"This is an old subject at Princeton," the university's chairman of the Council of Humanities, Anthony Grafton, said at the opening of a symposium last week called "The Perfect Little Magazine." He stood in the majestic octagonal rotunda of Princeton's former library, as shafts of late afternoon sun illuminated the shelves, including one containing free samples of literary magazines such as the second issue of Green Light, an on-campus publication devoted to "People, Politics, Prose, Princeton."
Mr. Grafton referred to a predecessor, critic R.P. Blackmur (1904-65), who came to the university in 1940 to help run Dean Christian Gauss's Creative Arts Program, and whose career included editing the little magazine Hound and Horn. Mr. Grafton distributed a chart from Blackmur's article in the Sewanee Review on "The Economy of the American Writer," comparing magazine circulations to overall population in America. The chart showed the Virginia Quarterly and the American Scholar holding steady at about 3,000 and 5,000 readers in a country of 131 million in 1944.
Panelists took up the word "perfect" in the program's title. "I think the whole point is not to have to try to be perfect," said Threepenny Review founder Wendy Lesser. In trying new things, it's all right to make mistakes for good reasons, she said. Joyce Carol Oates, who with her husband publishes a literary magazine called the Ontario Review, described once having used the wrong typesetter or printer, one "who had only done menus for Chinese restaurants." Another issue had "what looked like bloody fingerprints on some of the pages," a collector's item she said was best forgotten.
The editor in chief of Cabinet magazine, Sina Najafi, said his worst-selling issue had the subject of failure as its theme. "We asked the printer to cut the magazine a couple degrees off so that it would look awkward or crooked on the shelf next to books or other issues." Some booksellers returned the issues, and some subscribers complained. One in Germany measured the difference and asked, "Can I get a new issue?"
Speaking of printing, Ms. Lesser said her magazine's unbound format saved on printing costs, though she once received a letter complaining the review was uncomfortable to read in the bathtub.
One audience member asked how much the readership of most small magazines overlapped. Ms. Lesser, who has purchased or exchanged mailing lists, replied, "Not a lot." Mr. Najafi said his magazine refused to do reader surveys. But, he said, there was a small Vermont newspaper with the same name and sometimes people mis-subscribe. The two publications have about five readers in common.
How large is the right kind of readership of little magazines? historian of science Graham Burnett asked. "You know it's too big when it violates your principles," said Ms. Lesser. She compared readership to the audience for dance. "A lot of people might go to Riverdance, but the number of people who go to serious dance is small, no matter how much you publicize it."
Someone asked why small magazines should not give the field over to blogs. "No," Ms. Lesser interjected, "It just makes my flesh crawl." She said a print magazine has an order from start to finish. Also, a print magazine has been shaped and sifted. Those starting magazines know, she said, how much "dreck" comes in. Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University Lawrence Weschler said magazine writing could be an occasion for hushed absorption that "makes you slow down - precisely the opposite of the Web." Francine Prose said online reading presents distractions like checking e-mail, whereas reading a book requires a kind of commitment.
Jeffrey Dolven, an English professor at Princeton, asked what action editors would want readers to take after putting down their magazine. "Subscribe," Mr. Najafi joked. Ms. Lesser said, "Discover a new artist" experience the feeling of "having participated in a conversation that they didn't know existed before."
Mr. Burnett opened the evening session by asking about those little magazines "we don't need and those we don't have." Ms. Prose replied, "At the risk of sounding like the crassest person in the room, the one we don't have is the little magazine that pays like the big magazine." She said she would much rather write for Threepenny Review than glossies like Vogue, but she needed to pay electricity and phone bills. Conde Nast pays 10 to 20 times what a small magazine pays. "It's another one of those compromises you make in your life."
She said each small magazine was a kind of protest against "corporatization of our culture." If she wants to write 4,000 words on Mavis Gallant or Paul Bowles, most magazines will ask "What is the hook?" This has nothing to do with the love of literature, she said. Larger magazines have greater concern with marketing products: There may be 10 articles about the same book or movie that has come out. Mr. Weschler described this as being addressed as consumer rather than citizen.
Ms. Prose said what she liked about the old New Yorker was how it let a piece run on, showing the way a writer's mind worked. This still exists in the little magazines, she said. Mr. Weschler cited William Finnegan's two-part New Yorker article on surfing, published in the last two issues of the magazine prior to Tina Brown's arrival. It was " a positive joy to get lost inside, even for people who didn't think they could have cared less about surfing." It couldn't get published anywhere today, he said, except maybe in a surfing niche magazine or if Tom Cruise were about to appear in a surfing movie.
Publishing can present tensions, too. Through the magazine, Mr. Najafi said, one can make friends, but one can also lose them by rejecting their work. (Ms. Lesser said many writers disappointed with rejection do not necessarily read the publications themselves unless they're published in it.) Ms. Oates said that, in the audacity of youth, she once asked Saul Bellow for a submission. "He just sent a self-interview that he had done with himself." Bellow's agent found out and called her, wanting it back. "Well, it's too late," she replied - adding that now, even if it weren't, she still would have said it.