Literary Journal and the Medium: not a review

Consider Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature, discussing the term “medium” in the context of communication (newspapers, journals, et al.):

“‘A medium’ or ‘the media’ is then, on the one hand, a term for a social organ or institution of general communication – a relatively neutral use – and, on the other hand, a term for secondary or derived use (as in advertising) of an organ or institution with another apparently primary purpose.”

His discussion continues a little later in the context of William Morris, with consideration of the medium as an intermediary.

“The special senses of ‘medium’ were then exceptionally reinforced: medium as intermediary agency, between an ‘artistic impulse’ and a complete ‘work’; or a medium as the objectified properties of the working process itself.”

Somewhat out of its context, this discussion of the medium may be used as a point of focus for the reconsideration of the utility of the literary periodical.

Robert Adamson told me years ago that he saw magazine publication as part of the drafting process, that the writer has to see how a poem looks in the context of publication before it can find its way into “the book”. One might assume that the book becomes a kind of end in itself. Another very different Australian poet, Robert Gray, revises his selected poems every time a new edition is released – a “loosely formal” poet, as he has been termed, he still engages with this rejection of closure. Publication does not mean the end of the evolution of the poem. By extension, we might conclude that meaning is open to change. No matter how minor a change is to a poem, meaning will be affected. Think of the editorial intrusions into the poetry of Emily Dickinson – the replacement of dashes with commas changed the pace and grammar and consequently potential meanings (plural!) of the poems.

So, is there an argument for the literary periodical as a staging post in the progress towards a realisation of the text? Maybe, but the journey of a text through various mediums of publication is one fraught with hazards – should it survive a few hundred years and a few natural or human-induced catastrophes, I’m sure the “authenticity” of the work might be questioned. Where the original drafts exist, evidence mounts in favour of a definitive text, but if these differ from its first journal and/or book publication, which do we take as definitive?

The journal is a way of exposing work to the marketplace, to give it a test run. Critical reaction will be rare, as journals rarely review other journals, and feedback will be limited unless you’re a controversial figure bound to incite hatred, envy, or even, more rarely, praise. Then the “criticism”, the feedback, is mediated through a cultural discourse that exists before publication in any case. The readers, that is, come to the material with a “notion”.

But we’re talking of the writer here. What of the audience? Should the literary periodical exist purely for the sake of the reader? Is it designed to entertain, stimulate reflective thought, lead to self-improvement, introduce a political dynamic, an ethical dimension? These words themselves illustrate the problem. Why need we ask: what should a journal do? Editors have a sense of what makes their journal different from others, what makes its presence necessary on the shelves and for subscribers. Why this model instead of that? Or this model will complement that nicely! It may be to make profit – rarely, though such a case might be argued for Granta or the more broadly based literary-mags such as The New Yorker. But even these massive commercial concerns come out of an aesthetic and a politics. The radical little journal thatÕs desktopped (as opposed to the old roneo’d), and stapled together at home to be distributed among friends and whoever will take a copy, is obviously going to be informed by a very different economics and politics from those of the glossy with a print-run in the tens of thousands.

Economic factors are going to influence content. The glossy mag editor is unlikely to run twenty pages of concrete poetry with fragmented ‘sub-cultural prose’ and line drawings, though they might feature an avant-garde writer who has cachet in the art world or general media. It’s about keeping those tens of thousands of readers happy. The ethical editor will attempt to appeal to his or her constituency, and generate “art” that has meaning, that is likely to influence debate or aesthetic principles “positively”. This is one side of the marketplace’s grubby coin.

The other is the generation of the literary periodical as a reaction to a specific situation. One might think of the literary newspapers that appeared in revolutionary Paris in 1847/1848. Or maybe of Baudelaire’s switch from ardent socialism to extreme conservatism depending on the paper he was writing for. The question of which papers he was writing for and where (Dijon?) is unsettled. But the point is that the editor’s principles in establishing a voice of the people (or even against the people) are often subverted by the voice of the “artiste”. When politics and aesthetics fuse, there’s bound to be trouble. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin wrote: “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” He ends the essay with this paragraph:


“‘Fiat ars – pereat mundus,’ says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of ‘l’art pour l’art.’ Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the firstorder. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicising art.”

Yes, and we might continue by adding that contemporary Western “democracy” has managed effectively to combine the two. It’s about competition, about “legalised” war. This is why enmity often exists between literary periodicals in the marketplace, why even if they’re as editorially bland as one another, they compete for names and readers. The politics that separate journals such as Overland (left) and Quadrant (right), are a rare thing, and very much a legacy of cold war origins. The end of the cold war has been seen as a reason to be “a-political”, to rediscover the aesthetic. This should be a warning. The cold war has a different face – it hasn’t gone and won’t go away. Be it misogyny, racism, social inequality, the destruction of indigenous rights and removal of tenure, the concerns are ongoing. The world is growing hotter. The paper on which to print the literary periodicals is vanishing. What is the point of the literary periodical? Surely to tackle these issues? This doesn’t mean a diminution of “standards”, it means an editorial awareness about how material is presented, how it is promoted, what the publication is sued for.

The paper point brings us to net journals. The future. Let’s not kid ourselves. Computers use energy and produce a variety of pollutions. They’re no more acceptable on that level than anything else. They don’t preserve forests, they just ensure we’ll have a way of reading things when the forests have gone – at least while we can still breathe. The astonishing thing about communications revolutions – be they the development of papyrus parchment, the printing press, or the world wide web, is that each declares itself as having more “utility” and benefit than the preceding instalment. It’s hardly worth pursuing this argument, as the irony clunks along loudly enough.

My issue is with the internet literary periodical as the “newest internationalism” in literature. Why, because people can view it in geographic spaces where book distribution might not previously have taken it? Or because of the chance of surfers stumbling across a literary journal that under no other circumstances would have enticed them? Whatever. The fact remains that literary journals, however they’re produced, no matter how successful their distribution (the TLS, New York Review of Books, LRB, Lettre, etc, do pretty well in print), are edited by people who have their own way of seeing. With the best wills in the world, they are a product of their immediate physical environment. They may have travelled extensively in the physical sense, to maybe coincide with their virtual travels, but linguistically they will remain fairly well centred.

I am married to someone who has four languages pretty well fluently, I know other people with twelve, and my co-editor at Stand is one of the finest translators of German into English alive; a true bilingual. But that’s it. And that’s a pretty narrow take on the world, never mind those who only have their own language, accent, and dialect. We can acquire information about other cultures, but we can’t and shouldn’t be them. The internationalism promoted in literary journals is about how an editor or editorial team or even publisher/s!! want to convey the “international” to their specific audience. It is regional, and it is mediated.

A constituency will be flexible – someone who hates the right might pick up Quadrant to read the poems, someone who loathes innovative verse might happen or choose to search out Jacket on the net, and someone who is only interested in performance poetry might like to check out the standards of Sport or Landfall – but in the main, they’ll read against it, and work outside the parameters of the texts themselves. I feel this is the most successful scenario. However, those who keep going back will be those who recognise something of themselves in these magazines. They will know the terrain. This is a generalisation, but I’ve worked on enough journals to get a basic idea of demographics. Ivor Indyk once said to me in an email, regarding the submission of a poem simultaneously to both Heat (Sydney) and the London Review of Books, that a poem published in the LRB would remove most of his constituency. Heat operates as an “international” journal, and the “kind of readers” it aspires too, might include those of the LRB. Whether or not it’s true, and whether Indyk meant it as an irony, the point is there: editors know who they’re editing for. To begin with, it may be themselves, but in the long run they’re joined by others – the readers. In many ways, readers edit journals and writers get picked up for the ride. Some writers, like Robert Adamson, make use of the experience.

I’m arguing, then, that magazine editors have a notion of internationalism that is a product of their own cultural, and often nationalistic, prejudices. It is easy to introduce work from other countries into one’s own via a literary journal, and to call it “internationalist”. But internationalism comes out of a politics or philosophy that might well exist outside nationalisms. Globalism, for example, is corporate empire-building, is capitalism’s “internationalism”, while Trotsky’s “world socialism” speaks for itself. [As an anarchist, I don’t “recognise” centralised power structures, and look to something I call international regionalism – this is where my argument comes from.]

Questions of internationalism are especially interesting when applied to web journals because they claim “international” or even “universal” space, but operate within the prejudices of language and culture. Or do they? Who ARE the editors of internet journals trying to please? Some, with a specific constituency, while expecting and accepting external viewing, make use of the medium out of convenience. They are operating within a consciously “finite space”. Others – such as the august Jacket, and the Cortland Review, come out of specific literary and cultural histories, and might be read as such.

There are numerous web journals in most languages (though few in dialects!), but the reference points for this current discussion are “English” – maybe one should say the “imperialism of English”. One of the benefits of the web has been the ease with which “underground e-zines” can at least attempt to infiltrate and undermine the mainstream. There are numerous anti-literary “lit” magazines out there, hidden in the fodder of search engines, known to interested parties. They appear and vanish. The nature of search engines might mean that some of these climb to the top of the pile, and are surfed more frequently. This doesn’t say much about literary culture, or the culture of literary periodicals, but it does about the variable and vulnerable nature of them.

Thinking about processes of reading, of reception, we might substitute “editor” for “author” in this seminal (note the absence of women – how many major print literary journals are edited by women? Few. This should change immediately!) quote from Wolfgang Iser’s “What is the Reader’s Place?”:


“The ‘stars’ in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable. The author of the text may, of course, exert plenty of influence on the reader’s imagination – he has the whole panoply of narrative techniques at his disposal – but no author worth his salt will ever attempt to set the whole picture before his eyes. If he does, he will very quickly lose his reader, for it is only by activating the readerÕs imagination that the author can hope to involve him and so realise the intentions of his text…”

Leaving aside the fact that one of the journals I edit is called Salt, this “truth” extends across to the editor. In arranging materials in a magazine – paper or electronic – the editor is almost “writing” his or her own work. It is its own genre, a genre of “mixing” other genres, voices, types. Set theory is more relevant here than “arrangement”. Pieces speak through, against, and with each other. You might be arranging material that seems to have no specific political content (though of course it does, whether conscious or not), but the dynamic of presentation will become a political statement: the absence or presence of gender, the consciousness of the environment in which it’s being edited, what one piece shows another is missing, or “lacking”, or avoiding. Arrangement is the editor’s creative political act.

Sadly, most editors are transparent in their technique – juxtaposing to highlight strengths, to highlight difference AND continuity. It is rare that pieces are arranged to create tensions in the process of reading, to create questioning. On the net, the fluidity of links makes the journey even more open. Of course, this can be aesthetically and politically interesting Ð at first – but itÕs the norm now rather than the difference. “Chaos” becomes the new heterodoxy. Does (a+b) = (b+a)? We know now, that no number is exact and that there are a variety of infinities. As Gertrude Stein begins her long poem “Lifting Belly”: “I have been heavy and had much selecting. I saw a star which was low. It was so low it twinkled. Breath was in it. Little pieces are stupid”. And so, too often, are the little reviews, despite their claims. Guilt drives me to add: but where would we be without them…?

In the end, it all comes down to money. The net at least allows the labour of love to be relatively inexpensive – one could theoretically work for nothing from a public library. But once external expenses become involved, it’s hard to keep the whole thing running. The amount of work someone like John Tranter puts into Jacket is phenomenal – unpaid, unfunded, other than through his partner’s literary agency. I mention funding, because of the Quadrant history (alleged CIA funding) and more recent journals where private funds and government funds have mixed. Ethical questions come into play, which often reader or writer donÕt know much about – what if the money is family wealth, family wealth that MIGHT have come via the arms industry? Or the sale of animal products (offensive to this vegan, for example), or maybe just damn hard work teaching. And if funded by a government through a public body, what kind of government? Is editorial policy influenced by such funding? Are such issues relevant? Does the general non-funding of cyberspace journals have broader social and cultural implications?

As an editor I feel I must approach this final issue: what is the editor after? Political effect? The engendering of a specific ethics? Aesthetics? Cultural “responsibility”? Cultural power? A sense of righteousness come out of altruism? Hmmm. The machine of publication both feeds on whatÕs being written, and helps, certainly in some senses, to create it. Magazine editors like to think they are generating culture, unless they are overtly subversive.

This discussion comes out of a terms of production, a fetishisation of the word through the public venue of the magazine which might be that publishing Baudelaire’s art criticism of the 1840s, or undermining of the Angry Penguins in the 1940s in Australia. Regardless, readers, writers, and editors should constantly question the processes of literary production and the literary periodical, and question the roles they play. In the end, it’s halfway somewhere or half nowhere. It’s that kind of medium.