Support for Literary Magazines Begins with Writers

As you could probably tell from reading Mel’s review of Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go, which appeared in this year’s Best American Short Stories, we’re pretty pumped about tomorrow’s BASS panel event hosted by Harvard Bookstore. For my own preview leading up to the event, I’ve considered some subjects here that series editor Heidi Pitlor discusses in the preface to this year’s edition of BASS.

By Shane Solar-Doherty

Since 2007, Heidi Pitlor’s first year as series editor of The Best American Short Stories, a lot has changed. E-readers have grown vastly more popular; reputable lit journals have folded and new ones have been trying to fill the holes; publishers’ budgets have been cut and established editors have lost their jobs. All of which makes Pitlor’s job more difficult when, at the end of a year, she has to sit down and sum up the events of the past twelve months in about three pages.

The preface to this year’s edition of BASS packs in a lot. Being that this is the last BASS of the first decade of the 21st century, Pitlor sums up the 2010 edition in terms of where we were a decade ago. In 2000, Katrina Kenison, then the series editor of BASS, read submissions from about fifty more journals than Pitlor did this year; ten years ago, John Updike, Saul Bellow and J.D. Salinger were all still kickin’ it; lit journals Story, DoubleTake, and Ontario Review were still publishing at the beginning of the decade, but since they’ve gone under, it’s been left up to McSweeney’s, Tin House and One Story to pick up where they left off.

In illustrating her point about struggling journals, Pitlor points to an article by Ted Genoways in Mother Jones, in which Genoways cites the struggles that The Southern Review and New England Review have had in trying to stay afloat. Genoways’ February 2010 article, titled The Death of Fiction?, explores much more than just those two journals’ troubles. Genoways adamantly encourages young writers to take risks with their writing, to explore themes that will challenge both reader and writer, and to step out of the comfort zone that academia allots them. He suggests that lit journals are flopping largely because no one’s reading them anymore, not even writers. As a result, Genoways thinks “writers have become less interested in reaching out to readers – and less and less encouraged by their teachers to try.”

As an alum of Emerson College’s undergraduate writing and literature program, Genoways’ points hit home. It took a summer spent at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center as an intern, outside of the academic setting, to begin my growth as an advocate of literary arts and journals. That summer I discovered AGNI, The Kenyon Review, and Poets & Writers, among many others. And when I returned to campus in the fall, it appeared that I was one of only a few students informed about the vast selection of literary journals and the light they shed on the state of modern literature. The most a professor would do for his or her students was print up a list of journals they could submit stories to. We were never encouraged to educate ourselves on the tradition of the literary journal or even to pick up the latest issue of a lit mag at a local bookstore. It wasn’t until after I emerged as an alum in 2008 that I took the opportunity to expand my knowledge of journal offerings.

Here’s my point: If writing students aren’t being encouraged by their professors to invest in their peers’ work, then is there anyone encouraging the general reading public? It’s not likely. And thus we have a shortage of journal subscriptions.

It seems to me that there’s an easy solution to this, and it starts with the curriculum. Just as journalism students are required to obtain newspaper subscriptions, students in writing programs should be required to subscribe to a literary magazine for a year. In addition to the stories that students have to write and critique in a semester, they should be expected to read a literary journal, discuss the journals they’re reading in class, and report on some of the pieces they’ve read, or on the journal as a complete publication. To make this a more feasible expectation of students who are already losing sleep over thoughts of loan debt and job-hunting, literary magazines should offer discounts to educators and students. The curriculum requirement will boost nationwide journal subscriptions, students will learn about current literary trends and authors while saving money on subscriptions, and a resurgence of the vitality of and appreciation for literary journals will transpire.

In theory, the idea is that once students are subscribing to literary magazines, they’ll find the content superior, have an understanding of the important role journals play in the literary landscape, and continue to renew their subscriptions year after year. They’ll spread the trend, turn their friends on to the stories, poems and essays they’re reading, and encourage them to subscribe. Maybe they’ll subscribe to supplementary journals and begin reading others’ literary magazine reviews—such as the ones you’ll find over at NewPages—and participate in discussions like those hosted by HTMLGIANT’s Lit Mag Club, or start their own. A fresh culture will breathe new life into literary conversations.

As Pitlor closes out her preface to BASS ’10, she urges readers to subscribe to a literary journal and to purchase a short story collection by a young author. “We must support our smaller magazines,” she writes, “if we are to support our talented new writers. We must support our young writers if we expect quality literature—and a healthy culture—in ten or twenty or thirty years.” If we incorporate that support into the curriculum of writing programs across the country, I believe we’ll see a grassroots growth that begins from within the writing community and spreads out to other culturally sensitive groups. We have to learn to support one another from the early stages of our writing lives if we want to foster the longevity of literary journals. That’s the first step to assuring that quality literature will be published and read in the decades to come.

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4 thoughts on “Support for Literary Magazines Begins with Writers

  1. Andrea says:

    This is all very true. The CLMP started a program called the Lit Mag Adoption Program that is trying to address the problem by encouraging MFA program classes to read a lit mag or two in their classes. The program does offer discounted subscriptions to students in the program. Spread the word! This is a great way to expose emerging writers to the lit mag world.

    • Shane says:

      Andrea, the Lit Mag Adoption Program sounds great. A dialogue about contemporary literature can only spark further enthusiasm and encourage young writers to continue writing and young readers to explore fresh voices. The program sounds exciting!

      Is there a way that the adoption program could reach out to students in BA & BFA writing programs as well? The younger students are when they’re exposed to contemporary lit and the forms that it comes in, the longer they’ll have to develop an appreciation for the medium and to learn craft and style through reading new material. In retrospect, I know I would have liked to have had an opportunity like this as an Emerson undergrad.

  2. Andrea says:

    I believe that the program is being used in undergrad programs. In fact I think both of the classes that adopted Ploughshares last semester were undergraduate courses.

    I think the challenge that schools (and professors) face is that it’s hard to work a curriculum around a lit mag. To stay up to date, your material necessarily changes every semester, and it’s hard to prepare when you’re getting the material at the same time as your students. Unless it’s a class that’s specifically about lit mags/journals, I can see why professors are hesitant, especially if they’re held to certain standards by their institution.

    I know I wasn’t that exposed to lit mags in undergrad either, which is especially strange as a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major (as opposed to being a general “English” major).

    • Shane says:

      Yeah, I do see that it would be very difficult for professors to work lit mags into their curriculum. What you bring up is valid if there’s to be class discussion about a specific lit mag — how can you make time to read and discuss a journal on top of an already loaded syllabus that includes reading the essential lit selections for any given writing class, writing your own pieces, and reading and critiquing your peers’ work? It’s literary overload, in a phrase.

      What I was suggesting in the post is that students individually read an issue of a lit mag of their choice and pick a day to sum up their reading experience and inform the rest of the class of their discoveries. But this leaves little room for discussion, which is vital for analyzing your own interpretations and understanding the interpretations of others. However, with a shift in curricular criteria (perhaps students will read a little less of the literary greats and a little more contemporary work), this structure might be more workable in the frame of a semester.

      Also, I love the idea of a lit mag course. Let me know if Emerson ever offers one. I want in.

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