Jane Friedman

The Challenge Faced by High-Quality Literary Journals

Over the last year, I have consulted with a range of literary journals at very different stages of development. Here’s a description of three of them:

Each journal has a print subscription available, combined with some online offerings. They do things “right” and treat writers well. They engage with the literary community online. And they all suffer from the same problem: They distinguish themselves based on delivering high-quality literature.

Today, our problem is not finding more great things to read. It’s finding time to read the great many wonderful things that are published. If I stopped acquiring new reading material tomorrow—if I canceled all my subscriptions and turned off the internet—it would take years before I exhausted my supply of high-quality literature. Of course, this speaks to my many years of acquisition and the particular demographic I belong to, but the primary audience for high-quality literary journals is more similar to me than not.

Yet literary journals still operate and market themselves as if we were all starved for high-quality literature. Here’s a sampling of statements from a few well-known journals that describe what they publish or who they publish for:

These journals often take pains to emphasize, “Hey, we publish great writers, but we also publish undiscovered writers, too!” That’s really not any more distinctive than a dedication to high-quality literature. It’s just high-quality literature from a different source, while appearing perhaps more gracious, enlightened, or hard working. We look through our slush!

The result: These journals become indistinguishable from one another. To be fair, some have been around for decades and established their missions during a very different era. But now that we’re in a transformed publishing landscape, how many journals have meaningfully revisited what they do, why they do it, or who they’re doing it for? When they consider what distinguishes them from their peers, what is their answer? For many I’ve talked to, the answer is to reiterate “quality” and how that quality gets sourced. (For a publishing operation that has considered these questions meaningfully, take a look at this post from Coffee House Press.)

The bald truth is that no one cares about a high-quality literary journal, just as they don’t care about high-quality writing, as pointed out in this excellent piece by Hamilton Nolan:

Many writers believe that our brilliant writing will naturally create its own audience. The moving power of our words, the clarity and meaning of our reporting, the brilliance of our wit, the counterintuitive nature of our insights, the elegance with which we sum up the world’s problems; these things, we imagine, will leave the universe no choice but to conjure up an audience for us each day.

The problem is that nobody ever bothers to inform the audience. In fact, this imaginary Universal Law of Writing—“Make something great and the readers will come”—is false. … The audience for quality prestige content is small. Even smaller than the actual output of quality prestige content…

At the 2017 AWP, I sat on a panel about money and transparency, and someone in the audience asked how they could turn a publication based on volunteerism and free contributions into one that paid staff and writers. The short answer is you can’t unless readers are willing to pay and/or someone is willing to gift you into existence (e.g., grants or institutional support). There is no magic solution or sustainable model for the garden-variety “high-quality” literary journal. And whether readers pay you or patrons do, everyone looks for something deserving of their dollars, that has some kind of unique or inspiring place in the market, something beyond “quality.”

There is no meaningful audience to which you can market high-quality writing, at least outside of the AWP Bookfair. There may be a meaningful audience for high-quality writing that’s focused on a particular issue, cause, or movement. Or a publication that is unfailingly focused on promoting and celebrating a specific style of writing. (I remember fondly The Formalist, an erstwhile poetry journal that published only formal poetry.) But a publication that wishes to grow and flourish by positioning itself as a high-quality literary journal? As Nolan says, “I am here to tell you that it will not work.”