I recently came across an old professor's list of literary journals from 2002 while searching for publications to add to Readsfeed (my project to assemble and track every new story, poem, and review posted online by respected literary outlets and send them automatically to readers via Twitter @readsfeed and RSS).
Here's the list:
Many of those publications, though, I couldn't include in Readsfeed because they don't actually publish content online.
These technologically stingy websites made me wonder: what exactly is the mission and use of literary journals in the digital era?
90% of the journals on that list are ones with perfunctory web presences, with pixelated logos, PDF samplers that could easily have been posted as HTML, and a mailing address instead of an email address or a form for submissions. These are sites created around 1999 when editors thought "Maybe we should have a website?", then made one, and still oddly maintain them within their ten-year-old frames.
It's a failure of attention, care, or caring that makes their content irrelevant or literally unreadable online.
This failure is especially true of smaller journals, most of which don't post stories and poems online. They post excerpts at most, a table of contents on average, and a mere physical mailing address for requesting copies at worst. And they do this because they don't want to cannibalize their hardcopy sales.
Except what they're actually cannibalizing is their readership.
These publications put their stories above their readers. But without readers, the best story is as good as a blank page. Readers, it turns out, want different things than they did fifty or even ten years ago.
The necessities of print submission and distribution created, over decades, an entrenched sense of hierarchy, that good stories logically move from writer up to editor and back down to reader. But readers, with new online practices introduced by other media and applied to everyday life, expect a conversation with the people whose work they read. They expect a feedback loop. They expect access to literature.
These publications, then, are in trouble, because they don't communicate with their readers when they easily could. They don't seem to care that a generation is coming of age that loves books, loves talking about books, but which does it all with electronic mediation: ordering books on Amazon, posting a review on their blog, recommending a poem on Facebook, forwarding a bookstore's email saying a favorite writer is coming to town, finding like-minded readers on Meetup.com to get drinks with.
This should be a golden age of literary journals. And it is, for some larger forward-looking publications. McSweeney's, the New Yorker, Tin House, and others have found compatibility between financial sustainability and what my old boss Henry Jenkins calls "spreadability", removing barriers to sharing content so that fans can build communities around that content.
Successful literary publications know that obscurity is the shortest path to failure.
To ask the question again, what is the mission and use of literary journals in the digital era? It can't be publishing for publishing's sake, because anyone can publish now. It's not as much to act as gatekeepers, because huge communities exist using easy technologies to find and elevate good writing.
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. At heart that mission isn't any different than it was eighty years ago. But in the digital era, that means making good writing easily, more freely available.
To do that, small journals don't need to--and shouldn't--print a bound volume four times a year.
Smaller print journals served a great purpose when sharing a short story or poem was restricted by geography. Print and voice were the only media. But things have changed. All traditional purposes of small journals--including teaching students to evaluate fiction, bringing attention to great new writers, creating a literary community--are now better served by posting writing online or using other forums in combination, such as public readings, fan groups, podcasts, and almost everything else besides print.
The small print-only journal now, for its small audience, is inefficient, maybe even a waste of money. The only thing it's really good at? Keeping people from reading good writing.