Scholars discuss new ways of reading modernist magazines

On Thursday 14 June 2018, an interdisciplinary group of postgraduate and early-career academics came together at the University of Birmingham to explore new ways of reading modern(ist) magazines.

Working with a range of periodicals from the Cadbury Research Library, including BLAST, Form, Coterie, Rhythm, The Egoist, English Review, The Owl, Scribner’s, and McCall’s, they spent an enjoyable and thought-provoking day discussing possible approaches to these intriguing, often heterogenous texts. 

Dr Emma West, CMC member and organizer of the workshop, writes: 'Prior to the workshop, we used the Modernist Journals Project’s wonderful collection of digitised magazines to read the understudied modernist magazine Coterie. In the morning session, we compared notes on our experience of reading the magazine in the manner recommended by Patrick Collier (after Margaret Cohen) in his essay "What is Periodical Studies?", as a "strange object whose codes exceed the ones we are equipped to see".[1] We all reported a sensation of feeling unmoored: without editorials, or consulting secondary material, it was difficult to discern the magazine’s editorial policy. What was the magazine trying to do? Who was it aimed at? Why were these specific contributions chosen and why were they presented in this manner?

'We weren’t able to find answers to most of these questions, but the act of asking them was in itself instructive: each group took a range of different approaches to try and work out what the magazine was doing. Discussion ranged across the role of contents pages; the selection and placement of images; style, tone and atmosphere; ideas of quality and literary value; the relationship between the cover and the magazine’s contents; the editor as "curator"; and whether the celebrity status of some of the writers and artists affected how we read their contributions.

'After a lunch generously provided by the Centre for Modernist Cultures, we explored some of the many other magazine in the Cadbury’s collection, this time placing a more explicit emphasis on methodologies. Many participants commented on the gap between theory and practice when working with periodicals: there are few essays which put forward a comprehensive theory of, or guide to, reading periodicals. Many of those present had a more improvised approach to periodicals, informed by key questions or areas of interest. Some were more interested in the role of the editor, others in orientation towards audiences, others in the relationship between word and image. During our final discussion session, in which we discussed ideas for future activities, it was suggested that we could devise our own "mini-manifesto", laying out the types of questions that we ask when reading periodicals. This might help to provide a framework for reading magazines, but one of the day’s primary conclusions was that it will never be possible to devise a single theory of the periodical: both the texts themselves and the approaches we can take are just too diverse. That’s the appeal and the frustration of working with magazines: they are mischievously mercurial, always eluding and exceeding any conclusions that we attempt to draw. But it’s precisely this mercuriality which keeps drawing us back to these wonderfully "strange objects". Or, to put it another way:

BLAST magazines

BLESS magazines.'

There will be another magazines workshop in the next academic year: for more information, or to be added to the mailing list, please contact Emma West at e.west@bham.ac.uk. Proposed future activities include in-depth collaborative readings of a single magazine, workshops on printing, and sessions on teaching magazines.



[1] Patrick Collier, ‘What is Modern Periodical Studies?’, Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 6:2 (2015): 98-106 (109).