The great irony of literary journals is that more people submit to them than actually read them. I am a reader for a small literary magazine, with a circulation of about 1,200, and we receive something in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 6,0000 submissions a year. A large portion of these appear to be part of a massive carpet bombing campaign, as they have nothing whatsoever in common with the magazine’s other pieces or general literary philosophy, and they are invariably accompanied by a form cover letter.
And yet, the writer fully admits:
Of course, who can blame people for not buying literary journals? They are often of lamentable quality, both in terms of writing and design—and many are merely university-sponsored vehicles for MFA grads to get published. (Hence the lit mag called “Land-Grant College Review,” whose name pokes fun at that very phenomenon.) There are, of course, a few noteworthy literary journals: Black Clock, Fence, Swink, Ninth Letter, McSweeney’s, Open City… and A Public Space looks like it’s going to be excellent. But even in these halfway decent literary magazines, typically there is only one story that is worth reading per issue, if that. But I guess that’s the point of a litmag, right? A lot of filler to insulate the occasional great work, the occasional great author distinguishing himself (or herself) among a slew forgettables.
Which leads me to this question: why do people bother to submit to literary journals at all, if no one reads them because they’re so largely unreadable? Why is there any prestige in getting published in them at all?
The answer is there’s basically no other place to publish literary short fiction, unless you count the New Yorker and Playboy and that other handful of places that only publishes well-established writers that on average have two or three novels under their belts already.
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