The Conduct of American Magazines


ONE of the great American magazines, not so very long ago, of American in discussing the relations between editor and author, took text the “ There as a text the following sentence : “ There never was a time in the history of American literature when it has seemed more needful to insist upon Art and always Art as a requisite to the only ‘ success ’ worth having.” All must say Amen to this pronouncement. Why then is this insistence so necessary, so imperative ? May an outsider, who is not an editor, and but barely an author, bring forward a few questions bearing on the subject? It is mere justice to preface remarks on this matter by an explicit recognition of the intelligent, steady, and high-minded support, moral and material, which a few of the better magazines have given to the cause of true art and of true literature from the very beginning, and to note that this support is more freely given year by year.

Instead of dealing with wide and hence vague general principles let us begin with a few specific instances.

How is it, for example, that we do not possess, in America, a magazine which will accept an article, no matter how important, which contains as many as fifteen thousand words ? I suppose the statement to be a fact. Is it not true that St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians would be found too long for such a magazine, and returned to the writer for condensation ? Is it not also true that some religious, artistic, and literary questions absolutely require for their adequate treatment at least fifteen thousand words, and moreover absolutely require to be read at a single sitting in order to preserve their literary value ?

Is it not a fact that the policy of our magazines is, in this respect, modeled rather on the non-literary newspaper than on the literary review ? Do not our leading periodicals actually shut their doors upon all articles which are too short for a book and “ too long for the magazine”? And, in just so far, do they not discourage literature by prescribing a rigid form — a limit — by turning an hourglass ?

And the next question is why is this limitation set ? Is it for artistic reasons ? Is it not, rather, that commercial success is supposed to be endangered by printing long articles ? that it is taken for granted that the average reader must be supplied with literature of a certain type — or length — that his food must be cut up into convenient morsels ? Does the author, in fact, have artistic freedom ? Can an American writer find a magazine which will print for him articles of the length (supposing them to have the quality) of those regularly accepted by the Revue des Deux Mondes, for example ? Ought he not to have the freedom of his colleagues in Europe ?

So much for the comparatively unimportant matter of the trammels set upon literature by arbitrary prescriptions as to mere length. There is very much more to be said (though I shall hardly do more than to suggest it) as to the freedom of the author to choose his own subject and to treat it in his own way. Here, perhaps, the motto of the editor may be “ L’art pour l’art,” but his practice is widely different. It is beyond a doubt that, on the Continent, there is great freedom in the choice of subject and great latitude allowed in the manner of treating it; that in England, almost any subject may be discussed provided the manner is conventional ; that in America the choice of subject and the choice of method are more restricted than in any other country.

It seems to be clear, however, that if American writers were free — or more free — as in England or on the Continent, we should obtain more manuscripts ; that what was offered would be far more original and valuable, being untrammeled ; that while some of it would unquestionably be of an undesirable sort (and hence to be rejected), yet the mass of the manuscripts offered would be of a higher, more veracious, more original and intrinsic quality ; and finally that there would be likelihood of finding among them those masterpieces for which, to-day, we sigh in vain. The writings of to-day are, in general, only pale reflections of what the author remembers of experiences previously told in books ; they are not the children of experience in living, but the weak progeny of one book by another.

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room

because they are tired of too much liberty, but does not the breed of authors fret, and is it not because they have not and have never had freedom, — freedom to be themselves and to express themselves ?

In one word, is not an author to-day more or less in the position of a musician to whom it is prescribed that he shall write in 4/4 time, in the key of C major, in sonata form, on one of a set of themes selected for him by others ?

The problem of providing the freedom that seems to be needed is immensely complex, but it should not be given up in despair, or solved by merely conventional rules, as at present. It seems, however, to be beyond question, that even our best magazines do not allow sufficient liberty in these matters, and that, in this respect, they are now hindering the development of American literature and of American life, greatly as they are helping them in other ways. If the facts are as stated, why are they so ? Do not these and other limitations depend finally upon merely commercial considerations ? Is not Art, in fact, put to one side to serve Mammon ?

I know a periodical which counts its subscribers by hundreds of thousands which will not risk the loss of a hundred by printing an article, otherwise pronounced to be wholly satisfactory, in which the doctrine of Evolution is assumed as true. The editors, the directors, the very office boys, admit that doctrine, but there is a haunting fear of some shadowy subscriber in the middle West who might be offended. “The policy of the office ” is to be colorless. But to have literature or art you must have a basis of belief (whether the belief is right or wrong), and belief has color. It has been found — we have brilliant instances of it among our great magazines — that astonishingly useful work may be done inside of the most restricted limits. The editor feels the pressure, and decides that the articles which he prints must fall within these limits. When so much can be done and has been done within these safe walls why risk influence and power he says — for mere circulation is an immense power — by going beyond them ? The writer feels the pressure also, and he, too, respects the limits ; and literature suffers, and art, for art’s sake, becomes a mere formula, — honored, perhaps, but not observed.

This “ safe ” view is not one which is calculated to foster literature in its widest, or in its best sense. To get the best we must grant more freedom, and admit much writing that is not conventional. We must permit — yes, encourage — experiment if we look for improvement.

Is there a remedy for this state of things ? I see only two possible exits from the situation. One of them is to add to the established magazines an “ Independent Section ” (as in the Westminster Review) in which the editor permits any proper person to say any proper thing, without, however, holding himself responsible in the least degree for anything more than mere propriety.

The other is to found a subsidized magazine which is prepared to pay no dividends and to lose large sums monthly for the sake of printing any really good work, no matter whether it is long or short, conventional or not. Such a journal would require much more careful editing than the best magazines which we have now. It should by no means be a refuge for rejected MSS., but it should be ready to print those things to which all of us listen with delight now and then, although we never see them in print. It might take a dozen years of commercial failure to train our writers out of their adherence to the conventions, but in the end it would succeed. I can see the smiles of the stockholders at this suggestion of throwing good money away for an idea. They may be right. But if I were the next millionaire who means to found a college I would stop, and found this subsidized magazine instead. If I were a competent editor, young and robust, I would risk my youth to found it; as I am a mere on-looker I can only engage to subscribe for it when it appears, and to pray for its speedy coming.