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Are literary journals comatose?
October 30, 2012 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Have literary journals lost their cultural relevance? Ted Genoways, former editor of the Virginia Quarterly suggests they have, and are relegated to publishing masses of material, often submitted by waves of new MFA graduates, that few read. Others question the definition of relevance. The journals do continue to proliferate, generating constant fresh material for a review that reviews them, a database that writers use to sort through them, and agents who comb through them looking for the next literary sensation. Perhaps only print journals are in real trouble?
posted by shivohum (39 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
not everyone can be a writer

I don't need this. NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow.
posted by Egg Shen at 9:04 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Have literary journals lost their cultural relevance?"

Yes? I was educated on the science side of the spectrum, and as a result, read science journals all the time. I also spend huge amounts of time reading things in general. My brother was educated in English at a top school, and has never mentioned anything like these journals to me, even when I asked him because I assumed they existed and want to read them.

To my chagrin, I was totally ignorant of the existence of these journals until this post, and if someone like me doesn't even know they exist, much less read them, how could they have any relevance outside of their existing readership?
posted by 517 at 9:15 AM on October 30, 2012


"Have literary journals lost their cultural relevance?"

I think the real question is whether literary journals ever had cultural relevance.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:19 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the real question is whether literary journals ever had cultural relevance.

Well, the author gets to that in the 3rd paragraph of the FTA. I did have a similar question, but I'm convinced enough because there's plenty of evidence (and on reflection, 19th century periodicals are great evidence. I think you also have to define "relevance" - being an important player in the exchange of contemporary ideas with the power to change politics and philosophy isn't the same as being on everyone's nightstand. There's plenty of argument that literary journals have done the former even when they haven't done the latter.

There's definitely a circular MFA culture that seeks to self-sustain. I tend to think that providing venues to lionize so many writers of mediocre quality - I really mean it - isn't doing literature a lot of favors. Anyone who wants to write should, but writing well enough for your work to appear in an edited periodical should be an achievement.
posted by Miko at 9:38 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes? I was educated on the science side of the spectrum, and as a result, read science journals all the time. I also spend huge amounts of time reading things in general. My brother was educated in English at a top school, and has never mentioned anything like these journals to me, even when I asked him because I assumed they existed and want to read them.

I'm not trained in English, but another humanities discipline, but these sound like they aren't academic literature journals (which would the true equivalent of science journals, in that they publish research) but creative literary journals. If your brother went into graduate level research, he would have been reading academic journals, as well as academic books (different disciplines have more or less important research in journals or books). He may or may not have been reading contemporary literary journals, if he was researching them. (Most people I know in literature studies were working on premodern literature like Anglo-Saxon or medieval).
posted by jb at 9:40 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


agents who comb through them

Looks like the Writer's Digest website can't take the MeFi heat.

Cached version here.
posted by shivohum at 9:41 AM on October 30, 2012


This is the Ted Genoways who personally ran one literary journal into the ground by pushing for his own version of "cultural relevance" at the expense of everyone else who worked there, yes? Mother Jones should be ashamed of publishing this kind of cocktail-party lamentation from the managerial classes as though it had anything to do with real cultural politics.
posted by RogerB at 9:41 AM on October 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Journal of British Studies is an example of an academic journal that publishes research on literature (specifically British literature - it's a multidisciplinary journal).
posted by jb at 9:43 AM on October 30, 2012


Lost?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:44 AM on October 30, 2012


(Sorry - that was posted for 517, if he or she is interested in reading academic literature research, which is the equivalent of scientific research).
posted by jb at 9:44 AM on October 30, 2012


They're all basically part of a pyramid scheme that seeks to support a small fortunate few in teaching, speaking, judging, & editing at the expense of a shit load of people who take out student loans, pay contest fees, go to retreats and conferences, etc and get not much in return. That's not to say that none of the people at the top are talented writers--some of them are. Unfortunately, very many of them are mostly just talented at being just good enough in a dull formulaic way to get published and make friends with the right people, and therefore get enough of a tacit endorsement from the literary establishment to prey on the hopes of would-be writers.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:51 AM on October 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I recently interviewed the head of our creative writing program, who spoke about the rise of e-journals and the like.

"It's much easier to get published," he said. "It's still just as hard to publish well."
posted by Madamina at 9:54 AM on October 30, 2012


I don't need this. NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow.

...on Halloween? YOU DIRTY CHEATER
posted by mightygodking at 10:03 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the real question is whether literary journals ever had cultural relevance.

Yeah, the word journals is a bit misleading here with its connotation of the worst kind of academic writing. This is more about what were traditionally called literary magazines, which is the term most of these articles actually use. Think The Dial, which might publish T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and William Butler Yeats in a single volume. Or The Little Review which published James Joyce's Ulysses for the first time in the United States. At the height of their popularity they were not only relevant, but maybe the single most relevant venue in literature. The two examples that readily come to mind being over a hundred years old might say something about their current relevance. Then again, I don't exactly have my finger on the pulse of things.
posted by Lorin at 10:21 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Before this thread becomes a perfect storm of bitter MFA grads who've been rejected from journals and anti-literati arguing that these journals would be irrelevant, a few quick points:

1) Beware of the false assumption that greater numbers and greater circulation mean great impact. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land famously had an original print run of 500 and many of the masterworks of the last 50 years of poetry were published in tiny magazines, such as the Language anthologies. The first Sex Pistols show only attracted 10-20 people, but they went on to form Joy Division, etc.

2) Don't think of literary journals as fungible commodities and dismiss them for their lack of market success. They're more useful to think of as auteurist community-building tools.

3) The smart money (and the no money) isn't in these quarterly print journals, but in innovative online literary journals that are cross-genre and multimedia, like Triple Canopy and my organization's magazines, The Margins, Open City and CultureStrike. (Someone just linked to our Ted Chiang interview on the blue.) We're also in a golden age of small political magazines, like Jacobin and New Inquiry.
posted by johnasdf at 10:35 AM on October 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


Seems a little hastily done for the reactionary screed genre. I can rate this essay only one and a half bowties.
posted by thelonius at 10:41 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is literary fiction one of those topics that Metafilter doesn't do well?
posted by Nomyte at 11:23 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is literary fiction one of those topics that Metafilter doesn't do well?

MetaFilter seems to be doing just fine here, thank you. Sorry if your own view doesn't seem to have the upper hand in this thread.
posted by grouse at 11:56 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


My own view is that backhanded sarcasm spoils conversations.
posted by Nomyte at 12:03 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Before this thread becomes a perfect storm of bitter MFA grads who've been rejected from journals and anti-literati arguing that these journals would be irrelevant,

Ha, yes, everyone criticizing the way that "literature" is handled here is obviously bitter, and you have no ulterior motive at all despite working for an organization that publishes literary journals. Got it.

(For the record, I don't have an MFA, nor have I ever spent significant time or money attempting to get published, because my brilliant creative writing prof--a notable poet--clued us in to the absolute uselessness of most MFAs.)
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:09 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


a perfect storm of bitter MFA grads who've been rejected from journals

"Bitter" is such an interesting word. It seems often to work as an easy rationale for shrugging off critique of a social system coming from anyone who's been hurt by that system, by personalizing and psychologizing it into mere pique. As if hurting people weren't a legitimate thing to criticize in a social structure!
posted by RogerB at 12:44 PM on October 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Reason #2346 why I don't submit to literary journals. It's a total waste of time and effort.
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:16 PM on October 30, 2012


And: I also do not have an MFA. Just: why spend hours and hours submitting my poems to journals with readerships that number in the hundreds?
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:19 PM on October 30, 2012


why spend hours and hours submitting my poems to journals with readerships that number in the hundreds?

To impress the ladies, of course.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:32 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


2010 called, wondering why it took 2 years to get this post published. What should I tell it?
posted by rusty at 4:37 PM on October 30, 2012


What should I tell it?

That the check is in the mail.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:40 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"why spend hours and hours submitting my poems to journals with readerships that number in the hundreds?

I think the important question is whether those hundred readers are a community you care about.

I'm a big folk dance and folk music nerd. I care a lot about artistic traditions that nobody cares about. I have strong aesthetic feelings about morris dancing for fuck's sake. Six drunk grown-ass men hopping up and down waving sticks around and seriously, no shit, I will get all emotional and overwrought explaining the fine points of my favorite dances. That alone should tell you that I'm way off the aesthetic deep end.

But, you know, there's a few dozen other people who have gone off the deep end in the same direction. And we may as well keep each other amused and out of trouble, right?

And so I am all about busting my ass writing and rehearsing a dance that maybe a few dozen people in the world will ever pay the slightest bit of attention to. But the important thing here is that those few dozen people are old friends and collaborators and co-conspirators and drinking buddies of mine. I like entertaining them. They like entertaining me. We're into similar shit. It works out.

So I mean I'm mentioning all this because I was under the impression that some lit mags were cover organizations for that same sort of artistic/aesthetic/cultural sub-sub-sub-community. No? Don't people have personal tastes here, preferences for one magazine over another? Are there really people who are just like "I want this poem to appear in any journal and I couldn't care less which one"?

I'll admit that I've never taken out student loans to get a Master of Fine Hopping With Sticks degree. But on the other hand, nobody's ever offered me the opportunity.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:14 PM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's worth pointing out that Ted Genoways's perspective may be colored by his involvement in the Kevin Morriseey affair. During his tenure at the VQR, he was known as a workplace bully. He refused to answer questions from staff members. He shirked his duties. He was, as he portrays himself at the head of this article, very much of the "Do you know who I am?" school, expecting people to be impressed by his stature rather than inveigling people and getting them excited about his publication.

While there are certainly ongoing problems with literature's current stature in American culture, it's telling that Genoways views the predicament through the prism of political power using the Wilbur Cross example, when "who you know" in the larger cross-disciplinary sense isn't necessarily keeps literary journals alive. The ongoing assault on journals comes down to business and the ability for benefactors to keep a culturally vital yet financially abysmal publication alive (Harper's actually operates at a loss and, were it not for John R. MacArthur, it's likely that it would not exist as it does today).

During the latter part of his VQR run, Genoways proved too slipshod in his duties to earn that infectious trust which literary journals need to thrive. If you expect to sit back and wait for people to be wowed by your brand or your reputation, then you clearly don't comprehend how drastically the scene has changed over the last ten years. (Consider the swift decline of Newsweek.) Complaining about the rising number of writers or moaning about social media realities that you couldn't be bothered to learn about and adapt to demonstrates a commitment to complacency rather than lifeblood.
posted by ed at 5:54 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was pretty shocked when I began to transition from the community that existed around my MFA cohort into genre fiction. For one thing, my poetry MFA cohort never, ever expected to get paid. For another, it didn't seem to matter much to them if they were read and I honestly didn't see two active of an engagement with other current writers outside of one really special, driven, talented peer. The vast majority of them seemed to read literary journals to submit to them.

(And then oddly started their own non-paying literary journals shortly after graduation)

I burned out on that pretty quickly, but was surprised when I started meeting spec fic writers who were genuine fans of other short fiction writers publishing today--who subscribed to multiple magazines (in print!), stay current with podcasts, fanboy Genevieve Valentine with me at cons. And the rule there is to stick with paying markets, that your work deserves payment and an audience. It's been an interesting cultural shift. Many SF markets aren't really to my tastes, but the work they publish seems to matter more even within the subculture. As opposed to the accolade of having been published in certain places mattering in the MFA subculture?

Maybe that's overly simplistic, but that's how it felt to me, at least.

Are there really people who are just like "I want this poem to appear in any journal and I couldn't care less which one"?

Back when I knew I couldn't get paid for my poems, I'd submit to whichever ones published work I liked--which included some really teeny tiny online 'zines. That all ended when a catty MFA peer told me that I was ruining my career because where you publish matters. Really took the fun out of having maybe a few readers for me.

Also, that agent article is stupid. How about interviewing agents rather than editors? What the heck do editors know about what agents are reading? Meh.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:37 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


What the heck do editors know about what agents are reading?

Well, to be fair, they polled 40 literary agents to see which journals they read, then picked 12 from that list, then talked to their editors.
posted by shivohum at 7:05 PM on October 30, 2012


Well, to be fair, they polled 40 literary agents to see which journals they read, then picked 12 from that list, then talked to their editors.

Who then repeated the same platitudes about wanting fresh voices that they always do in such things.

But honestly, I think most literary writers would have a better time finding an agent if their programs taught them how to write a damned query letter. Sure would have helped me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:16 PM on October 30, 2012


I burned out on that pretty quickly, but was surprised when I started meeting spec fic writers who were genuine fans of other short fiction writers publishing today

Certainly when I was doing my master's in fiction writing, in 1994, the fiction writers around me cared very deeply about what other writers are doing. Of course, we cared about the stories in the big, well-paid places, the New Yorker and the Atlantic and Harper's, and we all aspired to get our own stories there where tons of people would read them, but we followed the literary magazines very closely. There was so much life there -- in Story, in Glimmer Train, in Boulevard, in Gordon Lish's crazy magazine the Quarterly... things were happening, and if people outside the subculture weren't following it, we knew they would eventually be. We were wrong, as it turns out! But that's how it felt at the time. I remember finding that issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction that was all about David Foster Wallace and William Vollman and Susan Daitch, the one where "E Unibus Pluram" was published, and reading it straight through, and feeling like new stuff about what fiction could do was being discovered right in front of me.

Before that, in high school, Gargoyle, wow, the center of D.C.'s admittedly meager literary scene -- that was how I learned there was such a thing as contemporary literature. More precisely: how I learned there was such a thing as contemporary literature being carried out by people you could meet and talk to and have coffee with, not by abstract names on books reviewed in the newspaper.

And after that, McSweeney's, and Tin House, and probably a lot more I haven't heard of because I don't follow literary fiction as closely as I once did. I'm poorer for that. And I think everybody's poorer if it's true that these magazines aren't thriving anymore. But I guess I don't really think that, because people have cared about writing for a long time, and will keep on caring about writing, and it's hard to believe that people have stopped expressing that to each other in small groups just because one venue for doing so has died out.
posted by escabeche at 12:11 AM on October 31, 2012


What's this "literary" genre I keep hearing about? Is it one of those new offshoots of postmodern fiction?
posted by LogicalDash at 5:49 AM on October 31, 2012


And after that, McSweeney's, and Tin House, and probably a lot more I haven't heard of because I don't follow literary fiction as closely as I once did. I'm poorer for that. And I think everybody's poorer if it's true that these magazines aren't thriving anymore. But I guess I don't really think that, because people have cared about writing for a long time, and will keep on caring about writing, and it's hard to believe that people have stopped expressing that to each other in small groups just because one venue for doing so has died out.

McSweeney's, Tin House, and the New Yorker still matter (oddly, among genre readers, too). As well as the work they publish. I might add The Paris Review and One Story to that, maybe.

But that's a drop in the bucket. There are hundreds of literary magazines, and from my own MFA tenure (2007 - 2009), I can tell you that engagement with these magazines on a broad scale--reading the stories, and caring about them--is very, very low. This is doubly true for poets but seemed to also be true about fiction writers. Maybe it was my program. Maybe I was there during a dud year. But it's not the same world it was in 1994. There seemed to be a prevailing sense of cyncism, even though we were all young writers and had little apparent reason to be cynical.

(But hell, maybe we did. More MFA programs, harder to get tenure track jobs--it forces you to look at submissions with a more cut-throat, commercial eye. I was in a fully funded program but there was still a sense of What the hell are we going to do when we're done? I think that this is likely even truer today. With still more programs. And still fewer jobs.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:57 AM on October 31, 2012


I was amused by this comment: "Ha, yes, everyone criticizing the way that "literature" is handled here is obviously bitter, and you have no ulterior motive at all despite working for an organization that publishes literary journals. Got it."

This is actually the perfect example of how Metafilter can't handle literary fiction (outside of, say, David Foster Wallace) very well. Let me get this straight--I have an ulterior motive in saying that my field is not totally irrelevant, because I am in the field? If this were a science post, this would be seen as a sign of expertise.

Again--I think that the "yes literary journals are great' vs "no, they're not" debate is pretty boring. It's like saying that the Internet is great or albums are great. There are a million types of writings in these small journals, which have a small readership, but a devoted one. I find a lot of them boring, but I also find a lot of them thrilling.

More generally, I'd encourage you not to think about these journals as irrelevant pamphleteering, but as a kind of naive, pre-internet form of alternative publishing. These are not open source in the obvious sense, but what's amazing about literary journals is how they represent a generally non-commercial, volunteer-run ecosystem of ideas, not unlike Metafilter!
posted by johnasdf at 8:46 AM on October 31, 2012


Except we have the internet now so how can they be considered pre-internet?

But maybe I've just been too swayed by the prevailing notion in genre and commercial writing that writers should always get paid (I didn't always think this way, and gave away plenty of writing as a pipsqueak because I was excited about the currency of ideas. But a girl's gotta eat, and eventually I realized that all those poems were as good as unread in many of these online rags). That's pretty much why I have trouble getting behind the flood of lit mags--the few that do pay are too out of reach for most young writers. The rest don't, and want to pay you in simply the honor of the endeavor which does not necessarily even entail readership.

I think part of it is that it's considered somewhat gauche to say you want money and readers among literary circles, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:09 AM on October 31, 2012


Lewis Lapham’s Antidote to the Age of BuzzFeed: With his erudite Quarterly, the legendary Harper’s editor aims for an antidote to digital-age ignorance
posted by homunculus at 9:19 AM on October 31, 2012


This is actually the perfect example of how Metafilter can't handle literary fiction… very well.

Again, this phrase seems to have no meaning other than "people are disagreeing with my point of view and I would like to silence that."

Let me get this straight--I have an ulterior motive in saying that my field is not totally irrelevant, because I am in the field? If this were a science post, this would be seen as a sign of expertise.

I am a scientist, have multiple peer-reviewed papers, and have served as a reviewer for several journals. If I dismissed out of hand any complaints about the established journal system as due to "bitter" people whose articles have been rejected, before engaging with the substance of their argument, no one would confuse that with a sign of expertise.
posted by grouse at 9:46 AM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Relevant". This is starting to drive me crazy. Relevant to what? To who? Or do people just use "relevant" as a relation-less superlative now?
posted by thelonius at 3:15 AM on November 1, 2012


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