The following essay comprises the comments I made regarding an article (see below) published by Inside Higher Ed. The comments were censored by editor Doug Lederman, who argued when I queried: "When you post comments that do not engage in ad hominem attacks and are on point, I'll post them." Yet ad hominem was calling someone names to avoid dealing with the arguments put forth. I certainly did not do that. Also, I brought to Lederman's deaf ears that he'd just published an interview with someone doing a doctoral thesis on Orphan Annie (I'm not joking!), who stated: "Since I think George Steiner is a fraudulent windbag." Double standard? You bet! Or should I rather say that the censor never has logic and reason on his side. Inside Higher Ed censored me three other times. Vigorous debate was the cornerstone of democracy. Evidently, it was not the cornerstone of academe.
The recent announcement that Middlebury College (The Bread Loaf School) would cease sponsoring The New England Review by 2011, if the journal didn't become self-supporting, was good news. Hopefully, other colleges and universities would follow with similar decisions, for anything that weakened the literary established-order was, in the long run, probably good for literature. Fattened literati did not necessarily make great literati at all. On the contrary, what they tended to make were entrenched academic literati.
Two types of literary journals existed: those with tons of cash and those without. The former tended to be journals of a bourgeois pro-status-quo, established-order nature and, for that reason, reaped tons of money from universities, nonprofit foundations, and taxpayers (e.g., the National Endowment for the Arts and state cultural councils). Those journals without tons of cash could be divided into two sub categories: those indifferent to the established order, thus, in essence, forming part of it, and those highly critical of it. A journal like The American Dissident, which I’d been publishing since 1998, formed part of the latter, which were certainly rare. It would likely never receive a cent in public-grant monies because of its highly critical stance vis-à-vis the established order and because of the egregious unequal- opportunity nature of the public-grant machine. Even turning the journal into a 501 c 3 nonprofit (cost $500) did not help an iota. In fact, the same year I made that decision, the Concord Cultural Council passed a regulation that explicitly prohibited it from ever obtaining local public funding because of its inherent “political nature.” As for the NEA, it simply dismissed the journal as “low” and “poor,” refusing to accord any additional information. Vigorous debate, after all, was the cornerstone of democracy, not of cultural and academic autocracies.
Regarding Middlebury College, I was an alumnus (1980) and couldn’t even get the college library to subscribe to The American Dissident (only $20/year). In fact, it wouldn’t even respond to my requests. In any case, perhaps leaner, less-funded journals would become better journals—less gloss, more substance, and people writing not for money and recognition, but rather to satisfy a driving passion or even as Orwell put it: “I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” Yes, that would be quite unusual indeed for an academic literary journal. Stephen Donadio, editor of The New England Review, ought to be satisfied with his $100,000-plus salary as a Middlebury College English professor. In fact, with that kind of money he ought to have been able to pay for the production costs himself. Was he paid additional money as editor? Why did he decline to reveal how much cash NER received? Why the secrecy? Whatever happened to the liberal-mantra of transparency? By the way, some of us were unemployed and still running literary journals. Perhaps Donadio would like to do an internship with The American Dissident and learn how small “revenue streams (subscriptions, for example) […] support the magazine sufficiently to operate without college financial support.”
"We're an incubator for literature," noted Donadio to Jaschik, author of “On the Chopping Block” (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/05/14/ner), which brought my attention to the impending financial dilemma of NER. A thinking individual, however, ought to wonder what kind of “literature” that implied. Literature apt to promote vigorous debate or literature apt to close the door upon it? Literature open to the questioning and challenging of established-order literature and icons or literature that would never permit such a thing? Did the student interns, offering free labor to NER, learn to question and challenge or were they simply taught (indoctrinated) to acquire and “appreciate” the same bourgeois taste and aesthetics harbored by college professors like Donadio?
So, NER had about 2000 subscribers. But that translated into about 25 to $35,000 per year! How, therefore, could Donadio complain that amount didn’t lend itself to a “self-sustaining business model”? What kind of paper was the journal printed on? Gold leaf? The American Dissident had about 40 subscribers and was perfectly “sustaining” (since 1998). It published twice yearly for under $1,000 and was professionally printed, flat-bound, with a beautiful color cover, but without gold leaf paper or silver-threaded binding. It was published not because it looked good on my resume (in fact, it likely looked pretty damn bad) and not because I was making money off it (I was making nothing at all), but rather because it was a bona-fide passion. Did not the editors of journals like The New England Review have sufficient passion to run them on extremely restricted budgets like mine? Had they not the passion to run them without filling their own pocketbooks? If not, perhaps they ought to go bust. Would the country really miss NER? Could anyone actually tell the difference between NER, Agni, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Antioch Review, and any number of other unoriginal university-based literary journals? To get a good idea how much some of those journals actually rakee in, consider Virginia Quarterly Review with its 4500 subscribers, 1500 copies distributed at newsstands, and 2000 copies for individual sales. Its subscription rate was $32 per year and single copies cost $14. According to Ted Genoways, editor of VQR, that made for about $200,000 per year! How much did VQR also rake in from taxpayers via the NEA et al? It certainly did give a good idea how the established-order swamped the market with its literature.
Again, regarding NER, Jaschik noted that it was “considered to be among the best of its kind.” Yet a hundred other academic literary journals made the same claim. Why wasn’t he taught in college to question and challenge that which was served upon a platter? Contrary to popular educated belief, “best” when concerning literature was not a static, objective term, but rather one that needed always to be questioned and challenged. Today, few literati seemed capable of doing that.
To further build his case, Jaschik blindly cited Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses: "They [NER] have achieved grand dame status. They have published so many people who have gone on to have household status. This would be a terrible shame." Why didn’t Jaschik press Lependorf for precision regarding “household status”? Did it mean popularity? If so, since when did popularity necessarily mean quality? Who would consider NER the “best” and of “grand-dame status,” if not tenured bourgeois college professors? Were the nation’s supposed “best” writers tenured bourgeois college professors? Question and challenge, Herr Jaschik, and you shall find yourself in literary trouble! Or simply open wide and say ah like most did and find yourself with a literary job and literary money in your pocketbook. The choice was yours: integrity vs. the ole Faustian deal. Regarding NER, Jaschik cited the Boston Globe: “this is one of the journals most often mentioned by writers and readers—including editors of other journals, as among the nation's best.” Was there poll data to support that statement? If so, why wasn’t it mentioned? Indeed, without such data, the statement was vacuous.
Evidently, Jaschik and the Globe did not agree with Henrik Ibsen: “The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war.” Nor did they likely agree with Bertrand Russell: “There is no nonsense so errant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action.” In this case, let’s replace “governmental” with “academic.” Jaschik also quoted a rather imbecilic statement made by Elizabeth Searle, again regarding NER: “it’s a 'high-class lit magazine that also happens to be secretly sexy.' What's not to love about that?" “High class,” of course, meant bourgeois and absence of truth telling, as in “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson). “Sexy” was a hackneyed business term used to label anything from a screwdriver to a new checking account.
Finally, Jaschik cited a handful of NER-published writers, “who are not household names but are well respected in literary circles.” But again what did all that mean? They were certainly not names in my household. And what “literary circles” were we talking about? Did members of those circles dare rock the boat—that machine Thoreau wisely advised us to “let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine”? Of course not! Likely, they were the boat! They were the machine. Find me a job as a creative-writing instructor and maybe I’ll be able to help a few writing students think, instead of merely opening wide and just saying ahh. It was sad that a magazine supported by a college or university was likely a magazine that would never publish any critical writing about the college or university in question. In fact, it would likely discourage students to even think that such criticism could even constitute a viable subject for an essay or poem.
In any case, as tenured academics weep crocodile tears over the faltering economy, their designer literature fluorishes and monopolizes.