness. Just the fact that things age so quickly and things from 10 years ago seem so archaic and anachronistic. You have to zoom out a little bit. I don’t think AI could make Forever yet. We’re sort of a weird patchwork of ideas. And the “high-low” thing. I really believe in the work that we’re publishing. We’re very serious and rigorous about it in certain ways, but I think the context that we present it in is playful and lighthearted, and it’s hilarious to see copies of Forever with our deranged covers on the shelf in McNally next to the Paris Review.
CASH: Right. I almost feel like we pulled one over on everyone.
LEVY: This issue weighs two pounds. It’s 170 pages, it’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of our lives. These last two issues, they’re definitely the best thing I’ve ever participated in making.
CASH: Definitely. The hardest part of Forever is that it’s really heavy. Boxes [of the latest issue] got stuck in this FedEx shipping freight in Arlington, New Jersey and I had to rent a car and drive there to go rescue them and use a literal forklift to get them into this Honda. None of it’s easy. It’s all us.
LEVY: It’s all as hard as possible. That’s part of it too, is that it’s so homegrown.
CASH: There is an affection for all of it. I’ve been seeing lately the way there’s this ubiquitous vernacular that everyone kind of subscribes to now, and everyone does kind of sound the same. We are becoming more homogenous in our vocabulary. That’s why an AI could emulate popular literature, because that’s what we’re churning out.
LEVY: But my hope is that eventually there will be so much AI literature in the world that it won’t even be able to simulate a human anymore.
CASH: It’s going to start becoming an echo chamber and simulating itself.
LEVY: Could I just say one more thing about our friendship, because that’s where we started? All of this talk about cynicism and magazines having no money and whatever, and certainly having less economic prospects than any generation that came before us. Forever‘s never going to pay the bills, whatever. But we have amassed some intellectual credibility that never felt possible to us, that’s been meaningful. I think the real lesson is that friendship and collaboration are really the last path towards upward mobility in this country. None of us would’ve made this magazine alone. It had to be this cocktail of people.
CASH: Oh, I love you, lunatic. I’m so glad that we’re stuck in this together.