Is there a future for the literary magazine in America?

It is never good when the man from administration has a letter addressed to you on the desk before him. In such instances, the letter isn’t handed to you but is instead pushed in your direction at the tip of a manicured finger. So was it that Susan Firestone Hahn and I had our editorial positions terminated at TriQuarterly magazine—a concern we had sustained for, in my case, 12 and, in Susan’s case, 30 years—and were told that the name TriQuarterly would continue to exist atop the masthead of an online, open-access journal to be operated by students of Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies. And so was it that the miasma of global human activity in an age of chaotic technological innovation and change was rippled by yet another barely perceptible disruption of its ether.

Experiencing sensations similar to those I felt when my wife and I were once mugged at gunpoint, I went home that evening and posted, on the litmagsLJI litserv (a forum of editors moderated by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses), an e-mail I titled, melodramatically and, upon reflection, I believe, aptly, “The Death of an Institution.” In the time it took for my Web-mail page to auto-check for new messages, my inbox was filled with replies echoing my original header, “Re: [litmagslji] The Death of an Institution,” and containing expressions of condolence, anger, support and, above all, questions about the university’s press release, which referred to TriQuarterly in the context of “scholarly” publishing for reasons known only to the authors of the release and not at all to Susan and me. Over the next few days, the discussion on the listserv shifted from TriQuarterly specifically to the broader issues raised by this action: new technologies, the intrinsic value of a literary magazine, and the benefits and perils of university support.

Prior to getting chucked out of my job on the premise that the future of the literary magazine lay online, I didn’t have a rooting interest in any one vision of the future of literature delivery systems over another. I prefer reading books to reading on the computer, but that is a personal preference probably linked in some way to a high school memory of dashing down a city block to catch a bus with a paperback copy of “Flappers and Philosophers” in the back pocket of my Levi’s. Maybe it’s simply that, as one editor of an online journal conceded at last year’s conference of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, “The book is market tested.” Or, more to the point, someone long ago perfected a book that doesn’t run on batteries.

At the same time, while my imagination has never been drawn to new digital technologies, I am no Luddite. At TriQuarterly, we have—or, maybe, had—a dwindling core of older, well- known authors who submit typewritten manuscripts and communicate only by phone or U.S. mail; however, as editors, we do not have the luxury to resist progress, even if we were inclined to. More and more journals are adopting automated submission systems, and perhaps more are scrapping traditional mass-mailed subscription renewals in favor of online subscription-renewal systems. And, most significantly, there does not exist an established literary journal without a fully functioning Web site providing guidelines for submissions, an automated method for subscribing and some sample of content (which, in many cases, appears only online).

In other words, anyone in need of a model for what the future of literary magazine publishing might look like may be surprised to learn that we are already living it. If I were to found a new literary magazine tomorrow (a dicey proposition these days, no doubt), I’d urge the board to call it A Respected, Widely Read Print Magazine That Pays Its Authors to Publish Them.The enchanted readers of its first issue would open the cover to find this subtitle on the title page: That Also Has a Web Site That Posts Content (Some of
It Exclusive) and Has a Lively Blog on Which an Insightful and Engaging Editor Frequently Posts. This model, or something similar, has been adopted by many of the most respected journals, including venerable publications like The Kenyon Review and AGNI; upstarts like Tin House and A Public Space; and, perhaps most successfully,TheVirginia Quarterly Review. It was this sort of model we had been urging our administration to allow us to perfect at TriQuarterly, in the months before they pulled the plug, so to speak. The appeal of this approach was driven home to me—in reverse, you might say— through recent conversations with editors of online journals, all of whom seem to be pushing a publication that might generically be called An Online Journal That Hopes One Day to Publish an Annual Print Anthology of the Year’s Best Work.

In his cheeky introduction to the first issue of TriQuarterly, published in the fall of 1964, our founding editor, Charles Newman, wrote, “It may be that in the expanding university, we are witnessing an affluent democracy’s oblique answer to the patronage system of the old world—though we could not afford to
call it that yet.” Certainly from the time one Cro-Magnon demonstrated a talent for manipulating pigments and was excused, to some degree, from the exigencies of hunting and gathering in order to record the results of those activities upon the cave wall, many, if not most, artists have relied on some sort of institutional support. All of us who make our livings in institutionally funded arts are keenly aware of the debts we owe those institutions. (Indeed, should we forget, there is always someone in the provost’s office eager to remind us.) However, little—and, I fear, increasingly less—credit is given to what the institutions receive in return. What is interesting in the case of TriQuarterly is that the administration has not withdrawn but rather shifted its patronage—and not to a different art form, but to a different portal (to use the word of the day), one that will be, for the foreseeable future, entirely dependent upon the university for its support.

It may be that the print/online model is simply the technology bridge between the book and some as of yet unknown medium, in the same way that hybrid cars will be made obsolete by cars propelled by a reliable, affordable power source that has yet to be perfected. But I suspect that the future, when it does arrive, will look unstartlingly familiar, more “Flintstones” than “Jetsons,” in that we are more likely to be bickering with our can openers than owning robot maids. Ultimately, the little magazine continues to outlive its obituary not because of the medium or the editor, but because of the most confounding mechanism in any model of literary production, the writer, its perpetual engine of invention.

About the Author

Ian Morris

Ian Morris will be associate editor of TriQuarterly until April 2010, when the magazine publishes Issue 137, its last print edition. His essays, reviews and fiction have appeared in various Chicago-area and national publications and on Chicago Public Radio.

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