Okla Elliott: The United States is unique in that we have literally thousands of literary journals, whereas countries like England or Germany have only a few dozen, and some countries have fewer than ten. Now, the circulation on some of these tend to beat ours, but not always. So, what is the effect of the massive number of journals in this country and the massive amount of stuff they publish each year, and what can a journal do these days to stand out from the herd?
Ben George: My own feeling, perhaps an unpopular one, is that there are too many literary journals in the United States, that not enough of them are publishing essential writing, and that there are too many aspiring writers who are not also dedicated readers. Strictly from an actuarial perspective, it stands to reason that the more journals there are, the fewer readers each journal will get, as everyone has the same twenty-four hours in a day in which to eat, sleep, meet obligations of every stripe, and then read. The glut of publications makes it difficult to chisel out a readership. I think writers ought not to submit to a journal on the basis of its reputation alone, but on the basis of whether the writer has read and enjoyed that journal. If it worked like this more often, the relationship between a journal and its readers and writers would be mutually beneficial. Each would be championing the other. And writers would cease to submit their work to an unexciting, run-of-the-mill journal just to see their name in print. They would be patient until they had written something worthy of one of their favorite publications.
The excessive proliferation of literary journals, though, is only one part of the problem—and I’m well aware that some would argue it’s not a problem at all but a cause for celebration. A tired but nonetheless valid and mostly irrefutable assertion is that a bigger problem contributing to dwindling readerships is the barrage of the other accoutrements of modern life (e.g., electronic social networking) that compete for our attention. Again, not to be a boor, but the increase in technology has not brought about an increase in one’s time. That will always be in short supply.
This being the case, the most important thing a journal can do to stand apart from the crowd, in my view, is to print material that people can’t afford not to read, to publish things that feel essential and lasting and may become part of Literature. Maybe that’s snooty. Or maybe it’s hopelessly naive. And there’s no denying that it’s tricky and maybe even pompous to try to chart what will be lasting. But it’s what motivates me. We are trying with each issue of Ecotone to say, “Here is a gathering of superb writing, and we believe that each piece assembled here will be worth the time that you give up to read it. You will be nourished in important ways.”
Beyond that, I suppose standing apart from the crowd can be accomplished by filling a certain niche that other publications aren’t filling. At Ecotone, as I’ve mentioned, one of our goals is bringing the sciences together with the humanities in a literary and compelling way. We like to flatter ourselves into believing that no one else is doing quite what we’re doing—that there won’t be another publication in the country, certainly not another literary magazine, where in one gathering you could read a full-length play by Denis Johnson, a comic strip by Jamie Tanner, and an interview with science writer Robert Kunzig about an innovative solution to global warming.
Jacob Knabb:To me there may well be too many literary journals. But that is a thing that tends to work itself out. The weaker journals fade. And they are replaced by others. It is hard to keep a literary journal going—especially if you are an indie and don’t rely on university funding to survive. However, I do think that the numbers are somewhat needed at present as the teaching of creative writing requires publication and most MFA grads want to teach. So, in the end, it’s a good thing that there are so many because it means that a lot of us get to live the dream and teach writing and think about craft throughout our workaday lives (though not myself, as I am one of a legion of MFA grads who teach composition).
A journal that wants to stand out from the herd, as you’ve put it, need mostly to put out good work and to be practical. Money does matter and many people go into this venture thinking that it doesn’t. Writing grants and raising funds and communicating with distributors/libraries/booksellers isn’t as cool as publishing an awesome poem or getting just the right font. But it is absolutely vital. Being mindful of the scope of your project is too. We’d all like to grow as large and as influential as Tin House, but we all can’t do that. The market will only bear so many Tin Houses at any given moment. And lots of journals grow beyond their means trying to do this and end up getting burned. We’re happy being an indie. We like being small enough to avoid having to worry about economic recession or being answerable to a board of funders or an institution. This allows us to do pretty much whatever we want when and how we want and as long as people like it enough to buy copies we are ok. We just try to make an awesome journal and to be smart about doing it so we aren’t wasteful. Hopefully that will let us do this for another 33 years, and I feel like it will.