A partial list of literary things that just won’t die: print books, independent bookstores, small & print-centric literary journals. I just wrote about one of those journals, The Hopkins Review (“The Craft of Writing,” JHU Arts & Sciences Magazine, Spring 2016), which is expanding its presence online while remaining loyal to its print incarnation.
The Review can do that because JHU and the JHU Press subsidize it. That’s just dandy–and exactly the kind of thing a university and its press should step up and do, especially given the relatively small investment of $$ we’re talking about here, and the potential cultural payoff, assuming you believe that small journals really do harbor writing that won’t find a home in the enviably green but–safer? snobbier? glossier? more MFA-centric?–pastures of, say, The New Yorker or The Paris Review or (fill in the title of your prestigious journal of choice here).
(Counterpoint worth a mention here: We aren’t allowed to say mean things about literary magazines, not the prestigious ones, even if they’re boring.)
What do writers and readers (and, heck, the culture) owe litmags? As someone who, so far, has mostly published her fiction in small(ish) or small(est) literary journals, I am so glad to see many of them still trucking along. I feel guilty that I don’t read more of them more often.
Beyond toting around non-subscriber guilt, I worry about the health of the system. A lot of us have counted and still count on the editors of these journals to help us find our feet as writers, and to make us visible to other editors and (we hope) to readers. The writers keep coming, keep submitting, keep hoping. We are not in short supply, we writerly types.
But are there enough (any?) readers out there waiting for our work? How many of those readers pony up money and become subscribers and keep journals open for (unprofitable) business? Almost certainly not enough.
This is an old worry, one that has hung around long enough to turn itself into a cliche. Thank god for sponsors like universities with deep enough pockets to invest in a bit of print culture now and again. Thank god for literary editors who want to find good work and get it out there, even if you disagree with their decisions. Thank god for the internet that makes literary work more discoverable, if not any more profitable, than it ever was before.
This kind of labor, like housework or childcare, doesn’t get a lot of credit in the wider world. I don’t know how non-academic literary editors feel about it, but I’ve heard from a lot of university-press editors that they are doing the (unpaid) work of tenure-and-promotion committees by finding decent stuff and giving it their imprimatur.
Literary editors perform a similar function for the nonacademic publishing industry. They sift through the collective slush pile. And they are not being paid handsomely to do this. In a lot of cases, they don’t get paid at all, not in cold hard cash anyway. As I say in my Hopkins Review story, they do it for love. Let’s hope they’re not wasting their time.