Lingua Franca, the magazine that bills itself as "The Review of Academic Life", may be shutting down. Ron Rosenbaum, the author of Explaining Hitler and The Secret Parts of Fortune (which I highly recommend), expresses hope that some "hero" will step up. Judith Shulevitz half-seriously suggests the the government subsidize little magazines. But little magazines have always gone out of business; the Little Magazine Project plans on indexing at least 2,500 title from after World War II, and I’d suspect that no more than a twentieth of the magazines from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s are still publishing. I thought that the term "little magazines" dated to Margaret Anderson and Ezra Pound’s The Little Review, which billed itself as "making no compromises with the public taste." The Little Review strikes me as exemplary of the little magazine: in its relatively brief (1914-1929) lifespan, in its intrernicine squabbles over money and credit for the magazine’s successes, and in early recognition of major literary talents. During the fifteen years it was in print, The Little Review published work by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, William Butler Yeats, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot, as well as serializing Ulysses.
But the Columbia Encyclopedia dates it back to Poetry (this rough contemporary of The Little Journal is still publishing; H.L. Mencken thought highly of it), and who am I to disagree with the Columbia Encylcopedia? (The British Rhythym predates either, and depending on one’s definitions, you can trace precursors well back into the nineteenth century.) After World War I, the floodgates opened, and journal after journal sprung into existance. Thayer and Moore’s The Dial, Tate and Ransom’s The Fugitive flared into existance and died in the Twenties.
But that is the way of magazines. In my lifetime, I’ve seen Spy and its younger West Coast cousin Might fold. The conservative political magazine The American Spectator collapsed grandly after expansion attempts backfired and Clinton-pursuing banking heir and publisher Richard Mellon Scaife yanked his support. The Baffler very nearly expired after a fire in their building earlier this year.
The Internet may yet be the answer. Salon, arguably the most ambitious attempt to recreate a Harper’s or New Yorker on the web, has declined from a daily read to a mishmash of Bush-is-dumb jokes, softcore porn, and David Horowitz, but smaller efforts can still flourish, I think. And even if little magazines vanish, there will still be outlets for poetry, short fiction, and essays; already the market for poetry has largely been taken over by journals affiliated with colleges or university presses, journals like The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly (Northwestern University), or Ploughshares (Emerson College).
But the little magazines publish some really wonderful stuff; when I was 16 or so, I read a dazzling essay on Coney Island in a Pushcart Prize (the Oscars of the little magazine world) collection. I knew of Lingua Franca from its reporting on the Sokal hoax and , but think I first really noticed Lingua Franca after I picked up an issue to read the cover story, "International Man of Mystery: The Battle over Mikhail Bakhtin". They published fascinating pieces on a vast range of subjects, from the Voynitch Manuscript to federal judge and law-and-economics scholar Richard Posner to the paranoia of Philip K. Dick. The beauty of a magazine like Lingua Franca was both that I never knew quite what was going to show up and that I could be fairly confident it would be interesting. The next time you’re at a bookstore or newstand with an extensive periodical collection, why not look for Granta or The Baffler or Tikkun or Hermenaut and see if anything catches your eye? Or even ask for a copy of Lingua Franca — it’s not quite too late.