The State of Literary Art II: of Literary Magazines

One of the things an aspiring writer learns quickly is that literary magazine editors are a quirky lot…but that there are lots of literary magazines these days….

cover, Fiction International (image courtesy Fiction International website)

(For previous essays in this series, look here)

My second essay on Joe David Bellamy’s interesting look at the literary community at the end of the last century, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, is Bellamy’s essay on his time as a literary magazine editor (and founder).

The essay is really about two issues – issues that relate to the politics behind literary fiction and its outlets and the politics surrounding the relationship between creative writing programs and English departments. Bellamy’s essay is worth a look because it reminds us of the evolution of English departments, the rise of creative writing programs, the role of “little” or literary magazines in the move of serious literary work (both fiction and poetry) out of the mainstream, and how the Internet has allowed a renaissance of sorts for literary magazines many of whom were almost done in by publishing costs before the Web came along to save them (and allow the rise of many new journals including the one here at Scholars and Rogues).

Bellamy’s essay also offers a good history of the “old system” of literary magazines, those who either still publish in print (with ever diminishing results) or have only very recently moved to online publication.  That will allow me to offer a few remarks about the newer, somewhat chaotic scene that has arisen thanks to the proliferation of independent publishing outlets who can make their way via the Internet. 

Bellamy’s essay (really a sort of semi-fictional memoir) takes place a good while before the arrival of the Internet, so the focus is on paper and ink magazines. While these sorts of journals that focused on publishing serious literary work have a history before their association with university English departments (here and here are famous examples), many arose in the flurry of artistic and literary activity of the 1950’s and 60’s and were fostered by college and university English departments. Bellamy, who joined the ranks of college teaching at that important moment in literary journal history, was chosen by the department chair at the state university where he got his first teaching post to be editor of a new literary magazine. He got no extra pay; the journal was to be a labor of love and literature.

He was, Bellamy admits, a good choice despite the job’s decidedly unrewarding terms. As an undergraduate he’d created his own literary magazine at Antioch College. He also had the brashness of youth, as he freely admits. So he dove in and built the magazine into a formidable outlet for literary work; in the last year in which he was associated with the magazine, five stories from the magazine got mentioned in Best American Short Stories for that year.

Alas, it was hollow recognition. Bellamy had taken a job at another institution and had been told in no uncertain terms that by leaving his post to take a job with another school (that had offered him a better job with higher pay and working conditions) that he had forfeited his association with the literary magazine that he had founded and whose reputation he had built at his old school. The university more than Bellamy (at least in the short term) was the main beneficiary of his efforts.

It all ended happily. Bellamy went on to found Fiction International at South Dakota State University, an even more distinguished journal. And the original journal he founded at his first job in Pennsylvania has continued to be successful. (He does not name the journal – or the school – though one could figure it out with a little sleuthing.)

Thus he illustrates a political maxim of being associated with a college or university –  it is possible (and indeed probable) that work one does while working for the university will be considered university property by that university. One assumes Bellamy has made his peace with the appropriation of  the good name and goodwill he built for the university’s journal by the university. Still, he did write this essay….

The other issue that Bellamy discusses is his relationship to the organizations related to literary magazine publishing, particularly the Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers (COSMEP). Here Bellamy is gossipy, describing meeting George Plimpton, Leslie Fiedler, and Allen Ginsberg. The name dropping is part and parcel of the way the old system worked and works, however; what Bellamy, whether he means to or not, is doing here is pointing out that “connections” to the already established is the surest way of getting on the the literary community. This is neither good nor bad in itself; this sort of networking and hobnobbing is part and parcel of making one’s way in any career. Unfortunately, however, in the arts (in this case literature), it is possible for writers of lesser talent with good social skills to advance their literary careers beyond those of greater talent who may be less adept at glad handing.

Finally, of course, there was “the great disruption, just beginning to make itself felt when Bellamy published Literary Luxuries in 1995 – the rise of the Internet. The Internet’s rise has been both a boon and a disruptive force in the literary community. As creative writing programs have proliferated (and newly minted graduates have, too), the costs of producing ink and paper lit journals has skyrocketed and forced journals to raise their subscription rates to levels that audiences by and large  cannot or will not pay (this same issue has seemed to cause even greater consternation at scholarly research and criticism journals) large subscription fees. Libraries, which have been strong supporters of both literary and scholarly journals, have faced both budget constriction and user decline problems and many have dropped subscriptions to print journals drastically as a result.

This has created both crisis and opportunity, as the jargon likes to term such situations. While the old guard (represented by organizations like COSMEP, AWP, CLM, et. al.) has continued to focus on subscription driven models (and many have suffered greatly in this era of Web user expectation of freebie everything related to art), the proliferation of online literary magazines that are available for free (and the writers who publish there for no pay) has created a powerful upsurge in both the availability of and demand for literary work. This is a good thing because it gives many authors exposure who, for whatever reasons, personal or political, might be shut out of the old system. However, unless writers and editors can figure out how to monetize  this brave new world, we may all be reduced to being what one writer has termed gifted amateurs. Still, doors are open for all writers now in ways that they were not earlier. And the large number of literary journals online has diluted the power of the old system of magazines to a point where the old glad handing methods may no longer be the best option for advancement for writers.

It would be interesting to know what Bellamy thinks of these changes. He seems to have embraced the Internet. Wonder how he’s feeling about these new realities and their effects on the future of serious literature in America?

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About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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