Tuesday, February 15, 2022

When We Used to Read Literary Magazines

 


When I grew up (I must have been at least 29),  I hoped to get a literary job, though in my circles this meant PR or writing for a small-town paper.  In our town you either became that cynical reporter who believed the worst of everybody, or that desperately perky PR flack who guzzled Lemon Lavender tea while writing annual reports.  Neither line truly appealed to me, but eventually I got a job that combined the two.   I showed up at the office early  (so I could leave early) in whatever crumpled knit dress or billowing rayon pants that caught my fancy; my hair was always freshly washed and wet from the shower.  Because why blow-dry and style your hair if you're just going to the office? 

My kind-hearted boss hinted I wasn't going to get a promotion if I didn't blow-dry my hair, but I didn't actually want a promotion.  Jobs of this sort were temporary, to my mind.  Eventually I would write a novel or something. The great thing about office life:  after we finished our work, we could read magazines.  In fact, we were encouraged to read magazines for work.   We'd pick up stray gossip at Vogue, learn about current events from Time, delve into politics at The Nation, and glean a little history from The Smithsonian

 Best of all, we got to read expensive little magazines: The Paris Review, Dissent, Tin House, Commentary, The San Francisco Review of Books, The North American Review, The Alaska Quarterly - whatever the corner bookstore had.   By the way, publishing something in a little magazine is the ultimate non-job:  you are paid in copies.  

Little magazines are in trouble financially nowadays.  Some of my favorites have closed.  And I just read an article at CNN about the ways in which they are floundering and  folding.  The Believer has gone out-of-business - I thought that was an institution - and colleges and universities are struggling to fund their little magazines. Actually, some universities are not struggling to fund them:  they've cruelly cut them altogether. 

Leah Asmelash, author of the CNN article, writes,

... in the world of literary arts, they're essential. For early-career poets, essayists and fiction writers, these magazines are a way to get published, find an agent and get paid. They serve as a stepping stone -- no one, after all, just jumps into a book deal. Credits through literary magazines present a pathway.

....It's not just about career building, though. The magazines are a runway, where new literary styles are tested and emerge. New voices break through. If only large, established magazines continue to exist -- like The Paris Review or the New Yorker -- the diversity of the literary world will suffer, as Alaska Quarterly Review co-founder and editor-in-chief Ronald Spatz told CNN.

Literary magazines are a luxury, and I confess I do not subscribe these days. I shall have to remedy that, or at least ask the library to subscribe.  In little magazines, you have the opportunity to read writers you've never heard of, and may never hear of again, as well as the famous writers who draw readers.  The message from the all-powerful publishing moguls and university trustees is clear:  nonfiction matters little, literature less.  Print newspapers and mainstream magazines are also struggling, switching from paper to electronic, where we know in advance they won't survive.  

How will we get by when we're left with Twitter and Instagram?  The mind boggles.  There is much to admire on the internet, but much to lament.

7 comments:

  1. I have found that the literary magazines have drastically cut prices for their on-line subscriptions, so I subscribe to them including TLS (which I particularly like) and NYBR. The New Yorker seems to still be going strong, and I subscribe at its full rate.

    Of course, except for the New Yorker, these do not publish original fiction or poetry.

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    1. I do love established book review publications and The New Yorker, but I was thinking of the little magazines often associated with universities. Often printed on very nice paper, too!

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    2. P.S. They do have online versions, but I prefer paper!

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  2. They are still there, but have changed character somewhat (dumbed down but also more wide-ranging): quite a number of them are also highly involved in political reporting and issues. Those who mean to survive are also online. I get a number of what I call literary magazines: TLS became more of rag recently, and is politically reactionary, but it's about literature. NYRB and LRB mean to be. I get the New Yorker; if I want I can read the Paris Review.

    I never had any dreams the way you say you once did. Did not come from people where such dreams were allowed or facilitated. All I could manage was college and then graduate school. Then I met and married a man who made my life viable and happy.

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    1. As I said to Tony, I was really thinking about little magazines. I am a fan of the magazines you mention, but only The Paris Review counts as "little," to my way of thinking - and it is the biggest of the littles! Those that survive do have electronic versions. I miss the gorgeous paper, though~

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  3. But isn't the same phenomenon still continuing, though in a new form? There are so many literary blogs out there that no human reader could conceivably read more than a fraction of them - and many are very good. You can find any kind you like, politically and stylistically, and follow as many of them you have time for. I can only follow a few favorites, but every kind of writing is out there to discover. There's no need to spend money on expensive "little magazines," which have often seemed precious and self important to me, and ultimately disappointing. Although much of society will never go for anything more literary than Twitter and Instagram, as you say, there's still a wide world of people reading and writing and they find their podiums (or don't). Things move on.

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    1. Yes, there are many good literary blogs, and I do enjoy. them. We should be thankful for what we have. But I did find little magazines to be a treat. I do have to laugh at your finding them "precious," and I can see that. The betters ones often published well-known writers whose work had appeared in The New Yorker but been dropped, perhaps because they were out of fashion, perhaps because of new editors. So there are pros and cons...

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