Friday, May 10, 2013
How to Read a Literary Journal
I remember the incident distinctly. It was 2002 and I was attending the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, a eager-eyed grad student on the cusp of finishing his MA in English. I stood in line following a reading by two women whose work I admired greatly, looking to get them to sign their books for me. The first woman, from the east coast, had just published her second novel, her first having done very well four years earlier. (She had also published a successful short fiction collection in between.) The other woman, from the west coast, had just published her first book, a collection of short stories, with a major Canadian publishing house. She seemed more nervous and inexperienced than the first woman, unfamiliar with the mores of a literary event. Sitting at the signing table, she would ask each and every one of us in the line the same question with a kind of grating automation as we approached with our books: “Do you want me to sign it or sign it and inscribe it?” When it was finally my turn, having had to listen to this query 15 times in a row, I opted for just the signature, and while she scribbled it onto the title page, I said: “I really loved your book. I had actually read a number of these stories before, when they were published in journals.”
“Journals,” she replied, then turned to the first woman and laughed caustically. “Do people actually read those things?”
Her comment—and its tone—has stayed with me all these years. Here was a young writer who managed to get several stories published in Canadian literary journals, and (according to profiles run of her in our national media) used that track record to land an agent and score an impressive book deal with a major publishing house. Yet, she was more or less confessing in the semi-privacy of a signing line that she didn’t actually read the journals that had helped launch her career, and that there was something anomalous about me because I did. I’m not sure it’s relevant to point out that this writer has, in the 11 years since the incident, gone on to publish exactly nothing else; but I do think it’s relevant to say that there’s not necessarily anything anomalous about her view on journals. I know a lot of writers or would-be writers who don’t read them—even if they do submit to them on a regular basis, and occasionally get some stuff published.
On the one hand, the trepidation or lack of interest is understandable. Literary journals can be intimidating. There are so many of them here in Canada, and who can possibly keep up with them all? And isn’t the quality of their writing a bit iffy anyway, on account of most the contributors being at the beginning of their careers? I know that when I first dipped a toe into reading journals back in the mid 1990s as a wet-eared undergrad in journalism in Halifax, I certainly struggled with them. If a story or poem’s “lead” didn’t grab me immediately, I was prepared to write off the entire enterprise. Surely I, in my 19-year-old wisdom, was better suited to judge the quality of these publications than their long-suffering editors, most of whom slave away in their volunteer positions for years. Thankfully, I grew up and got over myself. I began reading more journals more thoroughly, and came to understand the nuances and the focuses that shape them. This in turn helped me to be a better reader, and a better writer. By the end of 2002, I had published my first short story in one of them.
Now, more than a decade later, I’m married to another writer who also reads journals regularly, and the stream of them arriving in our mailbox is relentless. In the last two weeks alone, we have received fresh issues of PRISM international, The Antigonish Review, The New Quarterly, The Windsor Review and The Malahat Review. We also subscribe to The Fiddlehead, CNQ, FreeFall, and others. We will read them all, most likely from cover to cover. And we will discuss and pass polite judgment on the quality of many of them at the dinner table or on a road trip.
Admittedly, we’re a bit insane. I’m not saying that to be a literary writer in Canada you need to do what we do. Not at all. But if you’re a neophyte and looking to follow the same trajectory that has shaped both of our careers, and the careers of many fiction writers and poets in Canada—i.e. publish in literary journals first, build up your C.V., then land a book deal of some kind—then it sort of behooves you to read a least a few of these magazines on a regular basis. But as mentioned above, it’s kind of intimidating. Where do you start? With so many journals stuffed onto the literary newsstands, how do you find some that you’ll actually like? And what do you do once you start reading them?
So here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the last 20 years, and want to share them with you.
Tip 1: Get over the idea that they’re all the same. Okay, to be fair, a lot of them are the same, or at least appear to be very similar. A writer I know once said that you could rip the covers off several journals in this country and have no way of telling them apart, and it would be hard to argue with him. But still, many Canadian journals have specific sensibilities, and exploring the landscape out there means figuring out what those sensibilities are. I’m pretty sure I could tell, for example, the difference between The New Quarterly and The Malahat Review, even if they weren’t printed in different formats. Room certainly has a specific mandate, as does On Spec or Rampike. Last year, I received a subscription to Matrix magazine after entering a poem in its Litpop contest. I hadn’t actually read Matrix before, and what I discovered was that the magazine published all kinds of fascinating stuff, none of which was really my cup of tea. Now I know not to send them more of my writing in the future, as it probably wouldn’t be a good fit. As for nonfiction, if you can’t tell the difference between the literary criticism in, say, CNQ and the literary criticism in, say, Canadian Literature, then you’ve probably got bigger problems to deal with. Some journals have a regional focus; others focus on a certain style of writing. As the saying goes, find your niche.
Tip 2: Dip a toe in by entering contests. You don’t have to tell me that the annual writing competitions that most journals put on seem, at least on the surface, to be a little suspect. It’s no coincidence that the entry fee is usually exactly the same price as a subscription, and the main objective may be to inflate subscription numbers in time for yearly grant applications. But still. You may want to try reading a journal regularly but are worried about spending money on something you may not like. Entering a contest is essentially a twofer: it means your work will be read on its own terms (that is, your name is not allowed on your entry) with the added bonus that the journal will arrive in your mailbox at regular intervals over the next year. When it does, read it. Read the contest winners with an open mind and see how their work compares to yours. Read it with the idea of figuring out exactly what the soul of the journal is, and whether you want to continue subscribing to it in the future.
Tip 3: Read journals cover to cover, like a book. It took me a while to embrace this idea. For the longest time, I would only spot-read journals, going in and finding names I recognized or reading pieces out of order. But what I’ve learned is that if you want to have a relationship with a literary journal, you need to read it on its own terms. This means recognizing that most good journals want to take you through an aesthetic arc, that they put a lot of thought into the order and mix of the stories and poems. It’s very easy to parachute into a journal, read one piece, decide you don’t like it, and then dismiss the entire issue as flawed. But if you do this, you’ll miss out on a lot of great stuff.
Tip 4: Get over the idea that journals only publish so-so work by newbies still learning their craft. Patently false. No journal I know of has a mandate to publish only beginners who show some potential for greatness. Most journals accept work from both new and established writers with the only objective being to publish good writing, however they define it. I always marvel at how some of the country’s best writers—writers who may even publish regularly with big presses—continue to put stuff out in journals. For readers, it’s a great way to keep track of what people are working on and get excited about forthcoming books. Speaking of which …
Tip 5: Engage with the work, however you define that term. For me, this means not just seeing the writing in journals as someone’s publication credit, but something worth getting excited about. There are a number of writers whose books I came to specifically because I first encountered them in journals: John Wall Barger and Catherine Owen are two recent examples that jump to mind. I actively seek out more stuff by writers whose works in journals excite me. I also have a number of acquaintances and colleagues in the writing community, and I make sure to let them know if I loved something they published in a journal. I myself had a story recently in PRISM international, and it’s a testament to the reach and impact of that magazine that I received a number of comments from strangers who had read and loved my piece. The lesson is: if you dig something you see in a journal, let the writer know.
I want to close by pointing out that it’s entirely possible to get your stuff published in journals even though you never read them. Despite what submission guidelines might say, this happens all the time. If you adamantly refuse to even give journals a try, and yet see them as pivotal stepping stones to your own fame and glory, I suppose that’s your business. But let me say this: if a journal publishes you, at least try and read the issue you appear in. I mean, it strikes me as the minimum one can do to acknowledge the hard work that editors and contributors put into these things. And like with anything you read, come at it with an open mind. What you find inside might surprise you.