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.