Maybe We’re Not Doing It Wrong
Every single writer and editor these days has some idea or theory about how to change publishing or save publishing because, haven’t you heard? Print is dying and people aren’t reading and the sky is falling and the literary world is coming to an end.
Criticism is leveled against big publishing and independent publishing and micropublishing and often times, that criticism is delivered with the rather self-righteous sentiment that everyone is doing it wrong. Often times, it seems that publishers spend more time detailing how they are innovating or how they will innovate rather than letting their actions speak for themselves. Some days, we’re talking about publishing more than putting out great books and magazines and just doing the work of publishing.
Two recent blog posts got me thinking about all this.
First, at the ZYZZVA blog, Howard Junker wrote an awesome post about the McSweeney’s Panorama issue. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Junker says but I really appreciate that he’s taking a critical stance instead of simply fawning all over the Panorama issue because it was published by McSweeney’s. The Panorama issue is an interesting but flawed endeavor. The issue is by no means a salvation, a notion which may not have been actively encouraged by McSweeney’s but wasn’t necessarily discouraged either.
The second interesting post is at Identity Theory in which editor Andrew Whitacre questions the relevance of the (small) print literary magazine in the digital era. Whitacre calls out many of the print journals on a list of journals he received from a professor in 2002 for not publishing content online, referring to them as “technologically stingy.”
Whitacre goes on to address out of date, poorly designed websites that are not taking full advantage of the technologies available in the digital era. He says that in this digital age, people want access to literature and that many of the more established print journals are not communicating as effectively with their readers as they could. He suggests that print journals don’t need to print a bound issue four times a year because the purposes those journals satisfied are now being met by online journals. Finally, Whitacre defines the mission of the literary journal in the digital age as such:
The mission of journals, as I now see it, is to contribute to and nurture conversation around good writing. To be experts without excluding. To offer literary context without condescension. To carve out space for literature.
Whitacre’s definition has a great deal of merit but it is rather shortsighted to imply that print magazines are not meeting nor cannot meet that mission as well. Furthermore, while he makes several interesting points, I find that there is, ironically enough, a certain level of condescension in his words. What he’s saying is that if you’re not online you’re doing it wrong as if being online has become the new standard by which merit should be judged. I am a big fan of the Internet and online publishing. I think it is very important and necessary. I have a Kindle. I read magazines via RSS feed. I’m involved with online magazines. I drink the Kool-Aid each and every day and it tastes great.
That said, I don’t think that online publishing is the only answer. There are days when I feel like screaming from the roof a tall building, “Online publishing is not synonymous with innovation.” A magazine does not need a website to be worthy or innovative or to contribute to literary culture. Just because we can use the Internet and the digital technologies afforded by Internet access does not mean we must. If Prairie Schooner doesn’t want to make their content available online that does not mean they are excluding people. It simply means that if you want to read what they’re publishing, you’re going to have to make the effort to go to a library or send in the order form and wait for the magazine to arrive in the mail. It’s like foreplay, which can be a good thing.
Additionally, as Whitacre himself points out, there are many magazines who are online but have very depressing, poorly designed and poorly conceived websites. At least the print journals with sad websites have the print artifact to look to but when online only magazines have sad websites, sometimes not even being maintained under their own domain name, they have nothing but the pixels on the screen. To that end, good online publishing isn’t just about being online but being online purposefully and at the very least, in aesthetically inoffensive ways.
Print magazines are no more exclusionary than online magazines. Just because content is available online does not make it accessible. I’ve said this before. I will say it again. To assert that online publishing affords access is to assume that online access is widely available. As it stands, online publishing is widely accessible to people who can afford to own a home computer and pay an Internet provider or to people who can make the time to go to a library and access the Internet there. To take the argument to an extreme, online publishing is accessible to people who have electricity. Here in the United States, we can take this for granted but such is not the case in many parts of the world. If we’re going to make statements about online publishing and access, we have to be very specific about whom that access is for. Online publishing is accessible to people who have a certain level of financial means, have disposable time, and an inclination to want to read literature. That audience seems pretty similar to the audience for print journals.
The Identity Theory blog post ends with a statement that print journals are inefficient, expensive and cater only to a small audience. All that may be true (printing a magazine is so damn expensive) but the statement still makes me profoundly sad. In my culture, as in many cultures, we have a great deal of respect for our elders. I consider literary magazines with that same regard. When I think about some of the older literary magazines who have their sad little websites, who refuse to be pulled into the 21st century, I am frustrated by their (perceived) lack of innovation. I want them to join us in the 21st century but I have an immense amount of respect for the work they have done, and the length of time across which they have done that work and done that work (for the most part) quite well. Contrary to popular belief, online years are not like dog years. When we can sustain an online magazine for 30 years (Mid-American Review), or 56 years (The Paris Review) or 190 years (The Yale Review), I think we can start to make grand pronouncements about the utility, or lack thereof, of print.
As a digital Kool-Aid drinker, I agree with much of Whitacre’s post. While I believe we should respect the ways in which more established print journals have made it possible for online magazines to flourish, I don’t believe we have to emulate them or that print publishing is better than online publishing. I do think we have to stop making these matters questions of either/or. One medium does not need to be sacrificed in order for the other to succeed–I often think of print and online publishing as two sides of the same coin. At the very least we should be more critical and less short-sighted in the ways in which we think and talk about publishing and matters of access. The good news, I think, is that all these conversations are about finding more effective ways of putting great writing into the world and getting that writing into the hands and hearts of as many people as possible. The very existence of these conversations is a strong indicator that we really should stop planning funerals.