Writer and AGNI editor Sven Birkerts' essay "The Little Magazine in the World of Big Data" in the Sewanee Review's spring issue surprised me into thinking that the venerable journal had expanded its boundaries.
However, what I thought would be an appreciation of Internet and electronic publishing turned out to be a defense of traditional print journals. Birkerts' attitude toward the burgeoning world of online literary journals ranged from condescending to dismissive.
Birkerts takes a personal look at the the history of literary journals, recalling when he first encountered the Evergreen Review in the 1970s. In his view, that counterculture journal represented all literary journals of the time with its "outsider" perspective.
While the Evergreen Review was among the 1960s countercultural vanguard in publishing Beat and avant garde writers, Birkerts ignores journals like the Southern Review, Hudson Review and, most prominently, the Sewanee Review, which served as vehicles of an academic literary establishment. The Partisan Review was politically left wing while an establishment stalwart in literary matters. George Plimpton's Paris Review straddled all fields, publishing mainstream writers as well as more experimental material. The most radical publications of the time weren't literary quarterlies but more journalistic, political enterprises like the Village Voice, Ramparts and Rolling Stone.
While Birkerts gives a limited and distorted assessment of literary publishing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his view of literary journals as "outsider" voices at the time holds validity. Even traditional establishment journals like the Sewanee Review stood outside the prevailing mass culture of consumerism, TV and pop music. Such publications didn't become widely available on newsstands until the 1990s spread of independent bookstores and chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, a late flourishing of literary culture now endangered.
Birkerts ties today's proliferation of online literary journals to the growth of university creative writing programs. The purpose of literary publishing is no longer discovering extraordinary work for discerning readers but serving as a vehicle for MFA graduates' professional advancement, he says.
In his conclusion, Birkerts says that traditional print literary journals no matter how experimental now must fulfill a conservative purpose of upholding artistic values against the tide of online publications giving voice to amateurs more interested in self-expression and self-fulfillment than literature.
He's not entirely opposed to the online publishing culture, citing his own publication's web site and switch to online submissions, which he says has eased his editorial chores. He calls publications "outliers" that still require writers to send work through the mail, bearing the postage expense. Curiously, he fails to mention that the Sewanee Review itself is among that group of holdouts.
Traditional print literary journals, with their increased responsibility of upholding higher literary values, must increase their commitment to quality, Birkerts says, with heightened editorial discernment, increased artistic ambition and more imaginative use of special themed issues. In short, Birkerts endorses the editorial aims of the Sewanee Review, which organizes every issue around a particular theme.
However, the Sewanee Review has refused to follow other long-established journals in publishing artwork, a strategy that Birketts endorses. Art doesn't even appear on the Sewanee Review's trademark blue cover, with its title in its distinctive typeface and list of work inside. The Sewanee Review's appearance hasn't changed since the 1890s when the journal first began publishing. Perhaps the Sewanee Review and Hudson Review by holding to the written word exclusively are now the radical, "outsider" publications.
Birkerts is right that the Internet is a wasteland of sensationalism, celebrity titillation and trivialities. He gives that now oft-repeated condemnation a fresh stir. But he gives too little acknowledgment to those seeking to publish online literary journals of artistic ambition and literary worth. He doesn't consider that the Internet has given new life to literary publishing - the Evergreen Review itself has been revived online.
The 1970s also had its share of ephemeral journals popping up like wild mushrooms. The Internet might be littered with journals of little value, but it also contains jewels worth discovering.