Small fry and slightly bigger fry

One of the subjects I touched upon at the Abergavenny Writing Festival last month was that writers at my level – what one might call industrious and eternally hopeful, to contrast with best-selling writers whose ambition has been realised – is numbers: numbers of books sold (small), numbers of readers (not so small but not big), and magazine circulations (modest). In my defence, I said that just because the Observer sold fewer copies than the Sun didn’t mean it was an inferior read. More pertinent, just because the London Magazine, even in its early 19th century guise, appealed to a few thousand subscribers at most, was no indication of its significance (or the quality of its published work) any more than Leavis’s Scrutiny was the poorer for being supported by a Downing College coterie that would fit with space to spare into the corner of a college quadrangle.

This led me on to eccentricity among magazine editors, whom I fictionalised in a piece for the Wales Arts Review called Who Would A Writer Be? There was a time when my submissions appeared to be having a deleterious effect on the magazines I was aiming for: one closed before it had published work it had accepted from me; another’s editor died before he could do the same; and a third, edited by a husband-and-wife team, went into abeyance following the break-up of their marriage, again after they’d agreed to publish my work. Small literary magazine (SLMs) are important, and one can understand the need for writers to support them, even if they’ve never done anything but reject. The problem is cost. Supporting ten quarterlies at £18 a year each – sometimes less, sometimes more – is not much, but there are hundreds of such magazines. Even the exclusively online ones will be wanting to charge, if only to be able to start paying contributors before their printed cousins do. Most SLMs will never be in a position to pay, and even if they were the sums would be miserable. I forgot to ask the audience a question: If you were a professional writer, would you prefer to be a bestselling non-literary one, or an earnest, impecunious one? I know my answer.

I also wanted to ask if anyone thought I was wasting my time in writing things that hardly anyone reads. If they did, I would have said that writing was a complex activity, in which publication was but an element. When you know you’re writing something that works, at least to your satisfaction, the prospect of publication is nowhere to be seen. It later comes into view, along with a lot of other factors. But at the moment, in the moment, the activity is self-fulfilling.


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