Literary Circles Reel at Northwestern's Plans for 'TriQuarterly'

The literary journal "TriQuarterly" will publish its last print issue next spring.
September 24, 2009

Surprised, saddened, shocked: That's how people in the literary-magazine world reacted when word came down this week that one of their own, the esteemed journal TriQuarterly, would cease print publication next year.

Also dismaying to many was the news that the magazine's editor, Susan Firestone Hahn, and its associate editor, Ian Morris, would not make the jump online with the publication. Instead, TriQuarterly will move out of its home at Northwestern University Press and into the university's graduate creative-writing program, where it will be turned over to student editors.

The news quickly made the rounds of literary-magazine editors. Mr. Morris posted the news to an e-mail list run by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. Of the group's 500 or so members, about 350 are literary magazines, said Jeffrey Lependorf, the council's executive director. "This has been very shocking news to the community," Mr. Lependorf said. "This doesn't feel like the passing of the torch; it feels like the extinguishing of the flame."

In a news release, Northwestern University said that the transformation of the magazine was only one result of an in-depth review of operations at the press. The appraisal led the university to reaffirm "its commitment to publishing and disseminating scholarly writing," the statement said. From now on, "the press will be a more-efficient operation, and we will deepen our alliances with the university's academic programs while moving forward with the delivery of content in a digital format."

The university also announced that a search will begin soon for a new press director. (The press has had an interim director for several months.)

The press reports to the university librarian, Sarah M. Pritchard, who played down the idea that TriQuarterly as we have known it would cease to exist. "The magazine is certainly continuing," she said. "It's going to solicit external content from prominent writers, as it always has. It's going to go to an online environment, which will greatly expand its readership."

For Mr. Lependorf, of the literary-magazine council, the move online is not the heart of the matter. Many journals now have a digital presence, he pointed out. Some, like Words Without Borders, live only online. With TriQuarterly, though, the new version that has been proposed "is something that's entirely new and doesn't have any relationship with the beloved print journal," he said. "In this case, I'm very, very sad to say, TriQuarterly appears to be done. It's a little shocking that the university has made this decision."

He added that Ms. Hahn and Mr. Morris are considered "two of the very best" editors in the literary-magazine community. "What a lot of us are troubled by here is that the editorial vision of the magazine hasn't been given the weight that it has earned," he said. "It doesn't mean that a student-run magazine can't be excellent, but it's a different animal."

On Shaky Ground

The TriQuarterly shock hits at a time when publishers feel especially vulnerable, when the old models of support—a safe and honored university perch, for instance—have grown shaky. "The shuttering of TriQuarterly and termination of its editorial posts is troubling for a couple of reasons," Ted Genoways, editor of VQR, a literary journal at the University of Virginia, told The Chronicle in an e-mail message. "First, it's a disturbing continuation of a trend begun this spring with the New England Review and Southern Review. It suggests eroding support for literature from our colleges and universities. Second, it's more than a little creepy to see Northwestern describe the dismantling of a major literary institution as a 'reaffirmation' of the university's commitment to publishing. This is the kind of Orwellian doublespeak I'd expect from Dick Cheney, not a university of Northwestern's caliber."

The New England Review has been told by its home institution, Middlebury College, that it has until 2011 to make itself self-supporting. The magazine gets a subsidy of about $100,000 a year, according to its editor, Stephen Donadio. A professor of humanities at Middlebury, Mr. Donadio must now add fund raising to his list of editorial duties.

Northwestern has not directly said that redefining TriQuarterly is a cost-saving measure, but "everybody's got a reduction in budget," Mr. Donadio said. Going online, he points out, is not a budgetary cure-all. "You might save money, but you lose revenue," he says. "Nobody subscribes to online magazines." Editors and staff members require support no matter what form their publication takes. Mr. Donadio appreciates that his magazine was given enough time to figure out a plan to keep itself going.

Little magazines remain "incubators of literature," he said. "Without them, you choke off this whole process of development for writers." Some universities recognize "that their prestige and their standing in the cultural community has something to do with the magazines they house," Mr. Donadio said. "I do think, frankly, that it's essential to the life of the academy for it to offer support for publication, and for the intellectual life of the country, it's an indispensable thing."

Adding to the angst among editors is the lack of detail about what a born-again TriQuarterly might look like. The Northwestern news release is vague on the point. Without its traditional editorial structure, Mr. Donadio wonders, will the journal be the equivalent of an open-source blog?

"The account that's been given makes it seem as if it's supposed to be an exciting transformation," he said. "Clearly the TriQuarterly that follows from this is not the magazine that over the past 40 or 45 years has acquired the kind of prestige it has acquired. There's a history that has put TriQuarterly in the position that it is."

Previous Incarnations

The magazine has already had two distinct incarnations, according to Reginald Gibbons, a poet and professor of English and classics at Northwestern. Mr. Gibbons edited TriQuarterly from 1981 to 1997, and was a founder of the TriQuarterly Books series, also published by Northwestern University Press.

The journal began life in the late 1950s as an undergraduate magazine remembered now for publishing the work of a young Saul Bellow. In 1964, an editor named Charles Newman transformed it into a national publication—a pinnacle that aspiring and established writers aimed for—and in the process "more or less invented the look" of the modern literary magazine, Mr. Gibbons said.

Last year, Mr. Gibbons came up with the idea that it would be useful to have a Web-based journal as part of Northwestern's graduate creative-writing program. He envisioned it as an entirely new publication, one to help teach students the art of how to edit a literary journal.

The idea "coincided with administration deliberations on the press budget," Mr. Gibbons said. "In order to save a very distinguished name, TriQuarterly, the magazine that I myself edited for 16 years, it was proposed to me that the student journal take that name, and that the magazine have a third incarnation, as a Web journal. And I certainly wasn't going to say no."

Mr. Gibbons is not appalled by what lies ahead. He welcomes the notion that TriQuarterly will have a third, electronic incarnation. He thinks the digital shift will make it possible for the journal to make its way into an era rich with new-media possibilities, including fresh forms of writing such as video essays.

Mr. Gibbons does not plan to have an active role in TriQuarterly's new identity. That will be left to two experienced writer-editors. (He says that one is Susan Harris, editorial director of the online magazine Words Without Borders.) They will serve as the magazine's faculty directors and work with a staff of 10 to 15 students, said Mr. Gibbons.

Although the journal will be mostly student-run, it will not be primarily a vehicle for student work, Mr. Gibbons said. The student staff will contribute some new features, including short book reviews.

"Saving the name and repurposing it this way means it's still going to be a part of American culture, but now our students will actually get to participate in that culture," Mr. Gibbons said. "I think it's going to be a great opportunity for them."

He decries the criticism he has seen and heard about the plan. Some of the reports have been "untruthful in some particulars, and unprofessional," he said. "People say to me there's a lot of bad feeling out there about it. As the longest-serving editor of TriQuarterly myself, and as someone who worked hard at it and did some things that no previous or succeeding editor did, I am not upset at the change, for whatever that's worth."

Ms. Hahn succeeded Mr. Gibbons as editor in 1997, but she has been associated with TriQuarterly for 30 years. Mr. Morris, the associate editor, has been with the magazine for 12 years. Both say they were blindsided by the proposed changes and only learned on Monday, the day the news release went out, that they would lose their editorial jobs when the magazine publishes its final print issue next spring.

"I feel very sad," Ms. Hahn said. "I'm grieving for an inanimate object that's filled with life."

Neither editor sees how an online version of TriQuarterly would really work and how it would preserve the spirit of the magazine they have known. "At this point, I don't see a successfully open-source model for arts publishing," Mr. Morris said. "For me, that's the crux of the matter."