A Sorcery of Circuitry: Behind the Screens of Online Magazines

Katherine Swiggart
From the September/October 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

It is 2003, and those sages who not long ago were wringing their hands over the Death of the Book seem to have scattered and blended into the hills, gone the way of millennial doom decreers and Y2K hoarders. (No doubt a few still survive in culverts or caves, clutching their quills and acid-free copies of The Gutenberg Elegies and Poetry Could Have Mattered.)

The very popularity of the phrase <i>print journal</i> proves that the heyday of the online journal has begun.

But while dire prophecies about the future of the book were often heard in the 1990s, even then few seemed to lose sleep worrying about the death of the literary magazine. Is this because the idea of a magazine matters less to readers than the idea of a book? Or is it because the magazine has never pretended it would last in one permanent form? In any case, the very popularity of the phrase print journal, now bandied about in bookstores, libraries, and wherever else the printed word would most like to hold sway, proves that the heyday of the online journal has begun.

Electronic journals are inexpensive to produce, and for those online editors who recall struggling for both funding and autonomy from their sponsors, this is an especially freeing revelation. As Steven Kelly, who founded the U.K.’s first literary online-only magazine, observes, “If the Richmond Review had to cover print costs, it wouldn’t have come into existence in the first place.” Like Kelly, who says that the Richmond Review is “at heart a print journal, just done online,” John Tranter, founder and editor of Jacket, sees his journal as “an old-fashioned print magazine in disguise.” It’s “printed” in full color and designed for readability, he says, and “gets distributed all around the world instantly, more or less for nothing.”

Excitement generated by a change in the method of producing magazines is not new. Nearly two hundred years ago, in his study The History of Printing in America, Isaiah Thomas pointed out that the “circulation of Gazettes” made possible by the printing press in the 18th century was revolutionary. Never before, he wrote, were journals “so cheap, so universally diffused, and so easy of access. And never were they actually perused by so large a majority of all classes since the art of printing was discovered.” Like those early gazettes, electronic journals are easily distributed, if not “universally diffused.” Whether or not they are yet “easy of access” or “perused”—or even quickly skimmed—is debatable. Opinions differ, but even many of those who are fascinated by the idea of online journals agree that reading poetry, fiction, and essays on a screen is still not as comfortable as they assume it will be in the future. But are we waiting for technology to catch up with our needs, or are we waiting to form new reading habits? And if the paper page is physical and sensual in a way that the screen is not, does it especially seem so now that we have been asked to imagine life without it?

When asked about what advantages a printed journal has over an online journal, David Hamilton, editor of the Iowa Review, says that print “in our culture signifies a more personal, one-to-one, meditative relation with the reader, and so it seems to speak in a quieter, more personal voice.” But, he adds, there are those who may not find this an advantage and, as generations change, this apparent difference won’t necessarily remain true. Still, Hamilton believes that those who read online may be more “roamers” than “readers.” This is reminiscent of Sven Birkerts’s suspicion, typed in a real-time online interview published in Atlantic Unbound in 1995, that writing might be replaced by “typing.” The main difference between electronic reading and paper books, he typed, is that “paper books dead-end you on the page and drive you back into yourself, while electronic writing sends you into the strange sorcery of the circuit.” Birkerts develops this idea further in a later essay, “Sense and Semblance: The Implications of Virtuality,” arguing that when reading on the screen, “whatever one reads, and however one reads, it is never with the totality in view. Reading from a screen is like traveling from coast to coast with only adjoining maps as guides.” The thought that such transcontinental roaming should be taken seriously is a basic premise of online journals. And indeed, after a surprisingly prolonged rite of passage, online journals have become—while not yet de rigueur or old hat—at least accepted.

Although any writer could publish work on her own Web site (and many do—self-publishing has gotten much easier since Leonard and Virginia Woolf were setting type for their Hogarth Press books), where one publishes still seems to matter. So the challenge for online journals, and for print journals seeking to diversify, is how to establish credibility. For some, this credibility has to do with maintaining the editorial standards set by their print counterparts. For others, credibility depends on originality and innovation.

Presumably editors of online journals will always hope for readers, but the idea that they do not need to depend on them for either approval or financial support seems to have fostered a new spirit of experimentalism. Writers and designers now realize that enthusiasm and hard work alone might sweep a project along and carry it onto the screen, where it will either be seen or not seen, now or at a later time (the Internet is busy redefining timeliness). In this sense, online journals have become the open studios of editors, writers, and designers. And these studios often produce collaborative pieces rather than work by a single artist or writer. This emphasis on collaboration and process rather than on a final polished product, combined with the excitement about the new medium, seems to be generating a new media renaissance. This idea of birth and rebirth is explored with enthusiasm in Born Magazine’s Birthing Room and Just Born sections, where some of the most innovative collaborative work on the Web can be found (other sites include arras; BeeHive; Cauldron & Net; and the Iowa Review Web). Anmarie Trimble, Born’s editor since 2000, describes the mission of the magazine as trying to “bring together artists of different genres” who collaborate in order to “interpret into the medium.” For those unfamiliar with interactive media, adds contributing editor Jennifer Grotz, turning to avant-garde traditions such as Baudelaire’s concept of synesthesia, Mallarmè’s “theory of typographical emphasis,” and Apollinaire’s “visual lyricism” might help readers to understand the work that they encounter in Born. Pieces that illustrate these concepts include “Afterbody” by Bruce Smith (www.bornmagazine.org/projects/afterbody), “Story Problem” by Terri Ford (www.bornmagazine.org/projects/storyproblem/sproblem.html), and “Silent Movie” by Carl J. Buchanan (www.bornmagazine.org/projects/silentmovie).

The role that technology plays in new media writing further encourages collaboration. And yet, as Thomas Swiss, editor of the Iowa Review Web, observes, “While the art world remains open to collaborative work in the long shadow of Duchamp’s experiments with Man Ray, the shared labor of producing art in Warhol’s Factory, and the many hands needed to make a film, the literature world has always had a hard time accepting collaborative work, even in our digital age.”

Even some editors of online journals remain wary of what has come to be called new media writing. Jacket’s Tranter is blunt about his doubts: “New media work doesn’t interest me much: The content is so often lousy. The artists remind me of rabbits with their eyes dazzled in the blinding glare from the new medium, whatever it is.” (He does, however, make an exception for Brian Stefan’s site, arras, which he admires.)

Editors of respected print journals are naturally wary of compromising their journals’ print reputations, and some hesitate to include work on their Web sites that does not also appear on the printed page. Kenyon Review editor David Lynn says, “Magazines that publish some stuff on the Web and other stuff in print run the risk of losing editorial credibility, especially as to standards.” But he adds, “There are enormous opportunities as well, given the low cost and unlimited space on the Web.” And although the Kenyon Review site now features only subscription information, tables of contents, biweekly excerpts from current issues of the Review, and information about summer programs, within the next year the entire archives of the journal will be available online.