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Criticism, Digital Media, Publishing, Ruminations, The Writer's Life

The Future of Literary Journals

Many in the literary community were saddened this past week to hear of the imminent closing of Tri-Quarterly, the national literary magazine published at Northwestern University. They will publish their last print issue in the spring. Back in May, we heard reports that the New England Review, another literary world giant, is in serious danger of being discontinued by Middlebury College.

The simple explanation is that these publications cost too much to operate and print, particularly in a world that is moving swiftly and continuously to digital content. If that’s true, expect many more to follow down the path of closure or digitalization.

This is especially bad news for many of the aging baby boomer generation, who grew up with printed books and magazine, and still prefer the look, feel and portability of printed matter over lugging an electronic device around just to read a story or chapter on a screen we can barely see, using keys we can barely operate. We are uncomfortable using technology to replace functional simplicity. It wasn’t broke—why did they have to fix it?

Most of us still have 20 to 30-plus years of reading (and spending on reading material) left in us, so the move to digital, and whether us older folks will fight it or acquiesce, will be interesting to watch. Personally, although I spend six to ten hours a day on the computer writing and researching (and other, far less productive tasks—I admit it), I still much prefer the feel of a book or magazine in my hands when I’m reading.

I’m still part of the online community of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, where I received my MFA, and much of our discussion centers on the future of publishing and how writers will have to adapt to changing modes of content delivery—even more important is what that means to our rate of pay, although we are fairly sure of one thing, that it will be less. The corporate world is all about reducing costs, and writers are one of them.

So if you’d like to see at least some of the better literary journals continue in their present form, there’s only one thing to do—subscribe to a few. As an assistant editor for one, Fifth Wednesday Journal, I’m amazed at the number of stories submitted by writers who’ve never bothered to read it. If half of the writers who submit to literary journals bought an issue, and if only a quarter took a subscription, I’ll bet most of these publications would be in no danger of failing. Pick your faves, and if you can afford it, send them a check for a year’s worth. If you’re one of the many missing out on the great stories, poetry and essays these publications contain, check a few out at your local library or bookstore.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


4 thoughts on “The Future of Literary Journals

  1. I think that as writers, we have a responsibility to support the journals where we so desperately seek to be published.

    I admit, though, when I read those submission pages that suggest you buy a sample copy, I can’t help but think, “If I buy a copy of every journal I submit to, I’ll be broke.” Maybe I just need to be more selective :)

    Posted by cpurcel1 | September 30, 2009, 2:07 AM
  2. If I may paraphrase a story of mine, “…and our success will be our undoing.”

    As writers, we have complained for ages that we had so few outlets for our work. Now we have all of the outlets we could ever have dreamed of…on the web. They cost as much as they pay, and often they are not worth even that much.

    The “real” journals with their publishing expenses, and lengthy waits before they even acknowledge a submission, simply can’t compete with free and immediate. And so, one by one they fail.

    Again, Joe, your posts all come back to a common theme. The bodice ripper outsells the Updyke novel. The groundlings chomp their pork rinds at the opera. Story magazine falls before http://www.unclebobsprettygoodstories.com.

    Posted by jonzech | September 30, 2009, 2:52 AM
  3. (Of course there is no such site as unclebobs)

    Posted by jonzech | September 30, 2009, 2:54 AM
  4. Christine, you’re right about the cost of purchasing copies of the journals we wish to submit to—if you target 20 publications and each asks for $8 a copy, that makes writing an expensive endeavor, especially since few journals are able to pay published writers enough to offset the cost. The best we can do is each subscribe to a few favored journals. But if more writers did this, I’ll bet more journals would be able to survive.

    Jon, if there’s a theme that runs through my posts, I might say it’s “quantity trumps quality.” Since we are a society that places sales ahead of value, it will always be this way. But I don’t have to like it, and I will always make the case for craftsmanship over the mass-produced, thoughtful artistry over impulse.

    Posted by jpon | September 30, 2009, 12:04 PM

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

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