July 26, 2012

Literary Magazines: Why Bother?

Note: I first published this essay in January 2011 and have updated that post here with new links and info.

You wanna get published, right? You’ve got the short story done. You’re working on the novel. You don’t have an agent, a big publishing house. Yeah, we all want that. You may say, “Literary Magazines: Why bother?” I say the “little” guys take more risks than the slicks or higher circulation journals. Traditionalists say, get in print first—and maybe you should. Yes, the literary world is changing with the emergence of Ezines, but it’s still predominantly print. Whether or how soon the Ezine will accomplish what I’m about to show has long been true in the print world is an open question that I’ll come back to.

If past is prologue, we can learn:
  • It took Faulkner thirteen years to see his first short story in print. And he sent to the literary journals. “That Evening Sun Go Down” (Best American, 1931was published in The American Mercury (now gone). In those early pages we are introduced to some of the Compsons who make up The Sound and the Fury. “A Rose for Emily” appeared in Forum (now gone) in 1930. Both magazines rejected earlier stories. And the rest is history.
  • William Saroyan’s tour de force of voice, “Resurrection of a Life” appeared in Story (now gone) in 1935 and then in Best American. I argue that this story could not have found a home in a commercial magazine. In 1940 his play The Time of Your Life won the Pulitzer. 
  • Both Faulkner and Saroyan mailed to the little magazine where risk is the name of the game.


  • Bernard Malamud’s “The Girl of My Dreams” appeared in 1953 in American Mercury (gone) and “The Mourners” in 1955 in Discovery (goneboth after his novel The Natural (1952) and before his short stories had been collected in a volume. “The Girl of My Dreams” ran alongside one poem by poet Kenneth Koch at the beginning of his career and another by Adrienne Rich when her bio still said, “Miss Rich is married and lives in Cambridge, Mass.”
  •  William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” a long story (another “problem” for commercial magazines—that is, length) appeared in 1967 in New American Review (now gone). This story that breaks form, was chosen by Best American and has been widely anthologized. In New American it appeared alongside Philip Roth’s “The Jewish Blues” and Grace Paley’s “Faith in a Tree.”
  • A story by Ian McEwan appeared in the final issue (1977) of New American by then called American Review. That mag. published three of his stories before he published his first novel and later went on to win the Booker. His story appeared alongside stories by Grace Paley, E. L. Doctorow and Angela Carter.
  • In 1998 Pam Houston published a story in Fish Stories (gone) before “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” appeared in Other Voices (gone) in 2000 and was chosen for Best American and then by John Updike for Best American Short Stories of the Century
  • In 1998 Jhumpa Lahiri published a story in Salamander (circulation about a thousand) before her book Interpreter of Maladies was out, before she won the Pulitzer for that collection in 2000. The title story appeared in Agni (circulation about 2000) in 1998 and later in Best AmericanAgni is now Ezine and print. 
They bothered. Why shouldn’t you?

In 1994 the NEA commissioned a study of this world that concluded: “Most writers of literature, including those who go on to prominence, will [first] find their way into print through small presses.”

I received my MFA degree from OSU when I was fifty-two—the oldest student in the program—and have published ten stories in little magazines. Frederick Busch named my collection of short stories the finalist for the 2002 AWP Book Award, which Joan Connor won. When I was an MFA student, I selected one of her stories for The Journal (circulation about 1,500) where I was working as a student and assistant fiction editor. She bothered. So should you.

The list —don’t worry, I’ll get to more Ezines—goes on with many contemporary authors who use the small press route before and after they are well known:
  • T. C. Boyle, “Poison,” 1978, Hawai’i Review. I was able to find a link to what might have been this magazine at Poets.org (Note: this is not the site for Poetry Magazine that received a $200 million grant in 2003 from Ruth Lilly). Boyle's collection of short stories The Descent of Man appeared in 1979. 
  • Jane Smiley, “Jeffrey, believe me,” 1977 TriQuarterly before she had a book. 
  • Ann Beattie, “Winter: 1978” Carolina Quarterly (1980) and reprinted in Best American 1981. 
  • John Edgar Wideman, “Two Stories,” The North American Review. He published his first book A Glance Away in 1967 when he was 26. He decided in 2010 to self-publish with Lulu. The blog aalbc.com gives you a fine overview of his career and links to all his books, including those he recently self-published. Publisher's Weekly that has continued to review the self-published work did a story on his decision to go rogue, as the big houses might assert.
  • Mary Gaitskill, “A Crazy Person,” Open City after her collection Bad Behavior and a novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin had appeared. 
  • Nicholson Baker, “Harold Munger’s Story,” Story Quarterly (1981) ; his bio, quoting him, says, “he is not working on a novel.” His first novel The Mezzanine appeared in 1988. 
For the established print mags, go to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. All have websites.

But the world is changing. Take a look at Literary Ezines and Journals published by The Arts Online to see the many established mags among the not so well-established that are now Ezines. Some of the uber-prints like Grand Street are gone but many let you read from their archives if they’ve not gone totally online…yet!

Here are two Ezine examples:
  • Drunken Boat is an online journal of art and literature edited by the poet Ravi Shankar. In  issue DB12, T.C. Boyle and Alice McDermott write tributes to Eugene O’Neill. More impressive is that Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction (uber-famous) Writing Program at University of Iowa has a lyric essay “Twirl / Run” with photos by Jeff Mermelstein—a gorgeous layout that sings on the web as an interactive piece. 
  • More directly relevant is Defunct Magazine. Robin Hemley is the editor of this Ezine.
I read and loved Colm Toíbín's collection of short stories The Empty FamilyThe first story took my breath away: "Silence" was published in Boulevard Magenta--blogger and poet Michael O'Dea gives us the scoop on this "small" pub. 

What I’ve proved is that—Ezine or print—the little mag. matters.

You can’t afford not to try both.

An excerpt from my memoir (Re)Making Love appeared in the Ezine Drunken Boat in spring 2011, shorlty after I was featured in the big circ. mag. Real Simple, February 2011. My novel Who by Fire, ten years in the making, comes out fall 2012. I bothered with the little mag: see my list here. So should you.