Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Literary Magazines on the Make?

Writers tend to be a gullible, desperate lot. They’re easy to pinch for a few bucks even if they’re broke. At least when it comes to the prospect of getting published. Or finding out how to get published. Or paying for the idea that their work might, just might, be considered for publication.

Just look at the writing section in any bookstore. It seems as if everyone on the planet wants to be a writer and will spend ten bucks on a seemingly infinite number of how-to-write-fiction books written by previously unpublished authors (I’m currently working on book about how to buy how-to-write books…kidding, just in case some poor sob of an aspiring writer was getting ready to contact me for an advance copy).

(But if you did want to contact me about such a book, I’d love to talk with you about any number of ventures I have in mind, such as the funding I need for my “How to Write Like Grant Faulkner Workshop” that I have planned next summer in Paris.)

Don’t worry, this is all leading up to something….

Literary magazines have long been the tireless mules of publishing, except that unlike mules, lit mags breed like rabbits on Viagra. That’s a good thing (although they die like lemmings). Whether funded by universities or by grants or by love—or all three if they're lucky—lit journals have had the responsibility of slogging through submissions of every soon-to-be great author and every wanna-be poet. Thousands of them. Millions of them.

But really, who thanks them in the end? Answer: nobody.

So I don’t begrudge lit mags for trying to make ends meet or even to make a buck. But I’d like to see them do it in a legitimate way—e.g., people paying for the product they produce or the advertising in that product or the writing classes they put on or something that seems like a service.

Unfortunately, some lit mags are now focused on making a buck from the desperado writers (present company included) who keep the whole boat afloat by buying the how-to books, the novels, the lit magazines.

Take Narrative Magazine, which charges $20 for a prose submission, but for that fee you don’t know if they’ve read the first sentence, the first paragraph, or the first page. You don’t know that with any magazine, of course, but for $20, the magazine should include at least a single comment about one thing they’ve read. Otherwise, well, I’m not so sure that they’re just not publishing their friends or the writers they want to sleep with.

I’m sympathetic, yet suspicious.

Tin House has a much better approach. It requires “writers submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the magazine to include a receipt for a book purchased from a bookstore.” That’s a policy for the general good of publishing and doesn’t charge a writer for, well, writing.

Likewise many lit contests, such as the Missouri Review’s Editors’ Prize, give a one-year subscription to the mag for the entry fee. Fair enough.

But I’m worried about a trend where those writers who are without the lit connections, MFA degrees, etc., pay to have their submissions read. These are the people who are likely funding the whole shebang. They’re desperados, beautiful hopeful souls who are easily suckered because they have a dream or an urgent (likely self-destructive) need to put life to words.

I’m one of them. So please don’t charge me $$ just for wanting to be a writer. Or at least give me something in return. A mug? A t-shirt?

The New Pages blog has some good perspectives on this as well.

Good luck 'ye of much faith.


Cory said...

I would love to write like Grant Faulkner. Coincidentally, I will be in Paris during the workshop! :-)

Terry Dassow said...

Great explanation of the situation. I would love writers to follow your call to action and not put up with the type of treatment that has caused so many scriptwriters to go on strike.