—Think
By Ben Eastham
Authors
  • Ben Eastham
    Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review, a journal on the arts and literature published in print and online. His writing has featured in publications including the Art Newspaper, New York Times, The London Review of Books, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Elephant, and Illuminations: the 54th Venice Biennale. He is the co-author, with Katya Tylevich, of My Life as a Work of Art, due out in 2016 with Laurence King.
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This is the first in a series of articles published following the conference Slash: Hybrid Ecologies and Audiences Today, organized at WdW on December 6, 2014. More about the conference here.

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The White Review, the journal of which I am an editor, is a little magazine. I do not mean “little” as a term of self-deprecation. I mean for it, instead, to describe a specific type of periodical that operates in a different way, and to different ends, than mainstream publications. It is a distinct category of cultural institution, occupying its own particular space; filling its own particular role; serving its own particular purpose.

The writer Adam Thirlwell wrote a piece for our eleventh issue in which he considered the need for little magazines such as The White Review.

[A] magazine is an event. Its basic principle is collage—and the elements of that collage can be much more outlandish and wild and savage than the average single book, since a magazine can deal in varied forms. It can deal in varied lengths, as well. It can use the celebrated to reflect on the less celebrated, and vice versa. A magazine is a kind of fun palace which the reader can set up anywhere, and take wherever she wants. A magazine is a show—something to be wandered through over time. It’s a place designed by its editors, where the unique and solitary objects that are fictions and works of art are arranged in careful ways, and that arrangement makes them even more available and desirable to the passing literary fetishist. 1Adam Thirlwell, “Foreword,” The White Review issue 11 (August 2014): ii. 

There are some ideas there that resonate very strongly with my own convictions about the production and consumption of culture, but in the context of the discussion about hybridity and new ecologies, I want to consider two: The first is the idea of the little magazine as a “fun palace” or platform for “dealing with varied forms.” The little magazine is uniquely well placed to combine different forms. But there is also an economic imperative for doing so, and I will interrogate some of the problems inherent to that hybridity. Second is that the little magazine exists on the margins. It occupies a very specific space, and fulfils a role different to that of its larger rivals. The difference is not merely in scale.

Jacques Testard and I founded The White Review in 2010. There was something inescapably perverse about setting up an independent magazine eighteen months after the financial crisis, and about five to ten years into the disintegration of the traditional print publishing industry. Yet my prevailing feeling was that it was an exciting time to be setting up something small, something little.

The economic model relied upon by the mainstream publishing industry—established magazines and the larger presses—was breaking down. Spending on advertising in US print newspapers, for instance, halved between 2005 and 2009. In 2008, vast numbers of mid-ranking editorial staff were laid off by the big publishers. The havoc wreaked upon the publishing industry by Amazon is well documented.

It is worth bearing in mind that the real catalyst for change in the publishing world did not come through protests from editors, writers, or artists. The industry changed because it could not accommodate a technological shift for which it had not made practical or ideological allowances. The shift from physical to digital content and online distribution should have come as no surprise. But the financial crisis brought the issue to a head. The major publishers, and the presses and magazines that they supported, realized that the model they used was no longer supportable on the scale to which they were accustomed. Big magazines, and big publishing houses, seemed doomed. Whether rightly or wrongly, however, it also felt to me as if that crisis would clear the way for new ventures. Innovation was no longer a choice, but a necessity.

So what was our model? It was that the little magazine might be able to survive and even flourish in this new economic landscape, precisely because of its littleness. The economic strategy that we adopted was a hybrid one. Besides keeping costs down as much as we could, we pursued a mixed revenue stream, financed through a combination of subscriptions, sales, and advertising and supported by public funding (as a registered charity) and private donations.

But there was another way in which we adopted a hybrid model. When we first set up the magazine, we were admirers of Triple Canopy, established just a couple of years prior to us. The following quote, taken from their website, describes what I mean:

[O]ur model hinges on the development of publishing systems that incorporate networked forms of production and circulation. Working closely with artists, writers, technologists, and designers, Triple Canopy produces projects that demand considered reading and viewing. Triple Canopy resists the atomization of culture and, through sustained inquiry and creative research, strives to enrich the public sphere.

This commitment to “resisting the atomization of culture” is something that Jacques and I shared with Triple Canopy. Our academic backgrounds were in literature, philosophy, and history, and we had worked in the art world, in journalism, and in publishing. So all of these pursuits were of interest to us, and we felt that there was not anything of that broad or serious a scope on offer to readers in London.

Magazines in London seemed to our eyes either specialist in their appeal—like the London Review of Books—or to engage with different forms in a somewhat superficial way. I am thinking of the Frieze poetry issue, for example. I do not have a great problem with that, incidentally, but these treatments did not seem adequately engaged in the form they were ostensibly promoting—they did not seem truly hybrid—but rather like gestures toward interdisciplinary exchange.

We wanted to make a magazine that was ecumenical in its approach. That would give equal weight to visual art, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry on a variety of themes, in a wide range of styles, and do proper justice to them all. Which was very utopian, not to say naïve.

In an attempt to remember our sincere intentions when we set up the magazine, I went through some of the interviews we did when trying to drum up interest by any means possible. The following is from an interview in Bookforum a few years ago, when asked why we founded the magazine we replied:

Our reasoning stemmed in part from the fact that it is difficult for young writers—and, to a lesser degree, artists—to have their work published in the UK. So […] we were attempting to fill a hole in the literary market by creating a serious quarterly journal in London […] and we also wanted to do something new by bringing the different and often separate fields of art and literature together. Last but not least, we wanted to design the magazine to make it visually striking and desirable as an object—because that’s how we believe books will survive.

What struck me when rereading that quote was the final sentence. Having said the rote stuff about bringing different things together, which we might call hybridity, I gave a different motivation than the one I might give now. I said that this hybrid model was necessary to help books survive. I did not say that that it reflected the way we engage with information now, or that, like Triple Canopy,we wanted to resist the atomization of culture. Instead I said, very baldly, that this could be the way that books “survive.”

That’s not an ideological reason for hybridity, it is an economic one.

I want to consider here how that type of hybridity seemed to be a viable strategy for survival in an industry that the general consensus held was in irreversible decline, and interrogate the precise impulse behind that desire to collaborate. Collaboration as a means of propping up a faltering industry, a way to help books survive.” This new strategy was effectively to copy or co-opt the strategies of a healthier industry, as the art world seemed from the vantage of the publishing world.

Why would the literary world want to collaborate with the art world? A quick parallel with the visual art market is interesting here, to illuminate why it is so appealing to publishers. The profound economic crisis that has stricken commercial publishing has not struck down the commercial art world. In spite of all the discourse around contemporary art and critique over the past fifty years, the commercial gallery system is (or seems from the vantage of publishing to be) thriving, long after the art object dematerialized.

The dematerialization of the book, however, shook up everything up pretty comprehensively for the publishing world. Because no one had ever had to consider the value of a book after mechanical reproduction—it was always assumed to reside in the content of what was being communicated, rather than any kind of investiture of aura in the physical object of the book—no one had a plan B when that information became available by other means than those effectively controlled by publishers and the established networks of distribution.

The publishing world has not found an effective means of selling a non-physical object, nor indeed the physical object by digital means, as hard as it has tried. And one of the reasons that publishing is increasingly keen to associate itself with the visual arts is because it would like desperately for the book to acquire some of the fetish value of the art object. The fact that the art world seems still to be able to sell physical objects in a digital age clearly makes the publishing world wonder what it is doing right. Little magazines like mine look at the art world, specifically at the boom in artists’ books and editions that sell very well at exceptionally high prices, and wonder how to get a piece of that.

The word “hybrid” has been chosen here to describe amalgam forms and new platforms, and it is a good word. But in the context of the little magazine I would like briefly to consider another term, which I think might illustrate this point about the purely economic incentives that I have outlined. That word is “diversification.”

Now—and forgive me if this sounds like a digression—I spent most of my childhood in the west coast of Ireland and England’s West Midlands, both rural areas. I was surrounded by agriculture, an industry generally accepted to be in decay in Western Europe. However, its decline was to some extent arrested by two substantial innovations, the first being the provision of European subsidies, and the second being diversification.

Diversification was a very broad revolution in the operations of the industry. Farming was encouraged to survive by cannibalizing other, relatively thriving industries, most notably the businesses of tourism and leisure. Thus farmers turned their pens into attractions, with groups of deprived urban schoolchildren bussed in to hug pigs and get close to nature, they converted outlying barns into B&Bs, or they invited local teenagers to ride quad bikes through their fields for a negligible fee and with scant regard for health and safety.

This diversification was driven by the economic necessity consequent upon the failure of one industry. Something like this is apparent in the efforts of little magazines, The White Review included, muscling in on the perceived commercial success of the visual art world, and its broader appeal.

It has not always been the case that publishing sought to engage with the visual arts. The literary establishment has traditionally been quite insular in its behavior, certainly in the UK. And it is only relatively recently in the UK that the visual arts have come to occupy a central position in the cultural landscape. Twenty-five years ago, contemporary art was—relative to its status now—a marginal pursuit. The audiences for new literature and music were vastly greater, and the industries operated largely independently of each other.

Indeed, there was a period immediately after the war when publishing, its coffers swollen, could have chosen to help out its relatively impoverished cousins in culture, but no one at Penguin ever thought about funding a program of contemporary dance, or organizing an exhibition of art that was considered too radical to find a mainstream audience.

Today, by contrast, there is no obvious economic imperative for the art world to diversify.

I think it is interesting to consider for a moment exactly why the visual art world is so welcoming of other forms. In the art industry, enough money is being made through the sale of objects via the commercial gallery system to support production, and more still could be made accessible if the secondary market were better regulated and more of the money it generates returned to the artists and the institutions that made possible the creation of the things that are traded upon it.

From the perspective of a publisher, it seems that visual arts institutions have in recent decades pursued something akin to an imperial program. Art, craft, design, dance, literature, and theater have to some extent been reduced to colonial outposts in an empire ruled over by the visual arts.

The visual arts industry conducts its experiments in hybridity, diversification, collaboration, or whatever we call it, from a position of strength. It does not seek union to shore up its position, but to extend its hegemony. These relative strengths have ramifications for the ways that different sectors bleed into each other, for the relationships of power between the respective participants in any ‘hybrid’ form.

The relationship between marginal pursuits—such as avant-garde literature—and the mainstream, in which we can now include contemporary art, resembles that between little and large institutions.

The White Review is not by any means immune to this and has collaborated with institutions including the ICA, the Serpentine, and the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and held events at many others across the world. This is a means by which we can reach a wider audience and promote the writers and artists that we are publishing. It is an important responsibility of the little magazine to try and achieve greater exposure for its contributors. It is an essential part of the unspoken contract between contributor and editor: that the little magazine will peddle their wares on their behalf, will make their work available to as many people as possible.

But that collaboration can also be problematic. Working with larger institutions entails a shift away from the margins of production toward its center. With that you risk your independence. You might end up supporting a prevailing idea of culture that you set out to oppose.

The question I want to ask here is: What happens when a little magazine grows up? When it becomes, if not big, then medium-sized? If not old, at least post-adolescent? I will start with a quote from a recent editorial in n+1, another magazine I admire, which again sums up this issue more succinctly than I can:

The little magazine always originates as an image of utopia that it then betrays. It starts with love but very little money, and because it is edited for free (mostly), it gets writing for free (mostly) in a non-exploitative way, since no one is extracting any surplus value. This is the utopian stage, where writing as a competitive enterprise, as a sphere rife with greed and envy, disappears. It is replaced by a pure and purely unnecessary (in the sense of not being directly useful to the reproduction of biological life and material needs) contemplation of essential, fundamental problems—that is to say, it becomes art. But then, almost immediately, the little magazine becomes a way to ‘graduate’ to the world of hackery—for its editors and writers to become journalists, novelists, overpaid business school speakers—and in this way can serve more as an instrument than an opponent of the hack world. 2“The Free and the Antifree,” n+1 issue 20 (Fall 2014). See: https://nplusonemag.com/issue-20/the-intellectual-situation/the-free-and-the-antifree/ (accessed 25 January 2015).

In the early stages of starting a little magazine, marginality is not a choice. You start on the fringes of a culture, irrespective of whether you are attacking or defending it.

But the margins are a good place to be. You can shout from the margins. You do not have any great responsibilities in the margins. You do not, for instance, have to be particularly consistent. You can take risks. You can make mistakes. However, that desire to operate on the margins is pretty strongly counterweighted by the fear of being too marginal. So marginal, indeed, as to go out of business.

One early means of resolving that tension is the employment of something like smoke and mirrors. It is possible for little magazines—like any small institution with a dedicated workforce—to paper over the cracks simply by working very hard. This early stage of necessary amateurism is probably the most purely enjoyable period in a little magazine’s lifetime for everyone involved. I mean amateur not in the sense of incompetence but in the sense of a project undertaken for the love of it, in a spirit of excitement, without thought of remuneration.

But as the little magazine grows, as its circulation rises and the bureaucratic tasks begin to outnumber the editorial, it becomes necessary to professionalize. Suddenly you have to run a budget, to administrate, to spend all of your time searching for funding. And all of this while supporting yourself with other jobs.

So then we have to ask, not only what is the role of the little magazine in terms of the wider culture, but also, what is its purpose in terms of work?

I am a firm believer in the responsibility of magazines to pay their contributors. I do not believe in the culture of free. We pay our contributors, although not as much as I would like. Not as much as would accurately reflect the work put into each piece. Not enough for our contributors to make a living if they were reliant exclusively upon the revenue they could generate by writing full-time for magazines like The White Review.

So if we are asking people to devote their time to a project that will never provide them with a living, what does that mean in terms of their careers, in terms of their lives? And what does it mean, in fact, for the editorial staff at the magazine, who largely work for free?

The question I am sidling up to here is: What is the point of a little magazine? Is this art? Or is it work?

If it is work, then we need more money. We need to make a dash for the center; we need to professionalize further; we need to expand our readership and make editorial decisions based on that principle; we need a marketing budget; we need a dedicated advertising team; we need some big names to write about things that will appeal to a broad demographic.

But if it is art, perhaps we can retreat further from the economic considerations of being an employer. Perhaps people will contribute for free, happy and secure in the idea that their expressions are reaching an audience, that they are creating intellectual and aesthetic connections between people, that they are creating culture.

Neither is satisfactory. At risk of taking the easy way out, I contend that a little magazine is both art and work. It is neither exclusively, neither completely. This combination is part of what defines a little magazine.

Let me unpack that a little bit. By saying that it is art, I am adopting the definition provided by n+1 in the earlier quote. Namely, “a pure and purely unnecessary […] contemplation of essential, fundamental problems.”

The editorial line of a little magazine is not, or should not be, driven by the need to appease advertisers or to draw in a mainstream audience. That means it can give its contributors the opportunity to consider important issues, whether or not those issues are likely to attract new readers. That I think is crucial.

On the other hand, I do believe in the possibility of writing as a profession. Little magazines cannot provide a sustainable career on their own, but they can be part of a mixed portfolio. For professional writers, little magazines can serve a purpose equivalent to a musician’s side project. They can be a place to experiment away from the relative glare of the mainstream. They can be a place in which to develop and realize new ideas that might alienate a broader audience. Emerging writers can use the little magazine to advance their careers. Publications such as The White Review are read by editors of more prestigious, better-funded magazines, who are looking for new writing. Like a lower-league football team, The White Review can be a stepping-stone, a springboard, a proving ground. Alternatively, of course, the writer can choose to remain an enthusiastic amateur, and again, I mean that in the best possible way. She can continue to work part- or full-time, and write only for the pleasure of writing. The little magazine is the perfect medium for this form of expression, too.

We are all conscious, in the age of the exploitative internship, of the quandary of surplus value against economic capital. But I think that the little magazine, and other small institutions, can plot a way between those poles by returning the power to its participants. Contributors should be able to use the institution for their own ends, to pursue the path they have chosen, rather than the institution exploiting its contributors.

The purpose of the little magazine is thus to protect writers from commercial imperatives. To neither pay them so little as to be exploitative nor pay them so much that it becomes commercially viable to make a living through these means. The little magazine is a hybrid. It occupies a very particular position. It is not so much on the margins, in fact, as in between. The little magazine is between surplus value and cultural capital. The little magazine is between work and art.