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The statue on the green: the fate of small literary journals

Thing is, sometimes I think we don’t know what business we’re in.

A couple weeks ago, while I was in the cornfields discussing library software, the National Book Critics Circle had a panel discussion in New York City about the fate of small print-based literary journals. This grew out of writer Kevin Prufer’s plaint that his library had dropped subscriptions to several such journals, followed by my guest post to Critical Mass discussing the fate of these journals and the disservice that is done to the international canon when librarians drop subscriptions to literary journals with the justification that they are “online.”

It’s seventh-grade English all over again to observe that form is content, but apparently it’s a point worth repeating.

As I have noted before, full-text databases are marvelous, even indispensable research tools, but they are not an acceptable substitute for print literary journals. Online databases generally suck in some but never everything in a journal, and they extrude its content in half-right, disembodied, grossly fleckerized electronic format, ignoring the journal’s integrity of place (each journal issue has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and everything in that issue is there for a reason) and time (an issue is an ensemble performance, with a cast of poems, essays, short stories, reviews, and artwork that appear all at once; the journal’s serial nature is part of its whatness).

For a print literary journal, that integrity is key. I’m intimate with that integrity. I was a serial junky from childhood, when nothing made me happier than a fresh stack of Highlights and Consumer Reports, and for years I have read more serials than monographs—um, in Muggle-speak, I read more journals than books.

So I know that an issue of a journal is its own special experience, from its cover to its fonts to the arrangement of its pieces, with the editors’ loving attention to pull quotes, widow lines, and the like. The audiences for these journals—writers, readers, readers who want to be writers, professors, lecturers, and all fellow travelers—seek and even crave the formalism of the genre, perhaps because in a world that at times feels disembodied and fleckerized even when we are fully in it, the corporeal trueness of a journal is comforting.

A librarian first and foremost understands appropriate formats. Print is print, and digital is digital. To take a print object and make a digital copy is to create a surrogate object of the original, not to duplicate it with fidelity. As noted in my post on Critical Mass, you can’t replace the statue on the campus green with a microfiche of the statue; it’s not the same.

The surrogate copy may have its purposes; in some cases it may wildly improve on the original (as with some scientific content which is better off searchable); it may even be interesting in its own unexpected ways. But the original has meaning and purpose in itself, just as a slice of cake has meaning and purpose, and cannot be replaced by a picture of a cake and a food pill.

Writers (and some librarians) also know that journals also have a tremendous amount of incidental information. I have spent many hours researching advertising, photos, and notes in journals in order to recreate a time and a place, as I did for my essay “David, Just as he was” published this summer in White Crane. That incidental information is both part of the pleasure experience of a small literary journal and part of the stuff making up its whatness.

By small literary journal I mean both readership–Pleiades and The Missouri Review and Tin House are wonderful, but you won’t find them on most newsstands or for that matter in most public libraries—and, even more so, price. When Prufer asked why his library had stopped subscribing to journals, a librarian told him that funding was the issue. I’ve danced around the money issue before, but since librarians use that as a reason to stop subscriptions to literary journals, I need to tackle this head-on.

A comment to the blog post summarizing the NBCC panel discussion noted that science journal subscriptions can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and some academic libraries buy buckets and buckets and buckets of them. A Library Journal article from earlier this year demonstrates that average subscription costs for scientific journals are ten times the average cost of journals in the humanities (approximately $1000 to $100)—and that’s taking a very broad swath through the humanities, where some of the peer-reviewed titles extract more than their fair share of the budget, and not focusing on the literary journals.

Most literary journals run about $20 – $50 a pop per year–enough to give casual readers pause, as Stephen King recently observed, but far less than the titles that librarians are talking about when they say serials are expensive. A fairly comprehensive subscription to the Canon could be had for a couple thou a year, which is chump change against the scale of most academic serial budgets. I haven’t run the numbers, but I’m confident you could go hog wild and subscribe to everything on the list of print literary mags and still spend less than you would for one of the top ten high-priced journals at Williams College.

God forbid I should ever suggest a university should deprive its scholars of access to a $25,000 journal on brain research, but it is worth observing that $25,000 could buy 568 subscriptions to ZZYZVA, or 694 subscriptions to The Sun, or 836 subscriptions to Tin House, or 1,041 subscriptions to The Missouri Review, or 1,136 subscriptions to White Crane. Plus—though admittedly I’ve never seen Brain Research—I’m guessing the artwork in the lit mags is prettier, and the poetry has to be for-sure better.

The panel in New York offered some excellent advocacy tips, and I would only add “follow the money.” Librarian Susan Thomas of Susan Thomas of the Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY waved the flag of common sense with her suggestions that writing and humanities departments “[l]obby the librarians. And lobby the provost, the dean of humanities, the vice president, the president. Ask them to keep literary magazines and small press publications on the shelves.” But in that “lobbying” all of us should note that the average cost of one chemistry journal— $3,429—would fund approximately 100 subscriptions to literary journals.

It bothers me that we even need to make these points — and I worry that it’s just conference-panel-talk, where we all tsk, tsk and move along, move along.

Sometimes I think we librarians are so busy doing scholarly communication and gaming and blogging and getting NCIP to connect the hip-bone to the thigh-bone and on Dasher and Prancer and Donner and Vixen that we forget some basic stuff. Like how every issue of a journal has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and how the ink and paper smell when you crack the spine of a new issue and bury your face in the middle, and what it feels like to let your purse drop on the floor and slide into a chair and read Sascha Feinstein’s poem, “Shook Up,” and have that double shock of a good poem seeping into your mind as your eyes are feasting on the font, the order of words, and the faint orange margin lines on page 66 of the Spring, 2007 Missouri Review, so that even a lunk such as I, with my tragically unmusical ear, can almost grasp the beauty of this experience.

We think that if we can get a vendor to take parts of a thing, and jam those parts into a new format, and then stuff the sausage in a database, and link to it through our website, then our work on that boring subject is done, and we can go back to scheming about how we can get to the next fancy-schmancy conference to hear the same talks by the same pundits we heard at the last fancy-schmancy conference.

Because we have forgotten, if we ever knew, what it meant to slog across the lawn at the end of a long day and pull open the mailbox and have the sun come out shining all over our brain because there it was, the latest issue, with pages rough or smooth, deckled or razor-sharp, fragrant with fresh ink, just waiting for our touch.

And we have forgotten, if we ever knew, about the outlaw sensation of reading the best parts of a journal first, fanning the pages back and forth to shop, like running a finger across the back of a layer cake to get a heap of icing to lick while no one is looking. (Not that I have ever done either dastardly deed.)

Or perhaps we’re a little embarrassed by the topic, as if to advocate on behalf of something as humble as a $40 print literary journal read by that small rag-tag band wandering in from the English department meant we were low-tech and square. As if advocating for the statue on the green meant we were of a kind with the librarians who have mulishly resisted all good uses of technology, and our peers could now condescend to us for not “getting it.”

I do not exactly live on the Web, but I spend an unholy amount of time visiting its condos. So as a reader, a writer, and a true-blue digital librarian, I know I’m correct on this issue: ignore me or condescend to me, but when someone says a database is “just as good” as a print literary journal, I immediately see that emperor sashaying buck-naked down the street, his dangly bits swaying in the breeze.

Frankly, it irritates me, like a poppyseed caught in my bridgework, that I can’t get enough interest on this issue in LibraryLand.

Oh yeah, so true (yawn), too bad about that (yawn), tough about those journals, but I’m…

a) Running off to a conference on cataloging in Second Life

b) Working on my Farsi translation of Dance, Dance, Revolution

c) Drafting the NISO standard for Library 3.0

Then there was that sparkly young thing who said none of this mattered because We’re All Going Electronic Anyway, which is what I suspect everyone is thinking. Well, that takes care of that, then!

Yes, of course, we’re moving to a networked future. I read online literary journals (which, of course, are ignored by most commercial aggregators, since they aren’t a source of revenue). Hell, I even write for them. By gum, I’ve been known to blog.

But I’ve said it before about another, not-too-distant issue: as librarians, it’s not our job to engage in social engineering, and it is our business to advocate for our users; as that great librarian Marvin Scilken said thousands of times in his long career, the bottom line is service. If a community is best served by print literary journals–at least for now, and to a reader, now is what matters–then it’s our job to go to bat for them. That may mean pausing long enough to learn just what it is we’re delivering, but that’s our job, too.