Three Literary Journals I’m Reading Right Now

One of my MFA assignments this semester is to read more literary journals. It’s a no-brainer: If you want to publish, you should read outlets where you’d like to see your work printed. But it’s also something I’ve just never got around to.

Mainly because there are just SO. MANY. GODDAMN. LITERARY. JOURNALS.

I know that getting published is mostly about effective matchmaking. You find the right publication for the right work. Which requires knowing what the “right” publication would be. Which means knowing tons of publications.

It’s a lot.

And as a person with chronic illness, I really wish someone would save me the time and effort. It’d be so nice to just submit to my top matches and call it good. You know, a sort of eHarmony for writers. (Please, please, please steal my idea and go make millions. I will be the first to subscribe.)

But hey, in the meantime, maybe I can save some of you a bit of work. It seems Submittable is the closest thing to eHarmony for now. Log in, click “Discover,” and it takes you to a lengthy list of submission calls sorted by deadlines. Fill in your preferences (fiction, no-fee, etc.), and away you go.

So here are three journals I’m reading and what they seem to publish, so you can judge if it’s worth logging into Submittable and sending them your masterpiece.

1. The Baltimore Review – OPEN

Barbara Westwood Diehl founded The Baltimore Review as a publication for poetry and short fiction, and its subsequent managing editor, Susan Muaddi Darraj, later expanded it to include creative nonfiction and interviews. Since then, it has shifted to an online, nonprofit, quarterly publication with submission periods running from September to November as well as February to May (hey, they’re open for business right now!).

They request a 5,000-word maximum for short fiction and publish realistic literary fiction as well as fiction with a magical realist, historical, or horror bent. They welcome new and emerging writers from around the world, and their Fall 2020 issue offered four fiction pieces, three of which were by women. However, none were by BIPOC authors. Their latest issue is a bit better; they’re still nailing gender parity, and they’ve included pieces by BIPOC writers who have PhD’s or CVs that mention The Harvard Review or are current students at Ivy League schools. So, a step in the right direction, I guess?

The stories follow traditional narrative structure, center on one character and their relationship to another—typically absent or oblivious—character, unfold over a short time span, and rely heavily on symbolism, objects, and imagery to elicit emotions from the reader and convey theme. The writing is high quality but a bit emotionally detached, perhaps an effect of the close-up focus on one strange detail (a severed head, an inflatable pool turned into a life raft, a haunted wardrobe).

So basically, if you’re white or an insanely qualified BIPOC writer, if you write traditional narratives, and if your story has a literary tone with one significant object at the center of it, The Baltimore Review might be exactly the glass slipper you’ve been looking for.

2. [PANK] – OPEN

[PANK] is always doing something interesting, and it’s always open to submissions. This is one of my favorite journals to simply read, like, for fun. And it’s a place where I’ve first come across BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ writers who already have writing careers and are doing compelling, original, irresistible work but aren’t authors you’re going to find on GoodReads or highlighted in Kirkus Reviews.

[PANK] was launched by literary superstar Roxane Gay and M. Bartley Seigel in 2006. Known for publishing not only diverse but also innovative work, it’s currently edited by Jessica Fischoff and Chris Campanioni. Not only do the [PANK] annual print and quarterly online editions include the standard fare of short fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews, they also publish essays and articles on a range of subjects, including a recent one addressing how to do a writing retreat during a pandemic. Then there are the folios, issues centered on a specific theme or experience (so far, my favorite is their Latinx/Latinadad folio). They even print books via a contest. So yes, it’s a lot. Their word count max for both fiction and nonfiction is 7,500 words, which is generous.

And here’s the part where I like to attempt a summary of what you’ll usually find in each publication. And most magazines do have a flavor to them, a house style, a secret sauce. [PANK] just doesn’t. It’s wide open. The piece on writing retreats? It’s chatty and homey, like you’re talking over coffee. “The Antichrist Drops a Mug on Our Kitchen Floor” by a BIPOC LGBTQ+ writer I enjoy, Nicole Oquendo? Heart-stopping imagery with a dark emotional undertow. Experimental, genre, literary—the gang’s all here.

So if you’re writing something that you worry mainstream readers will think is “weird” or “off,” that isn’t a tidy fit in most genres, and that represents an experience that is underrepresented, yet that feels absolutely right and true, [PANK] might be just the home for it.

3. Quarterly West – OPEN

Founded by James Thomas in 1976, Quarterly West is an online literary journal staffed by PhD students in creative writing at the University of Utah. Open for submissions from February 1 to April 1, the journal publishes poetry and short fiction (6,000 words maximum; 1,000 words max for flash) as well as new media, reviews, and translations. Currently, Amy Sailer is the editor with Matty Layne Glasgow as managing editor and Alyssa Quinn and Jesse Kohn as prose editors.

The staff is overwhelmingly white, but the readers (who will first encounter your submission and decide whether to pass it up to an editor) are much more diverse. The most recent issue shows fair gender equity in the authors, and although most work published is by white writers, work by a few Black and Latinx authors also appears. The publication slants literary, the two stories in the most recent issue both experimental, broken into tiny sections, fragments even, headed by character names or settings or objects, often with a touch of magical realism (a dead rat that gives advice to a character each night, an angel-fairy who sings to an anxious boy). The poem “Eight Belles” by Madison Mainwaring is magnificent. All the pieces are exceptionally strong, rich with symbolism, and rooted in deeper questions about literary form and theme. The journal also prints special issues they call “features” focused on specific topics, such as wilderness, recovery, and queerness.

It doesn’t seem like you have to be an academic to publish here, but a passing acquaintance with Derrida, Foucault, Butler, and Halberstam (a theorist specifically mentioned by one of their editors in an issue) means you’re probably more likely to offer work that’s going to interest the editors. After all, your audience is a gaggle of PhD students who have read way too much literary theory. Just something to keep in mind.

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

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So there you have it. As you’ve probably noticed, many literary journals are affiliated with university English departments, either directly or through the people who staff them (often MFA graduates). And yes, absolutely. This means if you are not part of that world, not comfortable in it, or actively excluded from it (say, because of a disability), you may be better off submitting to literary journals like [PANK] that are more interested in originality, diverse perspectives, and risk-taking than they are in a specific tone or style.

A lot of literary journals produce homogeneous content. In a way, it can’t be helped; they reflect the tastes of two or three people (possibly even one) who made the final decision on what to print.

If the stories are “experimental,” they are often experimental in the same way. If they are “woman-centered,” they center on the same stereotypical “womanly” concerns (seriously, I just read one literary journal that offered three stories by women writers, all of which featured women frantic over whether they could reproduce—in the same issue). If they are by BIPOC authors, there’s often an erasure of that identity, so the story feels “race-less” to white readers. To say it’s a problem is to understate the magnitude of discrimination in publishing and the way published work often shores up the status quo, echoing the comfortable worldviews of privileged, highly educated white people.

So I want to be clear. As I list journals over the next few months, I am not pointing to any of these (except [PANK]) as examples of equity, diversity, and opportunity in publishing. I’m just trying to get the lay of the land, and sadly, that landscape includes a whole lot of exclusion and erasure. And since literary journals often, for mainstream and literary writers, serve as gatekeepers for book publishing and literary agents, it’s important to examine this landscape honestly, to see what gets published, and why.

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Featured image by alleksana from Pexels

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