Before you get all hopeless about breaking into literary journals, let’s do a reality check. If you’re getting nothing but rejections, it might not be you. Well, I mean, it definitely is you. Literary journals aren’t responsible for breaking down our doors (or failing to do so) when they sense we’ve just hit “save” on a perfect masterpiece. But I mean it might not be your writing. It might be where you’re submitting.
Here’s a case study. In 2020, Charles Yu won the National Book Award for his daringly inventive satire of anti-Asian racism in Hollywood, Interior Chinatown.
This was hardly his first rodeo. He has published four books, all to critical acclaim. He has written for multiple television shows, including Westworld. And he has published countless pieces of short fiction. This wasn’t even his first award.
But you know what else happened for him in 2020?
He published in the literary journal, Ploughshares, for the very first time after submitting there for nearly two decades (you can read his story “M130” about a sentient printer here).
Did you catch that? He has been submitting to Ploughshares for almost 20 years. And when does he finally land an acceptance in the magazine? The same year he wins the National Book Award.
Because that’s just how Ploughshares rolls.
So if you’re trying to start there, you’re going to get your heart broken. Just saying. Musicians don’t take clarinet lessons for three years, then apply to Juilliard and expect to get in. Maybe we writers need to accept the same is true for us. As with even professional musicians, most will never attend Juilliard. And so it is for writers and top-tier literary journals.
This month I’m reminding all of us that if we’ve been honing our craft for years, getting honest critiques, listening to that feedback, revising the hell out of our work, and submitting at every opportunity—with nothing to show for it—we may simply be aiming too high with our publications.
Let’s all take a cue from Charles Yu. There’s nothing wrong with submitting to the Ivy League of literary journals. But be sure to have some safety schools as well because it might take 20 years and a major award to break into the top tier.
Here are three journals that almost none of us are going to get into, and that’s okay. They’re still fun to read, and hey, you might as well try. Just look at your submission like a lottery ticket, and you’ll be fine.
1. The Stinging Fly – REOPENS FALL 2021
Founded in 1997 by Aoife Kavanagh and Declan Meade, The Stinging Fly is a literary journal based in Ireland that showcases work by new Irish and international writers. Publishing short fiction, poetry, and book reviews, The Stinging Fly also added a small press in 2005, which has printed novels, short story collections, and an anthology of stories from the magazine. Danny Denton is the current editor, after stints by Sally Rooney and Thomas Morris who still serve as contributing editors. Currently, two issues are published each year, with a few selections also presented online, and the most recent submission window for fiction closed in early January 2021. They list no limitations as to length and offer payment of 30 euros per magazine page. The publication leans toward realistic fiction, with a curious trend toward travel, addiction, and obsession in their current online offerings. Michelle Coyne’s story “Magnetic” is a fine example of precisely observed physical detail, subtle dialogue, psychological suspense, and one woman’s encounter with magnetic desires and their power to either fuel or destroy creativity. This is a publication that accepts only the best.
2. The Hudson Review – OPEN FOR POETRY; FICTION OPENS SEPTEMBER
Founded in 1948 by Frederick Morgan (among others), The Hudson Review has been edited by Paula Deitz for over 20 years and is open to short fiction, poetry, reviews of most art forms, culture essays, and international reportage. It slants away from academia and toward culture, publishing quarterly, and while they do accept unsolicited work from emerging writers, they do not accept simultaneous submissions. Their fiction submission window runs from September 1 to November 30, and it can take up to six months to receive a decision. Prose must be 10,000 words or less; novel excerpts are welcome but must be of the highest quality and able to stand on their own.
They post about half their current issue online for free; their Autumn 2020 issue online printed only one fiction piece, “Love Is Not Enough” a remarkable story by Louise Marburg that chronicles a family legacy of suicide, alcoholism, and abuse as well as its impact on the relationship between two young sisters. A work of realistic fiction with language, detail, and psychological astuteness that calls up Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, its only faults are perhaps that it feels a little old-fashioned in the age of Instagram, and the 12-year-old first-person narrator sounds nothing like even the sharpest 12-year-olds I’ve known. A literary publication of the highest caliber (think The New Yorker) that may be easier to break into with a book review than a short story.
3. The Sycamore Review – OPENS SEPTEMBER 1
Run by Purdue University and founded in 1989, The Sycamore Review publishes both new and established writers in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, criticism, and interviews. While a few pieces from each issue are also published online, most work is exclusive to print issues. Daschielle Louis is the current editor-in-chief, with Audrey Hollis and Andy Nellis serving as fiction editors. Editors at the magazine are affiliated with Purdue’s MFA, while current students are not allowed to submit, and the journal pays for all printed work as well as runs the Wabash Prize. Stories under 6,000 words are preferred with their reading period open from September through March.
The most current fiction available on their website is from 2017, all realistic fiction. A short piece by Ashley Kunsa titled “Red City” details a lesbian couple’s attempt to conceive amidst the upheaval of job loss and a friend’s recent death. Another piece, “Mary Rosenthal,” by Stacy Lee describes a woman’s sex life amidst her grief over being unable to have a child in a dystopian future where only 1% of the population can have children. The three most recent stories by women are strong with powerful imagery and distinct voices, but all feature marriage, conception, and relationships as central, so it’s a publication that is possibly a bit gender essentialist. Many of the contributors have MFAs, publications elsewhere, and teach creative writing, so it also may be too academic-leaning to accept those of us without such credentials.
So look, don’t get down on yourself if the rejections are piling up. Charles Yu is our role model today (and forever). Maybe, like him, we should just focus on writing, getting better at writing, publishing that writing where they’ll have it, and building our team. Not all literary journals are willing to bet on the dark horse of even a great story by someone who is a nobody (or, apparently, even a somebody with an impressive writing career). Wouldn’t it be cool to write for a TV show? Wouldn’t it be great for people to love our books? We don’t need an elite literary journal to make that happen. We just need to deliver great work, consistently, and to put it out into the world consistently in journals that root for us.
Sure, maybe that’s Ploughshares. But more likely, it will end up being the Little-Journal-That-Could at your local community college down the road. But more on that next month.
Till then, keep doing what you love, and pop on over to my Accessible MFA page to see if there’s anything that might come in handy.