In the next three decades, what do you think will be the greatest challenge facing literary publishing, and how might it be met?
What will be the greatest challenge facing literary publishing in the
next three decades? I can think of quite a few, and one need not jump
thirty years ahead to consider them: The editors and publishers,
publicists and booksellers who hold positions in support of literature confront and overcome these obstacles every day. And it’s reassuring
to know such smart and determined folks are making sure that the best
writers will continue to reach the readers they deserve. Still, I think
one of the greatest challenges for literary publishers, or at least the one
with the most far-reaching consequences, is to avoid attempts to reach
more readers by actually offering them less, and asking less of them
as readers, in the name of innovation.
Innovation, in the form of inspiration—the creation of new and more complex fictional worlds, deeper and more nuanced interior narratives, more meaningful lyrical exchanges, and more profound modes of processing lived experience—is the work of poets and writers. It is precisely what we are chasing, letter by letter, line by line, page by page, day after day. Innovation, in the creative and artistic sense, is what pulls us forward. Innovation as it relates to literary publishers, however, is a different animal—one that’s not as wild. Of course literary publishers need to adapt as newer, quicker, less expensive modes of distribution allow them to get their books or magazines or journals— digital or print—in the hands, or in front of the eyes, of as many readers as possible. That is not the kind of change that makes me nervous— not anymore at least. As the editor in chief of Poets & Writers Magazine, I’ll admit that in the early days of e-publishing, as the rise of e-books seemed to forecast the demise of print, I relished paging through each new print edition of Poets & Writers Magazine even more. But more than a decade later, print is still alive and doing reasonably well. So too are the digital editions of Poets & Writers Magazine, available across a wide variety of platforms, and it is gratifying to know that the magazine’s editorial is offered in whatever format folks prefer. But there is a difference between changing the vehicle (or expanding the number of vehicles) in which an editorial product is delivered, and fundamentally changing the editorial product itself.
I recently had the uncomfortable experience of reading Nicholas Carr’s fascinating book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton, 2010) while struggling with exactly the kind of drifting of the mind—the chronic slippage of attention—that Carr explains is a result of the ways in which we as members of a literate culture digest and absorb the “information overload” of the Internet. My anxiety about the future of literary publishing is borne from this realization: that not only are our reading habits changing but so are the physical workings of our brains—just as they changed back in the fifteenth century, during the transition from an oral to a print culture, when Guttenberg altered the course of human history with his printing press.
“I can feel it too,” Carr wrote in The Shallows, way back in the first decade of the twenty-first century. “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory . . . . I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article . . . . Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that use to come naturally has become a struggle.”
Now, six years after Carr’s book was published, who doesn’t struggle with that same feeling? And isn’t it getting worse? How many times do we check our phones—first our e-mail, then our Twitter feed, then our Facebook page, then the news, then back to our e-mail, in a loop of fruitless distraction—while trying to concentrate on any given task?
As the editor in chief of Poets & Writers Magazine, knowing what I know about the demands on a reader’s attention—not to mention a reader’s ability, or inability, to block out distractions—I could decide to only publish micro-articles and mini-essays capable of being digested in short bursts, that skim along the surface of things, that don’t make too grand an imposition on a reader’s concentration. I could simply boil theories, advice, arguments, lessons, and lives down to a headline and a short paragraph—an endless scroll of moments, all of them sliding down a screen in a blur. (Sound familiar?) And I could argue that I’d still be serving a mission of service to poets and writers by doing so. But I don’t. And I won’t, because I join most literary publishers in believing that we’re doing something more important than just driving up page views and impressions.
Literary publishers provide the stage for something even more valuable than the voices of the next generation of brilliant writers; they are the stewards of something even more important than the next unheralded work of literary genius. They cull and distribute the material that invites a reader’s concentration, excavates one’s capacity for contemplation, and ultimately expands the dimensions of the meaningful dream—the deep thought that occurs when a reader is immersed in a text. Literary publishers offer a foothold in the constantly shifting mountain of information, of content, that readers are sliding down every minute of every day.
The challenge—or rather the hope, the promise—is to continue supporting the literature that remains a sanctuary for the distracted mind, where contemplation and communion are still possible, and where the slow, deliberate, enriching powers of creativity are reaped and rewarded, without interruption.
In a speech he gave in 2003, novelist Michael Crichton pointed to the
main problem one encounters when trying to envision what things will
be like in the world some decades hence, namely, the natural impulse
simply to take the present and project it into the future.
Crichton suggested that if you had been asked to do that in, say, 1910, you would probably have taken a quick look around town, noticed all the buggies, wagons, and horses, figured that if anything was for certain it was that there were going to be a lot more people in the future—and immediately concluded that there was going to be a problem with horse manure. Of course, within a decade, horseless carriages were already putting real horses out of work.
In thinking about the principal challenge literature is likely to face in the next few decades and what might be the best way to meet it, the first thing that comes to my mind has to do with technology. The internet, personal computers, tablets, smart phones, eBooks, Twitter, email, Facebook, and much else not only make it possible for more people to write in all sorts of ways, but also to make some fraction of the public aware of what they write. (There is now an app, called Concordance, the primary function of which, according to the person who wrote it, is “to allow you to control repetitions in your texts.”)
But technological innovation is a challenge for literature, not a challenge to it. All kinds of people writing down their thoughts as they occur to them in the way they occur to them has immense documentary value, and will provide sterling possibilities in the way of form, dialect, slang, jargon, cliché—all the things that go to make a language.
Literature is language paying attention to itself. Read Fielding, and you hear what eighteenth-century England sounded like. We may rest assured that the coming generation of writers will have its hands full meeting the challenges of its very own chatter.
And that is about as far as the present can take us. It does seem safe to presume that devices and apps and the Internet are going to stick around in a way that horse manure did not. So I think it is safe to presume as well that literature will meet the challenge posed by those things.
How it will do that can best be gauged by looking to see how earlier generations of writers dealt with their version of the problem. Literature has been dealing with technology for a long time. We have tablets. So did the Babylonians. Only theirs were made of clay. The one I’m using is mostly aluminum and glass. Elsewhere, back then, everybody else was scrolling up and down—just as we are today.
But the nearest equivalent to today’s communications paraphernalia and their impact is the progenitor of it all: the printing press. Having to write books out by hand with pen and ink onto parchment goes a long way to explaining why there was never a medieval Dickens.
Printing also made it possible for more writing to reach a wider public than ever before. And that had an effect on literature, which became more demotic and conversational, less formal. I think it’s worth noting that people have preferences when it comes to writing. Some prefer to write in longhand, others at the typewriter. Those who prefer the typewriter are often reluctant to switch to the computer. It has been suggested from time to time that much of the difference between twentieth-century prose and nineteenth-century prose has to do with prose written by hand and prose typed from the start.
This suggests that the very limitations of a given innovation might give birth to a new form. The most obvious possibility would be Twitter. The Japanese have been making exquisite literature for centuries out of 17 syllables. Surely, art can be made from the 140 characters allotted a tweet. Martin Amis’s 2006 novel House of Meetings is a book-length email, and there already have been email novels— novels in the form of a sequence of emails to which you subscribe. There is also “distributed narrative,” which, if I understand it, involves telling a story by means of the Internet. Jill Walker Rettberg, professor of digital culture at the University of Bergen, gives you some idea of what it is like to read two of them, Online Caroline and Blue Company: “a series of emails [arrives] in your inbox amid spam and work mail. A character in a fictional weblog sends you instant messages and appears in the comments of a political weblog you also happen to read.”
All of this, however, is just so much background and setting. The heart of the matter is that, in spite of it—if not exactly because of it—the challenge to literature in the coming decades will be to do what it has always done.
Literature does not merely record the world. It interprets it, seeks out whatever meaning it may have, and does so on the world’s own terms—the turns of phrase that punctuate our conversation, the fads and fancies that come and go, manners and convictions, chance and circumstance. Literature will remain true to itself for as long as it lets us hear the world in such a way that the very hearing conjures an image of it, and stirs our feelings about it and the characters who inhabit it. Literature, like every art, gives pride of place in life to human perspective. It portrays life as lived by individuals, no two exactly alike, no one altogether good, nor, we hope, altogether irredeemable. So long as literature continues to do that, we will feel at home in the world, gadgets and software and the often-dismaying news of the day notwithstanding.
When magazines first emerged in the United States in the mid-1700s,
they didn’t take off right away, despite having gained traction across
the pond in Britain. Most magazines folded after a couple years due to
lack of subscriptions, leading New York Magazine (no relation to the one
we know today) to ask in its last issue, “Shall our country be
stigmatized, odiously stigmatized, with want of taste for literature?” 
By the mid-1800s, the landscape had dramatically changed. The literacy rates were increasing alongside advancements in printing technology. Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly began within years of each other and built their reputations on publishing the most excellent writing for an upper-class, educated audience. Their contributors read like a Who’s Who of the time: Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and others. Magazine publishing is the reason we have short stories today, and fiction lured subscribers to a magazine like Harper’s (in spite of the fact that only some decades prior, fiction was considered disreputable, akin to low entertainments such as gambling).
Those working in literary publishing today may believe we’ve returned to the beginning of things: Does anyone buy literature any more? Has the audience for it shrunk? In his Gawker article “The Problem with Journalism Is You Need an Audience,” Hamilton Nolan recently wrote, “The audience for quality prestige content is small, even smaller than the actual output of quality prestige content, which itself is smaller than most media outlets like to imagine.” Although Nolan was speaking specifically about journalism, the same applies to all “prestige content” produced primarily for an upper-class, educated audience.
The greatest challenge facing most literary publishers is that the audience they imagine for themselves has not progressed beyond the audience captured by those first literature-focused magazines like Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. Harper’s was fortunate to have a loyal and diverse audience: “Some were poor scholars, some farmers with the advantage of an education, some rich and cultured people, but the one thing they all held in common was a passionate interest in culture, not only for themselves but for their children.” 
But it is next to impossible to publish for that audience today. The digital age has brought dramatic fragmentation of audiences and markets. Broad, general-interest publications that have been around for decades, or even one hundred years or more, struggle to stay afloat in the new environment, and literary publications are not spared this challenge. When I served as a magazine category judge for the CLMP’s Firecracker Awards in 2015, and read the editors’ letters across a dozen or more journals, many of them stated different versions of “We look for the best-quality writing.”
That just doesn’t cut it anymore—it is a meaningless statement in today’s publishing landscape. Readers don’t need to look for the bestquality writing. It surrounds us, threatens to overwhelm us, gets marketed to us everyday through every conceivable channel. Most people lack sufficient time to enjoy all the best-quality writing available. When the world enjoys an unlimited supply of literature, you can’t just publish. You need a market strategy or visionary intent. So what does that look like?
Harper’s magazine started as a marketing tool for a book publisher of the same name—and it worked. The relationship was ideal and the business model made sense at the time: Magazines then often consisted of excerpts or reprints of existing material. (Initially, they didn’t even pay to publish such material—it was effectively pirated!)
Today, the idea of a publisher or magazine serving as a marketing arm for some other entity may seem objectionable. But it can be a strong and symbiotic relationship, and it happens already, but we just don’t call it “marketing.” Any university that funds or supports a literary journal or press is participating in some form of marketing and prestige enhancement for itself. Literary publishing should be bringing interesting talent, events, and recognition to wherever they are based—and not be shy about identifying and promoting the material rewards of investing in arts and culture.
Not long ago, Heathrow airport hired a writer in residence to grace its public areas and write in public. Amtrak now invests in writer’s residencies. Coffee House Press launched a writers’ and artists’ residency program with libraries. High-quality literature needn’t be selected and published by a cloistered editorial hive somewhere, kept separate from all outside influence. Having community or corporate partners can lend needed and important meaning to what’s produced—not to mention a market and funding.
Too many publishing efforts launch with the expectation that readers will buy whatever’s produced, or that quality automatically sells. It does not. Anything that requires ongoing reader support to survive is a high-risk enterprise because of the aforementioned supply-demand issue. But, for a publisher with patience to see an audience grow, and a strong vision, it’s possible to survive on sales or subscriptions if a very specific readership is targeted. Rather than pursue a general audience, it’s imperative to go after a narrowly defined one; people must feel inspired by the vision and be eager to pay to feel part of something bigger than themselves. Whatever is published has to match the readers’ convictions about what’s important and who they are. Think: publishing meets identity politics. Because the audience for literature is so fragmented, this approach is nearly essential unless the publication possesses vast resources to draw upon for years or decades.
Frankly, I’m not worried about the future of literary work itself. Today’s public reads more than ever and has more access to literature than ever. And more great writing is being produced than ever before. A lot of the anxiety and concern surrounding literary publishing today is a concern about changing media consumption habits and discovery habits. We don’t need to read the traditional journals or magazines to discover the next great writer; we can discover that person through a blog, Twitter, Tumblr, or a newsletter. Traditional publishers and journals may be right to be nervous about such changes, but they have no reason to be nervous about the demand for literature. It’s the same as it’s ever been, but its distribution and discovery will no longer be reliant upon them. This is a win for the writers and an identity crisis for the publishers—a crisis that can only be resolved by establishing a strong market or vision that’s a siren call for both readers and contributors.
Teach the Children
As I pondered any number of challenges facing literary publishing over the next three decades—and there are many: the general state of the publishing industry, the huge upheaval in technology, the shrinking library and university budgets, the consolidation of power among a few vendors, etc.—what struck me as the single greatest challenge to literary publishing was whether or not in twenty or thirty years we will have serious readers. People will still read but will they be educated to appreciate the craftsmanship of literature and poetry and literary memoir? Will there be people with long enough attention spans to stick with a tough book or an oblique poem? Will the beauty of the words on the page, rather than the raw information they convey, still capture enough willing recipients?
Who is going to encourage young people to read new literature in the face of all the demands on their time? Even today, the entertainment choices are staggering. New platforms mean more and more content (and some of it very good content) online or available on television: today we have original content being programmed on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, the traditional networks (who also produce more content available online only), cable television, subscription television, and so on. Multitudes of people “binge watch” whole seasons of a television show—at the expense of how many books going unread, I wonder? A few years ago, there were two hundred scripted television shows; this year there were almost four hundred.
The movie industry seems to be churning out more and more material while at the same time scrambling to adapt to disruptive technologies. Video games have become more and more sophisticated and hence, more entertaining for more people. Look at what we can view on our phones! Or games we can play.
So how do we continue to get people interested in using some of their discretionary time to read a book of poems, or a play, or a collection of short stories, regardless of how that book is delivered (print or electronic or audio)? If it’s hard now, I think it will be even harder in twenty or thirty years.
How might this challenge be met?
It starts in the cradle. Reading Pat the Bunny to a newborn baby, moving on to other wonderful baby and young children’s books. There are so many classics: >Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, and the list goes on.
When my children were in elementary school, I recall that they were exposed to some great literature, age appropriate yet so important to their burgeoning love of reading. As a parent, I would often read the books they brought home and be so impressed with the story lines, the messages, and even the writing itself. I remember Katherine Patterson’s Jacob I Have Loved, a story with parallels to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Or Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babitt. Many dealt with issues head on—racism, poverty, war, disabilities, death. A Separate Peace by John Knowles or, of course, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank will never leave my consciousness. I remember my children reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry; to me, it was an exceptionally good way to ease into the conversation about the Holocaust.
I love the Facebook “quizzes” in which you get to see how many “classics” you’ve read. From Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. Toni Morrison. Harper Lee. Doris Lessing. Albert Camus or Italo Calvino. V S Naipaul or Gabriel García Márquez. So many of the books on the list were assigned reading—in high school or in college. You read the book—but you were also taught how to appreciate that book and why it was important. I fear that the trend towards Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) training will mean that fewer of these books will be taught because fewer literature classes will be available to students. After all, the assault on the humanities in general and in universities throughout the country does not bode well for the future of good literature or for those who teach it.
I’ve indulged a bit in reminiscing about some of the great books I’ve read over the decades. I said earlier that a love of reading begins in the cradle and certainly my parents fostered that in me, and I, in turn, fostered it in my children. Encouraging children to read, teaching them how to read great literature, and letting them know that seeking a profession or avocation in the humanities is as valid as the sciences, I believe, may be our best hope for literary publishing over the next thirty years.
Emily Louise Smith
The Next Generation of Editors and Publishers
My writing and publishing students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington are voracious consumers of media, digital detectives, multitaskers. They easily carry on phone conversations while scrolling Facebook or Twitter. Their ear buds pipe music over the clatter of laptop keys as they somehow complete assignments in our bustling department lobby. For years I enforced a policy against phones in my classroom, but in my publishing practicum now, students instinctively whisk smartphones from their pockets to document our meetings on Lookout Books’ social accounts: covers in progress, galley giveaways, fresh boxes of books. Before I can swivel my chair around to the computer, they’re browsing the Instagram feeds on their phones and are deep in conversation about a clever promotional campaign from Riverhead Books.
I take heart, though, knowing that when we sit down to read a book, none of us—including the undergraduates, whose reading habits I’ve polled annually for the past ten years—likes to be disrupted. We don’t want our books to ding reminders about dentist appointments. Yes, my students are increasingly glued to devices, but they still overwhelmingly prefer to read books in print. That said, we all rely on newsletters and literary dailies to discover and discuss those books, as well as movies, music, news, and politics. We pore over Shelf- Awareness, the Lit Hub, and the Paris Review Daily, scroll through hundreds of posts from publishers and authors.
The longstanding debate over our beloved, threatened codex— allegiance to paper and glue versus digital innovation—seems mostly beside the point. The bigger challenge over the next several decades will be how publishers and authors can rise through increasing media noise and the busyness of people’s daily lives to reach new readers. How can we contribute meaningfully to the conversation and persuade readers to unplug from the ambush of content long enough to engage in deep reading?
Neuroscientists mapping the brain have discovered that reading literary fiction taps into the same networks as actual life experiences and can enhance our capacities for empathy. “When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color,” Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany told the Atlantic. “You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are.”
There will always be an art to knowing the right editor at the right review outlet, an art to tipping off a key influencer at the right time, persuading her to take a chance on a new author or book and help generate the contagious enthusiasm that leads to widespread readership. But in the future I’m convinced that we’ll also have to innovate and participate more creatively in a cluttered digital market. We’ll have to translate our editorial missions and visual aesthetics more effectively across the Web and apps, and we’ll have to reach beyond the currently established wells of literary talent—writing programs and journals— to communicate our editorial needs and discover new writers.
At Lookout, for example, we seek works by emerging and historically underrepresented voices, and we’ve found greater success acquiring promising manuscripts by solicitation than by waiting for writers and agents to submit. We regularly develop online content that lets prospective authors and readers in on what we’re thinking about and working on behind the scenes. We publicize Lookout’s approach to collaborative editing and imaginative design, as well as our commitment to publishing books that enlarge readers’ sympathies. Going forward, though, we’ll have to do a better job of meeting writers and readers in the places they spend their time, and extend our reach into forums not typically associated with literature.
Last year I interviewed author Jeff Sharlet, who has been publishing literary journalism on Instagram—beautiful essays that call to mind prose poetry. When I asked how he felt about publishing “A Resourceful Woman” (his poignant series about an itinerant woman he befriended one late, snowy night) amid the frivolity of most Instagram posts, whether he thought it diluted the essay’s resonance, he responded that the essay actually gains meaning “from the cat pictures and the food porn and the shoe shots and the vacation snaps. A story like this one, about Mary Mazur: Mary’s not separate from all that, she’s in the middle of it.”
“To establish a publishing house, bookstore, or library is to start
a conversation,” Gabriel Zaid wrote in So Many Books, “—a
conversation that springs, as it should, from local debate but that
opens up, as it should, to all places and times.” It’s a privilege to serve
as a literary gatekeeper, and I work hard to hold myself—and my
students—accountable, to be a good steward of publishing’s cultural
clout. One vital way that we can sustain literary publishing is to
encourage a new generation of editors and publishers in their search
for manuscripts that challenge and provoke us, books that inspire
deep, uninterrupted reading.
At UNCW, we prepare student publishers by modeling rich editorial relationships and proving the benefits of robust author support. We submit all Lookout books for awards and prizes, and nominate authors for fellowships. We work tirelessly to place excerpts, essays, and interviews, often in venues that pay our authors. We write grants that help fund not only tours to bookstores but also compensate authors for speaking at under-resourced schools and libraries. Over the years, Lookout authors have presented everywhere from oncology centers to organizations that serve older adults.
I know that publishing apprenticeships effect positive change. Last year, an alumna of our program, Corinne Manning, founded the James Franco Review, an online magazine that garnered notice in Entertainment Weekly, among other places, for encouraging its guest editors to read submissions blindly and to “allow room for what isn’t supposed to happen, characters you don’t always get to see.” Another alumna, Meg Reid, serves as deputy director for Hub City Press in South Carolina, and in 2014, she led a campaign to bring attention to the state legislature’s censure of two university common-read selections with LGBTQ themes: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and the Hub City anthology Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio. Because of her efforts, hundreds of writers and booksellers took to social media wearing T-shirts that read I’M SPEAKING OUT! And they’re just two examples of dozens of students who are thriving in their efforts to carve out space for diverse voices.
For our literature to remain relevant, for books to capture and maintain readers’ attention amid all the noise, we must succeed in representing a wider spectrum of writers and experiences. And for that to happen, we have to recruit and welcome a fuller publishing cohort—from editors to publicists to sales reps—who will bring varied backgrounds and obsessions to bear in acquisitions decisions, editorial suggestions, and design sense, new approaches to publicity and marketing. Not only at UNCW but across the country’s burgeoning publishing programs, small presses, and established commercial houses, we have to raise awareness; and in UNCW’s case, scholarship money too, to help relieve the tuition burden for students. If we continue to support and mentor them, though, I have confidence that they will recognize in themselves—as Corinne and Meg did—their power to shape and publish literature that endures. They will flourish in their discovery of new voices and communities of readers.
Literary publishing will release itself from the page (meaning also: screen), first of all, not only because the resources of “page” are finite. Poems will re-enter the body as breath and perception of energy and silence as governed by nada (sound) and nadi (channels of energy transfer through the physical shape). Individual experience, the body as a mind, will begin to define literary form of poem, novel, essay. Shapes that have remained constant and ancient in fiction, drama, and verse are “lyric” and “narrative.” These shapes will guide the future of what it means to “publish.” I think, in poetry at least, oral forms will return, choral forms too.
Smaller innovative communities within the mainstream culture have always created their own presses, own methods for supporting and sustaining their writers. As mainstream publishing becomes more and more corporatized, less and less interesting and compelling literature will be published and supported by those entities. As in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, I think we will see a proliferation of everincreasing richness in literature that is intimately connected to the social and political life of the communities from which it springs.
We do have to change our idea of what an “editor” is. First of all, I believe that beautiful collaborative relationship will come back. The best editors draw a text from a writer, help that writer to see the text again, refine it. This is also the relationship between audience and performer. The poet then becomes audient themself. (Will pronouns have changed by 2045? Will gender have become as irrelevant a marker as race?) As in music, theater, dance and visual art, the most interesting forms of literature will be created in local communities by local artists.
Will then too language fracture? And the multiplicity of Tongue be preserved, honored, cherished? And might hybrid tongues emerge, each with their own literature? What I wonder is, will translation be the order of the day or will we revert pre-Babel style to polylinguality, the forked tongue of the Other in the garden. At any rate, the more English globalizes, the more it will shift, change, and stratify. Lingual variation has always been a tool of power and its exercise. Perhaps the future holds different promise: an English of different syntax, different reach, its mechanics unearthing strange ore.
Emily Dickinson wrote famously, “Publication— is the Auction/ of the Mind of Man—.” Galway Kinnell reminded readers that she did not mean the old country auction but rather a slave auction, rather a more sinister meaning. But in the resource-scarce, resource-deprived future, the developing world will continue (if it is permitted so to do) to privilege itself through its art and culture and use that privileging to denigrate the nations and parts of the world—including the animal world and those animals which live within its own borders—from which it draws its natural resources and human labor. “Publishing” or dissemination of artistic production will become an incredibly important part of self-actualizing, reclaiming human and animal sovereignty.
This is why poetry will become oral and choral. Its sound must live in space and must live in communal experience. Written books in their current codex form may still circulate as handbooks for performance or as personal and community devotionals both. The archive and the library will make a comeback. Community publishing by literary spaces will become the norm. The corporations will go on trying to profit off a simulacrum of art but they are, even in 2015, nearly irrelevant in that function. In thirty years they will probably be irrelevant even in their own.
Senior Editors from Chicago Quarterly Review
Gary Houston, CQR Managing Editor: A paradox may be at work. The
more Americans depend upon electronic media for news, opinion, arts
and amusements there is a trend pulling in the other direction. It is
more than nostalgia for the last century even though it may feel like it.
It is a very old-fashioned thing, perhaps—to hold in your hands a small
repository of thoughts and stories written by diverse individuals at a
particular time and in that time collected into a volume, be able to
shelve it, be able any time to retrieve it. It is very simple and not long
ago something integral to civilized life. Unless we really want to throw
it in the garbage it shouldn’t be regarded as disposable, like Kleenex
or the newspaper that proverbially lines the birdcage floor or, to the
point, like internet news. We have moved away from print to the extent
that there is an intimidation in the air almost saying you mustn’t do it,
you mustn’t have it, anymore “for we have all moved on.” But that
assertion is not true, it only asserts it is.
The thing pulling in the other direction is not rebellion, not defiance and not necessarily—to anticipate the first accusation—neoluddism. It is a restoration of balance, I daresay a restoration of not only intellectual but mental health. A literary magazine with nationwide contributors and readers is a throwback only insofar as we give in to fashionable standards of relevance, as though we were fools not to dismiss paintings once we knew photography was here to stay. We—that is, all of us—have in varying degrees begun to turn away from the demand of cultural fashion and simply think about what we need, what nurtures, seems good for us, what stimulates us and makes us brighter. Then whatever form the “what” takes we have every right to insist on having it and, if we write and edit, on producing it.
Elizabeth McKenzie: Literary magazines are magnets for those of us whose religion is literature. This seems as critical to the survival of the small magazines as anything else. We share this particular understanding and we are happy to have found each other, whether at local events, at our editorial meetings, or nationally when the next issue finds itself in the right hands. I do not think this will change.
Syed Afzal Haider: Let us start to answer the question by asking a question: How do we see the next phase of communication? Would the Facebook like and the tweet suffice our need to express and be heard? If the answer is yes, literary magazines may not survive. But our answer at the CQR is a resounding no. So the first challenge the literary magazines need to face is the false perception that there is no need for us to be around.
The next thirty years are not that far ahead, and some of us at CQR already have lived twice that many. And the CQR in two-thirds of that duration has not only survived it has thrived.
We have seen not only a new America but also a new world, a more challenging new world, therefore the need to be brave to face it. The fusion of writing and getting published goes beyond virtual existence in the cloud.
To Read or Not to Read
Bookshelves line the walls in the front parlor of the Smoke House, a nineteenth-century house with white clapboard siding and periodappropriate black wood shutters, now home to the Gettysburg Review. The shelves in the parlor are filled with literary magazines, lined up alphabetically from Agni to Zone 3, with a special space reserved for nearly thirty years of our own back issues. All of the magazines on these shelves have been around for decades, including the one in your hand, Boulevard, which recently reached thirty venerable years. The granddaddy of them all rests somewhere near the middle. The North American Review, the oldest literary magazine in America, dates back to 1899. Considering this track record, it is not inconceivable that some of them will still be here thirty years from now, but many of them will not.
Literary magazines are facing a crisis now on several fronts. The obvious threat is economic. Most literary publications depend on colleges and universities for funding, and most of us are finding a growing reluctance on the part of these institutions to continue the tradition. Some publications, such as Poetry Magazine and TriQuarterly, have generous benefactors. Even so, TriQuarterly has gone entirely online, a move many see as an attempt to cut costs while maintaining literary integrity. The rise of digital publication is seen by some as the way of the future, but many who are venturing online are finding a small audience for electronic formats. Readers, it seems, are showing a renewed preference for the tangible, sensual pleasure of print.
While monsters like Poetry Magazine boast a subscriber base in the tens of thousands, most literary magazines survive on just a few thousand dedicated readers. On the other hand, literary magazines routinely process anywhere from five thousand to fifty thousand manuscripts per year and print only about one hundred each. This, in my opinion, is a huge disconnect. We know there are writers out there, thousands of them, firing off manuscripts each day, multiple submitting, writing, writing, writing. But where are the readers? Are writers not also readers?
Statistics are boring sometimes, but sometimes they bring the simple facts into stark relief. There are 1,766 writing programs in the United States that confer degrees, according to AWP’s 2014–15 Report on the Academic Job Market. If we assume that each program turns out fifteen or twenty graduates a year, a modest estimate, that means there are approximately twenty-five thousand writers with shiny new degrees each year. The MFA degree has become more common than the history degree, which is one of the top ten majors in colleges and universities. And what happens after college? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three thousand people in this country claim they are historians on their tax returns. More than forty-five thousand claim they are writers. And those are the ones that have jobs.
That’s the math. We have many thousands of credentialed writers vying for publication and only hundreds of opportunities for them to be published in our pages.
What needs to be stated clearly is that what is written here is my opinion. Like the disclaimer at the beginning of films, these thoughts do not necessarily represent the opinions of our current editor or the Gettysburg Review’s founding editor. These are the conclusions I have come to as an observant former journalist, an outsider to the creative writing world, who came upon these pages as a stranger to literary publications, but not as a stranger to literature. So here goes:
The hard truth is that what we have is a glut of writers. It seems that everybody with a pen, a PC, or an iPad is writing, page after page after page after page. And once written these pages are rushed off in a flurry of submissions to literary magazines to be evaluated for publication. The other ugly truth is: ninety percent of them will get rejected.
Most of what gets rejected out of those piles of thousands and thousands of stories, essays, and poems, is not that great. It has been either workshopped to death or is so underwritten it’s hard to find a pulse. The MFA process has battled the creative process into submission, leaving a sameness to what remains, a blandness that is more boring than the statistics I’ve just quoted.
What is killing literature is the lack of what the screenwriters call thematic material. According to Motion Picture Association of America, the term refers to “material of concern that . . . may include aspects of illness, death, coming of age, divorce, domestic problems, substance abuse, end of the world scenarios and more.” In other words, the stuff of life, the uncomfortable elements which are inherent in the human condition. These are the elements that fueled the writer’s creative imagination for centuries: Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Faulkner . . . The list goes on and on. Now creativity seems to be fueled more by what the author is feeling at a particular moment about him or herself. Readers don’t want that. Readers want to encounter another person who is feeling what they are feeling. They want to read about themselves.
Literary publishing is struggling now. Who knows about the next thirty years? It is certain that some literary magazines will survive; some will perish. It is also certain that many of those thousands of writers out there will stop trying to make a commercial product of their daily musings and find something else to do. The writers being published in 2035 will be one measure of that future civilization. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.
Romaine Rolland, the French novelist and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, said, “There is too much music in Germany. This is not a paradox. There is no worse misfortune for art than a super-abundance of it.” This seems to be true again today, for another art form, the one Rolland practiced so well.