Why Literary Magazines Are (Still) Not Dead

by Salvatore Pane

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock these last few weeks due to the stunning Democratic loss in Massachusetts and the subsequent three-year spending freeze, Editor of  the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ted Genoways, published an article on Mother Jones entitled “The Death of Fiction”. His hypothesis: nobody reads literary magazines, and therefore, literary fiction is doomed, doomed, doomed! The comments section of said article exploded, and a bunch of notable up-and-coming fiction writers, Matt Bell included, rushed to fiction’s defense as so many have in the past when the elderly rely on that tried argument that the novel should be dead and buried. The venerable HTMLGIANT published a great counter-argument citing many prestigious online journals that have sprung up in recent memory as proof that it’s not literary journals that are dead, but specifically print lit journals.

I’d like to take that train of thought and run with it. For two years I served on the Editorial Board of Hot Metal Bridge, one of the many small, university sponsored lit journals to come out in the aughts. I was Fiction Editor, then Editor-in-Chief, and now I’m Emeritus Editor. What I can say about reading slush piles is that there’s more writing being done than ever before. I inherited the magazine with only two issues under its belt and we received hundreds of submissions (in fiction alone) and that number grew exponentially with each new issue. That much is in line with what Genoways argues; he’s not saying there’s no writing being done. He’s saying there’s no readers. But with Hot Metal Bridge, our readership grew at the same steady pace as the number our submitters. If we got two-hundred fiction entries, we usually ended up with readers in the four or five hundreds, a readership that’s comparable to the many prestigious print lit mags that I deeply love. And as we instituted a monthly podcast series, a fiction contest judged by Tom Perrotta, and bi-weekly book reviews, our readership only increased.

So what’s the problem? It can’t be that people actually prefer reading on screens over reading print, and no one is arguing that the work being done on the onlines is inherently better than the fiction being published in the print mags. I suggest looking at that other fore-bearer of print media: traditional newspapers. At the start of the decade, major coastal newspapers struggled with how to handle online content (you may recall how at first you had to register free accounts to read material from LA Times and the New York Times online). But then the floodgates opened and pretty much every newspaper in the country decided to offer every lick of content (and sometimes more) for free. This has contributed to the collapse of the print media industry. Rumors that the old guards are trying to seal the genie back in the bottle by charging for online content will only give more of a lead to specialized news sources like Drudge Report, Huffington Post and Politico.

This same line of thinking can be applied to literary journals. With the advent of the free online lit mag (Narrative, The Collagist, failbetter, etc. etc.) it’s become less and less likely for readers or even working fiction writers to pay for more than a handful of print lit subscriptions if any at all. The literary magazine is not dying; the print literary magazine is decaying. But even that can be salvaged with an embrace of change and emerging technologies, not a steadfast belief that American letters’ best days are behind it. Take a look at Electric Literature, the upstart journal of last year. They offer established and emerging authors in a variety of formats. There’s print-on-demand for traditionalists, but also options for PDF copies of the magazine along with versions for the iPhone and Kindle. Perhaps this is the path forward. Not a “this side or nothing” mentality but a combination of both the print AND the online that can shepherd literary fiction during the decades to come.

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