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Are digital magazines trapped using old print formats?

Arguments about reading in print versus reading online have been both ubiquitous and tedious for some time now. On one side of the argument, books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows have warned us of what reading online is doing to our attention spans, in the same way oral bards likely once lamented the damaging effect text was having on our ability to memorize. On the other side, academics such as Kenneth Goldsmith celebrate the ways in which the internet liberates our reading from the constraints of the “meatspace.” This argument is ubiquitous because it is important, but it is tedious because it so easily maps onto the coordinates of a larger and more existential argument about the role of technology in our lives, one that frequently devolves into a battle between luddites and technophiles.

Many of the defenses of print culture I have heard and read focus on the differences between how we process information absorbed through a screen and a page, or on the detrimental effects reading online has on our attention spans. I think these are probably fair points to make, and while they are certainly true in my own experience, I want to talk about how print technology has shaped the form that publications take, and what that means for the future of digital literature and reading online.

I’m not all that interested in taking sides, here. I love the book as a material object, and I love reading magazines in print. I think there are enough people who also love those things to keep them around for awhile. However, online publications will continue to expand because they are versatile, accessible, and cheap to distribute. The Town Crier, The Puritan, and Whether (the publication I edit), would all be impossible in their current forms without the internet. While an online magazine can do a lot of things, it suffers from a basic problem of being on the internet. It is (quite literally) unbounded, and so it is difficult to establish the unity of a single issue. Instead, readers tend to interact with individual pieces of the whole without necessarily interacting with the whole as a whole.

It isn’t like that with print. Sure, you have to purchase a subscription, and that places an economic limit on things. But when you come home, you find the latest issue of Brick, The Times Literary Supplement, The Walrus, or whatever it is you read, sitting in your mailbox. You bring it inside, make yourself a cup of coffee, sit down, and start to read. After glancing at the cover, you may skip to an article or piece of particular interest. After reading through the things you’re really interested in, you’ll probably end up reading through everything else as well over the course of the month or quarter, because it’s physically there. You see it on your coffee table every morning, and when you’re procrastinating, a Russian writer you don’t know interviewed by an American writer you don’t know suddenly becomes a lot more interesting.

Not only does the physical presence of the object encourage thorough reading, it also presents itself to us as a kind of whole—it’s constitutive parts can speak to each other in interesting and generative ways. As anyone who has done archival work knows, there are many happy accidents that arise from looking at texts from magazines and newspapers as they were originally laid out. A particularly delightful example is Cruiskeen Lawn, a long-running column in the Irish Times by the Irish postmodernist Flann O’Brien (under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen) that lampooned, attacked, sent up, and generally laid waste to the pieties of the Irish intellectual classes of the forties. Many of O’Brien’s most popular columns were reprinted in book-length collections, which is how most contemporary O’Brien scholars encounter them. But hunting them down in the archives and reading them in their original physical context reveals different layers of meaning—in one case, he has a column that actually breaks its boundaries and “invades” a neighbouring column, a joke which loses its punch line when it loses its context.

Reading online

Luddites reading in the meatspace enjoy the happy accidents of intertextuality

So the material object both encourages readers to view the issue as a complete whole, and also allows the thoughtful editor and designer to suggest intertextual conversations through the complementary, ironic, or playful placement of material. Reading online, on the other hand, is far more nebulous. It’s entirely possible that some of the readers of this very piece have not made it this far because they followed a previous hyper-link and were far more interested in what they found on the other side. If the physical text is fundamentally linear (there has to be a first page, there has to be a last page, unless you get super post-modern and just hand your reader a box of pages; even then, some pages will be on top and some on the bottom of the box), the virtual text is like walking through the rooms of a large house. You may decide you want to grab something from an adjacent room, and, when you see your copy of Brick lying on the coffee table, you inevitably get caught up in it, abandoning whatever you were doing before.

There is something beautiful about the kinds of accidents that we can have reading online, and the ways in which its structure allows us to discover things we would never have thought to look for. But for the editor of a literary magazine, this poses a set of problems. Is it possible to have a readership, when your readers may not read more than a single piece from a given issue? What does it mean to release an “issue” that isn’t limited by space—what does a full-length issue look like. Does it have ten pieces or thirty? When is an essay too long?

And there are also more pragmatic complications. The traditional ploy of publishing a high-profile interview to pull readers in doesn’t really work the same way when the reader no longer interacts with the publication as a physical unit. Put a Margaret Atwood story in a magazine, and people will buy the magazine for that story, but odds are they’ll also read the story of the up-and-comer a few pages later. Online, people will land on the Atwood story, and when they’re finished they’ll probably just hunt down more Margaret Atwood stories. The stats that I’ve seen for Whether back this up. It is extremely rare for an individual reader to read more than two pieces from an issue. My suspicion is that our actual “readership” is quite small, and that a large slice of our monthly pages views come from random passers-by voyaging on the high seas of the internet.

The more serious problem, though, is probably the difficulty an editor may have curating a conversation in the pages of an online magazine. There are things that can be done, of course, such as adding suggested readings at the bottom of the page, but the idea that an issue can act as a kind of statement about a topic becomes very difficult to put into practice—the medium just doesn’t work that way. Although I tend to be a completionist in my reading habits, there are only a handful of online publications I actually make a point of reading through in their entirety. I’m as guilty as everyone else of just flitting around.

So what does this mean for online magazines? The convenience, cheapness, and accessibility of the online medium guarantees that they will continue to grow in number and influence, but there is still a lot of thinking that needs to be done about how the form and the content relate, and whether or not print-based notions such as “issues” can be adapted, or if, like the coccyx, they are vestigial hold-overs from an earlier period in the evolution of literature.

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