Little magazines - what are they good for? The temptation is to say, with apologies to Edwin Starr, absolutely nothing. Starved of funds and readers, arcane in reference and interest, they seem, more and more, to be dusty relics, resolutely at odds with our web-wise times. It has often been said that a successful little literary magazine is an oxymoron: that impecuniosity, erratic production values and public indifference impose a necessarily limited lifespan on even the most ambitious publications - Cyril Connolly's Horizon, though funded by the private wealth of the philanthropist Peter Watson, survived for less than five years. So to adapt Orwell: all literary little magazines ultimately fail, but some fail more quickly than others. Those that have flourished - such as Granta or Rebel Inc, formerly a subversive underground magazine - have done so by transmuting into something else altogether. By transmuting into books. Granta, supported by the American media entrepreneur Rea Hederman (who also owns the New York Review of Books, the best journal of its kind in the world) moved, in the early 1990s, to a book-style format, specialising in reportage, photography and non-fiction. It doesn't publish poetry or literary criticism. Rebel Inc, discoverer of Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Janice Galloway, similarly became a book publisher in 1996, an imprint of Edinburgh-based Canongate Books.
But hold on. Pick up the latest issue of the London Magazine, or Craig Raine's new publication, the self-styled "tri-quarterly", Arete, and you will understand why there remains a powerful nostalgia for the values represented by publications of such wilful obscurity. Arete first. Raine - poet, former poetry editor at Faber and sage critic - has a decent contacts book, and he has certainly been able to call on some distinguished friends - there is a selection of unpublished letters from T S Eliot, released by his widow Valerie; an extract from a work-in-progress by Ian McEwan; and a mini-meditation by Timothy Garton-Ash. Arete is handsomely produced and published on thick creamy paper.
My only quibble is with a section called "Our Bold", in which an anonymous editor (Raine, one assumes) pokes fun at the estimable James Buchan, whose Heart's Journey in Winter, his superb novel of espionage and betrayal in Germany, was acclaimed by the poet Michael Hofmann, in the London Review of Books, thus: "I don't believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan." Hofmann's accolade is reprinted, beneath which are a series of emboldened sentences highlighting the supposed infelicities of Buchan's style. It's all rather juvenile and nasty. Still, Arete is an idiosyncratic success and a welcome arrival in the republic of letters.
That the London Magazine has survived into the new century is testament to the heroic, perhaps even insane, devotion to avant-garde letters of Alan Ross, editor since 1961. LM sells fewer than 3,000 copies and distribution is an endless difficulty. The latest issue is a characteristically charming, if unprovocative, mix of fiction, essays, poetry and criticism. A faint air of hazy disappointment hangs over many of the inclusions; there is a sombre self-revealing poem by Andrew Sinclair, "Old Authors", about failed promise; there is, too, a thoughtful essay by the career biographer Jeffrey Myers about cultural amnesia and his struggle to find a readership for literary biography ("few people under 40 had heard of Edmund Wilson"). Ross, catching the authentic tone of his own magazine, writes elegiacally about the destruction, in a fire last summer, of Stephen and Natasha Spender's garden in Provence: "It is a heart-breaking story, the only saving grace the beautiful book Natasha Spender has written as a record of its planning and planting."
The long struggle of publications such as the bimonthly London Magazine is heartbreaking in its own way, too. Yet Ross will keep on keeping on, and his courage to be different and his stoical disregard for fashion ought to be applauded; for when he stops, an entire world of minor letters will disappear with him. At least he has offered many unknown or neglected writers the valuable gift of publication (early issues featured Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Graham Swift and William Boyd). The trouble is, as Ross has too often discovered, there will always be more people willing to contribute to little magazines than buy them. Read them while you can.
"Arete" subscriptions: £21 for one year from 8 New College, Oxford OX1 3BN. "London Magazine" subscriptions: £28.50 for one year from 30 Thurloe Place, London SW7