The last issue of Poets & Writers magazine detailed drastic budget cuts at LSU Press and the Southern Review, LSU's signature literary magazine. The reductions, part of a major loss in state funding for the university, threatened the existence of the two giants of Southern literature. Their standing in the literary community is reflected in the fact that P & W would give such attention to the crisis.
Despite the cuts, it now appears that the LSU Press and the Southern Review will survive, although their scope will be limited. The online LSU Press catalogue shows a strong lineup of new books, including a poetry collection by Kelly Cherry and a history of foreign reporting by Jack Hamilton, longtime dean of LSU's journalism school. Southern Review editor Jeanne Leiby, showing an admirable pluck, said the review would continue, albeit reduced by 40 pages.
With more Pulitzer Prizes than any other university press, a reputation as the best poetry publisher in the country, and known as the discover of John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces," the LSU Press burnishes the university's academic and intellectual reputation. The Southern Review, founded by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks and the first publisher of Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and a host of others, is one of America's literary treasures. The loss of either would be a devasting blow to the university's intellectual mission and outreach to the broader literary world.
LSU wasn't alone in having to reduce funding to publishing: the article discusses Middlebury's cuts to the outstanding New England Review. Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz, in a stunning statement of philistinism, sniffed that the review is known only to a few students, apparently unaware of its reputation in the greater republic of letters. I also associate it with the Breadloaf Writing Conference.
These troubling developments bring the need to examine the role of academic publishing. Many of the LSU Press titles would have a limited audience, but others could draw a broader readership. With general interest magazines such as the Atlantic cuting its publication of fiction, journals such as the Southern Review give a place to short stories and fictioin that would not find an audience. Now, fewer writers and poets will have their work published.
Literary editors at such publications claim a high standard of excellence for their work, and I suppose it's true. But I also see poems and stories in literary journals that I don't like, that I wonder why they had been published. The literary journal should strive for excellence, but at the same time, it should be a place for experimental work, the half-baked, the creative leap that falls short. The literary journal is where writers discover themselves, take soundings of their talent, find the true tone of their voice.
Our great state universities across the nation are suffering cutbacks. The first place the bean counters look at is literary publishing. Many of these institutions tout how many research dollars they bring in, their role in economic development, their service to the business community. The universities must also serve the imagination and the questing mind.
The Poets & Writers article made it sound as if the Southern Review had a history of continuous publication since the 1930s, but this is not the case. Similar cuts in the early 1940s led the Southern Review to stop publishing, leading to Warren and Brooks leaving LSU en route to broader horizons at Yale. At last, in the early '60s, the university perceived the gaping hole left its academic landscape and revived the review under Lewis Simpson. How distressing that a university, the seat of historic research and examination, can so blindly ignore the lessons of the past.
The problems at academic presses and literary journals come as newspapers and magazines with huge circulations also suffer economic pressures. Some might wonder at the need of a publication like the Southern Review, with a circulation of 3,000, or a press that publishes books such as a look at the Gettysburg campaign of Brigadier Gen. Harry T. Hays. The Internet has led to a fragmentation of culture, and such limited audiences might make the LSU Press and the Southern Review appear part of this fragmentation. But such institutions, aiding literary and academic research, and offering an incubator for literary talent, build voices that eventually find a place in the broader culture. That the broader culture is severely reduced and offers fewer places for talent to develop shows that academic publishing must survive, as the primary source of work to keep the culture vibrant.
I'd long believed that the LSU Press and the Southern Review had built such a strong reputation that they were invulnerable. The recent cuts show how fragile such instutitions are in our increasingly bottom-line society. I am encouraged that the LSU Press and the Southern Review will survive, because of the strength of the readership they have nourished. While small, their audiences have strong economic and cultural influence. With political support unsteady, this community of writers and readers offer the best hope.