Does anyone read lit journals? (Admission: I'm reposting this slightly revised version of a post I wrote a long time ago on a different blog ( http://santafewritersproject.blogspot.com/)
I've been thinking a lot about this today, because I've been thinking about Poet Lore--the Writer's Center's own literary journal (the nation's oldest continuously published poetry journal).
You see them on bookstore shelves, usually with fine, glossy covers with really cool images. They're attractive things to look at, for the most part, but typically you have to wander around a bit among the forest of magazines to find the dark little region where they languish. (Note: I mean “young” here to include any unpublished or up-and-coming writer of all ages.)When I go into bookstores these days the first thing I do is check out the lit journals.
In a way, some of the most dynamic writing published today can be found in these journals, by writers living in near monk-like obscurity. Yet it seems a dwindling number of people are recognizing these journals. Why is that?
Let's make a test. Ask yourself this question: How many lit journals do I subscribe to? If you answer one, congratulations. If you answer more than one, terrific. But if you answer none, then you're probably in the majority. You could even ask yourself this question: How many journals do I subscribe to that I didn't also submit a contest submission to (and therefore get a year's subscription as part of your entry fee). Or even: How many lit journals do I subscribe to and read? It's an odd business, this lit journal business. I mean, here you have an outlet for and by (generally) new, publishing-contractless writers. And, according to those editors I've talked to, who struggle to keep their journals alive and well, it's languishing. Why is that? Isn't there a market out there for these journals? Of course there is. It's you.
"There are more writers out there than readers."
This is a common thought, and it would seem to be true. I used to be an editor for a journal that would receive scads of submissions from writers who thought their stories were "perfect" or "just right" for our journal, though a quick glance at page 1 suggested otherwise. True, many journals undergo structural overhauls from year to year, as editorial hands (and tastes) change. That makes it difficult for writers to know with certainty what a journal might publish from year to year. Nevertheless, even a quick glance at a lit journal can tell you what kind of things they are interested in publishing—and, more than likely, journal standards won't change that dramatically. There are web resources that will give you a rundown of the many journals that are out there and what they're looking for. My favorite is http://www.newpages.com/.
But while knowing what a journal likes to publish may help you get editors to take longer looks at your stories/poems, it doesn't change the fundamental dynamic of the disappearing lit journal reader. Without readers and, especially, subscribers, can these journals survive? Like Pindledyboz, they might go to online publishing only, where the costs of printing and distributing are weighted in their favor. What will happen to aspiring writers if lit journals disappear from print and go online? Will they have a print venue to send their stories to? A sympathetic ear? A greater than "impossible" chance to get their stories published and noticed? It's hard enough getting your stories/poems published now. How much more difficult would it be if the number of print lit journals was scrunched to only those that were big enough to survive? (If this is starting to sound like the fate of the dying newspaper business, and I think it is, then writers should be concerned.)
This is NOT to say that online lit journals aren’t cool. They are. CHeck out WC director Charlie Jensen's LocusPoint, or Kyle Dargan's Post No Ills. And Kim Robert's Beltway Quarterly. Increasingly, they’re becoming the best forum for young writers to gain exposure. What can be done to get more people reading print journals? Well, for one you can subscribe to some journals (and encourage a couple friends to subscribe). Start there. Pick two or three journals that you'd like to really get to know and subscribe to them. I do that each year. Most journals don't cost that much for a yearly subscription. Maybe you'll be out $40-60, but you'll be supporting the industry you'd like to be part of someday. Besides, with the cost of books rising to as much as $25 for a hardback original, it wouldn't cost that much more to subscribe to two or three journals than it would to buy two new hardcover books—and at least here you'd be supporting a noble cause.You lead a busy life, sure.
No one is expecting you to sit down with a journal and read it from end to end. But you can read what appeals to you, and in my experience, there's usually much more good than bad in lit journals. Young writers are honest writers, and in fits and starts they do their damnedest to find that voice that is authentic to them, to write that story that is within them. That's a commendable service to humanity. Trust me. Writing is hard, and anyone who tries it is brave.
Which is all the more reason to support lit journals. It’s a brave enterprise to offer short literary work by generally unknown authors to a reading public that mostly ignores lit journals. After spending months reading through stacks of submissions to find those rare gems that leap out and convince them to take a risk and dedicate page-space to these authors, editors hope, hope, hope there will be an audience out there who’ll read their journal.