Last July 11, the New York Times ran the obituary of FM-2030, a self-described “futurist and visionary” who had died in a friend’s Manhattan apartment. Born F. M. Esfandiary in 1930, FM-2030, who changed his name in the mid-70’s, didn’t use the word “born,” although his namesake comes from the anticipated centenary of his birth. Prophetically, he preferred the word “launched,” thinking of our bodies as immortal, “post-biological organisms.” His carbon-based life ended after a laundry list of accomplishments: Iranian Olympic wrestler in the 1950’s, author of best-selling novels, predictor of such commonplace phenomena as gene therapy and teleconferencing, and consultant to numerous corporations. He also taught the odd class at The New School.
I’d like to think that last summer, when FM-2030 left this mortal coil, the literary magazine for which I am an editor helped preserve his forward-looking spirit. Indeed, on the night of his death, Painted Bride Quarterly, a 30-year-old independent literary magazine, “launched” its own Web site, making the jump into a full-fledged, electronic publication.
It had been a long, strange trip to that point. In a sense, we, too, were vying for immortality. And we, too, renamed ourselves–for brevity’s sake, shortening it for our URL address. The initial reports we’ve received from the Web front are mostly positive.
For the past decade, literary magazines on the Web have flourished. Although many of us in the print world were a wee bit jealous of this fluid method of publication, we continued to play it safe, adopting the stance that Web magazines are somehow “less than” the issues we place on the shelves – while we watched our print schedules go out the window for lack of funding.
We listened to the arguments for such a switch, both pro and con. “There’s so many bad webzines out there,” Print People said.
This is true. Then there’s the Sven Birkerts Argument—namely, books are nice to hold and read, and our brains work differently reading from a screen. And there’s the class-based argument: the internet is a luxury accessible only to those hooked up to computers.
“The economics of running a print magazine makes no sense,” Web Boosters counterpunched.
Exhibit A: the countless unsold (and unread) issues left in stores across the country, after all that hard curatorial work.
Exhibit B: the politics of grant-writing and university affiliation, resulting in those issues we’ve all seen—dry, name-larded, log-rolled tomes, all with the same poetics. The way of print, Websters say, is the way of Moloch.
Reasonable people can disagree, but certain things tipped the scales for Painted Bride Quarterly around 1998, I’d say. First, we were broke. All indie litmags are. That’s just understood. Second, the number of people connected to the internet had skyrocketed, with more access everywhere. Web literacy was increasing, from E-mail to high school students’ doing research on the Web. Plus, looking at a computer screen (except for good ole Sven) wasn’t so scary anymore. You could just, like, press “Print,” to hold it in your hand.
Third, and most important, reputable Webzines with good taste had sprung up. They were an inspiration to us. Publications like Jacket, Xconnect, The Cortland Review, all have great work—much of it from writers published for the first time on the Web. So, while great print mags were dying, others, like Exquisite Corpse, were rising from their ashes on the Web. Far from being a refuge for tilde-addressed vanity sites, the connected bourgeoisie, or those in the avant-garde-know, the Web publishing scene had now become layman-friendly. Writers no longer regarded it as somehow a déclassé, a secondary outlet.
We were looking at all this with a full Painted Bride issue in the can—with contributors such as Ruth Stone and Philip Levine—and grant checks that wouldn’t cover printing. We pondered our situation a little longer. All dressed up but with no place to go, the switch was then proposed and put to a vote. Our 15-member, two-city editorial board, a tyrannical democracy that rivals New England’s town meetings, reached a unanimous decision. That’s the first time I ever remember that happening, ever.
We sent revised contracts to writers, telling them of the move, offering them an “out” if they wanted. We waited some more. Denise Duhamel E-mailed us back first, offering encouragement. Others simply answered with updated writer bios and positive marginalia. Meanwhile, at a Poets and Writers talk, Cortland Review‘s Guy Shahar spoke of upcoming issues, with not a trace of fiscal worry furrowing his brow.
The Corpse’s Andrei Codrescu sent a message: “Do it, and link, link, link” to your sister webzines!
Some authors, though, were a put off by the switch. One poet questioned what were we doing, moving “in the ether.” Some emerging writers, too, drew up short at the Web switch. I sympathize with this: They were looking forward to holding the perfect-bound spoils of their success in their hands. Perhaps anticipating this, we have taken a page from Xconnect, and plan to publish print annuals. Surprisingly, it was the “big name” people who made the least fuss. My guess is we were either small potatoes to them, or they knew webzines have huge readerships, and could widen their audience.
Those emerging writers may also be hip to the fact the Web publishing world is not all peaches and cream. Right now, it’s really the Wild West. Like the indie scenes of yesteryear, it’s a dodgy prospect picking out the good from the bad. There are imposter webzines everywhere. But is that really so different from print mag culture? The cream will surely rise to the top out there, we hope. I’d like to think of Painted Bride Quarterly as contributing to this rising, a benevolent 500-pound Quality Gorilla. And from what Mike Neff, publisher of our Web host, Web Del Sol, tells us, we’re getting more hits on our first online issue than we had readers of our last four print issues, combined.
When the Web-switch was made, I re-read some chapters of Lewis Hyde‘s great book, The Gift. In it, he describes how the economics of poetry, like that of some cultures, is not monetarily based; rather, it’s about getting our work, our gifts, out to the people who need it. I’d like to think that, by switching to the Web, our magazine, which never made any money, ever, is living up to Hyde’s ideal.
I’d also like to think a certain FM-2030 is out there somewhere, cheering us on. Perhaps he knows that because of our decision, we’ll last until 2030, the eccentric futurist’s centennial celebration.