In the digital age of Generation Y, where anyone and everyone can publicly express their written (or if we’re getting specific, spoken, sung, danced, shouted, mimed, GIF-ed, graphed, charted, Tumbled, Tweeted, Instagrammed, Pinned, or Facebooked) opinion, it can feel all but impossible to find, let alone filter, true literary substance. That's not to say that there aren’t bloggers, self-proclaimed pundits, or Tweeters who deserve to be heard: after all, I’m writing this piece for PolicyMic, a website that prides itself on giving millenials the opportunity to publicly comment on our political and cultural landscape every day.
But sometimes, amidst the deep sea of electronically-dispersed voices, we find ourselves looking for something more. Though we, as well-rounded, educated, young individuals, may still flock to Buzzfeed’s “10 Dance Crazes That Never Caught On” or Pinterest’s array of DIY embellished army jacket project ideas, sometimes we, shockingly, want substance. Sometimes we crave true literature; sentences, and syllables that have been carefully chosen by someone who cares not only about a given topic, but also about the words themselves. And sometimes (call me crazy), we want to look away from our computer, iPad, or cell phone screens and hold in our hands the printed word.
Meet the daily staff of The American Reader, a monthly journal of literature and criticism. The magazine, which launched online and in print in the fall of 2012, was started by Princeton graduates Uzoamaka Maduka and Jac Mullen, with guidance and inspiration from Stephanie LaCava, Shala Monroque, Ben Marcus, Jeff Dolven, and Dean Young. While the tradition and high regard of literary magazines and journals such as The Spectator, North American Review, and The Paris Review has been longstanding, Maduka and Mullen (both then 24) found themselves questioning the current and future state of contemporary American literary conversation. Thus The American Reader was born, with the goal of reintroducing and re-engaging Generation Y to, and with, contemporary literature.
Below, members of the Reader staff shared with PolicyMic where they see the future of literature, criticism, and the media, and how their publication fits into this future. Based on their eloquent, hopeful, and insightful thoughts, I look forward to watching and participating in the evolving media terrain. We, as a generation and a society, are lucky to witness and impact this crucial crossroad of communication and culture.
Uzoamaka Maduka, 25, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder
Emma Greenberg (EG): What do you see for the future of literature?
Uzoamaka Maduka (UM): The future of literature isn’t for a literary magazine or its editors to see, as if through some crystal ball. The role of a magazine and its editors is far more humble and restrained in my opinion: simply to organize and direct the great literary voices of its/their time. What does this mean functionally? I settle on the image of an orchestra conductor, who brings the disparate voices into a great and powerful communion, and does so by bringing each specific instrument and player to its/her own maturity — and then organizes that maturity into a sense, a sensibility.
The future ... that is the question of the composer. And the composer is not the individual writer. The composer is the age, and the symphony the composer creates is the spirit of the age. In each writer, each instrument/player, this spirit is interpreted to various effect and sound and density. But, yes, the editor/the magazine is in the role of the conductor, I think. I should add that I have always felt that the conductor should have a sense of personal style: a triumphant dapperness. The joy of the undertaking is expressed in his aesthetic and manner.
EG: What other outlets and sites, if any, do you see as having a prominent place in the world of media in the future? Why?
UM: I don’t know if I want to name names, for fear of excluding accidentally or including prematurely. But those outlets and sites that are smart, bold, honest, and unburdened by the nonsense dichotomies dreamed up by bored op-ed writers and “experts,” will surely be in the running.
Jac Mullen, 25, Executive Editor and Co-Founder
EG: Will there still be a place for past literary masterpieces in the future?
Jac Mullen (JM): Yes, people will always be receptive to a work that is necessary and true, regardless of its particular historical garb. And I do think a society’s ability to connect with such works is, in a limited sense, a measure of cultural health. At the same time, too much concern for past masterpieces obfuscates our need for new ones.
EG: Where do you see your current and upcoming personal place in the literary sphere?
JM: The current literary world is overly New York-centric, which does a great disservice both to readers and writers across the country — including, I would add, in New York. In the future, I hope that the literary world will no longer be geographically locatable on a map, and that “literary society” will no longer designate the social life of a closed industry, but rather a vital mode of engagement, thought, and interaction that is prevalent throughout the country.
Arielle Patrick, 24, Director of Publicity
EG: Where and how does The American Reader fit in to today’s media landscape?
Arielle Patrick (AP): I think the beauty of the magazine’s mission is that we don’t aim to “fit” into today’s media landscape on a larger scale. I find that the “digital age” has restricted our generation’s thinking, and made us believe that there’s no room for special interest content. We at The American Reader choose to address the concerns of our specific audience, whom we’ve identified as previously unfulfilled.
I also want people to stop saying that young people don’t read in print anymore. We do. But print reading has its own special place in our routines. For some, a subscription to our print version is a valuable investment for those few extra hours on the weekend, or long train ride home.
We know our generation thirsts for digital content, and we fill that need with our website, which features entirely original content from the magazine. I’m especially proud of our partnership with Salon. They syndicate our more popular, current events-related web content.
EG: In a time, and for a generation, that has an endless supply of written words and opinions (whether on blogs, personal websites, news-oriented websites, etc.), how do you think millennials perceive and relate to the type of literature that they can find in The American Reader? How is this different from what they might find in other media outlets?
AP: Even as a communications strategist, I consider myself ill-equipped to speak for “millennials” in general. What I can say is that we’ve found that our reader base keeps coming back. They are loyal. This must mean we’re providing something that’s different from what’s out there. Very few Generation Y-ers follow a consistent set of blogs and websites religiously.
Generation Y is the “click and find” generation — we “click” articles we see on social media channels, which often leads to that endless sequence of searches, and “finding” the content we’re looking for.
Our readers visit often, and stay late — looking for their regular dose of Reader content. To me, that’s different.
Alyssa Loh, 23, Deputy Editor
EG: With the growing movement of literature and print media towards online, do you believe there is still a place for literary magazines? Do you see your future — and the future of all existing and forthcoming literary publications — as being solely online, or will print remain an important component as well?
Alyssa Loh (AL): Print will always remain an important component of literary journals. Print isn’t going anywhere. Our generation is ambidextrous in terms of media — we are accustomed to using both, enjoy using both, and use them for different things. Print is formal. Digital less so, but no less rigorous for it, like a daily conversation with a smart friend. Both modes are part of a complete intellectual life — which is why we have both a monthly print journal and a daily website.
There is, of course, a real economic tension between print and digital publications. For publishers, it is expensive to print and distribute a journal, and readers don’t expect to pay for online content. But digital magazines are only “cheaper” — for readers, anyway — because online writers are not being fairly compensated. That’s not sustainable. It’s too early to know how either of these media — print or digital — will evolve.
EG: Which section(s) of your website (Fiction & Poetry, Criticism, In Conversation, Day In Letters, Bookcase) is the most popular or do you expect to grow? Why?
AL: “Criticism” is the fastest growing section on the site. We publish cultural and literary criticism, and most often essays where these two types touch — that is, analysis of literature, film, and art in the context of their position in our culture. It’s exciting to see how many readers the essays get, because the pieces are often eccentric and somewhat demanding, and we were told that kind of writing wouldn’t be viable online.
Elianna Kan, 24, Senior Editor
EG: What do you like most about your job?
Elianna Kan (EK): It is incredibly gratifying and inspiring to be a part of a relatively nascent endeavor such as the Reader in that it demands that each of us carves out our own niche within the publication while collectively coming to a better understanding of what this "thing" is. In spite of the pressure and the challenges that arise with this kind of creative freedom, I think this is truly one of the best professional opportunities one could dream of. As far as my role in particular, as editor of the translation portfolio, I love becoming fully immersed in foreign literary traditions about which I may previously have known very little. As much as I relish the process of scouting work to be included in the translation portfolio, the absolute, most rewarding part of my job as editor is having the ability to give foreign writers the exposure to an English-reading audience that they fully deserve but perhaps have yet to enjoy. Championing work I believe in, that's what I'd say I like most about my job.
EG: Do you think it is more or less important to support and promote emerging writers when in this day and age, everyone can express their written ideas online?
EK: Without a doubt, I think the advent of the blog and the widespread proliferation of various writings on the internet makes it all the more important to have strong editorial and critical voices sifting through it all, rigorously guiding readers to writing of a certain caliber. Even though traditional publishing models are undergoing a period of redefinition and change in the face of various self-publishing enterprises, emerging writers can certainly still use all the support they can get so long as there continue to be gatekeepers determining what receives the most commercial exposure.
Jonathon Kyle Sturgeon, 29, Senior Editor
EG: Do you think it is harder or easier for aspiring writers to launch their careers than it has been in the past?
Jonathon Kyle Sturgeon: I'd say the entire nature of the career has changed. Today it's much easier to be read by a small to medium-sized readership, but it's probably more difficult to launch and sustain a career as a published writer for large publications or as an author of books. The whole structure is more galactic, with a less obvious center, now that print publications are less ubiquitous. Of course, it may have never been that easy to begin with, depending on your background. I don't think that anyone would make the argument that writers are now paid as much as they once were, though, even at larger publications. So launching a career is one thing, but sustaining it takes a considerable amount of time and commitment.
Lauren Leigh, 26, Managing Editor
EG: Why do you work at The American Reader?
Lauren Leigh: Simply put, because I believe in what we are doing. For all the panicked cries about the death of the publishing industry, the easily-distractable attention spans of young people, the anti-intellectual tenor of our political and cultural discourses, the idea that people don't read — these are real concerns, but I like to think that we are doing something to combat these problems.
Additionally, it's really exciting to be proud of something that can be shared with so many people. The magazine is a physically tangible product. It's a thrill to open up those first boxes and hold an issue in my hands that is the product of the hard work of so many people and know that I helped make it happen, every month.
*Note: This Q&A features The American Reader’s daily editorial staff. Please also note the following members of the masthead who contribute much to the magazine:
Editors-at-Large: Stephanie LaCava, Alexandra Sage FC Mehta
Creative Consultant: Shala Monroque
Fiction Editor: Ben Marcus
Assistant Fiction Editor: Andrew Eisenman
Interim Poetry Editor: Jeff Dolven
Regional Editor: Dean Young
Contributing Editor: A.S. Hamrah