Only Connect

A review of Without Covers: Literary Magazines at the Digital Edge

Lesha Hurliman & Numsiri C. Kunakemakorn, ed.
Purdue University Press, 2002.
180 Pages.
ISBN 1557532524; Paperback $15.95 [
Browse/Purchase]

Review by Paul Kane

What links The Evergreen Review, The Drunken Boat and Archipelago? Answer (boom, boom): this very Web page you are reading, and of course the World Wide Web in general. And in more than one sense. The editors of these three literary magazines, along with literally thousands of others, have chosen to use the medium of the Web to do what “little magazines” have traditionally done -- provide a forum for new and exciting writing. There are, nonetheless, differences in the way in which literary magazines make use of this new medium. Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review, for example, appears both in print as well as online. Rebecca Seiferle’s The Drunken Boat appears exclusively online, and she regards the Web as a very particular medium: “a kind of library that only Borges could have envisioned, full not only of all the texts of the world but the dancing alphabet, the shimmering hieroglyphics, the marriage of the letter and the image that hypertext makes possible.” Katherine McNamara has adopted still another approach: her magazine, Archipelago, appearing online, is designed (or was originally designed) to be downloaded in PDF format and read in print. She sees the Web as “a publishing medium and a distributor of literature,” a way of reaching out to the widest possible readership.
Without Covers, edited by Lesha Hurliman and Numsiri C. Kunakemakorn, examines the phenomenon of small literary magazines migrating to online publishing, and explores some of the issues and concerns arising from this transition. The majority of the essays have been written by the editors of literary magazines themselves, and in general they adopt one of two approaches. Some tell the story of how they got their own particular magazines on-track and online, and of how they discovered particular writers, such as Leah Rudnitsky. Others address what one might call “keynote issues,” reflecting upon the impact of the Web on literature and its future. There are nineteen pieces in all, including contributions by Rebecca Seiferle, Katherine McNamara, and hyperfictionist Michael Joyce. All contributors are, I believe, American, with one exception: John Tranter, editor of The Jacket, is Australian. (Does this matter, is it worth mentioning? English is the language of the Web, and so – in the main – the language of literature on the Web. It does seem important to mention this, though, a fact so obvious that it’s almost invisible.)
Although all the contributors have interesting things to say, perhaps the most substantial piece in the collection is Paula Geyh’s “The Literary Magazine, the Web, and the Changing of the Avant-Garde,” which attempts to place the literary magazine in an historical context. She is very good at outlining the importance and function of the little literary magazine – the way in which it fosters a sense of community, provides a forum for young writers, and showcases new and often challenging writing. James Joyce’s two great works, it should be remembered, first appeared in such magazines – Ulysses was first published in the Little Review; similarly, Finnegans Wake was first published as a “work in progress” in the Transatlantic Review, under the editorship of Ford Madox Ford. She devotes most of her attention to those online literary magazines and resources that can be seen as continuing an avant-garde tradition, with a particular emphasis on Dada. Another highlight is an essay of a more reflective nature, Michael Joyce’s “A Marriage That Might Have Been, or Living, Haply, Ever After,” a personal and often nostalgic appreciation of Barney Rosset and the Evergreen Review. The Evergreen Review, of course, has a long and distinguished print history: Burrough’s The Naked Lunch was first published in its pages (and the sooner the ER issue devoted to pataphysics is on CD and/or archived online, the better will be my quality of life). However, the piece that I most enjoyed was Lucia Perillo’s “Big Sky Country.” Not only does it include Kim Addonizio’s “Glass” -- as Perillo rightly contends, a superb poem -- but it’s easily the most entertaining essay in the book. A look at the Web from the viewpoint of a literate reader, it’s a DeQuincyesque meander, digressive by design and sprinkled with insights: “This is how the Internet has supplemented my relationship to poetry: it has provided me with a highbrow form of entertainment that falls somewhere between reading…and the TV.” Spot on. Another of her concerns that rings true regards surfing the Web, which Perillo worries “will rob us of the capacity to dwell.” There’s a kind of nascent nympholepsy that the Web develops in us; we travel hopefully, but when we arrive the grass is always greener elsewhere.
Just three examples from a very rich and thought-provoking collection, and I fear I have only scratched the surface of this rewarding book. One drawback, but only one: I’d liked to have seen more evidence of interaction between the contributors, a sense that one view was written in response to that of another – because naturally there are areas of divergence and disagreement. What I’m saying, I suppose not without some irony, is the book could have been a little better if it were more like a Web forum!
I would recommend Without Covers to anyone with an interest in both literature and the possibilities of the Web. The book serves as a useful survey of what literary magazines are available, a kind of annotated “Webliography” of literary sites. It’s also quite valuable to anyone with an interest in hypertext and combinatory poetry and literature, forms naturally suited to such online publications. And needless to say, it’s almost essential to anyone thinking of setting up an online literary magazine or Web-based literary project. (And why don’t you? Why shouldn’t all the Lord’s people be prophets?) Without Covers is a wonderful snapshot of the current state of the art of online publishing.
As I’ve called Without Covers “thought-provoking,” it might be fitting to close with some of my own thoughts. In my view, the Web can only enhance literature. Mainstream publishing at the moment is a little like terrestrial TV: some highpoints, sure, but a lot of dross. Reading between the lines of many of these essays, I get the sense that disillusionment has been one of the driving forces for many of these editors and entrepreneurs – disillusionment with the world of mainstream publishing, a world in which writers are “content providers” and profit is paramount. Perhaps they’ve looked at this world and said to themselves in effect, (here I have recourse to an English idiom), “Sod this for a game of soldiers, I just can’t be arsed.” Striking out on their own, the Web has empowered these editors to publish writers they actually believe in. The presiding spirit here wouldn’t necessarily be the avant-garde, but someone old school, like Ford Madox Ford, or maybe Ross and Shawn at the New Yorker. In any event, the rise of the Web has certainly changed the landscape of the possible, and it’s a brave new world out there. Without Covers is one tool to help you get your bearings.

--Paul Kane
10 January 2003

Additional Information

Purdue University Press Page -- A description of Without Covers from the publisher.

Selected Literary Magazines:

Archipelago
The Drunken Boat
Evergreen Review
Jacket Magazine

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.