Rock Island, IL

Two more literary magazines—the TriQuarterly at Northwestern and Shenandoah at Washington and Lee—are among the most recent publications to surrender their print status. They will soon be published online only.

George Core, the distinguished and long-time editor of Sewanee Review, our nation’s oldest literary quarterly, lamented this in a recent letter to SR contributors (of whom I am one). Suffice it to say that he is not sanguine about the future of the literary quarterly consigned to the internet. He does not believe that the benefits, whatever they may be, will outweigh the costs. The Republic of Letters, he says, will suffer.

Seven years ago, in a piece titled “Quarterlies and the Future of Reading” (in Virginia Quarterly Review), Mr. Core wrote that “any successful editor of a given quarterly must establish or continue an editorial program (that is largely based upon the history of that magazine) and hew to the line involved.”

The Sewanee Review, not alone but nearly alone among literary quarterlies that provide a review of letters unobscured by vacuous critical jargon and unmoved by ephemeral literary fashion, has to its great credit done just this—and not just since 1973 when Mr. Core assumed the editorship.

What its fate will be as a print quarterly will depend in part upon subscriptions, of course. (It is a very inexpensive magazine to subscribe to: four annual issues for $25.) But its fate will also depend upon the commitment of its sponsoring institution, the University of the South.

Sponsoring institutions are not always reliable. In that same piece for the Virginia Quarterly Review Mr. Core wrote:

“The first series of the Southern Review ended when General C. B. Hodges, LSU’s new president, casually scotched it. He disingenuously announced this economy as part of the university’s contribution to the war effort in 1942. Hodges may have been a good tactician, but he woefully lacked a sense of strategy for LSU. The general, whose literary enlightenment was markedly less than his understanding of college sports, continued to pay for the upkeep of the LSU tiger in an airconditioned cage. The amount of money involved was almost precisely the same as the subsidy for the Southern, then the best quarterly in the country by a large margin.”

Mr. Core also noted that R.T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah, expressed dissatisfaction with “the disproportion between the number of people who would love to publish in Shenandoah and the number of people who would love to read it.

“I can’t help blaming some of this on creative writing programs,” Mr. Smith said, “that seem to spring up from dragon’s teeth sown by some demented administrator, but of course, some of those programs actually display journals and encourage students to read them. I continue to hope that at least a few of the students see reading as a pleasure in itself and not just a reconnaissance mission.”

But that is precisely what reading in “the profession” has become: a reconnaissance mission, detective work. Scholars read with both eyes wide open, one eye open toward publication and the other open toward publication—the point of a literary life being, obviously, publication. How many professional literary scholars toting their CVs around have time to stop and read Charles East’s “The Delta,” one of the finest personal essays ever published in the Sewanee Review? That essay is about place, and no scholar who’s going places can afford to give a damn about place–or about clear elegant prose.

As libraries become ‘information hubs,’ and as readers become more interested in links to other articles than in the argumentative links in what they’re actually attending to—and, moreover, as budgetary pressures force librarians to choose between computers and quarterlies—we are going to see fewer quarterlies of good quality in print. Browsing in the periodical reading rooms—where they exist at all anymore—will drop markedly. Mr. Core’s contention—that more will be lost than gained in all this—will undergo its trial.

Whatever good can be attributed to the work of FPR and its contributors—and, in the spirit of limits, I would call it a limited good (and perhaps a limited evil)—it will not, in my opinion, be the same as the good accomplished by a healthy culture of print quarterlies.

That is, I believe Mr. Core is correct. More will be lost than gained as such magazines as TriQuarterly and Shenandoah leave the world of print.

But of course something else has already happened. Men and women have left, en masse, the periodical reading rooms. They have left them for their monitors. They have left off supporting with their meager dollars a print culture and they have agreed wholeheartedly to support with their large dollars an electronic culture. Twenty-five dollars for the SR is considerably less than what anyone reading this o’erhasty piece has spent for his or her computer. Several more subscriptions could be added to that total before the sum equals the price of a laptop. I acknowledge that a subscription to the Yale Review does not buy you access to pgatour.com or yourtimevaccum.com, but that is a loss to which each of us must assign a value if we wish to do honest bookkeeping.

I write this on a computer I paid $35 for four or five years ago. I pay an electric bill so that I can run it and I pay a subscription fee so that I can have phone service and internet access. (I would gladly do without the phone, but I am not the only person who lives in this house.) That is, I am complicit—willingly if reluctantly, reluctantly if willingly.

Complicit thought I be, however, I have attempted for good or ill to limit that complicity. I have attempted to limit it because I see it as a movement toward something I am fearful of. That that fear may well induce me someday to eliminate even the $35 computer I readily acknowledge, and, if that day comes, EtherSurfers will not mourn the loss of Peters’s Wednesday “contributions”—especially not when they discover that for $25 they can get four good books per annum out of Sewanee, Tennessee.

But at the same time that I have paid my $35+ I have also paid for and attended to good quarterlies—out of duty, I suppose, and out of love and loyalty too, and perhaps out of guilt, but also out of the belief that my money is better spent on, and is more needed in the service of, a Republic of Letters in print.

Is my conscience clear? No, it isn’t.

We will come too quickly in any such discussion as this to matters of medium or form. I will be told that a pdf file available on the internet is no better or worse that a printed version of the same thing.

So I will say plainly that I do not believe that this is true. I do not believe that a medium is a neutral thing or that any technology is a neutral thing. I do not believe it is only the uses to which we put a technology that is at issue. I do not, for that matter, believe that the book or the quarterly is a neutral technology. Any discussion that begins with the assumption that the media are neutral is a discussion I am already done with. Good preaching is not good preaching once it’s on TV. It is already something else. It is already something less than what it was or could be. Many-a bad poem has been improved not by being improved upon but by being set to music. Remember your Marshall McLuhan.

I do believe, however, that the loss of print, should it ever come—and especially the loss of a healthy culture of print quarterlies—will portend little good for the culture at large. I am grateful to the readers of and contributors to FPR. I have enjoyed the onerous task of producing something every bloody Wednesday for … how long has it been now? But I will be grateful to know that FPR readers also support and read print quarterlies.

One could do worse than begin with the Sewanee Review.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

11 COMMENTS

  1. To lend support to your statement that technology is not neutral, I’ll point out that some of the traditionally oral cultures here in North America are opposed to the newfangled technology of writing. I have dabbled a bit in Ojibwe, which was once the lingua franca of the Great Lakes region. There are maybe 50,000 speakers of the language in the U.S. and Canada, and some of them have Ojibwe as their first language. So it’s not a dead or dying language, though some of the regional dialects are endangered.

    But many of the language-learning resources that used to be on the Internet are gone, intentionally so. There is a feeling among some that the language, and the culture that goes with it, should be learned face-to-face, from the elders, and that it’s not something that should be made available in writing, much less on the Internet.

    I have a few books in Ojibwe-English on my bookshelf, which attests to the fact that not everyone agrees with this idea. But people of the Wanabi tribe can run into considerable hostility if they presume they’re going to be loved and welcomed for wanting to try to learn some of it for themselves on the net, or in any way other than at the feet of the elders. Just as preaching is not improved by being put on television, the language and culture is not improved by being put down in writing.

  2. I’ll have to subscribe to the SR. I was disappointed to read in the most recent issue of ‘The University Bookman’ that they will be ending their print version soon, so the SR will make up for it (I’ll still read UB’s reviews online, but won’t like it as much). I hope ‘Modern Age’ never goes that route — that would be a severe disappointment.

  3. “Remember your Marshall McLuhan.”

    Jason,

    Like you, I lament the decline of the printed word, and the loss of these scholarly journals. But I’m not so sure Marshall McLuhan would have agreed with your views on the neutrality of various media. But who knows what McLuhan meant? McLuhan seemed to enjoy spouting ambiguous aphorisms designed to defy easy interpretation. No two academics will ever agree on the precise meaning of “the medium is the message” or why McLuhan wrote a book called “The medium is the Massage.” Recall the scene in Woody Allen’s movie where McLuhan dresses down a movie patron who’d invoked McLuhan in a film critique outside a theater “…you know nothing of my work.”

    On the other hand, McLuhan’s colleague, the late Neil Postman would have heartily agreed with your essay here. I’ve often thought that Neil Postman would be right at home here on the Front Porch discussing limits, Wendell Berry and community. If you haven’t come across it already, I recommend Postman’s address to the Media Ecology Association where he had this to say about McLuhan and media neutrality:

    “From the beginning, we were a group of moralists. It was our idea to have an academic department that would focus its attention on the media environment, with a particular interest in understanding how and if our media ecology was making us better or worse. Not everyone thought that this was a good idea—Marshall McLuhan, for one. Although McLuhan had suggested that we start such a department at NYU, he did not have in mind that we ought to interest ourselves in whether or not new media, especially electronic media, would make us better or worse. He reminded me several times of the lines in Stephen Vincent Benét’s long poem John Brown’s Body. At the end of the poem, Benét makes reference to the Industrial Revolution and finishes with these lines:

    Say neither, it is blessed nor cursed.
    Say only “It is here.”

    No room for moralists there. McLuhan claimed that we ought to take the same point of view in thinking about modern media: that they are neither blessed nor cursed, only that they are here. He thought that this moral neutrality would give the best opportunity to learn exactly how new media do their stuff. If one spent too much time on the question of whether or not that stuff was good, one would be distracted from truly understanding media. As a consequence, although I believe McLuhan liked me, I feel sure he would not have much liked my books, which he would have thought too moralistic, rabbinical or, if not that, certainly too judgmental.”

    http://www.media-ecology.org/publications/MEA_proceedings/v1/humanism_of_media_ecology.html

  4. It’s possible I spend too much time on the Internet. To wit, I read this and then went hunting to find that thing I’d read somewhere about the effects of medium on our imaginations and ability to pay attention… only to discover that said thing was a blog post here.

    As I wrote a ten or eleven months ago (in my blog, hypocritically enough): “The explosion of visual communication and the comparative shrinking of verbal communication undoubtedly effects our imagination and attention spans, and I’m stodgy (and hypocritical) enough to think that the move from article to blog to tweet is not healthy.” I was thinking in particular of all my journalist friends whose career field rapidly disappears or I would have referred also to the disastrous degeneration of the novel into the moving picture.

  5. I don’t exactly disagree with you, Jason, but would add that the Internet has prompted some of us to spend more on print than we used to. The Internet has made new and, notably, used books much more readily available. Once outfits like abebooks.com came along, I found myself buying dozens of used books that I wouldn’t have been likely to acquire without them. What is a better use of my money and time, a year’s subscription to a journal or the purchase of a fine old used book at a very fair price? (I’m thinking, at the moment, that the letters of Dr. John Brown, published 1907, will be my next book purchase, having sampled it at Google books.) It’s not just a question of money but of time.

    In sympathy with your essay, though, I will mention the painful spectacle of libraries discarding their serial archives because “that material is all available through Ebscohost,” etc. My wee university has just purged about 90% of its serial holdings. The library is to be renovated, and it is losing space, not gaining space. (This was not the library staff’s decision, but — the usual — a dictat from above, as I understand.) Work-study students hauled out cartloads of old magazines and journals, including bound volumes. I was invited to take what I wanted, which included 30 years’ worth of the Times Literary Supplement (from the beginning of our little university’s subscription; the earliest issue I have found in my lot is dated 1 Jan. 1970), and issues of various magazines with articles by our about C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, et al.

    Nice for me, but a pitiful prospect too. There surely is a loss of knowledge. Although all of the articles may still be available as pdfs (until Big Brother revises them), there is a loss that comes when one cannot readily turn the pages of the magazines and see which articles rubbed shoulders. You might have a Life magazine with a cover story about Apollo 13 and the same issue has a piece about the Beatles’ breakup, etc. I say that such things provide some access to the minds of people then that is now lost or at least lessened. Yes, the magazines’ tables of contents will have been digitized, so theoretically someone can look up each article for an issue, each article a digital file. I say few people indeed will do that or even think to do that. What a loss of the casual acquisition of an historical sense that could be evoked, formerly, simply by turning pages.

  6. I agree with this in nearly all respects, save that I would query whether the extinction of a good share of the literary quarterlies in existence might actually be a good thing. That purveyor of quarterlies, T.S. Eliot, always lamented the proliferation of too many books; Newman mocked the periodical culture of an earlier age as giving rise to “opinionatedness,” which was his quaint way of describing what we call techno-insta-punditry. While most Americans need to read more, they need to read more of less.

    SR is a wonderful journal — in appearance and in content. I heartily endorse any summons to FPR readers to subscribe to that organ. But let us not forget that the proliferation of creative writing programs brought with it the generation of new journals — for every program needs a journal, so that MFA students may gain valuable “experience” sorting submissions for the editors, so that the MFA program may claim that it houses a prestigious journal and gives its students “career preparation.” Most literary journals are abominations. Some are wonderful, great, good things. I would be happy to do the pre-death sorting, if anyone were interested. My rule of thumb would be that, if the authors in a magazine cannot be bothered to meter their verse, their verse should be burned.

  7. It seems like a necessary condition on praising the culling of (some of) the print media/literary magazines is that the culling occurs as a function of readers turning their attention (or demand) toward the better magazines. This condition, however, seems unsatisfied, given that good and bad magazines alike are suffering from smaller and smaller circulations and thus revenues, which suggests that readers aren’t setting aside childish things, but are rather becoming ever more deeply enveloped by them. In other words, the weakening of the print medium at the hands of the electronic media is brought about by readers giving over more and more often to “opinionatedness,” which, bad though the bad journals may be, the internet has in spades over print. [See: FPR]

    I don’t think anyone thinks that there couldn’t be fewer half-baked literary magazines from programs that produce for the sake of advertising that they produce journals. But if the cost of maintaining those is that electronic publications weaken and the good journals stay in business, I think this is a case in which we might do better with the devil we know.

  8. No doubt a large percentage of the Porch agrees with Peters here, and there are probably readers who would buy it- so why not a Front Porch Quarterly, if we believe that the printed word is superior to the internets?

  9. “Never has so much been published, so little been worth reading.” -Andrew Lytle, novelist, former editor of S.R.

  10. If I may add my 2-cents, my journal, the University Bookman, is switching almost completely to an online format. While I am a devotee of print journals, and subscribe to a number of quarterlies and monthlies, the economic ocnditions were simply not such to allow us to continue in print (even at only $20/yr). I am hopeful we can change that, but I second the recommendation to subscribe, as far as your means allow, to such journals.

    Gerald

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