Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What the World Needs Now is Another Literary Magazine Like I Need a Hole In My Head

Literary magazines, the time has come that we all knew was coming. It’s over. It’s done. The lady in the Viking corset has belted out the final high C sharp. Please exit quietly at the rear door, but leave your plastic 3D glasses in the bins provided. You will no longer be hosting the revolutionary planning sessions. The revolution already happened, and at someone else’s house.

You had a good run. Well, not really, but for the sake of politeness, we’ll say that you did. I have no ill will. I have no desire to wound you in these, your final hours. You once served a purpose, but the purpose is extinct, and so are you. No more glossy coverstock. No more precious author bios. No more black and white photography opposite poems about rain on the window pane and how it’s like roads. No more “This page purposefully left blank.”

I’m with you, and we can go through this together, but let’s face the facts. Literary magazines used to exist for two reasons. The first was immediacy. Rather than waiting for the long, grinding, seasonal cycle of big traditional publishers to get new books on the shelves, readers could find fresher fare in literary magazines, published quarterly, or even monthly. The second reason was for content, as literary magazines reached farther out of the mainstream, farther into the margin, to pull new writers, strange writers, uncommercial writers, into the world of print and out to the world of readers.

Now we have the internet. Do I need to explain, or would it be too painful?

With web sites enjoying daily updates, the old publishing schedule of even an ambitious quarterly magazine now seems yawning and slow. My attention span stretches approximately to the update cycle of The Onion, and then shatters into a thousand pieces. Are you publishing your literary magazine twice a year? Are you kidding?

Then there’s the content and readership. Any brilliant, strange, new, marginalized writer with a Blogger account and a willingness to network can gain far more readers than any literary magazine was able to reach in the history of time. In fact, any jackass with a LiveJournal can reach more of an audience than most literary magazines have ever boasted, even the big ones. I’ve been published in respectable, established literary magazines that I bet fewer than a hundred people actually read. And that is true. Hold me. It is true.

Then there’s the subject of money. The internet is, mostly, free. And well, you know the rest.

So, really, do we need another literary magazine? Just one last really special one? Do we need to hear about how this publication is different, this one is going to be a “really beautiful object,” this one is going to change publishing forever? Do we need to hear from another self-congratulatory editor-in-chief, lovingly stroking his in-jokes, musing fondly on how many subscribers he’ll need to break even, figuring out how to woo in another bored midlist author to showcase in the autumn issue? How about one more magazine named “BRICK” or “PHYLACTIC TUNA”?

Let’s admit it, we were all there at one time. Graduate school can make you feel like that. I freely admit that I, with milk-white hope in my shiny heart, at one time published a collection of short stories written by a friend of mine, and got it placed in local bookstores. I think I was twenty-two. It was fun to play pretend that way. But for the love of Kinko’s, as grim as it may sound, you have to grow up.

Enough is enough. You cannot change the world with really expensive paper, you cannot revolutionize literature by being “more ironic than McSweeneys” (is that even possible?), and you cannot sell a literary magazine. Literary magazines are not books, no matter how you try to fetishize them, they will never be on the shelf with the novels. They never have and they never will. Literary magazines are the cousins of newspapers. Novels are the cousins of history.

What can we do? I would call for a boycott, I guess, but boycotting literary magazines would be like boycotting sandpaper pants. Nobody’s rushing out to the stores to grab them up anyway. The sad fact is that nature will take its course, and these beautiful, exotic creatures will be eaten by literary evolution. But will anyone survive?

The lumbering giants will survive: The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Triquarterly, etc. These are the litmags you have to get in because they put a big gold star on your resume, and they will survive because of their prestige and tradition. People still want to break their heads open on the editorial boards that published Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Samuel Beckett. We’ll eventually be using The Paris Review to line the fork drawer, but not yet.

Which brings us to blogs. Remember zines? Blogs are the new zines. People used to staple together mimeographed pieces of crap in their grandmother’s basement and distribute it via copy machine, coffee shop counter, and word of mouth. They were subversive, populist, and updated instantly on the whim of the publisher. Blogs are the zines of the new millennium – now instantaneous, with open access for all. With all of this magic at the other end of a short wire, is it really worth our time to go around trying to sell paper and glue for ten dollars a glob?

It’s time to stop the presses. I know it’s not easy to pull that plug. Litmags are icons of intellectual privilege. You have to fight against a lifetime of programming that’s telling you literary magazines are good, therefore more literary magazines must be better. You respond out of habit, and assume it’s good news, like when a baby is born. It’s not. Magazines aren’t babies. In the world we live in, we need literary contraceptives. So stop. Put down the telephone. Put down the really nice pen. We don’t need another literary magazine. Literary magazines are dead.


  1. Story Magazine surviving as a lumbering giant. That's funny. Story Magazine has been dead for years. Otherwise, good post.

  2. Thanks for the shout out, but I don't ever remember doing a page left blank gimmick. That must have been Eggers' crew.

    The M.C.

  3. Gee, I thought N+1 had a sustainable business model and was poised to overtake Time and Newsweek combined.

  4. God I hate feeling like I'm supposed to write short stories to get that gold fact, writing a short story usually makes me feel like I'm trying to impress the hippest kid in class--and I know I never can.

  5. I can't help but wonder if you have considered that nearly all of our best writers of the past century years were first published in lit mags? Arguments very similar to your own have been written over and again about the death of the novel, something which has yet come to pass. Lit mags fulfill a necessary part of the literary apparatus in America: along with the small presses, they make up the non-commercial arm of literary publishing. Someday, like the sonnet, lit mags may become much more obscure than they are now. But instead their historical path seems to be more akin to that of the novel. As is often the case with artistic work, they are adapting to the times.

    Travis Kurowski
    Luna Park

  6. But with global warming, peak oil, food and water shortage, a global credit crunch, and other problems that are affecting us, it is possible that the Internet may soon disappear, and we'll be back with limited distribution of print (and that's assuming that we will still have enough resources to do things beyond basic necessities).

  7. Neither the novel nor the literary magazines are going to become extinct nor are people going to stop reading short stories which is something else people keep saying has had its day. All that is going to change is the format. Amazon premiered the Kindle a couple of days ago and, although it looks as if their first effort has not met with unanimous public approval, the fact is this, or some similar – and hopefully slightly cooler-looking – gadget, is where the future lies.

    Literary websites have improved considerably over the last ten years and they can afford to be very choosy in what they publish. And yes it is publishing just like a bank giro credit is money. Who wants cash these days? But money is money. And good writing is good writing. It survived stone tablets, parchments and papyrus. It'll survive this.

  8. I think you're so right.

    Publish a good blog post, and more people will read it than if you had the same story in 100 of these prissy university-run "journals"... so I agree completely, these stupid insular college-run journals should all shut down, every last one of them. They exist only as CV fodder for your children's profs - a bankrupt morality if there ever was one. (Colleges are really deep in the whole lie of it, because these journals are all run by colleges and it's all a game of promoting all their teacher friends, and introducing the next generation of teachers.) Ok so their time has come, we believe that and want to see them all burn into dust.


    What about the short stories themselves? What about the "profession" of authorship? What if you want your short stories to be read by the masses? what if you want to make a living as a writer of short stories?

    A blog isn't a place for self-publishing your own short stories, is it. And even if you did, how would you make a living at it? So there has to be another way.

  9. The internet, at this stage of its life, is like an orgy of noise. You can find more information than you could ever possibly need, and with the barest moment's time. Literary journals aren't dead any more than you or I. As long as the online world is such a clusterfuck of loud people with aching ideas, a place where you can't really be heard for any duration over the squelch of other people also trying to be heard, literary journals will do just fine. Despite how much of the argument you can find in the world, there is no competition between the internet and real life, any more than there is between television and a lake. One is a distribution medium for entertainment and information. One just sits there being what it is. There is no home or away team with all of this. People tend to think the internet is going to kill all our little traditions and quaintness because we all sound better online than we do in the physical world.

    As long as people want to read something, someone will write it. As long as someone writes anything particular, journals will be created for it and perform just fine.

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