Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Note To Scott Olsen, Editor of Ascent, on the Publication of the First All-Online Issue of That Magazine

Hi, Scott, hi Ascent, bon voyage old wine in new bottles, or maybe that’s old photons in new circuit boards:

I’m the last person who should be responding to your questions, or harmonizing with your meditations. I have spent an unconscionably large hunk of my professional life doing lit mag editing old school. At the same time, I’m the guy who weaned The Georgia Review off letterpress, and introduced computers into its hoary penetralia. (No that is NOT a veiled sexual reference.) People said: your readers will complain. I got one letter from an antiquarian who disliked the new format. One letter. ONE LETTER. If anyone else on earth even noticed, they kept it to themselves.

And now you’ve gone and digitized a whole magazine. All I did was retool production methods: you’ve done away with paper! You’ve KILLED PAPER! Err, but I suppose you’re saving trees. Funny how that works.

We don’t know what the future holds, of course, but presumably we have certain designs on the future. I would dislike a future without serious, committed readers of poems and literary — damn, I mean good — prose. Personally, I don’t care a whit, no sir not a fig do I care, WHERE they read such things. I don’t care if they hire a skywriter to inscribe haiku in the air above their houses; I don’t care if they have ANNA KARENINA tattooed on their butts. If they have contortionist tendencies and want to read it that way, fine. (I don’t recommend having I HEART ANNA KARENINA tattooed on one’s butt, though, surrounded by a valentine; the lady had a mixed track record in matters of love.)

Here is a scary statistic: a reader’s poll along about a decade ago, revealed that the median age of a reader of THE GEORGIA REVIEW (I don’t want to pick on that great magazine, I just know things about it; the same no doubt would apply to many other similarly positioned lit mags) was 58 years old. 58! And that was 10 years ago! I turned 59 a couple of months back, and I have no axe to grind about people that age, but come on: the MEDIAN AGE? How, we asked ourselves, do we get younger readers? We never were able to answer the question.

I would be willing to bet, Scott, that when the number of hits on your new site quadrupled your readership, that at the same time the median age of your readership was cut in half. At least. I can’t prove that, but it seems very likely. The young folks like the keyboards and screens, as David Letterman might say, if he weren’t, erm, preoccupied at the time. Older readers will have plenty to read; older readers will even find their way to online magazines and such. Nor do I want to pretend that digitizing literature is an instant panacea for drifting readership: it ain’t. Younger readers like older readers come in many flavors, and the majority of young people (like the majority of old people) wouldn’t read a haiku if it was printed on a beer can. They’d just switch to a dumber brand.

I have no problem reading texts onscreen, and the technology for such reading (ereaders, e-ink, etc.) is improving all the time. I have a pretty large library of free books from the 19th century, happily downloaded from Google Books (and elsewhere) hiding in my Macintosh, and I read them happily enough. I also like three dimensional, old style, books. I like what we are now prone to call “texts,” alas for the hideous terminology. My eyes are weak, but screens and paper are pretty much all one thing to me now. (Onscreen, I can easily make the font bigger, a good thing for dimsighted geezers such as myself.) Different people have different tolerances; your mileage may vary. But surely we have at least a marginally better chance of attracting younger, and maybe just different, readers to good writing without losing too many, if any, of the ones we already had.

Your production costs go down; your ease of production goes up; your distribution is instantaneous and ubiquitous; and your readership can respond immediately (as I am doing now) to what they read. I’m not anxious for paper to go away, and I don’t think it will; but I see nothing but upsides in the burgeoning digital literary culture.

Go for it, with my blessing.

That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? My blessing?

Go with Dog, my son. Your magazine is the loaves, fishes, and soup bones of literature.