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.
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.