LITTLE MAGAZINE, WORLD FORM
By Eric Bulson
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
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
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
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
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
Partisan Review, and
possibly even the famed Paris
Review, had been partly financed by the CIA. He adds
Black Orpheus (
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
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
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
There are all sorts of aspects of little magazines that bear
studying. There was a boom in little magazine publishing in the
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,
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.