Home // July.12.2017 // Anis Shivani

How Will America’s Little Magazines
Survive the New Economic and Technological Regime?

A symposium: in which the editors of prominent American literary magazines weight in on the changing
circumstances and future prospects of publishing in print and online.

Literary journals are one of America’s most precious institutions. Emerging writers typically make their mark here first. Unlike commercial publishers, literary journals tend to push the boundaries of writing, and don’t get as carried away by literary fashions. Their long perspective is indispensable in maintaining a necessary balance. We have more of them in this country than perhaps the rest of the world combined. Some of them have kept stellar reputations for decades, while new ones, adventurous and refreshing, crop up every day. How are the literary journals faring amidst the rise of the internet? Are they suffering from the current cost-cutting mania in higher education? Can this venerable American literary institution survive—or even thrive—despite new technologies and new economic realities? –A.S.

1. Dan Latimer, editor of Southern Humanities Review. It is astonishing to learn that the journals that spread Modernism over the globe rarely had a circulation over a thousand. The Dial was an exception. Yet they had their impact before they ran out of steam around 1940. Today there are formidable forces arrayed again against the little magazine, not the least of which is the U.S. Postal Service, which continues to raise its prices for presorted mail. Yet electronic internet publication does not have the longevity of paper and print, which can languish in your magazine rack until you realize, I should have read that! Or, What was that again?! One would think that a liberal arts dean would be a bastion of dependability at such times, and there may indeed be some who are. Yet an editor knows that a visit to the dean's office, hat in hand, is the most melancholy visit that he can ever make. With the adoption of the business model for the university, beauty seems far less crucial than contracts for asphalt, or outlandish administrator salaries, which have not yet reached the level of Wall Street opulence, or for that matter arthropodal proliferation of the administrator class as a whole, whose top-down style seems to function mainly to terrorize faculty with post-tenure review and to cut the budgets of editors. And yet if you look at the list of literary journals in NewPages, you can see the Philistines still have quite a few little voices to exterminate before there is total silence.

2. Russell Scott Valentino, editor of The Iowa Review. I think the answer is similar to the old Soviet joke about whether there will be money in the coming communist society: Yugoslav deviationists say, yes, there will indeed be money; Chinese dogmatists say, no, there will not be any money. We take a dialectical approach. We say: for some there will be money, for others there will not. Some print lit mags will thrive, but it won't be for ideological reasons. It will be because they have a viable business model; a strong organization supporting them; a solid network of high-quality contributors; a smart, talented, and hardworking staff; top-notch design and layout; zero tolerance for crap between their covers; and, very likely, an online presence that c omplements what they do in print, and vice versa. They will make use of the available tech without kowtowing to it, recognizing that, just as print enables and encourages certain modes of representation and expression, so do digital technologies, and not necessarily the same ones. And in the end, the dogmatists and the deviationists will fall by the wayside, leaving only prognosticating dialecticians in their wake.

3. Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review. At Threepenny Review, we figure we can lick them and join them. That is, we've published a literary magazine in print format for almost forty years, but recently we've also added a digital edition, available through Zinio.com. Now that the digital version can exactly replicate the look of our printed page, as Zinio does, I am willing to allow a digital version to exist, though I certainly don't intend to read that way myself. Why should people keep reading literary magazines in the internet age? Here are five possible reasons:

  1. They have attention spans longer than thirty seconds.
  2. Their heroes are Tolstoy, Proust, Dickens, and James, not the latest graphic novelist or best-selling author.
  3. They like the idea of an editor who will carefully select things for them, so they don't have to sort through the whole universe of dreck to get at the good stuff.
  4. They love the feel of paper in their hands, the look of photographs on a printed page, the cumulative experience of encountering the perfect poem placed next to the perfect article.
  5. They think that computer screens are for work but reading is for pleasure.

4. Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI. All of us who edit literary journals are living with this question. The key word, as I read it, is “thrive.” Not survive—thrive. For a thousand obvious practical reasons, the answer is no. Or, not long. But thankfully the whole of our world is not yet ruled by the obvious and the practical. Yes, the literary journal (as opposed to literary journals as a class) can thrive, but the new thriving will be different than the old thriving. The new print journal must exploit to the full its means, its strengths, which is to say that it must present itself as a total artifact, a made thing in which the parts announce an organic relation to the whole (not possible on the web), as a deliberated item of beauty that not only presents, but represents its vision of literary excellence. It must be worthy of the posterity that print is now coming to symbolize. To thrive the journal must be a thing not merely read, but reread. And read not just in a sitting or two, but over time, in the way the best journals are read—one day this, another day that. The reader must covet it, view it as a resource of the inner life, not just an episode in the morning's screen sweep.

5. Robert Boyers, editor of Salmagundi. Most literary journals have tiny circulations and very modest readerships. They may be said to “thrive” only in the sense that their sponsors continue to provide adequate subsidies which allow the magazines to offer what such publications alone can offer. At a time when even the best mainstream publications cater to the limited attention spans of their average readers, the best literary journals frequently publish demanding work and do not worry overmuch about the willingness of their hypothetically “average” readers to be stretched and tested. At Salmagundi magazine we do not at all object to a novella-length fiction by Andrea Barrett, or a lengthy, somewhat theoretical, email exchange between J. M. Coetzee and an Australian psychotherapist—two features contained in our present issue. We thrive because we are committed to publishing work that cannot appear in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, work that will often seem far too eccentric and rigorous for online publications. How can we say with confidence that we thrive? Simply because we have a few thousand very good and loyal readers and because the best writers in the country continue to send us their work for publication. When Michael Kinsley writes, in The Atlantic, that what appears in newspapers and magazines is too lengthy and demands too much of readers who are rightly looking to get in and out of an article as quickly as possible, we say as loudly as we can that the work of literary journals—what we prefer to call “little magazines”—is too important to be abandoned or consigned to irrelevance.

6. J.D. McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review. Little magazines have thrived on the brink of extinction for decades now. They come, they go; they make a splash, they sink. (The Yale Review, I should quickly add, has been around since 1819—there are exceptions.) It is more useful to look at the phenomenon than at individual examples of it. “Little” doesn't only refer to a magazine's circulation. All too often the term could refer to the staff, the budget, and the business savvy. But they have bravely persisted, discovering new writers, catering to an unquenchable appetite for strong, original work. What does not seem to have survived as long are disciplined habits of reading. Sidebars, cable chatter, blogs and tweets, the “updating” of educational curricula… all of this at tention-deficit evidence is the most serious threat to little magazines, which makes them more valuable and necessary. Yes, it will always be a niche—like philately, chess clubs, opera subscribers. But in a land of quick fixes and short views and in a time of increasingly commercial publishing, the little magazine has an authority that derives from its commitment to both established writers and promising new-comers, to both challenging literary work and a range of essays and reviews that can explore the connections between the imagination and the broader movements in American society, thought, and culture. With independence and boldness, with a concern for issues and ideas, and with a respect for the mind's capacity to be surprised by speculation and delighted by elegance, it will continue—possibly only online, but I hope not. I like the feel and smell of their pages and print.

7. Robert S. Fogarty, editor of The Antioch Review. Too much is usually made of technological advances that create an “either/or” scenario. At the moment there is, first, a “delivery system” (online/digitized) and then, more important, the “product.” In an amicus brief in the Google copyright case, the French government called a book a “product” unlike other products because of its capacity to elevate human consciousness, while the German brief spoke, according to Robert Darnton, Harvard's librarian, in the “name of the land of poets and thinkers.” That is the land that literary magazines dwell in and there is no reason that they cannot survive in the new internet world. Numerous universities and philanthropies still support the French/German model of culture rather than simply adhering to a bottom-line approach. There is a place in the modern world for institutions like All Souls College at Oxford and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and for small independent-minded print literary journals like The Antioch Review in Yellow Springs and Areté in Oxford. All are small and intimate. Print journals are the literary equivalent of the slow food movement: satisfying and good for you. In short, they strive to excel rather than consume. Most print literary magazines have small staffs, small audiences, small budgets (unlike mass-marketed commercial magazines), and appeal to a discrete and cultivated readership that is willing to pay less than ten dollars for a paperback (the average issue of The Antioch Review is two hundred pages) that offers both a tactile and aesthetic experience. Production and distribution costs have, in fact, gone down in the past ten years. Not everyone (contrary to the flack generated by both companies) wants their delivery system to be a Kindle or a Nook book and many (including young readers) prefer to read just like their parents and grandparents did and choose not to confine themselves to their inbox. Cultivate them.

8. David H. Lynn, editor of The Kenyon Review. I think it's very much an open question whether the literary journal in print will long survive in the age of the internet. When asked how long there would be a print version of The Kenyon Review, I used to answer “as long as I'm editor.” I no longer make that promise. Anyone who makes predictions about where literary publishing will be in more than two or three years is either a fool or a liar. On the other hand, our culture continues to fragment into ever more “niches,” where considerable numbers of people invest their time, money, and self-identity, whether in expensive bicycles or equally expensive big-screen televisions. My strong suspicion is that there will be a considerable niche of readers who remain loyal to the print literary journal. These people appreciate the thinginess of the artifact, the feel of the paper, the care of the design, as well as the achievement of the contents. The danger for print journals, however, is that they may come to be seen as anomalies or anachronisms, out of touch with the contemporary world. This is one reason why we launched KROnline, an electronic literary journal for the internet, designed as a complement to the print Kenyon Review, rather than its replacement or reproduction. It has its own aesthetic as well, attempting to reach a different, larger, younger, more international “niche” of readers.

9. Charles Alcorn, editor of American Book Review. Will America’s little magazines survive the new economic and technological regime? No . . . and unequivocally, yes. In fact, a literary journal such as the American Book Review, which has frankly struggled throughout its forty-year history to gain and hold distribution/shelf space in traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstores, benefits greatly from the increased readership provided by the more easily accessible internet. In addition, ABR is able to take advantage of the vastly improved graphics capability afforded web-based journals and provide digital content designed to attract the cyberliterate. That said, our distribution is traditionally subscription-based and I would venture that the vast majority of our customers prefer holding and reading the tangible tabloid. Of course, with the digital consumer—readers comfortable and accustomed to accessing content online—ABR is obliged to develop compelling web-based frames that value textual compression and graphic punch. The twenty-first century challenge for ABR editors is to retain our original print-biased customers and entice a new generation of online readers. As with any literary enterprise this is accomplished by actualizing, in every issue, the age-old recipe: a liberal mix of insightful, well-written reviews and features delivered piping hot in presentations that evolve at the pace of reading culture.

10. William O'Rourke, editor of The Notre Dame Review. When have literary journals thrived? During the golden age of reading, through the mid-1970s, I suppose, before the various thieves of time, first VCRs, cable TV, then DVDs, the world wide web, and now the vast universe of digitized electronic media, began to consume whatever spare minutes are left to the literate reader. It's an aural-visual world today, not a literate one. (Though, just as the rich are getting richer, there remains a small cohort of piping hot folks out there—and Out There takes on planetary size.) Stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are galleries of books, where they are viewed and displayed. In a sour irony, books have become art objects and high literature is as rare as the masterpieces that hang in museums. (Though not rare in numbers, since everything written, thanks to digitization, now exists simultaneously.) Nonetheless, most literary journals these days have a web presence and as their print versions lose readers, they have, paradoxically, an instantly archived life history, as long as they go undeleted. They exist online, but aren't necessarily read. The Notre Dame Review's online companion is different than the print edition, filled with more to see, as well as read. Given the circumstances (the overall decline of print sales), it is good the journals are there in cyberspace. But, again, those online are looked at first, read second. Electronic media has changed and will change the literary culture. It is now a Babel of competition. And thousands of eyeballs can dance on the head of a pin, a web address. Poetry might well profit over time, given its usual length, size; but not, alas, I think, fiction.

// * Borders closed shop in September 2011.

11. Carolyn Kuebler, editor of New England Review. The internet is an efficient conveyer of words and is, of course, incredibly useful for information-gathering or skimming or sampling. But it's also efficient at distraction, and therefore not the best backdrop for reading longer works, literary works, or any writing that attempts to remove the reader to a different space altogether. Print books, or offline e-books, are better for the type of writing that has nothing to do with efficiency or information gathering, and that requires a longer attention span than most people can sustain on the internet. Paper offers a different reading experience and different design and tactile qualities than a screen and always will. Even young people who've had internet access for as long as they've been reading still often prefer print. But eventually print will be reserved only for things that are best suited to its particular charms—literary magazines among them—rather than the assumed medium of choice. Literary journals have always thrived in an economically threadbare way, and the internet won't change that. Print journals will simply exist alongside journals in electronic formats; they might cost a little more, but in turn you can take them as far out of range as you want, and, of course, the software won't ever be obsolete.

12. Jonathan Freedman, editor of Michigan Quarterly Review. There are two simple equally persuasive answers to this question. I have no idea which one is an accurate forecast of the future.

  1. No. The economics of publishing a literary journal in print have always been dicey. By definition, literary magazines attract small, if intensely loyal, audiences—but we can't charge too much (not that we want to). Many of us rely on library subscriptions to augment our base, but these have been slowly, if steadily, declining as library budgets get cut mercilessly by universities, and the cost of scientific and engineering journals goes through the roof. And many of us rely, as well, on universities for support, either in the form of direct subvention funds or in office space and staff—or, more commonly, both. Although we represent a pittance in the budget, we're increasingly being found irrelevant and hence easily choppable in this intensely budget-cutting era. Venerable and wonderful journals—The Southern Review, New England Review, Triquarterly* —have been under threat from their institutions, and the future for all of these as print journals is cloudy at best. Put it all together, and there is no economic model—none—under which literary journals can thrive. (And going online is not a panacea; printing costs are going down every year. The main expense is human capital: copyeditors, people to read the unmanageable flood of submissions for the editor in chief, etc.
  2. Yes. There are many, many, many thousands of writers in the U.S., all eager to see their poetry, prose, and nonfiction appear in the prestigious and semi-permanent form of print rather than in the fluid, amorphous, still-to-be rationalized world of online publication. There are fewer, but still a number of, people who prefer the reading experience made possible by paper and print. We don't need them all to subscribe to our journals to continue to make a go of it—just some (if some more). We shall see what the future will bring.

// * In 2010, Triquarterly relaunched as an online-only journal.

13. Wayne Miller, editor of Pleiades. “Thrive” is a pretty subjective term. Even powerhouses—such as The Paris Review and Partisan Review that led the narrow field of the 1950s had relatively small circulations. I don't think the internet hurts print journals—mostly, it offers new possibilities for exposure (think Facebook, NewPages, and Poetry Daily). Among writers of my generation, there's still a sense that the really important publications are presented primarily through print. For example, I've had friends who have been disappointed to have a poem accepted by AGNI Online rather than by AGNI “proper.” The fact that online publications tend to be free and immediately available gives them something of a competitive edge over print journals, but that's offset somewhat by the latter's historical prestige and/ or tactile pleasure. I think the larger challenge the internet poses is the same as that posed by the advent of desktop publishing: diffusion. As more people put out literary publications—and the internet makes this even easier, since online magazines don't need to secure distribution—it becomes increasingly difficult to capture the attention of an audience that's naturally limited in size. I don't think the internet shrinks or grows that audience significantly, it just spreads it even thinner.

14. Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review. One is driven to seek the right analogy, as if doing so would transform one's desire into fact: Do we lose our need to see Rodin's sculptures or Monet's paintings up close in museum galleries because we can see them on a computer monitor—or in a book? Do we cease seeking fine restaurants because we have omnipresent fast- food chains? Is touch in all its forms subsumable to mere looking? Are reflection and savoring now to be defined as equivalent to rushing and ever-changing? But these comparisons are not right enough. They have counterparts ready to drag them back into the naiveté, the Luddism, whence many would say they arise. Where are the monk scribes of yesteryear, toiling in the shadow of Gutenberg they could not see for the dimness of their stone cubicles? Given the chance, would you take a stagecoach from Chicago to San Francisco? But these are not right enough, either. The internet is a steamroller, an insufficiently tested drug: bull force and flashy first impressions and quick shifts do not a Brave New World make. I believe in physical touch, in accruing knowledge and wisdom—and in the value of a certain privacy during one's experience of both: the magazine, the book, in my hands.

15. Richard Burgin, editor of Boulevard. It's difficult to predict the future, even the immediate future, of anything when so much is determined by economic factors virtually none of us can foresee. My semi-educated (at best) guess would be that more and more literary publishing will take place on the internet but that literary print magazines will survive and hold their own, much as the radio survived despite television, and movie theaters have flourished despite DVDs. It seems to me that the inventions which dominate their environment to the point where they obliterate the competition are those that accelerate the tempo of life. In a word, it's survival of the fastest. The typewriter obliterated writing by hand because you could write and read faster with it, just as the computer later obliterated the typewriter. Despite these relentless Darwinian truths, and despite how antique print magazines may seem in other respects, one can still read a print magazine or book at least as fast and accurately as one can read the same material on a screen. Also, because literature exists in our minds in a deeper way than most internet material does, reading a print journal is at least as satisfying an experience as reading a screen and in some ways more satisfying. Literary journals (and books) offer the subtle pleasures of touch, portability, and visibility—that strange delight their writers, and readers too, feel in seeing books physically exist in a bookstore or other public place—that the internet can't yet duplicate. Maybe that's why most of the best and most prestigious literary magazines are still the print ones and why most writers I know would still rather publish in them than on the internet.

16. Jackson Lears, editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review. Will America’s little magazines survive the new economic and technological regime? The short answer is: yes, indeed. No one would deny the power, reach, and value of digital publishing. But the imperative to “go digital” depends on a technological determinism that imagines digital publishing must sweep all before it, and that sanctions a certain indifference to the actual experience of reading and thinking at the core of our common intellectual life—the experience provided by Raritan and its peer journals. One of the rewards of reading Raritan is that the magazine offers material space for reflection and inquiry. The sheer physicality of the thing itself—everything from typeface to texture to the heft of the book in your hand—promotes sensitivity to ambiguities and shades of meaning. This kind of reading repays a sustained investment of time, which is one reason serious writers like to write for Raritan: they want serious readers. The Web, by contrast, is a superb medium for transferring information, or for the short, tight argument of an op-ed piece. But reading on the Web focuses a reader's attention in ways that are different and often more ephemeral than those offered by journals like Raritan. The shift to predominantly digital publishing should not demand the erasure of all older alternatives, especially if they continue to play a vital cultural role. Raritan has every intention of doing precisely that.

NB: A version of this symposium was originally published by The Huffington Post, and subsequently appeared in Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century: Conversations (Texas Review Press, 2017). It appears here in NERObooks with the permission of editor Anis Shivani.

Banner graphic source: hand-colored etching (cropped) with aquatint, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, and captioned "Temple of the Muses, Finsbury Square, the bookshop of Messrs. Lackington, Allen & Co." Published in Rudolph Ackermann's Repository of the Arts in 1809. In the public domain.

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