In Praise of Literary Journals

Call them magazines, zines, or journals, these important venues for writers (of all genres) and readers (of all preferences) have gone largely unmentioned in the broader discussion of dying print media. There’s been plenty of talk about the death of print culture: of the growing pains, the serious doubts and concerns, the sentimental convictions and economic repercussions caused by the birth of the digital age. Instead of reiterating those arguments here I would like to offer a simple, alternative reason for reading a literary format that has always struggled to gain popularity and mass audiences: the literary journal.

In a world where the popular print media and publishing houses are already strapped, and the pressure on literary agents and editors to find books that will sell is immense, writers who want their voices to be heard have only one or two real venues in which they can successfully showcase their work to agents, editors, and readers alike. Literary journals are where they turn. In its many varieties, the literary journal is an increasingly essential stepping stone for almost every aspiring author. Even well published authors use the literary journal (where, more often than not, they cut their teeth and got their start) as a first platform for their work—frequently by solicitation of the journal’s editors who wisely realize that recognizable names will increase sales.

Now, as a bookseller I want to say that the best and most rewarding part of my job comes when I am asked by a customer—avid reader or casual—what titles I would recommend for them. And there are many ways to stumble upon books and authors who hold particular poignancy and interest for the individual reader. Browsing shelves, reading book reviews, taking recommendations from friends, or asking a bookseller—point blank—what’s good, are all ways to access literature, poetry, and other forms of writing that you will love. But I would like to propose that reading literary journals is just as good as these other ways, if not actually better.

The literary journal, uniquely, allows the reader access to a multitude of styles, genres, and forms (poetry, fiction, and non-fiction are often housed together), and unlike other collections (anthologies, for example), literary journals embrace—as often as possible—authentically new voices. Often experimental and risk taking, where other formats are less so, the literary journal invites the reader to engage with both established and emerging authors in one fell swoop, and allows the reader to determine for herself what authors have the most impact for her. Thus the resulting success is two-fold, the author succeeds in gaining career building exposure, and the reader is exposed to someone they may never have accessed by simply browsing shelves. Ultimately, the effect of this may be seen on those same shelves, as new, striving authors establish a readership and eventually wind up publishing a book.

The best way to determine if a journal welcomes contemporary authors who are right for you is to look at the author bio in a book you love. Many bios offer a list of previous publications, the equivalent of authorial “street cred,” and the newer and more fresh the author, the more likely their credentials will be to include a variety of literary journals.

It should also be acknowledged that because of the enormous financial strain on the print community, many journals offer issues both in print and online, and some that are annuals or quarterlies may update their web versions more frequently. There are even journals that were once in print, and are now online exclusively—so the possibilities are truly, overwhelmingly endless. To simplify, I have included a list of some of my favorite, lesser known journals that are still in print and available at Elliott Bay.

 

The Seattle Review

The University of Washington’s own literary marvel, The Seattle Review is a bi-annual publication that was founded in 1977. They publish authors big and small, and some of their previous heavy hitters include Denise Levertov, Joyce Carol Oates, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Guterson, and one of my favorites, Grace Paley. Their current focus is on poetry and novellas, none if which will disappoint. (Sample issue excerpts are available online)

 

Fence

Usually published twice a year, Fence is filled with an engaging assortment of poetry and prose that may make you want to dance—just a little. Now on their twelfth volume, the editors of this magazine know good writing when they see it, and their relative longevity has never resulted in complacency, every new issue is better than the one that came before. (Selected contents from their more current issues are available online)

 

A Public Space

Another relatively fledgling journal, A Public Space was founded in 2006 and houses fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art alike. Often the cover designs alone would be enough to make me want a copy, but what’s inside is truly exceptional writing of such breadth and sophistication that their unique section entitled “If You See Something Say Something” could put The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” to shame. (Excerpts from each issue are available online)

 

Jubilat

This deceptively small poetry journal offers a selection of some of the best contemporary poems and poets in the United States, pairing them with found work, reprints, art, and interviews with poets and artists. It’s not easy being a poetry journal these days, but the editor’s at Jubilat make it look like cake. Their current issue features local literary super-star Sherman Alexie, as well as a personal favorite, Matthew Zapruder. (Excerpts from current and past issues are available online)

 

New York Tyrant

(Out of Stock)

Born in Hell’s Kitchen, this tri-quarterly journal is only now publishing their eighth edition. How can something so young be so good, you ask? If I were you, I’d blame the editors, who make it a mission to choose a broad range of fiction that is by turns dark, funny, experimental, and insightful. This journal showcases many new talents as well as more established, lesser known, authors. (In print only)

 

Candra

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Literary Journals

  1. I agree with what you’ve said about lit journals. The contents are often a wonderful surprise, and they really do give both established and upcoming writers fair shot at publication. And when one of us newbie/unpublished writers gets a story accepted and published, it’s serious encouragement to continue on.

    Bellowing Ark accepted a short story of mine, and that was a day I will never forget – receiving their snail mail correspondence and free contributor’s copy of the journal in the mail. I about fell over on the sidewalk by my mailbox! It was my first real published story. Their validation is a big part of what gave me hope to press on – to enter stories in other journals/magazines/contests and then to attempt a longer project, which I am now 3 years into. They affected my attitude. Or maybe I should say, they infected my attitude with an optimistic drive that I could never obtain through inspirational conferences or writing classes. Their act of putting my story into print was like nothing else for my motivation. I am forever indebted.

    I hope lit journals thrive in this new era. There are so many unique journals out there – it’s amazing if you go looking for them – online and elsewhere. I came across one recently that “publishes” records (yes, actual vinyl) of their contributors reading their stories aloud. Talk about flagrantly ignoring what’s most profitable in the modern age! I love their daring. 😉

  2. Wonderful post! Your appreciation for great literature such as the journals featured here is just one of the many reasons I love Elliot Bay Books. Glad to have you here in the neighborhood, where I can more easily lose myself in your aisles.

    I wouldn’t normally use commenting as a way to promote or advertise, but the timing of this post is just too perfect… I hope you’ll forgive me.

    I’m involved in a new literary journal that will be making its debut in print on 1/31. Readers who like this post may be interested in what we have to offer.

    Saltwater Quarterly is a new literary journal devoted to publishing works of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction that exemplify the craft of writing while remaining free of oppressive language or themes. Issue One features work from authors in Seattle and beyond, including the first published work of fiction by Caroline Picker. (It’s a chilling and empowering piece, and we’re honored to have received it.) You can find out more about Saltwater Quarterly and read a sampling of Issue One at http://www.saltwaterquarterly.org.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s