Nineteen years ago, I served as literary editor for my college’s literary journal. It was a fun, demanding job that gave me a deep appreciation for the slush pile. For those new to this, a slush pile is a stack of writing that nobody asked you to send. But you sent it anyway. And back when I was in college, it was an actual pile. A physical pile of hundreds of submissions that required plastic bins to tote around because all that paper would bust through even the hardiest cardboard box.
So once you’ve sent that piece nobody asked you to send, the literary editor and their team of readers (often unpaid volunteers) are obligated to read it, hoping to find a diamond in the rough. It’s a time-consuming way to select what to publish, but it’s also cheap. Cheap because editors don’t have to pay writers to write for their publication. It’s also one of the few options for unknown writers to publish.
There were certainly downsides to being a college magazine. But the good news was we could publish anything. And we did. From students on our campus, to unpublished writers who lived down the road, to spoken word poets on a CD, to fiction from creative writing professors and authors with multiple novels, to an attorney who decided to try poetry (really).
So if you’re new to this whole publishing thing, or just haven’t had any luck yet, try doing a Google search of universities and colleges in your area with “literary journal” attached. To get you started, here are three respected literary journals that welcome new and unknown writers in their pages.
1. Willow Springs Literary Journal – OPEN
So maybe their homepage doesn’t showcase stellar graphic design (that shot above was actually the best option), but it does highlight the writers in their current issue. Produced by students and faculty in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University, Willow Springs has been around since 1977. They publish fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and interviews, showcasing literary fiction by prize-winners alongside unknown writers (which most magazines politely and quaintly call “emerging” as if we are chicks hatching from eggs). They’re currently open to fiction and poetry submissions until May 31. Their online offerings from their latest issue show perfect gender parity but only one Black contributor. A deeper dive reveals that this parity seems to persist across issues, which is great news, but that the predominance of white writers also is consistent, which is less great news. Their masthead is challenging to assess without bios or pictures, but most editors do appear to be women judging by names only (which unfortunately risks erasing nonbinary editors).
Throughout the pandemic, they’ve hosted online release parties and readings, which seems like a great way to foster community as well as the careers of the writers they publish. They also invite writers to explain their pieces—how they came about, what they mean—which I have mixed feelings about. I prefer Georgia O’Keeffe’s position that the art itself says everything the artist meant to say, but I also appreciate the fact that writers are routinely asked to use more words to explain what their words already stated.
Amber McBride’s poem “Southern Gothic (for the Black Boy)” employs the gothic genre’s use of horror, grotesque imagery, and violence to convey the constant threat of death that hounds young Black men in America. Juxtaposition and a steady pattern of negations build tension in the poem’s couplets. Her second poem “Desecrate” explores how museums have ransacked cultures beyond Europe, imprisoning Black and brown bodies in the name of research, while leaving European corpses to rest in peace. The poem ends powerfully by pondering what the future holds for the poet’s own Black body.
A.D. Nauman’s short fiction “Lookers” leans hard into critiquing heteronormative gender roles, assumptions about the “sanity” of women who have survived sexual predation, and objectification. She employs careful detail alongside the interiority of first-person to create an almost claustrophobic intimacy with a traumatized young woman who distrusts gender norms and the women who adhere to them.
All the writer bios I looked at featured impressive lists of publications in elite magazines, forthcoming and/or published books, and advanced degrees in literature and creative writing, so while it’s not The New Yorker, it might be worth mentioning in your cover letter if you have an MFA, a degree in English, or other publications.
2. Waxwing – OPENS AUGUST
Erin Stalcup and Justin Bigos founded Waxwing and both have connections to Vermont, which seems rich with MFAs and writers. One nifty thing about Waxwing is that you can submit every month, starting in August all the way until April 30 of the following year. Since they do cap submissions at 300 per month, it’s best to send your piece early. They publish poetry, short stories, works in translation, essays, interviews, reviews, art, and even music. Out of that long list, however, only fiction, poetry, translations, and creative nonfiction qualify for their slush pile. For everything else, you have to sit against the wall like a girl waiting to be asked to dance. In other words, look elsewhere until you’re famous enough for them to solicit your visual art, music, interviews, and reviews. Word count limit for fiction is unlisted, but they do specify under 20 double-spaced pages. Flash fiction and nonfiction should be under 1,000 words and essays under 6,000 words. There are no submission fees, but there’s also no payment to contributors.
Diversity and inclusion are their watchwords, and unlike some magazines that claim this, their masthead actually reflects it. The editorial staff has a pretty even split in terms of gender, as well as several BIPOC editors. Contributing editors are mostly women, which is cool, but mostly white, which is less so. The entire masthead only includes one Black editor. As for authors they’ve printed, it again reflects impressive gender parity, and I spotted three authors (out of 41) stating an LGBTQIA+ identity, which is roughly 7%. That’s higher than the average in the general population (which as of February 2021 was roughly 5.6%), so kudos to Waxwing for that win.
In terms of racial diversity, the latest issue published some BIPOC writers, mostly Asian, Asian American, Arab, Arab American, Persian, and Latinx. The absence of Black authors is again glaring. As for social class and economic privilege, most contributors teach English or creative writing, have MFAs, and/or list previous publications in elite literary journals. A few don’t, but they are in the minority. It isn’t surprising. Classism and anti-Black racism often intersect and have been significant factors in literary communities for ages. It’s just good to know that Waxwing, like most literary journals, still has work to do in these areas.
You can read pieces from previous issues for free online. The fiction varies tremendously in length, content, and technical mastery. One awkward piece by a middle-aged white woman employed first-person in what was presumably intended to be street slang for a young male character, possibly BIPOC. But then, as if to balance that out, I stumbled into an incredible story titled “Maria” by Amy Haejung, for whom this was her first (albeit masterfully structured) publication. Waxwing publishes three times a year, so there are plenty of chances to see if you can be the next breakout newbie who gets listed with the big dogs.
3. Michigan Quarterly Review – OPENS AUGUST
Founded in 1962 and operated by the University of Michigan, the Michigan Quarterly Review has published fiction from such canonical authors as Raymond Carver and Margaret Atwood as well as unknown emerging writers. In addition to their quarterly journal, they also publish issues curated on a theme twice a year. The journal publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and works in translation. Online, they also publish reviews, interviews, and cultural commentary. They pay contributors, consider fiction between 1,500 and 7,000 words, and are open to submissions January to April as well as August to November. Their curated theme issues (published as MQR: Mixtape) are open to a wider array of genres and media (including short films, podcasts, short plays, and multimedia) and accept submissions through mid-May. They do pay contributors, so I’d guess the competition is a little tougher.
Their editorial staff is encouragingly diverse. Not only are the majority of editors women, but the journal’s lead editor is Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan-American poet with a dizzyingly accomplished CV who has published studies and translations of Arab poetry. Other editors are nonbinary, Latinx, and generationally diverse as well. This diversity is reflected in the magazine itself. Unsurprisingly, as a university publication, Michigan Quarterly Review does seem to slant towards contributors with MFAs, PhDs, and impressive publishing credentials. For those of us with just a couple publications under our belt (or none) and no MFA, it might not be a good entry-level publication, but it sure seems like a good place to aim for after building up a few credits. In the interest of full disclosure, this is not only a magazine I’d love to publish in one day but one that I subscribe to. Among the academic journals I’ve scouted out, MQR excites me the most.
MQR‘s latest edition showcases “emerging voices,” which led me to believe it would be a collection of new writers. However, the contributor bios reveal most of these writers are in fact creative writing teachers with MFAs and lengthy lists of publications. Still, it’s a joy to read. For a sample of what they publish, you can check out “The Year I Was a Boy” online for free, an essay by novelist Mette Harrison about her experiences growing up in the Mormon Church with autism and the way this shaped her conception of gender. I’m currently reading Samantha Barron’s short fiction “Everybody Wins” in the print issue, a short story using first person for our wry teenage narrator observing her ex-addict mother trying to make good for her daughter. Comedy and pathos, social-climbing ambitions, and a man named Fuzzy: you can’t go wrong.
Well, that’s the last of the literary journals I’ve been taking a close look at over the last few months. I may keep this series going next month, or I might let it breathe for a bit while I design the syllabus for my next MFA class. In either case, give those universities and community colleges in your neck of the woods a try. You might have just the piece they need to round out their issue. Happy submitting, and happy writing!