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.


Download the mp3

The broad-winged tree cricket calls day and night, his almost continuous trill like a more sonorous version of the sound that old-fashioned dial-up modems used to make. And in fact his main frequency of 3 kHz is just about the same as a telephone signal, but his pulse rate is a paltry 25 per second, which is less than a quarter as fast as the earliest true modems, the 110-baud Bell 101 devices developed in the 1950s to transmit data for the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) system. If the cricket in my garden were a modem, he would take half a day to download the simplest, text-only web page.

As for the field cricket who’s made his way inside and now calls from a corner behind the couch, I think he’s saying sleep sleep sleep at a volume guaranteed to make sleep impossible. Jiminy! Maybe I’ll just stay up and surf the web.

Lepidoptera: haiku

The butterfly weed’s
deep orange—
a monarch stops to fill up


Halogen flashlight:
he picks out the luna moth
from 100 yards


The stripped catalpa
still quivers in the breeze:
starving caterpillars


Candlelight vigil
outside the state prison—
the smell of burning moths


Hummingbird battle:
only the hummingbird moth
remains on the flowers


Red-spotted purples
mating in mid-air—
her wings stop moving


Bright yellow goldfinch—
the tattered tiger swallowtail
surrenders the thistles


Hot August day:
I stop to check out the fur
on a woolly bear caterpillar


The whole hillside turns
prematurely white:
fall webworms


Driving home after dark
from the flood-swollen river,
a forest full of moths


Earlier versions of the first and fourth haiku appeared on Identica, 6/26/10 and 6/26/10.

Confession of the Professional Left

Having made a career of desertion, we are adept at wailing, failing, falling, walking it off. We juggle buckets & flamethrowers, weed-whackers & metronomes, equal to whatever sinister task. Every third Thursday we serve guilt & sour soup. Mornings leave a gritty residue in our communal sink — think of a hog wallow. If the earth were any closer, we would have to put millipedes on the payroll & rechristen all the cemeteries as recycling centers, because what you call leftovers, we call encore presentations. We believe our enemies to be human, no more evil than we, & we believe in regular upheaval. Like sands in a goddamn hourglass are the lives of our days.

(In response to the recent outburst from President Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs.)

Banjo, luna

banjo and leaf

Inspired by my uncle’s banjo, I spent a couple hours this morning revising some of my banjo poems. I’m beginning to think the series may have a future, but many of the poems still aren’t all they could be. I know because of the slight boredom they inspire in me — the feeling that I’ve had those thoughts too many times before. When I write a poem, I want to encounter at least one thing I’ve never seen before.

After supper, my brother got out his own banjo and played a few tunes. So a day that began with clawhammer ended with bluegrass. Except that wasn’t quite the end, because just after dark someone spotted a newly emerged luna moth on the side of a black walnut tree in the yard. It was just one tree over and one day later than last year’s luna moth. As I watched with a flashlight, a harvestman gangled up with the small, lifeless body of a spider dangling from its mandibles and stopped. The moth took a half-step back and its enormous antennae quivered for a second.

luna moth with harvestman

(See also the photo on my sadly neglected photoblog.)

Things That Go Bump in the Night

  • dog
  • shutters
  • burglar
  • neighbors
  • those darn kids
  • lap dancer
  • zombie
  • bear in kitchen
  • FBI agents
  • falling branch
  • Uncle Fred
  • trolls
  • distant thunder
  • those darn raccoons
  • terrorist
  • pole dancer
  • pizza delivery boy
  • Sarah Palin
  • improbably clumsy ghost
  • wombat
  • stalker
  • homeless man
  • BATF agents
  • flying squirrel
  • meteorite
  • lost stoner
  • Rick Astley
  • your own left foot
  • desperate nymphomaniac
  • hit man
  • those darn mice

Rethinking the blog: new design, a digression on SEO, and the return of the Woodrat Podcast

If you’re reading this in a feed reader or your email inbox, you might want to click through and check out the new blog redesign. Or not — it’s really very similar to my last redesign, except that now I am actually using the theme (Kirby, by Ian Stewart) that last time was merely my inspiration. It’s also the theme that inspired the new default theme that ships with self-hosted WordPress, TwentyTen, so it’s a look you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of in the months and years to come.

Why the change? I love messing around with CSS and tweaking PHP templates, but after a while, if you’re neither a trained designer nor a skilled programmer, a blog theme kind of wears out. I was getting increasingly frustrated with my own inability to find the proper fonts, colors and proportions, and a couple of technical glitches in the way that certain plugins interacted with my old theme defeated all my attempts to troubleshoot. It was ultimately less work to import all my significant tweaks into a new, more technically sophisticated theme than to keep hacking the old. And in the process of making a single sidebar into a double one, somehow I managed to finesse the spacing so that I have both a wider main column and more white space on the sides (from 960 pixels wide it’s back down to 940), without — I hope — making things feel too crowded.

I heeded the advice from a couple people after the last redesign and did away with the colored box around the sidebar. This theme also includes the option of putting sidebar material in a four-column footer (see Morning Porch for an example). I might still use that space here; I don’t know. I did reduce the number of posts displayed on the main page to just five so the site would load more quickly, but I still tend to think that if you want people to see anything in the footer, you have to have either really short posts (as at Morning Porch) or else post just the titles and short excerpts with “read more” links.

(On a technical note, for the benefit of other self-hosted WordPress bloggers: it proved quite easy to add the new custom menus feature introduced with WordPress 3.0. I followed this tutorial.)

One of the niftiest features of the old blog was the magic javascripty drop-down categories menu activated by a “browse” link in the navigation bar. I don’t have so many categories that I can’t simply list them in the sidebar, as I’ve done, and I believe with the categories showing now, the search engines should index the site more effectively. Which brings me to…

A brief digression on SEO

I am not after more traffic for Via Negativa, necessarily, I just want the right readers to be able to find it. To me, that’s what search-engine optimization (SEO) is really all about: making your content maximally available to its optimal audience, however large or small, general or specialized it might be. Popularity in and of itself should never be a goal for noncommercial bloggers: it leads to higher hosting costs, more spam comments, more malicious hacker attacks, and eventually, perhaps even a loss of the very readers you want to attract if your blog becomes a popular commenting spot for bullies with an axe to grind. Like many people, I was saddened today to read that Ron Silliman, the most popular poetry blogger in English, has felt compelled to shut down comments altogether, though I totally empathize with his position. It made me realize: hey, it’s good to be small.

It’s not just size, though. Via Negativa is a very different kind of poetry blog from Silliman’s, and I don’t think those of us who regularly post drafts of our own work, and who are more interested in appreciation than critical assertions when talking about other people’s poetry, are in any danger of attracting large numbers of commenters who, as Silliman put it, see poetry as a contact sport. Of course, rude and offensive comments are hardly restricted to literary criticism blogs these days; they’re the bane of online newspapers and YouTube videos as well. But as long as your site doesn’t get too popular, moderating comments isn’t too much of a chore. In seven years of blogging, I don’t think I’ve gotten more than a dozen truly hateful comments.

So with all this in mind, I think the question of whether or how much to tailor one’s content to fit likely searches becomes a lot easier to answer. Rather than obsessing over SEO, it makes more sense to expend energy finding, linking to, and commenting on great blogs, because that’s where your best and most thoughtful readers are going to come from — not to mention the inspiration for your next post. Literary, nature, and other niche bloggers need to work on building cultures of generosity rather than building our personal brands, as so many blogging gurus urge us to do. Then again, Silliman has always been very generous with links, and look where it got him.

The return of the Woodrat Podcast

I still have a podcast link-button at the top of the sidebar, and that’s because I do plan to resume podcasting next month. I’m not sure yet whether I will again be posting episodes once a week, or whether I’ll drop back to once every two weeks, but regardless, it will continue to be a highly edited show consisting mainly of interviews with writers, naturalists, artists, and other kindred spirits. The idea, as before, will be to try and elicit discussions of interest to the sort of people who read Via Negativa. I am less interested in records of achievement than in unique backgrounds and perspectives. I have a list of possible interviewees who I’ll begin contacting soon, but I’m also open to volunteers — email bontasaurus [at] yahoo [dot] com. If you have suggestions of people I should contact, I’ll consider those, too, but I don’t have a whole lot of moxie, so I’ll tell you right now I probably won’t approach too many people with whom I haven’t already had some contact through blogging, Facebook, or qarrtsiluni.