Bad things happen up north in the winter, when no one is looking. Like last February, when Canada's heritage minister James Moore gave a speech which poorly disguised the fact that his office was effectively preparing to clear-cut many Canadian journals. Under his directive a literary journal in Canada must now sell at least 5,000 copies each year to be eligible for government assistance. This may seem like an abstruse piece of bookish trivia, until one remembers that most journals are lucky to reach half that number of readers, and that this radical cutback in funding is happening in a country whose tiny journals supported the early work of Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, and Alice Munro, let alone talented newcomers such as Pasha Malla.
But it's not just Canada leading this retreat. Fearful capitulation has been the norm in so much English-language literary publishing over the last four years. Newspapers in the US and England have slashed book review supplements, and watched dumbfounded as readers upchucked their subscriptions.
Publishers are still buying multi-million celebrity "books" but grow antsy when it comes to signing up literary writers, the type whose fourth or fifth book (such as Joseph O'Neill's Netherland) might someday underwrite an entire season. It's always the end times in publishing, sure, but due to the anxiety over new technology and the comeuppance created by far too much corporate merging these are especially dour ones.
Yet it's a great time for literary journals. Even though the word "novel" means new, the strictures of the market mean that a book cannot be too new, since something truly new will not be instantly embraced. Publishers keep hoping that will happen nonetheless.
A week ago, a friend told me that one of the largest publishers in the US had recently done a survey. The pure cost of making a book, they discovered – before paying any advance – was roughly $65,000. That was the number editors had to keep in mind before they made any decision about signing up a new title. Could it conceivably earn back $65,000?
This question puts most types of literature at an instant disadvantage. Do any books of poems earn back $65,000? What about a short story collection? Can any book in translation stride over that mighty financial hurdle? Or a collection of novellas? Maybe that number was revealed to editors as a reminder, not a rule, but it points rather unsubtly toward what sells: entertainment, scandal, politics, and famous writers with known audiences.
Literary journals are the antidote to this wrong-headed attempt to try and engineer sales. Their primary function, after all, is to undermine this economy of prestige, to promote gross miscegenation, messiness, conflict and disorder; to subvert the market; and to place writers in unexpected places, where they can create their own unlikely community of readers.
Nadine Gordimer had her first publication in the Johannesburg magazine, Forum, but her career as an international writer began with an acceptance from the good ol' boys at the Virginia Quarterly Review. The illustrious – and sadly defunct – Story magazine was founded in Austria in 1931, before moving back to New York, where it introduced everyone from JD Salinger to Charles Bukowski. Arundhati Roy would not have been an unfamiliar name to anyone looking closely at television credits in India; but her fictional voice was launched first in Granta magazine, which circulates primarily in Britain and America, and where her name was indeed new.
It is presumptuous of any literary journal to claim that it has discovered any writers – novelists and poets are hardly nickel deposits, after all – yet a good journal can make it far easier to readers to discover a new writer's work. It can take a piece of writing regardless of where it comes from and what unusual shape its story takes, and ask readers to smash into it. For these reasons the ideal reader of a literary journal is one who yearns for the lash of the new, the way a boxer needs to be hit.
A book is a commitment to one author, one vision. A journal can put forth a dozen or more writers, allowing them to travel with the protective cover of numbers. A reader picking up Epoch magazine in 1959, for instance, would find not only Thomas Pynchon's early story "Morality and Mercy in Vienna" but work by fellow-traveller Ronald Sukenick, the often-overlooked novelist whose work would later appear in the first issue of Granta, when it was re-launched 20 years later.
Thirty years since Bill Buford, Pete de Bolla and Jonathan Levi gave birth to the new Granta, the landscape has changed again. While American literature remains enormously vital and restless – could England ever have produced a Thomas Pynchon? Junot Diaz? – a literary journal cannot in good conscience pretend that an Anglo-American dialogue is at the heart of our cultures. Not when Nigeria alone has given us Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila and Uwem Akpan. Not when Kiran Desai and Suketu Mehta are exploring New York more viscerally than most writers born there, or when some of America's most exciting young novelists, such as Dave Eggers and Tony D'Souza, are finding a way to tell vital stories set in Sudan and Western Africa.
It was John Updike, of all people, writing in the introduction of The Best American Short Stories of the Century, who acknowledged that immigration marks (and has done more to shape) the literature of the US than any other force. As borders around the world have opened up, and people migrate in search of safety or freedom or a better life, the literature of other countries is going to acquire the dynamic vitality that has given American writing its energy.
This massive world-wide migration puts a new challenge to readers and writers alike. It forces us to put the world back into art. For too long, it has been assumed that these things can remain separate; that works which combine them are degenerate and political. But the mind doesn't operate that way, nor does the world, and nor should the literature which we publish and think about.
In troubled and violent times, we do not have the luxury to avoid the hard questions which have stalked English language publishing in recent years. What stories are made visible? In what syntax do they appear? Why are writers in translation made to speak on behalf of their entire country?
Journals can afford to provoke these questions because they have the ability to fail, at least part of the time. They have the ability to use the cognitive friction of juxtaposition, layering, and varying lengths. Rare is the novel which features a one-page chapter and a 120-page chapter between two covers; but a journal can do this because a journal can be anything.
There is an enormous glut of books published every year, but a staggering number of them underestimate their readers, and their potential willingness to go where they haven't been before. The fact of the matter is that reading may be the most mysterious, inexplicable thing humans do. It does not obey market fundamentals the way our dreams do not follow the logic of narrative - or advertising and incentives.
Two of the most successful new journals in the US in the last ten years are McSweeney's and Lapham's Quarterly, both of which spend virtually no money on advertising; began as stripped-down, almost willfully ugly blocks of text; and trusted that the passion of their work, the word of enthusiastic readers, and the vibration of risk-taking fiction and prose could find new readers out of thin air.
A journal, however, cannot simply just publish writing anymore; it has to become a living thing if it is to stay alive. Exciting writing inspires conversation. It creates its own community. It makes inaction impossible, and ultimately drives one away from virtual experience. In a time when public spaces like parks and independent booksellers have been eroded by our blind faith in capitalism and the intelligent hand of the markets, a literary journal can become the excuse to gather. For a great many journals in the past, this sort of gathering has been a closed circuit; a club. The Algonquin round table. Those days are gone forever.
Even as the internet has made parts of publishing more difficult than ever, it has offered literary journals of a certain size the chance to reach readers in new ways – to make them feel a part of something larger. If the forces at work in publishing persist, we're moving towards a world with less and less available in print. Publication on an actual press upon paper which was once a tree will become special again, as it should be - a cause for celebration.
Journals which are lucky enough to afford to print their work, rather than publish it on the internet alone, have an extra excuse to bring readers together. They can give their readers something they can hold. The mystery of an object is not a small thing. It can be an anchor, a foothold, before diving into the deep end, even if governments and publishers are pulling up the lifeline – and especially if they are.
John Freeman is the acting editor of 'Granta' magazine
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies