Peter Craven made a grave prognosis in his recent defence of the cultural worth of Meanjin: ‘If Meanjin is taken online, it will cease effectively to exist.’
On Thursday on Drum Tim Dunlop countered with: ‘The sooner magazines like Meanjin engage with the realities of online reading – and pray their financiers give them enough money to do it properly – the better.’
The question, however, was never ‘is Meanjin going to go digital?’ Its electronic archives, dynamic blog and influential online presence – as well as the Meanland project, an exploration into the future of reading, writing and publishing in the digital age – suggest it already has. Thus the question becomes more of a statement: ‘Look at the ways Meanjin is already exploring and working within the digital and print mediums.’
When problem solving, we attempt to find a solution to a problem. Moving Meanjin completely online is like finding an answer to a question we don’t yet understand. When asked about the situation, Louise Adler responded ‘The ratio of what you print and what you publish online is a question that is changing for all of us.’
Undeniably, that is true. Yet the response to the changing way people interact with technology is not simply a transmutative relationship: taking print and moving that print format online. Is it enough to put your print edition online, to change from one medium to another without thinking about creative publishing possibilities? Is it enough to have web pages and epub ebooks for the Kindle, the iPad, the Sony Reader Pocket Edition and stand back and wait for audiences to embrace these new formats? Can a publication that began in print move online, without a print counterpart, and assume its established readership will follow?
Certainly, no print literary journal should move solely online as a cost-cutting exercise when there’s nothing definite about how electronic reading and publishing will work in the next five, ten, twenty years.
This debate is central to the whole rationale of a literary journal. Much of the discussion so far has focused on questions of orientation to the digital space and market economics. But since when have literary journals been moneymaking endeavours? Literary journals, as a rule, were once non-profit, independent cultural institutions.
Meanjin, for instance, first published as a pamphlet in 1940 and has produced more than 260 issues since, publishing hundreds of new and established Australian writers, as well as international intellectuals like Anais Nin, Sartre, Pound and Dylan Thomas.
When writing about their 70th birthday, editor Sophie Cunningham offered an abridged history:
Meanjin was founded in Brisbane by Clem Christesen in 1940. It moved to Melbourne in 1945. Since Christesen left the journal in 1974 there have been seven editors: Jim Davidson, Judith Brett, Jenny Lee, Christina Thompson, Stephanie Holt, Ian Britain and me. Clem Christesen’s enduring mission was to define what it meant to be Australian and an essay published in Meanjin in 1950,‘The Cultural Cringe’, still impacts on conversations today. As Australia’s second oldest journal (curse you, Southerly), Meanjin has, over the years, helped our nation develop a cultural identity, critiqued that identity, and, more recently, saw globalisation threaten Australia’s newfound sense of self.
Nowadays, do we appreciate the role of the literary journal – its cultural sway, its influence on literary discourse, and its championing of new writings and ideas, a space almost invisible in traditional, mainstream publishing? Do we still allow for the journal’s political and aesthetic ambitions? In ‘Growing content‘ James Bradley described the space of the literary journal as a ‘forum for writing and ideas that otherwise may not find expression. In this context, “new” takes on a political as well as an aesthetic dimension, suggesting a desire to push back against the blandishments of the marketplace and conventional wisdom.’
Often, the purpose of a literary journal is resolved to its publishing of new writing, without considering these new writings in a broader context: the functions and consequences of this writing in a wider cultural and intellectual sphere. Bradley describes how ‘new writing seeks, by its nature, to test limits, to find new ways of representing and interrogating the world it is shaped by. The ways it does this can differ widely, yet in some deep sense new writing and, by extension, the magazines that publish it draw their energy from the urgency of this engagement. They are testing grounds for ideas, stylistic and political.’
Thus, the role of the literary journal goes far beyond launching the careers of new writers. It also goes beyond defining a space for debate and literature in Australia. These days, journals are expected to maintain high public profiles via festivals, lectures, commentary and continually pushing the boundaries of culture and innovation on many fronts.
In this neoliberal economy, people seem to accept that if a journal doesn’t have several thousand subscribers, its print survival isn’t justified. The reality is, literary journals have small audiences, and they always have. They cater to a dedicated community of readers, academics and, of course, writers. But readers are not uniform, nor should we expect them to be.
Earlier this week, Paul Mitchell argued that ‘great writing is just that, whether online or in print. Why do we have this fear that if a journal migrates online it becomes ephemeral?’ If the quality of the writing continues, he goes on, so will the readers. But honestly, is there research to evidence this? Perhaps it’s more based on Mitchell’s own willingness to experiment with different publishing mediums.
‘My job,’ Cunningham said, ‘as Meanjin’s current editor – with help from my Deputy Editor Jessica Au – is to effectively reimagine what Meanjin will be in an increasingly digital age.’ And under Cunningham’s editorship, Meanjin has already made huge digital shifts, and taken a step further, into exploration.
If literary journals are actually spaces of culture, what is their role when these spaces are now virtual? Journals like Meanjin, Overland and Kill Your Darlings have demonstrated a relationship between their online production and their overarching projects. Their blogs, for instance, are not cynical, promotional exercises; rather they are recognised as one of the responsibilities the literary journal now has and an acknowledgement that these debates no longer necessarily take place within print pages.
We are, debatably, yet to see a successful translation of a longform essay online. It’s happened a few times for Overland, as with the traffic and debate that ensued after we published Anwyn Crawford’s essay on Nick Cave online. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen; there are versions of the essay format that have flourished online through commentary sites, blogs and online publications – but it’s rare, and who can say whether it’s sustainable in its current form?
Likewise, readers and writers still prefer fiction in print or a print-like format (the static ebook format). Perhaps it is something to do with the creative relationship – or even fetishism – nevertheless, readers value the physical hardcopy.
While publishers like Electric Literature have been successful with their digital publications, they are still opting for what is basically a multi-format digital printing solution. So while it’s innovative, it’s still constrained by our current comprehension of and vocabulary for reading and publishing in 2010.
Many assume a journal could save money with the elimination of print, but digital does not necessarily equal inexpensive. Surely an established literary journal venturing into largely unexplored terrain would require a budget for discovery and innovation? As Ben Eltham mused:
What’s perhaps of most concern are the automatic assumptions that online means cheaper. This is not necessarily true … It’s not just style-sheets and content management systems. Transitioning from a quarterly publication with limited material available on the web to a true online journal will require more editorial resources, not less.