Why Read Literary Journals?

Between writing and reading, we inherently perceive writing as the more serious and esteemed of the two activities. Almost anyone with a few years of education can read, but it takes much more skill to write with any amount of style and elegance. While very few writers monetize and live off their craft, it is possible to have a career as a writer. But, to my knowledge, even speed reading isn’t a money-making operation. Top writers receive awards for their work but skilled and avid readers of literature don’t receive any sort of public validation. There isn’t, for instance, an equivalent to the Giller Prize for the top readersof Canadian Literature. It seems to me that writers make money (albeit not very much!) because writing is deemed “work” by societal standards. By contrast, we perceive reading as an act of leisure.  

As a lover of books, I struggle to limit the time I spend reading. If I happen to wake up early, my initial instinct is to reach for whatever book I have sitting on my bedside windowsill. When I read, I often fight a little voice inside my head nagging me to use my time more responsibly. Instead of reading, the voice tells me I should get answer my emails, call my grandparents, wash the floors or WRITE! Recently I have restricted myself to reading only when I’m taking the TCC. But even on the streetcar, the voice in my head guilts me into checking my phone for the day’s latest news updates.

The other day I thought back to a course I took on Literary Theory. I was thinking in particular about a chapter called “Why Write” from Sartre’s text Qu’est-ce que la litterature? (What is Literature?). In this chapter, Sartre discusses the role of the writer as a “revealer” of reality. That is, the writer makes us conscious of the world around us and of the connections between objects in the world. For instance, the writer uses language to group a cluster of trees together to call it a forest. However, Sartre asserts that only through the act of reading does the writer's work acquire merit. Sartre says, “. . . the literary object is a peculiar top which exists only in movement. To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary . . .” (1200-01). For Sartre, like writing, reading is a very active process. He states, “The function of [the reader’s] gaze is not to reveal, by brushing against them, the sleeping words which are waiting to be read, but to control the sketching of the signs” (1201). Sartre declares a text that goes unread nothing more than “black marks on paper” (1201). By reading her own text, the writer alone cannot fully disclose the meanings and nuances of text. The writer cannot help but project her own interpretations and biases onto her text; the reader, on the other hand, can read a text with a degree of objectivity and thus offer new insight into a literary work. In this sense, reading, like writing, is an act of creation.

If reading is an important act of creation, why should we read literary journals in particular? It occurs to me that literary journals and zines are very special spaces. Unlike works authored by one writer, literary journals frequently bring together otherwise unrelated writings in a single publication, curating a type of dialogue. Anthologies do something similar, but the formal structure of anthologies works against the easy dialogue between texts. Sections of an anthology are often premised with an introduction from the editor that contextualizes the writer’s work within the anthology’s parameters. There are exceptions, but in general, literary journals and zines are often less formal in structure than anthologies. When we read literary journals, the lack of structure and demarcation between writers encourages us to engage in conversations not only with one writer but with several, and those writers are also in conversation with one another by sharing space within the same text. As such, reading the works of various writers alongside one another opens these works up to new possible meanings.

Literary works also expand when read publicly. French scholar Gerard Genette refers to the public event of reading as a “public epitext,” another level of textual interpretation. When read publicly, each person in attendance at the public reading creates their own interpretation of the read work. I’ve been to countless public poetry readings. While I like hearing literary works read aloud, I sometimes feel ostracized from the reader and incapable of engaging with the work being read. This is especially true when the performer is shy or too quiet or nervous or reads something really challenging. Sound poetry is one of those forms I have a particularly hard time listening to. Every time I hear sound poetry read publicly, the audience response is generally the same. A handful of people laugh nervously because they have no idea what’s going on or have never heard sound poetry. Then you have those who know and respect sound poetry--who, when listening to sound poetry performances, close their eyes, furrow their brows and gently nod in agreement with the poet. I imagine these sound poet fans get swept away to whatever reality to which the sounds are meant to transport them while people like me are left behind on the ground. But my qualms with sound poetry aside, public poetry readings are really significant events that transform literary works by acting on their meanings.

Despite their ubiquity and growing popularity, independently published lit-journals and zines are typically associated with counter-culture, with small bookstore owners and those tattooed, plaid-wearing “hipsters” that congregate at CanZine. But literary journals are not targeted at a specific demographic and ought to be embraced and read by all. The act of reading journals and zines fosters a sense of community. That is, by initiating conversations between readers and texts and between texts and texts, literary journals subvert cultural, socioeconomic, political and psychological boundaries separating readers and writers. This dialogic relationships among readers and writers in literary journals expands the meanings of the works within them. And when read publicly, the meanings of literary works expand exponentially as listeners in attendance each generate their own interpretations.  

Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Why Write?" The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2010. 1199-1213. Print.  


Cira Nickel is from Vancouver, BC and now resides in Toronto. She is a graduate of a Masters of Arts program in English Literature, a former editorial assistant for the White Wall Review and a founding editor of Canthius. Follow her on Twitter @ciranickel.

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