Those of you with more substantial lives may have missed the interesting conversation stemming from Mike Lista’s newest column at the National Post. The thesis, in brief, is that the death of a certain percentage of the nation’s literary magazine, though bad for those magazines and the people who read and write them, might be good for the national literature as a whole.
If you’d like me to give you a reader to bring you up to date, I’d recommend first hitting the source, and then maybe Laurie Fuhr’s rebuttal, which is the best and the most nuanced (not that being the “most nuanced” rebuttal is difficult when poets are talking about economics). In fairness to Mike, please note that Laurie’s not hemmed in by column length. That matters.
You should read both opinions. You should do this because you’re plural thinkers willing and able to consider multiple opinions. You’re Vox Pop readers. You’re not distracted by the simple braying of other web-based sources of literary information I could mention but won’t, because I’m on vacation and in a good mood.
Of course, I have some thoughts on the issue. Feel free to add your own.
1. I’m relieved, and excited, to hear a model of Canadian literature that does not treat the possibility of losing a few journals as a Pompeii moment. To clarify, I disagree with the statement I’ve heard before that “we have more journals than we need.” That’s not really what’s happening here. I will say: we have more journals than we’re using.
2. This really is point 1b, but whatever…The lit. journals I regularly read are: Arc, CNQ, Open Letter, and Poetry is Dead. I venture into others, but those are my big four. I would argue that all four cover distinct aesthetic and cultural territory, and while there is (blessed!) overlap between the four, I don’t think I’d struggle to sell them to anybody as *different* magazines, with separate audiences, politics, and intentions.
3. Lista’s prediction of the future of literary publishing uses a model of commodity economics that I don’t feel is prescient. “Literary magazine” is not the product here. However, to defend him against his more voracious critics, that product is also not the more general “literacy”. One thing I can be certain about is that (not to pick on them, I’m choosing them at random…) “The Fiddlehead” is not an agent of public literacy. People who read The Fiddlehead are already leading highly literate lives. NOW Magazine (or The Coast, or whatever the alt-weekly is in your city) is an agent of public literacy, as its readership may or may not be reading everyday otherwise. The Fiddlehead is an entertainment for a literate sub-population. It’s not increasing the country’s number of readers.
Anyway, “Literary magazine” is not a commodity in the same way that “pork bellies” are a commodity. We don’t care what kind of pork belly it is and where it comes from, we consider all pork bellies equal in the tally. A view that assumes that if we have a third as many magazines, they’d have three times as many readers, neglects the qualitative dimension of reading as much as it neglects purely economic factors like serial consumption, collaboration, and product-mixing.
4. I think that the magazines most likely to survive without any external funding are the ones that can identify themselves as unique offerers of content. I’m sorry for these cold, clinical words, by the way. But, I’d argue that we need them. I feel that all four of the magazines I mentioned in #2 are unique. I also feel like we have, maybe, 6-10 journals in this country that are well-supported by institutions and government, and are not unique content providers. What’s the difference (aesthetically, politically, editorially) between Grain and Prairie Fire? I like both Grain and Prairie Fire, but this is likely because I like both poems and short stories and Canadian lit. I like the non-unique content they offer. If asked, Which do I like more? I’d fail to even understand the question. There’s no difference between them. And very limited difference between them and The Antigonish, Fiddlehead, The Malahat, et al. Don’t believe me? Do this: tear the cover off of all the back issues on your book shelf, and throw them in a bag. Now pull one journal out of the bag, open to, say, page 40, and start reading. What journal are you reading? Answer me quickly. Don’t look at the spine.
5. Variety can’t be measured quantitatively. To that end: “We have a diverse literary culture in Canada, as evidence by our forty-seven literary journals” is a bogus statement. We only have a diverse literary culture in this country if we are using those forty-seven (a made up number, likely hyperbolic) in the service of diversity. Moore and company have evil in their hearts, but at least a sliver of their brain-dead lexicon (“eliminate redundancies”) is valid to our situation. All we are is a house of redundancy.
6. It’s dangerous, as both Lista and Fuhr have done (and, full disclosure, I’m about to do) to try and predict the future. Nobody will get it right. That being said, here’s my concern about where the funding changes might take us….
Imagine I’m correct that the beige standard of mainstream literary publishing (I’ll call it the “I just want to publish good writing” effect) is what dies out in ten years, this is in no way good news for the remaining journals. And it’s worse news for the writers, even those who still get published, and even those who, like myself, were always suspicious of the journals’ advertised role in the creative ecology of the country, anyway.
It is in the nature of threatened organizations (governments, companies, families, eg) to revert to a more conservative approach. We tighten up. We focus inwardly. I’m concerned that the best way to weather a new economic obstacle is to “shore up support”. Thus we retreat to our tribes and our bastions. If Open Letter find themselves to be the country’s lone remaining avant garde literary journal (and I pick them only because I like them the most and I’m familiar with them, who knows if that’s how it would happen) then they suddenly inherit the readership and the burden of that singularity. They move from being a journal of avant garde Canadian writing to a journal of the avant garde Canadian writer. I’m not sure what would happen next, but imagine that one-off stabs at crossover aesthetics (like the brilliant recent “Humour” issue) become things of the past. The same retreat/defense maneuver plays out around the comparable aesthetic milieus at Arc and CNQ. In twenty years, is it conceivable that anyone is published in more than two of these three magazines? Wait, is that even happening now?
I’m leaving Poetry is Dead out of this part of the conversation because A. Methinks they don’t get any funding already and B. They are pirates. And pirates will always survive somewhere, wedged under the national floorboards, in basements and study halls, with nothing but their youth and their I-dont-give-a-fuck to guide them.
7. People who read this blog will see the scenario described in #6 as my version of the hellish, post-apocalyptic nightmare of Beyond Thunderdome. It’s in this view of a potential future that I disagree with my friend Mike, as grateful as I am that somebody would take on the sacred cow of periodicals funding in the first place. I don’t see how the Moore model fosters a national literary culture, unless that nation is Yugoslavia.
But I don’t know. This is important to say: I’ve thought about it, even written about it a bit (again, on vacation, while watching the news and listening to a relative’s story about her teaching job–so mind the typos, kids) and I don’t know. None of us know the future. But I think that we should probably all be scared.