What is the purpose of a literary magazine? Who does it serve? If there is or can be such a thing as a “successful” literary magazine, then there must be an answer to these questions. One hears the answer (at Fence, for example) that it serves art itself, or more narrowly the art of letters. It serves this art by promoting its development, and this development has the form of a progress: “Fence is constructed in part to support the continued production of writing that furthers the art form.” (The other part, I gather, is to put into print whatever Rebecca Wolff feels like printing. Publishing is personal, she says.)
On this view, the art of letters moves forward, and a literary magazine puts this progress on display, partly to catch readers up to the state of the art, partly to inspire authors to take the next step. The authors, editors, readers, and — not unimportantly — the funders engaged in the activities of a particular magazine form a cohort, which somehow coheres around an understanding of what counts as “progress.” If this agreement dissolves, the magazine is over.
If this view is correct, it seems to me that the literary magazine has been rendered obsolete by Twitter. Where are genres made and unmade, usages coined and deprecated in more rapid sequence? Especially in “weird twitter,” cohorts loosely organized around constellations of influential accounts are constantly generating, embracing, and abandoning tropes. On the one hand, this formal fecundity shows how underrated Twitter is by people who don’t use it and only associate it with bad grammar and spelling. On the other hand, it shows how little is really accomplished by “furthering an art form.”
As much as I have to admire the explosive proliferation of creative forms, I don’t see this kind of development as what is really beneficial in the sphere of letters. It seems to be a standard borrowed from the sciences or progressive politics, rather than original to art itself. I almost want to say that an art should strive to move backwards, not forwards.
Only almost, because a mere going through the motions of an archaic form suggests a defect of integrity, or at best the same kind of willful stubbornness one sees in certain traditionalists who feign confused surprise when they observe someone celebrating Christmas already before December 25. They may be sticking to their principles admirably but you might choose not to invite them to your party.
The art of letters changes. This is not an ideal that one has to foster. It is a fact about art that one has to accept with realism. At the same time, an art owes everything to its origins. New forms should be celebrated as they arise, but also reminded of their responsibility to their inheritance.
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