Literary Magazines: They Matter.

By Alexandra Grabbe

Let me share something brilliant that recently occurred to me: literary magazines matter in the effort to publish a first book.  Why?  Literary agents prefer them to slush.  I’m not sure when this realization hit, but it happened during the spring, perhaps at the conclusion of Masters Fiction, hearing the most gracious Ladette Randolph describe her role as editor of Ploughshares or during Becky Tuch’s a la carte session at the Muse and particularly after her statement that nine literary agents had contacted the author of one short story in Crab Orchard (!) or recently in reading Eric Nelson’s Ploughshares blog.  This part:  “As an agent, this is how I find nearly all my authors: I contact them after they’ve published something great.”  Ie. not through the slush pile.

I started writing short stories relatively late in life.   After a ten-week Fiction II course with Christina McCarroll and a couple classes with Chip Cheek, I was ready to submit ultra-polished work, but where?  I spent an afternoon on GrubStreet’s red couch in search of an answer to that question.  For three hours I reviewed the literary magazines in the bookcase outside GrubStreet classrooms.    While the selection could do with some updating, it gave me the opportunity to leaf through a couple magazines I liked.  I noticed that both Michelle Hoover and Steve Almond had published stories in issue five of Night Train, back in 2004.  The Tin House available featured a story by Jim Shepard, a luminary according to two of my 2013 GrubStreet teachers.  I liked Slice and took note of a reminder from the editors: “Writing what we know can shed light on the universal truths that thread through the lives of farmhands and princes alike.”  I jotted down a few ideas but still felt adrift in the Sea of Submission.

No wonder.  There are thousands of literary magazines from which to choose.  These magazines can be divided into tiers.  At the top, Tin House and Ploughshares and Paris Review.  Sensible beginning writers submit to a lower tier, a move that increases their chances of publication.  But which magazines are lower tier but fancy enough to attract the attention of literary agents?

To find out, I chose to attend Publishing In Literary Magazines, Where Do I Begin, Becky Tuch’s Friday Muse & The Marketplace session, in the hope of learning her personal favorites.  As The Review Review editor, she had the sense to turn herself into a literary magazine expert early in the game.  Here’s her advice on how to winnow through the options.  “Try to find fifteen to twenty that speak to you, that publish work you like.”  Then submit your story to every single one.

Becky offered more tips. 

1.) Keep watch for theme issues because the competition is less fierce

2.) Enter contests because they stimulate your very best work

3.) Read the bios of contributors and check where their earlier short stories were published

4.) Read short story anthologies to find out where the writers were previously published

5.) Use Social Media for early information on themed issues or requests for readers/bloggers

6.) Read the literary magazines you like

While this last suggestion may seem obvious, we all have so much going on in our lives that carving out space for yet another task may seem daunting.   How do you find literary magazines to read without subscribing to them all?  A Grubbie has come up with a solution to this challenge.  Jenn Scheck-Kahn started Journal of the Month.  She has handpicked a certain number of well-considered literary magazines and will send subscribers a different one every month.

About the Author

Alexandra Grabbe wrote the blog Wellfleet Today for ten years. She is working on a short story collection and revising a memoir. in 2015 she self-published her father's memoir, Emigre, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count. 

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