The present and future of literary journals
What state are literary journals in? How are they changing? Those questions were at the heart of a discussion led by the editors of the White Review, Jacques Testard and Benjamin Eastham, at the launch of Issue Six at Foyles bookshop last week.
Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books and the editor of the n+1 anthology, was quick to remark on how many more literary magazines there were in the US: “They’re even at war with each other . . . . [As a writer] you can go from one to the other, trying things out”. It was with that fact in mind that the White Review was founded: its editors told Bookforum last year that
“In lit-mag terms, the literary scene in New York is infinitely more happening than London's. There are so many great magazines, many of which are youngish, that would have made the White Review almost pointless had they existed in London. We’re thinking of n+1, Guernica, Cabinet, the Paris Review, Bomb, Bookforum. In London, Granta is close to us only in that it publishes fiction and reportage, although they work with more established writers”. (See an interesting article about US literary magazines here.)
It follows that when Rachael Allen co-founded Clinic – a poetry, arts and music collective – in South London in 2009, in her late teens, the idea was to fill a gap: “We just found that a lot of the poems and poets we were reading weren’t being read by our peers . . . .We don’t have a game plan – we wanted to promote poets we were reading and were involved with. Then other editors and poets started to notice what we were doing”.
Testard and Eastham originally thought they could get by without a website, but soon learnt that that wasn't possible. Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor of Granta, agreed that “you have to invest in it”; Granta publishes one story from each print version online, plus lots of teasers, and commissions extra material especially for the website. “We don’t publish political pieces in print, but we can respond in a writerly way online.” The free content encourages submissions from those places where print subscriptions are not available.
As Lorentzen pointed out, the internet fosters a different kind of writing. “A polemical piece with an argument right at the top – that’s going to be a hit, even if it’s not a great piece of writing." (That’s not to say that more considered pieces won’t be passed around in the same way – he described “Alien vs Predator" by Michael Robbins as “the most viral poem in the history of the internet”.) He has observed a tendency for writing techniques acquired for the internet to “seep into print”. “The internet offers great possibilities. But we shouldn’t lose our commitment to paper.”
All three editors have experienced the exhilaration of discovering talented new writers. Lorentzen reads the slush pile every day (he was obsessive about this when he worked at Harper's Magazine, he said – he would find not only talented unknowns but, occasionally, famous writers – including Ray Bradbury and John Updike – who had ended up there because they didn’t know the relevant editor’s name). At Granta, it used to be interns who sifted through the slush pile; nowadays it’s senior editors. A lot of it is “unreadable”, Allfrey said, but she only needs to look at a letter written by Kazuo Ishiguro to be reminded of its value.
Granta hosts many more events than it used to; “it’s part of an essential growth”, said Allfrey. “It’s organic.” But “in the end, it’s the words on the page that really matter”. Allen and Lorentzen echoed this. For writers, “Knowing where you want to place your work is the really important thing”, said Allen. “I think you can just stick to using a typewriter and postage stamps”, said Lorentzen.
Below: A poem by Emily Berry from Clinic III, to be published in March.