When word came down that TriQuarterly magazine would shift to an online-only, student-run model next year, the news rattled many in the lit-mag community (yes, there is one). In look and editorial feel, TriQuarterly helped invent the formula for what we think of–or what we have thought of–as the small literary magazine, a print powerhouse where writers on their way up could share space with some of the big names in the game. Ever since I can remember, which is longer now than I care to admit, the writers I’ve known have been jockeying to get their work into the pages of TriQuarterly or Ploughshares or the Mississippi Review or any number of other journals that paid mostly in prestige.
I remember the thrill of placing a short story with Virginia Quarterly Review, a k a VQR, the feeling that I had found a door into the real-writers’ club. Did anyone ever read that short story? My friends did. My family did. An agent or two did. Now that VQR has put its archives online, the story may find another reader or two. But the story I published in the story collection D.C. Noir has gotten a lot more traction–more readers, more feedback, more second life. Maybe it’s a better story. I know if found a more visible home.
I’d bet cash money that the latest generation of writers still feels the pull of the lit mag. The days of the SASE (the ever-annoying Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) are fading, now that magazines are moving more and more to online submissions, but the desire to get the lit-mag stamp of approval lingers. Maybe it should: Agents still trawl the TriQuarterlies of the world, and publishers seem more willing to believe that a writer Has Talent if he or she comes stamped with the lit-mag seal of approval. Would I publish again in a small literary journal? In a heartbeat, if I had some short stories to send out. (Soon, soon.)
But–yes, there’s a but–who reads these things, other than agents (important, granted) and the writer’s friends and family and maybe a few rivals? How many subscribers do most of these journals have now, and how many of those subscribers will actually sit down and read the contents? How many ever did? Having a lot of readers does not mean that you’re a good writer, but if you’re a good writer and readers don’t find you, the creative loop doesn’t fully close.
I don’t mean to play favorites, but a magazine like VQR, which has reinvented itself under a new editor and which has a strong online presence and a splashier print presentation than it used to, may have a relatively robust readership in the digital era. Other journals I worry more about. I don’t have answers, just a feeling that the journal-as-proving-ground model has gotten creaky, at least when it comes to attracting readers. Maybe it still works for the writers and the agents and the publishers. I’d like to know where the readers are in this equation. Are the powers behind TriQuarterly right to move the operation online and turn it over to a new editorial crew, or is there life in the old lit-mag model yet? Writers, where do you want to publish, and why?