Literary Magazines, Blogs, and the Value of Rumination

Both Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber and John Holbo at the Valve have posts on the long A.O. Scott article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine on the new generation of U.S. literary magazines.

In one sense at least, the popularity of The Believer and the newer n+1 flies in the face of all the recent hype about the Internet and literary blogging. These are magazines with relatively modest websites, and which put only a small fraction of their content online. And they are succeeding:

At a time when older forms of media are supposedly being swallowed up by newer ones, the impulse to start the kind of magazine Partisan Review was in the late 1930's or The Paris Review was in the 50's might look contrarian, even reactionary. If you are an overeducated (or at least a semi-overeducated) youngish person with a sleep disorder and a surfeit of opinions, the thing to do, after all, is to start a blog. There are no printing costs, no mailing lists, and the medium offers instant membership in a welcoming herd of independent minds who will put you in their links columns if you put them in yours. Blogs embody and perpetuate a discourse based on speed, topicality, cleverness and contention -- all qualities very much ascendant in American media culture these days. To start a little magazine, then -- to commit yourself to making an immutable, finite set of perfect-bound pages that will appear, typos and all, every month or two, or six, or whenever, even if you are also, and of necessity, maintaining an affiliated Web site, to say nothing of holding down a day job or sweating over a dissertation - is, at least in part, to lodge a protest against the tyranny of timeliness. It is to opt for slowness, for rumination, for patience and for length. It is to defend the possibility of seriousness against the glibness and superficiality of the age - and also, of course, against other magazines.

A.O. Scott is dead-on here, in his estimation of what causes otherwise normal, healthy people to start blogs, as well as in his description of what literary/intellectual blogs do and how they work.

And the idea of the print-only, elitist (by definition) Little Magazine is undoubtedly a powerful counter-point to the all-over-the-place instablogging of everything by everyone that has erupted in the past two years. The point about slowness and the rejection of topicality in particular is a good one:

"The vast majority of magazines in the United States tell you exactly the same thing at the same time," Vendela Vida said not long ago by telephone from San Francisco, where she lives and where The Believer is published (though two of its editors, Park and Julavits, live most of the time in New York). "We'd all apparently entered into this agreement that every month we'd be interested in the same thing" - the upcoming movies, novels, recordings and television shows.

But, of course, in spite of an elaborate machinery devoted to synchronizing and standardizing cultural consumption - of which magazines are an important part - most people's habits remain blessedly out of synch. We buy battered paperbacks at yard sales, stumble across movies on cable late at night and hear strange music on our friends' mix tapes (an experience apotheosized by Rick Moody's article about a Christian indie-rock group, the Danielson Famile, in the recent music issue). Part of The Believer's mission is to capture this aesthetic of mixing and matching, swapping and rediscovering. The message of a given issue seems to be, Hey, look at all this neat stuff - or, as Julavits puts it, "Isn't this amazing?" Philosophers and musicians, the M.L.A., the W.N.B.A., the U.L.A. (that's Underground Literary Alliance), Tintin and a strange 19th-century Southern novel called "The Story of Don Miff" all receive generous, thoughtful scrutiny, for their own sakes and for their interconnections.

"There has to be an element that reflects how we live and how we read," Vida told me. "We don't just run out and buy the new novel or start thinking about Darwinism just because George Bush happened to say something about it." And so The Believer's content is often as pointedly untimely as its approach is digressive.

Another word for this is "long tail": the vast repository of cultural references, obscure ideas, and lost artifacts out there in the world. There ought to be a space for thinking and writing about such things at length, and the issues of The Believer I've seen do just that.

That said, some blogs also reject the impetus to topicality (not so much this blog, lately). Having lots of readers can be addictive, and one usually gets them through timeliness and topicality (among other things). But the nice thing about not having a boss, an editor, or any financial motive whatsoever is that you can just ignore it entirely if you wish to. You don't have to blog about Hurricane Katrina if you don't feel you have anything interesting to say about it.

Incidentally, Marco Roth, one of the editors of n+1 steps into the comments at The Valve, and suggests that the print magazine vs. blog divide need not be completely hard and fast. But his idea of what blogs might be good for is much narrower than the gospel many blogging idealists espouse.