November 8, 2010

The Life Story (and Purpose) of a Literary Magazine

Way back before I published my first story, I thought to myself: What better way to get published ~ to get an in ~ than to start my own literary journal? I think a lot of people think this. And I have the utmost admiration for the people who follow through and create these great magazines, perhaps at the expense of their own work. I myself hesitated, and I think it was a good decision. If I were only creating a magazine for selfish reasons, they would be the wrong reasons, and if I had gone ahead, my writing would have suffered I think. I think you need to be a litmag editor for the right reasons.

So it really struck me this weekend when I came across the great Our Stories litmag and the thoughtful and insightful things written by its editor, Alexis Enrico Santi ~ particularly his “The Point of a Literary Journal.” I’ll summarize here, but please go read it for yourselves.

He begins (well, after the bit about puppy puke) by talking about how a litmag is formed:

You begin a literary journal with wild ideas and a few bucks. It is not hard to put together a journal, especially online, with the low cost of websites and ease of web design—throw together a name for your journal and a get an email address and you’re ready to go.

Then the pile of submissions quickly mounts and just as quickly the editor finds himself rejecting 95% of the submissions. Then something sometimes happens in the mindset of those enthusiastic editors. They become jaded and begin to resent the very people they are supposedly serving: the writers. He says,

And as your name gets bigger, you may begin to promise your pages to the best of the best, you set aside your pages for the friends of friends in MFA programs, for so-and-so who just won the Anchorage Writer Award, for whatshisface who just got a book deal with Penguin, for Johnny Appleseed who is dating someone on your staff. Soon the mass of submitters (if you play your cards right)—well you can ignore all of them—the slush pile can be used as last resort. This is the dream, right?

You see the problem? The slush pile becomes the enemy, and in reality, all those hopefuls who are submitting really have zero chance of getting in. Alexis points out that it would be good if journals would be totally honest about the chances of getting a story plucked from the slush pile.

Then Alexis talks about how, at MFA programs with litmags attached, the litmag readers are not supposed to do the very thing they do down the hall in their workshops, which is to give feedback. They’re supposed to turn it off and reject. As Alexis says,

As an MFA student, I no longer felt purposeful or that my skills mattered when working at literary journals. I did, however, feel judgmental and ultimately an authority. I was empowered to reject others and allowed to “have an opinion” and cultivated a sick pride of being a decider in the field of literature.

He ends with an excellent point: If you look at the site stats of an online literary mag, you’ll see that HARDLY ANYBODY is actually staying on the story pages long enough to actually read a story. If this is true, he says, then the people litmags serve are not the potential readers but the writers themselves. A very worthy manifesto:

This is the point of a literary journal: We exist for those who are submitting to the journal, and no one else. We exist so writers know that they are needed, that they are to be encouraged and have a place in this world. We exist to support and prop up the writer's themselves who submit to Our Stories, we exist to give encouragement (to those accepted and rejected) and to provide a very cool billboard for today's talented writers to park their work. We exist so that a wide populace of unemployed, underemployed--very talented--highly educated reviewers of literature, schooled in the art of providing feedback to someone can practice their skills of reading and reviewing. Maybe we even exist—just maybe—we exist so that these talented staff members can do something as crazy as earn a paycheck to put their skills to use? That’s why we exist, that’s why what we do at Our Stories matters as it is a humanizing system.

Please go read it for yourself. A very thoughtful piece ~ and revolutionary, I thought. (And, Alexis, why aren’t you on Facebook so I can friend you?!)

Questions of the Day: What do you think is a purpose of a litmag? What do you think the system needs to be “fixed”?


Alexis E. Santi said...

I am most definitely on Facebook and so is the journal and you post about made me feel like I had wings. Thank you for blogging about us.

Tamara said...

Alexis! I tried to find you on FB but couldn't. But now I have and have friended you and Our Stories. I just love all the intelligent things you have to say, and a number of people forwarded on the link I highlighted (on FB and Twitter). I can't wait to track down some of your work, if I can.

Thanks again, so much!