We’re entering the high season for literary journal submissions. As students and professors return to their universities (hopefully masked and distanced), they unlock their publishing offices, flip the light switch, and boot up the computers. They’re just about ready for the coming deluge of our work, from pandemic fiction to alien abductions. Whatever your thing is, polish it pronto because submissions are opening for some incredible magazines this fall. Every month or two this semester I’ll highlight a couple prestigious journals along with one journal better suited for break-in talent. So let’s dive in!
1. AGNI – OPEN
Founded in 1972, AGNI began as an obscure magazine run by two ambitious undergrads and eventually became Boston University’s literary journal in 1987. In 2003, its offerings expanded to include online publications as well as its twice-a-year print journal. Over four decades, AGNI’s editorial staff has prided themselves on publishing writers early in their careers who will eventually go on to win prestigious prizes. In this sense, it is deeply conservative and invests in establishment literature. They do, however, publish a great deal of global work in translation.
The journal is currently co-edited by Sven Birkerts and William Pierce, both white men. More diversity is apparent, though, in the rest of the masthead. For the authors and translators they publish, they generously offer to update bios as needed, and they pay all their contributors a small fee. Their reading period runs from September to May, and they have no word limit for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.
As an example of AGNI’s work, Erika Eckart’s tight, breathless story “Cut” makes incredible use of second person to listen in on a single mother talking herself into doing what she has to, to keep her kids fed. This is a good place to submit if you’re feeling ambitious and have a particularly strong story.
2. The North American Review – OPEN SOON
Founded in 1815, The North American Review is the oldest literary magazine in the United States. Its all-star lineup has included work by Frederick Douglass, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Flannery O’Connor, and John Steinbeck. To many writers, its pages are hallowed ground. I’m not kidding. The magazine is so historically significant that an entire web page specifies where and how you can track down old copies for scholarly research.
In 1968, the North American Review became affiliated with the University of Northern Iowa. The current masthead is drawn entirely from UNI faculty and alumni, so the editorial staff are accomplished, middle-aged, and overwhelmingly white. Grant Tracey is fiction editor, Brooke Wonders is nonfiction editor, and Rachel Morgan is the poetry editor. Readers (who at many magazines are unpaid and determine which stories get passed up to the editors) are university students.
Issues are printed quarterly, one of which appears exclusively online. The number of fiction pieces varies—over the last few years, fiction pieces per issues have ranged from one to seven. The North American Review also accepts reviews, art, nonfiction, and poems. All contributors are not paid. The website states that they only accept submissions during the school year but do not provide dates. Specific submission guidelines also aren’t provided until they open for submissions, though they recommend “no more than 30 pages.”
Contributors do seem more diverse than the masthead, and the one fiction piece you can read for free online is Jeff Chon’s story “P.A.L.A.D.I.N.” set during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s when conspiracy theories united Christians against youth culture. It addresses anti-Asian racism, American imperialism, classism, slut-shaming, and the hypocrisy of American Christianity—all through the eyes of a first-person Asian American teenage narrator. It’s also about a suicide attempt in a small town, and the way that religious communities co-opt tragedy to further their own agendas, while condemning those who do not share their beliefs. It’s a good story with a pitch-perfect ending and meaty without feeling like it’s trying too hard. It’s a high bar. Also, Jeff Chon’s first novel just debuted this spring, so maybe check that out.
3. Taco Bell Quarterly – OPEN LATE FALL
No, this journal is not operated by the fast food chain. Yes, it is a loving homage to all our Taco Bell-adjacent memories. Edited by nonbinary writer M.M. Carrigan, Taco Bell Quarterly accepts short fiction, essays, poems, multimedia, and works “that explore any and all elements of Taco Bell.” They are also very welcoming of anyone who wants to try their hand at reading for a lit mag. So, if you’re wondering how it all works and whether you’d even want to work as an editor, this looks like a great place to find out while supporting your fellow up-and-coming artists.
The word count recommendation for submissions is 500 to 1500 words, and contributors are unpaid. If it makes you feel any better, this appears to be the case for the editor as well. And if you’re on the hunt for more representative contributor lists, it’s often the smaller magazines—like Taco Bell Quarterly—where you find the most diversity. In their latest issue, you can read an essay about race and gender, an essay about disability and labor, comic strips, multimedia, and “mostly true stories.” Submissions will open later this fall, and unlike many lit mags, Taco Bell Quarterly asks you to submit via email. Plus, you don’t have to pay to submit, which is nice.
The current issue is packed with gems, one of which is Nicole Zhu’s “Crazy, Stupid Tacos.” It follows a first-person narrator whose boyfriend of four years has just dumped her at a Taco Bell. She drags herself to her best friend’s Taco Bell-themed wedding and and is not in the mood. It’s a fun, light-hearted, and surprisingly moving story about friendship, sex, love, and food. And it hits Taco Bell Quarterly in its sweet spot: Gen X and Millennials “as generations very connected to brands and commercials” (read more of Carrigan’s interview here).
Oh, and Zhu? She’s published in Catapult, Electric Literature, and Jellyfish Review. But she’s not listing MFA degrees and tenured teaching positions and NBA-shortlisted books she’s published, so if you’re not part of the academy or publishing industry but have solid writing, hey. You might have a shot at Taco Bell Quarterly. Personally, I’m polishing a story just for them. I’ll see you in the slush pile!