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What is the future of printed literary journals?

February 4, 2010 |  9:32 am

Parisreviewstaff_2003

"For me, if there's a piece of writing that I care about, I want to have the physical object," says Brigid Hughes, editor of the literary journal A Public Space. "There's a permanence to it, a different kind of permanence than if you find it on a website. You're bringing together these different voices and pieces, and the way those pieces interact between those two covers is essential."

The print form of the literary journal has a long history. But does it have a future?

Hughes is a literary journal veteran -- she worked at the Paris Review from 1995 to 2005 -- she's second from left in the photo of key staff, taken in 2003. The Paris Review was founded by George Plimpton (center), Peter Mathiessen and others in 1953, and it became an essential cultural voice. But what direction it might take is uncertain -- it's currently searching for an editor to replace Philip Gourevitch, who will leave in April.

Hughes is certain about how to put her magazine together, but she admits that audiences are harder to figure. Founded five years ago, A Public Space has published some of today's best writers: William T. Vollmann, Marilynne Robinson, Charles D'Ambrosio, John Wray, Richard Powers, T.C. Boyle.

"I don't think it's the quality of the work so much as that readers aren't finding the work." Hughes says. "I think literary magazines need to figure out a way to be better advocates for the work that they're publishing."

In the current issue of Mother Jones, Ted Genoways points out many ways in which literary journals have been losing their cultural foothold. Genoways is the editor of the 85-year-old Virginia Quarterly Review, which considers long-form nonfiction, such as its piece on the Mumbai attacks, an essential part of reviving interest and relevance.

To Los Angeles readers, though, fiction still has an appeal. Melissa Reakers, who runs the newsstand at West Hollywood's Book Soup, says its most popular literary journals are Tin House, Granta, the Paris Review and McSweeney's.

McSweeney's has its frequently updated Internet Tendency, and a few literary journals -- including the Paris Review and Granta -- are trying to exploit the Web in interesting ways. Are video, audio, interactivity and Internet-speed content the way of the future for literary magazines? Or is there something special about print literary journals -- can they get by with informational websites, directing readers to the print product for a complete reading experience?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Members of the Paris Review staff in 2003, from left: Oliver Broudy, Brigid Hughes, editor George Plimpton, Fiona Maazel, Charles Buice and Tom Moffett. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

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