When word came down that TriQuarterly magazine would shift to an online-only, student-run model next year, the news rattled many in the lit-mag community (yes, there is one). In look and editorial feel, TriQuarterly helped invent the formula for what we think of–or what we have thought of–as the small literary magazine, a print powerhouse where writers on their way up could share space with some of the big names in the game. Ever since I can remember, which is longer now than I care to admit, the writers I’ve known have been jockeying to get their work into the pages of TriQuarterly or Ploughshares or the Mississippi Review or any number of other journals that paid mostly in prestige.
I remember the thrill of placing a short story with Virginia Quarterly Review, a k a VQR, the feeling that I had found a door into the real-writers’ club. Did anyone ever read that short story? My friends did. My family did. An agent or two did. Now that VQR has put its archives online, the story may find another reader or two. But the story I published in the story collection D.C. Noir has gotten a lot more traction–more readers, more feedback, more second life. Maybe it’s a better story. I know if found a more visible home.
I’d bet cash money that the latest generation of writers still feels the pull of the lit mag. The days of the SASE (the ever-annoying Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) are fading, now that magazines are moving more and more to online submissions, but the desire to get the lit-mag stamp of approval lingers. Maybe it should: Agents still trawl the TriQuarterlies of the world, and publishers seem more willing to believe that a writer Has Talent if he or she comes stamped with the lit-mag seal of approval. Would I publish again in a small literary journal? In a heartbeat, if I had some short stories to send out. (Soon, soon.)
But–yes, there’s a but–who reads these things, other than agents (important, granted) and the writer’s friends and family and maybe a few rivals? How many subscribers do most of these journals have now, and how many of those subscribers will actually sit down and read the contents? How many ever did? Having a lot of readers does not mean that you’re a good writer, but if you’re a good writer and readers don’t find you, the creative loop doesn’t fully close.
I don’t mean to play favorites, but a magazine like VQR, which has reinvented itself under a new editor and which has a strong online presence and a splashier print presentation than it used to, may have a relatively robust readership in the digital era. Other journals I worry more about. I don’t have answers, just a feeling that the journal-as-proving-ground model has gotten creaky, at least when it comes to attracting readers. Maybe it still works for the writers and the agents and the publishers. I’d like to know where the readers are in this equation. Are the powers behind TriQuarterly right to move the operation online and turn it over to a new editorial crew, or is there life in the old lit-mag model yet? Writers, where do you want to publish, and why?
Mark Trainer says
A small and telling sampling group might be the writers, like you and I, who have published stories in the journals. Do they read them? Whenever I get too steamed about the state of lit journals, I remember how few I actually follow. I remember an editor’s note in the final issue of Timbuktu, out of Charlottesville, that said they might be able to continue if they had half as many subscribers as they did submittors.
Mark, you make a valid point. I think that the future of the literary magazine lies in not only changing the basic model from print->online to online->print, but attempting to re-establish a connection with an audience that reaches out beyond the usual suspects.
I think the artifact of a print issue will always be valuable – something about being able to feel the type, mark it up, etc.
But, the internet should not only be used because it is a great marketing tool, and it is more environmentally friendly. It also opens up many opportunities to get at the wider audience litmags so desperately need.
Eileen Wiedbrauk says
I think anyone who starts or works on a lit-mag has to be pretty hard headed about the importance of existing for existence’s sake. (As a graduate student now working on the staff of a lit-mag I can say this includes me and definitely my editor.) What we’re doing is worth the doing, and the writing we publish is worth the reading. Everyone understands that the audience will be small but this is art for art’s sake. And it’s also why so many lit-mags are associated with universities: educational institutions are willing to fund art for art’s sake.
I’m not so certain if lit-mags desperately need a wider audience; most people who are interested in poetry and short form narrative seek out lit-mags, I certainly do. But I think what the online editions do is they make the work more accessible to would be readers; that is their true beauty. With an online-mag you can reach more people because it’s FREE! for them to read and, after a few pages or words, if the reader does not like it they have made no physical investment, they are free to flit off and find the online-mag they like better.
I am quite intrigued by lit mags like the Kenyon Review who have material that is online only and other material that is in the print magazine only.
I’m glad the art-for-art’s-sake attitude is still alive and well, Eileen. It’s honorable and necessary. But what happens if a lit mag’s parent institution decides that art for art’s sake is too expensive or not a high priority? That’s where a strong readership could come in handy. I’m curious about the Kenyon Review model. How well does it work for them in terms of attracting readers and/or subscribers, do you think?
AVP, I agree with you about the need to find new ways of connecting with readers, especially since a lot of serious readers now expect to find the good stuff (some of it, anyway) online.