The question isn’t whether or not literary magazines need images—it’s about how many. How much is too much? There may have been a time when literary magazines could do without them. That time has passed. We all live on the Internet now, where the playing field between text and image has been leveled. These days we swim through them in equal measure, only breaching the surface to leap from one tab to the next. So the real question is: What’s the best ratio? How does the editor of a literary magazine balance word against image? Is the ratio 4:1? 3:1? At what point does a collection go from being a literary text to a glorified art book?
And is it even a bad thing if that were to happen?
No matter what our ideals or wisdom tells us, all books are judged in some part by their covers. And then we judge them by the look of their interior as well. We judge them by font-size, by the feel of the paper. Books and magazines live and die by their content, certainly, but that content does not exist outside of their design. That’s a factor too, and one that is becoming increasingly relevant as so much of the world screams for our attention at once.
What I’m trying to say is that literature currently exists in a context in which images are necessary to complement the words. They support them. They hold them up, grab a reader’s attention and introduce them to the text, or provide brief-but-necessary mental respite as the reader moves between chunks of prose.
A picture mixes things up, and that’s a good thing. There are more immediately gratifying things a person can do with their time rather than pick through a phonebook-sized brick of the starkest black and white.
The reason images are so vital is their immediate. The delay between seeing and feeling is about as long as it takes for the signal to travel from eye to brain. To properly evaluate a text, on the other hand, you have to read it from start to finish. Your eye may be a speedy little mechanism, but even for the best speed-reader a larger text will always take longer to read than a short one. It takes time for the eye to slide across each word, line upon line, page after page, process all that information, and finally convert it into the corresponding mental images and ideas. Now when done by a skillful author, readers will find themselves traveling deep inside a foreign psyche. You are thinking thoughts that don’t belong to you. Feeling the feels that aren’t your own. Your mind’s eye fills with that which the author feeds you through their language. And it’s like magic. There’s really nothing else like it. But the process takes time. Words progress linearly through time, whereas with an image your eye simply swallows it whole. It happens in a flash. The time it takes a viewer to process Picasso’s Guernica is more or less the same as some jpeg from your friend’s wedding posted on Facebook.
But the stronger an image is, the deeper it hooks you. Strong images, crafted by talented and hard working artists, will draw the viewer in. They will hold their attention. And if they accompany a text—printed as the cover of a magazine, placed above a short story—they invite the viewer to read further.
So editors need their visual artists if they want the texts they publish to be competitive. Though I happen to be of the opinion that visual artists, on the other hand, do not need editors of literary magazines. Not if the artist is looking to get paid at any rate. Most editors can’t afford to pay even their writers, much less the person they’ve asked to provide the pictures. More often than not, the best an artist can hope for from a lit mag is a bit of exposure. Or maybe they are a big fan of the magazine in question, and are just happy to contribute. In any case, it’s hard enough out there for visual artists. Commercial work can be good, but is hard to come by. And even then, clients consistently undervalue their artist’s work. They assume a piece can be pulled from thin air. “Just whip something up,” they’ll say, assuming the artist can conjure a strong piece in a handful of minutes. Some artists are unbelievably talented, and can work just that fast, but what most people don’t understand when they solicit an image from an artist is they’re not simply asking for the time an artist spends creating that one work, but the hours upon hours of practice it took them to get to the level of skill they currently possess. Being a freelance artist, and trying to actually pay your bills with it, means being very selective with your time. You have to go where the work is. Where the money is. The sad truth is that literary magazines are not a particularly fertile market.
But in a context where so many disparate avenues of information compete for our attention, the immediacy of a powerful image has never been more important. You feel its impact. You’re compelled to read further.
It’s cliché to say a picture’s worth a thousand words.
The truth is they’re probably worth a whole lot more.
Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent. He currently lives in the Netherlands. He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts. He likes what words and pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.