How Do Literary Journals Survive?


Contrary to popular reports, the literary journal is not dead. Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland, the Melbourne based literary journal which is available to paid subscribers in print, and free to all comers online. We asked Jeff to contribute to our series on independent media outlets in Australia. We asked him how a journal like Overland confronts the technological and corporate transformation of the media environment.

I edit Overland, a literary journal founded in 1954, and due to publish its two hundredth edition later this year.

We’re lucky enough to have been shielded, to some extent at least, from the slow-moving hurricane currently wreaking havoc across the media landscape. "Little magazines", almost by definition, don’t require mass circulation: Wyndham Lewis’s Blast might have spurred the modernist revolution but it never gave the cash registers any kind of work out.

In any case, Overland, like most equivalent journals today, receives sufficient funding from arts bodies to insulate us from the throttling grasp of the invisible hand and to allow the publication of forms like poetry that have otherwise totally vanished from the literary economy. (Just try to find a bookstore anywhere in Australia with a decent contemporary poetry selection!).

In this era of intertubes and Twitterfication, we still employ an economic model from the age of the linotype keyboard. That is, though the journal is sold in bookshops, Overland depends mostly on subscribers, who pay a certain amount each year for four copies of a paper journal.

So far, so old school. Yet we also have a strong web presence, and we now make the entirety of each edition available online for free within a few weeks of print publication.

In this, we’re influenced by Cory Doctorow, the Canadian SF writer and Boing Boing stalwart. Writers, he argues, are more imperilled by obscurity than by piracy, and distributing work online helps build readership. In our case, online content encourages discussion and debate. If bloggers can read and link to an article, they’ll talk about it — and provoking conversations is what a journal of ideas, as we sometimes, rather pretentiously, call ourselves, is meant to do.

If you’re giving content away, doesn’t that undermine print subscriptions? Well, with present technology, most people simply do not want to read long essays or stories onscreen. Even the cheapest paper provides a better experience than the most expensive screen.

And the online environment does not exactly foster concentration. Any web editor knows the acronym TLDNR: "Too Long Did Not Read". You can start an exciting new story full of enthusiasm for some gun young writer, but along the way you’re all too likely to idly click on a link somewhere quite different — you begin with Gogol and end with Gaga, as it were.

Doctorow draws the following conclusion: "The good news (for writers) is that this means that ebooks on computers are more likely to be an enticement to buy the printed book (which is, after all, cheap, easily had, and easy to use) than a substitute for it. You can probably read just enough of the book off the screen to realize you want to be reading it on paper."

The steady growth in Overland subscriptions in recent years confirms this theory: online content actually drives interest in print. So is this a win-win situation? Can the print/online opposition be so nicely resolved? Well, not quite.

Firstly, our online efforts supplement rather than replace our traditional schedule. Like most publishers, over the last decade, we’ve found ourselves doing considerably more work without a concomitant increase in resources. The Australian publishing industry still works basically on paper — but everyone’s now also producing web pages, blogs, Twitter feeds and so on. Across the board, the rate of unpaid labour has reached dangerous and unsustainable levels.

Secondly, the distracted state that prevents online readers from absorbing, say, a 5000 word story or a long essay on aesthetics isn’t necessarily just confined to the screen. There’s a real tendency to see the challenges facing media — or, in our case, literature — as stemming purely from technology. But that’s not true — or, at least, it’s only part of the story.

Consider Doctorow’s explanation of why your computer doesn’t lend itself to the reading of novels: "We run IM and email and we use the browser in a million diverse ways. We have games running in the background, and endless opportunities to tinker with our music libraries. The more you do with your computer, the more likely it is that you’ll be interrupted after five to seven minutes to do something else. That makes the computer extremely poorly suited to reading long-form works off of, unless you have the iron self-discipline of a monk."

What he describes is also, however, a pretty good account of the pressures exerted on the rest of our multi-tasking, overstimulated, perpetually "on" existence. We work longer hours than previous generations and the distinction between leisure and labour has broken down to an extent unimaginable a few decades ago. We take our jobs home; we come into the office on the weekend.

The computer might well be extremely poorly suited to reading longform texts — but in some ways, that’s the least of the problem. The real threat to literary journals — and, I would suggest, to serious journalism of any kind — is not the internet but rather a neoliberal society in which the contemplative mindset required by traditional reading becomes increasingly anachronistic.

In his famous study of social relationships in the US, Robert Putnam famously explained: "For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed, and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of a century. "

The same trends are apparent here, and you can plausibly correlate them to the hyperindividualism and atomisation resulting from 30 years of neoliberalism. Significantly, as Margaret Simons notes in The Content Makers, the decline in newspaper readerships was already marked long before the internet arrived. Newspapers depend on a shared public — and that shared public has been disintegrating ever since the 70s.

In a society that works like a lonely crowd, traditional writing and traditional reading can seem as out of place as, say, five day cricket. An unrestrained free market fosters instead a kind of Twenty20 writing: short, punchy and entirely disposable. Years ago, Bill Hicks predicted that, in the future, the media would consist of a naked woman masturbating next to a slogan. If you look across the web today, you can see exactly what he meant.

What’s the alternative?

Contrary to appearances, serious reading has always been communal. In Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill’s new book Radical Sydney, Bruce Scates describes the political bookshops of the late nineteenth century as "vibrant social centres … [places that]ended the isolation, loneliness and confusion that so often plagued the working-class reader. In the reading rooms, books and newspapers, light and warmth and companionship could all be had for a penny’s admission."

Overland, as it happens, emerged alongside a similar cluster of political and literary organisations — the Realist Writers’ Groups, the Australasian Book Society, etc — that collectively forged a community of readers and writers.

To survive today, alternative publications will need to do something similar. Overland has become a project as much as a journal, in which public events, festival appearances, a group blog, and Twitter and Facebook accounts all play a part. Yes, we still depend on subscriptions — but we’re increasingly thinking about subscribers in much the same way as a public radio station does. You take out a subscription to 3RRR or PBS not so much because you have to (there’s plenty of people who listen for free) but because you identify with the station and you want it to continue.

So too with Overland.The community around the journal and its political and aesthetic goals not only ensures a base level of financial support but it also fosters an environment in which reading and writing seem to matter.

It’s not a model that will work for everyone but it does gesture to a broader point — which is simply that the media crisis is, at base, a political one. The real opposition in these debates is not between print and screen but between the collective and the individual, the market and the people, the public and the private.

Consider, for instance, how Murdoch’s plan to paywall his media content has led to a bitter (and already partially successful) campaign against the BBC. The News Ltd paywall is, as everyone knows, bad news for journalism, irrespective of what it does for company profits. A pay-for-content approach will mean you can no longer link to news. It takes the "inter" out of the "net", and transforms the web from a network back into a glorified electric newspaper. Quite obviously, the BBC model with its free content provides better value both for readers and for writers — which is precisely why Murdoch calls it unfair competition.

That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma we all face. As I’ve argued before in, there’s no reason why a government shouldn’t fund a public newspaper — which is essentially what the BBC site is becoming — in the same way it supports ABC TV and radio. It’s not just about providing better news. It’s also that by insisting on collective responsibility for a social good, which a healthy media clearly is, we help create a public sphere in which news and other writing can be discussed, debated and appreciated.

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