Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What Purpose do the Literary Periodicals Serve?

[Also posted at MetaxuCafe, where this has drawn a number of comments]

A month or so ago, Lev Asher, on LitKicks hosted a discussion on hardcover versus soft, contributors included agents, publishers, writers and reader/consumers. It was good discussion. Informative. Offered some new ideas.

I'd like to see a discussion like that on literary periodicals. There seems to be more of them then ever. Most have circulations well under 5,000. Most pay contributors in complimentary copies, if that.
Each one of these periodicals receives hundreds, and many, thousands of submissions a month. Is it the hope of becoming "respectable," of making an honest buck--that drives writers to spend their time and money, printing and copying and addressing and mailing and keeping records so you don't send the same story to the same place?

What is driving this?

First, let's confine this to short stories. Poetry spreads like mold, under rocks, behind the wallpaper, pops out of urban lawns like mushrooms. It finds its readers by laws of its own. But fiction is something else. Aside from Harpers (which publishes no more than 12 stories a year) and The New Yorker (which may publish 100), what's left? Esquire. Playboy. Maybe a dozen open slots left in the Real World. What's left, the last remaining outlet for print publication: the Little Lits. So what drives this is the writers. When the readers disappear, what else is left?

But why?

If you don't get paid, and almost no one is likely to read what you publish in one these magazines, what's the point?

If you submit your work to these journals, what benefit do you imagine will come from it? You think, maybe, once you have some magic number of stories in print--that will turn the trick and get an agent to beg for the rights to your unpublished novel? Or are you playing the second-tier lottery game? Selection in one of those annual anthologies (yeah, that'll sure be the thing gets the eye of the New Yorker editor, right? BASS, the sesame key to fame and fortune!)

Question is, how does any of this square with reality?

What is the reality?

I get the feeling it's nothing more than a phantasmagoric con game, but not even the shills and carneys are aware of the con.

I've seen the lits attacked because they were assumed to be run by the "Academics", FMA Mafia Cartel, or some such. Great resentment because no one but Academics would read anything published in them.

Hey, be thankful for any readers you can find, I say. And be grateful for "Academics," They got into their line of work because, at least in the beginning, literature and reading was something they really cared about. Come on, now, these can't be the bad guys, that's like saying those 9th C. Irish monks were to blame for the Dark Ages, because--in their labor to preserve ancient learning--they were the only ones left interested in it!

Which brings us back to the beginning: what's the point? And how do we come to an informed understanding of what all this means?


  1. I suppose the answer is in the body of your post. People submit their short-stories to the lit mags because that's the only place you can send them to.
    It's difficult enough to get a novel published, but if your thing is the short-story the mainstream publishing business is not at all interested.
    It doesn't take the novice long to realise that 'payment' in any material sense is way out of the question. I suppose that gets rid of a few aspirants, but the ones that are left are obviously writers who can't help but write.
    I was one of those myself for a long long time, - someone who can't help but write - and still am.
    This is the kind of business, isn't it? where if you get paid for the hours you put in, you have to regard it as a kind of bonus?

  2. John,

    That would be an answer, but hardly, the answer. It leaves out all the less than objectively rational motives and begs the larger question of the post above.

    Like thinking you've explained why people play the lottery by saying "they might win."

    Why the lits are the "only place you can send them too" is tied to exactly that assumption, just as the belief by publishers --that they are acting as rational agents by the laws of the market when they defend first publication of novels in hardback--is perhaps the most significant impediment to developing alternative strategies.

    "There is no other way" insures that there will be no other way.

    "I suppose that gets rid of a few aspirants, but the ones that are left are obviously writers who can't help but write."

    The numbers don't show that. Again, you assume people are rational agents--and we're talking about writers here!

    Yeah, we write because we have to, but that's a half truth--which makes it half a lie. I'd believe you if you told me you wrote your novels on a Magic Slate, wiping every page clear before starting the next. That's my Parable of the True Writer.

    "This is the kind of business, isn't it? where if you get paid for the hours you put in, you have to regard it as a kind of bonus?"

    And what is that, but falling to your knees before this quasi-mystical reification of the Market and saying, "I am Nothing without you!"

  3. Hey Jacob, thanks for not dishing the usual academics-are-shit-and-evil line. It's hard to find many litbloggers who don't choose that easy and stupid line.

  4. SmallDoctor,

    I don't think you'd find many of the blogs linked here to be reflexively anti-academic. Several are academics.