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

Representation in leadership

Alcalá points out that historically, literary magazines have been started by white men with assets and backing. The landscape has changed, of course, and “there has been progress in that more and more magazines have been started by people of color,” she says. Although these magazines do sometimes fall into ethnocentric categories (magazines with content exclusively by Black or Asian writers, say), publications like Raven Chronicle have strived to create a space for all ethnicities. “A couple of us were hired freelance to do special issues of the Kings County Arts magazines [in the early 90s],” she says. “We wanted to highlight writers and artists of color, and after that project was over, we thought, well, why can’t we publish this way all the time?” (Raven Chronicles’ last print issue was published in the spring of 2018, and the magazine is now pivoting toward a book-publishing model.)

It was a similar mission that led Alexandra Watson, founding editor of Apogee Journal, to create her magazine. Watson was pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Columbia University, where she noticed a lack of outlets for the “general marginalized voices.” Apogee, which publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in both digital and hard copy form, is now in its eighth year, and has become an independent publication. (The magazine was previously affiliated with Columbia University’s MFA program.) 

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“We haven’t had a time where we felt like we weren’t getting enough work” in the submissions queue, she says, indicating that the diversity of Apogee’s own editorial staff, which includes both sexually and ethnically diverse editors, has helped to drive submissions from diverse writers. 

Guest editors, as well, can loan much-needed expertise in forwarding diversity in the submissions queue. “[Apogee] once had a call out for…work from federally recognized tribes, and someone sent us a message saying that a lot of tribes weren’t federally recognized,” says Watson. The magazine recognized the need to have someone with more knowledge of North American tribe culture on their staff for the issue, so the journal hired an experienced guest editor to work with them on refining the submissions and calls for submissions. 

Loeb says he sees careful editing playing a part in his submissions queue, as well: “I have seen poets submitting work because he or she knows that the team tries to offer feedback, including praise and criticism. Many poets come back; they edit and resubmit.” 

On a more practical level, Brianna Albers, who is the founding editor of Monstering magazine, a publication “written by and for disabled women and nonbinary people,” says that editors can simply be more intentional about specifying which marginalized communities they’d like to hear from. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scrolled past a call for submissions because disabled people were not included in a generalized list of marginalized communities,” she says.

The role of genre

While the editors we spoke to universally agreed that more could be done to increase diversity in literary magazines, we did find that certain genres were more likely to attract varying degrees of diversity. 

Poetry seems to be a field that is experiencing success in highlighting and finding diverse voices, while fiction seems to constantly need more diversity. At the beginning of Raven Chronicles’ existence, says Alcalá, while the submission guidelines asked for stories and essays that detailed the experience of persons of color, “At first we had to deal with this group of people who had been in the Peace Corps and so they felt they knew all about the diverse populations. Which would have been fine, except [the work] was written in the first person. So then we had to include ‘in your experience’ in the calls for submissions.” Alcalá says this has largely straightened itself out: “We do not exclude white people, but people of color started to feel like [Raven Chronicles] was a place for them.”

(As an aside, we’ve had the same phenomenon of white writers writing diverse voices and experiences at Tahoma Literary Review. Writers who feel the pull to write voices other than their own potentially don’t see the need for authenticity, but they also overlook the importance of their own voices: Say, for instance, a white man writes to me from the perspective of a Syrian refugee who’s been forced to immigrate to the United States. The perspective of a white person who’s observing the struggle of a refugee to fit into his or her new life is just as interesting – and just as needed. Then, too, there are plenty of writers out there who have the authority and personal experience to write marginalized voices, and those writers should be the ones penning them, rather than an outsider.)

Genre fiction (horror, erotica, sci-fi, and fantasy) has traditionally been a place for diverse writers, and Alcalá, who contributed to an anthology of Latinx sci-fi recently, says this is a good place to find diversity. But Kirsten Imani Kasai, who publishes Body Parts, a journal of horror and erotica, says she’d like to see more basic gender equity among her submissions. “I try to create a balanced palette that’s not dominated by white men. That excludes too many wonderful voices. But I really strive towards writing by women,” she says, which could create another problem: that of showcasing the editor’s own bias rather than the breadth of work available. However, Kasai says her international submissions are helping to increase the breadth of work that she has to choose from, as are submissions from sexually diverse writers. 

In poetry and nonfiction, the range of voices seems much broader. Editors we spoke to were happy with the size and the shape of their queues. 

Monstering’s Albers illustrates a singular rule of thumb that can loan itself to all genres of editing: “Many pieces grapple with macro- and microaggressions – which, don’t get me wrong, is an important thing to highlight and discuss. However, when marginalized creators are tapped solely for narratives of oppression, diversity is no longer freeing or representative of the cultural makeup, but instead restricting.” Instead, Albers says, look for narratives that celebrate “pieces that recognize the unique viewpoint of marginalized creators without making marginalization itself the sole topic of discussion.” 

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