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Quarterlies and the Future of Reading

ISSUE:  Summer 2003
A review is not measured by the number of stars and scoops it gets. Good literature is produced by a few queer people in odd corners; the use of a review is not to force talent, but to create a favourable atmosphere.
T. S. Eliot to F. M. Ford, 1923—24
I am convinced . . . that the prosperity and distinction of the Sewanee Review is very important for our Review here; that we do not compete so much as we re-inforce the common standard.
John Crowe Ransom, June 28, 1948

When Allen Tate wrote his classic essay on the critical quarterly, which appeared in the first volume of the Southern Review under Brooks and Warren, he provided a blueprint for the editing of a quarterly, which today remains the sine qua non on the subject. At that time—1935—he made the reasonable assumption that the literary quarterly had an unlimited future. Now, 70 years later, one must ask the question posed to me by the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review—whether the quarterly has a vibrant future beyond the short term—say a decade or so—that we believe we can foresee confidently and clearly. Anyone coming into the editorship of an established quarterly such as the VQR and the Southern Review must ask himself or herself, as the 21st century is getting fully underway, what the future holds for the quarterly. Winston Churchill observed that he did not become prime minister of Great Britain to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, but that is what happened, even though he saved Britain in World War II from domination by the Nazis and Japanese. No one would want to assume the editorial chair at a quarterly only to find the job entails seeing the magazine in question out of business.

The persistence and durability of the given quarterly tells us a good deal about how its importance is understood by the given college or university, including its administration. That the Virginia Quarterly has now been published over 75 years and the Yale Review and the Sewanee Review well over a century is not the result of mere happenstance, no matter how much we can assign to simple good luck or sheer inertia. Each magazine helps secure its sponsor’s place in the literary firmament and in the world of the humanities. The Sewanee Review focuses on literature, and its forays into music, art, and history are but occasional. On the other hand the VQR and the Yale Review cover the humanities in general. The VQR, which has a Southern ambience, also publishes articles on politics and political history. As George Garrett has pointed out, Staige Blackford has capitalized on his experience as a journalist in pursuing current affairs and politics in his magazine since 1975. At the same time he has published short fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, as is the case at the Yale Review. If the emphasis at the VQR has been Southern, the emphasis at the Yale Review involves New England and the Ivy League. The leading piece in the Yale Review for spring 2003—”Yale Students and Harvard Fellows 1969—70” by John Morton Blum, a distinguished historian—illustrates this point, which arises from the fact that any successful editor of a given quarterly must establish or continue an editorial program (that is largely based upon the history of that magazine) and hew to the line involved.

Some quarterly editors never figure out that basic premise. When the Kenyon Review, for example, was refounded by Ronald Sharp and Frederick Turner, they did not publish book reviews, even though the title of the magazine announced it as such, a review, and even though the original series (1939—1970) under John Crowe Ransom and others always published reviews. Stanley Lindberg during his long stint as editor of the Georgia Review never realized the importance of a critical program or the difference between compiling an issue and editing it. He did not study the essays of Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Malcolm Cowley, Monroe K. Spears, Lewis P. Simpson, and other editors on what editing a quarterly entails. In sharp contrast stands the editorial work of Frederick Morgan, who founded the Hudson Review and edited it with great distinction for 50 years. When he began, his principal advisor was Allen Tate. Mr. Morgan has since returned the favor bestowed by Mr. Tate in advising Sydney Lea (at the New England Review), the present writer, and others. (I also profited from the advice of Lewis Simpson.)

Tate had learned a considerable amount about founding and editing a review from Ford, whom he knew well. Ford wrote about the two magazines he founded—the English Review and Transatlantic Review—in his memoirs. In Return to Yesterday he drops a good many hints about how to begin and edit a magazine. He says, for instance, that he realized to his consternation that the English Review must be a hybrid, a combination of “imaginative literature and technical criticism” and current affairs. This, as we have seen, is the formula pursued by the VQR and the Yale Review; so too is it that of the American Scholar. The Scholar under Joseph Epstein was perhaps the best quarterly in English in the world; and it remains lively, though not so good, under the direction of Anne Fadiman, Hiram Haydn, their predecessor, has been forgotten as editor of the Scholar; but he will be remembered for the books he edited at Crown, Bobbs Merrill, Random House, and Atheneum. The roll call of these names—Tate, Ford, Epstein, Fadiman, and Haydn— reminds us that the best editors are usually good writers themselves, men and women of letters who write and publish regularly. Mr. Epstein, for example, is one of the nation’s best essayists, a writer who can turn a personal report as artfully as he can forge a piece of criticism or shape a short story. To our list could be added many names from T. S. Eliot through Brooks and Warren to Lewis Simpson.

Ford makes it plain that most literary magazines will lose bucketsful of money. As Tate would say later, “the quarterly must be subsidized; it either runs on a subsidy or does not run. . . . The leading quarterlies are subsidized by universities or are backed, like the late Hound and Horn, by persons whose fortunes and interests may be expected to change.” That happened not only to Hound and Horn but to the Symposium, as Tate remarks; but the Hudson Review, backed by private money, continues to flourish at age 55. The editor must ensure that the quarterly’s patron continues to support that magazine. That can best be accomplished through endowments—as many as possible with as much money as can be raised. The recent windfall at Poetry magazine is of course unique and will remain so, one must assume. Endowments help support the VQR, the Hudson, the Sewanee Review, and other quarterlies and help provide for their continuation in hard times as well as periods of relative prosperity. The editor must not forget that for every Maecenas there are 10 or 12 or more flinty bureaucrats seeking to save money at the expense of the given quarterly, no matter how distinguished and thrifty it is. In such circumstances the first series of the Southern Review ended when General C. B. Hodges, LSU’s new president, casually scotched it. He disingenuously announced this economy as part the university’s contribution to the war effort in 1942. Hodges may have been a good tactician, but he woefully lacked a sense of strategy for LSU. The general, whose literary enlightenment was markedly less than his understanding of college sports, continued to pay for the upkeep of the LSU tiger in an airconditioned cage. The amount of money involved was almost precisely the same as the subsidy for the Southern, then the best quarterly in the country by a large margin. Some years later (in 1970) a comparable misplaced effort to economize caused the first series of the Kenyon Review to end. Kenyon College was then run by a businessman who had no understanding of what the Kenyon Review meant for his college.

The small college that publishes a first-rate quarterly gets a huge return for its investment, achieving a visibility in the academic world and the Republic of Letters that it otherwise lacks. “A college publishing a good quarterly,” Sam Pickering has declared, “can create the illusion of general excellence, an illusion, which, after passing for truth for a decade or so, becomes truth in the mind of the academic community. The College of Wooster, for example, which is probably intellectually superior to both Kenyon and Sewanee, does not publish a quarterly. As a consequence Wooster’s reputation remains parochial . . . while that, for example, of the University of the South reaps distinction from the travels of the Sewanee Review.”

This is not to say, of course, that universities such as Yale and Virginia should not publish quarterlies. One could argue now, as it was when the Yale Review was suspended, that the distinction of the Yale press should be sufficient for Yale, but that is not the case. So long as J. D. McClatchy continues to edit the Yale Review well, his magazine should be supported by the university. The same rule of thumb applies to the Virginia Quarterly and the Southern Review, both published by universities with presses of long standing. Neither the press nor the quarterly at these three universities depends upon the other, but both redound to the credit of their sponsor and publisher; they are more nearly independent than complementary. A good university can and should support both a press and a quarterly. One reason that Duke has a higher reputation than Vanderbilt and Washington University is that it alone has a press of long standing, which includes a department devoted to publishing periodicals. Ideally, as at Duke, the one operation can fortify the other. So too the library of a great university, such as the Beinecke at Yale, the repository of letters written by Elizabeth Bishop that appear in the current Yale Review. The VQR in comparable fashion has utilized material drawn from the special collections in its Alderman Library. Such is a university at its best, nurturing research, writing, and publication in many ways.

Most libraries have become information centers, posts and outposts in the world of information science. The average librarian these days, like many members of various departments in the humanities, has become hostile to books and hostile to reading. The technocrat looks forward to the day when books no longer have to be purchased, shelved, repaired, replaced, when everything is on microfilm or can be found on the Internet. The quarterly, of course, is an ornament of the great age of reading. Its salad days in the United States—the 1940’s and ‘50’s—are a half century behind us. Now the publishers and other supporters of quarterlies are betting that a sufficient number of people will actually insist on reading from a book or a periodical, not a projector or screen. “I still think,” writes J. D. McClatchy, “a cadre of people like to read the kind of material we encourage, and to read (and keep) it in the form we publish it.” May Mr. McClatchy prove to be right. In any case we may be certain that Paula Deitz, the Hudson Review’s experienced and shrewd editor, is absolutely right when she says, “The future health of literary magazines will only be guaranteed by a new generation of editors who are willing to give the time and energy to build their publications over the long haul.” To do that they must reach the kind of old-fashioned readers whom McClatchy describes and secure them as subscribers, hoping at the same time that most libraries maintain their collections of periodicals and continue their subscriptions.

One quarterly that failed this spring was the Partisan Review, whose final issue (in its 68th year) is a tribute to its longtime editor, William Phillips, who died in September. His widow, Edith Kurzwell, was carrying on with the magazine when she and the board realized that the Partisan’s days were dwindling to a precious few. John Silber, president of Boston University, was not eager to continue supporting this magazine, which never found a natural home after leaving New York City (where it originated and belonged) for Rutgers and then rusticating to Boston. It lost its unique office in the political world when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed late in 1991. By then, anti-Stalinism was as dead as the dodo and as outmoded as the raccoon coat.

The decline of reading has been marked during the past half century, and it continues apace. That the word literate is now misused more often than not is but one telling sign of this trend. Fiction, for instance, is now comically described as literate as well as literary—conditions taken for granted until recently. Within the past month a drama critic writing for the Wall Street Journal described the production of a new play as providing a literate evening’s entertainment. I leave the meaning to you to ferret out.

Matters involving reading have deteriorated greatly since Virginia Woolf wrote in “How Should One Read a Book?” (1926) for the Yale Review: “It would not be in the least surprising to discover on the day of judgment, when secrets are revealed and the obscure made plain, that the reason we have . . . come out from our caves, and dropped our bows and arrows and sat round the fire and talked and drunk and made merry and given to the poor . . . and erected some sort of shelter and society on the waste of the world, is nothing but this: we have loved reading.” Now the calculus stresses writing, and many writers, especially those “trained” (not educated) in creative writing programs, are only casual and indifferent readers. In Virginia Woolf’s time the real reader was one who devoured any print at hand—a bus transfer or the back of a cereal box—as well as periodicals and books. Does the word writing ring as authoritatively as reading (“We have loved writing”)? Of course not.

R. T. Smith, the editor of Shenandoah, says that he is distressed about “the disproportion between the number of people who would love to publish in Shenandoah and the number who would love to read it. I can’t help blaming some of this on creative writing programs that seem to spring up from dragon’s teeth sown by some demented administrator, but of course, some of those programs actually display journals and encourage students to read them. I continue to hope that at least a few of the students see reading as a pleasure in itself and not just a reconnaissance mission.” This is the nub of the present conflict between reading and writing, with many present-day authors simply “aspiring to be creative writing professionals,” as Mr. Smith points out. Such a professional is a long way from the old-fashioned man or woman of letters, the person for whom reading and writing are complementary acts, with the one depending upon and buttressing the other. Almost nobody in the future will be as devoted to reading as William Maxwell, the great editor of fiction at the New Yorker and himself a splendid critic and writer of fiction. “All I ask of life,” he said, “is the privilege of being able to read.” Who else but such a devoted reader would worry that the next world does not contain books? Now that the love of reading is shrinking among the general population, we cannot speak confidently of the continued existence of the informed general reader, an essential player in past cultural history who is now a threatened species. When the number of such general readers diminishes to less than a saving remnant, the literary quarterly will be threatened with extinction. To blame this alarming trend on the stranglehold that television has on western civilization is too simple. It is the screen, especially the computer screen, that is choking civilization. When Faulkner’s last ding-dong of doom sounds, we may be sure that most people will be peering intently at some kind of screen, including the silver screen. Only a few will be reading an old-fashioned magazine or book, relishing the odor and feel of the paper, the typeface, the design and production features of the artifact in hand.

The emergence of a vital new discipline in the humanities—the history of the book—is one of the few favorable signs that augurs well for the continuation of reading at its most profound and intense and, indeed, for the continuation of humane study in general. Such cultural historians as Megan L. Benton, Robert Darnton, H. J. Jackson, and Kevin Sharpe are doing pioneering work in this important new field; and James L. W. West has created a center for the study of the book that is housed at Pennsylvania State University. One can imagine, decades or centuries hence, representative books being examined in such centers as quaint traces of vanished civilizations, vestiges of an earlier time in which educated people owned books, devoured books, and otherwise possessed books in every possible way (through marginalia for example). The anthropologists of the future will examine such shards of broken civilization with microscopic attention, recording their findings in the bowels of complicated computers. Will the Turings of the future resemble the Renaissance men and women of the past? I think we know the answer. The code is more nearly smashed than discovered. The barbarians are not only within the pale but have taken over libraries and renamed them information centers. “The idea that the book has a “fate” implies,” as Sven Birkerts has acutely observed, “the fait accompli.”

We must postpone that fate, extinction, as long as possible. One means of doing this is by editing, publishing, and reading the literary quarterly, which has been a linchpin of civilization since the 18th century. The book, as Birkerts declares, “has always represented the ideal of completion. The printed text has strived to be standardized, authorized, a summa.” In contrast, he argues, “screen technologies undo these cultural assumptions implicitly. Stripping the book of its proud material trappings, its solid three-dimensionality, they further subject it to fragmentation.” Such fragmentation affects the periodical, especially the quarterly, no less than the book.

Do these dire predictions about the future of the periodical and the book, which inevitably entail the future of reading, sound excessive? Will not the winds of technology produce the whirlwind of barbarism? In general more has been lost than gained as technology has moved from the simple reproduction of print by one means or another—originally photocopying and offset printing—to the present means of technology, including the Internet. Eventually each quarterly might be published as a single master copy to be reproduced by various subscribers through the Internet. This movement is not only toward fragmentation, but involves constant fluidity, and as such it mirrors the latest dismal critical notions about the reader’s remaking the text and ignoring the author, an ominous development.

In 1960, on the eve of his departure from the Sewanee Review, where he had been that magazine’s best long-term editor, Monroe Spears wrote: “You may expect me to say that the literary situation is very bad and that the critical quarterly is our only hope, the only repository of intelligence and virtue in an evil time.” “It is fatally easy,” he continued, “to let one’s defensiveness at the fact that nobody loves the quarterlies express itself in rhetorical exaggerations.” He went on to provide not only a defense of quarterlies but a criticism of them as necessary evils. He concluded this superb essay by observing that quarterlies “try to keep alive the ideal of the profession of letters operating with dignity and integrity as the center of a unified culture. This is an ideal and not a reality; it is grotesquely at variance with the facts; and the quarterlies keep it alive only by a kind of hothouse cultivation.” In reconsidering the subject in 1988, Mr. Spears thought that relatively little had changed; and I believe that remains true today. The salad days of the quarterly—the 1940’s and ‘50’s—are long behind, to repeat; but the quarterly remains an important force in the Republic of Letters, perhaps its principal constituent so far as publishing is concerned.

In 1998, after Joseph Epstein was forced out at the American Scholar and Frederick Morgan retired from the Hudson, I declared: “As a vehicle of culture the quarterly seems as important as ever. It continues to provide an essential outlet for serious writers of all conditions, whether those of genuine ability who are just starting or those of long and secure accomplishment. The quarterly not only judges literature through its criticism, including its book reviews, but makes literature through its fiction and poetry. Its editors and contributors proceed with what Allen Tate called the “conviction of being part of literature.” The quarterly continues to create the nexus between the profession of literature and the world of publishing.”

As yet quarterlies and their editors do not appear to be so many Cuchulains battling the sea as the tide comes in. May this situation persist for many years to come. If the quarterly can continue to have much the same function and significance as it has previously enjoyed, especially since the 1930’s, there may be many long innings ahead. The quarterlies that have been long established should endure for many years, but it is probably too late to found a quarterly—or to refound one. In any case the future of the quarterly depends upon the future of reading. If the sociologists in the Western world could determine how many children are now reading under the covers at night with flashlights after their parents declare Lights out!, we could be more specific about the future of reading—and the future of Western culture. As matters now stand, the rest of us are in the dark.


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