A renaissance rooted in technology: the literary magazine returns

by Stephan Kinsella on November 10, 2010

From Guardian.co.uk. The take-away: “Could we be in a place now where technology has brought us full circle? Where that which took us away from stories is now set to bring us back to them?

As my friend and TLS co-blogger Rob Wicks noted, “Of course the IP-whores would rather kill culture than allow it to be given away. Note that it’s being distributed as a PDF. Should be easy enough to distribute freely, meaning they will likely get a bigger readership than they would if people had to pay for the dead-tree version. This is how culture is going to be distrubuted, and the IP lovers are going to fight it every step of the way.”

A renaissance rooted in technology: the literary magazine returns

london review of books

Thanks to the internet, which has eased the burden of print and distribution costs, literary periodicals are flourishing anew

Old news … the London Review of Books is no longer top of young people’s reading lists as other literary magazines embrace technology. Photograph: Graham Turner

When was the last time you looked out of the window when sitting on a bus? With the internet now in the palm of our hands, it’s so much a part of our daily lives that it permeates our every spare second, taking up the time and energy that we once used to read books.

If the novel is struggling in this new environment, what of literary magazines? Long extinct? The opposite: literary magazines are getting popular again.

What’s going on? Are young people suddenly discovering the London Review of Books? Hardly. It’s currently £27m in the red. In fact, mention the LRB to anyone under 50 and you’re liable to send them into a deep coma. To say it has serious relevancy issues is like saying that the Titanic had slight buoyancy issues. Granta fares better, but how many people outside of the literati actually read it regularly? Not many, I bet. The same goes for the Times Literary Supplement.

“Some literary magazines have grown precious to the point where the humour and liveliness has long since evaporated,” says Craig Taylor, editor of Five Dials, the literary magazine published by Hamish Hamilton.

Damian Barr, who runs the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, recognises this too: “The conversation about reading and writing is open to more people than ever before, though rarefied heights – the LRB and TLS – remain.”

By contrast, Five Dials (mission statement: “Be inclusive. Embrace both ends of the spectrum”) is far from taking itself too seriously. They actually make jokes.

Keegan Wilson, founder of Pop Cult, says: “The Paris Review and Ambit can be a little daunting and serious. I wanted Pop Cult to be fun, through contemporary and humorous stories.” Or, as the novelist Gavin James Bower says: “It’s our generation’s way of giving the publishing industry a much-needed kick up the arse.”

The growing number of irreverent literary nights – The Book Stops Here (formerly To Hell with the Lighthouse), The Book Club Boutique, Firestation Book Swap, BookSlam – suggests that serious literature might be becoming cool again. Literary fiction is no longer rollnecks and Radio 4. It’s hip and it’s young and it’s happening live in fashionable areas of London like Shoreditch, with readers such as Ned Beauman, Naomi Alderman, Nikesh Shukla, Stuart Evers and even the venerable Diana Athill. Todd Zuniga, creator of Literary Death Match, says it’s “as much about putting four fantastic writers on stage as it is about promoting literary entities like Pen Pusher“.

All of this has had a knock-on effect on the popularity of literary magazines. But it’s only part of the story. Something else, more fundamental, is going on.
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