Dispatches | October 07, 2013

7937304368_ece8985ecc_bRecently, the magazine Popular Science made the decision to shut off comments from their articles. The editors asserted that a small but vocal and vociferous group of commenters continued to undermine legitimate scientific research. Because of what they see as a “politically motivated, decades long war on expertise” eroding the confidence in their work and reportage, Popular Science decided they had enough of the trolls and fanatics. You can, and should, read the post here.

Around the same time, Google decided to go the other direction with YouTube: they are trying to make comments better. They are taking several steps to make comments more user-friendly by sorting through what is most relevant (rather than chronological) and linking commenters by their Google+ accounts to avoid spam and faceless bile. You can read the entire post here.

Most, if not all, content management systems and web design creates a comments section for every new post. In our case, WordPress is our CMS and it includes programs that filter out most of the spam. If there are comments on our blog that are negative, they are written by real live people not spamming programs. The comments on TMR are limited to our blog. And, for the most part, the comments over the last few years that might be construed as negative usually refer to my poor spelling and convoluted syntax. But we have received comments that could be considered rude, offensive, or antagonistic. Why haven’t we turned the comments often, or at least deleted the comments we find troubling?

Literary magazines have always received mail in response to our publications. Whether it is via the postal service or through email, we hear from our readership. Most of the time, these are pleasant letters, thanking us for the issue, and usually focusing on a particular piece that resonated. Of course, we’ve also received hate mail, most of which we find funny. We keep these. Every journal I’ve worked at keeps a file of “fan mail” and periodically, we flip through it for laughs. I’m fairly positive every literary magazine has a file (or box or filing cabinet) of these ditties.

The literary world is a bigger place now. Literary journals and magazines can now exist solely online, and print and online journals are also part of a world of culture sites like The Rumpus, The Millions, and HTML Giant, as well as portions of Slate, the New York Times, Huffington Post, etc. You get the idea.

Whether it’s a small startup print journal or the entertainment section of a massive website, all literary publishers are seeking a readership that is fickle and difficult to capture. I’m no longer surprised when I meet a fellow writer who asks me, cautiously, if it’s true that TMR and other top journals only publish their friends, that you have to have some sort of In to be published in our pages. There is a belief that the literary system is rigged, that it truly isn’t a meritocracy. “Elitism” is the sneering term thrown at not just Popular Science, but all publishers that are viewed as some sort of gatekeepers.

My belief is that what our readership who don’t understand our publication (how we work, why we publish what we do, how we find manuscripts, etc.) and lash out negatively are doing so not because of elitism but because of a lack of transparency. Literary journals rarely explain how they function. Despite what you might see in a fashion spread of the editorial offices of the Paris Review, most of the work is quiet and steady. We spend lots of time reading quietly. We send lots of correspondence. We file lots of paperwork and try to organize all our files. Our daily operation, as much as we enjoy it, just isn’t that exciting.

Our blog is our best way of directly engaging with our audience. The blog is what gives voice, personality, and insight into how TMR works by posting about the relevant news in publishing, editing, and writing. We want to keep this open and available to our readers. Because we are fortunate enough to have a diverse range of writers on our staff, we have something to offer our audience (and a general literary audience) with original content. And it’s important that those readers know they engage us on what we say, that we are willing to say “Yup, we’re wrong about that” or “Okay, let’s clarify this” or any other appropriate response to, say, MFA programs, the AWP conference, Jonathan Franzen’s criticism of technology, and so forth.

Further, our audience is almost entirely intelligent and reasoned. They know that our blog is a welcome place, not a closed off one. This isn’t a small thing; it’s an achievement we’ve been cultivating for years. We can’t be scared off because there are a handful of trolls or negativity out there in the world. Audience engagement and openness is, should be, part of the mission statement for any literary journal. And that won’t change with us.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye