Onto a web already crowded with literary sites…


The Bookworm, Carl Spitzweg, 1850

From The New Yorker:

Why on Earth would you start a literary magazine? You won’t get rich, or even very famous. You’ll have to keep your day job, unless you’re a student or so rich you don’t need a day job. You and your lucky friends and the people you hire—if you can afford to pay them—will use their time and energy on page layouts, bookkeeping, distribution, Web site coding and digital upkeep, and public readings and parties and Kickstarters and ways to wheedle big donors or grant applications so that you can put out issue two, and then three. You’ll lose time you could devote to your own essays or fiction or poems. Once your journal exists, it will wing its way into a world already full of journals, like a paper airplane into a recycling bin, or onto a Web already crowded with literary sites. Why would you do such a thing?

And yet people do, as they have for decades—no, centuries, though cheaper printing in the eighteen-nineties, Ditto machines in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, offset printing and, in the past two decades, Web-based publishing have made it at least seem easier for each new generation. In 1980, the Pushcart Press—known for its annual Pushcart Prizes—published a seven-hundred-and-fifty-page brick of a book, “The Little Magazine in America,” of memoirs and interviews with editors of small journals. “The Little Magazine in Contemporary America,” a much more manageable collection of interviews and essays that was published in April, looks at the years since then, the years that included—so say the book’s editors, Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz— “the end of the ascendancy of print periodicals,” meaning that the best small litmags have moved online.

They have, and no wonder: that’s where the readers are. Ander Monson’s quirky journal DIAGRAM (poetry, essays, and actual diagrams) reported forty thousand unique visitors per month in 2014. No print-only litmag could give a poem the viral power of Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” which circled the Internet over and over after its appearance in The Awl. Web publications, in Monson’s words, no longer seem like “poems written on dry-erase boards”; they seem “as material, as real, as durable, as professional” as the print magazines that—supported by subscribers or by universities—carry on, from Bitch to the Yale Review. It’s not that we don’t need or read print mags so much as that we might not need many more of them—not when we can get so much (and kill fewer trees) thanks to screens.

The story of how little mags went digital can be found by reading through the first and the last few essays among the twenty-two in Morris and Diaz’s volume. You’ll find other stories, too, some of which Diaz and Morris may not quite realize that their book has told.

“The Persistence of Litmags”, Stephen Burt, The New Yorker