On Webzines and Would-Be Literary Revolutions (20 Years On)
When the first issue of The Cafe Irreal went online in 1999 (twenty years ago this month), we felt that we might be in on the beginning of a literary revolution. Not necessarily for what we ourselves were publishing (though we hoped that would prove revolutionary as well), but because we were part of the “World Wide Web.” The hype of the time declared that—because of the ease and low expense of publishing on the internet, not to mention the instantaneous worldwide dissemination that it offered—this new medium would bring a wide diversity of voices and styles into the literary mainstream and thereby transform literature itself.
For two people starting a literary publication without any particular financial resources, publishing connections or institutional backing, the internet quickly delivered on (at least some of) its promise. Simply by posting our submissions guidelines online in June of 1998 along with some supporting material and getting listed in the then important, and extant, Yahoo Directory and John’s E-Zine List, we started receiving a fair number of quality submissions. This allowed us to publish a solid first issue at the beginning of 1999, after which we began to attract increasing numbers of submissions from writers and translators. By 2003 we had a sufficiently impressive operation that Writer’s Digest Magazine listed us as being one of the top thirty short story markets, where we joined such esteemed publications as The Georgia Review and Glimmer Train Stories; by 2005 we had published a Pulitzer Prize winner (Charles Simic) along with leading writers from Europe and South America (e.g., Ana María Shua, István Örkény, Marco Denevi, Carlos Edmundo de Ory, Rafael Pérez Estrada, Jiří Kratochvil). We could, by that point, say to ourselves that there really might be something to this internet thing, since The Cafe Irreal was still residing in the free web space provided by our $15 a month dial-up ISP account.
And there was an additional advantage to the internet: the virtual nature of producing an internet journal allowed us to do a publication on the fly, as it were. This was and remains an important consideration because we shuttle back and forth between the United States and the Czech Republic every year, giving us the additional advantage of being able to have a base in both the USA and Europe (our full title, after all, is The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination). This was especially important because it allowed us to draw upon the work of some of the best non-realist Czech writers to help bolster the content of the early issues of our publication, and to make contact with the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists. There was also the subtle but profound influence of Czech literature and art, the “Prague literary renaissance” of the 1990s and, above all, the lingering presence of Franz Kafka.
And yet, for all the advantages that the internet has offered, neither we nor any of the other, long-standing internet journals, individually or collectively, have succeeded in producing a literary revolution. The literary publications that dominated the mainstream literary scene just before use of the internet started to become pervasive in the mid-1990s still maintain their position today and are still largely print-based. Indeed, the staid, realist orthodoxy of American letters that most of us were seeking to shake now seems more entrenched than ever, aided by the growing number of MFA programs in creative writing, most of which use realism (especially in the form of personal narrative) as the template for “fine writing.”
The internet has certainly, however, improved the diversity of what is being published. In addition to our efforts, publications such as Diagram, Tarpaulin Sky, McSweeny’s, The Barcelona Review, Sleeping Fish, and the now inactive Locus Novus, Word Riot, elimae, The Dream People and many others have given outlets to authors of varying stripes. In our case, we can lay claim to giving an additional (paid) outlet to non-realist writers who were already established when we started (e.g., Norman Lock, Bruce Holland Rogers), established writers from abroad, literature in translation (especially from Czech and Spanish), and new and upcoming writers. Indeed, by 2010 we were able to see that our efforts might have even, at least indirectly, influenced the establishment publishing world when a work that we had excerpted in 2006 (Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey), back when it was still an unpublished manuscript, was published by Farrar, Straus andGiroux and became a New York Times Critic’s Choice and Bestseller.
Perhaps, then, the revolution is still to come.*
*We wrote this concluding sentence in 2013 when we used this essay (which we have revised somewhat) as the epilogue to our print anthology, The Irreal Reader. And we are using it again, as we are still waiting, and still hopeful.
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