How the Literary Journal Landscape Is and Isn’t Changing

Quote from Becky Tuch: "What it comes down to, and I’m not sure people talk about this enough in creative writing programs: If you are passionate and obsessed then you will get it. You will find your way."

Today’s guest post is a Q&A by Andrea A. Firth (@AndreaAFirth), a writer, editor, and teacher and cofounder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop.

Getting published in literary journals is hard—still. Editors routinely say that they often have to turn down good writing. The submission cycle takes months, and months. But some things have changed. No more snail mail submissions. All journals have an online presence and most publish in a digital format, some with a print edition too. Submitting is easier. Online portals facilitate simultaneous submitting and easy tracking.

But how else has the lit mag world evolved in recent years?

To get a better understanding of today’s literary journal environment, I spoke with Becky Tuch (@BeckyLTuch), who publishes the Lit Mag News Roundup, a free, biweekly newsletter with more than 3,000 subscribers that covers the literary journal world (news, trends, controversies) and includes calls, contests, jobs and more. Becky also regularly interviews journal editors in an open Zoom forum and posts the videos on her Substack and YouTube channel (over 40 interviews already, also free).

Becky isn’t new to reporting on the lit mag scene. She wrote and managed The Review Review (a website dedicated to reviews of literary journals, interviews with editors, and publishing advice) for over ten years before selling the site to a university in 2019.

ANDREA FIRTH: Less than two years after wrapping up The Review Review you launched the Lit Mag News Roundup and started interviewing journal editors again. You didn’t stay gone for long. Why?

BECKY TUCH: I love reading lit mags, talking about literature, and connecting with people. The Review Review newsletter was always so much fun. The feedback I got from readers was really positive. It’s always a happy coincidence when you love doing something and people love what you’re doing. I missed that. We were all under lockdown, my kid was home from school, I wasn’t seeing anyone, I didn’t have any social outlets. And I wanted that creative outlet and connection again. I tweeted something like Should I revive my lit mag newsletter? People were like, YES, do it! I thought, wow, people remember it.

What new trends do you see in lit mags today?

A lot of lit mags are publishing material that could only be transmitted online. Scoundrel Time is a good example. I just interviewed one of their editors. In addition to poetry, fiction and nonfiction, they publish music. They publish original songs that people record and send in. You can have an auditory lit mag experience.

Focus on visual accessibility is another recent development. I recently interviewed the editors of TAB Journal, a really cool magazine in California. They think a lot about visual access, which is something not all editors think about but that is specifically in their mission statement. You can listen to poetry. You don’t have to read it on the screen. As people think about inclusivity and access, I think some are also thinking about visual access, which is great.

Print lit mags also continue to play with presentation. This was popular during the 1970s and 80s with zine culture. But some magazines such as McSweeney’s, Ninth Letter and Belletrist have taken it to new levels. Sometime in 2020 I got the latest issue of Belletrist. I had no idea what it was. It arrived in a tube, like what you use to mail posters. The theme for that issue was “unfurled.” The contents of the issue literally had to be unfurled.

Are you hearing anything new and different today than when you left The Review Review?

There is kind of a mood out there. It’s hard, maybe harder than it used to be, to sustain a literary journal. At the end of all my interviews I always ask editors what keeps them enthusiastic about the work. One editor sighed and just said, “I’m so tired.”

Another editor recently opened up about being done with his magazine. He’s been doing this since the 1970s. His magazine was having all these problems due to the supply chain issues. The recent issue was backlogged for months. They couldn’t get the paper. He was just done.

It seems like lit mags have been closing or getting budgets cut left and right this past year. The Believer closed, Conjunctions nearly closed; Alaska Quarterly Review, Sycamore Review, Gettysburg Review, have all faced budget cuts.

Still, most editors I’ve talked to seem energized and enthusiastic. There were scores of new journals created during the pandemic. I tracked how many lit mags opened in 2020. I found over 75! I don’t know how many have lasted; sometimes these are created on a whim. But my sense is that during the pandemic, a lot of people were starting lit mags for the connection and to focus their mind and energy on something productive and meaningful.

It sounds like you don’t sugarcoat anything in your editor interviews.

I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. That’s a great interview if an editor says, “This job is hard on me.” That’s what people want to know. Who are you as a person? And how does that affect your editorial decisions? How does that shape what happens at your magazine?

That’s my goal with these interviews, to get at something deeper. As an editor, what is your worldview, what is your philosophy, what’s your temperament like, what are your values, who are you? We don’t always get to all of that. But I think this is so interesting and important for submitting writers to know. It’s also nice to provide this space for editors to talk about their pride and joy, these magazines, and what the work is really like for them. All this was always part of my mission, to make that personal connection, to bring writers and editors together in a genuine way.

Literary magazines today will have a statement that they’re very interested in getting submissions from BIPOC writers and marginalized groups. Some of them are going a step further and waiving submission fees. Do you think it’s making a difference?

Yeah, I do. All the issues surrounding this are very complicated. I think a lot needs to change on a societal level to get real changes. A concern I have is that sometimes it feels like window dressing, like, oh we’re just trying to balance things out so we look more fair, but we’re not actually changing things on a structural level.

I remember when the VIDA count came out in 2010. And everyone started paying attention to women and gender parity in publishing, which is great. But part of the conversation that didn’t appear to be happening was the issue of the wage gap. Are women getting paid in a way that enables them to go to graduate school? Are they getting health coverage that enables them to take time off work and focus on their writing? Fairness in publishing is interconnected with all these other things. Are you actually supporting policies that would make a difference in people’s lives? That would create the conditions for all people to pursue a creative life?

But I do think there is positive change happening.

Recently you interviewed the editor of Consequence Magazine, a journal focused on the realities of war and geopolitical violence. Is this a new journal?

It’s not new. I had corresponded with their founder, George Kovach, who has since passed away. We actually reviewed his journal a couple times. I’ve long been fascinated by this journal. That was just pure coincidence that I arranged this interview and then there was this geopolitical stuff happening. It was a sad coincidence.

What excites me about their magazine is the possibility to hear from so many types of people. All literary magazines are interested in diversity now, which is great. But especially with war-themed literary magazines you’re going to hear from people who don’t have MFAs, who’ve served in the military, who’ve lived all over the world, so that, to me, is really interesting. I’ve been wanting to talk to them for a long time.

Editor pet peeves?

The main one, always, is when the writing is not the right fit. Writers need to know what the journal publishes. When a writer doesn’t follow the guidelines, when they submit work that is too long or too short for the magazine, or work that shows the writer has not done the barest amount of research into the sort of work the magazine publishes, it’s just annoying and a waste of everyone’s time.

Another thing that comes up sometimes is writers submitting to magazines too much. Marcela Sulak, the Editor of Ilanot Review, wrote a great piece about this for Lit Mag News Roundup. Of course, it’s important for writers to get their work out the door, to be persistent and submit simultaneously and submit widely. But when a writer repeatedly withdraws work from one magazine because it’s been accepted somewhere else, it can be a hassle for editors. One time is fine. But three or four times over several months is too much. It can make an editor feel that the writer is not invested in their magazine and also does not respect their time.

Oh, and there are always the complaints about writers who respond in nasty ways to rejection letters. It’s amazing when you talk to editors and learn some of the stuff that goes on. I understand—it’s never fun to get a rejection. But editors don’t like sending them either. Lashing out at editors is just bad for everyone.

What is your recommendation for writers? How many journals do you send out to?

It takes time to submit. And money. I say, maybe start with seven or so. It’s not exact. The most important thing that I always tell people is make sure they’re all your first choice. So if any come back and say yes, you will be really excited to accept that. Wherever you’re submitting at once, make sure you’re equally excited about them.

You write fiction and nonfiction. What advice do you have for writers trying to handle the long process of writing and rejection?

Keep going. Be obsessed.

What it comes down to, and I’m not sure people talk about this enough in creative writing programs: If you are passionate and obsessed then you will get it. You will find your way. I don’t believe only in rigid discipline, writing 1,500 words a day or whatever. Sometimes I definitely use this routine. And that absolutely works for some. But ultimately, if you are obsessed with writing, stopping and giving up are just not options.

I don’t know how to tell someone to be obsessed. Maybe it’s really a matter of saying, Let yourself be obsessed. Give yourself permission.

When you’re obsessed with something, when you’re passionate, you just really don’t worry about what an editor thinks. Your driving force is too powerful to be concerned with that. Give yourself permission to become fanatic about your subject matter and what you’re trying to communicate.

The people who are great, the people who we worship in our culture, they do what they do because they have to do it. Let yourself become one of those people. Unabashedly obsessed with your work. Then it doesn’t matter what this or that editor thinks. Who cares? You’re completely wrapped up with what you’re doing.

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