Lit Mags as an Empty Mob Scene & yes I know this is an oink
If there’s anything the majority of the community of literary magazines suffers from, it is a lack of imagination: a whole-on blanket of blanking in the way of actual attention demanding, which is very likely a large part of the reason why many of these magazines, and the book industry as a whole, often, doesn’t spread. Blank. Noise for noise’s sake. Tribunals and routine.
This statement manifests itself in several ways:
1. You are a major literary magazine. In this context I mean major as in you are respected as a name, though this does not mean you sell a lot of issues (i.e. I’m not talking about the New Yorker or Harper’s, etc., I’m talking about most any ‘respectable’ college journal). In any issue you have 3-5 ‘known’ names. Often these are names that have been published to quite a large extent, have published books that tout themselves if possible as Bestsellers (even literary ones) or as having been in Best American, etc., etc. You think that by housing these names and pimping them on the cover you will sell issues to people who also want to be in those places someday, if they can. To fill out the rest of the issue, you have open submissions. You have a committee of people who read what you are sent, which is a lot. Because there are so many people involved in the process, it takes a good bit of finagling for something to actually get through the gamut, which is fine, because a lot of what you are sent is actually pulp. As a result of the screening, though, most of the work that gets to the top is stuff that can be understood and recognized as strong by a focus group of people. Like, associate reader A reads, sees echoes of the bigger name people you have published, which is now your aesthetic, in the work, passes it to reader B. Reader B sees it too, and continues to hand the item up the ladder. By the time it reaches the top of the pile, the piece has been read and understood under the guidelines by at least a handful of people. Work that some people might have gotten and passed on might get turned back at some point. One of the major reasons I’ve heard for this is “We like this, but we don’t know what to do with it” or “I really am intrigued by this, but I don’t know that our audience would understand.” What makes it to the top, then, is a sampling of premises of an aesthetic, which are often then voted on by the group, or stamped yay or nay by the editor, who often has little to no idea what other work has come in beyond what has worked its way through and through. Yes, some ‘challenging’ pieces do get into the magazine, but often these come from solicitations, often by lower associate editors who don’t handle the big dogs. Soliciting fills the niche that likely defines your magazine, and is often what makes you believe the magazine sells, but you do feel good about the ‘new voices’ you can ‘work in,’ even if a lot of the time they sound exactly like the old voices, or else how would they have gotten through. As a result, the magazine is mostly nothing no one’s never seen before, and though there are some flagstones to grab some people into buying, the issue will likely very quickly be forgotten. The issue takes front rank for a month and then is subverted by the process of building the next one. And we go and go and go.
And people keep reading less in general because that’s what happens.
This is of course not the case across the board with all journals, but it seems to be quite common, and especially in older, more established and collegiate-related journals. The staffs at these places also rotate every couple years, so it can be hard, even once you get a roster of people that seem interested in shifting the game, to keep that momentum rolling. But still, things must go on, and the magazine must push forward, and at the end of the day you don’t dwell too hard, because it is what it is.
What is being created here is a blank. By publishing magazines full end to end of the familiar and the strained out, you are building a noise that covers other noise. The end product is not a positive function, in that it exists, but actually a black hole, as not only are you peddling moderate product, you are essentially talking into a void. You are putting paper in public places where people who pick it up know there’s nothing in it that will interest them. People stop going to newsstands. People stop thinking about it. You exist, mainly, as a conduit for people to make tenure by building portfolios and to pad their publications arcs and maybe to end up nominated for some award that means absolutely nothing to anybody except those people who really care about the portfolios, etc. It’s very small. You might get a piece into a Best American or a Pushcart, and then there’s that. There’s that story by T.C. Boyle or Alice Munro that anybody in your position at any magazine of your stature would have taken. It is as if you do not exist.
And so books exist less also. And aura. And there is more to pulp at the end of the quarter or whatever.
2. You are a mid-tier journal run independent of the college program. You pay for everything yourself. You make ends meet somehow, usually by finding ways to cover your loss doing readings and fundraisers. You sometimes might be seen to beg people to subscribe. But really, you knew you weren’t going to make money doing this, or even break even, so really it’s just the way things go, and you’re fine with that. You do it because you like reading. Or something.
In any issue you probably do the same thing the bigger journals do. By this I mean, you get the biggest name writers you can find who will send you work for free, and you run it up your flagpole as a way to get others on the raft. The ‘names’ are what sell the few issues you do sell, right? Sure, that’s what people want. We’re so proud to publish Steve Almond! Is that why you exist?
So many journals coming out of the gates as new and wow and neato and we pay and still forking forward the same routine bees.
So, while your website and mission statement or whatever talk about new voices, it’s still above that that you are talking about who you got to send you work, and those bigger names are usually the ones you use in promo materials or blurbs. It feels good to publish a name. It also feels good to get these new people in and out there, and you like that you are independent from an overhead. If you like something, you can publish it.
The problem I see often here is that these magazines, while less of a white noise, are still interested in publishing mostly only work their ‘audience’ can ‘understand.’ It seems important before anything else that the work be clear. One common thing you might say is that you want submissions to be the author’s best work. Send us your best work. Best work often meaning, something that moves you. Something with legs.
I need to define here that I’m talking about a very specific sect of journal here. There are certainly journals that challenge and delight with a great % of work they include. But more often, it feels like, many journals are just a junior version of the bigger dogs. Less funded, more controlled, but still interested in pushing forward the same values as the ones they claim to be proud to be separate from. And so, when someone comes to this ‘market’ in the idea that they are escaping the above, and finds more of it, with worse design, what does that feel like? Where is the exit? What kind of ship?
And so, here we are, with more noise. And more blank. Talking to hear ourselves talk.
Seems like we all know this and aren’t saying or are saying and are still right here.
3. You are a bottom tier and/or electronic journal. You do what you can. You might publish cool things, you might publish farts in a bag. People read you or they don’t. They come and click on a couple things and leave. They maybe tell some other people. You fill a void that exists between the above, a lot of it filler, some of it better than most places. You do it up, until you don’t do it anymore.
4. Now what?
The answer to this question is patent. Things are going on. There are more new entities and creations coming out now more than ever, I imagine. But we already know that, and many good things will continue to be made. We also already know that these above places are blank for the most part. So how do we get out? How do we end or amend a cycle so embedded it doesn’t sit in one fixed place, but is more so all around? And at the same time, not around at all? Because here we are.
Of course I like to read some of those big names too. They are sometimes big for a reason.
Still, I have some ideas.
Take a shit in a bag and mail it to All Story. Mail it to Poetry. Mail it to the Georgia Review.
Get your kid to throw up in a manuscript sized envelope and address it to the fiction editor of Glimmer Train.
Make an audio cassette of yourself banging your face against a cake with squishy noises and pop it over to that journal you used to think you wanted to be in and that you never even read.
Here’s another idea: buy a frozen dinner. Put it in a mailer. Send it to Granta or Harvard Review, whoever. Imagine the stink by the time they get to that in all that slush pile.
Embed a word file with a photo of a guy getting reamed by donkeys and submit it electronically to Narrative or whoever.
Send it to me.
I’m not kidding. This is really a decent solution. If not a solution, it is a psychic message. If not a psychic message, it might feel good. Or might leave a fart smell in the void that has been burned.
None of this will be done. Sure. And it doesn’t matter. Sure. And I’m just talking. I am.
Really I’m just trying to waste time because I don’t feel like writing, though I know I should.
Another idea, though this is aimed at editors: publish work you do not understand. Stop sending messages that say “We absolutely loved this, but can’t quite wrap our heads around it.” Take it around. Stop coveting. Stop having dinner in a glossy photo album. Nudge over in your mind that anyone wants you to billboard a new story by Richard Bausch or Joey Lawrence whoever else. Don’t be afraid to take a shit. Stop worrying about where things are headed. Stop looking for the next twitter, or the current twitter.
I don’t mean this as in saying all things should be edgy. All things ‘experimental.’ Shit. There is just as much if not more shithouse shit shit coming out in the name of being against the front as there is anywhere else. There is just as much if not more good things being foisted by places that are here to carry the load, and these will always be the minority, and will always be. And etc. Blah. Speakings.
Think about design. Think about making something you would touch if you didn’t make it. Think about if anybody would give a fuck if you did not exist. Realize they wouldn’t, and then try to do something about it, and fail, and feel better. Keep trying. Get better looking and more hairy. Put mayonnaise on a door. Try to imagine, not bursting your own nut always, but bursting a nut anywhere, at all.
Republish something that killed you once. Think about blood. Be kind.
Remember ever feeling inspired? Remember having no idea?
Remember Jean Genet is dead.
Remember Tim O’Brien isn’t dead, yet
Editors, who aren’t reading this: tear down a wall in your house and have it replaced by cottage cheese.
Wear a strap on to bed and cry to get your chest wet and then try to ream yourself in your wet fold.
I realize this is all just wind. “A tempest in a teapot,” they told me.