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

The readership

It’s been said that literary magazines are very insular: that is, the people that submit to them are also the same – and, sometimes, the only – people who read them. While editors hope this isn’t true, if we operate under the assumption that it’s at least partially true, we can draw some lessons from publications that gear their calls for submissions toward specific demographics. 

Take, for instance, Collateral Journal, an online publication that aims to explore “the perspectives of those whose lives are touched indirectly by the realities of military service.” Collateral Journal showcases work from those around military personnel, but that still includes the remarkably diverse body of folks that comprises veterans, military spouses, military children, refugees, and others who may be impacted by violent conflict. 

Advertisement

“As a writer who is often questioning the politics of war,” says Abby Murray, a military spouse and the founder of the journal with students from her literary editing and publishing class at the University of Washington, Tacoma, “I knew that I did not want to be publishing just one single perspective…I wanted to publish more than one aspect of violent conflict.” 

Murray says this is the reason Collateral Journal’s mission is so specific. Looking at a war experience would be too constraining, whereas looking at the collateral of the military experience, by contrast, also implies the immigrant and refugee experiences. “We’re exploring so many different threads when we’re talking about violent conflict.”

“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.” – Brianna Albers, Monstering magazine 

The submissions queue at Collateral Journal, says Murray, is diverse, coming from international writers as well as from writers based in the United States, but Murray can still see the need for better outreach. “I still feel like there are voices that aren’t being heard. The first thing that comes to mind is, I want to see the voices of people I see around when I’m on [Joint Base Lewis-McChord]. They think their stories don’t matter; they say they’re not writers. But they have amazing stories.”

Murray attributes part of Collateral Journal’s success in finding some diverse voices to her community: Tacoma, Washington, itself is very diverse, bolstered in part by the Joint Military Command Base there. Murray’s own outreach efforts are broad, ranging from local grassroots arts organizations to resources like Facebook, New Pages, and writing magazines along with her own “transient” history teaching at a variety of colleges and universities. 

Marcus Corona, editor-in-chief of MUSE magazine, has a similar experience: MUSE is based out of Riverside City College and published entirely by the students in Professor Jo Scott-Coe’s class. The class is dedicated to the production of the annual publication, and students work on every aspect of the magazine. 

Corona has been involved with the publication for four years. He says the publication never seems to lack for diversity, but he doesn’t credit the magazine’s international reach for that. “We’re so open in our submission requests, which helps diversity along. But where I’ve noticed the most distinct diversity in the writing and art has come from students at [Riverside City College].” (MUSE actively targets the RCC community for submissions.)

In fact, Corona notes that diversity has never really been an issue for the publication, due expressly to the fact that RCC boasts an incredibly diverse population. (The college’s population is 55 percent Latinx/Hispanic and only 22 percent white.)

In the disability literature realm, Gail Willmott, editor of Kaleidoscope magazine, has seen a consistent uptick in submissions in her 36 years of working with the publication, and she sees more acceptance of more types of literature. (Kaleidoscope was founded in 1979 as part of United Disability Services, a company that helps disabled people and their caregivers to engage in their communities.) “There is an awareness that it is worth taking a look at a variety of materials” from a variety of contributors, she says, although she prescribes that to individual decision makers, rather than a systemic change. 

And Albers, of Monstering, says the recent sociopolitical climate has not only loaned itself to submissions that are more politically charged but also has allowed the literary community to see “a huge expansion in terms of subject matter and how a reactor’s identity impacts a given narrative, which is really quite exciting.”

Advertisement

Body Parts’ Kasai has taken the very simple step of printing contributors’ photos in her publication. “People have been really responsive to it, and I think it shows diversity wherever that’s possible,” she says. “I like people [to] see who they’re reading, and the representation is significant.”

While the literary magazine community can always refine its contributions to a more diverse literary landscape, there seem to be several good roadmaps to help us on the way there. And waystations like clearer submission guidelines, better awareness, and magazines with more diverse mastheads and contributors lists can help us to make sure we don’t lose our way. 

 

Yi Shun Lai is a prose editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. She offers writing coaching and editing services via her website, thegooddirt.org. Her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, is available from Shade Mountain Press. Find her on Twitter @gooddirt.