Saturday, October 25, 2008

Battles, Manifestos and Very Tall Chairs

Today the Guardian reports the advent of Horizon Review and another new lit mag Artesian, and last night I went to the John Rylands Library for a Manchester Literature Festival Public Debate on the future of independent magazines. Here's my account of it (though do bear in mind that one woman's impression is another person's lie, and apologies to anyone I've misrepresented):

Michael Schmidt, founder of Carcanet and PN Review, chaired and was flanked by magazine editors Philip Davis (Liverpool-based The Reader), Margaret Obank (Banipal, which publishes contemporary Arab work in English translation), Adam Petite (online poetry mag Manifold) and Fiona Sampson (Poetry Review). This was the swish new glass-walled bit of the library, and the seating for the panel was very high chairs on spindly legs, and the first thing that happened was that Philip Davis declined to sit on his because, he said, his legs were too little, and thus, in a very physical way, he took a stand right at the start.

Michael began by asking each editor in turn to speak about the aims of their own magazine. I'm afraid I was still thinking about the business of the chairs (plus it suddenly struck me that Michael, whom I have known for years, and my ex-husband look like each other nowadays - though they are not remotely related - when once upon a time they didn't look like each other at all, which made me remember how at my grandmother's funeral all the older men of her village similarly looked like one another when as young men they didn't). So I don't actually remember the beginning of the discussion very well, but I see that I wrote down one word against each of Banipal (redress), The Reader (integrity) and Manifold (experimentation).

Then I started concentrating. Michael said that PN Review exists within the Anglo-European tradition, with a bias towards Modernism, and thus finds itself at odds with a lot of the literary establishment. Fiona Sampson, calm and articulate as ever, then spoke at some length and very interestingly about her editorship of PN Review. The magazine will be a hundred next year, she said. It is published by the Poetry Society and is therefore obliged to align itself with the aims of the Society. As its editor she has to accept that it is thus addressed to the mainstream readership of Society members already interested in poetry and probably writing it, but who don't buy too many books and may live in rural isolation from centres of culture. There has to be a mission to keep such readers in touch and also to educate them. As a poet herself she is not in line with this British poetic tradition, she is more internationalist, but she feels that this places her in a good position as editor. She knows she can't give her readership Geoffrey Hill from cover to cover, she doesn't like anecdotal poetry but she publishes it, yet she can also accommodate her more ideal, sceptical reader. There are two types of editor, she noted, advocates of particular schools and those who edit against the grain of personal taste, and she counts herself among the latter. The practice she is trying to develop is to publish whatever works on its own terms, and to open up a field of mutual respect between poetries. If poetries only speak to themselves, well that's the law of diminshing returns, she felt. And also: seduction is very important, so while print mags remain, production values remain important too.

Michael noted the connection between what she'd said and Thom Gunn's essay on the Spectrum of Poetry, and then asked Philip Davis to speak. From his separate position on the floor Philip Davis said this: Here were the words he hated: art, culture, academic, intellectual, lucidity, respect. What he values is liveliness across a wide range, and he wants his magazine to have to do with life rather than artiness. He's interested in new writing of all sorts, poetry, fiction and non-fiction (but not reviews - he hates reviews) and also old writing: in each issue he has a very old poem with writing around it as a context for reading, since the whole point of his magazine is to foster the practice of reading. He wants writers writing as hard as they can, the thing he values is honesty, it doesn't matter if work is rough, if it's difficult, dealing with difficult thoughts, then that might be necessary, what he doesn't want is anything second-hand - and the lucid is all too often second-hand, which is condescending to the reader. Above all he would like the magazine to be at the centre of a reading revolution. He has no set agenda, he hates agendas - political, religious, social etc - he is tired to death of people knowing what they think in advance and what he wants most of all in the writing he publishes is surprise. To pigeonhle anything in advance is dangerous. He wants as wide and general and liberal a mixture as possible (though too wide a range might be worrying); at the same time he would love to be able to publish an issue where he agreed with everything in it. The main point, he reiterated, is that the whole magazine must be alert to surprise, and human experience is more important than artiness.

Then Margaret Obank said that Banipal was established to promote new cultural voices and ideas, that she and her colleagues had discovered that there was an appetite for them but the problem remained to be solved as to how to allow people to access them in the magazine: they'd had a distributor but the distributor didn't provide promotion to bookshops and their main sales were through subscriptions. They had also begun conducting reading tours, ie physically bringing the literature to readers, and developing other activities around the mag. Michael asked her if they had a website, and she said they had, which led onto Adam Petite and online Manifold. I was really interested in this, but I'm afraid I couldn't follow anything he said for some reason, mainly I think because his comments were virtual in the old sense, ie he never seemed to complete his sentences.

Or maybe my concentration was packing up. Next Fiona said something about 'the poetic sulk' and how she sometimes wishes the idiots, the anoraks in bedsits would get over themselves, can't they see that they're not doing anything all that different from each other, but I couldn't work out what point she was making. It must have been to do with her notion of mutual poetic respect, because then Philip said he doesn't want to be in any field of mutual respect, he's interested in individual voices. At some point Michael said he was trying to get Philip to make a point that wasn't aggressive at which Philip couldn't help laughing with everyone else.

Then the discussion was opened up to the floor, and MMU's Andrew Biswell who was sitting in front of me asked if there are too many lit mags chasing too few grants, and what about the argument that if they don't sell they don't deserve to exist. I long ago got weary with this particular issue so now I got distracted by thinking how soft Andrew's crewcut looked, but I did note that Fiona swiftly apprised the room of the fact that Poetry Review doesn't receive a penny grant and is profit-making, yet she was very much down on that last idea: you may as well say let's close down the universities because they don't make a profit. Andrew said, But people want degrees; if they don't want little mags... and then the panel gave varying responses to that: Adam said that people do have a hunger for literature that's not populist, and Philip said that he doesn't care about economics and - I didn't quite get the connection - he wishes that the TLS and the LRB didn't exist; he just felt that if people ever didn't want The Reader then it should go, he'd want it killed. He didn't like the idea of an overprotected bloom for a small number of people, and if that happened to The Reader he'd accept he'd failed.

Barry Wood, whom I've also known for years, then picked up on a reference to bagpipes and said he thought that little mags were like that, bagpipes, they can be annoying and/or stimulating, and that that's what they're for: to extend and intensify readers' experience. Fiona said we should distinguish between little mags and literary periodicals, but either this distinction wasn't adequately defined or I was losing grip again. When I next picked up the thread Philip was saying , "If it moves me, it's good", and then James Byrne of Wolf Magazine challenged him and said wasn't it as important to move your readers (since you claim to be so concerned with reading, was the implication, I think)? Philip said it was foolish to imagine you can ever respond on behalf of others, ie to fabricate an imaginary reader; and then he repeated what he himself did and didn't like in writing: he didn't like cool or hypothetical, he liked commitment and belief and the things that are about human experience. James then asked the whole panel about the problem of most magazine readers being subscribers who are in turn contributors, and they all chewed over this extremely boring though no doubt important point, which somehow took them back again to the matter of editor bias, and Michael said, interestingly, that as an editor he is often very excited by work he simply doesn't understand, because his own lack of understanding interests him.

John Atkins asked the panel how important they felt a manifesto was to the long-term existence of a magazine, and each reiterated his or her manifesto, including, with amusement at himself, the apparently anti-manifesto Philip; Cathy Bolton asked whether mags should serve writers or readers which took us back over quite a lot of the same ground again, Michael seeing a strong tension between the two though feeling that his role on the whole was to serve 'writers who are readers', Fiona agreeing that there was a real tension but that on the whole her mag was there to serve writers, especially emerging writers, Philip saying that he was there to serve readers, to change the climate of England. Adam said Manifold was meant to serve both, at which Michael created something of a short silence by pronouncing that if a piece is published online then no print magazine will touch it afterwards (well, I think that's what he said).

Someone in the audience then mentioned the new online Horizon Review - which references Cyril Connolly's magazine Horizon - and basically asked the panel to say what they thought of it (at which point I started cringeing, since I have a story in the first issue). Fiona said its editor Jane Holland is a good tough woman and that she should do well with it. Michael said he thought it was a mistake to use the same name: Connolly's Horizon belonged to its moment and to reference it so strongly was to create the error of nostalgia.

At which Fiona said, "Yes, but she got on Start the Week with it, didn't she?"

And that was it (and I'm not sure that the future of lit mags was all that much addressed.) But then I could have misheard everything, in view of what happened later: it was John's birthday and he and I went to Livebait where we'll never go again, because they were so short-staffed we had to wait for ever and the sweet young male waiter offered us puddings on the house in compensation - or rather we thought he did, we both heard it - but then the waitress putting out our pudding spoons said, Well, she was the acting manageress and if we were getting free puddings they would have to be on him, not the house; and he was forced to come and apologize (cringeing with agony) and tell us we'd misheard! Can you imagine the embarrassment? Though as John said, (bless his shopkeeper's grandson's socks), Whatever happened to the customer is always right?
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