On the Status of Online Literary Fora


 If you’ve arrived at this article, you must be acquainted enough with the online world to navigate the blogosphere. Perhaps you surf the web-waves as a distraction from the toils of work; maybe certain authors posting daily help you get your information fix (I think of the people I know who wire themselves to Fark and Digg almost as though these vehicles for information and entertainment contain some nutrient-enriched supplement to their regular diet). There is a lot out there to digest and sorting through the strings of webpages across the globe can be a time consuming ordeal. To make things easier I would not be surprised one day to see a Canada’s Food Guide for websites, perhaps Canada’s Net Guide. The one thing that is certain is that with the wealth of blogs in existence one need not worry about running out of reading material. Finding the end of the internet is nearly impossible for one with varied interests and reading. 

For the literary minded, the question that inevitably comes to the fore is not a new one: what does the development of the blogosphere mean for literary magazines, journals, and other publications? Does easy and ready access to published material mean these print publications are at risk of fading into the twilight? 

I read Chris Banks’ recent post about just this topic and it started me thinking about my own opinions of this relatively new phenomenon in publishing. When I began writing, the internet served as a place where small groups of dedicated writers might gather, primarily on message boards, to share their writing with others. A poet would post a poem in the early stages of composition and seek advice and commentary from peers. What developed was, in essence, an online literary workshop which brought together a varied assortment of writers with differing levels of ability and background all with the same goal: to better themselves and their writing. This goal inevitably, at least for me (I am partly a product of this online community), lead many of these aspiring writers to seek publication and some kind of approval in an offical way for their hard work and effort. 

Naturally, one would submit to the well-known print magazines (in Canada I think of The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, Grain, Prairie Fire, The Malahat Review, etc.) in an attempt to attain the status of a “published poet”. Anyone becoming familiar with the process quickly realized that these publications had massive backlogs of submissions and it could be one to two years before a poem of yours made its way between the covers (assuming it was just what the editor was looking for). As is may be expected, with the internet and the current generation of new writers, there is a need for instant gratification; one requires to see their name in an official form early on to give the internal reinforcement required by some to keep pounding away at the anvil of the wordsmith. 

This speedy response was far from coming and many I conversed with in the poetry message boards turned their efforts to online poetry websites of varying levels of authority and promise. Some of these were no more than a personal website run by an individual who had a passing interest in poetry who “updated” a new edition every Friday after work/school; others were straddling the fence between official status complete with names reminiscent of print magazines and being published quarterly. The problem is that this sort of publishing invites ridicule from the broader literary community which still saw print journals as the true justification of one’s early publishing endeavours. Being aware of this, I began submitting my work exclusively to print journals in to move things along in a way that, hopefully, would result in positive results. 

But those online journals are just so easy, in the sense that most take online submissions that save you both the time and cost required of posting your work. What eventually comes from this process and consideration of its downfalls and advantages is that an online journal can still showcase great writing and garner a quality reputation, but it requires two things: time and taste. Any journal will need to build itself  a track record to increase its readership and reputation as a vehicle for good writing. Good writing (taste) is necessary to make sure that only the best work finds its way into a given issue. Don’t publish a piece of writing if it’s not worth reading. The sad fact is that this does no always occur in online magazines. Where does the blog fit into this literary paradigm? As Banks suggests, its value is likely more kinetic in nature:

More than just a place to staple-gun every positive review, pat on the back or passing remark someone makes about one’s poems, poetry blogs are eliciting real discussion amongst poets in a way that I have never seen before and, more importantly, I am noticing actual changes, shifts in our thinking about poetry. The internet is the great equalizer and no one voice, or group of voices, can dominate. Everyone is allowed to have their say, no matter how many choruses of mook pedants try to shout one down. You need only look at the recent hullabaloo about reviewing in Canada. Others and I have begun to raise our voices calling for a reexamination of what constitutes poetry reviewery in this country, something that is long overdue.  

This is, without a doubt, one of the advantages of personal blogs as a means of promoting good literature and literary practices. Posting an opinion on a blog doesn not make it right, but the opening and continuing of dialogue between literary enthusiasts, reviewers, and authors is as valuable an addition to the publishing world as one can envision. Print magazines present ideas in a very stagnant way (not the ideas themselves, but the frequency for communication across time and place surrounding them). Responses to criticism can take months to appear in different print venues, making blogs the perfect medium for quick and lively discussion of relevant topics. I do not mean to imply that print journals should fade away, on the contrary I think they are more than valuable as tools to begin discourse, whereas blogs a means to allow that discourse to continue in a more organic way. The only downfall of this process I can think of at present is the potentially overwhelming amount of readable content that might result from such fast and, hopefully, eager commentary.

Like any online product, one has become aware the online magazines’ authenticity, validity, and legitimacy. Blogs and online journals can be lacking in either of these categories and so it is the reader’s responsibility to become aware of which are best to follow. The same was true of those message boards I participated in a several years ago, some were frequented by serious writers, others by the not so serious. Caution to the adventurou! But I believe the value of blogs and online sources has not yet been exhausted, nor has a cap been found for their possible contribution to critical discourse.


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