A blog I read recently posted links to the stories of the week. I thought it was a great idea, I’m all for supporting other writers, so I tried to think of a piece of fiction I had read online that I could share. I went to my two or three favorite spots for reading flash fiction (I was thinking of flash fiction only because that’s what I do,) and eventually found a great piece, but it made me realize how narrow my reading is of literary journals…and again, this is what I DO.

A note on me before I start throwing my opinions around: I don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing or other significant training in writing or publishing. My degree is actually in library science, which gives me a different lens through which I view literature. I am not coming to this topic as an “expert,” but simply as me, sharing my views.

When I started the No Extra Words podcast, I wanted to include the voices of other writers, as a podcast filled with my own writing was going to become boring and difficult to sustain quite quickly. This necessitated the creation of submission guidelines and a process for navigating submissions. Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, I started researching how other publications have done this. I started putting calls for submissions in places where literary journals do this, and learning about their processes. Nowadays, when I am asked to define the show to other podcasters, I describe it as “two parts podcast and one part literary journal.”

So I’m pretty close to BEING a literary journal, but do I READ them?

In print? Almost never. Very rarely do I pick up print literary journals. I know one area bookstore that stocks them. When I was working in libraries, I usually did not work in the branches that stocked them. Most large multi-branch libraries I know have a collection in their flagship or regional branches. The smaller community libraries generally have none or just the top three you’ve heard of (Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, etc.) Most people I would meet (and these are the readers, the kind of people who spend their time browsing libraries,) react to them the way I do: If they are around, yeah, I’ll leaf through a literary journal and maybe read a story or two, but it is not a primary way I seek out new reading material.

Okay, so maybe the print journals are struggling. This is not a huge surprise. Print everything is struggling. I bet you know of a local newspaper or two that is no more as well. It makes sense that the print landscape for such a tiny market is contracting. But what about online literary journals? They are everywhere, right? I filtered the database of literary magazines on the Poets & Writers website to just web publications (they list e-publications and audio/video publications separately.) 691 results came up. And since we all spend a whole lot of our time online, they must get read, right?

I thought about which ones I read. Which ones I searched when I was looking for something to share with this blogger. And the answer is: there are two or three I regularly browse when I’m looking for a quick hit of fiction. Two or three that I like because I’ve found some good stuff there in the past and I like the way they organize things or think of things. I’ll put my links list at the bottom of this post.

Well, that’s depressing. Because, like you and hundreds of other writers, I submit to literary journals. I want them to publish me. I get a lot of rejection slips from them. But when that elusive publication does come, is anyone reading?

This is far from a new conversation. When you ask your favorite search engine if there are too many literary journals or if anyone is reading literary journals, you’ll see this conversation has been happening as long as there has been an Internet to discuss it on, probably longer. And the answers, from the pro-literary journal side (and I want to emphasize, I don’t think of myself as being on the anti-literary journal side, this is just a question I am wrestling with) are: yes, readership is low, but those who are reading are gatekeepers, wine tasters, change leaders. Literary journals offer space to new writers to test new work and bring new voices in a way no one else in the publishing world does. It is good when the literary marketplace is open to new writers.

It doesn’t always feel wide open to those of us with a stack of rejection letters from these places, and the question has been asked before if literary journals are all publishing the same “kind” of stuff. But yes, it is how some writers find first exposure, a voice, and the platform on which they build to more. Some writers. But “literary” fiction is only a small slice of the literature pie. Does this work for everyone? Does it need to?

As usual, I’m wrapping this up with more questions than answers, and this time it stings a little because I am on the literary journal side. I know how hard it is to find an audience. I’m constantly working to get more listeners for the podcast so that the writers who share their work on the show get wider exposure (and the show along with it.) We have grown a ton in the last year, but we have growing yet to do.

And underneath all of it, there is this lingering unspoken question: is there a tipping point? What do we do when there are more readers than writers?

On that depressing note, as you write something today, go read something, okay?


Some of my favorite online literary journals:

Oblong: a print and online flash fiction zine

Literary Orphans: pairing up great photography with great writing

Flash Fiction Online

Feel free to share yours in the comments!