In an opening piece (originally written in 2008) in Paper Dreams, Jill Allyn Rosser gives us “Reasons for Creating a New Literary Magazine,” beginning with, “There probably hasn’t been a new one created in the past six-and-a-half days.” Through this sarcastic piece, Rosser actually lists many reasons why you shouldn’t begin a new magazine. Among my favorites is, “There are serious, good, seriously good writers whose work is being completely ignored, and you are so nattily optimistic as to believe that literate people are going to read them in your new Yet Another Literary Magazine when they already have piles and unread piles of them . . .” Clearly, literary magazines are cropping up everywhere. And while there is an abundance of them, they are important in the literary culture.
Editor Travis Kurowski writes in his introduction to Paper Dreams that the birth of the literary magazine isn’t as easy to pin down as it is for, say, the automobile: “the literary magazine was not born at any particular time or place, but gradually emerged in fits and starts, thanks to the inventiveness of those working within the field and the demands of literary expression.” Through many of the early essays and the timeline in the appendix, you can read all about the different starts of the small magazine. And, in the introduction, Kurowski goes on to say that at their start, “these magazines gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers. They fostered a sense of belonging and purpose in addition to the individual literary offering they presented the reader.” And I think this perhaps still rings true for many editors and writers. But how to create that community of writers?
Broken up into sections that follow a sort of chronological throughline, Paper Dreams seems to be about the motivations behind the literary magazine, what makes one successful, and how to keep its success and move forward today. Kurowski has compiled a vast amount of important essays all offering up different advice, insight, and commentary.
In 1931, Ezra Pound writes about small magazines and says that right from the beginning the significance of the magazine comes down to its motivation: “When this motivation is merely a desire for money or publicity, or when this motivation is in great part such a desire for money directly or for publicity as a means indirectly of getting money, there occurs a pervasive monotony in the motivation.” Ultimately, the success must be derived from good literature and the desire to put forth that writing, not from selecting pieces that have the potential to make money. And while in today’s world, I hardly see money as the motivation behind a magazine (as I’m sure many editors would laugh at the idea of actually making any money for their work), it certainly still affects each and every magazine out there.
Later, in the fourth section, titled “Present & Future” (a section I found most compelling), editors of current magazines cite their struggles and motivations. Although it was at times hard to follow the conversation and remember who was who, “The Future Is a Magazine,” a roundtable discussion that took place in 2008, was stimulating. In this piece, conversation about the magazine hasn’t been stuck in an essay; here it is a dialogue where ideas can be thrown in and out. In response to the question “What is needed to maintain a literary magazine in today’s environment?” they all answer: “Money, readers.” But the money issue doesn’t seem to stop these particular editors from thinking of ways to gain readership and improve their own individual magazines and foster ideas for the future of literary magazines. In this piece, and others, topics of online versus print, ways to gain and keep readers, and magazine content are discussed.
In Ben Leubner’s “Some Thoughts on Poetry,” he states, “One wants to be on the cutting edge, but one also wants, or even needs, from a financial standpoint, at least, to be popular.” Magazines need readers to survive, but how do you target the audience when there are so many magazines for readers to choose from? Roxane Gay, editor of PANK, contributes “Too Many of Us, Too Much Noise” (2008) and suggests that perhaps one of the primary challenges in gaining subscribers is that there are just too many magazines to choose from: “Most of [the editors] are committed to leaving the literary world better than they found it but none of us want to admit that we’re running out of oxygen in the room.”
It is becoming increasingly easy for new magazines to start up without much required thought or planning beforehand: “You don’t need money. You don’t need experience. All you need is Internet access and a few people who are willing to let you publish your work,” Gay says. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that every magazine is going to survive, or even be good. “Sometimes, I think there are too many magazines,” she writes. “Everyone wants to be a writer, but increasingly, everyone wants to be an editor, too. Everyone thinks that they have some special vision only they can usher into the world. Almost daily, I get an email from an editor saying, ‘Hey, I’m starting a new magazine.’” And she isn’t exaggerating, as we experience the same thing at NewPages. Some go on to be great magazines, and some are dead after only a couple of issues. Perhaps reading Paper Dreams would deter or inspire these new editors as it is a valuable resource for readers, editors, and writers alike.
Compiled of essays ranging from 1687 to now, Paper Dreams is both a history lesson and a stroll into current events. To read this from beginning to end seems a daunting task. There is certainly a lot to read—and even more to digest—but reading even individual essays or sections can prove beneficial. I can definitely see this book being required in creative writing classrooms; there’s lots to learn and think about here. And while teachers may be able to make it required reading, I almost wish someone could make at least skimming through it required for those trying to start a “new” literary magazine venture.