Challenges for Small Literary Journals

Editors consider how small publications can find support and reach audiences.

January 7, 2019
 

CHICAGO -- Serious journals of literature and ideas pride themselves on in-depth pieces that advance scholarship. The latest issue of the journal Novel features “‘No Such Thing as a Voice Pure and Simple’: Henry James’s Elocutionary Insecurities and The American.” The next issue of Papers on Language and Literature will feature the essay “‘What Was It?’: The Avant-texte and the ‘Grinding Feeling of Wretchedness’ in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly.’” These are pieces that will never end up in mass publications but that are part of the development of literary scholarship.

So how can such journals -- many of which count subscribers in the hundreds -- thrive in an era in which libraries and humanities programs are not overflowing with cash? And how can these publications, still print-centric and labor intensive, survive in an era in which so many embrace the speed and efficiency of digital publishing?

Leaders of four of these publications gathered here at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association to discuss some of the strategies they are using.

Nancy Armstrong, who is editor of Novel, said it was vital to keep the team fresh and to consider changes in approach. When she took over in 1993, she said, "many who were on our advisory board were past their productive years, and some were no longer alive."

Armstrong was then at Brown University, but she moved (along with the journal) to Duke University, where she is professor of English and the journal is now part of the Duke University Press. There was "no prestige, no perks" to serving on the editorial board, and the general approach was to have certain people be designated to make decisions on a given topic. Armstrong has encouraged a different approach, in which the entire team discusses pieces and issues. Forums, interviews and periodic events were added to the traditional work of publishing single articles. The journal features fewer pieces that are "close readings of a single work," and now is more likely to run pieces that relate to "this history and theory of the novel," she said.

Taking over "a journal that had been in decline," she said, "was an opportunity." Today, the journal has 1,444 subscribers (individuals and institutions).

Helena Gurfinkel, a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and editor of Papers on Language and Literature, said that university support has been declining, forcing the publication to be self-supporting. That's not easy, she said. Much of the time, the journal can't afford to buy rights to use illustrations that would enhance articles.

Journals such as PLL, as it is known, are important, she said, because they counter "the currency of prestige" that dominates literary study.

The journal has "an anti-glass ceiling role," she said. "We are willing to publish quality work by junior academics and those at teaching-oriented institutions, people who wouldn't get published elsewhere."

Sandra M. Gustafson, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is advisory editor of Early American Literature, which comes out three times a year from the University of North Carolina Press. The last press run was 473. Gustafson was previously the journal's editor.

The journal has benefited, she said, from strong relationships with MLA and with the Society of Early Americanists. Institutional affiliations, she said, are important not for financial support but for connecting the journal to people who care deeply about its mission.

Some approaches that have been successful, she said, include theme issues, such as a recent one on "the Spanish Americas," for producing a series of related works.

The journal has not rushed to embrace digital publication, she said. The journal is, however, starting a series of podcasts, but with some reservations.

“I do worry a bit, and I’m going to put my curmudgeon hat on, that these endeavors might draw people away from their scholarship," she said.

Also on the panel was W. J. T. Mitchell, professor of English at the University of Chicago and editor of Critical Inquiry, an interdisciplinary journal, which publishes in a broader range of fields than do the other journals that were represented on the panel.

Mitchell said he was fortunate to work at the University of Chicago, which provides two staff positions for the journal, making Critical Inquiry something of a 1 percenter in the world of literary journals.

Critical Inquiry has moved into the digital age, adding book reviews (which come out online and in greater frequency than the four print issues a year), a blog and podcasts.

Mitchell said that he tries to balance these additional projects with a commitment to the original print publication as his focus.

He said his journal and others need to provide space for essays, the serious, nonfootnoted work that inspires many scholars.

Ultimately, he said that the kind of work being done by small literary journals, whatever their financial struggles, is vital. "We are part of the humanities, My own view of the humanities is completely old-fashioned. We are 'the caretakers of the dignity of the species,'" he said.

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