Strange fealties: the online literary magazine

Where does the magazine – and its forms, codes, public intimacies – fit into online literary culture?  Ian Macartney investigates via nine magazines


The online literary magazine ecosystem is a sort of arena where there are very strict adherences to rules and etiquette, but also a performed candidness which I believe conceals certain social economics. Strange fealties emerge via social media interactions: the power dynamics between contributor/editor, submitter/guidelines, the follower/following-back. These are potent, and unresolved, situations. There is an aura which makes said fealties seem unplaceable, limits I could not express prosaically. It was only through nine magazines that I could reveal there was, indeed, something very calcified about how we interact with literary magazines online, and how they operate. A quality of the seeming-infinite; an inevitable power not only synonymous to the internet, but also microcosms of the internet.

nine magazines is, as its name suggests, a website which hosts nine ‘themes’, each of which takes the form of a mini-magazine. Each theme is an archetype of a literary magazine I have seen during my time as a writer. Some are directly inspired by specific publications I admire (analogica, the moon ( is SPAM; Direct Contrast is PN Review) while others are situated around internet subcultures, or the internet’s propensity to foster their growth. HELLSURFACE, for example, takes inspiration from the word-spaghetti of the reactionary  ‘Dark Enlightenment’, popularised by Nick Land, while The Uddington Review is totemic for any local-interest or parochial magazines that more traditional poets have set up online. UNFURL YR WORDS is essentially the entire spoken-word/slam scene. amethyst & magnets represents the type of magazines a lot of young people have set up during lockdown, particularly in North America, and a newer shell mirrors what I perceive as popular journals which publish metropolitan poetics, ‘lowercase’ in temperament, like The Poetry Review or Ambit. ecoVox was not inspired by poetry magazines, per se, but rather the rising (necessary) prominence of ecology in contemporary writing – but also where it fails (i.e. the conflation of political change with cultural response).

In this ‘meta-magazine’ I traded the sanctity often reserved for literature with a deranged internet logic which, as a writer in my early 20s, find inescapable – and in doing so, intend to ask what it even means for literature to exist in the infinite textual sprawl that is the internet, i.e. our current cultural lives.

I found several ways to do this. First, half the contributors are me. nine magazines gave me the opportunity to self-present in new and colourful ways, but with a distance. The project is a kind of  digital pamphlet – through my gang of pseudonyms I reverse the egalitarian pretences of the magazine, the idea that finely attuned work has been filtered through with no room for bias, allowing me to reframe my work. ‘Olaf Skyler’, for example, is the name given to nature poems I wrote when I was fifteen. Although I believe the poems hold up to scrutiny I am also very aware of their wide-eyed neo-romanticism which, on the one hand, I want to champion beyond dismissals of ‘juvenilia’, but on the other hand, I admit the limits of this worldview. In putting sincere poems on an absurd parodic platform, I wanted to ask: does the work become negated, here, or does it double in meaning? Which implies a wider question: is the act of putting a poem on the internet inherently absurd? Are we to really expect a poem can pause the infinite scroll?

Secondly, I accepted every submission sent my way. Being selected for publication often feels like the acquisition of medals, titles which will garner author bios to prove the legitimacy of an artist. These mythologies of literary success, the ceaseless need to have ‘made it’, negate the ideal state of the literary magazine as a community-creating force. With nine magazines I wanted to feel out the limits of this competitiveness, but also express gratitude for the communal aspects of literary magazines, and therefore diminish the curational edge at play otherwise.

After all, now the mechanics of publishing are accessible to everyone with an internet connection, quality is no longer the defining characteristic of a publication. This begs the question: if publishing is no longer an intrinsic determiner of value, where is that value? Does it still exist? By accepting every submission I replaced competitive impulses with a pivot to project-specific aesthetics. The surprise, the value, is not in my ability to curate or find “the finest” work (which is already a fallacious category), but rather dependent on presentation – meaningful surfaces. The masthead, for example, are all fictitious creations. Their photos were generated by AI. Dupont, editor of a newer shell, who is bitter enough to mention in her bios that “although she did not win” a non-existent poetry prize, she did receive a completely unrelated “William J. Buutsur Bursary”. The Uddington Review’s Doris McSwitch only loves “most” of her grandchildren, while Direct Contrast’s Mercy Conguisse (“one of the greatest poets of the 21st century”) had an affair with “his former farmhand, Gustav”. Author bios are usually a type of prose fiction – the fiction of the ‘successful author’, of an author’s personality and/or achievements – which permeate the online literary magazine, and a major engine of literary competitiveness, but here it becomes farcical melodrama.

My final tactic was the visual identity of nine magazines itself. I aimed to go for a ‘semiotic barrage’, a sensory assault emblematic of the internet. This strategy originates in webcomic artist Scott McCloud’s concept of the ‘infinite canvas’. For McCloud the internet unlocks a limitless space for artists to express themselves. The page no longer has a physical limit; a drawing can be as large as a webpage needs to be. In nine magazines I utilise the infinite canvas for the use of text. Lines and stanzas stretch way farther than a marginated page would allow, spilling over on to other pieces; some poems are presented lopsided or upside-down; poems arrive in gaudy fonts and colours and highlights or as screenshots, hyper-filtered. It is through the infinite canvas that the ‘real’ internet breaks through the veneer and shells of the competitive online literary magazine, a ‘real’ rendering what we often ask of poetics (i.e. the sacredness of text) futile.

This is how literature becomes freed from certain responsibilities. In my discussion with Rishi Dastidar for the Spoke in Mirrors interview series, we discussed how “skimming” text has become the standard mode of reading, especially online – the relegation of text as surface-rich, not because literacy has decreased. but because of the exact opposite. After all, my generation is the most literate yet – our primary mode of communication is epistolary, via corporate platforms such as Messenger, Snapchat or Instagram/Twitter DMs. It is not that text or literature has become irrelevant online, it just performs differently. It is not that digital life is meaningless, it is just too meaningful. Too many interpretations and opinions are presented at once; it is the cultural singularity, digital hyperstimulation, the overwhelm, multitasking as an ontological state.

I wanted to reveal this meme logic in something as sanctified as the poem, and the poem’s home of the literary magazine. This was not to diminish literature, per se, but rather to reveal where poetics survive. Because ultimately, nine magazines is an attempt at nascence: taking a form more codified than assumed – the online literary magazine – and revealing where the limits encroach, and where we could go next. It’s a ‘meta-magazine’ in the sense of meta as metaxis – inbetweenness. In the space between outright parody and emulation, something exciting can thrive.

Read nine magazines at ninemagazines.com.

Ian Macartney is a writer. He can be found at ianmacartney.scot

Modern Scottish Magazines – A Long View

The focus of this network begins in the 1960s, but there is a much deeper history of Scottish magazines. Charlotte Lauder takes a longer view.

Modern Scottish magazines have a long history. We can start with the Scots Magazine, established in 1739 and still published today.[1] Yet, beneath this remarkable longevity lies a fractured history which makes the Scots Magazine a convincing simile for the development of modern Scottish magazines in general. In fact, the Scots Magazine has been out of print for much of its life – between 1826 and 1887, and from 1893 to 1922. Its most stable period of publication has only been since 1927. Similarly, the magazine has flip-flopped between a variety of proprietors and political allegiances, including the Free Kirk of Scotland (Liberal), the St Andrew’s Society of Glasgow (Unionist-nationalist), and D. C. Thomson & Co. (Unionist).

 

Although prominent during the time period covered by this research network, the Scots Magazine is not a title I’d consider to be within its lens of inquiry. But it is still a magazine produced in Scotland and it emphasises many of the issues under evaluation by this network: how do magazines construct or express Scottish national identity? How does politics influence a magazine (and vice versa)? How important are the people behind the press? Ultimately, what do magazines do (and not do)?

These questions have been somewhat neglected, particularly outwith the 1920-40 period. While studies of these magazines remain important, and the work of Margery Palmer McCulloch, Alistair McCleery, Cairns Craig, and David Finkelstein is extremely relevant, our view of Scottish magazines has been thwarted by insularity and a tendency to arrange good marriages between the major movements of that era: Scottish nationalism, Scottish Literary Revival, and Scottish modernism. If we take a step back, what can a longer and broader view of Scottish magazines tell us?

Firstly, Scottish magazines are ‘connecters’. Most of the best-studied Scottish titles are ‘little magazines’ like Patrick Geddes’ Evergreen (1895-96), Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scottish Chapbook (1922-23) and Northern Review (1924), and J. H. Whyte’s Modern Scot (1930-35), whose contributors and associated literati are also well-known. Research on these magazines, and their European counterparts, has provided a rich body of theoretical and methodological approaches, the most interesting of which is probably ‘periodical encounters’, focused on the social, economic, intellectual, cultural and material relations that make up connections between magazines, which Nathan Hensley has described as ‘a chain of visible or material connections’.[2] How magazines establish connections with other magazines (and also how they don’t) is just as interesting as what they publish. Materiality is a trusted entry point into these encounters – what is the format of the magazine? How many pages? What colours are used? Are these the same across the board? Assessing changes in form and layout also reveal ‘hidden’ aspects of magazines – is an increase in the number of pages the result of more funding? Does a change in format reflect a change in staff or printing premises? Can a change in font be political, or is it merely typographical?

 

As great at connecting as Scottish magazines were, they often published the same contributors, and increasingly those contributors ended up being the magazine’s readership. A long view of Scottish magazines therefore teaches us that they are also insular, and what a magazine sets out to do – for example, reaching an audience of like-minded intellectuals, writers, or creatives – is not always what it achieves. Hugh MacDiarmid, that omnipresent figure in the history of the modern Scottish press, lamented the lack of reach in Scottish magazines of the 1920s when he wrote that “None of these significant little periodicals – crude, absurd, enthusiastic, vital – have yet appeared in Auchtermuchty or Ardnamurchan […] It is discouraging to reflect that this is not the way the Dadaists go about the business!”.[3] Any study of postwar Scottish magazines should bear this in mind, and give attention to the ‘periodical encounters’ that immediately preceded those under examination here; or, at least, the encounters that magazines of the 1960s-90s said that they were responding to. Titles like The Voice of Scotland: a quarterly magazine of Scottish arts and affairs (1938-1961), The Galliard. An illustrated review of Scottish life and venture (1948-49), and Scottish art and letters (1944-50) are part of this precursory landscape and are as under-researched as those that form the body of this network.

 

Nationality is both helped and hindered by ‘periodical encounters’. Is a magazine produced in Scotland the only pre-requisite to being a ‘Scottish magazine’? What about magazines created for Scots abroad, like The Fiery Cross: a magazine for Scottish Canadians (1895-96) or The Australasian Highlander (1970-). There were magazines produced in Scotland by non-Scots, like those created by internationalist-socialist Guy A. Aldred’s Bakunin Press, including The Commune (1923-29), Regeneracion!! (1936-37), and Word (1938-64). And what about magazines that originated in Scotland, but which migrated elsewhere? James Leatham (1865-1945), the influential Aberdonian socialist and publisher of Scotland’s first socialist newspaper The Worker’s Herald (1891-92), after moving from Aberdeen to Yorkshire, established the Cottingham Press and published The Gateway (1912-45), ‘a monthly magazine aimed at Scots at home and abroad’, across these locations. Might there be a politically or editorially pithy magazine in London, Dublin, or New York with an eye towards Scotland and a viewpoint on devolution, arts funding, or contemporary literature? Most likely, no. But the outward looking and internationalist attitude of Scottish International (Review) (1968-74) and The Dark Horse (1995-) makes it not impossible.

Feminist magazines, of which Scotland was a prodigious producer, offer us a way into transnational encounters. As Rachael Alexander has demonstrated,[4] magazines such as Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal (1977-78), Ms Print (1978-81), Harpies and Quines (1992-94), and NESSIE: A Radical and Revolutionary Feminist Newsletter in Scotland (1979-?), were concurrent with Spare Rib (1972-93), A Woman’s Place (1977), and Ms. (1971-), and studies into the ‘periodical encounters’ of feminist magazines at local, regional, national and international levels are certainly ripe for further research.[5]

The obvious conclusion that a long view of Scottish magazines suggests is that, at some point or another, there has always been a need to represent and codify some aspect of Scottish life. Sometimes this is obvious: regionality, feminism, language, literature, politics, history, and religion. At other times, not so much – for example, what is within the pages of the sole issue of The Scot-free magazine, published in Glasgow in 1989? A long view reiterates a phrase I often use, that magazines have a porous boundary between consumption and contribution. By considering a longer history of Scottish magazines, we see this relationship at work, and that the ‘outside’ of magazines are just as important as the ‘inside’ of them.


Charlotte Lauder is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde and National Library of Scotland. She focuses on popular literary magazines published in Scotland between 1870 and 1920. Her work on Scottish women’s magazines has been featured on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Scotland News.

[1] https://www.dctmedia.co.uk/brands/the-scots-magazine/.

[2] Nathan K. Hensley, ‘Network: Andrew Lang and the Distributed Agencies of Literary Production’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 48, 3, (2015), 360.

[3] Alan Riach (ed.), Selected Poetry (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992), 7.

[4] https://www.genderequalmedia.scot/news/blog/harpies-and-quines-and-feminist-magazines-in-scotland/.

[5] Sarah Browne, “A Veritable Hotbed of Feminism”: Women’s Liberation in St Andrews, Scotland, c.1968-c.1979’, Twentieth Century British History, 23, 1, (2012), 100-123; Bec Wonders, ‘Mapping second wave feminist periodicals: Networks of conflict and counterpublics, 1970-1990’, Art Libraries Journal, 45, 3, (2020), 106-113.

Back Issues: Event 1 Digest

The launch issue of a magazine tends to flaunt its novelty, but the much-delayed  start to this project was focused more on backstory.

The network’s first meeting (24 February 2021) began with a short talk by Patrick Collier, developing the themes of his blog post ‘Six or Seven (or so) Ways to Read a Magazine’. This was a rich tour d’horizon of the magazine in theory, unpacking the multi-voicedness, seriality and objecthood that make these artefacts what they are. What sort of critical – or uncritical – gaze is appropriate to the magazine, Collier asked, linking several milestones in periodical studies to recent ‘method wars’ in literary studies. Exploring the value of close, distant and ‘just’ reading, alongside questions of genre and materiality, this was a highly stimulating introduction to the field.

One of its pioneers, Margaret Beetham, emphasised ‘how the formal qualities of the periodical are shaped by its particular relationship to time’.[1] And the cultural work that magazines do, Collier argued, is caught up with their iterative nature. In examining specific titles we should attend to their ‘open’ and ‘closed’ qualities from issue to issue (rather than tethering a single article firmly to its date of publication). A cultural review might respond to unfolding events from a variety of perspectives, inviting readers to participate (via letters pages) and to navigate the mixed-genre text in their own way (open), but it will also construct a consistent persona, publishing schedule and implied reader across time (closed).

Commercial magazines may have a mission statement of sorts, but we take it with a pinch of salt, knowing that advertising and circulation are the foremost considerations. Non-commercial magazines, Collier noted, are in some ways easier objects for cultural historians to handle: even if they include a wide range of material and voices, they are usually led by a small group committed to ‘making its meanings stick’ rather than generating profits.

For the Scottish magazines at the centre of our interest, their typical smallness (of circulation, of dramatis personae), uncommercial aims and strength of editorial mission (often activist or avant-garde) will often lean toward the ‘closed’ pole of Beetham’s helpful rubric. At the same time, the majority of these titles are passionately engaged in ‘opening the doors’ of cultural and political change in Scotland, focused on generating new ideas, publics and connections.

And here, perhaps, is a notable feature of periodicals linked (in varying degrees) to a wider nation-building project. For many of our target titles, the implied subject and audience is ‘Scotland’, so that journals and reviews focused on Scottish poetry, Scottish feminism or Scottish constitutional change have a stable structuring interest and ‘field’ (closed) which they are actively shaping, expanding and contesting (open); all in ways that tend to naturalise the national frame they treat both as a cultural given and a prompt to action and critique.

We might say that periodicals such as Question Magazineprofiled here by Ben Jackson – ‘cover’ a domain of Scottish cultural and political life they also help to ‘constitute’ and solidify, its fortnightly reports helping to make this world both discursively and materially real, available to purchase in newsagents and bookshops. One of the interesting features of these magazines is how their formally ‘closed’ features – including the notable absence of women contributors – sit alongside their more ideologically ‘open’ aims and qualities, generating fresh national possibility, community and identity.

Questions of audience are of special interest for periodicals directly engaged in politics, alliance-making and mobilisation. Rory Scothorne noted the history of revolutionary newspapers as surrogate political organisations, an often ‘closed’ and hierarchical locus of debate sharing features with the vanguardist party (and often providing a source of income for party activity). The recent work of Lucy Delap (on the print-culture of British feminism) was noted for its relevance in studying magazines as modern political and rhetorical forms, and Patrick Collier noted the broader importance of periodicals in constructing ‘counter-public spheres’.

In these ‘parallel discursive arenas’, Nancy Fraser argued, ‘members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs’.[2] We can readily see how this description fits many of our Scottish titles, but might also observe the paradox of conceiving the national public (real or potential) as a subaltern counter-public – a paradox much easier to glimpse after two decades of devolution and the rapid consolidation of a Scottish democratic system.

Speaking from the archivist’s point of view, Graeme Hawley highlighted the practical and classificatory challenges that accompany the definitional conundrums outlined in Collier’s introduction: what exactly is a magazine, viewed in terms of its physical dimensions, publishing schedule, balance of visual and textual material, and so on? How can the dizzying variety of their content, and the embedded knowledge they ‘accidentally’ capture (e.g. the way a demolished building looked in a photograph from 1960), be tagged or catalogued for disaggregation and research, using digital finding aids? These reflections recall Beetham’s point (cited by Collier) that the magazine is ‘not so much a form in its own right as an enabling space for readers traversing the items they encounter’. How can this ‘enabling space’ be mapped for others, and made accessible to readers physically remote from archival collections? At the encouragement of the group, Hawley agreed to write a separate SMN blog developing these thoughts. The network will return to the question of digitisation later in the year.

This was a rich and dynamic conversation I can’t fully summarise, but here are a few points and observations that lodged in my memory:

        • Ben Jackson was the first of several (including the author of this blogpost) to confess having used magazine articles as ‘disaggregated’ historical fodder, rather than (as Collier suggested) ‘reading magazines closely as magazines’. Collier noted the inevitability of selectivity in using magazines for teaching or research, and offered generous absolution.

       

        • Reflecting on her own time with the Cencrastus editorial collective, Glenda Norquay complicated the image of politically driven magazines as ‘closed’ organisations. Although there may be an agreed editorial agenda, the nature of such magazines demands unpaid work at different levels and also a turnover of editorial staff, which can produce a degree of instability. An unchanging masthead can also conceal multiple perspective and evolving internal views.

       

        • Charlotte Lauder pointed out that mass-circulation commercial magazines can also have strong viewpoints, and directed our attention to publishers and proprietors (not only editors and contributors) in studying these agendas. Charlotte’s own work on The People’s Friend, owned and published by the Liberal MP for Dundee John Leng prior to its sale to DC Thomson, is a fascinating example.

       

        • Alex Thomson noted the importance of state patronage and public subsidy, especially via the Scottish Arts Council. In addition to their own strong agendas, most of our Scottish magazines would also face the imperative of satisfying the funding body (within a distinctive ‘double arm’s length’ regime prior to devolution, enjoying greater autonomy from government). This support was often premised on the publication of original literary content (poetry and short stories), effectively cross-subsidising these magazines’ more contentious offerings (for which the SAC was not paying and was not strictly answerable).

       

        • Malcolm Petrie noted the ‘interlinked’ nature of these Scottish magazines, and the many lines of affiliation (and occasional discord) by which they were knitted together. How might we approach them as a collection of titles, instead of separate entities? Patrick Collier observed that magazines always exist in dialogue with each other, and suggested framing our research agenda in a way that spotlights the threads of debate between magazines, thus foregrounding the broader ‘ecology’ in which they interact.

       

        • Nikki Simpson noted some of the practical challenges and potential of archiving magazines, and outlined her own plans to establish an International Magazines Centre in Edinburgh. The special challenges of copyright for digitisation will be a key focus of the network in later events.

       

      We rounded off the meeting with some planning discussion relating to upcoming activity (events, podcasts, interviews), and further details of the edited book project in development. The editors will be commissioning chapters later this year, with a preference for cross-disciplinary perspectives and co-authorship of chapters. Further details and a call for papers will follow soon.

      This much-delayed start to the network’s activity was truly heartening, and we look forward to our next meeting.  Prompted by Patrick Collier’s short bibliographic tour of periodical studies, we thought it might be helpful to compile a mini-bibliography on the Scottish contexts of our target magazines.


    • [1] Margaret Beetham, ‘Open and Closed: The Periodical as a Publishing Genre’, Victorian Periodicals Review 22.3 (Fall, 1989): 96-100 (p. 97).

      [2] Nancy Fraser, ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy’, Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80 (p. 67).