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In praise of little magazines

Night and Day is relaunched.

Night and Day, a literary magazine founded and run by Graham Greene in the early 20th century, survived for six months. The fact that it is remembered at all is testament to the extraordinary hold that small magazines are capable of exerting on the memories of publishers and writers alike. It's odd, after all, that a publication that wobbled into existence so briefly should prompt two 21st-century publishers to declare that they intend to relaunch it "to celebrate our imprints' rich and illustrious history"; to "bring forth... the vagaries of publishing life and an enviable slice of literary heritage".

But what is this history, and why is it worth celebrating?

The pedigree of the magazine, in its original form, is undeniable. It carried articles, comment and fiction by Louis MacNeice, William Plomer and Herbert Read; Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen and Cyril Connolly. Yet what the magazine is most famous for is its explosive end at the hand of its editor. Naughty Greene wrote the review that brought the law knocking on the door with charges of criminal libel underarm. Shirley Temple, the child star of a new film called Wee Willie Winkie, was alleged to be a figure of the "dubious coquetry" and "dimpled depravity". Serious charges indeed. MGM tried to sue, Chatto & Windus were forced to discontinue publication, and Greene was never to forgive the dastardly WH Smith, who refused to have the infamous issue on their stand.

The opening pages of a relaunched Night and Day carry a statement of their predecessor's aim -- to showcase "a wealth of talent, invigilating over a mad world". The sentiment is noticeably wilder than the staid words of the magazine's current publishers -- and the thought of Greene and Waugh as "invigilators" is a delicious one.

The question remains: Night and Day is "hoping to establish itself once more as an irreverent but relevant literary magazine", but can literary magazines be both irreverent and relevant, or do the words just sound pretty in tandem? Parisa Ebrahimi and Tom Avery, of Chatto & Windus and Jonathan Cape respectively, are presumably not "celebrating" the loose-cannoned ways of their magazine's glory months -- they've tempered such tendencies with "heritage" and "publishing life". And this is no bad thing. Their first edition bears a stable mix of the writerly and the publishy, has a warming little picture of a beaming Jonathan Cape on the back and rides on a self-proclaimed relevance.

Perhaps such magazines are best left to be run by publishers. Writers don't seem to have done very well. Emerson's late 19th-century Dial ("Let it be one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics", he declaimed, in what I imagine to be a threateningly delighted manner), didn't last very long under his leadership. Its revival in the 20th century saw it carry the first publication of T S Eliot's The Waste Land in the US, as well as Yeats's "The Second Coming". Eventually, Marianne Moore took to somewhere near the helm (she was managing editor), and the ship obediently sunk.

Likewise, Athenaeum, also now dead, didn't really begin to do well until an academic took the lead. Earlier days saw its chief poetry critic, Theodore Watts-Dunton, take it upon himself to look after notorious poet Algernon Swinburne in his Putney residence. An otherwise decent man, Watts-Dunton is occasionally criticized for hindering Swinburne's progress on an erotic sadomasochistic novel.

The Criterion, meanwhile, remains the most famous example of a literary magazine run by a poet and making a success of itself, even amid the arguments between Eliot, Middleton-Murray, Mansfield and Lady Rothermere -- there's an excellent account of these covert literary bitchings in a recent piece in the London Review of Books, and the letters between the four have recently been published. It must be remembered, however, that Eliot was not just a poet, but a senior publisher with Faber.

Night and Day might just have found its solution.