Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The real dissent of the little magazines

Alissa Wilkinson


June 11, 2010

Little magazines are those quirky publications tucked away in the corners of the internet and independent bookstores. Their circulation is tiny, their subject matter diverse, their goal to change minds rather than earn profit. At the dawn of the twentieth century, bolstered by improved printing technology and a host of new ideas swirling around, they sprung up as a vehicle for the generalist intellectual to interpret the world through the lens of the fringe movements: feminism, communism, new literary criticism, the avant-garde. Their common and often ornery theme was dissent toward the political status quo.

It seems impossible, but many of today’s little magazines have an even more audacious goal: to address all corners of culture. While some may specialize, they just as often focus on everything at once. One tiny but feisty and influential journal, n+1, is interested in publishing “all reports from all the various fields of human endeavor: medicine, computing, the law, sports, crime, art, finance, engineering, construction, music, etc.” n+1’s goal could be claimed by many little magazines: “Please tell us and our readers what we do not know.” Another upstart, Good, unabashedly seeks to “drive the world forward” by focusing on everything from education to water quality to neighborhoods.

My own tiny magazine has an occasionally embarrassingly lofty aim: to “announce signs of ‘the world that ought to be’ as we find it in our midst, and . . . to inspire people to engage deeply with culture that enriches life and broadens experience.”

Though the “big” magazines and newspapers are collapsing, many little magazines have weathered the storm surprisingly well. Big publications sell a product to the reader and turn profit for the parent corporation, but the little magazine exists on a shoestring. Big publications target markets; little magazines aim for an intellectual legacy.

The internet hasn’t killed the little magazines—it’s made them stronger. Sites like Front Porch Republic and Patrol and my own magazine have sprung up without needing a paper-based presence and a distribution mechanism. By nature, they’ll never be anything more than tiny, and their circulation will always be dwarfed by that of their bigger cousins. At the same time the internet makes it possible for anyone to blog their dissatisfaction, and so some might say the little magazine’s platform is no longer needed.

I would argue that while dissent is still the great work of the little magazine, its real unorthodoxy is not in its words, as important as they are. Rather, the existence of the little magazine stands against its culture: it reminds a society entrenched in a race for profit and enamored with short-term success that significant and lasting work is often done when neither immediate success nor profit are present.

This is because the work of the little magazine is the ultimate exercise in futility, at least in our era of capitalism. Publishing is high on the sweat-and-tears job scale, with little room for vacations and a lot of nail-biting about whether the next issue will even make it to the finish line. Today’s little magazine’s editors are idealistic, but probably not delusional about what they will accomplish or the celebrity they will attain. There are many little magazines competing for the handful of people willing to read something so marginal. Many little magazines still don’t make it past the first or second issue.

No, the little magazine won’t turn a profit, and it won’t make it to every coffee table or newsstand in America. It won’t be discussed on the Today Show and it won’t be water-cooler conversation. It exists openly because of a democratic society that grounds itself on free speech, yet it stands against the economic calculus that a market society prizes. And so it testifies that ideas sometimes matter more than profit, that audacious, lofty goals of cultural engagement can still take priority over obvious success.

—Alissa Wilkinson, Editor

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”