January 27, 2011

Literary Magazines (or Ezines): Why Bother?

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, 1931) was 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 (gone) both 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 American. Agni 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. His 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’s now decided to self-publish with Lulu. 
  • 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 this link 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 the current 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 am reading Colm Toíbín's new collection of short stories The Empty Family: The first story took my breath away: "Silence" was published in Boulevard Magenta--a 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: a sex after sixty story will appear in the Ezine Drunken Boat this spring. I am featured in the big circ. mag. Real Simple, February 2011.


  1. Mazel Tov Mary... I'm so very happy for you!!

  2. Wonderful post, Mary. I worked as nonfiction and then senior editor at Epiphany magazine for four years, and it was my great pleasure to see to memoirs that began in my writers' workshops win recognition--one as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2008 and the other anthologized in The Best of the Web 2008. We had two notable works in Best American Essays 2010. And another memoir contributor (my first solicited work) went on to publish a memoir that made the UK bestseller list for memoirs and biographies. Little magazines are labors of love and the reward is discovering talent.

  3. Karol,

    Thank you for adding to my post with the wonder of Epiphany. Here are some links others might want to check out from this glorious Ezine, all clickable, all available online. Do check them all out, and especially the beautiful candid essay by Karol Nielsen:

    Anna Steegmann, notable essay, Best American Essays 2008

    Anna Kushner, memoir, The Best of the Web 2008

    Douglas Rogers, memoir excerpt of The Last Resort, which was named seasons best by Vogue in Fall 2009 and UK autobiography/biography bestseller

    Karol NIelsen, excerpt. Black Elephants, named notable essay Best American Essays 2005
    (The editor hired Karol after this honor came about.) Karol's book is coming out soon! I'll be buying it. You should too.

    Kaylie Jones, her memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me excerpt "City of Lights," named seasons best by Vogue in Fall 2009 (with Douglas) and notable essay in Best American Essays 2010

    The little mag.? the Ezine? Why bother? These are examples, indeed, of why you should bother!

  4. This is an amazing collection, Mary. And what great news that you have two publications on the horizon. Real Simple--wow.

    I have not been writing, let along submitting my work, for quite a while. So this post was just what I needed to see. Thank you!


  5. I am so glad, Shirley, that you like what I did here because the courage of the little mag is the hope of the writer, and I hope this list gets you to submit to the little mag.

    To build on your blog entry--others to read Shirley's lovely blog, click on her name--opportunities lie in wait for you with all you've read and accomplished--and risk is the key. In _Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing_ by Hélène Cixous, the marvel of a writer and thinker, says, "“The writer is a secret criminal. How? First because writing tries to undertake that journey toward strange sources of art that are foreign to us. ‘The thing’ does not happen here, it happens somewhere else, in a strange and foreign country. The writer has foreign origin; we do not know about the particular nature of these foreigners … The author writes as if he or she were in a foreign country, as if he or she were a foreigner in his or her own family.” —Cixous, p. 20.

    Those of us who do indeed forge into this territory are rewarded with discovery. I think you are on that journey. I certainly hope that I am.

  6. Excellent examples, Mary. In our extremely fluid world (literary included), small is good and less is often more. Every writer has some kind of beginning and that is what's important: not the where so much. Great encouragement and ideas for other writers. I'm sure this post will be read for some time to come! Warmest winter wishes, Daisy

  7. Daisy, I am so glad to have you here and to simply "virtually" know you. One of the reasons that the little mag, ezine or print, should be valued can best be stated, to build on my response to Shirley, by Hélène Cixous, who describes the risks the writers worth reading take: "This is how Jean Genet opens The Thief’s Journal: 'Convicts’ garb is striped pink and white.' The moment we read this extraordinary first line we are instantly convicted.

    'Though it was at my heart’s bidding that I chose the universe wherein I delight, I at least have the power of finding therein the many meanings I wish to find: there is a close relationship between flowers and convicts.'

    "Either you reject the book or you are already striped pink and white. It is so immediate and powerful: it tells instantly of things we are not used to, the deepest secrets of the world. You know how novels are supposed to begin with circumstances: In 18__ you might have seen a gentleman, etc., in the town of Nestles, etc., …. This one begins with: 'The convicts’ garb'—that is the subject, the hero of this admirable book. In addition 'striped' comes in as something that will actually cross, stripe, cut the writing; the way will be 'cut' right through the text. When you read in French: 'Si, commandé par mon coeur l’univers où je me complais, je l’éus,' you are immediately transported, without realizing it, not just to another world but also to another century; it is written in the layout, with the scansion and vocabulary of the great century of French writing. In addition it plays instantly on the signifiers, so when we read 'je l’éus,' (translated by 'I chose' in English, which is unsatisfactory; it should be 'I elected him'), in French we also hear something else, i.e., 'I read it'— 'je l’éus.' This is typical dream writing." -Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladders of Writing, p. 80.

    The little mag knows a thing or two about "dream writing" and "speed," as Cixous refers to these kinds of brilliant risks.


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