Forget Billionaires! The Future Of Literary Magazines Depends On Us
Rather than waiting for benefactors to fund, defund, and then “save” our favorite publications, we must support them now
In what feels like a never ending cycle of disappointing media news, last week we in the literary community were astonished to learn that after two decades The Believer magazine will discontinue publication. (Since 2017, The Believer has been published by the Black Mountain Institute, out of University of Nevada Las Vegas College of Liberal Arts, and was published by McSweeney’s before that.) I was sharing an Uber with another writer on the way to a short residency when we both saw the tweet. In unison, we gasped. I’m sorry to admit that my second thought was a complex blend of gratitude for the feeling of relative job security and the eerie reminder that everything can change in an instant—sometimes for the better, but often for the worse.
At Electric Literature, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, we are funded by a mix of grants, advertising sponsorships, membership fees, and grassroots donations. There are both benefits and drawbacks to this business model. There is no guardian angel waiting on the sidelines, ready to jump in and save us should our finances go awry. On the other hand, we aren’t beholden to any person or institution other than our readers and our leadership. We trade the short to medium term financial security of a sole benefactor for the existential security of knowing that we are not subject to any one person’s whims. This allows us to enjoy a certain amount of freedom; we operate without the oversight of someone holding the purse strings, who inevitably juggles shifting priorities and motivations.
Earlier this year, EL’s executive director Halimah Marcus and I sat down over cocktails for a virtual live salon. We wanted Electric Literature’s community to have the opportunity to get to know me as an editor and leader. During the Q&A, someone inquired about feeling competitive with peer publications. I said that I don’t feel competitive (other than the rare occasions when we must compete for a piece we want to publish!). So many publications were formative for me—teaching me craft, bringing me through editorial processes that affirmed me as a writer, thinker, and human being. So there’s no joy in the news that another storied publication is closing its doors. Instead, it brings feelings of sympathy for their hardworking and talented staff, and the loss of their vision for the literary community.
But it also brings anger.
I am angry that another journal—which I deeply respect—will soon close its doors. I’m angry that artistic institutions are forced to operate in a cultural context that so devalues art that a single person or institution can pull the plug. It’s exciting to me that the study of writing seems more accessible than ever, with increasingly diverse MFA programs and workshops offered by journals and local organizations as a viable alternative. But I can’t help but wonder about the fate of the platforms where these writers aspire to publish. If literary journals keep shutting down, where will writers cut their teeth? Where will they gain the practical experience of being edited, of signing a contract, of reviewing proofs, and publishing for an audience that engages with their work?
Literary journals are the rigorous proving grounds that early-career writers need; they are the venues that often propel us from early to mid-career. We gain experience and critical credibility in their pages, which often goes a long way when we’re looking to find agents or publish our first books. And given the consolidation that’s happening in book publishing, and the reluctance of major publishing houses to take risks, literary journals are especially important for writers from marginalized backgrounds. They are the first venues to publish us, to affirm our writing, and to help us build an audience. This, in turn, helps us build careers.
I’ll never forget the kind words Ann Rushton, editor-in-chief of Bound Off (RIP!), had for me when I told her Bound Off was my first acceptance: “Well I’m most certain this won’t be your last publication.” I still think of her when I need a boost of confidence. Or a few years later, when Esme-Michelle Watkins at Apogee Journal took me through three rounds of content and line edits so thorough, that at first I worried whether or not she even wanted to publish my piece. But when all was said and done, I realized she had helped me find the best version of the story, and shaped my understanding of the novel I’m now writing, which grew out of that work. It’s the work of literary journal editors that first showed me the value of my own writing, and allowed me to believe that my work was worthy of a readers’ time. If literary journals don’t get the support we need—from readers, from writers, from donors, and yes, from institutions—the decline may be slow, but American letters will fall from excellence. Our work will not be read.
We are at risk of losing our literary institutions. After the Black Mountain Institute announced they would cease publication of The Believer, people were tweeting versions of “can’t someone save it?” But rather than waiting for millionaires and billionaires to fund, defund, and subsequently “save” literary magazines, shouldn’t we rally as a community to support them in the first place? Currently, Electric Literature has 1,200 members who contribute ~25% of our budget. Their support is deeply appreciated and vital, but we still carry debt and don’t have a safety net. What if 5,000 members supported 75% of our budget? We would have a steady monthly income to cover our essential expenses; we could pay writers and staff what they deserve rather than what we can afford, and an advertiser pulling out or the loss of a grant couldn’t throw us into a crisis. The more people that support a magazine, the more democratic and diversified it is, the more safe and sustainable it becomes, and the freer it is to tell the truth.
This letter comes to you in the first week of our $12,000 for 12 years campaign, celebrating Electric Literature’s decade plus of publication. If you love what Electric Literature is doing to make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive, then join us in our mission by becoming a member. Help us safeguard our future!
Denne Michele Norris