I was recently sent a copy of a literary magazine; it’s published by a nonprofit organization, so it’s not technically do-it-yourself, but it has a classic DIY feel to it: the pages are photocopied and stapled, and there’s a tiny little book of poetry rubber-banded inside. The cover is fastened with velcro. It’s absolutely adorable…and boring.
The stories and poems inside aren’t bad, they’re just presented in a context that’s started to feel as predictable as the Loeb Classical Library. Are there whimsical little line drawings? Yes. Are there tiny ads for indie bookstores in the back? Yep. Are there free-verse poems about bodies and birds and seasons? Voila. Are there winners of a fiction contest? Need you ask?
There’s nothing wrong with any of this—it’s just that the whole concept of a literary magazine right now feels stuck between stations, and the more an indie magazine screams integrity and scrappiness and sincerity, the more pointless it seems. Why not start a blog and save your Xerox money for bottom-shelf whiskey?
Before the Internet, things were different. When distribution was only on paper, writers who didn’t have access to conventional publishing had to get creative. There were mailing lists for photocopied fanfic, and the zine table at your local bookstore was an essential stop if you wanted to find writing that would actually surprise you.
This cute little literary magazine feels like a relic of that era. If you’re interested in adventurous writing, why replicate the conventional publishing structure—editor, publisher, customer—in miniature? Why not climb entirely outside that box?
Today you can post a story on Tumblr, you can format and distribute your own e-book, you can write an endless free-verse poem in the form of tweets. Curation still happens, but in a decentralized way: through retweets and reblogs. Everyone is a writer, and everyone is an editor. Distribution is instant, and free. Money is hard to come by, yes—but if you’re working outside the conventional publishing world, is it really harder to come by than it is offline? Now you can launch a Kickstarter, or sell your own stuff on Amazon, or offer to send writing or art in exchange for a few bucks of Adderall money via Paypal. No copier expenses, no begging booksellers for table space.
Best of all, creative writing—fiction, poetry, nonfiction—has become more diverse and exciting than ever. You genuinely don’t know what you’re going to get on Tumblr or Twitter, because anyone can use that space. You know who you’re following, but they’re constantly retweeting and reblogging people you don’t know. You can follow your favorite writers from anywhere in the world, and you can follow them right now—you don’t need to wait for them to be discovered by The New Yorker or Tin House.
I appreciate the impulse to make tangible products. It’s another way to present your work, and it adds a tactile dimension to the experience of reading. I’m glad there are still books and magazines along with the Internet, just like I’m glad there are movie theaters along with YouTube. That said, the Internet has raised the stakes for hard-copy publications: they have to add value. They can’t just exist as vessels.
To me, a lo-fi literary journal says, “Hey, isn’t it cool that I exist?” My response is, increasingly, just to shrug.