Surviving the Latest Literary Extinction Event
July 16, 2019 § 34 Comments
By Sarah Anne Strickley
I recently read a piece online about how the Internet is like the industrial revolution in that we won’t understand its impact until we’ve gained significant distance. But, as an editor with more than twenty years of experience and as the current faculty editor of a bi-annual journal, I think I can say right now that the Internet has transformed the business of literary journals into a system that actively works against the practice of reading for pleasure.
For more than two decades, writers have argued the various advantages and disadvantages of digital media. Digital journals are more portable, accessible, cheaper, and more easily transmitted than print journals. They have, for all intents and purposes, won the war. Case in point: the idea of starting a new print magazine now sounds insane; only the bold, the idealistic, and the angry endeavor to do it. Shout-out to my good friends at Oversound!
The comparatively smaller monetary investment required to start an online journal means that a broader range of literary tastes are serviced in a digital publishing landscape. It also means that traditionally marginalized voices have a greater chance of circumventing those old, fusty gatekeepers. But the massive proliferation of literary journals online has, among other things, diluted the meaning of publication to the degree that we’ve clung to pre-digital hierarchies as a defense against chaos.
Despite our market-expressed preference for disruptive digital technologies, we still trust The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Granta and handful of other top-tier publications to tell us who is writing the most important, must-read work today. (There are notable all-digital exceptions to this rule, of course. You’re reading this diatribe on the Brevity blog, after all.) The important difference now, though, is that we don’t want to pay for access to that information, which is one of the reasons why journals like Tin House, Glimmer Train, and The Normal School, to name only a few recent (and painful) examples, are closing up the print-issue shop.
As many avid readers are quick to note, the experience of reading physical books is different enough from the experience of reading digital books to retain its value. That’s why indie bookstores are in the midst of an exciting resurgence. But there is a broader audience for books than there is for literary journals. The audience for literary journals is predominantly made up of writers. We can quibble over the reasons, but the cold, hard truth is that writers have decided that they don’t want to pay for access to literary journals. The medium has not retained its value; it is, therefore, unlikely to experience an approximate resurgence. But does that necessarily mean that it’s dead?
Only publications with established, dynamic, and diversified funding structures—and a heaping helping of straight-up grit and luck—will survive the current extinction event ravaging the literary publishing planet. I won’t sentimentalize the days of yore (journals have always been propped up by generous donors, selfless editors, and affiliate institutions), but I will say that I deeply regret the disappearance of so many wonderful and daring publications. It is my sincere belief that the world will be less interesting for the loss of them.
Like many writers who are also editors, I have the very clear sense that we are reaching a highly regrettable inflection point. As a writer myself, I know the frustration of paying journals to spend a year (or more!) not reading my work only to fire off a form rejection, but I also know what the back end of a literary journal looks like: a tiny budget, a reliance upon an unpaid editorial staff, a fraught relationship with costly digital submission managers, a shrinking audience, and an unwieldy fire hose of digital submissions aimed directly at our heads.
My experience is anecdotal, but it’s also common enough among literary editors as to be depressingly representative of the state of affairs. We know that a substantial percentage of the writers who submit to our journals do not read our journals; many of us have long-since abandoned the hope that a readership of writers would be willing to pay to sustain our literary journals; and we’re also often the targets of some writerly hostility. (Ask me about the writer who began e-mailing one of my undergraduate editors when he didn’t like the response he’d heard from me, or the writer who decided her best poems were too good for us post-acceptance and sent us three others instead.)
It’s easy to become apathetic in the face of apathy, to throw up your hands and say: what’s the point of all this? Two recent trends have convinced me that the meaning may have fallen out of the endeavor: It’s not at all uncommon for a certain tier of writer to demand as a prerequisite to responding to a query letter that an editor promise to nominate the work (sight unseen) for certain honors and awards. And it’s not at all uncommon for a different tier of writer to list the number of publications earned (sans titles of journals) in cover letters. As in, “I have published in 122 journals.”
That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? Increasingly, it’s the mere fact of the publication in the context of cover letters to editors and agents that matters, not the fact that the reading of the publication might offer a unique (and valuable) pleasure to the reader. It’s a numbers game. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had much of a taste for math. What I love, instead, is the thrill of discovery, the opportunity to reconsider what I know of genre conventions, the chance to lose myself in a story and wake up an hour later with my head on backwards.
Where else can you read Lydia Davis or Carmen Maria Machado published alongside writers publishing their first poems? Where else can you encounter variety within variety: a creative non-fiction category, for example, that features flash, longform reporting, and lyric essays? Or an 83-page poem published alongside a series of translations? Where else can you read literary reviews that are written in the service of explicating a book-length work in literary (and distinctly non-commercial) terms—for the sheer love of it?
The work of the literary editor is about providing a rich readerly experience to an audience that is far more likely to read a tweeted photograph of a printed page or follow a link posted to Facebook than to purchase an issue and/or read it whole. But those of us who keep on keeping on are often the ones too in love with the business to ever stop. Bringing writers together and sharing their work with others is often a thankless, soul-wearying endeavor. It’s also the most wonderful job I know.
I’m convinced that online journals have a shot at sustainability (the journal I edit is online, so I have become a digital strategizer and a shameless crowdfunder) but we appear to be reaching a point where writer/reader apathy collides with editor apathy. I fear that the tension might erupt in a conflict that precipitates yet another round of extinctions. I’m not sure how we fight back—perhaps no one knows—but I do know that it would help if the tone and tenor of the business were less antagonistic and more celebratory. We’re all on the same team, I find myself repeating to myself. And then, in my darker moments, I find myself wondering: Are we on the same team?
There are certain technologies that always endure cultural paradigm shifts and words are one them, of course. I hope we come around to discovering their value in the context of the literary journal again—and soon. With any luck, I’ll still be here. Reading the slush. Forever.
Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Copper Nickel, Witness, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville. Visit her online at www.sarahannestrickley.com and visit Miracle Monocle at http://louisville.edu/miraclemonocle