Dispatches | March 20, 2007

A former student of mine who’s now trying to run a literary magazine asked me for advice last weekend.  He’s at a small state university with a literary magazine that’s been around briefly but only began to achieve serious purpose when he took over its management.  He’s ambitious, capable, and a lover of good writing.  My advice to him boiled down to the following:

You have to convince the powers that be at your university that a literary magazine is worth a lot more than straight PR.  A literary magazine that survives and is well run is like real estate bought cheap in an exotic locale that hasn’t yet quite been discovered.  It’s an acre on the Riviera a hundred years ago.  If the magazine is well-handled, it will gain in usefulness for its institution far beyond what it costs.  While standard PR dies soon after its first appearance, a literary magazine’s history and contents gain in value over time.  It is a capital investment, not just an “expense.”  You have to find an administrator at your university who can be made to understand that.

Second, a literary magazine usually cannot thrive over time within a standard academic department.  It needs to be under the control of a dean, a provost or a president.  The simple fact is that English and other academic departments have plenty of other things to deal with, and a magazine can become a burden to their standard activities. More importantly, a magazine can operate better when it is more independent.  That’s not to say it can’t begin in a department — or have ongoing positive relations with it-but as a representative of the larger university, it needs to have a position within the institution that matches its purpose.

Next, you need money and backing, but you can’t really expect it to just fall into your lap.  You have to raise some or most of it yourself through grants or a trust.  A trust is like an anchor: once it exceeds a few hundred thousand dollars it creates stability.

And alas, you can’t expect the university’s development staff to really care much about raising money for you.  You have to be ready to do it yourself.  They are raising money essentially for their own area and are focused on major potential gifts. They don’t want to be sidetracked down the bumpy roads of asking for $10,000 or even $25,000 (that’s not to say that if you dump a prospect into their lap, or they know that the money is coming already, they won’t cooperate).

Obviously your magazine needs to contribute to the educational purpose of its university or it will always live a little on the edge.  In the case of TMR, we created an active, involved internship that helps students get into graduate school or get a job, often in publishing.  Potential employers or graduate programs want to hear that an applicant is cooperative, creative, and productive.  Our best interns in almost all cases know things that I don’t know and teach me new programs, new Internet sites and all sorts of things that I would never find out on my own.  Recently, an intern brought in a scanning machine, lent by a bank, with which we are going to scan all thirty years of our magazine.  Yesterday, a senior adviser set the machine up, putting in circuit boards and getting it running; we were scanning pages within an hour.  A good literary magazine based at a university needs to be open to the talent and effectiveness of its younger workers and at the same time ready to train them in things they don’t know.

Most importantly, a good magazine must never forget its main business — finding and publishing great new writing.  All the fundraising and good organization in the world is insignificant beside this.  Even the poorly run and short-lived magazines of the past that discovered great writers are remembered in literary history.  The quality of the magazine, not its mere existence, is its defining feature.

Speer Morgan