About an hour before I sat down tonight, I had a whole Ferguson-related column planned out that was going to be, hopefully, better than the last one I did. The catalyst: protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are now using the chant “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” as their rallying cry. Depressingly, infuriatingly and predictably, there are now anti-protester protesters — i.e., instigative jackasses that support the officer’s actions that night — chanting back, simply, “Shoot!” I can’t put into words how horrible, mean-spirited and downright evil that is. Hell, I’ll try though, and in RPG terms, no less:
Douchebag Level 1: Pasting a copy of a Chinese take-out menu over a “Missing Cat” flyer.
Douchebag Level 9: Giving a homeless man Monopoly money.
Douchebag Level 33: The Holocaust.
But there are dozens of other outlets covering this with much more eloquence and tact than I ever could, so we’ll leave it be for now. This week, I’m utilizing this space to try and rally a call to action for something a little more personal, a little more idiosyncratic: the looming shutdown of the Alaska Quarterly Review.
In case you don’t know, the Alaska Quarterly Review is one of the most revered, respected and downright difficult to breach literary journals in the country. That a halfway decent journal is produced out of Alaska — a state, perhaps unfairly, primarily known for deep-sea fishing reality shows and Sarah Palin — is surprising enough, but AQR is one of the nation’s best.
It’s established author credits are formidable — Sean Hill, Cynthia Atkins, Patricia Hooper, Stephen Gibson, Ellen Bass, and former U.S. Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins have all graced the pages — but it still manages to average about 45 debut authors per issue. They have published winners of the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Prize, and have over 30 years of general acclaim to their credit. No less than Stephen King has called them “a treasure.” I’ve been spurned by them at least five times, and I’m proud to have their rejection slips populating my desk spike.
The University of Alaska-Anchorage is, for some reason, cutting funding to the journal. In a new budget prioritization, AQR is, according to Alaska Dispatch News, “subject to further review, consider for Reduction or Phase-out” which is not-so-vague bureaucrat-speak for “Tough s**t, bro.” Sure enough, the same source found that the UAA’s budget task force prioritized parking service, the chancellor’s office and the dean of students’ office above one of the brightest literary beacons in the country, not to mention one of the only such institutions in the state.
The looming tragedy of AQR is not a problem confined to the Great White North; the same thing could easily happen to any number of journals that operate out of a university. Arts & Letters, a great journal published by my alma mater, Georgia College & State University, runs on a combination of donations, subscriptions, free graduate student labor, dedicated faculty editors and Martin Lammon’s industry clout. The journal itself — and by proxy, I suppose, the university — is usually a major sponsor at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, and yet the whole thing is run out of a tiny office on the third floor of the Arts & Sciences building on the GCSU campus, right beside the library, an all-girls dorm and a small shelter where the theater majors gather to smoke before, during and after classes.
These things are run on a shoestring. Sponsorship and patronage dollars help, but some are almost entirely dependent on university support to keep running, and so it’s a near-death knell for a journal when a university decides to cut funding. Nobody is paid, really; involvement is mandatory per faculty contracts and student fellowship agreements — I was on the editorial team — but the work is generally done on one’s own time, at home, once other deadlines are met. We did it because we cared — if not about the actual work we were reading because, honestly, 90 percent of work that gets submitted to journals just isn’t very good — about the spirit of what we were doing, about the greater community of which we were a part.
With so many events of national and international importance going on right now — Ferguson, Isis in Iraq — why is this even an issue? Because we need art now, more than ever, and not just in a “convenient distraction” sort of way (Marvel’s film division has us covered on that through at least 2019). Literature has the power to instigate human thought and emotion on a primal level, both small and grand: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” catalyzed a landmark anti-obscenity ruling in the United States, and I can still tick off a list of novels, poems and stories that my grad school friends said inspired them to begin writing in the first place.
Words dictate lives, kick off careers. They are the single most powerful tool humanity has yet devised — not the atomic bomb, not the wheel, not Google Glass — and great literature elevates them to something else entirely. And if the Alaska Quarterly Review is allowed to fade away into the night, it will set a dangerous precedent, not just for other universities, but for the population as a whole. It will say, “This is not important. This does not save or enrich lives. This has no place in the lives of our students or in the course of human development.”
Side Note: Donate or subscribe to AQR; you’ll both be better off for it. Alternatively, support a regional literary journal! Georgia College & State, Emory, University of Georgia and others all produce great ones and, as per the precedent set by Alaska-Anchorage, they are none of them safe.