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5 of 7 Stories

Is Reading Dead?
University-affiliated literary journals struggle to maintain funding as they compete for a shrinking audience

By Robert A. Jones
Lexington, Virginia

There's a whiff of nostalgia as Rodney T. Smith recalls his early days at Shenandoah, the literary magazine published by Washington and Lee University. Hired as the editor in 1995, Smith would stroll to his off-campus offices, settle into a chair and worry about nothing except the next issue of Shenandoah and the authors who would fill its pages.

"The only conversation between the university and me about money was whether next year's budget would go up," Smith said. "It was like the university was the patron of the arts and Shenandoah was the provider of the arts. Both sides were content. I know I was."

When Smith was recruited from Auburn University, where he was a professor of English, the administration at Washington and Lee did, indeed, reward him with a sharp hike in the magazine's operating budget. On the personal side, Smith was told he would not have to teach. "They told me, 'Just make the magazine, that's enough,'" Smith recalled.

Over the last half century, this symbiosis between literary journal and university has become commonplace. Universities provide office space and funding for a journal, and, in return, the journal brings to the campus prestige and an exposure to the wider literary world. More than a dozen of the nation's best-known journals now operate under these auspices, from the Kenyon Review at Kenyon College in Ohio to the Southern Review at Louisiana State University.

These partnerships have come to play a central role in the literary life of the country. Since the decline of mass-market magazines, like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post, the journals have become the vehicles that discover and publish upcoming authors. Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York, says literary journals now publish 99 percent of all new poetry in this country and the vast majority of short stories.

But this long-standing, cozy partnership between universities and literary magazines has begun to erode. University presidents, watching their own budgets decline in recent years, have begun to look with jaundiced eyes at their literary offspring. Why, they ask, should they support an enterprise that does not contribute to the university's core goal of educating students?

 
Rodney T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah, is struggling to keep the literary journal alive in the face of budget cuts at Washington and Lee University.
(Photo by Tom Cogill, for CrossTalk)
 
Moreover, the literary world itself has lost purchase on many modern campuses. These days, the excitement is directed largely towards the sciences and professional schools where donors lavish funds on new buildings and professorships. The pursuit of arts and letters, on the other hand, is often treated as an after-thought, the quaint realm of Mr. Chips.

The actual cost of supporting a literary enterprise on campus is surprisingly modest. Shenandoah's current budget is $187,000, which includes printing, distribution, and the salaries for Smith and his part-time managing editor, Lynn Leech. A recent informal review listed the budget of the Southern Review at $338,000 and the Sou'wester at Southern Illinois University at $28,000.

Of those sums, the universities pay anywhere from 70 to 90 percent, depending on revenues generated by the magazines. But modest or not, the costs make an attractive target to administrators who find themselves in a slash-and-burn period of budget cutting.

Here at Washington and Lee, that change in attitude has taken a sharp toll on Shenandoah. Over the past year the magazine has seen its publication schedule cut from four times a year to three, its offices moved to a semi-basement in the public relations building, and its budget reduced. As for editor Smith, he now teaches each semester in addition to his editing duties.

And far worse may be coming. The university has put the magazine on a virtual death watch as various administrators decide whether to continue funding at any level. The review, begun last year, will not be concluded for several more months.

For Smith, who looks very much the literary editor with flowing white hair and has the soft accent of his native North Carolina, the process has left him weary and frustrated. "People keep asking me how Shenandoah can become a business, and I'm not sure those things fit together very well," he said. "I want to ask them, how about the college library? How can the library become a business?"

Of course, financial distress is hardly a new condition among literary magazines. For generations, even the best-known publications have depended on benefactors to subsidize the inevitable deficits. In the 1950s and '60s, for example, the Paris Review made it clear who was paying the bills by listing the name of its publisher at the top of the masthead: Sadruddin Aga Khan.

"It's the fate of literary magazines to be small and poor," said Louis Rubin, the retired co-founder of Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "And that's probably for the best. If they become mass-market operations, they would be forced into a blockbuster mentality, which is not their job. Their job is to discover new talent, to publish writers that no one has heard of."

Nonetheless, the landscape has grown more perilous since the 1950s, a period that some regard as the golden era of literary magazines. During those post-World War Two years, a half dozen magazines-the Paris, Kenyon, Hudson and Southern reviews, among others-dominated the scene and garnered unto themselves most of the literary attention and financial support.

"At the time, those magazines could provide recognition and prestige to an author just by publishing a short story," said Rubin. "People would open their copies of the Southern Review or the Paris Review to see who had been anointed, so to speak. That's not true today. Literary magazines don't play that role."

They don't, in part, because reading itself plays a lesser role than it did in the '50s. A recent NEA study found that literary reading has undergone dramatic decline in the country, with less than half of American adults now reading any form of literature. That study led the Virginia Quarterly Review, published at the University of Virginia, to display on its website the drawing of a young woman, her head hung in despair and a manuscript dangling from her hand, with the caption, "Reading is Dead."

"In the 1950s we had an emerging middle class that saw literature and reading as one of the hallmarks of the educated person," said one editor. "That's not true today. Reading has lost its power to bestow status on the masses, and instead has become a cottage industry."

Perhaps so, but within that cottage industry another phenomenon is having a powerful effect on the world of literary magazines. Namely, the sheer number of literary journals is exploding even as readership has declined. Rather than the half dozen dominant journals of the '50s, about 20 major journals are now published around the country, all competing for attention and readers.

But those numbers are dwarfed by the proliferation of secondary journals that have popped up in cities and hamlets across the land. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses estimates that the total number of literary journals in the country has hit 1,000, the highest number in history. Some exist solely online; others are published cheaply with desktop technology and may last only for one or two issues. But even as one journal dies, two others take its place.

In fact, it could be argued that the present time, and not the '50s, represents the real golden era for literary magazines. Bellevue Hospital in New York, for example, now publishes the Bellevue Literary Review. In Rochester, New York, a publication called Hazmat Review deals with poetry rather than noxious chemicals. Some journals publish only gay and lesbian literature; others accept only extra-long short stories; still others specialize in literature from certain neighborhoods in a given city.

What explains this burgeoning supply of literature in the midst of shrinking demand? Some veterans of the literary world believe the answer lies in the mushrooming culture of creative writing retreats and workshops that now churn out would-be writers by the thousands. The boom is occurring both inside universities and outside at institutions such as Breadloaf in Vermont.

"If you browse through Poets and Writers (the trade journal of creative writing) you will be amazed at the number of ads for these workshops," said Shannon Ravenel, editor and co-founder of Algonquin Books. "They're everywhere. And when you create writers, you also create readers of a particular sort. I'm talking about a crowd that wants to be published in a literary journal, and a crowd that is interested in what other writers are doing."

Another veteran sees the phenomenon more cynically. "Every writer needs an outlet," he said. "So you get tens of thousands of attendees at creative writing workshops looking for a journal to publish their one-and-only short story. If they can't find one, sometimes they simply create one to immortalize their work and their friends' work. In cases like this, the division between authors and readers is lost. Both sides are composed of the same people."

The burgeoning universe of journals may indicate a thriving creative culture in the country, but the phenomenon has not helped the older, established journals. "The pie is getting cut into smaller and smaller pieces," said David Lynn, editor of the Kenyon Review. "A good literary journal does not need to fight for authors. It needs to fight for readers. In general, literary magazines are in dire straights because readership is declining and many more publications are fighting for that readership."

The small circulation of the leading journals reflects the squeeze. Lynn's Kenyon Review has one of the genre's highest circulations at 3,940. Shenandoah comes in at 1,527, and the Sawanee Review at 2,460. The circulations of many journals are lower now than 20 years ago.

At Washington and Lee, these pressures were never anticipated when the university decided to sponsor a journal in 1950. The idea was suggested by two faculty members who argued that a campus journal would help raise the literary tone of the campus, much as journals had done at Vanderbilt and Kenyon. Washington and Lee's college dean agreed and soon the university had appointed a bright student named T.K. Wolfe as the first editor. He is now better known as writer Tom Wolfe.

Over time the magazine evolved from a student-run affair to a professional operation with national ambitions. Shenandoah never embraced the kinds of experimental fiction where, say, a short story would take the form of checked items on a grocery list. Rather, it kept a distinctly southern flavor and favored writers such as Eudora Welty, James Dickey, Reynolds Price and Anne Tyler.

By the time Smith arrived as editor in 1995, Shenandoah had emerged as one of the country's leading journals. In fact, Smith's recruitment amounted to a kind of statement about the magazine's position. In the past, editors had been chosen from the school's English department, and some had continued to teach while editing the magazine part-time. Smith, on the other hand, was hired full-time to put out the magazine.

By all accounts the magazine has thrived from a literary standpoint during Smith's tenure. His two compilations from Shenandoah's first 50 years-titled "Buck & Wing" and "Strongly Spent"-were widely praised, and Smith briefly was wooed to take over the Southern Review before deciding to remain with Shenandoah.

When Shenandoah's reversal of fortune came in 2003, its immediate cause had little to do with the magazine itself. Rather, the declining stock market had eroded Washington and Lee's endowment, sending the administration on a hunt for cost reductions. President Thomas G. Burish, who arrived just a year earlier, announced that future expenses at the university would be cut by $5 million annually.

And there stood Shenandoah, not part of any academic department, looking very much like roadkill. "The university said if Shenandoah was being housed at the university, then the magazine should contribute to the life at the university," said Smith. "My initial response was that Shenandoah already contributed in a major way. It's one of the best-known institutions on the campus; it attracts writers to the university; it's one of the reasons people know about Washington and Lee."

Not wanting to rest on that argument, Smith and Managing Editor Lynn Leech fashioned a plan to win over the administration. An intern program was expanded; Smith began teaching each semester, and Leech began visiting with the English faculty and local high schools, urging teachers to use Shenandoah in their classes.

Smith even began a perverse but successful campaign to increase circulation. In responding to writers' submissions-Shenandoah gets 15,000 submissions per year-Smith started enclosing notes suggesting that the submitters subscribe to the magazine. It produced significant results.

Most importantly, Smith wrote an impassioned defense of Shenandoah's value to the university in a memorandum to the administration. The paper detailed the magazine's various contributions to campus life and referred to the lavish praise that has been extended to the magazine by everyone from Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, to former Washington and Lee President John Elrod.

"The ultimate value of a first-rate literary magazine is, unsurprisingly, similar to the value of the arts in general," Smith wrote. "While I would not begin to argue that Shenandoah is the sole source of spirit, of imagination, of hearth fire, and the sustaining symbol for the arts and humanities at Washington and Lee, I would suggest that it is...part of that indelible mystery and beauty that make Washington and Lee not merely an institution but an inspiration to all who know it."

Instead of huzzahs, the administration responded largely with silence. Informally, Smith heard encouraging words from some colleagues in the administration. But the magazine stayed on the chopping block as the campus-wide review proceeded. And in a recent interview, Provost H. Thomas Williams made it clear that the chopping block is where the magazine remains.

"The question is not resolved," Williams said. "Shenandoah is not like the English department, which would never be considered expendable. Shenandoah is a more peripheral operation, and the issue is whether the resources would be more properly directed elsewhere."

 
Washington and Lee Provost H. Thomas Williams hopes Shenandoah can be retained but at less cost to the university.
(Photo by Tom Cogill, for CrossTalk)
 
Williams describes himself as a regular reader of the magazine and agrees that it has attracted widespread attention. "No doubt there's an important readership out there," he said. "One problem is that Shenandoah is well-known but its connection to the university is not well-known."

Asked if the magazine's demise is on the table, Williams replied, "Potentially, yes." But he added that the death of Shenandoah is not the goal he is working towards. Rather, he said, he would like an arrangement whereby the university's investment is much reduced and the magazine's contributions to the campus much increased.

Exactly how that will be accomplished, no one seems to know. Williams has asked the university's business school to form a team to analyze the magazine's business prospects and develop a plan. But as yet the team has not been assembled.

For David Lynn, the editor of the Kenyon Review, the drama surrounding Shenandoah is all too familiar. Ten years ago, Lynn found himself facing the same abyss.

"Shenandoah is like a replay of what happened to us," he said. "The Kenyon college trustees felt they were spending too much money on the review and not getting enough back. They were within a whisper of shutting us down.

"We had our defenders who said the college would be crazy to kill the review because it was part of the identity of the college and you couldn't buy that sort of benefit, and so forth. I have to tell you, that argument didn't do us a lot of good."

But another idea did plenty of good. Lynn put together a plan to convert the Kenyon Review to a non-profit organization with its own board of trustees and its own fundraising program. Instead of sucking from the teat of the college's endowment, Lynn proposed that his magazine build and use an endowment of its own.

Initially, the college administration was wary for obvious reasons. By allowing the review to become a fundraising entity, the college might be creating a competitor for its own fundraising campaigns.

"One of my greatest victories was getting the college to understand that the review's fundraising would not be competitive with the college but complementary," Lynn said. "In other words, the total pie would get bigger because we would be going after fundamentally different groups of donors."

The plan succeeded, and the Kenyon Review's non-profit structure is now regarded as a model for others. To date the magazine has amassed an endowment of $2 million, a modest amount by endowment standards but enough to provide the review with an income that frees it from the college's subsidy. Just this fall, the magazine held its annual ceremony for the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement in New York and collected $250,000 in corporate and other sponsorships.

"I believe this is the only realistic approach for a literary magazine," said Lynn. "As long as a magazine depends on a university, it will be vulnerable to the next president or provost who comes along. They will always have the power to kill you at will."

However successful the Lynn experiment, other universities have been slow to embrace the non-profit strategy for on-campus magazines. They fear, as did the Kenyon administration, that a second fundraising entity will sap the college's efforts, and thus far the Kenyon Review remains unique on American campuses.

Nonetheless, at Washington and Lee, Smith is working to make Shenandoah the second university-affiliated magazine to go non-profit. He has championed the idea with the administration, arguing that the magazine could eventually free itself of the need for a university subsidy.

As of yet he has made no progress, but, undeterred, Smith says he will keep trying. "Shenandoah has existed for 50 years and I am the inheritor of its tradition. I will not let it die on my watch," he said. "If anyone thinks different, they will find they have a badger on their hands."


Robert A. Jones, a Los Angeles freelance writer, is a former reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2005

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