The literary journal and academic publishing community is shocked this week about news concerning one of its most venerable members, the literary journal TriQuarterly.
What exactly is happening to TriQuarterly? It depends on whom you ask. Let’s start with this press release by Northwestern University, a mastery of avoidance and euphemism even in the history of things like press releases. Somewhere in all the gobbly-gook are some lines about TriQuarterly stopping print production and “transferring” online.
More of the real story appeared days later in The Chronicle of Higher Education which announced that the award winning journal - whose excellence has been mentioned as lately as June in this article from the Chicago Tribune – would cease to exist. Its staff would be fired and a new journal named TriQuarterly Online would take its place, run by the students of the MFA program at Northwestern.
While I’m glad that the students at Northwestern are going to edit a journal, the idea of killing the old TriQuarterly to make way for this new enterprise is embarrassing to a school with a reputation like Northwestern’s. It is precisely the kind of lead-headed thinking that plagues the publishing and magazine industry right now. If you were to go out to Alaska and kill all the bald eagles because they were eating endangered salmon, you would be following this kind of thinking. Because a student-run journal and an editorial voice like TriQuarterly are different animals.
It used to be in publishing that an editor would allow a writer to develop his style and technique over time. How many of us have read Soldier’s Pay, the first book by Faulkner? But plenty of us have read The Sound and Fury or As I Lay Dying. That is because book editors were willing to give him a chance to develop himself as a writer. In this climate of conglomerate bottom-line-oriented publishing, these editors don't exist anymore. Everyone is looking for the next chart topper, the next Oprah book, the next whatever.
Literary journals are now the crucibles for the raw metal of the next generation of writers. And while excellent journals like Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review and (ahem) HFR show the strength of student-run journals, the literary world would be much poorer without the curative voices of the Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and well…TriQuarterly. These editors work hard to make sure that a high standard is held for content and solicitation, and their magazines have risen in stature because of it.
But stature in the literary community didn’t save TriQuarterly, even though one editor has been at the magazine for 30 years. That’s a lot to throw away, for reasons that seem indecipherable unless they were to help keep the bottom line at the university, and if that’s true then maybe there isn’t any difference between large universities and large companies. And the literary world will be poorer because of it.