The literary magazine universe doesn’t need to be this way:
- Editors frustrated by an avalanche of manuscripts that are wildly inappropriate for their publication’s audience, mission, or market. Mismatched texts clog their submission portals, consume their time, and leave them so cranky that when they actually find a promising text, they may be too tired or frustrated to acknowledge it.
- Writers clueless as to why they’re being rejected again, and again, and again. The whole submission process begins to feel like throwing darts at balloons in some literary carnival game. Merely a word or three of feedback from an exhausted editor feels like a win.
- Readers struggling to understand what makes one literary magazine different from another. For example: Which literary magazine is sure to offer eco-fiction and eco-poetry? Which magazine tends to provide eye-opening perspectives from X community?
These types of misalignments aren’t unique to the publishing world. In teaching, an instructor may fail to communicate how course learning outcomes align with class activities. Think back to times when you were unpleasantly surprised about what was on a test. In business, an inept manager may harp on minutia (such as using envelopes that cost 8 cents vs. 9 cents apiece) while rewarding only mission-related work with year-end raises.
Both teachers and managers, should look at themselves first when they don’t receive what they want in terms of performance. The same can be said for lit mags and their editors.
What is a lit mag (short for literary magazine)?
Wikipedia offers the following, “A literary magazine is a periodical devoted to literature in a broad sense. Literary magazines usually publish short stories, poetry, and essays, along with literary criticism, book reviews, biographical profiles of authors, interviews and letters. Literary magazines are often called literary journals, or little magazines, terms intended to contrast them with larger, commercial magazines.”
Wikipedia includes a brief history of literary magazines, as well as a link to a “List of literary magazines.” Also see writer Clifford Garstang’s helpful 2022 Literary Magazine Ranking, a yearly compilation he bases on Pushcart Prize results.
Communication can be the key to reducing the churn in literary magazine submissions. Unfortunately, mission statements and “About Us” webpages are often vague, such as “We want to publish the best fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction available.” What does “best” mean? Each staff member may approach or define “best” differently.
Market listings for literary magazines — whether in Submittable, Duotrope, annual Writer’s Market books, or elsewhere — often push editors to offer more specifics about what they want to publish. This can be useful. However, such listings may also exacerbate miscommunication, especially in regard to subgenres. How much do you know about a lit mag that says it publishes a laundry list of subgenres?
For example, the Poets & Writers literary magazine database lists 38 potential subgenres, and recently a reputable Midwestern literary magazine designated 32 of them and excluded only six:
- BIPOC voices
- Creative nonfiction
- Flash fiction
- Formal poetry
- LGBTQ voices
- Literary fiction
- Lyric essay
- Narrative nonfiction
- Pop culture
- Prose poetry
- Serialized fiction
- Short fiction
- Speculative fiction
- Visual poetry
How much does a list of 32 subgenres tell writers, readers, or even staff members about a lit mag? From the editorial side, the rationale may be to keep options (or subgenres) open. But writers have likely responded with a raft of everything-goes submissions.
On the plus side, broad mission statements or subgenre lists offer flexibility for a magazine’s management, especially for college and university publications that change editors yearly. However, the outside view of vague descriptions or jargony missions is that the publication’s editorial targets are constantly shifting.
An unfortunate result is that the common advice to read a magazine to familiarize yourself with what it publishes often doesn’t work with the broad missions and shifting staffs of some publications. For example, one year a lit mag editor may include mermaid and ghost stories, but editors in previous and following years may reject such stories at the first hint of merpeople or specters.
Theme issues or special sections may be useful for editors, writers, and readers facing unclear or outdated mission statements.
Some publications, such as Fairy Tale Review, set a theme for each issue. Other magazines, such as Creative Nonfiction, intersperse theme and “regular” issues. When editors communicate their themes they often offer more information and details that help writers align and target their submissions.
A couple examples of upcoming theme issues (and their deadlines) include:
- Creative Nonfiction. Theme: “Caring for the Heart.” Deadline 1/23/2023. “For an upcoming issue, Creative Nonfiction is seeking new narratives about caring for the heart — medically, technologically, or metaphorically. We’re looking for stories from healthcare workers and researchers; counselors and cardiologists and coaches; nurses and nutritionists … or any red-blooded writer with a heart.” See Creative Nonfiction’s website to continue reading the submission call.
- Fiction International. Theme: “Refugee.” Deadline: 2/16/2023. “Fiction, non-fiction, and indeterminate prose texts of up to 5,500 words that address the theme of ‘Refugee’ are welcome. We will consider submissions of narrative, anti-narrative and indeterminate texts but only accept submissions reflecting the theme.…” See Fiction International’s Submittable listing for more information, as well as a link to the magazine’s catalog, which might offer insights into “indeterminate texts.”