Everything is Beautiful and We Bother Because We Need To: On Lit Journals

This is in response to Mike Kitchell’s recent piece “Everything is fucked and why do we bother,” (damn, that title looks bleak in isolation) questioning the need for so many lit journals; for historical precedent note last year’s ToBS round in which Melissa Broder deemed being editor-in-chief of a lit journal more akin to being “editor-in-chief of a blogspot,” which, maybe I would amend that to Tumblr, but still a worthy invective for our day and time, in which lit journals elicit such teeth-gnashing blog post titles as Mr. Kitchell’s, to say nothing of such statements at large….

To look at whether the great mass of lit journals are indeed futile, we need to think about what functions they fulfill. There seem to be at least two relevant parties here: the creators/editors/publishers of the lit journal, and the writers who are submitting (and maybe also the readers, who, I sadly concur with Mr. Kitchell, are largely the writers being published and the hopeful-to-be-published).

Why do people keep making new lit journals, Tumblrs, Blogspots? They want to get their idea of great writing out to a public audience. They want to discover and nurture new talent. They have some larger vision or mission they’re trying to actualize in the body of work they publish. It’s a creative act that’s different from writing, a different and fun way to participate in the lit scene.

Most of these motivations relate to the journal publisher’s own ambitions. I’m dubious of just how much the literary scene is guided by market forces (how about those gatekeepers?), but if more and more journals keep springing up and they’re not dying out, then presumably they’re filling some niche, if not some need. More interesting is the question of how lit journals relate to their published writers and readers. Mr. Kitchell encapsulates this relation as such: “lit journals are futile as literally nobody reads them except for writers, and generally writers who are interested in being published by said magazine.”

I can confirm that the audience for lit journals, especially online ones, is quite limited. In the interest of being “data-driven,” I’ll share the following graph of hits for the journal I co-founded and edit, Banango Street:


This is a graph of page hits (not even uniques!) for Banango Street in August. That Thursday is when we released the issue. The numbers speak for themselves—they’re not even that high on the release day, and the tail-off is pretty abysmal. However, it really didn’t get me down too much because I knew instinctively that the numbers are laughably irrelevant. I’m not trying to run a business here; my readers aren’t my customers, and at least for now it’s okay if they’re not ballooning in number. This brings me to my point about the second party in play, the published writers and readers of the lit journal. Why do people bother submitting to lit journals, tiny online ones? (There’s some overlap here with the question “Why write?” but putting your work out publicly is a different matter). Informally culling some answers from Facebook, we have the following: to seek validation from others’ approval, the dopamine hit of getting published, as an avenue to meeting more people, narcissism, to inspire and express, to make others feel what you do, to launch your writing career.

Let’s say my work gets accepted in a tiny online journal. Even if the only people reading it are the other writers in the issue and my own friends, getting published can fulfill all of the above functions. It gives me the confidence to continue writing and submitting. And it’s not like Little League sports where everyone’s getting a trophy; the rejections come, and learning how to weather them is an important part of the process as well. It doesn’t matter so much, at least to me, if the places my work is published when I’m starting out are effectively trussed-up Tumblrs. This doesn’t mean I take my writing any less seriously. Getting published in such journals serves as an accessible valve into the literary scene. It’s helped me grow as a writer and a person, and it’s made me a lot of valuable friends. The world that the journals are part of has given me a place to forge my identity.

Switching back to the perspective of the journal publisher, maybe it’s okay that most lit journals don’t have an outsize audience. I like everything I publish, but there are particular works that resonate with me especially deeply and that invoke certain emotions. These are the ones that I feel a special need to send out into a broader audience, and I think I’m well positioned to do so. The curse, and the blessing, of running an online journal is that there are no good metrics for measuring how successful your journal is, at least in the aims that matter to me. There’s just no way to understand exactly how the work you put out is connecting with people. And this is expected, and maybe even welcomed. It’s partly what differentiates art in my mind from other, more mundane things. I’m doing this because it’s what I love and it feels pure, distinct from the dreary tasks of daily life, and I would venture a guess that others feel the same.

I default to the wise Roxane Gay here: “Let’s work from a place of faith that art, in all its forms, matters. Let us not reduce what we do and love out of fear or practicality. There are plenty of people who are hell bent on being practical. There’s room for people in the arts to be a little impractical….If you must worry over purpose, maybe the point is that people choose to express themselves creatively and other people choose to showcase the creativity. It’s really quite simple. We complicate all the time, but at its simplest, art is about creation and demonstration.”

Anyway, I know Mr. Kitchell is being ironic, and his post wasn’t a treatise on the value of lit journals. We’re both going to continue to write and publish our journals, and so will countless others. So yes, the people reading lit journals are mostly the same ones who are getting published in them. But that’s okay. Lit journals are fulfilling a lot of noble aims, both for the publishers and for the writers.