Commentary : Online Lit Mags

Conflict of Interest Part III: Electronic Journals

by Posted on October 21st, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Electric Literature #4

The Internet is a vibrant scene in relation to literary journals: every couple weeks on Duotrope, a few journals fledge and a few go inactive. The question is what all of the vibrancy adds up to. In the same period that there seem to be fewer poetry readers and more poetry writers than ever before, the Internet has drastically increased the number of literary journals, print and electronic combined. More to read and fewer readers—the inevitable result of a situation in which there are very few readers who don’t primarily identify as writers.

The first result of the oversaturation of the reading market is that vast amounts of writing go unread. I try to read literary journals, both print and electronic, as often as I can, but, including journals that I’ve only visited in passing while submitting my own poems, I haven’t set eyes on even 10% of the poetry-publishing journals Duotrope lists. If I had infinite time to read—and only judged my reading pleasure on how my many good poems I read and didn’t count off for bad poems—this would be a good situation. But I don’t have infinite time, and I do count off for bad poems (by which I suppose I mean poems I don’t like). I try not to, but then annoyance isn’t always a matter of will.

I don’t, however, think that electronic journals’ poetic success rate—whatever that means to you—is any different than that of print journals ever was. The democratization of opportunity does not lower aesthetic, emotional, or intellectual standards. But why then does, to quote myself, “surfing Duotrope sometimes feel like a lot of publications publishing a lot of poems in an endless feedback loop of mediocrity?”

The majority of poems published during any period are mediocre, and will only seem more so in an era where the majority of readers have, as publishing competitors of one another, an inherent incentive to find them so. If we assume that the democratization of publishing has not lowered poetic standards, then the Internet’s democratization of not only the publication of literary journals but also the consumption of literary journals has exposed published poetry to a higher level of scrutiny than ever before. Mediocrity is more apparent in the aggregate than the specific.

The aggregate poetry of any era is mediocre, and the democratization of publication and readership engendered by the Internet has not changed this. Do electronic journals allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff any more efficiently than print journals did? It seems to me that they don’t, but that the difference is not in the middle, but the extremes. The increased number of literary journals made possible by the Internet creates a public poetry that exceeds its predecessors (all of them) in the same way that New York exceeds Washington D.C. in relation to dining out; in a limited sample Washington D.C. might generally do as well, but if a person ate at every restaurant in both cities, he would enjoy more exceptional meals in New York by dint of the fact that there are more restaurants. Because greater access doesn’t raise the middle but the top, the Internet insures that poetic geniuses will emerge at a faster rate than ever before.