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Essay

In Praise of Little Magazines

By January 18, 2012 One Comment
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What is it about the Reformed tradition and desktop publishing?  I have very tangible memories of this as part of my induction to the Reformed tradition.  While doing graduate work at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto–site of my baptism-by-fire into Dutch Reformedom–I worked in the tiny little “bookstore” at the Institute.  “Bookstore” is a rather grandiose label for a closet in the back corner of a back room on the second floor that was home to books published by ICS Senior Members and friends of the Institute.  But some of the real treasures were scads and scads of mimeographed papers and lectures and classnotes that I gobbled up like academic tracts–archived with a sober sense of their world-historical import and eagerly sent around the world with a revolutionary zeal in a pre-digital age.  These xeroxed treatises constituted a not insignificant part of my most formative education.  

There’s something in the DNA of a Reformed “world- and life-view” that energizes tiny bands of upstart thinkers and writers and publishers to get the word out–to devote themselves to the largely thankless task of comment and criticism committed to print.  One can think of Groen van Prinsterer’s anti-revolutionary daily, De Nederlander; or Kuyper’s founding of De Standaard; or more proximately, the rich legacy of The Reformed Journal and its heir, Perspectives, as well as the glossy upstart, Comment.  Indeed, perhaps one can even see The Twelve blog as a digital expression of this same impulse.  

All of these publishing ventures exhibit an energetic commitment to small, good things (to invoke Raymond Carver).  And, as per my schtick here of late, this trend brings to mind another Jewish intellectual: Lionel Trilling.  I was recently re-reading Trilling’s classic collection, The Liberal Imagination, and was reminded of his retrospective essay on the 10th anniversary of The Partisan Review.  In “The Function of the Little Magazine,” first published as an introduction to a Partisan Review anthology (not unlike The Best of the Reformed Journal), Trilling notes an odd metric of success:

The Partisan Reader may be thought of as an ambiguous monument.  It commemorates a victory–Partisan Review has survived for a decade, and has survived with a vitality of which the evidence may be found in the book which marks the anniversary.  Yet to celebrate the victory is to be at once aware of the larger circumstance of defeat in which it was gained.  For what we speak of as if it were a notable achievement is no more than this: that a magazine which has devoted itself to the publication of good writing of various kinds has been able to continue in existence for ten years and has so far established itself that its audience now numbers some six thousand readers.”

While we bemoan the demise of a literate and literary public in our time, and look longingly back to the age of Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling, in fact Trilling, in 1950, was already lamenting the same state of affairs: “the general lowering of the status of literature and of the interest in it.”  Any proverbial golden age will have to be older than we thought.  However, this is the context in which Trilling praises “little magazines”: it is in the face of such a deline that “the innumberable ‘little magazines’ have been a natural and heroic response.”

Little magazines are positively heroic!  And this has nothing to do with the size of their circulation.  Indeed, Trilling suggests that we resist the temptation to find the elusive “general reader” or measure success by mass appeal.  The writer for the little magazine is writing for someone else:

“The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections, so far as he is gifted to conceive them.  He does well, if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie.  The writer serves his daemon and his subject.”

Even, if need be, to a coterie.  Three cheers for Reformed coteries!–and to those ancestors who wrote for posterity, whose mimeographed notes I devoured in that back room, whose sequestered scribblings trickle down to us and are unsuspecting catalysts for new generations and unimagined audiences.  Who knows what heroic work our little magazines might be doing, their little lights shining, refusing to be busheled.  As Trilling closes, who knows what might happen without them?

“A magazine with six thousand readers cannot seem very powerful here, and yet to rest with this judgment would be to yield far too easily to the temptations of grossness and crudeness which appear whenever the question of power is raised.  We must take into account what would be our moral and politcal condition if the impulse which such a magazine represents did not exist, the impulse to make sure that the daemon and the subject are served…”

I have been honored to be a part of “little magazines” like Perspectives and Comment, and am deeply appreciative of the labor of love undertaken by their editors and publishers.  May their tribe increase! And may our little coterie rise to meet them. 

One Comment

  • Arika Theule-Van Dam says:

    It's good to know that someone out there (maybe not six thousand someones, in our case, but at least one someone) thinks that what we and others are trying to do is worthwhile. Thanks for these good words, Jamie, and for your ongoing support of our little publishing endeavor. (I don't know that "heroic" is the word I'd use, though… maybe "stubborn" or "feisty"??)

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