Long-standing literary magazines are struggling to stay afloat. Where do they go from here?

From CNN:

The Believer was once at the top of the literary magazine game.

A leading journal of art and culture, The Believer published the work of icons like Leslie Jamison, Nick Hornby and Anne Carson. It won awards, it launched careers — it created a home for off-beat, quirky writing. When the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada bought the magazine, observers spoke of Las Vegas as a potential new hub for literary arts.

Then, in October of last year, the college announced it was shutting the magazine down in early 2022, citing the “financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.” In a statement explaining the decision, the dean of the school’s College of Liberal Arts called print publications like The Believer “a financially challenging endeavor.”

The news came months after an incident where the editor in chief exposed himself during a video call with staff and subsequently resigned. Staffers’ complaints about him were also detailed in a Los Angeles Times report.Still, the announcement caused ripples throughout the literary world — Jamison, known for her book of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” tweeted that she was “heartbroken” over the news when it was announced.The Believer’s shuttering isn’t isolated. Across the country, universities are slowly, quietly, cutting funding and shutting their literary publications down. Even magazines not connected to universities are closing their doors or changing publication strategies — a trend made worse by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Colleges everywhere are cutting lit mags

Literary magazines aren’t exactly flashy — they aren’t covered in photos of beautiful people draped in designer clothing; they don’t contain the latest celebrity tell-all.But in the world of literary arts, they’re essential. For early-career poets, essayists and fiction writers, these magazines are a way to get publi

shed, find an agent and get paid. They serve as a stepping stone — no one, after all, just jumps into a book deal. Credits through literary magazines present a pathway.

In Jamison’s tribute to The Believer, for example, she thanked the magazine for publishing her landmark essay “Empathy Exams” when nobody else would. (CNN reached out to staff at The Believer and Black Mountain Institute for comment, but did not receive a response.)

It’s not just about career building, though. The magazines are a runway, where new literary styles are tested and emerge. New voices break through. If only large, established magazines continue to exist — like The Paris Review or the New Yorker — the diversity of the literary world will suffer, as Alaska Quarterly Review co-founder and editor-in-chief Ronald Spatz told CNN.

Link to the rest at CNN

PG gently suggests that the world passed by literary magazines some time ago.

He felt the slightest twitch of nostalgia when he read the OP, but it was strictly an old guy response to days long past. He doubts many ambitious young authors today would bother with a medium so antiquated.

If you’re a good writer and want to write literary magazine material, start a blog, tell all your friends about it and see who shows up.

9 thoughts on “Long-standing literary magazines are struggling to stay afloat. Where do they go from here?”

  1. Commercial short form has been withering away for three generations, since the end of the pulps.
    The last best hope is digital and even that is a mixed bag: the last remaining genre magazines in SF and Mystery have been cutting back on frequency.
    The genral fiction ones like the Saturday Evening Post are on life support.

    The subject of the OP, the litific mags, were never as broadly circulated which may yet to be a blessing since nobody else is particularly interested in their audience (or authors) and they need not worry about their core audience defecting to video or gaming. At least one such magazine should endure until the end of time. 😉

    • Some of the blame goes to the Direct Marketing Association, whose insanely intense lobbying starting in the 1960s sufficiently distorted shipping rates that smaller periodicals could not afford to fulfill orders by mail. That’s right: The weekly grocery ads delivered to your mailbox… along with those flyers for plumbers and real-estate flippers.

      As a complete curmudgeon, I’d rail and rant against commercial interests overwhelming the arts. As a cynical bastard, I’d snarkily wonder exactly how the complete curmudgeon got enough time and money to use this series-of-tubes-thingy to rail against anything, and whether that had any relationship to “commercial interests.” Things change; just remember that Mark Twain is often held up as an example of someone who self-published, but that his 19th-century experiences (without ever disclosing that the publishing operation went bankrupt — another one of those commercial interests, I think) somehow provide a shining light of opportunity for doing exactly the same thing in the 21st century. Even though self-publishing in the 21st century’s only comparison to that of the 19th is that both put written text in front of a reader, somehow…

      The real problem with literary magazines is their cliquishness, which is worse with college literary magazines because the “faculty advisers” have tenure and have been there (and will be there) Forever. But that’s for another time.

      • “Cliquishness” is putting it politely. Another less couth word comes to mind.
        Sometimes I wonder it litfic mags’ only readers are other litfic authors and publishers. 😉

  2. I was into literary journals when I’d first started writing and was entering writing contests. It eventually dawned on me that for people who wrote genre fiction for the masses weren’t really showcased in those journals, as they more for those who were in academia, taught “creative” fiction, had MFAs in “creative” writing, etc. And for me, I eventually got turned off reading them because, IMO, the fiction became way too analytical and dry. Not sure about the rest of you, but I want to be entertained etc when I’m reading a book of fiction, and not feel like I sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor drone on and on about a obscure subject.

  3. I especially liked the: “no one, after all, just jumps into a book deal”. Yes, dear. That’s what Indie is for…

    Early in my indie life, when I still wanted an SFWA membership (I felt obliged to support my genre organization despite everything it sucks at), I needed an official “published by” story credit from an SFF rag and managed to get one. At least that taught me the process, for all it matters these days.

  4. Here, in Russia, there were plenty of state sponsored mags in the age of USSR. 1991 was end for most of them, the ones who survived are printed in 200-500 copies (just compare to 3 100 000 copies of Yunost at 1989)

      • It’s hard to imagine how influential were this lit-magazines (there was state monopoly for printing, so if a magazine published something, the means Party support it). You can guess what a boom was publishing of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Novi Mir (96 900 copies). Solzhenitsyn earned for it (ok, he published 3 more stories) enough fame to get Noble prise (he earned it mostly for Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward, that were in print, but because change of state politics were cancelled by censors). And he got enough money to live and write during 10 years from last publication (1963) to exile from country (1974). It was a diet of cheap pasta, but he added some whiskey from money he earned from Noble Prise (the taxes for foreign payments in USSR were huge, but food was cheap).

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