February 18, 2004
Garrick Davis, editor of Contemporary Poetry Review, offers up a thumbnail history of "the little magazine" in his own online journal's freshly scrubbed Mission Statement:
The history of 20th century poetry is inextricably linked with the genre of the little magazine, and much of that genre’s history has been forgotten. We must remember that the little magazine was an outgrowth—and the necessary vehicle—of Modernism. When the Modernists attempted to publish their works in the general-circulation newspapers and magazines of their day and were rebuffed, they were forced to organize their own magazines in order to break into print. Ezra Pound was the very type and role model of this era; he was the midwife of 20th century literature by helping to found, edit, and fund dozens of literary magazines.
Many of them foundered, of course, though there are a few honorable exceptions still among us. . . .
The real problem with the present world of literary publications is, of course, cost and distribution. . . . Possessing a tiny readership, the little magazine cannot attract advertisers. Lacking advertisers, it cannot offset the costs of production. With no profit margin to encourage its sale and distribution, every issue of the little magazine begins its life stillborn as a commercial enterprise. . . . The result of this marketplace Darwinism is that the little magazine is almost a couture object in our society—both difficult to obtain and expensive to purchase.
Since there are literally thousands of little magazines, the cost of “keeping up” with the important literary periodicals of the day to the individual reader is prohibitive, and the cost to libraries is staggering. . . . The genre of little magazines, which was originally conceived to publish the difficult art of the Modernists, has ended up making literature itself inaccessible.
Terry Teachout, in the notes I linked to below, suggests that weblogs "will be to the 21st century what little magazines were to the 20th century," but he may have gotten the mechanism wrong. Because the hurdles that must be negotiated to create -- and, more importantly, to access -- a weblog are so modest, instead of having "influence . . . disproportionate to their circulation," the best weblogs may finally accomplish the feat of finding an audience large enough to match the caliber of their content.
Davis in his Mission Statement reminds us that T.S. Eliot's Criterion magazine had a peak circulation of 700; Pound and the Vorticists' Blast was presumably even smaller. Those journals' influence in the long term was out of all proportion to their circulation. Without the practical and financial impediments that Davis identifies, the potential influence of the right weblog at the right time could -- he said, thinking wishfully -- be even greater.
A random example, picked largely because he has actually voiced his goal in terms of audience size: Neocalvinist cultural observer Gideon Strauss is content to "dream of achieving my own little micro-readership of 250", a humble and seemingly achievable objective for many sites. If some significant percentage of even so small a core of readers have weblogs of their own, as is probable, a writer's best material will likely be linked and relinked, those links serving as levers with which the right post might move the world.
Then again, maybe this guy is right. [Link via American Digest.]
George: At present, do you know of any weblogs that have a function similar to that of "little magazines"? In my 2004 Novel & Short Story Writer's Market, there are pages and pages of literary journals--that medium still flourishes. There is a much shorter section devoted to "online markets" but none of these appear to be weblogs. On the other hand, I guess I'm missing the point: the conjecture is that writers will self-publish on their own weblogs, and the best of these will rise to the top based on the strength of their writing. But then we bump up against this oft-cited problem: What about editors? Editors aren't important to weblogs, but they are surely important to literary journals.
Posted by: Evan Schaeffer | February 19, 2004 at 06:29 AM
You have caught me out. At least, you have highlighted the purely theoretical -- Not Happening in the Real World at This Moment -- aspect of my thoughts on this subject.
I can't offer a current example of an online outlet that is actually performing the "little magazine" function with the degree of success that is theoretically possible. (That may be just a function of my own ignorance. Readers? Can anyone point Evan or me in a worthwhile direction on this issue?)
My point, I suppose, is that a weblog that emulated the function of a "little magazine" could have a greater direct impact than an actual, physical magazine, because it would not be subject to the economic concerns (referred to in Garrick Davis' article) that make actual little magazines so expensive and difficult to follow.
As for editors, I don't see the editorial function disappearing from the online-little-magazine-equivalent. The importance of the magazines that built the Modern movements is directly traceable to editorial choices, e.g., Eliot selecting contributors or Pound badgering some editor into publishing a poet who had found favor with him (such as Eliot, again, or H.D.)
One can imagine individual artists who could use the online outlet successfully to achieve little-magazine-like influence, but it is easier to imagine a canny editor or two creating the cultural equivalent of the Howard Dean campaign's grassroots Internet-based support structure. Editorial judgment certainly can be as valuable online as it is in print. The ability to post our thoughts and works immediately does not translate by some magic into perfect editorial pitch. The supportive or hardheaded intervention of an editor or two can and will increase quality and, potentially, influence.
The happenstance of Terry Teachout's remarks and Garrick Davis' mission statement both crossing my brain at the same time is what triggered my post, and the subject deserves more thought than I have so far given it -- as I suppose an editor could have pointed out to me. Perhaps when Terry gets back to New York, we should try to cajole him into expanding on this?
Posted by: George Wallace | February 19, 2004 at 10:50 AM