- Afterword:We Other Periodicalists, or, Why Periodical Studies?
Modernism came from the magazines, Sean Latham tells us.1 So did, depending on whom you ask, the serial novel of the nineteenth century, the character-driven fiction of the eighteenth century, the public sphere, and many widespread conceptions of femininity (masculinity, too) that continue to pursue us today. That sentence sounds glib—these are huge claims—but it is not meant to be; good arguments can be and have been made for all of the above.2 Periodicals can do almost anything. They have been called "the nursery of literary genius" and purveyors of "the deadly dominance of the commonplace."3 They are certainly both. Periodicals are not discrete; they abound. They are composed by every kind of contributor imaginable and consumed by every kind of reader. They are difficult to talk about, not because they are shallow, but because they contain multitudes, acting as vehicles in which "suffragist debates jostled for space with Picasso . . . Einstein meets Joyce, and . . . a single author might write an article under one name then violently disagree with herself under a different name the very next week" (Latham, p. 409). The variety of content, including advertisements, essays, images, letters, fiction, and reportage, that can be found inside any periodical is both a major advantage of and an obstacle to its study. Two things have become clear to me, having recently finished a book of my own on periodicals. One is that periodicals are inspiring, deeply rewarding objects of study for the feminist literary scholars lucky and persistent enough to manage access to them, for they upend many of the assumptions about writing that disproportionately favor manly discourse. The other is that because of this ability to capsize and contradict, periodicals are exceptionally difficult to discuss coherently. Yet we should try.
To do so, the periodical scholar must take on something approximating John Keats's notion of negative capability, dwelling in doubt as a methodology.4 She will then learn to embrace her field's cacophony as an enabling paradox: for almost every sweeping generalization about what periodicals "do," it is possible to find compelling examples of them doing precisely the opposite. For example, most of the essays in this issue advocate periodical studies in part because they trouble or pressure Romantic and modernist notions of authorship, models that have too often pushed women writers to the margins of respectability; even the feminist hallmark of "a room of [End Page 441] one's own" turns out to be overly narrow when compared to the possibilities for authorship that periodicals can offer (Latham, p. 411). Indeed—and yet this pressure on authorship and canon formation comes from two irreconcilable directions, for periodicals both carve out a cultural space for amateur writers and make it possible for women who want to become "serious" canonical authors to find a remunerative practice to support their careers. It is our task as academic readers to find a way to make such contradictory impulses mutually informing.
It is in our interest to do so as well. If nothing else, it might give us new tools for assessing our own careers, which certainly straddle an awkward balance between respectable and undervalued writing—and even, at least in the case of literary scholars, to find new ways to identify with our authors, for while the differences between scholarly and popular periodical writing are obvious, there are major similarities. Scholars who hesitate (even guiltily, as I have too often done) over Jennie Batchelor's suggestion that we should perhaps cease to "persist in seeing amateurism as the dirty word professional writers sought to make it at the turn of the nineteenth century" might ask themselves how much they are typically paid for their periodical contributions.5 Much of the best work we do in academia is unremunerated; why should this necessarily trouble us in the work of others? ("The publishers [of The Lady's Magazine] refused even to pay post-age"—well, who doesn't?6) One value of periodicals is that the category of publication, taken broadly, connects diverse forms and writers; we should try to pursue this connection and stop...