Well, obviously I do. But here’s a confession. Until I started writing and submitting short stories a few years ago, I didn’t. Not one. I barely knew of their existence. Granta and The Paris Review sat prominently displayed on the counter of my local independent bookstore and I might glance at their covers, even scan the list of contributors (most of whom I didn’t recognize)but it never would have occurred to me to purchase one of their issues. Not when they sold for roughly the same price as a trade paperback. I saved my money for novels, the odd short story collection, books with the imprint of a well-known publisher reassuringly stamped on the title page.
It’s been a sharp learning curve. Now I have a far greater appreciation for the role lit mags have played and continue to play as launching pads for new and unknown writers. Unknowns like John Updike and Raymond Carver. Or more recently Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem and Ha Jin.
Of course, with the internet there has been an explosion of lit mags of varying quality. Now anyone with a wordpress account and a dream can start one up (ahem!). And if you can’t get a story published in The Kenyon Review or The New Yorker, and you aren’t too particular, you can rack up those publication credits pretty quickly.
The lit mags I read fall into two camps. In the first, I’ll admit it, are the places I think might take something I’ve written. I call it research. Some are online and some are print. In the second, though, are the publications I read for solely pleasure, because every issue offers beautiful prose that shines with pure competence. I take subscriptions out on these, a couple a year, just what I can afford. At various times I have subscribed to One Story, Room and Tin House, among others. And yes, I do dream of the day these two camps will merge into one.
So aside from other writers looking for markets for their work, who’s reading them? Perhaps no one. I don’t know. When I mention a lit mag or journal I’ve read recently or one in which a story of mine has appeared to friends or family, I get a puzzled Good for you! There are the rumours that circulate on writer’s blogs and in the twitterverse: so-and-so’s story on x was noticed by a literary agent/small press/major publisher. Like winning the lottery, I’m sure it happens, but the chances of it happening to me or someone I know seem slim.
But perhaps lit mags’ main audience is simply other writers. And perhaps that is as it should be. Sure it would be great for the producers of lit mags to have increased subscription rates if they appealed to a more mainstream audience. Then they might in turn be able to pay their contributors more. But that is beside the point. Literary magazines offer the opportunity for writers at all stages of their craft to learn from each other.
That’s what I’m attempting to do in my Why It Works posts. Break down the stories published in online lit mags so I can learn from them.
So who reads lit mags? I do and, if you’re a writer, I hope you do, too.