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What does the future look like for literary magazines?

Subscriptions are down. Submissions are up. What do modern journals need to do to survive?

What does the future look like for literary magazines?
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4. Seeking the voices of the future: Diversity in pages and on mastheads

White men (usually straight and cis) dominated the pages of literary journals for decades.

That finally has begun to change. Every editor surveyed for this article said they seek submissions from a more inclusive group.

“We actively court diverse voices through solicitation. I’m reaching out to writers I admire and making sure each issue that comes out is diverse so it becomes known that’s what we’re looking for,” says Beth Staples, editor of Shenandoah at Washington and Lee University.

She says this open door is critical to increasing submissions from underrepresented voices. Another journal she worked at, she says, was known for “white guy in a rowboat” stories, but through consistent broadening of its author list, that image changed: “It’s hard to break, but eventually other people felt more comfortable submitting.”

Barrelhouse began, admittedly with a masthead of “four middle-aged, white, straight guys,” says Dave Housley, conference organizer for the magazine. “It took a while to push past the perception that we’re just a bunch of dudes.” That only happened after the magazine began consciously reaching out to non-white, non-male, non-straight writers.

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It’s not just publishing these authors, though. Adding people of color and LGBTQ editors as well as editors with disabilities is the only way to ensure a lasting diversification of voices, Housley believes. “It matters what your masthead looks like,” he says. “The best thing we’ve done is to start diversifying our masthead. We have people inside making decisions who hopefully lean toward more inclusion and diversity, which is really good for us. But we’re continuing to work on it.”

Barrelhouse has produced special issues, too, dedicated to giving underrepresented writers more opportunities, such as a Latin-themed holiday issue and an edition featuring Desi fiction.

The other part of the diversity issue is determining what stories should be told by which groups. Should magazines publish a story about the Stonewall Riots told from the perspective of a gay Hispanic man that’s written by a straight white woman?

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“As humans, we have to respect the boundaries of one another’s history, and that’s tricky territory as an editor,” says Carrie Muehle, outgoing managing editor of TriQuarterly at Northwestern University. “It’s important for a writer to start thinking about, ‘Should I really be telling this story? If it is someone else’s story, would it come across more authentic to let them tell it?’”

“We have to try to recruit more diversity in editorial leadership. That has to be it.”

Conversations involving race, gender, and identity are delicate. Alexandra Watson, executive editor of Apogee Journal, says editors may have good intentions, but “I’ve seen those conversations where editors are trying to figure out how to get more work from writers of color when, if those editors aren’t tuned into some of those communities personally, the effort can come across as contrived and tokenizing.”

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There’s only one way to change that, she says. “We have to try to recruit more diversity in editorial leadership. That has to be it.”

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