How to read a literary magazine
Published: January 15, 2010
|With hundreds and hundreds of literary magazines in existence-from venerable 100-year-old institutions to brand-new journals whose first issues haven't hit bookstores yet, with editorial preferences ranging from short-shorts to novellas, realism to fabulism, memoir to literary criticism, Shakespearean sonnets to haiku-it's vitally important to be able to analyze a publication and decide if it is suitable for your work. Here's what to look for.|
Get your hands on a recent issue of the magazine. Before you settle in to read the content, take a careful look at the contributors' bios. How many of the authors are previously unpublished or emerging? How many are well established, with books and major awards? How much room does there seem to be for writers at your career level? Consider, for example, the Winter 2004 and Spring 2005 issues of Zoetrope: All-Story. Of the nine contributors, six have published numerous books, two have published one novel and one is published in a few small publications. The group includes such well-known authors as Sherman Alexie and T.Coraghessan Boyle.
Does this make Zoetrope a tightmarket for unpublished writers? Certainly. I'm not saying that new writers should avoid submitting their work to tough markets-but it is important to be realistic about the odds.
Most editors are uncomfortable describing what "type" of story, poem or essay they publish. They don't want to see the same material over and over; they want to be surprised and excited by fresh new work. Still, magazines do have editorial preferences, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, and there are clues you can gather from reading an issue or two of a magazine.
First and foremost-do you like what you've read? This may seem obvious, but it still deserves to be stressed. Chances are that if you're bored or offended or otherwise underwhelmed, then your work and the magazine won't be a good match. Find the magazines to which you gravitate as a reader and as a fan of good writing-the magazines you enjoy will be the ones most likely to enjoy your work.
Second, consider tone. Tone is an elusive, subjective, slippery subject-for simplicity, break it down to a few basic questions: Does the magazine trend toward funny or deadly serious? Earnest or sarcastic? Angry? Cheerful? Optimistic? Pessimistic? To what degree do you find cursing, sex and violence? Ask yourself how your work compares. Your darkly funny, bitterly sarcastic narrator might not find the best home with a magazine that seems to focus exclusively on happy feel-good stories.
Does the fiction seem to favor realism, with characters and situations described as they would exist in the "real" world? Or do you find aspects that might be considered postmodern or fabulist, evoking the sense that the story isn't constrained to the realistic world? Consider the narration. Are the stories mostly told in first person? Third person? Is the time sequence always linear or does it jump around? And, of course, the structure-do the stories tend to be strongly plot-driven? Character-based? Finally, do you notice any trends in the driving conflicts of the stories-divorce, infidelity, love, childhood?
As an example, I sat down with an issue of The Florida Review. The fiction ranged from 10 to 21 pages. Four of the seven stories were told in first person with an emphasis on the uniqueness of the narrator's voice. None of the stories attempted humor. The subject of each was someone marginalized: a stripper, a hermit, a lonely, sick store clerk. Many of the stories were gritty, with violence and sex. With these similarities throughout the issue, a picture of the editor's taste began to develop.
For poetry, as a rough guide, would you consider the work more "traditional" or "avant garde?" Do you tend to find classical forms (sonnets, sestinas, etc.)? What trends do you see with rhyme and meter? Is there a narrative-do the poems tend to tell stories? Do you get the sense of a first-person "authorial voice" in the poems? What seems more prevalent, "meaning" or wordplay and structural experimentation? I surveyed a recent issue of The Gettysburg Review and found that most of the poetry was narrative, placing a protagonist in a situation. A first-person voice was used in almost every poem, and the forms, while often using stanzas, tended not to conform to strict traditional forms or rhyming structures.
For nonfiction, is the magazine interested mostly in first-person family memoir? Or perhaps the essays are more journalistic, involving the presentation of research aimed at championing one side of an argument. You might find discussions of literary theory, social criticism, author interviews or book reviews.
As you examine magazines, remember that discerning editorial preference is not a science. It's important to try to get a sense of what editors prefer in order to best target your work, but editors' tastes can be broad, and can change from issue to issue, so it's not always easy to define a magazine's style. Beyond the magazine itself, however, there are a number of other ways to judge whether a particular magazine is right for your work.
Take a look at the major annual prize anthologies: The Pushcart Prize, Best American series (separate anthologies for short stories, poems and essays) and The O. Henry Award series. Other prize anthologies of note include Best New American Voices, New Stories from the South and Best American Nonrequired Reading. In addition to looking at which magazines have winners, it's perhaps even more useful to flip to the back and take a look at the list of all the magazines from which the content was selected. Does the magazine you're investigating appear? Even though it's a long shot, it would be nice, when your work is published, for it to be considered for an award.
For other writers' opinions of a magazine, check Small Press Review, a newsprint magazine that reviews literary magazines and small presses. Online, NewPages.com regularly offers short reviews of current issues of literary magazines. Newsgroups such as alt.writing and misc.writing also include discussions of literary magazines and tips on getting published.
Deciding where to send your work may seem like a daunting task. But don't just pick magazines out of a hat! Do your homework. Determine, first of all, if you'd be excited to have your work appear in the magazine. And then gauge, as best you can, whether the magazine might be excited to have your work. Getting published in a literary magazine is never easy, but with a bit of effort, you can improve your odds. #