The Not-So-Golden Era of Literary Magazines

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

Are printed literary magazines still as important as they were in 20th century? Could we still count on a monolith literary field in today’s world? What’s to be done, and how to adapt to a whole new scenery? These are but a few of the questions that I am proposing, without any preconceived answer. Things are far more complicated in the times of change, as Bob Dylan sang back in 1964: “Dont speak too soon // for the wheel is still in spin,” but let’s try at least to spot the trajectories, and to draw a blind map for future researches.

In Serbia at this moment there are at least 90 registered literary magazines. In the region of former Yugoslavia, in which the same language is spoken (i.e. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia), there are even more, the number exceeding 200. But the vast majority of them, including the one I am editing, are being triaged in the ER: They are barely alive. The main problem is, of course, money. In our brave new blissful capitalist world, there is no room for culture. Okay, there is, but only if it makes a profit. Literary magazines, by definition should, or at least could, make some profit, but in the reality they don’t. We are all dependent on funds provided by governmental agencies such as Ministries of Culture, provincial Ministries or/and the City council. And since the great crisis in 2008, but even before, cuts were installed. Without sufficient inflow of cash, no literary magazine could stand up to its own production policies, and the standards have been lowered. Design, print quality, proofreading and editing suffered. No one could or should work without payment, so the situation deteriorated. The inherent idea of a literary magazine – its regularity – has been broken. And if you don’t have enough editions during the year, how can you call yourself a literary magazine? Most of us became literary yearbooks or almanacs, which is simply not enough.

One could ask, But why not sell a magazine in bookshops and earn enough for self-preservation? For instance, in the 80s, you could buy literary magazines at the news stand. But today, at least in Serbia, there is just one bookshop that is willing to take magazines for sale. Since the regularity got irregular, not even they would take and sell something that had taken a year or so to be produced. The readership had already forgotten that the magazine existed. They turned to the internet, and there they’d found the content they were once looking for in the printed magazines. That ruined the scene. The readers are not to blame. Printing seems too slow for today’s world. Especially if you want to be at a pace of literary production that is, against all odds, growing. There are more writers, poets and dramatists today than there were at the end of previous century. Or, at least we have the impression that there are, since anyone can get published on the net.

There is the catch. Publishing on the Internet is, to say the least, without any criteria. Anyone can start their own blog, or vlog or YouTube channel, but the quality of most of the material found there is controversial. In fact, most of it is sheer rubbish. Printed literary magazines were not like that. Not everyone could get published. There were, and still are, editors, and editorial boards who take care about the image of a magazine, its profile. That is why there is a constant need for printed stuff.

Over the last couple of years, the growth of e-books has stopped. From, let’s say 2005 till up to 2015, the production of e-books was in constant growth. But in 2015 and 2016, the number of printed copies started to show a kind of renaissance, namely the e-books market shrank in favor of the printed one. There we can look for a chance to reinstall printed literary magazines, because people simply prefer to read on paper than on a screen.

But to achieve that, we have to change our cultural policies and to give away the majority of magazines. The historical perspective teaches us that the most of the literary magazines were founded in the 60s and 70s, in almost every town in former Yugoslavia. Most of them survive today. They are sucking up funds that are scarce and limited. For instance, if you have 100 units of money to share, you will have to divide the sum into ninety pieces, so that everybody will be happy, but no one will be able to do the job properly with the amount given. Authors, editors, proofreaders, printers, designers, etc. do not get paid (or not nearly enough to match the effort). But if you divide that sum into only ten pieces, magazines could again be prestigious. In other words, the market or the field should be first reduced, and then divided. That means that we should specialize literary magazines more strictly. For instance, there should be one each for poetry, novels, short fiction and criticism, one for upcoming artists, a few per genre, and so on. Classically-conceived literary magazines, in which you have a bit of everything, are coming to their end. They can exist only on the net (where, conversely, highly-specialized sites tend to do better than broad ones), and that is also only relative, because that kind of magazine seeks a lot of money. The field that was once perceived as a whole, is now particularized and divided. We should simply acknowledge that fact and adapt to it.

It is a well-known fact that, without literary magazines, there is no literary scene. You cannot follow and take part in a national (or transnational, in the case of the same language) literary field without quality magazines. So let’s try to do the job properly, if we want it done. If not, well, that is another question, which begs for different type of answer.

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Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal e-novine.com and booksa.hr. He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum, pescanik.net, proletter.org. He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC. 


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