Literary journals in the age of the internet

Newsweek magazine recently celebrated Arianna Huffington as the savior of online journalism, so I thought a Huffington Post piece on “17 Literary Journals that Might Survive the Internet” might offer some unique insights into how magazines like qarrtsiluni could better leverage the ever-evolving technologies of web distribution. No such luck.

In his set-up, Anis Shivani asks how literary magazines are surviving and thriving amidst the rise of the Internet, but all the examples are of one particular kind of literary magazine: those existing primarily or entirely in print. It’s a classic bait-and-switch. And there’s a pretty amusing dissonance between the medium and the message here: a procession of brief, punchy quotes from lit mag editors decrying the shallowness of our culture, each accompanied by a poll to let readers vote on whether their particular magazine is dead or thriving, on a scale of 1 to 10. Still, unlike Shivani’s mean-spirited compendium of over-rated writers from last week, this new piece of HuffPo literary link-bait is invaluable for its insights into the thinking of the American literary print-magazine establishment. I think the editor of Pleiades, Wayne Miller, best encapsulates the scarcity-thinking that seems to afflict most of these editors:

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.

I strongly disagree that the audience for quality poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction is fixed; that hasn’t been my experience at all. This is just anecdotal evidence, of course, but I’ve been told more times than I can count that publications like qarrtsiluni and even Via Negativa have turned people on to poetry for the first time since they were in college. My hunch is that online literary magazines and blogs and their various hybrids are reaching a vast number of people who never read print literary magazines, whether through poverty (that’s been my excuse) or sheer ignorance of their existence. Not everyone lives near a large bookstore or university library, but anyone with a good dial-up connection can read literature for free online — and then have a conversation with other readers, and even with the author. The internet is not only bringing serious writing into people’s homes, it’s making it more down-home at the same time. And I believe it’s selling books. (It’s selling mine, at any rate.)

Curious, I click through to the Pleiades website, and experience the usual bafflement I feel with such magazines: like, where is it? I click on “Current Issue,” and there’s nothing but a photo of the cover and a list of the contents, no clickable links to any sample content, no links to authors’ websites, not even a goddamn link to order the issue online! What is the point of the webpage, then? My only option, apparently, is to subscribe to the journal. There’s a “Back Issues” page, but it too provides no clue about how to obtain the magazines displayed there. I feel like I’m peering into the window display of a closed bookstore, or perhaps a museum diorama.

Not all the literary magazines on show at the HuffPo are quite this clueless, though. I really hope the Pleiades editors read the comments from The Southern Review editor Jeann Leiby:

[O]ver the last two years, our subscription base has grown — not decreased. In large part, this is because of the internet and social networking websites. With the internet, it is easier — and less expensive — to advertise, to broaden our audience, and to entice people to The Southern Review’s printed pages. I’m not saying that I think online literary journals don’t have a place or are in any way lesser than print journals — only that the two things need not be mutually exclusive. I think there is audience enough for all of us.

Yes. Thank you!

Some of the points these editors make about the distracted nature of online reading strike me as quite valid, too, though there are various ways to get around that. They all seem pretty poorly informed about the variety of electronic, podcasting, and print-on-demand options available to them.

Take Richard Burgon of Boulevard magazine: “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” — as if “the internet” presented a monolithic reading experience, and were the only alternative to traditional print publication. What about the Kindle, for example, which Jeff Bezos insists will remain a reading-only device, one free of distractions from email and the web? I gather from those who own one that the reading experience is really quite comparable to a paperback book, with very little eye-strain. John Miedema — he of Slow Reading fame, as strong a critic of online reading habits as anyone you’ll find — has given it pretty good reviews:

For the most part, I felt like I was reading a book, only a bit slower. I suspect my base reading skills are being rewired just slightly, like the experience of seeing through a new pair of glasses. Sometimes I scan pages when I read, but on the Kindle I was forced to click ahead one page at a time, and could not easily jump back and forth over multiple pages. I would hate to cram a textbook this way. […] After reading on the Kindle, I also read a print book and again found it a richer reading experience, but only marginally. In the future, I will make a point of distinguishing ebooks from ereaders. The Kindle and its competitors are not interesting because they mix digital technology with book content, i.e., ebooks; the computer did that. Ereaders are compelling because they merge digital technology with an acceptable physical interface for long-form reading.

The Huffington Post may or may not have the keys to the future of online journalism (and I know quite a few science bloggers who would choke at the suggestion), but if you’re looking for insights into the future of literary publishing, you’re better off reading real book bloggers like John.

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  1. I think it likely that I would never have become a reader of modern poetry were it not for the internet. I didn’t know there was any modern poetry I liked. I read John Ashberry in grad school and thought, “nope, people don’t write poetry worth reading any more” and forgot about it: after all, I had a dozen classic traditions to catch up on. Why piddle around with ephemera?

    I realize I’m not a typical reader, but my impression is that lots of people (including people who think Ashberry is the cat’s pajamas) have found their way to poetry they like by way of the quicksilver, personalized linking of the internet.

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    1. Yeah, I can’t understand poets who get mad at bloggers for reproducing their poems without their permission. Don’t they want to reach new readers? And even Ashberry, as you say, must be benefitting from this. You can watch him read on YouTube, too. He may not be my cup of tea, but his work is very well done and seems to resonate with a certain kind of reader, so it’s great that it’s not confined to poorly circulated paper journals anymore.

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  2. Great article, Dave. As your co-editor, of course I’d think so, but I applaud you first of all for being even-handed and polite about what sounds like a number of clueless, even ignorant, remarks.

    What I most appreciate about online publishing of poetry and prose, as a writer, reader, and editor, is its freedom. The sheer variety of work that we see at qarrtsiluni reminds me every day of the unlimited human imagination and capacity for self-expression. Unbeholden to a board of directors, or an academic establishment, or advertisers, we can publish work for its quality alone, and we can push boundaries and take risks that many print journals cannot. We can experiment, and encourage our writers to do likewise — which they do. We can publish poetry in other forms – like audio and video – in which you’ve been an online pioneer and champion, Dave.

    I think that the freedom and joy of self-expression is what language exists for, and it ought to be the basic goal transmitted by teachers and by writing programs. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to live in a time when – because of the internet – we can celebrate that and share it with a larger audience. Creating print editions after online publication, as a way to preserve this work, must seem upside-down to the print publications cited in this article, but to me it’s the better way around when we look at the number of readers and writers we can touch.

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    1. “I think that the freedom and joy of self-expression is what language exists for, and it ought to be the basic goal transmitted by teachers and by writing programs.”
      Absolutely. And like you, I don’t expect this fossil-fueled mirage of a civilization to persist much longer, so I am taking full advantage of this internet thing as long as it lasts.

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  3. What’s interesting to me to contemplate is Neal Postman’s thesis. He essentially argued that as TV became the dominant medium in the second-half of the 20th century, it established the template for other cultural spheres — that the fragmentary grammar of TV also became the grammar of politics, religion, education, the arts, and anything else that TV touched or that touched TV. Now that the Internet has usurped the place of TV as the dominant mass medium, I wonder how its even more accelerated, discontinuous grammar of the Web will affect — or infect — other areas of life.

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    1. I haven’t read Amusing Ourselves to Death (I know I should), but to me it seems as if the web represents a step back from the totally passive entertainment culture, with so many tools and platforms encouraging the sharing of user-generated content. I never would’ve gotten into photography or videography, let alone podcasting, if it weren’t for the web. True, I also wouldn’t have learned to write LOL and IMHO, but since I refuse to engage in chat/IM I don’t expect the peculiar discourse of texting to have much lasting influence on my writing style — whcih is not to say you aren’t right about its influence on the younger generation. Most of the people I read and link to online are my age or older. I’ll be curious to see who’s blogging ten years from now. The cool kids these days are using Tumblr, which discourages genuine communication and is all about just linking other people’s words and images.

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  4. I know of many people who’ve been turned onto poetry by stumbling across it online – a Google search leads them to a poem when they weren’t even looking for one, for example.

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    1. Yeah. I like to think my penis poems have turned hundreds of sex-crazed web surfers into poetry fans, but then again, the opposite could just as easily be true.

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  5. Seems a bizarre notion that poetry readership is fixed, one can only assume that’s how they want it to be so they can keep themselves as an elite. the readership of their magazines is probably fairly limited however, mostly to the people who actually contribute.

    As you probably know, I’m one of those people who came to reading new poetry largely because of the internet. I’m as fond of reading printed paper as anyone, and would agree that it’s qualitatively different from reading on-line, but I’ve never been remotely tempted to buy a poetry magazine, even now the internet has made me aware of their existence and made it possible to order one on-line – before that I’d never even have had the opportunity. Bound and printed text is special and should be appreciated as such; there’ll always be certain things I’ll want to have in that form, but for the rest, and for sampling before acquiring hard copy, electronic will do fine.

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    1. “mostly to the people who actually contribute” – yeah, and their mothers. And people who want to be published in those magazines and are conscientious enough to read them before submitting. Honestly, I don’t know why anyone submits to paper journals anymore. Years can go by between submission and publication, by which time one’s enthusiasm for the poem has pretty much dissipated — and then there’s zero response, because of course such magazines don’t even have letters to the editor. As someone said, it’s about as satisfying as burying a poem in the back yard.

      I also have trouble spending money on journals when I can buy a book I know I’ll like for the same price. I guess that’s one reason we have themed issues at qarrtsiluni: I think it makes for a much more satisfying, readable anthology.

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  6. “publications like qarrtsiluni and even Via Negativa have turned people on to poetry for the first time since they were in college”

    true for me

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