# of literary mags submitted to: 3
# of agents queried: 0
This morning I wake up to our very first frost of the season. The pond outside the kitchen window is crusted over with a thin layer of ice, and when I go to take a walk, the grass is a soft, powdery white.
I stroll through the neighborhood. Everything is hushed with crystalline cold. The air pinches apples into my cheeks, but there is no wind, and I am surprisingly snug in my fur-hooded jacket. A tiny red squirrel, not yet full grown, quivers and twitters in the underbrush alongside the road, while above him a woodpecker pecks against an old oak. Crows swoop nearby, their glossy feathers like inky pen strokes against the cool parchment of sky.
As I walk, I think about my day. I am tutoring Sergey from 10 to 11:30, and Natalia from 11:30 to 12:30. I’ll eat lunch and then go to my wine job from 1:30 to 5:30. I’ll come home, eat dinner, then go to a play with Nikki. A busy day. When am I going to have time to make progress on my writing?
When I get home, I decide I need to submit to a bunch of literary magazines so that I can feel like I’ve done something productive with writing for the day.
In February I’m teaching a ninety minute workshop at the San Miguel Writers Conference on “how to get published in literary magazines,” so I feel like I better get a few more publications under my belt just to prove that I actually know what I’m talking about.
I go to New Pages and start scanning the recent calls for submissions. Reading what these literary magazines are looking for is often like reading the winners of a pretentious English majors’ bullshit contest. For example:
“On the lookout for fresh, genuine voices that explore what it means to be human in the house of Being.”
“Seeks to publish active, vibrant, earth-scorching literature… We want your stuff to resonate, to punch the reader in the stomach or to make them cry uncontrollably. We love language, so give us surprising, uproarious, vibrant words. Give us character and plot-driven. Give us life.”
“Seeking… serious, character driven works focusing on the human experience. Think love and loss, triumph over adversity, defining moments in an otherwise mundane life, desperate measures in desperate times, ordinary people and extraordinary circumstances. With attention to detail, submissions should capture a moment and create a snapshot from a life less ordinary.”
That shouldn’t be too hard, right? And, of course, they ALL say something like “The best way for you to get an idea of the range of work we publish is to read a current issue.” I do try to subscribe to a handful of lit mags a year, but honestly, I do not have time to read every single magazine that I submit to.
There are hundreds and hundreds of these magazines. Every university with an MFA program –heck, with an English department – has a literary magazine, and then there are independent magazines and online zines springing up everywhere (mostly started by people who have an MFA in poetry or something and don’t know what to do with themselves.)
The strange thing is, I spend all this time submitting to literary magazines, and the only people who read them are other MFA students or MFA graduates, and they’re probably only reading the magazines to see whether or not they should submit to them. Is this what it’s all about? Just a never ending race to publish as much as possible?
I am sitting on my bed submitting some poems to Pembroke Magazine when I see a flash of color out my window. I look up. Nikki is out in the garden in her work scrubs, pulling up carrots. They emerge from the frozen dirt, fat and orange, their long green stems sugar-frosted white.
For some reason, this reminds me of a conversation I overheard the other night between Nikki and Nate. She had just come home from Trader Joe’s with a bag full of groceries.
“Look what I got!” she told Nate. I heard the paper bag rustling. “It’s cheese made of rice!”
“Cheese made of rice?” he asked. “What is it?”
“Cheese made of rice,” Nikki repeated. “Cheese substitute.”
“Is it cheese-ish?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s for people who can’t eat regular cheese?”
“Well, it has milk in it. So I’m not sure what the point of it is.”
“Maybe the rice lobbyists are exerting their power.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe they did it just to have something new to sell.”
* * *
Last night I was talking to Paul about academia. There’s so much pressure to publish that, we thought, people sometimes publish papers that they don’t feel that passionately about. Or maybe their time could be better spent in another way. But if they want to continue working at the university, if they want to continue receiving funding, they have to keep producing papers.
In math and physics, which is what Paul studies, these publications make a little bit more sense to me. They might spark an idea in the brain of someone who reads them, which might lead to a breakthrough or discovery.
But when it comes to the drivel that gets published in Literature Land of academia, I really don’t know what the point is. People are so desperate to publish a viewpoint that hasn’t been explored, so they’ll write a thirty page paper on homosexual undertones in The Old Man and the Sea or, like a recent essay I saw in AWP, the motif of “silence in fiction.” Why? Why are people writing these things? Who is reading them? What is the point, exactly? Wouldn’t their time be better spent writing their own masterpieces? Writing their own story in which silence is a motif?
It’s like these essays are just a substitute for the real thing. Cheese made of rice. What’s the point?
As I sit on my bed, looking out at the warming world, I wonder if maybe their time would be better spent taking long, quiet walks on a frosty mornings and writing about that. Or am I being pretentious?
I have to go tutor Sergey now, so I will leave you with my favorite literary magazine description of the morning. It is from Burrow Press:
We’re cool with literary and experimental work, and are not above humor. Structurally competent stories are great, but we also enjoy stories that take risks. We admit, our stated tastes are vague; be sure your submission is less so.