Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: SJSU's Reed Magazine Mirrors the School's Development

NOTEWORTHY EVENT: Jonathon Franzen signs autographs for fans who showed up to see him launch the 152nd issue of Reed magazine. Photo by Gary Singh

Author Jonathan Franzen showed up in downtown San Jose last Friday, lending his celebrity to the launch of Reed issue number 152. Edited and produced entirely by SJSU English Department students, Reed is the oldest literary journal in California.

"The editors have good taste," Franzen said, on stage at the Hammer Theatre.

For once, everyone agreed with him. But even before Franzen took the stage for his headlining slot, Reed's poetry, fiction and nonfiction editors all said a few words and introduced the winners of various 2019 competitions—the Edwin Markham Prize for Poetry, the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction and the Gabriele Rico Challenge for Nonfiction. For each annual issue of Reed, student editors and their assistants plow through a slushpile of over 1,000 submissions for the magazine—entries from all over the globe. Guest editors choose the winners of the competitions. Various sponsors donated the prize money, which helps bring the winners in from out of town if they don't live here. The full-color magazine looks just as professional as any big-name literary journal you see on the newsstand—that is, wherever newsstands still exist. The deadline to submit for next year's issue is Nov. 1.

The history of Reed is inseparable from the history of San Jose State. The journal goes back almost all the way to the school's very beginning, when in 1867, students of the California State Normal School began publishing in pamphlet form. The school eventually changed its name to the State Teachers College, after which in 1935 it became San Jose State College. Then in 1972 the name became Cal State San Jose and finally, in 1974, San Jose State University. Likewise, the journal grew and grew, evolving into The Reed after WWII and then shortening itself to just Reed in 1948.

If you're asking whether or not the name honors James Frazier Reed, the legendary Donner Party survivor, the answer would be a resounding yes. Reed was an original pioneer settler of California and one of the titans of San Jose history. He donated some of the land on which SJSU and St. James Park now sit. He was also instrumental in San Jose briefly becoming California's first capital after the state was admitted to the union. Reed Street in downtown San Jose is named after him. Many other streets in the same neighborhood—Margaret, Virginia, Martha, Patterson, Lewis and Keyes—are named after his family. He's buried in Oak Hill Cemetery if you want to visit his remains.

But I digress. With Reed, diversity is the spice of life. Just in the last several years, the journal has featured Pulitzer Prize winners and jailhouse scribes, seasoned old salts right alongside emerging teenagers. Writers from across the ocean—or in my case, across the street—have contributed. The current issue explodes with full-color artwork and powerful pieces of poetry, prose and essay. The entire package rivals any rich private university's lit journal, anywhere in the country. Reed is just as much a part of the Bay Area literary landscape as anything else.

I treat you with this info for a reason. I owe a lot to Reed because the journal was the first place I ever published a story. When I was finishing up grad school at SJSU, I held down a miserable student tech support job in the crumbling old Wahlquist building, mostly troubleshooting Windows 95 machines, printers, TCP/IP and office LAN issues on Compaq Presario desktop machines. The job was a drudgerous joke with long periods of soul-crushing boredom, so one morning, while completely hungover in my cubicle, on the clock, I began to write violent experimental fiction instead of doing my job. With no expectations to ever become a professional writer, I completed a short story in a few days and submitted it to Reed, which they accepted for the 1998 issue. That building is no longer there, of course, but the experience put me on a path from which I never left.

Which means no one should ever give up. If you have the ambition, submit to Reed by Nov. 1. If writing saved me, it can save you, too.