Reading Lit Mags for Self-Empowerment
By Leslie Greffenius
A few months ago, on behalf of The Review Review, I interviewed William Pierce, Senior Editor of Agni Magazine. My purpose was to explore the ins and outs of publishing at that particular magazine in order to de-mystify the submission/acceptance/publication process in general. I concluded there that, “if you want to get noticed and not simply waste paper and postage, it seems wise to read at least some portion of the journals to which you plan to send your writing.”
Ever since I wrote those words, though, the question’s been gnawing at me: Is that feeble statement even true? If I’ve slaved over a piece of writing, love it, and want to get it out there, is it really worthwhile to invest time pouring through a bunch of lit mags before submitting it? Aren’t I just confusing the interests of the magazine editors (to reduce their workload) with my own (to get my work published as soon as possible)?
Sure, it can be expensive to shoot out hard copies of your short stories blindly in all directions, but there are dozens of online journals to which you can submit with very little more effort than a few flicks of the fingers. Also, if you believe, as I think Einstein proved, that time = money, it’s very costly to review the thousands of potential magazines.*
If the short-term efficiency of the writer’s time is the only consideration then I take back what I said in The Review Review. It’s better to dispatch a gazillion copies of your work all over the place, electronically and even via snail mail, than it is to sit down and laboriously pour through all that’s out there.
With this insight in mind, I nevertheless undertook a lengthy investigation of literary magazines into which I might want to place my most recent experiment in flash fiction. Here are some surprising discoveries I made:
1. There are literary magazines out there in which I wouldn’t want my work to appear, either because those particular magazines seem to me too young, too crazy, too boring, or all three. This discovery led me to my second:
2. Reviewing literary magazines to determine which ones to send my work to endows me with a sense of empowerment. I am no longer the poor maiden with so little self-esteem that she jumps into the arms of whichever lover will have her. I can be picky, too.
3. Reading the works of others creates a sense of entitlement, in the best sense of that word. At a coffee shop I go to, there is a jar labeled “karma.” It generally contains a few dollars and some change. I don’t want to sound unfeeling and ungenerous, but…I could walk away from that jar, viewing it cynically as an effort by management to keep down the wages of employees. Or I could try the experiment I did try: To see how I’d feel about it, I put money in the jar. It turned out that giving a bonus to the Perks employees made me feel good about myself as well as them. As if I’d done a good job, too. (Clever management!) Similarly, having seriously read some of the work of those authors featured in literary magazines, I feel more entitled to ask editors to consider the fiction I write.
4. Breathtaking reads abound in some of these journals. Recently I ran across two wonderful short stories. One of these, “Salt Air,” by One Story reader James Scott, was published in the March 2010 issue of Memorious. The other, Tom Barbash’s “The Women” appeared that same month in Narrative Magazine . Both of these pieces, in addition to providing me with great pleasure, served as private tutorials in the art of writing spare yet powerful fiction.
My journey through the literary magazines isn’t over yet. With so many magazines out there, and new ones launching every day, how could it be? But getting to know the journals is not at all the slog I anticipated. I’m now a believer: If you think you might want your work to appear in a certain literary journal, you’re really best served by getting acquainted with it before committing it there.
*This is true, by the way, even if you value your time at the minimum wage.
Leslie Greffenius has published fiction, essays and articles in The Harvard Crimson, the Iowa Law Review, The Review Review and Calliope Nerve Magazine. She is working on her first novel, Encore.