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As is evident from the recent staff shake-up at Virginia Quarterly Review, university quarterlies face a perilous future. They are squeezed by campus-wide cost-benefit analyses on one side and a new wave of popular, innovative independent magazines on the other. Academic literary magazines -- many with staid formats and ossified editorial philosophies -- are struggling to assert their relevance in an era of unprecedented change in publishing technologies. The journey to this point has been long but inexorable. Whether these discouraging trends can be reversed remains to be seen.
University magazines have commonly been placed in a class apart from their quirky, mercurial independent cousins in the century since the emergence of Modernism. The editors of the seminal 1946 study The Little Magazine in America: A History and a Bibliography expressly excluded them from their pages. In the view of the book’s editors, such magazines as The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review and Virginia Quarterly Review were more measured and dignified than the avant-garde magazines of the time, a bit too “conscious of a serious responsibility which does not often permit them the freedom to experiment or to seek out unknown writers.”
In The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, published in 1978, magazine critic Charles Robinson insisted that institutional backing created an unfair competitive advantage, as the academic periodicals could “afford posh formats the independents seldom approach.” In the two decades following World War II, the explosion in university enrollment was paralleled by an explosion in the number of university-sponsored literary magazines. The institutional magazine enjoyed many distinct advantages over the little movement magazines upon which they were modeled, including adequate funding, a faculty editor with a broad literary education, cheap or free labor in the form of undergraduate and graduate students, and the instant prestige of the institution that housed them. The first two decades of the 21st century, however, have seen the rationale of the academic magazine come under question. Some have closed, some have been asked to find additional sources of funding, and others have had their print operations eliminated and moved online. Among the magazines that have been impelled to adapt to changing times are TriQuarterly, New England Review and Shenandoah. And, for the second time in five years, Virginia Quarterly Review finds itself under scrutiny.
In concept, the editor of the university magazine -- without fear of the wolf at the door -- was free to pursue an editorial policy that foregrounded art over commerce. And, taken as a whole, the experiment has been a resounding success. Not only have university magazines regularly published content that falls outside the commercial mainstream, including special issues on world literature and on overlooked authors and movements, they have served as a proving ground for the emerging writers who would go on to populate the pages of Best American Stories and Best American Poetry, as well as the O. Henry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. To use the example of our own former publication, the table of contents of TriQuarterly’s “Under 30 Issue,” published in 1967, includes Joyce Carol Oates, Jim Harrison, Louise Glück and James Tate.
However, there is a moral hazard embedded in the university-supported model: without an incentive to undertake the less glamorous business of chasing subscriptions and single copy sales, such matters are easily neglected. As Jeffrey Lependorf, director of the Council of Little Magazine and Presses, observes in our book The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, “Many university magazines, with venerable publishing histories and many ‘first to publish’ credits to their names, because they received such a high level of support, did little to build their readerships. They may have achieved literary excellence, but very few people ever actually read what they published.”
On the occasion of Northwestern University’s shutting down of the TriQuarterly print operation in 2010, Ted Genoways, then editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote, somewhat dismissively, in Mother Jones: “Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining subscriber bases since their heyday a half century ago -- and an even greater dent in their cultural relevance.”
He then advanced the made-over VQR as cure to this malady. Indeed, Genoways and his staff transformed a magazine that had had only 2 editors over the previous 60 years, added a web presence and moved VQR into new areas, most notably journalistic reporting from conflict zones. At the same time, while the new VQR was certainly a publication worth following, the lavish upgrade in content resulted only in a short-lived increase in subscriptions, and, sadly, due to the death of managing editor Kevin Morrissey, and the subsequent blow to the magazine’s reputation, we will never know if VQR could have achieved sustainability under Genoways’s editorship.
Now, with the departure of web editor -- and nationally renowned maven of digital publishing -- Jane Friedman, and the apparent ouster of publishing veteran Ralph Eubanks, VQR is once again in the news for reasons it does not wish to be. Faced with the loss of two professionals with the precise experience that the top magazines are seeking, VQR publisher Jon Parrish Peede insists that VQR will expand its operations, including the addition of science and poetry editors, as well as an increased focus “on online long-form journalism, multimedia and e-books...” and plans to reallocate their operational budget “to achieve these and related goals.” The statement addresses content but not operations in a real sense, unless the budget reallocation can generate a significant increase in subscriptions, sales and advertising to underwrite such growth.
What is to be done? In the end, the path back to prominence for VQR and university literary magazines in general may be lit by the leading independent magazines, which are thriving to a greater extent than perhaps ever before. Guided by editors who have achieved reputations beyond their periodicals, magazines such as McSweeney’s, Tin House, Diagram and n+1 all boast distinctive designs and innovative editorial programs that have attracted broader, younger readerships.
University magazines must make cases for themselves within their institutions and without. Editors must demonstrate to their administrations that they are committed to deploying their funds efficiently. They must make efforts to expand circulation through the use of existing technologies to attract, track and maintain subscriptions. In addition to bottom-line concerns, university magazines should strive to contribute to the cultural identity of their institutions. Beyond the university, the editors of university magazines should seek not to merely publish the best of what is thought and said but also to identify distinct missions and develop editorial philosophies that set them apart.
Certainly there are magazines that embody these qualities. New England Review and Alaska Quarterly Review are two magazines that reflect the cultures of their schools and their regions while maintaining national reputations. Kenyon Review is a venerable name in the pantheon that always keeps up with the times. In the end, university literary quarterlies can no longer reply upon the safety of the ivory tower -- nor should they wish to.