Do literary magazines want to be popular?

Burlesque Press has published a short post from me, responding to an essay by Calvin Hennick complaining about the front covers of literary magazines.

Hennick points out:

Like a lot of readers, I feel guilty that I don’t read more literary magazines. But I have to say, I don’t feel like the editors are trying all that hard to snag me. When you put an unexplained picture of a kid playing an accordion on your cover (a real – and not unrepresentative – example), what you’re saying is, “Read, or don’t read. We don’t care! We’re artists.”

My response proposes a reason why lit mags choose that kid playing the accordion: they need to look “serious” more than they need to be popular.

Then, once that piece was published, I saw that Becky Tuch, the founder of the Review Review, has posted a reply to Hennick, which as you can tell from the title, “Don't be a Hater,” comes out fighting on lit mags' behalf.

Becky Tuch, through the Review Review, has done a huge amount of good for the literary magazine world. I really admire her project of spreading word about small journals, as well as her obvious delight in talking about writing and the ongoing conversation around it.

And she makes a powerful rejoinder to Hennick, pointing out the dubious nature of the commercial magazines he praises. She writes:

People, literary magazines are not all one thing. Quite unlike popular magazines such as Men’s Fitness, Cosmo, Glamour, Vogue, which are indeed owned by just a few media conglomerates which recycle the same messages to the same audiences reflecting the same sets of interests again and again and again, every single literary magazine is different. Every editor is different. Every lit mag staff is different. Every literary magazine has a unique mission and its own particular aesthetic and voice.

It's true that the front covers of many commercial magazines peddle the same anxieties, and the supposed cures for them, over and over, month after month. We writers can perhaps chuckle at the sex tips promised by the front cover of Cosmo, yet we in turn click nervously on a new blog post entitled, “Writing your first novel: ten things NOT to do.”

After reading a certain number of these ALL CAP how-to-write articles, one realises that one is not actually learning anything, but merely assuaging a kind of anxiety the articles themselves help to create.

One might still feel, however, that lit mags could work harder to interest readers. Here, Tuch is very clear. That is not the lit mags' job:

Herein lies the second problem in Hennick’s argument: he assumes that quality artwork and writing ought to just be handed out, like so many snacks on an airplane. “Give us,” Hennick says. “Give us.”

Rarely does our culture give us anything in the way of value. And when it does, that value is often obscured by the noisy clamor of shiny magazines with half-naked celebrities on the cover. Rather than insist that lit mag editors need to do more to grab our attention, perhaps we as readers need to do more to find the work that speaks to us.

Tuch is taking Hennick's criticism and turning it into praise. As Hennick suspected, that kid with the accordion really is meant to be a barrier to entry. It signals to the reader: this magazine is a special place, an oasis in your dreary capitalist world, and to access that oasis you will need to exert yourself. Lit mags are, in Tuch's view, a site of resistance to the banalities of everyday life.

We might debate to what extent this is true of literary writing, or to what extent lit mag editors would be surprised by this validation of their work. We might also debate whether, if it is true, this reveals something dubious about the whole creative writing industry, an industry that seems forever torn between one desire to get published and make some sort of money / status, and another desire to produce a rather idiosyncratic and highly personal version of “high art.”

One wonders whether MFA enrolment would decline if on the first day, everyone was told: we don't want you to be published commercially or widely read. Your work, instead, will oppose such trite things.

But those questions aside, I am bothered by the way this view point places “value” exclusively in the stories and poems that aspiring writers create. In other words, it doesn't matter if anyone is reading. You have created “value” simply by getting your work into a format where readers might potentially discover you. If they don't discover you, it's their loss.

To me, this feels peculiar. While I don't want to be glib, to blandly assert that “value” comes about when writers and readers connect, I do believe that there is “value” everywhere, in our readers' lives, for instance. As writers, it's part of our job to reach out to them, to try to anticipate their desires, to meet them halfway. If we aren't, in a real sense, always writing about them, for them, to them, then what exactly are we doing?

If we aren't working for our readers, are we not then merely replicating and enshrining precisely the kind of self-interest and narcissism that we decry in the capitalist world all around us?

 

6 thoughts on “Do literary magazines want to be popular?

  1. Perhaps, lit mags need to start calling themselves art mags. After all, they contain the arts – the literary arts, the visual arts, interviews of various arts, articles on crafting the arts – and embrace new forms of art. Given the technology available to us, and the fact that many people read on Kindles or iPads, lit/art mags can now contain music and videos that are meaningful and say something about our culture. Rather than spreading mass entertainment value, they can actually contribute meaningful artistic value and elevate the form being used.
    Perhaps, the issue isn’t that lit mags are too high brow, but rather, they don’t know how to convey their message in a relevant way. (Which seems to be the point you’re making here). There’s no reason not to tell the consumer what a magazine is about. It’s not a mystery or a secret. The magazine itself is an art form and editors need to recognize their role in this by asking some important questions: for starters, What is the message they’re conveying with all this art?

    Covers can act as a thesis statement, a mission statement, a statement about what aesthetic the editors value and the message they want to convey to the world about humanity or life or beauty or whatever. The New Yorker does this quite well.

    Perhaps editors, publishers, agents, and even writers themselves have separated themselves from the mass media culture so completely that they no longer understand how to be relevant given the technology available. Instead of artists acting as pioneers and innovators guiding us into the new millennium, we’re being guided by reality TV and Justin Beiber. Why? Because they’re telling us quite plainly what they’re about. Tuch brings up many good points, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot out there for consumers to navigate through, and it isn’t enough to simply present something to the public. That something needs to be seen and heard through all the noise. Consumers are going to choose the thing that’s user friendly. Who can blame them? We all do that. And, with a new generation just beginning to emerge and look around for something to identify with, and use to identify themselves (like the pop from the 80s and grunge of the 90s), it’s naive of the literary and artistic worlds to pretend that technology isn’t important. The entirety of this new generation’s existence has been punctuated and defined by the technology that’s come into being. We now expect a thesis statement, a sound bite, or at the very least a tagline. Why not give that to people? How is that difficult? Perhaps, because it requires editors to make editorial decisions that nail down cohesion and analyze the artistic form they’re using? Perhaps editors don’t see themselves as artists?

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  2. Great post, Daniel, and one that touches on a variety of issues/complaints about the lit mag world. The biggest difference I see between commercial mags and lit, is that the mainstream mags spend a lot of time researching and understanding who their readers are (which explains why so many pop culture journals keep running the same abs/sex/romance articles over and over). But at least they know they have an audience. I wouldn’t necessarily say lit journals don’t care whether they have an audience or not, but rather, that the editorial staffs haven’t spent much time trying to establish a product identity beyond what the editors themselves like to read (or in the case of covers, what they’d like to see). Hence, so many lit journal submission guidelines say something like, “We have no set standards, so read a copy of our journal and then surprise us!” As a writer, I find such guidelines completely unhelpful. I’d rather see a journal that offers some specifics, whether or not my story fits.

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  3. just read your piece on things your son can’t do. I find it somewhat offensive. I grew up in the south ad found those items to be individual. your publishing that article was only for the income it would produce not to be informative, also to increase ti divisiveness already in expansion these last 6 years.

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  4. Calvin Hennick has the passive aggressive gene. Snide remarks guaranteed to bring everyone down. Congratulations Calvin, you are a success.

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