“Like moles, literary magazines burrow through the subsoil and often bring literary treasures to light. They live on self-exploitation, are sometimes short-lived and bizarre, and publish against the mainstream. And they sometimes feel out trends that later rock the literary scene with truly eruptive success.”
The article goes on to discuss the career of Günter Eich, how circulations run between 30 and 30,000 (ha! — love the lowballing), and the stubbornly long literary journal name “das heft das seinen langen namen ändern wollte.”
Rolf Grimminger, quoted in the articles, notes the changing role of literary journals:
“The significance of literary magazines has changed greatly in recent decades. In the 1950s they were still a real medium of information about what was going on and about authors and the possibilities of writing. Then competition came in the form of features articles in newspapers and audio-visual media”. Today the charm of many magazines is precisely their niche existence and their subversive subterranean activities.”
He’s right about the persevering charm of literary magazines — for many of them, it is about filling a (admittedly small) niche. In the U.S., though, I doubt that feature articles in newspapers were ever offering competition. The rising competition is certainly audio-visual media, especially since publishers are now wanting books themselves to be multimedia shows.
The course for most journals seems not towards mainstream status and struggling against the parameters of their niche, but working on embracing, exploring, and digging deeper into those niches.