06. 26. 2015. 15:50

Print vs. online literary journals in Hungary

Already for a decade now, with the everyday normalization of internet usage, and the dynamic cohabitation of the “digital natives,” “digital immigrants,” and (for a lack of better term) “outsiders,” the literary scene goes full spectrum, with various examples in between.

Presently, this complex web of texts, people, and relations we call Hungarian literature ranges from the pantheon of reclusive, almost mythical off-the-grid figures of a golden generation, to the online gallery showcasing the colorful and innovative digital identities of the various literary newcomers. As a peculiar case of the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” we inhabit a cultural era in which some novelists still produce books the way their predecessors did more than hundred years ago, while popular slam poets write and read their personalized, powerful, but fleeting texts with the help of their smartphones. Already for a decade now, with the everyday normalization of internet usage, and the dynamic cohabitation of the “digital natives,” “digital immigrants,” and (for a lack of better term) “outsiders,” the literary scene goes full spectrum, with various examples in between.

Notable as an exception to our present computerized way of life is, for instance, Péter Esterházy, the internationally recognized doyen of Hungarian prose, who (declaring in an interview that he does have an email account, but he never opens it) still writes by hand in little notebooks, and—up until her death a few years ago—shared a much-beloved typist with another literary legend, Péter Nádas, who worked on his latest novel for eighteen years while living isolated and disconnected in a small village, sharing the company of a giant pear tree. Even more stranger from our present, mainstream practices of writing is the habit of László Krasznahorkai (recent winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize), who spends days or weeks on end thinking, composing, and chiseling his trademark long sentences, until finally he decides to write them down in one breadth, just rarely returning to edit.

Of course, being renowned and best-selling authors, these novelists can afford the luxury of such harmless anachronism and can continue to live as exotic hermits, without the need to be directly involved in the digital metamorphosis of culture. However, the publishing world that edits, promotes, and sells their books; the literary journalism which interprets, canonizes, and popularizes the published works; and the young generations of writers who wish to create new forms and approaches have neither the possibility, nor the wish to remain outside of this inevitable transformation. And the multiple opportunities for exploration that come with the online realm.

Given that the novel (and even the short story, to a certain extent) is, more or less, still thriving in its classical form—regardless if it is presented in a print or e-book version—the main challenges of this overall change are affecting the traditional formats of literary journals and books of poetry. Neither of which are profitable, easily accessible/archivable, or appealing to the newer generations within the context of a highly creative environment saturated with online content.
In the Hungarian case, the extensive, once glorious, but rapidly aging family of print literary journals (counting at least 70 in the country and among the Hungarian minority communities in neighboring states) was left over from the excessively generous cultural schemes of the state-socialist era, and still relies heavily, if not entirely, on state subsidies for its existence. Of course, some of the family members (like Műút, Prae, Bárka) have recognized the calling of the times, and have created enjoyable, user-friendly websites where they publish both their print material and original web content. They function now similarly to the several, highly popular online-only literary portals, like the first and most important hub, Litera.hu, the slightly tabloid-like Librarius.hu, or the student-operated Kulter.hu or Felonline.hu. However, most of the journals either cannot afford this development, or are not ready for the changes it would bring, and so resolve to simply uploading the full PDF of last month’s issue, making both reading and searching the texts quite tedious.

Reacting to this problem last year, the Secretary of State for Culture, László L. Simon (the possessor of the subtle nickname: “the tank”) proposed that all subsidies for print journals should be eliminated, and content should be transferred to the web, printing only the required 6 copies of each issue for the archive of the National Széchényi Library. L. Simon, this rambunctious conquistador of Hungarian letters, who is also an ex-poet and a former editor, wished to single-handedly cut the Gordian knot of cultural policies and financing in Hungary, leaving out the small question of how funding would be provided or resolved for this new online literary presence. Since, without the significant support of both print and online platforms by the state, leaving them to the jungle laws of the market in a small and economically unstable country like Hungary would be equal to a slow, agonizing death.

Protest was immediate, with varied reactions, and L. Simon’s bold “leap forward,” thankfully, did not become reality. Many of the responses stated that the rich collection of long-standing print journals in Hungary (from the legendary Nyugat of the interwar years, to the similarly canonical Holmi, which—symptomatically—printed its last issue in November 2014) represents an important tradition, nothing less than a national specificity: a “hungaricum.” While this is surely good news for undergraduates writing their thesis in literary history, it places the supposed forums and workshops of contemporary Hungarian literature into the skansen, along with Pick Salami and the “mangalica” curly-haired hog, and does not provide a viable answer to the original question.

Others argued for the preservation of the print journals, as complementing the existing digital forums, by describing a paradigmatic and qualitative difference between reading from a physical copy and reading online. Besides pointing out that such journals create a specific cultural and medial context for literature which cannot be transposed into a digital form, they hold that certain types of content (like the longer texts of fiction and criticism) require a more direct, deliberate, and hands-on reading experience. Acknowledging the often distracting effect of websites and social media which favor speed browsing, skimming, and “liking” instead of in-depth reading—there still remains the question, however, if we can speak of an essential, unrivalled quality pertaining to print journals which cannot be experienced through the eventual use of tablets and e-book readers.

Nonetheless, the most significant issue regarding the print vs. online opposition was touched on only in passing. Although the digital divide is gradually narrowing in Hungary and East Central European countries, the sudden and total absence of print literary journals and weeklies from newsstands, or public and school libraries would radically reduce the chances of encountering and reading contemporary literature for the disadvantaged groups in society (e.g. the elderly, the impoverished) who have only limited knowledge of and access to the digital dimensions of culture. Until technology and the internet are a privilege and not a general, democratically accessible good, print books and journals at an affordable price are still a social necessity.

Judging from the overall consensus shaped out by these reactions, and their consequences, it is safe to assume that the present symbiosis and state-dependency of both print and online literary journals will continue for the time being. Yet, the recent and increasingly hostile governmental attitudes towards cultural financing, and the gradually unfolding generational shift in media and cultural consumption foreshadows the inevitable digital transformation. It will be now up to the emerging young digital literati to facilitate a productive enough communication with both market and government actors to successfully engineer—instead of an agonizing death—the rejuvenation of the literary journal.

This article was first published at the Observatory of ELit Literaturhaus Europa.

Szabolcs László