What We Lose When We Lose Literary Magazines
an ode to lit mags and some suggestions for fixing them
This week CNN.com, of all places, had an article on a depressing trend: the death of literary magazines. It’s not only independent lit mags that are disappearing, but so are university-funded magazines. On the one hand, it makes sense that lit mags—which virtually never make money—are on the chopping block. But it’s also a bit strange or at least sad that universities would drop one of the most essential arts of the creative writing world.
Literary magazines are the testing grounds for writers (and for that matter editors), the place where emerging authors first learn the pain of rejection and pride of publication. A place for editors to hone their aesthetics and writers to experiment with their work. They are feeder for anthologies, agents, publishers, and more.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems with lit mags. It’s true, I think, that there are far too many magazines with names like The Townsville Review and The Cityburg Quarterly that publish interchangeable work and put little to no effort into publicity or fundraising. But before I get to the problems with (and some potential solutions for) lit mags, let me say why I love them.
A Little Ode to Lit Mags
The first time I remember reading a literary magazine was in college. I was working as a lifeguard in the gym pool, which consisted of leaning back in a white plastic chair and looking up now and then to make sure no one had managed to drown in a four-foot lap pool. While elderly professors splashed about with kickboards, I read a magazine a friend had recommended to me when I said I was getting interested in creative writing: McSweeney’s.
It was issue 12, which featured a Fleischer Studiosesque cover and a novel layout. The issue had three sections printed on three types of colored paper (pastel yellow, pastel green, and pastel pink if memory serves). One section was previously unpublished writers, one a section of flash stories, and the last a novella by Roddy Doyle. Like many collections, it was a mixed bag. I remember being bored by the Doyle novella yet loving many of the unpublished author stories. The one I remember best was “Cold France” by Wythe Marschall (yes I had to look up the author) that consisted of fabulist version of France such as “Whale France,” “Sponge France,” and “Dog France.”
More than the stories themselves, the entire issue had a sense of literary fun and formal playfulness that I’d been drawn to in novels like Invisible Cities and Pale Fire, including a story in the copyright page and the aforementioned tri-color layout. I’d had the impression that literary magazines were a dull affair, the printed version of a faded brown elbow patch on a professor’s tweed jacket. That clearly didn’t have to be the case.
The second early literary magazine experience I remember was browsing a used bookstore and stumbling upon a spine that said only, intriguingly, NOON.
In many ways, NOON was the opposite of McSweeney’s. Instead of a wild and whimsical format, NOON was a sleek and elegant object. There were no colored paper or amusing issue themes, but the classical design held quite odd and modern work. These were strange stories with prick-your-finger-sharp sentences. In each piece you could feel a finely honed aesthetic vision (thanks to the brilliant editor Diane Williams).
Both magazines showed the joys and power of aesthetic-driven magazines as well as also the sheer pleasure of reading a range of styles and authors working within that vision. I became a voracious lit mag reader. I loved the way literary magazines forced one to read different authors and styles side-by-side, revealing new connections between works and revealing themes and ideas in a way that rarely happens in single-author collections.
When I published my debut novel, in a way I tried to replicate the experience of a great lit mag. Upright Beasts was an intentionally mix of genres and styles, combining realism with horror and science fiction stories and mixing flash fiction with longer tales. I spent more time than I should have, probably, rearranging the order of stories and trying to reveal unintended connections between them.
(From a marketing angle, this was probably a mistake. Critics seem to prefer easily classifiable collections that make for easier headlines. Still, I’m happy I published a book that attempted to combine everything I wanted to do.)
In graduate school, I co-founded the literary magazine Gigantic (with Annie DeWitt, James Yeh, and Rozalia Jovanovic) and we in a way combined the aesthetics of those magazines. Since then, I’ve worked at other literary magazines and co-edited anthologies and still find the process of curating different works of literature and configuring them into an aesthetic object to be a rewarding and magical one.
But even if it wasn’t, literary magazines would still be important.
The Role of Magazines in the Literary Ecosystem
My editorial experiences aside, it’s hard to overstate the role that magazines play for emerging writers. I published my first work in literary magazines in 2004. My debut book came out in 2015. Would I have been able to sustain a writing practice for a decade plus if I had nowhere to publish? I’d of course like to think so, but I can’t deny the validation that comes with having your submissions accepted by strangers and published for even more strangers to read. Lit mag publications help sustain writers during the years it takes to finish books.
Literary magazines aren’t mere stepping stones of course, but they are a testing ground. A place where we writers get to see how our work will be received outside of friends, family members, or workshops where people feel obligated to read and respond. They’re also a place to experiment and push ourselves in new directions.
Lit mags can also popularize literary styles that would otherwise be ignored by major publishers. There’s no doubt that McSweeney’s and NOON, as well as early magazines like Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly, created spaces for schools of writing.
And, of course, there are more practical and business-side benefits to literary magazines. They are a way to build up legitimacy in the eyes of the publishing world. A writer with a longlist of publications is likely to get a closer read from agents and editors. And a lit mag publication itself might lead to an agent. Agents do read literary magazines looking for new voices. So do some Hollywood people. I’ve known more than a few writers who have sold TV and film options for short stories published in magazines.
Lit mags also function as publicity for the publishing industry (by publishing excerpts of forthcoming books) and feeders for prestigious year-end anthologies. The relationship is symbiotic to a degree.
Basically, literary magazines serve a vital function even if many—yes, most—of them have minimal readership. A literary world without any magazines would figure out ways to adjust. But it would be a poorer place.
How Can Lit Mags Be Fixed?
Okay, so I’ve rambled a bit about what lit mags have meant to me and what they mean to the publishing ecosystem. What can be done to improve the state of the lit mag? I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts.
Searching for Funding and Subscribers: I’ve talked before about the differences between literary fiction magazines and SFF/genre magazines. One major difference is that SFF magazines always pay their writers and consequently have always worked hard to find funding. They put effort into crowdfunding or finding new subscribers. Frankly, many lit mags do not. The big ones like The Paris Review and Granta do, but too many lit mags spring up without editors putting much thought into publicity, funding, or reaching subscribers. Or else they are longstanding (often university-affiliated) magazines running on inertia.
I know it seems simple to say “put in the effort.” But it helps to put in the effort. That means more than just saying “read an issue before you submit” on the website. It means trying to reach readers who aren’t submitters and looking for novel sources of funding. (At Gigantic, we funded issues almost entirely through tote bag sales and selling drinks at launch parties.)
MFA programs: That said, given how important literary magazines are to the ecosystem it would be great if universities put more effort into literary magazines. Funding them, yes, but also incorporating them more into the programs. Some MFA programs do this well. Many others seem content to let a rotating staff of students run the magazine with minimal help from some back corner of the building.
Literary magazines can be a real attraction for students. Many MFA students are interested in editing and lit mag editing could be incorporated into classes. Quality magazines attract great writers who could be brought in for events at the program. Etc. I’m sure others have better ideas on how to integrate magazines into programs, but in general it would be great if more universities and programs saw literary magazines as vital organs and not strange leftover appendages they keep hidden from view.
Go Online: I adore print, but frankly given the low subscription numbers for many lit magazines it makes sense for many to go online. This is perhaps especially true of university-funded magazines that are being shut down for alleged budgetary reasons. An online lit mag staffed by students is a very minimal investment that, if done right, can have real returns.
Differentiation: If you find a shelf of literary magazines in the rare bookstore that still carries them you’ll probably see a swatch of magazines that feel completely interchangeable. They publish a few stories, a few poems, and a few creative non-fiction pieces. They have some dull art slapped on the cover. Rinse, repeat.
My favorite literary magazines have something that differentiates them. It might be an aesthetic, such as McSweeney’s and NOON, or it might be the concept of the magazine itself. For example One Story prints one story at a time as a booklet and Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading publishes stories online recommended by an author or magazine. Even a “standard” literary magazine—perhaps staffed by rotating MFA students who will never have a unified aesthetic—can stand out in smaller ways. Interesting theme issues. Special curated chapbooks from famous writers. Podcasts. There are many possibilities.
Anyway, those are just a few suggestions. For now, if you love literary magazines then consider subscribing to a few. If you have always scoffed at them, give some a chance. There are literary pleasures inside you might not find anywhere else.
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