By Eric Bulson

Columbia University Press. 333 pages. £47/$60. ISBN 978-0-231-17976-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is a short story by the Canadian writer, Norman Levine, which has the title, “We All Begin in a Little Magazine”, and is about the narrator spending time in a house owned by the editor of a little magazine. Levine always wrote closely out of his own experiences, and I can easily identify the location of the story and the magazine concerned. As if to confound many assumptions about a little magazine (“it should not only be little, but short lived,” according to T.S. Eliot) it is still in existence almost sixty years since it was founded.

The title of Levine’s story suggests that little magazines are just stepping stones on the way to higher things, and there is some truth in that idea. Many writers do aspire to having a book out from a leading mainstream publisher. It’s natural enough. But there are writers, particularly poets, and perhaps most short-story writers, who may continue to contribute to little magazines throughout their writing lives. They can assume that the editors and readers of little magazines, no matter how small their circulation, will be informed and interested. The more-imaginative editors will take a chance on something idiosyncratic and not aimed at a large readership. Commercial publishers don’t often see any potential for large sales with either poetry or short-stories.

Eric Bulson makes the point that most little magazines have been ignored when literary histories are written. A few are mentioned in relation to what is usually referred to as the modernist movement. Ezra Pound was a great advocate of little magazines, and edited a short-lived one, The Exile; Ford Madox Ford edited The English Review, and then Transatlantic Review from Paris; portions of James Joyce’s Ulysses were first published in The Little Review (USA) and The Egoist (UK) before it got into book form. This Quarter, transition (one of the more-adventurous publications of the period), Broom, Tambour. These are magical names if your interests run to the activities of the 1920s expatriates. I’m being very selective. It’s necessary when dealing with little magazines. There have been hundreds of them and trying to track down individual titles is a labour of love.

I doubt that a fully comprehensive catalogue of publications from the 1960s and 1970s, and fitting the description of little magazines, could ever be compiled. The “mimeograph revolution” meant that anyone could produce a magazine from home. The quality varied and ephemeral might be the best word to describe many of them. I edited eight issues of one such publication in the 1960s, cutting stencils and getting inky fingers to turn out two hundred copies of each one. The interesting thing was that quite a few copies reached the USA, Canada, Germany, Australia, Argentina, and several other countries, not to mention addresses all around Britain. I did feel that, small as it was, the magazine was part of an international community with shared interests. Reciprocating publications arrived from a variety of sources.

At least some of the poets I published did establish reputations, insofar as most poets do, to varying degrees. I doubt that many copies of the magazine now survive, other than in a few libraries. They were printed on cheap paper, the pages stapled together, and I’d imagine soon disintegrated. But the point was that I wasn’t looking towards posterity with the magazine. It was meant to serve a  purpose at the time by putting poets in touch with each other’s work. It was functional, at best. And I wasn’t under any illusions about reaching a wide audience. Most, if not all, the people who saw the magazine were poets and fellow-editors. As many of the editors were poets there were hints that all we were doing was publishing each other. It wasn’t quite true, but it may have seemed that way.

Bulson says, rightly so, that most surveys of little magazines usually focus on those emanating from the USA, the UK, or various countries in Europe. Other areas, such as Africa, India, the Far East are overlooked, though all had traditions of little magazine publishing. There are obvious reasons for this. As mentioned earlier, histories of the modernist movement need to include references to famous publications that played a vital part in circulating new work. Scholars who’ve made surveys of important little magazines have tended to be based in America or Europe, and the resources they needed for their work have largely been available in national or university libraries. The days of the internet had not dawned, so finding complete sets of magazines wasn’t always easy, and some of the more obscure publications may not have been there at all.

Many years ago, around 1970, I wrote an article about This Quarter for a publication called The Private Library. I had several copies of the magazine that I’d picked up here and there, and got in touch with the British Library to find out which issues they had, if any. They had some, but not a complete set. However, with what I had, and those in the British Library, I managed to build up a picture of the life of This Quarter. It meant a 400 miles round trip to see the Library copies, but it was worth it. It’s easier now, but as Bulson says, accessing copies on-line, or even in the reprint versions that were sometimes published, is no substitute for seeing and handling the real thing.

What magazines like This Quarter faced, as I did with the little magazine I edited, and a second better-produced one a few years later, were problems of distribution. Large wholesalers have always been reluctant to handle little magazines, and bookshops indifferent about stocking them. Even if they did it could prove almost impossible to get them to send payment for copies sold. I usually wrote off those I left with bookshops and looked on them as promotional items. It was also a fact that very few of the poets I published ever subscribed to the magazine. They weren’t being paid for their poems, so they were possibly justified in not buying it?  I doubt that any little magazine has ever broken even, let alone made a profit, and most rely on their long-suffering editors dipping into their pockets, or the benevolence of a patron. In more recent decades some magazines have obtained funding from official sources, though this can lead to problems.

Bulson refers to the fuss that erupted when it became known that Encounter, Partisan Review, and possibly even the famed Paris Review, had been partly financed by the CIA. He adds Black Orpheus (Nigeria) and Transition (Uganda) to the list. I suppose it’s always a question as to how far the CIA influenced, or tried to influence, the contents of these publications. On the face of it there would appear to have been little or no interference with their editorial policies, though that may have been because the magazines were never expected to print anything that really offended CIA sensibilities. It’s unlikely that they would have been chosen for support in the first place had they been seen as possibly subversive of the values promoted by the CIA.

It’s evident that, in many ways, editors dominated the general approach that each magazine took. I’m talking about magazines of the past, though there’s no reason to think that the same doesn’t apply to any little magazines functioning now. Ford Madox Ford shaped the publishing policy of Transatlantic Review, though Bulson seems to suggest that he didn’t do it successfully. Bulson quotes from Bernard Poli’s book about Ford’s magazine: It was “too expensive and not interesting enough for French readers and was too foreign to compete favourably with locally published periodicals in England and in the United States”. Bulson also thinks that the magazine failed to come up with anything truly innovative, and that the sort of thing it published could easily be found elsewhere.

This, of course, raises the question of what little magazines are meant to do? Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon, a noted magazine of the 1940s, thought that they were either dynamic or eclectic. Dynamic publications featured the work of a specific group or movement and promoted a cause. The Futurist magazines that Bulson discusses in an enlightened manner would fall into this category. Eclectic magazines mixed styles and had no definite overall programme.  A few dynamic magazines did genuinely attempt to break new ground in the sense of finding new writers doing something truly different. Most of them didn’t last very long. It’s not easy to be always making it new. The audience for it is going to be small, and other diversions and disillusionment can soon take over.

I’m not sure that either This Quarter or Transatlantic Review could be said to have made it all that new, certainly not all the time. I have a couple of copies of the latter in front of me, and while I find them fascinating in terms of when and where they were published, I can’t honestly say that they seem to offer anything particularly exciting or provocative. Obviously, a couple of little magazines dating from 1924 are going to have a different impact on someone reading them almost one hundred years later. Maybe they did seem fresh and original in the 1920s, but somehow I doubt that they caused any great fuss. The contents are good, but I have the feeling that Ford didn’t exert himself too much in finding them. It’s not unusual for little magazine editors to obtain the work they publish from their immediate contacts. Ford would have known Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert McAlmon. They were all in Paris at the time.  

It’s just a fact that many little magazines don’t have what might be called a policy of promoting work that may be experimental or provocative. Once known, they print a selection of what is submitted to them, or what they can pull in from contacts. From the mid-1960s through to the mid-1980s I contributed regular columns about little magazines and small-press publications to the weekly paper, Tribune. At the same time I was editing a couple of little magazines, and contributing poems, stories, reviews, and articles (often about past and present little magazines) to quite a few others. So, one way or another, I saw a wide range of such publications. Most of them were conventional in the manner that they were publishing material that was within the boundaries of what had already been established. Very few were avant-garde in the sense of pushing forward new ideas about technique and content.

What the best of them did was to provide a platform for new (though not necessarily experimental) work and unfashionable and forgotten writers, the kind who were rarely ever going to be taken up by big publishers. That in itself was a good enough reason for the magazines to exist, for a time. The death rate among little magazines always was high. I lost count of the number of publications which disappeared after two or three issues. Some never got beyond the first. I recall a couple of friends, both poets, starting a little magazine. They got a good first issue into print, and that was it. Money, or rather the lack of it, and some personal differences intervened to prevent any further issues. Having more than one editor is probably not a good idea, in any case. I also recall more than once sitting in a pub listening to people planning to launch a little magazine that never got off the ground. To amuse ourselves, an artist and myself during a visit to Zurich drew up a scheme to start a periodical called The Procrastinator. Needless to say, we deferred the actual publication date of the first issue.

There are all sorts of aspects of little magazines that bear studying. There was a boom in little magazine publishing in the 1940s in Britain. Numerous magazines were started, despite paper rationing. Some, like Penguin New Writing and Modern Reading, lasted through much of the decade, but others expired after a few issues. What was notable about many of them was that they gave an opening to people who perhaps wouldn’t have normally turned to writing to express themselves. The social situation established by the 1939-45 War lent itself to the creation of poems, stories, and other material arising out of the conditions that people experienced in the armed forces and in civilian life. Once the war ended, and things returned to some sort of normality, though a bleak austerity set in, energies were turned to dealing with day-to-day concerns, and the magazines began to disappear. By 1950 even the best-known – Horizon, Penguin New Writing – were throwing in the towel. A factor to be noted about these wartime publications is that they avoided the controversial in favour of the conventional. Practical issues dominated everyone’s thoughts and actions.

There may be a parallel of sorts to be drawn between the boom and eventual decline in the number of little magazines produced in the 1960s and early-1970s. They were published as the so-called “underground” or “alternative society” attracted attention and the “mimeograph revolution” provided the means for quick and cheap production of magazines. They weren’t all basic mimeographed magazines, and some exploited printing possibilities to create attractive­-looking publications which used psychedelic designs to indicate their allegiance to the new mood. Not all of them were necessarily purely literary publications, and combined poetry and fiction with musical and political concerns. They eventually declined in their influence, and closed down as social circumstances altered.

The 1960s magazines were not the first to sometimes place an emphasis on design, and in 2007 I visited an exhibition at the British Library which was called Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant-Garde 1900-1937. Ranging through some thirty locations, it was a thrilling survey of how imaginative and inventive editors and designers could be. Futurists (Bulson writes informatively about their publications), Dadaists, Surrealists, and various independent groups, all aimed to attract attention to their magazines and books. The catalogue by Stephen Bury, who also curated the exhibition, is worth looking at, as is the large Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Trsnsformation, 1910-1930, edited by Timothy O. Benson (MIT Press, 2002), if one wants to get an idea of how much was going on across a wide area.     

Of course, it has never been essential for a magazine to claim to represent an artistic avant-garde. There were plenty of little magazines in the 1930s and more than a few of them reflected the political obsessions of the period. The Rebel Poet, and The Anvil, edited by the communist Jack Conroy, and others with titles like Red Front, Dynamo, and Blast (not to be confused with Wyndham Lewis’s magazine of the same name, published years earlier) indicate where their concerns lay. It isn’t necessary for political writing to employ any kind of advanced techniques to get across its message. In fact, it could be argued that a poem, for example, can be more effective when it uses traditional forms. It will possibly reach a wider audience in that way. And a story might make a greater impact when told in a straightforward manner. It was what was said, rather than how it was said, that counted. 

Bulson refers to magazines published in Africa, India, and elsewhere, which, in various forms, offered an anti-colonial programme.  He specifically identifies Kallol, a Bengali publication based in Calcutta which, though it had some links to magazines in Spain, Russia, France, and a few other countries, mostly by exchanging copies, made a point of not connecting to Britain in any way: “Not only did Kallol not expect to find an audience in Britain; it didn’t necessarily want one”. Bulson says this was a “deliberate refusal to engage with the literary culture Bengali writers inherited through colonialism”.

Writing about the production problems faced by magazines, especially those printed in a foreign country (foreign in the sense of the printers not speaking the language the magazine was printed in), Bulson says that “Typos were like passport stamps, and whether funny or tragic or a bit of both, they were there to signal the presence of an elsewhere”. But it wasn’t necessary for a printer to be foreign for mistakes to be made. And a lack of careful proof reading could add to the problems. I wince when I think of some of the errors that occurred when poems and prose I wrote over the years appeared in print. I also cry “mea culpa” when I recall some of the typos I overlooked in the magazines I edited. And I remember a poet of my acquaintance who would tell people that he’d been misprinted in all the best magazines.

I’m aware that I’ve tended to refer to little magazines in the past tense most of the time, and depending on how one defines the term it may be that their day has gone. They certainly don’t have the influence they used to have. This could well be true of the small literary magazines that were once easy to find almost everywhere. Some still exist, though not on the same scale as in the past. But are there any printing work that might be described as avant-garde or experimental? Is there, in fact, a literary avant-garde now?

 It is, perhaps, wrong to write off the little magazine?  Years ago, Isaac Rosenfeld thought that genuine little magazines were being driven out of business by the rise of pocket paperbacks like New World Writing, which was backed by a large publisher, and magazines like Perspective, which was funded by a foundation. His talk (“On the Role of the Writer and the Little Magazine”, reprinted in The Chicago Review Anthology, edited by David Ray, University of Chicago Press, 1959) was given in 1956, just on the cusp of what became a mini-explosion of little magazine activity as the Beats, and what is generally referred to as the New American Writing (Black Mountain Poets, New York Poets, and others), began to attract attention. Rosenfeld died in 1956, so we’ve no way of knowing what he would have thought of many of the publications of the late-1950s and 1960s. But it might be worth bearing in mind that little magazines may never completely disappear in printed form, and could also expand in different ways. The internet, for example.

Eric Bulson has written a valuable and informative book which should appeal to anyone who, like me, finds little magazines fascinating. He’s obviously an enthusiast himself, while at the same time scholarly and discerning in his approach to the subject.