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Rethinking the Future of the University Quarterly

Last week, Inside Higher Ed published an essay on “The Future of the University Quarterly.” In it, Joanne Diaz and Ian Morris (both editors themselves at university literary magazines), pointed to the perilous future that such journals face, and fretted that their demise in an age of university “cost-benefit analyses” seems near-certain. A penchant for “staid formats and ossified editorial philosophies” is made worse by the “moral hazard embedded in the university-supported model,” wherein there’s no incentive to pursue the “less glamorous business of chasing subscriptions and single copy sales.” As a result, claim these authors, university quarterlies are operating on an endangered paradigm of subsidization that guarantees their obsolescence, particularly compared to alternative models embraced by leading independent magazines like McSweeney’s, n+1, Tin House, and the online Diagram.

I read this essay with interest, as the managing editor of the Massachusetts Review, which occupies a liminal space between the university and independent publishing worlds. MR was founded by university professors in 1959, and is housed on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, but legally it is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. I am not affiliated with or paid by the university, nor is the art director. Our executive editor receives a single course release from the university in compensation, and our senior editors work at neighboring colleges, but are not paid for time spent on us. Part of our budget comes from the support of the five neighboring colleges, but more than half comes from grants, private donations, and, yes, subscriptions and sales. We enjoy some of the privileges noted by the authors, including the leadership of UMass professors as executive editors and, so far, a permanent home on its campus, but little of the guaranteed stability implied.

So I read this essay closely, particularly the penultimate paragraph where the authors lay out concrete ideas for helping university quarterlies become more competitive. And I was happy to see that MR has already tackled most, if not all, of these actions, including an exhaustive external review for the university and colleges who help support us; the hiring of an external managing editor with a mandate to expand circulation, distribution, and avenues of support; and the adoption of a clear editorial philosophy and expanded digital presence.

But I was troubled by two underlying assumptions made by the authors about the nature and value of the university magazine, both of which demand closer attention and critique, since they establish a troubling precedent for the evaluation of cultural media and suggest a reality that simply does not exist.

I’ll address the second of these first. Throughout the essay, Diaz and Morris suggest that the independent magazines named above are “thriving to a greater extent than perhaps ever before.” Led by editors who were big literary names before they launched their magazines (Dave Eggers at McSweeney’s, Benjamin Kunkel at n+1), their “distinctive designs and innovative editorial programs … have attracted broader, younger readerships.” This is true (I hope)—one look at n+1’s advertising media kit reveals that they have a circulation of 9,000 per issue and garner 180,000 unique page visitors per month for their online content. Look closer, however, and you see that the average page visit lasts one minute and forty seconds, suggesting not prolonged engagement but a talent for click-bait, a valuable metric but not one that addresses a declining appetite for sustained reading. n+1’s circulation is certainly enviable, but it is far less than the 1.1 million enjoyed by, say, the New Yorker—a magazine that operated for decades at an annual deficit.

An unfair comparison? Of course. I make it to highlight the fact that these independent magazines are not, as is suggested by the authors, competing with trade magazines, nor are they surviving on readership alone. n+1 has nonprofit status, as does McSweeney’s, One Story (another great independent magazine), and nearly all the rest. Nonprofit status makes their work possible—it allows these journals to operate independently of advertiser influence and a fickle marketplace, and to continue to be innovative and daring in their editorial and design choices. It also ensures stability when basic arithmetic suggests that sales and subscriptions can’t possibly support their business alone.

I am reminded of an old joke: How do you make a small fortune in literary publishing? Start with a large one. Make no mistake: These magazines may have started on the strength of their seed money, name recognition, and leadership, but their continued existence depends upon the support of, if not the ivory tower, then venerable federal and private foundations, and the subsidization of publishing companies like Random House and Penguin, just as university quarterlies exist on foundation and institutional support. To suggest otherwise is to misrepresent the landscape of literary publishing, independent or otherwise.

To be in the arts these days, particularly in literary publishing, is to depend upon external support that recognizes a value of literature beyond the financial. (This is why, for example, Cond√© Nast continued to publish the venerable New Yorker, despite an annual fiscal shortfall of millions of dollars, a shortfall that only recently ended.) I was appalled by the authors’ implication that a university literary magazine must demonstrate its worth through its financial viability and the size of the readership it is able to attract. Few if any literary magazines, university-based or independent, can lay claim to this kind of success, and luckily, they don’t have to.

To read such a frankly neo-liberal evaluation of arts media from two authors who themselves work in literary publishing and higher ed, is disheartening. Which brings me to my first point: The central argument here seems to be that university quarterlies are now only as valuable as the money they bring in to support themselves, which, according to these authors, ain’t much.

Confusingly, that conclusion follows a lengthy discussion of the very benefits these journals have brought to their home institutions and to the arts more generally. They have been, in the authors’ own words, “a resounding success,” consistently publishing the major writers of our time before they were major (Joyce Carol Oates and UMass’s own James Tate are among those named). More importantly, university literary journals provide publication opportunities to emerging voices who will go on to shape generations within the university and without. As any writer will tell you, book contracts—or for that matter, tenure—are nearly impossible to land without a demonstrated track record of literary magazine publication.

My point is this: The greatest threat to the university quarterly may in fact be the constant moving of the goal posts, which the authors seem happy to participate in. What differentiates university quarterlies from other independent arts media is the impossibility of the standard to which they alone are being held. University quarterlies find themselves working in an increasingly corporatized environment, where they must “prove” their financial value to an ever-changing roster of business-minded administrators, rather than striving to pursue and maintain a standard of creative excellence. The perpetuation of the neo-liberal myth of the self-sustaining independent literary journal, one that survives by competing in the free market of subscriptions and sales, only increases the unrealistic pressures faced by university journals.

The capital offered by the university literary magazine is not financial but cultural, and should be measured accordingly. To do otherwise is to reduce all worth to a dollar sign, a metric by which Fifty Shades of Grey becomes the most important and groundbreaking work of literature of the past fifty years. Worse still, it makes us complicit in the corporatization of higher education and the arts, a direction that may ultimately kill not just the university quarterly, but the university and literary publishing tout court.

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