Lit Journals for Your New Year’s Resolution

by Treehouse Editors

Johannes Lichtman

Oh, the first week of the calendar, the time of year when countless writers resolve to submit to more journals and at least a few saintly writers resolve to read more journals. For those of you young writers who are making your first sending-out-more-work resolutions, here are a few things to think about.

Even though most literary journals are a labor of love—usually making no profit and paying no employees—and are often read by a very small, select group of lit lovers (my frame of reference was recently put into perspective when my sister talked about starting a tiny law magazine that “only had 40,000 subscribers”; you can count on one hand the amount of lit journals with over 10,000 subscribers and on one finger the amount with 40,000), those of us in the U.S. are pretty fortunate to live in a place with so many venues for reading and publishing new writing. If you’ve lived in pretty much any other country, you know that, while other nations may have us licked in terms of general literacy, nowhere on earth are there so many venues for new writing as there are in America.

Even if lit mags as a rule almost always have more submissions than subscriptions (usually a lot more), and even if the National Endowment for the Arts last year received 45% as much government funding as military bands, the massive and eclectic world of American lit journals has to be exciting for young writers looking to discover what contemporary writing has to offer (and what they may potentially be able to contribute to the conversation).

Below are some places that consistently publish kickass writing. These are the types of journals I wish I had known about in my early 20s, when I thought The Paris Review and Glimmer Train were all there was. The journals below are publications that focus on innovative work, great design, and a strong online presence.

(Quick tangent: There’s a bit of a bias against publishing online, but unless you’re publishing in The New Yorker or something, where do you think more people are going to read your story—in a prestigious journal that has 500 subscribers, or in a well-laid out, well-edited online journal that readers can access with a simple click of the mouse? In our first nine months, 25,000 people visited our site. Even if 90% of those were misdirected porn-enthusiasts looking for weird tree house-fetish stuff, that still leaves us over 800 readers per quarter. And in the world of online journals, we’re very new and very tiny. Imagine how many readers check out established online mags like Word Riot and The Collagist. As far as that whole “I want a good journal on my cover letter” thing goes, it’s understandable and may make a little bit of difference, but from my personal experience, I get just as many form rejections now that I have a few good publications on my cover as I did when I had none.)

What follows is by no means a comprehensive list, but since Duotrope just went behind the paywall, here’s my list of lit journals—and lit sites/blogs/whatever you want to call them—where you’re guaranteed to find good writing. (Plus some other stuff about lit journals that I feel like ranting about.)

Please note that this is a list of journals that would be great to read, rather than journals where you should submit your work. (Of course, if you read and feel like you have something to contribute, that’s always fun, too.)

The Next Generation of Lit Mags:

Barrelhouse and Hobart: These are two different journals with different values and aesthetics, but, as they started around the same time and have both done a lot to remove the highbrow and the stuffy from new literature, I’m grouping them together. If you like reading elegant prose about first generation role-playing games, the Jersey Shore, or the Three Stooges Museum, these are two journals you’re going to enjoy. Barrelhouse and Hobart publish surprising, often funny pieces of writing that people tend to mislabel “quirky” or “weird” but that we here at Treehouse prefer to call “pleasingly unusual.” The mainstream is finally starting to recognize the awesomeness of these two mags, as the latest Best American Short Stories featured two stories from Hobart (which is to say, 10% of the “best” stories of 2012 were from a single issue of Hobart).

PANK: Founded in the mid aughts, PANK is a print and online journal edited by Roxane Gay and M. Bartley Seigel. It continues to be one of the best, most visually pleasing and narratively interesting places out there. Just go look at their site if you don’t believe me. Very hip.

The Collagist: Without a doubt, one of the best online literary journals publishing today. The amazing thing is that Matt Bell, Gabe Blackwell, and co. manage to put out a jam-packed, high quality issue with short fiction, poetry, an essay, a novel excerpt, and a handful of book reviews every month. Here at Treehouse, it pretty much breaks our backs to put out a top 5 list. I don’t know how they do it.

Lit Sites/Blogs:

The Rumpus: Not a lit journal in the strictest sense of the term, The Rumpus is Stephen Elliot’s daily lit hub. With regular contributors like Steve Almond, Rick Moody, and Roxane Gay, this is where you can check back several times daily for new material in the fields of books, politics, humor, music, memoir, culture, and more.

The Millions: In the same category as The Rumpus, The Millions is C. Max Magee’s daily lit hub. While The Rumpus goes a bit broader, The Millions has a tight (and very good) focus on books. Their bi-yearly book previews are where I go to make my to-read lists. Their message board is a fascinating place to be; one time a fierce debate about the New Yorker’slit critic James Wood culminated in an appearance on the discussion board by Wood himself.

HTMLGIANT: Say you want a blog where you can read about books, but you’re tired of hearing about lyrical realism and The New York Times Book Review. You like highly intellectual discussions of theory and criticism, as it pertains to experimental literature and, often, pop culture. You like intelligent and often brutal debate in the comments section. You like reading posts called things like “Dear Narrative Magazine: Please Die in a Fire (Also, Kindly Remove Me from Your Mailing List).” This is the place for you.

University Journals That Kick Ass:

Black Warrior Review: For almost forty years, the University of Alabama’s literary journal has been a haven for experimental writing. If you like your essays lyric, your stories fragmented, and your poems out-of-this-world strange, check out BWR.

Carolina Quarterly: Barreling through their sixty-second year, CQ has been publishing since before the invention of the written word. (Their first issue was just charcoal drawings.) Even so, they haven’t fallen into the malaise of many older university journals, bringing out fresh content, insightful interviews, and really happening design. The past couple years has seen them ramp up their online presence, too.

REAL: Stephen F. Austin University’s lit journal has been publishing for over 36 years, but it’s only recently that they’ve revamped their website, changed their submission system, and started publishing content online. It’s also clear that they raised the design bar quite a bit, too. I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased, since this is the magazine that first published a chapter from my novel, but besides that terrible error, it’s clear that Andrew Brininstool, John McDermott and co. are doing very good work down in Nacogdoches (which, I’ve been told, is a real place). I’m waiting for their fall/winter issue to arrive in my mailbox with bated breath, as it features work from two of my favorite young writers.

Nashville Review: NR has done more to combine music and literature than probably any literary magazine besides maybe The Oxford American. They also strive to include less common forms like comics and dance (you have to see for yourself) in a literary environment. Plus the website offers almost as much great content as the magazine itself.

…and on the other side of the spectrum…

Magazine Where You Should Never, Ever Submit:

Narrative: You can read about the debate over submission fees in a ton of places. But one thing is clear: you shouldn’t pay a $22 submission fee to a magazine that, if it accepts your work, pays you $150 in return so they can buy the B-work of big name writers. If you want to take that shot in the dark submitting to that dream journal, send a story to The Paris Review or Granta or any one of the highly prestigious journals that publish consistently good writing and don’t charge to read your stories.

Finally, a few losses to the world of literary magazines in 2012:

Editors I’m Devastated to Lose:

If you followed the lit scene at all this summer, you heard about the house-cleaning over at the Oxford American. Founding editor Marc Smirnoff and managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald parted ways with the magazine that, for Smirnoff, had been his baby for twenty years (Fitzgerald had also been with the OA for nearly a decade). Marc and Carol Ann are two of the most generous editors I’ve ever met. I know of no editing team that was more dedicated to finding and developing young talent than these two. A recent appreciation in The New York Times called the Oxford American “the best and most original new American magazine of the last 25 years” and said Smirnoff “was the most important editor out of the South since Willie Morris.” I hope that the new editors at OA can continue the stunning legacy Smirnoff built, but more than that, I hope Marc and Carol Ann get another chance to put their brilliant editorial skills to work.

Magazine I’m Crushed to See Go Under:

American Short Fiction. God, am I going to miss ASF, a magazine that over the past few years has introduced many of us to writers like Marie-Helene Bertino, Laura Vandenberg, Ethan Rutherford, Patrick Somerville, Karl Taro Greenfield, Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, and so many more. At its peak, ASF was, for my money, one of the top two or three journals in the country. And now it’s gone. Luckily for us, former editors Jill Meyers and Callie Collins are starting an indie press—A Strange Object—which was recently featured on the front page of The Austin Chronicle. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.