The modus operandi of the internet is this: publish what gets more clicks. If you want your site to at least power your apartment, you need headlines with big names, clever lists, and farcical concepts. The literary quarters of the internet are similarly affected. But when every Review and Journal is bound by the indomitable Rule of the Click Count, we need someone to remind us there is more to literature than Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, Zadie Smith’s latest doings, and Stephen King’s politics.
With a collective sigh of relief, we introduce you to Ian MacAllen, the netizen helping to save literature – and quite possibly the internet – from itself.
Ian MacAllen has been publishing online for almost 20 years. His first foray into online publishing came while he was in high school, blogging about theater. After getting his undergraduates degree in Art History, he moved to Jersey City and started his second blog, New York Sixth, a photography blog that documented redevelopment and gentrification in Hudson County.
What drove Ian to create NY Sixth wasn’t a desire to garner tremendous traffic (although he certainly wouldn’t mind), but his desire just to “document the world as I see it”.
Ian creates content for the content’s sake.
“[New York Sixth] touched on a bunch of my interests in urban planning and photography,” said Ian in an interview. “And doing weird web research where you can dig into the deep part of the internet and find these architectural plans, documentation from the city proposing new redevelopment zones. So all of those were, especially in my early 20’s, it lit up certain parts of my brain that were very exciting.”
Speaking about New York Sixth, Ian said he still has Google AdWords on the now-defunct site, but that his hope of turning a profit from the blog was like buying “a lottery ticket hoping to win the Power Ball or the Mega Millions.”
New York Sixth came with poor timing, ironically just as the Great Recession was effectively killing all redevelopment in the area. Ian went back to school for a graduates degree in English. When he graduated he found himself again wanting to document his world, this time the literary events he was going to in his spare time.
“I came back from doing a couple of laps at the track one night and I said, I’m Just Going To Start It, and by nine o’clock I’d registered a domain name, and probably by midnight I had WordPress installed and I had a basic outline of what I was going to do,” said Ian.
Thus was the inception of English Kills Review, unplanned and spur-of-the-moment. There are a handful of other literary publications in New York City, as Ian mentioned, covering much the same scene as EKR. But these other publications have largely ignored the plethora of free literary readings and discussions in the New York City area.
Why have the larger literary publications missed out on this niche? Because readings by unknown authors don’t garner much attention online. This is the niche Ian fills with EKR.
“I definitely want to give preference to new authors… it could be a debut novel, it could be a short story collection. I definitely am interested in short story collections as well, in part because they’re often the neglected child of many authors. I do like to give preference to small presses over big presses,” said Ian.
“Championing literature that may not be talked about or written about is really the goal.”
Covering literature in Brooklyn has its own rewards. Aside from staying involved with New York City’s literary scene, debut novelists and writers remember Ian as being the one person who cared enough to cover their work when no one else would.
“You wake up and you’re like what am I doing, why am I at this event,” said Ian. “I have three of these [events] to write up and I think, does anyone care? Usually within a few minutes of having those thoughts I get an email from someone or the next time I’m out I see someone who’s like, ‘Oh thank you for that write up’, or, ‘It was really helpful to have that [coverage] for this book’. And that’s its own kind of like little reward.”
Ian keeps a few other online publications as well, including Toilets of New York and Ian MacAllen’s Requisite Social Media Presence. His most-known online activity has probably been his East Williamsburg Secession Movement (Ian lives in East Williamsburg). The petition was covered by Gothamist and New York Daily News, among others.
“Someone was trying to secede from the United States, and so in an effort to satirize that I created my own petition to secede East Williamsburg from Williamsburg. It was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek play that got bigger than anyone had expected.”
Throughout our talk Ian spoke about the nature of blogging and how it’s changed over the last 15 years. He had a clear distaste for the internet’s Rule of Clicks, explaining how “before Facebook was everywhere, before Twitter, before Tumblr – before social [media] as a traffic driver” publishers focused more on creating original, quality content.
This early iteration of the blogosphere has so sullied Ian’s view of blogging that he won’t call EKR a blog, referring to it instead as a web magazine.
“To me a blog definitely implies more of the early-2000’s where you’re just aggregating content and regurgitating content, and I really think of [EKR] as something being original material and publishing original material. Like I said, I’m more interested in creating good content than rapid content.”
Cynicism towards click-bait aside, Ian is optimistic about the future of publishing online, especially with regards to literature. Blogs or web magazines, whichever you may refer to them as, represent a new form of independent media, one that can give voice to those who are otherwise drowned out by the online resonance of best-sellers and renowned literati.
“As corporate publications, for-profit publications wind down their coverage of the arts, of literature in general, literature specifically, [web magazines] are going to become an essential part of arts culture, and I think like looking at other models of not just revolutionary literature but like literature that’s now seen as highly important to the history of literature, a lot of the most interesting things are being done in the alt environment, in the independent environment… That only now or later we think of as institutional.”
EKR receives no funding or revenue and relies on a long list of local contributors to cover local readings, to interview local writers, and to showcase literature that is otherwise swept aside. EKR depends on reader-interest – if there wasn’t interest for local, under-the-radar writers, EKR wouldn’t have survived these last four years. So if you’re going to start your own niche blog, take some advice from Ian:
“Focus on the narrative that you’re writing about, don’t worry so much about do you have the best social media presence. Don’t worry about if you have all the hashtags right. Good content will be found, and good writing will be found, good photographs will be found.”