A roadmap to better diversity in literary magazines

Literary magazine editors discuss re-drawing the landscape and outline ways to get under-represented voices heard and read.

Roadmap

It may seem like the diversity conversation has been a backdrop of the literary world forever, but it’s really a relatively young one. The VIDA count, which measures gender disparity in publishing, didn’t begin until 2009. In 2014, it began measuring ethnic disparity. And it wasn’t until 2014 that #WeNeedDiverseBooks started trending on Twitter, giving rise to the movement that has been changing children’s literature.

And yet it’s always been at the forefront for some people. One of those groups is literary magazine editors who are diverse themselves. (I myself, a first-generation immigrant, edit fiction at Tahoma Literary Review.)

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For this story, I spent some time with other diverse editors of literary magazines to see how they thought our field was doing in terms of ensuring that under-represented voices are heard and read. What I found out is that, even against the backdrop of much-improved awareness and real progress, these editors feel there is more that can be done.  

While that’s no real surprise, I found that the answers to solving the problem seemed to fall into several consistent themes. Together, they form a kind of rubric to forwarding an increasingly robust reading landscape. 

Representation in the ranks

By far, this seemed to be the biggest thing occupying editors’ minds: How much of their open queue, or slush pile, is representative of diverse voices? The answer seems to lie in consistent encouragement of these voices, whether that’s in nudging these voices to come forward and tell their stories in the first place or through the editing process. 

W. Todd Kaneko, co-editor of Waxwing, an independent literary magazine publishing poetry, nonfiction, fiction, as well as translation and reviews, says, “The mission of Waxwing is really to publish and highlight and champion diverse voices. In our queue, we’re trying to plant seeds in the magazine. If we can plant seeds from a slew of diverse voices, then we should be able to fulfill our mission statement.”

In the past, Waxwing has done so by soliciting voices who reflect what editors would like to see in the magazine, but in recent years, he says, they’ve not had to solicit much at all. In fact, they reach the limit of their submission capacity regularly.

Kaneko puts this down to the magazine’s transparency about what it wants to see in its pages and to its leadership as a place for diverse voices to tell their stories: He places calls for submissions on both Waxwing’s social media channels and his own. The knock-on effect is a magazine that represents “the composite” that is the literary landscape. “If I can see the voices in our queue and get an idea of what this composite is, that’s where I think the work is most beautiful,” he says. 

And while editors are certainly eager to help a less-polished voice in the queue gain some insight into how their work can be made better, the inherent nature of the business as, in many cases, a labor of love prevents the possibility of doing so for every voice. The Raven Chronicles’ Kathleen Alcalá, who has been the publication’s fiction editor for 25 years, says, “Quality comes first. You always have to keep the artist in mind.”

But, says Kaneko, “Editing is not just about reading and finding the best work that’s out there. It’s curating, and that curation means finding diverse points of view across the [magazine] issue.” 

Across the board, though, editors are keenly aware of their own role in shaping public tastes and of their own personal biases. Connotation Press: An Online Artifact’s assistant poetry editor, Davon Loeb, says, “I have my internal and subconscious bias, leaning towards strong female voices, because I was raised by a strong woman, and I married a strong woman. Those voices are always a bit candid in my head.” (Connotation Press publishes a wide variety of art ranging from photography to video poetry online.)

Loeb’s personal leanings illustrate another key aspect of improving diversity in literary magazines: The role of editor as role model.

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