When I founded the Contemporary Poetry Review in 1998, “electronic magazines” were not fashionable. In fact, the whole genre was considered to be, if not disreputable, then certainly distasteful–an enterprise not easily distinguished from the various “vanity presses” and poetry associations that exist for the sake of collecting membership dues from innocent and aspiring poets. Established poets did not submit their work to such journals, and academics frowned upon them as neither popular nor peer-reviewed.
Five years later that situation has changed, and remarkably so. In the world of literature, electronic magazines are vastly more popular than their print counterparts in the terms which matter most: readership. (The largest print journal of its kind in America, Poetry, has 11,000 monthly subscribers; ten times that number visit the website, Poetry Daily, every day. And what of the critical magazine? The Criterion, at the height of T. S. Eliot’s fame, had 700 subscribers. For the Contemporary Poetry Review, that is a day’s audience–and it doubles each year.) There is, suddenly, an audience for poetry and criticism that is much larger than anyone had dared to imagine.
This has come as a shock to everyone who assumed that the only audience for serious literature was the audience for our small-circulation literary magazines. The aptly named “little magazines” were so called because the number of their subscribers was always very small, but with the advent of the Internet some of them now have a large readership. How is this so? The reading public, it turns out, was not turned off by poetry, but by print . The problem, to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s most famous phrase, was “the medium” and not “the message.”
The history of 20th century poetry is inextricably linked with the genre of the little magazine, and much of that genre’s history has been forgotten. We must remember that the little magazine was an outgrowth–and the necessary vehicle–of Modernism. When the Modernists attempted to publish their works in the general-circulation newspapers and magazines of their day and were rebuffed, they were forced to organize their own magazines in order to break into print. Ezra Pound was the very type and role model of this era; he was the midwife of 20 th century literature by helping to found, edit, and fund dozens of literary magazines.
Many of them foundered, of course, though there are a few honorable exceptions still among us. In time, most of the surviving magazines received funding from our universities-and this allowed them a continued existence. There was a problematic side to this new relationship, however, for this signaled the beginning of the retreat of serious literature into a kind of academic ghetto, where it still languishes.
The real problem with the present world of literary publications is, of course, cost and distribution. The cost to produce, and therefore to purchase, a little magazine is exorbitant-it usually carries a price equal to a paperback book. Possessing a tiny readership, the little magazine cannot attract advertisers. Lacking advertisers, it cannot offset the costs of production. With no profit margin to encourage its sale and distribution, every issue of the little magazine begins its life stillborn as a commercial enterprise. Consequently, the genre survives by printing the fewest copies possible, while charging the highest price its readership will allow–since every copy is printed at a loss. The result of this marketplace Darwinism is that the little magazine is almost a couture object in our society–both difficult to obtain and expensive to purchase.
Since there are literally thousands of little magazines, the cost of “keeping up” with the important literary periodicals of the day to the individual reader is prohibitive, and the cost to libraries is staggering. Only well endowed university libraries can even attempt to subscribe to them in any great number, and it is hardly surprising that many smaller libraries no longer care to do so. The genre of little magazines, which was originally conceived to publish the difficult art of the Modernists, has ended up making literature itself inaccessible.
The editors of our little magazines often congratulate themselves on their devotion to literature, in spite of the indifference of the general public. Yet the vast majority of these publications have no circulation because they deserve none: they are unable to secure an audience even among fellow editors, poets, and teachers. According to the trade book Poet’s Market , there are more than 1,200 English-language magazines that print poetry. Far less than a tenth of these enjoy even a meager audience. Have such ventures actually sustained literature or, rather, cannibalized its audience? If Brooks Adams was correct that “all civilization is centralization, and all centralization is economy” then literature is not well served by the continued subsidization of little magazines by our universities and libraries. That has merely led to the Balkanization of poetry in print.
While it is true that consolidation would be enormously beneficial, the problems of cost and distribution still remain to haunt print magazines. The Internet, meanwhile, has solved the problem of distribution. The potential readership of the electronic magazine is every human being that has access to a computer . What will happen when poetry is always available, free of charge, like television? How large will its audience be? Was serious literature, was high culture unpopular in the last century simply because it was unavailable? We shall soon know.
Founding Editor 1998-2012