Five Literary Magazines That Restore My Faith in Publishing
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I read fiction submissions for a literary magazine. It sounded like fun at the time—help choose (from hundreds of hopefuls) the next batch of published authors? I was drunk with power! But then, as I slogged through the many terrible and trite stories, trying to find anything that was worthy of print, I began to despair. The stories were either formulaic to the point of soap opera antics or so obscure I had no idea what the story was even about. Even though it seemed cruel, I actually enjoyed sending rejection letters to some of the hopefuls because they wasted my time with their inane, go-nowhere stories. I racked up so much bad karma that year that it’s really no wonder I’ve all but abandoned my own designs on fiction publication.
At the same time, it seemed that some of my stand-by favorites—The New Yorker and Paris Review started publishing crap. Or the same story over and over and over again, by the same writers over and over and over again. I lost a lot of faith in the caliber of writing out there. It was a few years before I even bothered to read literary magazines at all.
But then, someone handed me a McSweeneys. I was doubtful at first, but the person swore it was worth a look. And it was—I read that thing from cover to cover—it was sooo good. With renewed faith, I started looking for other magazines that were a little different, and I found that there were several that allowed me to love literary magazines again. Here’s a few that keep me coming back:
When my McSweeney’s comes in the mail, it’s like Christmas. I could quit my day job and spend the rest of my life reading back issues of this unique and wonderful magazine. McSweeney’s started in 1998 as a literary magazine that only published work rejected elsewhere. It has since grown to include four print literary magazines (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Wholfin, Lucky Peach, & The Believer), a web humor magazine (MsSweeney’s Internet Tendency), a publishing house (McSweeneys), a scholarship program (Scholarmatch), two human rights organizations (Voice of Witness & the VAD Foundation), and a national tutoring center (826 National).
The brain behind all this resides in the head of writer Dave Eggers, author of the prize-winning memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Though his empire has grown to include a huge quantity of quality writing and educational initiatives, the flagship publication is still my favorite. Everything about the publication—from the writing to the production—is unique. Some people may remember the issue a few years back that arrived in subscribers’ mailboxes looking just like a pile of junk mail. Then there’s the issue that was styled as The San Francisco Panorama, a made-up newspaper that included all the great features that most newspapers have—including the comics! There’s also issue 36, that cube-shaped one with a guy’s head as the cover! Even the more traditional covers are beautiful and one-of-a-kind.
A relatively recent issue, Number 42, is devoted to the concept of translation. In it are stories translated to other languages, then back to English, then to yet another language and maybe back to English again. It’s an experiment to see how much of the original is lost, altered, or (possibly) improved by the process of translation. The cover is, appropriately, a telephone. I think the game of telephone is a metaphor for all communication and the method of translation one of the more interesting ways to play with language. I wish I’d come up with this idea first. But then again, McSweeneys always makes me wish I’d thought of that.
At an Associated Writers Programs (AWP) Conference a few years back, I stumbled on a small, arty-looking literary magazine entirely dedicated to food writing called Alimentum. Bor-ing, you might say, who wants to read another story about some absurd and unattainable culinary treat served only in Manhattan on days that start with a T but don’t contain the letter R and that occur in months that have 30 days…and only if the chef is in the mood and taking his/her meds. I sure don’t. But that’s not what this magazine is about.
Instead, this magazine takes food—the single most important element of a culture—and puts it at the center of stories that are about people and about life. The magazine publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and even includes art and book reviews. The work is solid, beautiful, and delicious. Even if you are a shoddy cook (like me) or think Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is a perfectly acceptable dinner (like me), you will still find much to appreciate about this magazine. It’s about food and it’s about us. It’s not snobby or exclusive or haughty.
One of my favorite features is the annual Menu Poems contest. Each April, in celebration of Poetry Month, the magazine solicits “menu poems.” These poems are each dedicated to a particular eatery and are bound to make you hungry. In the past, the poems were solicited from the general public, though this last year, it seems they all came from established writers. They were still very good.
The journal has recently become online only and appears to have undergone some other changes since I discovered it a few years ago, but it still offers good writing about good food. In addition to the magazine, the organization also offers interesting food adventures hosted by the producers of the magazine, in various places around the country (and even a few outside of the U.S.). If you like food and like good writing, this magazine delivers.
My favorite genre to read is literary nonfiction (an odd title, admittedly, for a genre that is basically devoted to telling true stories in non-boring ways). Also, I’m too busy to read even the subject lines on my emails. Enter the solution: Brevity, an online, creative nonfiction journal which publishes essays that are 750 words or less! Brought to you by Dinty Moore (the writer, not the stew), Brevity is an offshoot of University of Pittsburgh’s Creative Nonfiction literary magazine. Though committed to publishing new voices, Brevity has published the works of the already-known such as Sherman Alexie, Brenda Miller, Rigoberto González, Judith Kitchen, and Diana Hume George.
Not flashy like MsSweeneys or highfalutin like The New Yorker, Brevity offers a selection of solid writing on related topics by decent, hard-working writers. The site also offers book reviews and craft essays, so you can get your literary kicks in, too, if you have extra time on your hands. They also take submissions, so you know you will not always be reading the same old same old.
I love Brevity because the stories are short but well-done, and you can select a few to read or just one. Unlike print magazines that seem to require that I take a vacation just to read them, this online journal gives me all the quality with none of the guilt. I can read a story on my lunch break and still have time to finish my sandwich.
I lived in Portland for a full calendar year before I realized one of my favorite literary magazines is published right here in my adopted city! I would characterize Tin House as a traditional sort of magazine. Though beautiful and crafted with quality, it’s not showy and off-the-wall the way McSweeney’s is. Like many uppercrust lit mags, it also publishes “an artful and irreverent array of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and interviews as well as columns on food and drink, out-of-print and underappreciated books, and a literary crossword puzzle.” Tin House, the organization, also publishes books and offers workshops, readings, and other literary events around Oregon and beyond.
Though the names you’ll find listed in the index of a Tin House will likely be familiar, you can occasionally find writers who are new and just as talented as the established ones. This ensures that each issue of Tin House will feature some of your faves (Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, William Gass) as well as give you something new to chew on. It’s good enough for academic snobs and wannabes, but accessible to people who just appreciate good writing and storytelling.
My personal addiction is the Summer Reading edition (which often takes me a year to read because my schedule is so full). Whether or not the sun is out, I can crack open this year’s Summer Reading issue and find something I’m bound to love. I’m especially excited about Jodi Angel’s offering this issue. You should check it out!
There’s a reason they say the simplest ideas are the best ideas. One Story exemplifies this saying by offering up just that—one story. Every three (or four) weeks, subscribers get a new story in the mail (or delivered to the eReader of their choice.) The stories are always high caliber and usually come from relatively new names in the industry. One Story only publishes an author once so that every issue offers its readers a unique voice. This is a refreshing change to other publications that seem to publish only the same authors on an almost predictable rotation—even when their stories are sub-par.
Stories are not published in a vacuum either. With each new story, the editor publishes an introduction of the author alongside a Q&A. Readers are invited to comment and interact with the writer via social media. As an organization, One Story offers new writers a slew of workshops, tutorials, and other support to help new voices get heard in an often stagnant publishing industry.
And, the stories are good. One of my favorites, “The Nephilim,” sticks in my mind like a childhood memory or a dream. Among the thousands of stories I’ve read, this is one I think of again and again for no apparent reason. One Story aims to publish quality, and by offering one wonderful story at a time, they aren’t required to publish lesser works just to fill pages. You know each issue will be amazing, which is a guarantee most publications can’t make.
What’s your favorite?
I realize that taste in literary magazines can vary quite a bit. While I may be amused by McSweeney’s gimmicks, others may find it unnecessary. Some people may prefer longer pieces of writing, too, whereas I clearly value a journal that gives me shorter offerings. So, tell me, what’s your favorite and why?
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