Don’t Be a Hater: On Lit Mags and Their Covers
By Becky Tuch
Recently, my friend and colleague Calvin Hennick posted an article here about the failure of lit mag covers to entice viewers and to draw readership. “Like a lot of readers, I feel guilty that I don’t read more literary magazines,” Hennick wrote. “But I have to say, I don’t feel like the editors are trying all that hard to snag me. When you put an unexplained picture of a kid playing an accordion on your cover (a real – and not unrepresentative – example), what you’re saying is, ‘Read, or don’t read. We don’t care! We’re artists.’”
As the founder of The Review Review, a website dedicated to reviews of literary magazines and interviews with journal editors, I have spent a lot of time researching literary magazines. For many reasons and in many ways, I could not disagree (respectfully and affectionately) more with Hennick’s statements.
Hennick juxtaposes the cover of Men’s Fitness, a popular commercial magazine, with the cover of a recent issue of Alaska Quarterly Review. The former features a bikini-clad model alongside enticements to “get lean,” “drop your fat,” “shatter stress,” etc. The latter features a photograph of a tree, revealing shades and textures of bark. It is obvious, the juxtaposition seems to imply, that any reader looking for a good time will pick up the glossy mag, leaving AQR to gather dust among stacks of equally dull and downtrodden literary magazines.
Thus Hennick calls upon editors of literary magazines to put more thought into their cover design, to create covers that can compete with all the other reading material out there. Says Hennick, “Give us a line from a poem that commands us to open up the issue. Give us the baffling, dazzling first two sentences of a short story and see if we can resist reading the rest. Give readers a way in to the magazine, or it’ll sit on a shelf collecting dust.”
The problem with this argument is twofold. One, it assumes—as many people do—that “literary magazines” are a single monolithic entity. Under this broad umbrella, one editor is the same as another, one magazine more or less identical to the other. A specific criticism then becomes generalized: one lit mag is dull, therefore all lit mags are dull. A handful of poems in a bunch of journals are boring, therefore all literary magazines publish boring poetry. A few lit mags fail to attract the way commercial magazines do, therefore all lit mag editors are failing to deliver enticing cover art to draw readers in.
Hennick is not alone in this all-or-nothing thinking. I get Google Alerts daily for “literary magazines” and “lit mags.” I have read hundreds of blogs and articles devoted to the topic. Oh, how people love to hate on literary magazines! The stories don’t go anywhere. The editors are sexist. The editors are elitist. The poems are shallow. The essays are dry. Lit mags are too conservative. Lit mags are too experimental. The covers are too weird. The covers are too boring.
People, literary magazines are not all one thing. Quite unlike popular magazines such as Men’s Fitness, Cosmo, Glamour, Vogue, which are indeed owned by just a few media conglomerates which recycle the same messages to the same audiences reflecting the same sets of interests again and again and again, every single literary magazine is different. Every editor is different. Every lit mag staff is different. Every literary magazine has a unique mission and its own particular aesthetic and voice.
Many lit mags are boring. Many editors are sexist. Many poems and stories and essays do fall flat. But do we really need to fixate on those? Can’t we all agree that they exist, and move on to those that excite us? Readers, there are plenty of beautiful, captivating, haunting, shocking, stunning literary magazines in the world. You might have to do a little work to find them, but by jove they exist.
Herein lies the second problem in Hennick’s argument: he assumes that quality artwork and writing ought to just be handed out, like so many snacks on an airplane. “Give us,” Hennick says. “Give us.”
Rarely does our culture give us anything in the way of value. And when it does, that value is often obscured by the noisy clamor of shiny magazines with half-naked celebrities on the cover. Rather than insist that lit mag editors need to do more to grab our attention, perhaps we as readers need to do more to find the work that speaks to us.
Good stuff is out there. You just have to put down that glossy mag long enough to go looking for it.
Here are a few of my recent favorite lit mag covers:
What’s striking here is the woman’s facial expression. What’s going on? Why is she all dressed up in that lovely blouse and yet looking so…Wait. Hold up. That ain’t no blouse. That’s a shirt made of…intestines? Entrails? God help us.
Hugh Behm-Steinber, editor of eleven eleven, commented on Hennick’s article with a link to a recent cover of his magazine. That cover is indeed great. But this is their current issue, and I love this cover just as much. The landscape here is soothing but fractured, smooth but jagged. It promises escape, but also hard-scrabble rough edges. Also, I’m a sucker for the aesthetic appeal of collages, so this would absolutely make me want to read.
You’re telling me you wouldn’t read this? Wouldn’t even crack the cover? Look at that noir-ish city landscape in the back, that beautiful blue in contrast to the elegant simplicity of the black lines in the cartoon. It’s elegant simplicity coupled with drawings of naked, um, camels? Donkeys? And what’s this guy about to do—spring up and go somewhere? Collapse in a heap next to that sleeping animal on the couch? What’s that small mushroom cloud above his head? Come on. Don’t tell me you’re not curious.
You don’t have to go to the glossy magazines to get your excitement on. This journal has been on hiatus for a few years, but is scheduled to make a come-back. Va-va-va voom! Can’t wait.
Some magazines, like this recent issue of Ninth Letter, actually come with things, in addition to the magazine itself. Says a reviewer of this issue, “When I received my copy in the mail, I first became aware of the odd little gifts enclosed in the cellophane packaging...a yellow seed packet that read TEA PARTY on the front…an enamel American flag pin…a folded fractal maze (‘an infinite series of mazes within a maze’), a large folded chart entitled “Corn in the U.S.A.”, a lovely spread of poetry, prose, and photographs…a postcard with a picture of bacon on the front, a terribly entertaining Newspoem…and a paper packet entitled ‘Hides: Images + Diagrams.’
I don’t know how best to describe this last piece to you. The packet consists of black and white photographs of nearly unidentifiable body parts and diagrams of what might be skin? A pore?...’” Don’t tell me these goodies wouldn’t entice you.
Many literary magazines are employing the medium of the paper itself in interesting ways. This inaugural issue of Beecher’s is entirely white, the front and back printed on soft bumpy paper. The binding is exposed so you can see the black threads holding the issue together. Unlike commercial magazines, many literary magazines are things you actually want to hold in your hands. They are gentle reminders that we live in a world of textures other than “glossy.”
I could go on. There are thousands of lit mags out there and hundreds with covers that stun, dazzle, and entice. Have you heard of all these magazines? Probably not. But that’s on you, friends. Get out there. Discover. Explore. Ask questions. Seek. Seems to me that’s what being a writer is all about.
Becky Tuch is a fiction and nonfiction writer, based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her fiction has been honored with awards from Briar Cliff Review, Glimmer Train, Moment Magazine, a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony, and was recently included in Sundress Press's Best of the Net Anthology. Other short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Day One, Eclipse, Hobart, Literary Mama, Post Road, Salt Hill, Summerset Review, and other publications. Her nonfiction has appeared in Role Reboot, Salon, Virginia Quarterly Online, and elsewhere. She is also the Founding Editor of The Review Review, a website dedicated to reviews of literary magazines and interviews with journal editors. The Review Review has been listed for the past six years as one of Writer's Digests 101 Best Websites for Writers. Learn more at www.BeckyTuch.comSee other articles by Becky Tuch