New Journal, Old School Values

In an era when many literary journals are struggling to survive or becoming Web-only, Amherst starts a new print publication, focused on physical space.
February 15, 2011

The last few years had many literary journal editors' backs against the wall. Numerous journals teetered between shuttering and downsizing.

Amherst College is taking the road less traveled. Last year the college announced its support for The Common, a local literary journal, and for a companion publishing internship program and literary publishing course. The journal will ship its first issue -- yes, in print -- in April.

The motif of the journal is the idea of "place." Jennifer Acker, The Common’s editor, explained she chose it in response to readers' increasingly mobile, bicoastal, and globalized lives. "We want to maintain place," she said.

The theme is evident on the journal’s masthead, which includes numerous figures from the vicinity of Amherst, Mass., The Common's home. Sabina Murray, director of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is on the journal’s editorial board. Cindy Dickinson, director of interpretation and programming at the around-the-block Emily Dickinson Museum, is a board member. A local bookstore will carry The Common and curate reading events.

A mock first issue contains poetry, prose and fiction. Noted essayist Ted Conover writes about highway driving and the evolution of the American road system. Catherine Ciepiela, an Amherst Russian professor, translates Marina Tsvetaeva, some of whose poems revive Greek myths in compelling missives and laments. And the issue includes a new short story from Murray, a winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Amherst decided to open its coffers to the journal after considering the benefits of having a professional-quality literary magazine on campus. “We have a long tradition of authors and writing and literature -- as a number of institutions do -- so we’re glad to support the endeavor,” said Gregory S. Call, dean of the faculty. “We think of this as another way in which students will gain valuable experience that can’t help but matter no matter what career they go into.” Amherst will “host” the journal, both Acker and Call stressed, but will not -- as is the case for many college literary journals -- completely cover its expenses.

To fund the journal's first year, the dean of faculty's office and the Frost Library have provided less than $10,000 to pay for start-up costs, and the college is providing on-campus office space, a website, and the budget for a staff of student interns, who will earn college credit. Amherst's Center for Russian Culture and English and creative writing departments contributed additional resources to assist with designing and publishing the prototype mock issue. Additionally, Acker is slated to teach a class in the English department next fall about the literary publishing industry.

Committing to a literary journal at this juncture certainly bucks many nationwide trends. Yet Acker is betting on several reasons why The Common can thrive.

First, Acker believes intern education in the production of a physical literary magazine and a website provides both an enriching, liberal arts experience and practical, professional training. Acker has experience in the latter, having formerly worked as an assistant managing editor at Alfred A. Knopf. Second, Acker predicted that the physical printed journal will not in the near future vanish amidst a digitally-brewn elixir that leaves behind nothing but tablets and computers and mobile devices.

On the first point, Acker stressed that the benefits interns receive will be manifold. Students will read the submissions slush pile and learn to think through what type of writing can be transformed from a draft to a publishable piece, learn promotion and marketing, and practice their own writing in blog posts for The Common’s website. Interns will also learn the basics in web site management and, possibly, have input on an "app."

Acker also emphasized that by working on a journal about "place," integrated with its surrounding institutions and businesses, students would fulfill the liberal arts ideals of community involvement and local engagement. “I don’t think there’s a replacement for physical communities,” she said.

Niko Pfund, an advisory board member and the acting president and publisher of Oxford University Press’s academic division, said he supports the project and Acker’s vision. “It is neither vocational nor anti-vocational,” he said. “It is the continuation of the application of your education in a professional environment, and it gives you the framework of a business without having the business of that enterprise being the overarching enterprise.”

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, agreed, saying he considers a program with one foot in and one foot out of the academy a win-win for Amherst College. “I think that starting small magazines -- or literary journals or small literary magazines -- has always been a voyage of optimism,” he said. “I think when you’re talking about something campus-based but wanting to create something to go beyond campus -- that creates an environment for students to be engaged in the world around them.”


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