Two years ago our press published Paper Dreams, a collective history of the American literary magazine from the onset of print to the digital age. To commemorate the occasion, this round of our “Dumbing Up” conversation series brings together a group of dedicated lit mag lovers–accomplished writers and editors, all–some who have pieces in Paper Dreams and others who caught our eye with their devotion to language.
In this fourth roundtable exchange, join Richard Peabody, Travis Kurowski, Steve Himmer, Roxane Gay, Dave Housley, Kelly Forsythe, Jen Michalski, and Jessica Poli as they discuss the wide breadth of relationships between lit mags and their audiences. (Or, to see how the conversation evolved, read the first, second, and third parts.)
…it is up to you to reach out and build a personal connection to your readers. That ball is in your court regardless of how many other lit mags exist.
Atticus Books: Roxane, in your essay, “Too Many of Us, Too Much Noise,” originally published at HTMLGiant, you draw out the concern that the ease with which the internet has made it possible to start an online magazine has created too many options and voices for readers to find the kinds of pieces they love, or for editors to make sure their magazines get exposure. What does everyone think about the “noise” online? Has this made it improbable for readers to connect personally with literary magazines?
Jen Michalski: I think the more the better. And it’s hard to survive, to keep innovating, to have time. And some good journals don’t make it. But others will continue to find a way to be out there, and through their longevity, build rep points with readers.
Richard Peabody: Let a gazillion flowers bloom.
Kelly Forsythe: I agree…though understanding the ins and outs of what you’re stepping into is important. Reading other journals, learning from the other folks on scene. That is important. And it is up to you (whether you’re an editor or masthead member or whatever your relationship is to the journal) to reach out and build a personal connection to your readers. That ball is in your court regardless of how many other lit mags exist.
Steve Himmer: I’m with Jen and Richard here, the more the merrier. Especially when it creates communities and niches and voices that can grow vibrant on their own or as part of somewhere larger as they prefer. Just because there’s lots of noise doesn’t mean everyone has to listen to all of it.
Roxane Gay: My concern isn’t so much that there are too many options being created but that there are too many half-assed options being created where people who start new magazines don’t think through why they’re starting a magazine. They don’t invest in something as basic as a domain name. They don’t seem to care about much beyond saying, “I’m an editor.”
Jessica Poli: There may be a lot of noise, but I don’t see that as a problem, necessarily. I do vaguely recall feeling daunted by the number of online mags when I first started reading them, but it didn’t take me long at all to find ones that I loved, and those magazines and the authors in them let me to different magazines. I also agree with Roxane, and touched on the same thing in the last question. I wonder how much harm (if any) those half-assed magazines are doing, though. In terms of noise, I don’t feel like they amount to much, and they don’t typically last long.
Richard Peabody: I dunno. If I’d known what I was doing I never would have started a lit mag in the first place. I found out by just doing it. I think a lot of people find that can’t handle rejecting people, discover they’re simply not cut out for the endless busy work of keeping mailing lists up to date, handling postage and packing of issues, distribution, attempting to obtain advertising. That side of things is pretty grueling. Most literary people I’ve encountered really only want to select work. The rest of us are already addicted to the entire process.
Travis Kurowski: Let a gazillion-trillion-billion-million bloom.
Though Roxane is obviously correct, too.
“Too much” is par for the course in the culture industry. There always has, and always will, be more crap produced than quality. But one doesn’t have to applaud each and every endeavor, though such applause is sort of the standard operating procedure. I think many are uncomfortable critically assessing literary magazines (though every 7-year-old is ready to judge the value of a multi-million dollar movie). I am hoping Paper Dreams can offer readers/writers/editors the context to make these decisions themselves. About quality, originality, usefulness, and so on.
Is there any justification for a magazine to expel itself from an online community, to be solely a print magazine?
Jen Michalski: I think it’s kind of a death-wish. Sure, there are some beautiful-looking journals out there, but most are utilitarian. I always tell writers when I’m doing publishing panels and such that with a print publication, if it’s not People Magazine or something, maybe 1200 subscribers, at most, receive it. And probably your mom. Whereas on the Internet, your story has the potential to be read by hundreds or thousands of people, plus it’s archived. Journals brown; they get moldy; they get thrown away. Unless the online journal goes out of business and stops paying for hosting, your story is out there forever.
Steve Himmer: Sure, if they want to. But it doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me, realistically.
Richard Peabody: Why would anybody be one to the exclusion of the other? I think that’s a conceit Jen. I know of a lot of Online Mags that have ceased to exist along with their archives. I have that SciFi paranoia–one shot from a pulse weapon and all of this magnetic knowledge is erased. Our online presence is only archival at this point. We began as a print mag, love the high off the hit of ink from the printing, love paper and printing. Collect mags and books. Literary relics. Yes, print subs are down to all-time lows. But I know enough to be skeptical of online numbers. What’s the average time any net surfer spends on a particular online mag? What’s the average? Something like 5 minutes? So, the potential for a vast audience is out there. Agreed. But I have my doubts whether anybody is actually achieving it. That said, it appears to me that E-books, and one-off E-Chaps are gaining a lot of ground as alternatives to the print world. But I feel that it’s making more of an impact with one author works than it is with mags.
Roxane Gay: Good luck with that! Some people love physical artifacts, though, so you never know what might work.
Dave Housley: Maybe these print-only, internet-what? magazines would be thought of as artisanal or old skool and there could be a moment where somebody tried to make this idea cool. I can’t imagine why, though, or how it could work beyond a few issues. I mean, people who make refrigerators need to have websites now. People who make just about anything need to have websites. To think that something based on words and content would try to make a go of it without embracing the online community just seems like a kind of silly thing to do.
I think we’re past the days of online versus offline. Like everything else, they’re jumbled up in one another right now, each one working in service of the thing as a whole, and that’s probably how it should be, because that’s generally what works best for the entire endeavor, whatever that is. We try to think of ourselves as Barrelhouse, and not Barrelhouse print or Barrelhouse online or this one Barrelhouse event happening this Thursday, or whatever. The whole thing — everything we do in every format — is Barrelhouse.
Jessica Poli: I’ve been getting more and more interested in the flip side of this – how online-only mags are starting to take their first steps in print, by starting a chapbook contest or putting out a print issue. It’s a cool reversal, and shows the importance – or maybe just appeal – of both.
Travis Kurowski: I know there are some such magazines out there—but I can’t Google them to remind me which ones.
Again, this all depends on the purpose of the publication. What’s the goal? If it is to get as many readers as possible, then if the work doesn’t go online the editors are going to have to be insanely imaginative or rich or have an endless amount of time (or likely all three) to match the exposure the internet offers writing.
If the purpose is otherwise, then why not? Make it a record. Print it all on the back of a banana. Put it—like Christian Bök—in a bacteria. Use whatever method of publication best fits the mission.
Some contributors in Paper Dreams point out that there is an urge for editors (and writers) to consider a huge, general audience, while others see literary magazines as a rebellious outlet, a place to veer from what is comfortable. Which strategy do you think is more effective? Is there an aspect to literary magazines that encourages a black sheep resistance to being universally well received?
Steve Himmer: It depends on what your goals are as a publication, and what kind of writing you’re publishing. There are styles and forms that won’t appeal to a huge general audience, though I’m convinced most commercially-minded publishers sell horribly, horribly short the capabilities of the reading public. And journals are the bleeding edge, so to speak, of literary culture, or at least they can be. Things happen faster, more fluidly, and more “aggressively” than with books which encourages rebellion. And so many of the great radical journals came out of not just a literary vision but a political vision, which I’d like to see more of these days, really—I think journals like The White Review and 3:AM Magazine (to name only two) are doing some of the most exciting things going by connecting fiction and poetry to politics and culture. It’s risky and crucial.
Roxane Gay: It’s rather difficult to consider huge audiences. When you try to please everyone, you please no one or so the saying goes. And I don’t want to read writing meant for everyone, either. At PANK, we’re definitely more on the rebellion end of the spectrum in terms of our content and how we run things. If we cannot take risks in literary magazines, where the hell can we?
Richard Peabody: If I reach one person with one item in the magazine out of the 100+ we might include in an issue I consider that a success. Got ya. If we reach a couple hundred people with one or another item then it becomes Got Ya (squared). That’s all that matters. I long ago gave up on the mythical audience relating to Everything in any particular issue. I also gave up on ordering work to create a flow. I don’t meet many people who read a magazine in order. They flip around. So Gargoyle is now alpha according to NF, Poetry, Fiction sections. In fact I don’t meet many people who read a s.s. collection front to back, either.
Dave Housley: I’m going to agree with everybody who has already piped in here. If you can’t experiment in literary magazines, then where can you do it? This is the one area where our business model — and the fact that generally there’s just so little structure around any of it, really — plays to our advantage. We don’t have a marketing department that has to approve any new stories or even ideas. There’s no market research or test groups or corporate entity breathing down our throats, encouraging us to make safe, middle-of-the-road decisions that will play well in Peoria. I think I probably speak for everybody in this discussion when I say that. Generally we can do anything we want, and a lot of us got into it so we could do just that — we loved a particular thing, or we saw a gap, like Steve was saying earlier, so if we don’t publish that entire book of Jimi Hendrix fiction (Richard/Paycock Press) or the Queer Issue (PANK), or the column Courtney Maum writes for our website from the point of view of John Mayer after he’s embraced an all-foraging diet (“Eat Them, I Don’t Know”), then we’re not staying true to the whole reason we got into this in the first place (I’m making a lot of assumptions there about why we all got into this, but i think in a general way, at least, this is probably true). The best thing is there’s literally nobody to do tell us we can’t do that. *(Also, you should really check out Courtney’s column. One of the most rewarding things about doing this is the ability to publish something you love love love but never could have even cooked up.)
Travis Kurowski: Yep, as Steve says, “It depends on what your goals are as a publication.”
But literary magazines have long been considered the avant garde of the literary world, and so are always free to, even encouraged to, experiment. I mean, this is art, not schematics for a better toothbrush. Sure, some publications like ZYZZYVA and The Paris Review perhaps have to consider pressures from advertiser dollars or a board. But everyone has pressures of greater or lesser degree. They’ve got a job. History. A mom. Kids. Etc.
And there are always risks involved publishing literary art, not getting a general audience perhaps the least of them. The Chicago Review was censored and temporarily shut down for publishing Burroughs. The Little Review was burned and the editors fined for publishing Joyce. And we should all take a moment here to give much thanks to Barney Rosset (Evergreen Review, Grove Press) for making things a little easier for the literary avant garde in America. We’re all much less likely to be hauled to court for what we print thanks to him.
….I gotta say, I love this bit from Dave above: “There’s no market research or test groups or corporate entity breathing down our throats, encouraging us to make safe, middle-of-the-road decisions that will play well in Peoria.” Play Well in Peoria, indeed.
On the same note, in his essay, “Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound says that “Work is acceptable to the public when its underlying ideas have been accepted.” How much room is there for experimentation? How risky can you be as a writer or editor and still be marketable?
Steve Himmer: You won’t know until you try it. And I’m probably betraying too much of my own politics here—not to mention, perhaps, why I have a harder time getting published than I would like—but if I ever catch myself making a decision, any decision, for the sake of “marketability” I’ll know it’s time to stop. I don’t mean that to be prescriptive, and I’m far from the most radically experimental editor or writer, but I try under both hats to keep that in mind. Which is another argument, maybe, for the lower cost option of web publication.
Roxane Gay: Literary magazines are great laboratories for experimentation. When you’re a small literary magazine, you honestly have nothing to lose. In my experience, there’s a lot of room for risk and I love taking chances and reading work that takes chances. I’m also certain editors at the top of those Best lists would feel rather differently because there’s so much more at stake in terms of their funding and subscriber bases.
Richard Peabody: I agree with Roxane. I don’t think many of the Bigs can mix it up with political stances, cutting edge experimental writing, or work that flirts with the obscene. Just printing work from both poles–realism on the one hand and experimental work on the other–seems to be more than most readers can handle. We like both, we write both, we print both. But most readers in America seem to be in one school or the other. Unlike say, Europe or Latin America where there is a longer tradition of anything goes. And the VIDA count has proven Grace Paley’s words to be true–”Publishing women is a political act.”
Kelly Forsythe: Agreed on all fronts: there is a lot of room and space for experimentation in lit mags. I don’t necessarily think “publishing women is a political act” is accurate, but I think the sentiment behind that — the idea that everything you publish has a purpose and intention behind it — is very true. I think our masthead decides on poems that are sometimes totally outside of their personal, individual tastes, and that act, in-and-of itself, is experimental.
Travis Kurowski: Literary magazines are laboratories. That’s perfect. I’ve always thought of them as galleries, but they’re really both. Lab and gallery. Experiment and performance.
One doesn’t generally hear literary editors—or readers or writers for that matter—use the term “marketable,” but these publications are part of a market (or many markets), niche though they may be. And the market(s) they are a part of expects “the new” from them, and this often comes in the form of formal experimentation, or subject matter that isn’t the norm (S&M, cannibalism, etc).
But it’s not one homogenous economy. Art isn’t. Literary magazines aren’t. That would defeat the purpose. A Glimmer Train reader generally isn’t a Lamination Colony reader. Formal experimentation is more desired by readers of 1913 than by readers of The Georgia Review. And so forth.
together, we can present a community for writers and readers that’s less intimidating than those magazines in the supposed top ten. We can be fun. We can take ourselves a little less seriously.
Travis, in your essay, “Objects Filled With Objects,” you point out that the readers of literary magazines may be more loyal to these publications because lit mags create an “imagined community” where there is a “…sense of belonging and purpose in addition to the individual literary offering they presented the reader.” What is it about lit mags that foster a sense of community more than say, People Magazine?
Steve Himmer: Do they foster more community? People seem pretty invested in People Magazine and Gawker and Perez Hilton. And probably for the same reasons they get excited about literary magazines: you can see yourself in them, or at least see a vision of the world and what matters in it that resonates with your own whether that’s conceptual poetry or celebrity sightings. I’m not sure anything is more important than finding that resonance somewhere.
Roxane Gay: I agree with Steve. Most magazines (popular, glossy, literary, whatever) foster community. It’s what the community cares about that differs and then there is the lovely Barrelhouse that brings celebrity and the literary together in a blessed union.
Richard Peabody: I agree with Roxane about Barrelhouse and their subversive pop sensibilities. But serious lit has always been the Pluto in the mainstream solar system.
Dave Housley: Hey, thanks Roxane and Richard! I think we all foster some sense of community individually, but the best kind of community-fostering we do is what just happened there in the previous two answers, and that’s a general “indie press” or “indie lit” or “literary magazine” community. I’m hesitant to choose a phrase there, but I do think that, together, we can present a community for writers and readers that’s less intimidating than those magazines in the supposed top ten. We can be fun. We can take ourselves a little less seriously. And we can publish whatever we really love, no matter how experimental or subversive or just plain weird it might be. We can and do support each other, too.
Travis Kurowski: Yeah, I wouldn’t say lit mags foster “more” community than other periodical publications, or maybe writing in general (though I think periodicity makes that conversation seem present, immediate, in the way Twitter does).
This idea was borrowed from Benedict Anderson’s great book Imagined Communities, about print culture’s relation to nation building. In a section of the book, Anderson demonstrates how newspaper reading in the colonies helped establish an imagined community of nationhood in the minds of a globe in the readers who assumed there were many others like them (linguistically, morally, etc.) reading the same words.
In my own experience, this is similar to how literary magazines establish an artistic/literary imagined community in readers’ minds. This is certainly what happened to me that first time I picked up The Paris Review. I was at the time uninspired by my classes and my major in college. I wanted something more, though I couldn’t say what, didn’t know the right questions to ask, or where to look. That issue of The Paris Review (and the other issues I devoured) showed me a world unknown to me. I imagined (a la Margaret Anderson) that I was somehow—down there in Oregon—a part of the best conversation around. That issue let me in. All the issues after that did. I had walked into Burke’s barroom and the conversation was going and I was thrilled.
But, yeah, of course: US magazine did a similar thing for me in a different way as a young child in the dentist’s office reading the issues waiting for my appointment to get something drilled out of my mouth—though the community was wealth and drama. The New York Times does that for me today, a community of information and politics, of data (which is why I can never bring myself to cancel the subscription).
Richard Peabody is the founder and editor of Gargoyle Magazine and publisher of Paycock Press. He has written over ten books of poetry and fiction and his 2012 book of poems, Speed Enforced by Aircraft was nominated for a National Book Award. As well as editing (or co-editing) ten anthologies, Richard also teaches fiction at John Hopkins University. In 2013, he received the Above and Beyond Award from Beyond the Margins for his ongoing generosity to other writers and his important contributions to the world of literature.
Travis Kurowski is the editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine. He teaches creative writing and publishing at York College of Pennsylvania. He is founding editor of Luna Park, soliciting editor for Opium Magazine, and Literary MagNet columnist for Poets & Writers. His writing has recently appeared in Little Star, Armchair/Shotgun, The Lumberyard, Mississippi Review, Hobart and > Kill Author.
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.
Dave Housley is the author of Ryan Seacrest is Famous, a collection of short fiction. His work has been published in Columbia, Nerve, Sycamore Review, and some other places. He’s one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse, a literary magazine that bridges the gap between serious art and pop culture.
Kelly Forsythe has poems published or forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, The Minnesota Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and American Poet. Her reviews can be found in the Los Angeles Review, NewCity and The Rumpus.
In Fall 2011, she was introduced by Noelle Kocot as an Academy of American Poets “Emerging Poet.” She is the editor of the online literary magazine Phantom Limb, the poetry book reviews editor for Los Angeles Review, and works for Copper Canyon Press.
Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel The Tide King was published by Black Lawrence Press (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize).
Jen is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.