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Scattered thoughts on print and literary journals

For obvious reasons, this is a topic of some import here at Overland, as well as everywhere else around the world. The recent Ted Genoways article in Mother Jones has generated considerable discussion; now, the book blog at the LA Times has weighed in. I’ve just come back from an Australia Council meeting about literary journals, where there was a clear consensus that the issue could no longer be avoided: everyone had to produce some kind of strategy about online and digital content.

A few thoughts, then. It’s an inherently difficult debate but it becomes more so because it’s often framed so as to confuse a number of different, though related, issues. The Genoways piece – or, more exactly, the most common readings of the Genoways piece – is a good example. Though it’s mostly been received as another screed about the evils of teh intertubes, that’s not what it’s about at all. In fact, the article barely mentions the internet. Genoways’ argument is a different, though perhaps related, one about the decline of the status of literature. He writes, for instance:

After more than a century of founding and subsidizing literary magazines as a vital part of their educational missions, colleges and universities have begun off-loading their publications, citing overburdened budgets and dwindling readership. Despite the potentially disastrous consequences to the landscape of literature and ideas, it’s increasingly hard to argue against. Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining subscriber bases since their heyday a half-century ago—and an even greater dent in their cultural relevance.

Consider this: When Wilbur Cross was elected governor of Connecticut in 1930, an unlikely Democratic victor in an overwhelmingly Republican state, his principal qualification was his nearly 20 years as editor of Yale Review.

You can’t blame computers for the fact that editing small literary journals no longer qualifies you for public office. The anecdote illustrates, rather, the obvious and unavoidable fact that capital L literature no longer exerts the same cultural heft as in the first half of the twentieth century. Genoways notes that, all through his governorship, Cross continued to work on Yale Review and, in that time, published writers of the stature as Maxim Gorky, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley and so on.

One simply could not do that today, partly because today a serious interest in literature seems much more akin to a hobby (rather than the almost spiritual mission it once presented to young arts graduates) and so a governor mucking around with a journal would be treated like a politician devoting too much time to, say, stamp collecting: a pursuit that would be seen as an unwarranted distraction from public life even as it lost votes. Statesmen find time to appear at football games they palpably hate (cf Rudd, Kevin); they do not make a point of ostentatiously pulling open books of poetry.

But there’s another reason why there’s no-one simultaneously governing and publishing Maxim Gorky. It’s because there’s no Maxim Gorky to publish. Which is, I suppose, merely the point made above, looked at from a different angle. Gorky was both a major writer and a cultural phenomenon of international import, whose attitude to the revolution and relationship first with Lenin and later with Stalin was of the utmost importance to Russian history. Come the Australian revolution, will the insurgent forces be asking themselves: gosh, what does Tim Winton think of us?

One suspects not.

Genoways makes a similar point:

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.

All of which has left too many university presidents, already in search of cuts for short-term gain, eyeing their presses and literary magazines and wondering who will miss them if they’re gone.

Genoways touches on two other points worth drawing out. One is about literature’s (and literary journals’) relationship with the university; the other is about the need for poets and novelists to find something to say, to ‘wear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers’.

On both issues, however, it’s easy to be glib. It would seem to me that the increasing reliance of literary writers upon the academy is a symptom rather than a cause of the underlying malaise and so one can’t simply march the tenured novelists out into the streets to shouts of the 68 slogan, ‘Professors, you are old!’ Likewise, as has often been noted, the tendency to navel gazing surely stems at least in part from a realisation that the world doesn’t really care what they say about the war in Afghanistan. If literature seems a marginal form, well, the question ‘why write?’ becomes more and more difficult, which explains a lot about the inwardness of contemporary writing.

In other words, the decline in literature’s status stems from some fundamental and deep-rooted changes in the nature of contemporary capitalism, changes that also affect the university and participation in political life. Not all of them are necessarily bad: the achievement of something like mass education, for instance, necessarily impacts upon reading and writing, and it’s often forgotten that, when Mr Cross was corresponding with his pals Mann and Huxley, large numbers of kids never went to school at all.

More importantly, though, we live lives now more dominated by market forces than ever in human history, and this way of organising our world generates a social atomisation that’s no longer so compatible with the literary project. It’s not just that we’re time poor and overworked; it’s that the reified consciousness that results from hyper-marketisation conflicts with the deep immersion in art which high literature depends upon.

(OK, I just accused the Genoways’ argument of glibness and then followed that up with a sweeping and largely unsubstantiated assessment of the entire world. Hey, it’s a blog. Sue me.)

That’s why the specific challenges producd by the internet are, again, symptoms rather than causes. The online environment is, it seems to me, a very difficult one for literary writing, precisely because the internet reflects so well the sensibility of the late twenty-first century. The web’s become ubiquitous not just because it’s a technical wonder but because its particular form of wondrousness suits a society of atomised, restless and rootless individuals. The early modernists often contemplated the experience of the lonely man (and it usually was a man) buffeted by a huge, surging crowd, a paradoxical experience which involved an interaction with a huge number of people but not in any collective sense. Aimlessly following hyperlinks seems a pretty good analogy: yes, it’s social but in a very different sense of how we traditionally understand that term.

The digital environment is, then, a massive boon to some forms of writing — but literature, well, not so much. An iPhone application works fantastically for, say, skimming newspaper. The Guardian ap, for instance, presents a pretty good overview of the day’s news on your phone’s tiny screen. Since I’ve downloaded it, it’s become almost invaluable, something I check daily.

That being said, the way I read news through that ap is quite different to how I read it online, which is, again, an utterly different experience from spreading out the old print version I used to get. You check a newspaper phone ap when you are waiting for a tram or in a queue or in a coffee break. Most of the time, you don’t finish the articles, for you are interrupted either by an incoming email or by some imposition from the world around you (like your tram arriving).

That’s why I don’t believe that literary fiction (or indeed a literary magazine) can simply transfer itself to a smart phone, and then claim to have solved the digital dilemma.

OK, am out of time now. I’ll come back in the next day or so, with a few things that I think follow from the argument above.


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. This may be taking your point in a different direction, but I think that literature could very much change form, or perhaps you wouldn’t call it literature, but flash fiction, shorter fiction could become more popular, more easily consumed in the digital world.

    Sure, this wouldn’t address the underlying problems and I agree this is symptomatic rather than the problem.

  2. “Statesmen find time to appear at football games they palpably hate (cf Rudd, Kevin); they do not make a point of ostentatiously pulling open books of poetry.”

    As a near exception, the recently and lamentably dumped Premier of New South Wales, Nathan Rees, gave a charming display of fanboyishness when announcing the shortlist of last year’s Premier’s Literary Awards. “I was just talking to David Malouf! … I got to phone Christos Tsiolkas to congratulate him … I’m reading The Spare Room and loving it.”

  3. Wonderfully articulated Jeff, you’re right in that the Genoway article was misinterpreted, the waning number of readers of literary magazines is an effect of the collective shortening of attention span and not caused by online content. Literary magazine blogs support the print edition by offering interaction with the readers, I’m sure the geniuses behind recent subscriberthons can attest to this.

    Literature is suffering as people are looking for entertainment requiring little to no thought, be they American sitcoms, reality tv or political debates. People have a right to freedom of choice. People are choosing not to think[insert contentious comment warning HERE!]. This is a shocking generalisation based on no academic studies, merely observations, but that is what I do.

    And I blame the education system. Designed more than ever before to mould worker drones. Appreciation of art and literature has been moved aside for generic lessons in how to obey commands from prospective employers. Speaking with the 17 year old daughter of a friend the other name about the French masters exhibition in the National Gallery, I mentioned Van Gogh and she looked puzzled ‘was he some painter guy?’ She had heard of Shakespeare but I didn’t dare mention Hemingway, what chance do you think Gorky would have when speaking to a student about to enter year 12 in the NSW education system.

    I’ve spoken with adults who can name entire teams of football players and various associated statistics, but if I say that I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, they nod politely and move away.

    I could go on, but I’m afraid I will overtake the word count of the original post…

  4. I thought the point of Genoways’s MoJo piece was: not only are people not buying literary journals, they are also not reading them.

    I also don’t think that ‘literature’ can be reduced to a textual object.

  5. Thanks for posting this, Jeff, a good read.

    I’m agreeing with Mark here, I think lit mags suffer in part because the reading habits of the ‘digital generation’ lean toward ‘skimming’ – and a practice of skimming multiple textual sources at once – rather than engaging in a deep/close/interpretive reading (with any one source), and it’s the closer readings that often offer such rewards, in literature and other genres.

    (Again, no studies cited here, just observations of young people (as a teacher) )

  6. Jeff, what kind of literary writing doesn’t work on the internet? There is heaps of extremely ‘literary’ poetry audio online and also text poetry, for example.

    I think Benjamin has a very good point. I was disgusted to hear Marieke Hardy say when you interviewed her on RRR that she didn’t consider the method of delivery when she wrote her M-book or E-book or whatever it was called, but just ‘wrote the story’ and then had it delivered digitally. There are some poems I would never post online, simply because I know they wouldn’t work, and don’t underestimate blog readers.

    The right form of writing can really work digitally and it’s an insult to readers if the medium isn’t properly considered. For example, with the E/M/Whatever-book, the slow-paced, character-driven story which the Age delivered was akin to me reading out my shopping list in a monochrome whisper at a poetry slam.

    …Actually, it was much worse, cause I actually think I could make the shopping list thing work.

  7. Lit journals have always had small readerships. But Genoways is saying it just got smaller because we have thousands of writing courses producing thousands of writers who do not read.

    ‘The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer’.

    True, but a majority of people can write – they can physically construct sentences and convey thought through the written word.

    This, in combination with the institutionalisation of writing (and numerous other factors), means writing is no longer a venerated field dominated by an educated minority. We’re seeing a world where everyone’s a writer.

    This debate treats the Internet like it was the catalyst for a huge shift in our reading habits and that everyone was immersed in books and print before then. But that’s not true. It’s been a progression. The newspaper changed the way we read, as did cinema, and television.

    So what now constitutes literature? How is a television show like David Simon’s The Wire not now part of literature?

    Perhaps if we broadened our concept of what literature with a capital L was, it would continue to have the cultural heft we so desire.

    It is frightening to think that the way we read has changed and that we could be witnessing the death of ‘Literature’. But isn’t the Internet simply the printing press all over again – democratising language and the written word? So maybe it’s our expectations of what literature is and how it works that needs to change.

  8. But Maxine, aren’t you just confirming my argument about how the traditional forms represented in a literary journal don’t translate online, that, in fact, the online environment is a different space, and form and content need to be adjusted accordingly. Thus, you can’t just write a traditional story, of the kind you’d normally write for Overland, and expect it to work as a M-book (e-book, whatever).
    Now, you could say, well, we just need to evolve new ways of writing, and perhaps that’s so, but my point was that, if you think the old conception of literature has value (and I do, mostly), well, you have to at least consider the possibility that it doesn’t translate.

  9. But isn’t this confusing mode of delivery and the medium of reading (actual object you’re reading on)?

    We can now read on innumerable content reading devices – screens, kindles, iphones – and our experience of reading is different between these devices even when the content isn’t.

  10. Re: Jacinda’s point
    The argument I was trying to make wasn’t simply a technological one about how onscreen reading works — even though I do think that’s something worth pursuing.

    More generally, I’m suggesting that the way the internet changes literature is precisely a reflection of a broader social trend away from literary forms. My argument here comes from Mark Davis’ essay on the decline of the literary paradigm. Basically, he argues that the diminution of the cultural significance of literature is a consequence of the impact of neo-liberalism on both the publishing industry and society as a whole.

    As far as publishing goes, neo-liberal management practices mean that publishers are no longer prepared to carry low profitable but prestigious novels, and a book of poetry must now produce the same returns as a cricket diary. Non-fiction is now more valued than fiction because it’s much easier to break down into components that can be horizontally integrated across huge media corporations: an article sold here, an extract there, an interview somewhere else.

    As for society in general, literature no longer plays the nation building role that it once did (eg the construction of literary canons) and so the nation state isn’t prepared to devote the same resources to promoting it.

    The only qualification I’d make to Davis’ argument is that the same process that has led to the decline of literature as a communicative practice has also fostered a new romanticism about writing, manifested both in the proliferation of creative writing courses and in Genoways’ point about the students who want to write and not read.

    The internet accentuates the difficulties literature faces but it is a symptom not a cause (that was my whole point).

    That’s why it’s not a question of being pro or anti the internet (whatever that would even mean). It’s a political question.

    Put most bluntly, I think contemporary capitalism is incompatible with literature as it’s traditionally understood. That’s why it’s both reactionary and utopian for a literary magazine not to be political.

    In the grand scale, the revival of the literary project requires the construction of a different kind of society.

    More immediately and practically, the measures necessary to sustain literature in the here and now — a reading community, a decent education system, adequate funding etc — necessitate political struggle.

    Or something like that.

  11. I guess the issue I had was with what seemed like the blanket exclusion of the ‘literary’ from what you consider would work delivered digitally. Probably because there’s always so much angst around online writers being ‘less serious’.

    (I guess maybe the Age ‘book’ was a bad example because it was a crap story in general).

    I’d say that considering the method of delivery does not mean excluding the literary at all.

    For example, ‘To Be or Not to Be’ would not work as a blog post, but it would work as a series of consecutive text messages where the reader has pause for reflection:

    To be or not to be, that is the question

    (2 min pause)

    Whether tis nobler… etc

    But how is this any different from any other writing? Would you print out your twitter posts and send them straight in as a novel? Or print out these blog posts as an edition of Overland?

    Now I’m confusing myself. I forget what I came here to say… but I’m gonna hit post anyway.

  12. thanks maxine for demonstrating the attention span problem :)
    i like the pause-delivery and am imagining what fun Beckett would have with Twitter.

    jeff, i am a bit disturbed by the idea of a political struggle to support literature, i thought literature was a form of political struggle. the hobby idea is also about too many courses offering writing as therapy… yech

    and let’s not confuse democracy with decentralisation. democracy is about making decisions together. the internet aggregates influence in a different way; perhaps a way more natural to cultural change, rather than structural.

    i’m excited about the potential for new ways to read and experience stories… i think a lot of the fear of e-books is about big publishers losing their market share to independents. let the amazoogles of the world grub for the cash and leave the writers to write what we love…

    if journals want to be where the action is, they need to keep up :)

  13. Thanks to Jeff for starting this discussion and to all the contributors for keeping it lively. Yes, literary journals have played a vital role in the development of Australian literature and will continue to do so as they adjust to changes in delivery formats and business models. However, there is an equally important, and I think currently underdeveloped, role for private sector publishing to play in fostering Australian writing.

    Economies of scale aside, consider the impetus given to the American short story by publications like Esquire, Vanity Fair, Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. John Cheever, to take a prominent example, published scores of short stories in TNY prior to publishing his first novel. Carver, Updike, Bellow, Roth, DF Wallace all emerged into the full gaze of literature by publishing short fiction in the commercial alternatives to The Harvard Review and other academic journals.

    In Australia, it is incomprehensible that a quality publication like Monthly, for example, does not devote 1500 words of each issue to fiction. As a subscriber I would regard the inclusion of a short story as a tremendous bonus for the outlay of my subscription fee. I am sure I am not alone in holding this view. There are many other examples of missed opportunities. Annie Proulx started off writing for shootin’ and fishin’ magazines. Why is it that good fiction writing needs to be consigned to the academy and its spawn (excuse the appalling pun)?

    This is in no way intended to diminish the importance of Australian literary journals but it seems narrow-minded and rather rommantic to invest in them the future of quality writing even as resources are gradually peeled away from them. Chasing public subsidy for any relatively marginal cultural activity is a thankless and, as the Treasurer grinds his axe for the next few budgets, an increasingly futile exercise. The imperative of online publication is as much a means of survival as it is a response to changes in consumer needs, tastes and habits. Yes, readers are overloaded with choices and inundated with information. Blogging is both a curse and a blessing.

    Arguing for changes in the political system in order to save literature is plain silly. (I’m assuming a certain reflexive, tongue-in-cheekiness from Jeff in making that comment). After all, some of the canon’s finest writing has been produced in the most inhospitable political environments. To my mind, what is required is a sensible brokering of public/private interests to create space and a wider readership for quality writing whether hard copy or soft.

    The fact that this is not happening in any meaningful way makes me think I have missed something blindingly obvious but, as this is my first Overland post, please forgive me if I’ve just made a complete fool/tool of myself.

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