Meanland: Abandoning print

Meanjin coversPeter 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.

Meanjin coversIn 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.

Cross-posted from Meanland.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

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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  1. 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.

    This trend of straightforward porting across of content from print to online seems to me to be missing the opportunity that a switch to digital distribution and online content provides.

    In the past you had a base readership that bought your journal, read it, mused in their own head and then maybe brought up a few of the points at dinner parties or in their latest essay assignment. But with the Internet, journals have the opportunity to being building communities of readers that can interact with the journal and with each other.

    That notion of ‘community’ is one that I would like to see thrown around a bit more. While online publications that are just static translations of the print publication may well get read, they won’t generate the kind of activity that another that provides a place for readers to discuss might. To me, having a comment field isn’t enough. There must be an active encouragement by the editorial staff to get readers involved and contributing to the discussion. That might mean that the role of the editor changes, or that–as mentioned in the article–more editorial resources are required.

  2. Great article, and in my feed aggregator it came up directly after this post from Timothy Morton:

    ‘A good university library should contain objects that almost no one, perhaps not even their owner or author, has ever examined … We need to stop thinking simply in terms of “access” and the serving of popular information like so much fast food, and start thinking of libraries as gifts rather than work houses. Places where you look at stuff without a clue as to what you are finding, or will found, or even what you have found. A good research library is a place of mystery where information has melted back into the objects that contain it. One almost expects the vellum to start morphing back into cows.’

    Regarding the attractiveness of print … My dayjob is in tech, and it makes me less, not more, trusting of magnetic media. Which is the alternative to actual physical pages. All it takes is a swipe with a fairly strong magnet, and your data is gone. And I don’t really want my library to be tied to an Amazon or an Apple registry somewhere in the ether. Maybe I’m just being a Luddite, but the conservative impulse is necessarily worthless. Who can tell what will happen in the future? The grid may fail, but books at least can be defended with moth repellant and a shotgun.

    Another gem from Morton:

    ‘Imagine how we would feel if we realized that some head librarian at Oxford had decided, back in 1550, to convert all the manuscripts into printed books—and then burned the originals, in the name of space/progress/service/access/vomit.’

  3. I feel this co-opts me to an argument I never made. And maybe that’s my fault. Still, to be clear, my argument was in defence of online writing against those who who equate it, almost by definition, with something inferior. It wasn’t, in turn, claiming any particular superiority for online writing.

    It also noted the fairly obvious fact – that you acknowledge here – that online versions will become more common. Given that, I suggest, it is important that journals etc come to terms with how to engage with that medium. The single line you quote from my piece was only making that point; it wasn’t denying that Meanjin already had an online presence. It also acknowledged the fact that going online is not necessarily cheap, so again we agree.

    My basic point was that Craven and Overington went way too far and, I thought, needed to be challenged. In fact, I thought their position needed to be called for the anti-writing stance that it is. If we by reflex see online writing as inferior — which I think is the only conclusion that could be drawn from their comments — then any transition to online is going to be undermined.

    I want to see good writing and that wider cultural engagement Bradley speaks of happen wherever it is going happen. To presume, as I think Craven and Overington did, that this can’t or won’t happen online is dangerously short-sighted.

  4. Yes, another interesting and excellent Meanland post. The Craven argument just seems staggeringly elitist, and easily can trip us into a print-book vs. digital argument. A very boring one I think. I read an essay by George Steiner earlier this year, written in the late 60’s or early 70’s where he derides owners of paperbacks. Hardbacks only were apparently worthy of the appellation, ‘library’. The Craven argument reminds me of Steiner’s. I don’t think of it as ‘dangerously’ short-sighted, because as an argument it’s probably about as dangerous as George Steiner’s armchair.
    The idea of the editor of the journal as someone who imagines is an interesting one, and some discussion about what that imagining might consist of could be enlivening. Online writing has capacities that print doesn’t, (using links etc as quotes) and we will need all the imagination we can muster to be able to use it well. Technology still lags though, but still we may be able to move out of an era dominated by Publishers as the cultural gatekeepers of the Literary. And yes, as someone comments above, comments boards as creators of dialogue get very boring very quickly.

  5. I love the idea of print-like formats being fetishised! It’s so true; the romantic luddite in me still wants the environmentally questionable, expensive, sentimental, tangible, textured product – both books and music.

    The interactivity of online literary journal content, however, is what makes digitising of the medium interesting to me, as some have already commented. Not so much for the development of community but for the expansion/discussion/challenging of ideas in the original essay.

  6. @phill

    Editors promoting dialogue may be worth an article/post in and of itself. How does the role of editor change? Does s(he) morph from a person commissioning works and gatekeeping the letters to the editor section in the printed edition of a journal to one of a ‘first amongst equals’ in the community which coalesces around the online site. Of course s(he) still bears the ultimate responsibility of commissioning a work but may be helped by passionate readers in selecting the author of a piece and in stimulating ongoing discussion.

    @Joshua Mostafa

    Likelihood of waving a magnet around the house =/< the chance of a fire consuming fine, dry paper?
    Perhaps the more difficult question is implicit in the Morton quote, namely if a universal electronic standard is not agreed upon we risk losing works created in proprietary formats. The same cannot be said of paper.

    @Tim & Steohen

    Is it not likely that the Craven-like arguments will simply fade out over time as those who do not distinguish the importance of a work based on its form grow and take positions in the various gatekeeper institutions?

    1. I really must check that my autofill spells my name correctly.
      I doubt if the Craven-esque arguments will fade. They’ve been around for a long time in different guises. They might morph a bit though. Publishers controlling publishing is a big problem. We get stratified modes of literary production and reified modes of measuring (prizes etc) and no-one seems to think that this is anything to be concerned about. Cultural gatekeepers are perfectly capable of arguing both that online writing is inferior to writing on paper, and that eBooks and eDistribution are the way of the future. If we merely transfer the political structures that literature is heir to from paper to digital, I can’t see that there’s any point in arguing the merits of digital vs paper. Literature is political, especially when we say it isn’t. Overland is political, Women’s Weekly is political, Beano is political, Borges is political and an iPad is a political tool, just as a printing press is.
      I vaguely remember some time back an OL writer reporting on some digital writing conference and quoting a participant who said something like ‘in the future all the sky will be paper and all the sea, ink.’ These kind of ludicrous Wells-ian statements about literature and writing, just obscure the nature of writing as a political and moral enterprise, and enterprise that could be an urgent one, and that can position itself in ways that publishers, prizewinners and so on and so forth, would be profoundly uncomfortable with.

  7. @Stephen

    I am unsure as to what you specifically mean by stratified modes of literary production. If by stratification you refer to those who in some way contribute to the text I suspect that there will always be a necessity for some form of stratification.
    I also think there will always be some form of reified mode of measuring. Most people do not have the ability or the time to develop sufficient critical faculty to distinguish a ‘worthy’ text from an undifferentiated pile of texts. They simply want some form of gatekeeper/curator to save them the time and effort and tell them that a particular shortlist of books is worth reading.
    As for the Craven-like arguments I suspect that if you take a broad-brush approach in defining his claims then perhaps you are correct. I am referring to those that have been criticised here and elsewhere. I think you’ll find that as his generation moves on and those in their early 30s and 20s are appointed to positions of power the argument will simply disappear. For those around the Gen Y age print does not indicate superior quality rather the quality is either inherent in the text and surrounding discussions or it isn’t whether online or offline.

    1. I’m not arguing that the reification of literary worth will go away. Literature is stratified in many ways by the politics running through its creation and definition and consumption. I’m highly sceptical that a ‘new generation’ of gatekeepers will somehow cause certain structural issues to disappear. Craven’s statement may well be inane and passeth away in its own good time, but it indicates to me that a lot of assumptions about the production of literature are alive and well. As I said earlier, I think the digital vs. print argument is in many ways a false one. There are other arguments to be had I think, that throw light on both print and digital.

      1. By all means expand on: a. certain structural issues which will not disappear with a ‘new generation’ of gatekeepers and b. the assumptions about the production of literature. It might even be worth defining what you mean by ‘literature’ as a starting point.

  8. There may also be an impact with the development of POD technology as well, and similar changes in print and allied technologies, that have yet to make an impact. So that it may be possible to envisage the probability of literary journals embracing POD for their print runs, in addition to online and other electronic formats.

  9. Highly likely that POD will impact the way in which literary journals are consumed. However I’m not sure whether the change will be as positive as those who believe in technology as progress would have us believe.
    So far as I understand POD is to reduce unit cost through economies of scale as well as efficient production method. Neither of those arguments take into account the capital cost of the machine nor its operating cost and thus the influence both have on the purchase price of each work the machine is capable of producing. Add to that the cost in commissioning and editing each piece of content and the reader begins to wonder how much cheaper an edition of a journal or monograph may be.
    Worst case scenario is that most bookstores are done away with and a large box-like machine much like the pay stations at car parks replaces them for little to no real reduction in purchase price of a journal or book.

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