Replacing Irreantum: Scope/Positioning

11.25.13 | | 11 comments

Earlier this month Margaret Young confirmed that Irreantum , the literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters is now defunct. For all I know there may be a crack team of AMLers working to revive it, but I want take this opportunity to think through some general notions of what this unfortunate turn of events means for the field and specifically what (if anything) we should replace Irreantum with. Note that at the moment these are just some musings on my part that are independent of any specific actions I might personally take to help out with any effort that steps up to fill in the vacuum left by Irreantum’s demise. I start with where we should start: scope/positioning.

Links to other installments: Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions | Financial Models | Starting Up

SCOPE/POSITIONING

One of the things that the AML in general and Irreantum specifically have struggled with is positioning, that is, where Irreantum fell in relation to other Mormon culture endeavors. It began as a literary magazine that had low production qualities but was more popular in tone, including author interviews, industry news and genre fiction. In that incarnation, it didn’t really have a competitor, but it also struggled with the fact that it was trying to bring together a variety of very different audiences (to be reductive: the LDS fiction crowd, the Mormon fiction crowd and the Mormons into SF&F crowd). Later it morphed into more of a traditional literary journal with higher production values and a focus on literary fiction/essay and poetry, which competed in the same space as Dialogue and Sunstone. This made it a more natural fit with its parent organization, but also meant that it had little to differentiate itself from the other publications other than it offered solely creative narrative work (while the other two also publish essays in academic disciplines such as history and sociology). It offered more creative narrative work than the other journals, but that wasn’t necessarily a strength as it would seem that the audience for scholarly Mormon journals is skewed (more on audience in the post on readership) more towards the social sciences. This should not be a surprise as the same is true of the overall in the field of Mormon Studies (in terms of courses, fellowships, endowed positions, book-length works, seminars, conferences, etc.).

To put it bluntly: early Irreantum had a scope problem; later Irreantum had a positioning problem. Now, this is not to downplay the accomplishments of any of Irreantum’s editors. Having a decade+ run as a lit journal is a major thing. Very lit journals/mags are in incredibly healthy shape. But I want to be clear-eyed about the problems it faced.

And here’s the central dilemma: I don’t know that either of the problems are solvable. The truth is that there are a finite number of people who are interested in Mormon-themed fiction. Of those people, not a whole of them are interested in drama, poetry, fiction and personal essay. And of those people, not a whole lot of them are interested in literary fiction and genre fiction and LDS fiction (that is found broadly appropriate for an American Mormon audience) and “challenging but not apostate” (that is the type of fiction that later Irreantum and Zarahemala Books publish).

Let’s say, though, that someone would be willing to ignore that dilemma and try to position themselves in the Mormon market. What could that look like? Well, what hasn’t been tried is a broad scope that focuses mainly on fiction (and potentially poetry, drama and short film — narrative art). That is, almost a combination of early and late Irreantum but with high production values and free product. If the work is free, then scope is less of an issue because those who are only interested in one particular form or genre can access the content they want without feeling cheated by having to pay for the rest. The idea is to reduce the friction for the various potential audiences.

Of course, there are major problems with free which I will get to in my posts on Staff/Production and Financial Models. This is especially important because I think if the scope is broadened (and I don’t think you can increase audience without that broadening) then the positioning has to focus on two things: quality and transparency in appropriateness.

The reason for quality is that with all the competition for people’s time, the era of casual output is over. Blogs are dying unless they a) push people’s buttons or b) become more professional (become online magazines). This, of course, is no different than what any print journal or magazine has faced in the past: people want to know that if they pick something up, it will be worth their time. The problem is that quality is time consuming and (generally) expensive. This problem is especially germane to the Mormon audience because it would seem that many of the LDS who read fiction avoid Mormon fiction because they perceive it as being of lesser quality. Whatever replaces Irreantum is going to have find a larger audience than Irreantum did. That larger audience will be elusive unless the new publication can win them over with quality work.

The reason for transparency in appropriateness is that there is a spectrum of content that various Mormon audiences are comfortable with There are clear boundaries of didactic and sanitized on one side and pornographic on the other, but in between there’s a lot of variation in what the readership is comfortable with. And it’s clear that fiction by Mormon authors is held to a higher standard than that by non-Mormon authors. I don’t what form that transparency should take (we’ve talked a bit about that in the past), but I think it’s clear that whether it’s labeling individual stories or broad content warnings on particular issues, it’s a practice that needs to be strongly considered. You still risk losing readers who will boycott any publication that publishes just one story that violates their notion of appropriateness; and there will also be readers who will scoff at any sort of labeling. However, I do think there are readers who are willing to experiment but don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised. A publication needs to build trust with its audience and this is doubly true with the Mormon audience.

I don’t know if there really is demand for a replacement for Irreantum, but anyone considering stepping into the void its demise has left will need to think through scope and positioning from the beginning because if it starts from the wrong place it will run headlong into the exact same issues that Irreantum faced.

11 comments: “Replacing Irreantum: Scope/Positioning

  1. Jonathan Langford

    William,

    Thanks for putting some thought into this.

    One of the fundamental problems facing creative writing in all areas right now, I think, is that the demand is primarily on the part of writers for outlets, rather than on the part of readers for more to read.

    It may be that what’s needed is extraliterary motivation — on the theory that one reason why readers read x instead of y is because they are part of a community where everyone is talking about x, and/or because there’s a sense of investment in the success of writers who may belong to the community. That, for good or ill, has been a big part of what AML (and AMV) have actually been.

    It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, with product/project and community feeding into each other. My point, though, is that it may be that any attempt to revive Mormon letters (enough to create a literary journal/website/whatever) may need to be as much a community-building endeavor as a publishing endeavor, if it’s to have any hope of succeeding.

    Hope this makes sense. (I’ve been engaged in a brain-numbering project all day, and my brain wasn’t at its best when I started…)

  2. Wm Morris Post author

    That’s exactly right, Jonathan. I’m going to get to that in just a bit. In fact here are the sections to come:

    Staffing/Production
    Submissions
    Financial Models
    Readership

  3. Kent Larsen

    Great work, as usual, Wm.

    I do hope that something takes the place of Irreantum, and that they pay attention to what you’re saying here. I believe we need this role filled.

    But, I must say, I’m not to sure about the juxtaposition of this series with Thanksgivikah.

  4. Wm Morris Post author

    Ha! The juxtaposition is completely incidental — it took me this long to figure out that I even wanted to tackle the topic and what really happened is that my daughter has had a lot of homework the past couple of days so we’ve both been hanging out at the kitchen table for a couple of hours every night. Then again, part of the reason she had so much homework is the looming Thanksgiving break so I guess there is a cause and effect there.

    Anyway, part two posts in less than 10 minutes.

  5. Luisa Perkins

    I think it cannot be discounted that, in general, people don’t value or pay attention to stuff that’s free. If I pay for something, I’m far more likely to read it, especially if it’s written by an author unknown to me.

  6. Wm Morris Post author

    I think the SF&F mags have shown that a free + premium model can work. But again, they have a much broader potential readership and established field for short fiction to work with.

  7. Th.

    .

    I think it cannot be discounted that, in general, people don’t value or pay attention to stuff that’s free.

    I don’t know if I agree with this. I bought a NYT subscription a couple months ago and I didn’t get back into a NYT habit. I stuck with Slate, even though it’s free.

  8. Wm Morris Post author

    There is free and then there is free. Whatever a successor to Irreantum (should one even appear) does, the perception needs to be that there is editorial value on offer. You can’t read Asimov’s without a subscription; Clarkesworld is free. But both have created the perception of value and quality by a) paying a good rate to contributors and b) putting together a track record of good stories.

  9. Darlene

    Only just found this. So glad you’re taking up this subject, William. I’m going to move on to all the parts of this, but I wanted to say that this is a really good and thorough exploration of this issue. You’ve nailed it.

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