More Barf for the Void: Some Thoughts on Online Lit
Over at Luna Park review, Travis Kurowski takes Bill Henderson, editor of the Pushcart Prize anthology, to task over his dismissal of online publication. Like Kurowski I really love the Pushcart Prize–it is probably my favorite yearly anthology–but it is hard to disagree that Henderson’s stance seems at best a little silly and at worst absurd. Henderson:
I have long railed against the e-book and instant Internet publication as damaging to writers. Instant anything is dangerous—great writing takes time. You should long to be as good as John Milton and Reynolds Price, not just barf into the electronic void.
The Pushcart Prize anthology is always gigantic and features a wide variety of work, but the current edition only has one piece from an online publication. A few years ago, Henderson’s stance might have been somewhat understandable. But in 2012, even the biggest print magazines have an online component. Conjunctions has had Web Conjunctions for years, The Paris Review and Tin House have both recently been publishing fantastic work on their blogs, TriQuarterly moved entirely online, etc. And that is to say nothing of the many excellent online-only publications like elimae or The Rumpus.
In addition, Henderson’s comment about “instant anything is dangerous—great writing takes time” makes little sense. It is true that one can self-publish anything instantly, and it is probably true that most online literary magazines are more hastily edited and published than most print magazines. Both of those things can be dangerous for writers. But the best online literary magazines are as carefully edited as anything in print and the wait time for slush submissions is equally long.
I do enjoy the phrase “barf into the electronic void,” but most writers will tell you that online publication brings more notice most of the time. The largest print markets, such as the New Yorker, will garner you more readers and attention. However, the vast majority of magazine editors will tell you that their online traffic far exceeds their print issue sales (that certainly holds true for the magazine I co-edit, Gigantic).
(I also feel that I should point out that I go to plenty of literary parties including “Paris Review revels and FSG launches” and there is always booze and rarely talk of Kindles. Not sure what Reynolds is talking about there.)
So, Henderson’s stance seems quite outdated for a lot of reasons. While I am on the subject though, I will say that there probably are some downsides to online publication that the online lit proselytizers overlook. And the proselytizers do exist, I know plenty of writers who claim they want to only publish online and that print magazines are irrelevant dinosaurs.
One interesting thing about online publication is that is simultaneously more ephemeral and more permanent. This weekend I was thinning the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. One thing that I refused to part with was my McSweeney’s and NOON collections. Not all literary magazines are as beautiful as objects as those, to be sure, but I’m never going to treasure a Tumblr like I do a beautiful print magazine. The web is an unending stream that you dip your toes into and then forget. It can also be easily altered. Recently I noticed that a large literary website had shifted their content to a new system and somehow one of the pieces that they had published of mine vanished in the move. I’m not complaining about this—the other pieces of mine remain and I’m not going to bother them about one old piece—but work can be unpublished or lost online in a way that it can’t in print.
On the other hand, there is a level that the web is more permanent. When I was in undergrad, I began publishing fiction and poetry in both print and online journals. In the print journals, my pieces were read or not read and then forgotten. Someone could theoretically track them in library archive, but the pieces have been put behind me. This is not a bad thing, especially for a young writer. On the other hand, most of the online publications are still online where anyone can find them in a few seconds Googling. Indeed, many of these publications from seven or so years ago come up before more recent pieces in more popular publications. I cringe every time I meet a new person who informs me they searched for me online and “read that story of yours about the [stupid dumb thing I thought was clever a decade ago].”
Compounding this is the fact that the internet tends to exist in a kind of perpetual present. If you Google one piece from 2002 and one from 2012, there is little indication that the former was written long ago. It appears to the reader as instant in a way that tracking down a back issue of a journal does not. Is this a big problem? Probably not, but it is something to consider for emerging writers deciding where to publish.
A related question involves the publication of online work in a collection. Many writers these days seem to have their entire collection’s work available online and easily linked on their website. Does this hurt the value of a collection? Will readers be less likely to buy book X, easily read online in magazine form, over book Y that isn’t? I don’t think that this is an issue yet, but it might be in the near future.
Lastly, it is probably fair for us to acknowledge that web magazines are not necessarily as great for all types of writing. Poems, short prose, and current events/culture commentary all work great online and perhaps even have unique advantages. The web is not as good at cultivating long form work though. For one thing, it can’t pay for it. For another, it is simply a pain for many to read that much text on a computer screen and the distractions of email, Facebook, and everything else really do make it hard to stick with.
So what does all this mean? I guess that I think both print magazines and online magazines provide a lot of value for both readers and writers. They, currently at least, work well to complement each other. Writers, readers, and anthology editors shouldn’t snub either one.
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