Structuring the Intangible - Literary e-zines and their layout

Originally published in the PN Review, March-April 2002

“Pages” on the Web are profoundly different from paper pages. A paper page has size, weight and substance. Most importantly, it has length and breadth, which means that only a certain amount of type can be fitted onto it. A web page, on the other hand, is an electronic document, which means that it doesn’t necessarily have any fixed physical parameters at all. In theory it could be any size and shape desired - it could be a mile wide and a centimetre deep. In practice, web pages tend to be no wider than the width of a computer-terminal’s screen: in fact most of them will adapt themselves, according to the size of terminal being used to view them. Their layout is not measured in centimetres or inches, in other words, but in percentages of the screenspace available. If you are looking at a web page on a 17” monitor, the layout will be spread more widely; on a 15” monitor, less. This is because the most irritating thing to have to do, when you are reading text on a screen, is shift to the right to read the end of one line, then back to the left to read the beginning of the next. It breaks all sense of continuity.

The main practical consequence of a web page’s intangibility is that it can be any length. The only constraint is the amount of computer memory it will take up, and if the page consists of text - no matter how that text may be formatted - it will take up a negligible amount compared with, say, a photographic image.

What this means for editors of literary e-zines is that they can include as much material as they like. Print journals have to be laid out and calculated in multiples of four pages. Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half, then print on both sides of both halves. The result is four pages of print. Do this with twelve sheets, add a glossy cover, staple down the central fold, and you get a 52-page magazine, including front and back covers. Only a certain number of pages can be included before the staples refuse to go through the paper, or the paper becomes difficult to fold, or the magazine becomes so expensive to print that the cover price has to be increased. Print editors, in other words, can only include a certain amount of material in each edition of their magazines; and in a sense this makes it easy for them to insist on good quality. E-zine editors could, if they wished, include every submission that was sent to them. They have to make their own boundaries.

Layout is another consideration. Readers of print magazines, as they leaf through them, are presented with a sequence of double-page spreads. This means that print editors must give careful consideration to what will appear on each pair of facing pages. They must also give careful consideration to the sequence in which the magazine’s contents will appear. For example, should all the poems in an issue appear in one place, and all the prose pieces in another? If so, should poetry come first or prose come first?

To an e-zine editor the problem of layout is rather different. Web pages are not laid out in a linear sequence but a “cloud”, and theoretically it is possible for readers to jump from any page on the Web to any other, via a hyperlink. But there is normally one page - the “index” or “home” page - which appears on-screen whenever visitors arrive at the site. This page serves the same purpose as an entrance-hall with a number of doors leading off it. There could be any number of rooms in the rest of the house, and they could be connected to each other in any number of ways, but every visitor starts from the entrance-hall.

The most conventional method of website layout is to list the contents of the site in a logical sequence on the homepage. This is the equivalent of putting clear labels on all the entrance-hall doors. Rupert Loydell’s Stride magazine is an example. The homepage consists of a white sheet with a blue bar down the middle. To the left of the bar is a brief editorial comment, followed by a few remarks about how to make submissions; to the right is a list of all the poems and articles currently on the site. (Loydell doesn’t bring out his magazine in discrete issues: he prefers to “put new work up every 2 or 3 weeks and remove some older pieces into an archive at the website”.) When readers click through to any subsidiary page, they find a link at the top which will return them to the home page. Navigation through the site is therefore achieved by a process of hopping backwards and forwards, from the homepage to a subsidiary page, back to the homepage, then out to another subsidiary page. This is website design at its simplest and most transparent.

Apart from the blue bar down the centre of its homepage, Stride is notable for its lack of graphics (although some poems by Peter Redgrove, when originally published a few months ago, were illustrated by Dee Rimbaud). The page-backgrounds are uniformly white, and all text is in the same sans-serif font. This minimalist approach means that a visit to Stride is very much a reading experience: there is nothing to distract readers from the poems and articles on the site. Most e-zines, however, prefer to use decoration in one form or another. One popular trick is to remove the contents-list from the homepage and replace it with a graphic. Ethan Panquin’s Slope is an example: visitors to the latest issue are greeted with a grainy-looking graphic which looks like a collection of angled grey organ-pipes half-sunk in sand. The title of the magazine is at the bottom of this graphic (initially off the screen on my monitor), and only after clicking on the title do we reach the real contents-page, where the names of poets featured in this issue and the titles of various reviews are listed, against a background-version of the front-page graphic. This background reappears on every page of the e-zine, which imparts a coherent visual identity to the issue as a whole.

Another respect in which Slope differs from Slide is that there are more ways to navigate around the site. At the top of each subsidiary page appears the same list of options: “This Issue”, “Past Issues”, “About Slope”, “Links” and “Slope Editions”. In other words, readers are not obliged to return to the contents-page in order to renavigate. They could jump straight from a subsidiary page to a past issue, or to the links-page and thence to another publication entirely.

This last possibility - of readers jumping to another publication - raises the interesting question of e-zine boundaries. Because of the way the Internet works, it makes no difference to the readers if the next webpage they visit is part of the same site or not. They click on a link and find themselves looking at something new, but the “something new” could be hosted by the same computer as the previous page, or by another computer on the other side of the world. So theoretically if I were to write a poem and an e-zine editor were to accept it for publication, I could place the poem on my own website, and it could be included in the e-zine without ever being uploaded to the e-zine website at all. My name and the title of my poem would appear on the e-zine’s contents-list, along with all the others, but the hyperlink would lead to my site, rather than to another page of the e-zine.

From the e-zine editor’s point of view the downside of this arrangement would be that once readers had found their way from the e-zine site to mine they might never come back. I would have to agree to place a return link on my poem, and perhaps to remove any links to other parts of my own site. But another consideration would be that control of the poem would remain very much with me, rather than with the e-zine editor. If I decided that I didn’t like the poem any more, and didn’t want it to appear in print, I could suppress it simply by removing it from my own site.

As a rule, e-zine editors still prefer to put contributions on their own sites, rather than redirect their readers. Partly this is for historical reasons: traditionally, making a submission to a magazine has always involved sending in your material, which the editor transfers into his own publication if he decides to use it. E-zine editors have simply carried on the tradition. Furthermore a great many writers still do not have their own websites. But there is also the question of style. E-zine editors like to establish a house-style, and reset all their contributions so that they conform with it. In this way they give their e-zines distinct identities, which are apparent from every page of every issue. On the Internet, where readers can so easily transfer from one site to another at the click of a link, visual identities of this type are particularly important.

The boundaries between one publication and another do not always have to be completely rigid, however. One example of a more fluid arrangement is the Sundress Publications platform, which hosts a number of sister e-zines: Stirring, Samsara, supralurid and Spank Thru. Sundress was founded by Erin Elizabeth, Sharon Shahan and nicoLe sativa kurlish, who edit Stirring, Samsara and supralurid respectively.

Each of the four e-zines under the Sundress umbrella has its own distinct style - Stirring publishes prose as well as poetry, Samsara uses much stronger colours and a wider range of typefaces than the others, and supralurid seems more closely-packed and personal - but they also share certain features in common. For one thing, the four editors are all writers, and tend to publish each others’ work. They also share an interest in art photography, with which their pages are heavily decorated. Partly because of this, and partly because of their choice of poems, a strong feeling of common sensibility comes across from the Sundress organisation as a whole.

In terms of site-structure, the most interesting of the four is Spank Thru. On visiting the site we are presented with a conventional contents-page, with an art photograph on the right and a list of contributors and poem-titles on the left. Each subsidiary page is laid out in a similar manner: a photograph on one side, a poem on the other. But at the bottom of each page we are presented with three choices: an arrow pointing backwards on the left hand side, an arrow pointing forwards on the right, and a link to the homepage in the middle. A click on the left-hand arrow takes us to the previous poem, as listed on the contents page. A click on the right-hand arrow takes us to the next one. Continuous clicking in either direction will take the reader in an endless circle. So we can find our way from one poem to the next, all the way through the sequence, without going back to the home page at all: like finding our way from one room to another of a house, without going back to the entrance-hall.

This possibility - navigation from page to page without reference to the overview offered by a contents-list - is more fully explored in Agnieszka’s Dowry, edited by katrina grace craig and Marek Lugowski. The website, says Lugowski, is laid out in a sequence of “rooms” which are “subweb pages with mutually linked content”. There are no back-issues as such: “The entire magazine, from day one, exists as a seamless online installation that we append to, rather than replace. When you visit us, you will see the oldest stuff at the top of the welcoming page and the new, at the bottom. Sort of like a running tapestry. The rooms are the points of entry on it, or ‘pearls’ floating above the textured background…”

How does this work in practice? The opening page of the site is not a graphic, but a contents-list on a patterned background. The entries on the contents-list are deliberately obscure: “four exuberants”, “the secret life of White Stained Glass Room”, “the Marek Kachina…” and so on. Click on any one of these titles, and you are taken to a graphic, which represents the entrance to a “room” of poems. You can reach different poems in the “room” by clicking on different parts of the graphic, but you don’t have any information about which poem you’re going to reach, who it’s by or what it’s about, until you have clicked. Each poem (or little sequence of poems by the same hand) is conventionally typeset, in Times Roman on a white background. At the bottom of each page there are three options: either return to the site homepage, or return to the introductory graphic for the current “room”, or visit the next page in the “room”. As with Spank Thru, you can navigate all the way round the cycle of poems in a “room”, in a fixed sequence, by clicking from one to the next; or you can return to the introductory graphic and pick another entry-point from there; or you can return to the site homepage, and choose another “room” altogether.

It could be argued that the main effect of Agnieszka’s Dowry’s layout is to increase the power of the editors. Since visitors to the site are deprived of the power to make rational choices about what they want to read, they are obliged to put faith in the editors, instead of trusting their own judgement. They are choosing blind, so they must work on the assumption that whichever “room” they visit, and whichever point of entry they choose, the result will be a satisfying one. As a matter of fact this really is the case: the poems and graphics on the site are all excellent. But we certainly do find ourselves obliged to give the editors a great deal of credit - perhaps more credit than the individual artists and poets - for matching poem with poem to build a “room”, finding an appropriate graphic to serve as introduction, and then choosing a satisfyingly suggestive-but-mysterious phrase to place on the contents list.

But the really interesting thing about the layout here is that it takes a big step in the direction of nonlinearity. Pages on the Web, as I have mentioned before, are not laid out in a fixed sequence like pages in a book or a magazine. Therefore there is no particular reason why we should read them in a given order. Nevertheless, the contents-lists which introduce most sites are effectively suggesting an order in which they might be read. They are laying them out in a linear fashion, or sometimes categorising different types of material (eg. poems, prose, reviews) in a tree-structure. To this extent they are failing to fully exploit the possibilities offered by the Web. Agnieszka’s Dowry, because it starts by mystifying us and obliging us to make almost-random choices, is a departure from both linear sequence and tree-structure.

The individual poems on the site are relatively conventional. They are not examples of hyperliterature as such, and would lose nothing if transferred from the Web to the printed page, as witness the fact that the site’s contents are also published in print as a sequence of “chapbooks”. But the site as a whole serves as an introduction to some of the structural possibilities of literature on the Web. On a first visit it may strike visitors as pretentious and wilfully obscure, but the quality of the material draws them in. The site-layout, which seems baffling at first, turns out to be perfectly simple after a few visits. It merely requires us to give up the idea that reading should equate with forward motion. It encourages us, instead, to read outwards from the homepage in a series of little explorations, each exploration ending where it began. Browsing the site, we find ourselves paddling in the shallows of nonlinear literature.


All the e-zines mentioned above can be found on my links page. John Tranter's article The Left Hand of Capitalism can be read in full here.

©Edward Picot, 2002