According to its MySpace profile, Ninth Letter is a 27-year-old Taurus from Champaign, Ill., with nearly 600 friends.
So what's a little fiction - and poetic license - among (literary) friends?
Beyond the world of social networking, in "real life," Ninth Letter is a mere youngster. But it's growing up fast - and growing its reputation even faster. Now in its fifth year, with 10 issues published, the literary arts journal produced collaboratively by the UI's Creative Writing Program and School of Art and Design receives 3,000 to 4,000 submissions per year. In its short lifetime, the journal has won more than 20 national and international awards.
What makes Ninth Letter so compelling?
"We are a publication that features short stories, essays and poetry in a very highly designed format, in such a way that the graphic design illuminates - rather than just illustrates - and enhances the reading experience," said editor Jodee Stanley.
When the oversized, image-rich journal first reached magazine racks in 2004, there was nothing quite like it being published by a university program.
"We were pretty much the first," Stanley said. "The journals that came before us that were experimenting with design - McSweeney's, Zoetrope, Tin House - were all independent journals."
Ninth Letter is published twice a year, and also has a Web-based component curated by art and design professor Joseph Squier. The online content includes a blog as well as original student-produced material, such as videos and podcasts. A recent collaboration with students from the UI theater department featured audio readings of pieces published in the print edition.
While Ninth Letter often features poetry and prose by previously unpublished authors, the journal's authors list has read like a Who's Who of American literature. Best-selling authors Ann Beattie, Dave Eggers, Pulitzer Prize-winners Oscar Hijuelos and Robert Olen Butler, and National Book Award winner and UI professor Richard Powers have been contributors.
The publication's designers, however, are virtual rookies, still in school. Most are undergraduates.
"People who aren't really familiar with Ninth Letter assume we're paying designers to make this," Stanley said. "When they find out it's student designers making this, they're shocked. They just can't believe this caliber of work is coming out of an undergraduate class."
Stanley has been managing the journal since its inception in 2003. Its genesis coincided with the establishment, by the university's English department, of a master of fine arts program in creative writing.
"When the program started, one of the first things students and faculty wanted was to start a literary magazine," Stanley said. "All the top writing programs have affiliated journals."
Student Chris Maier took the notion one step further, considering the possibility of an arranged marriage between English and Art and Design.
"I think he basically stalked Joseph Squier," Stanley joked. Squier, who founded one of the nation's first online art galleries, is known for his expertise in new and narrative media.
Intrigued by Maier's idea, Squier recruited colleagues Nan Goggin and Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud to join him in the challenge of churning out the designs for Volume I over the winter break.
After an intensive design session, Gunji-Ballsrud said the faculty team realized that that level of work wasn't something that could be sustained on a regular basis.
"Immediately after that we realized, OK ... how can we make this either part of the curriculum or involve students," she said.
Because of some transitions taking place in the graphic design program, there were no available graduate students. So Gunji-Ballsrud recruited some of the most talented undergraduates.
"And they proved themselves," she said. "That's what was exciting about it."
Now, each semester, about a dozen students are selected to work on Ninth Letter for course credit.
"They're allowed to take it twice, then I have to cut them off," Gunji-Ballsrud said.
A notable exception to that rule has been Brett Tabolt, a graphic design major from Clifton Park, N.J., who graduated in December. He worked on four issues.
"He's just a phenomenal designer, and absolutely dedicated to Ninth Letter," Gunji-Ballsrud said.
Tabolt described the work required as intense. But, he said, that's to be expected since "design well done isn't easy, and it isn't quick."
"To work on Ninth Letter as an undergraduate is a privilege," he said.
The work itself starts with a lot of reading. Each student must read every manuscript selected for inclusion in the journal. As a group, they then discuss ideas regarding theme and meaning, and possible visual concepts that might take shape. They also receive feedback from Stanley, creative writing graduate students who serve as editorial assistants, and faculty section editors.
"From there, we are all assigned stories for the issue," said Adam Muran, a senior in graphic design from Lake Zurich, Ill., who has taken the course twice. "We are usually broken into pairs with two or three stories. It is common to have each person in the group take on one story and then work with other group members to help the stories take shape and get to where they should be conceptually."
Ultimately, he said, the designers' job goes far beyond "making something look pretty or just giving the pages 'something to look at.' We are constantly considering how our design can not only interact with the author's intent but how to strengthen its meaning.
"This class has shown me the real power of a good conceptual design and how to manage it and let it grow and become something surprising and successful," Muran said.
More information on the journal, including subscription details, is available at ninthletter.com.