Why do we value the literary journal?

Thoughts on why a literary journal is a worthwhile venture.

by Pamela James, Poetry and Fiction Reader

Sitting over a latté at Panera’s, a younger friend of mine said, “I thought I might make extra money writing poetry. But you can’t.”

I was surprised, not that poetry didn’t pay, but that she hadn’t already known. The near-rhyme of poverty and poetry seems fitting to me, reflecting how I think the world works, as likely as the squirrels infesting the bird feeders, and as perpetual as wind across a Kansas plain.

What I realized, again, is that Rachel is not connected to very many people with literary interests, and what she and nearly every other author needs is community. She’d love a larger supportive group—a writing group, perhaps, although so far she hasn’t found one that might accommodate her work schedule. So, I offered what I could.

“Come to dinner tomorrow,” I told Rachel. I believe in the comfort of food and fellowship for any number of ills and disillusionments. “I’ll make pie.”

I understood her disappointment. A casual glance across the internet might suggest a robust economy, one where writers, even poets, get paid. Writers and literary journals are everywhere. Unfortunately, their very superabundance puts an additional strain on the limited funds circulating in the literary publishing market, a market that historically has struggled to provide the monetary rewards the work of writing seems to merit. In 1948 in “Little Magazine, What Now?” Paul Bixler characterized literary journals as “lucky to make ends meet,” their editors and publishers receiving minimal if any payment, and their continuation normally requiring subsidies.

So why do writers and publishers do the work? It’s not that they are delusional. Megan Garr admits that when she and others started Versal, “we did not set out to make our literary magazine economically viable. We did not even consider it a possibility.” Most contributors find other, non-monetary value in literary journals.

One thing literary magazines have long offered is the future value of published work, which provides exposure and builds resumes. Still that doesn’t seem enough. It’s meat and potatoes, no pie, and might not account for the burgeoning number of online journals which can never expect the subsidies or support of institutional donors, or the ongoing stream of hopeful writers’ submissions.

What’s given up in money may be made up in opportunities for an expanded number of those writers. Michelle Betters says that “fledgling journals undoubtedly provide a much-needed home for underrepresented voices, experimental work, and young writers.” Part of the attraction of current journals is the diversifying range of participating writers, editors, and publishers.

What’s being built seems to be a larger, more inclusive community, or series of communities with more room for the quirky, narrowly focused, or obscure. Brooke Wonders, nonfiction editor at North American Review, started Grimoire, an online journal, with friends. It seems to add a third job to editorship and teaching at Northern Iowa, but she enjoys the creative collaboration, and the opportunity to write to an audience who’ll enjoy the letters to dead authors, the contributions from the resident ghost, and extravagant spells offered to foil hypocrites or repel the vicious.

So many diverse journals also means more possible connections between editors and writers, where roles continue to blur and community seems more possible. M. R. Branwen in “Why Literary Journals Don’t Pay,” not only argues that those who write, edit, or publish do it because they love it, but that many of those who work at lit mags are writers too, “burning the midnight oil writing fiction and poetry . . . having their work published in literary magazines that can’t afford to pay them for their work. This is not an “us” vs. “them—just an us on both sides of the imaginary divide.”

It’s the us, I imagine, that ultimately adds the most value to the literary journal. And it occurs to me that how the literary journal works may be a little like how the travelers in the folk tale “Stone Soup” operate. In the story, travelers visit a village, set up a cauldron, and fill it with water and a rock. Villagers, made suspicious by hard times, watch. The travelers invite the villagers to join them. Enticed, one brings carrots to add to the pot, another potatoes, another seasoning, and so on, their hoarded goods brought out to share. The evening turns festive, a celebration of community. Although none of the variants of this folk tale seem to mention it, I imagine that someone brought pie.


Pam James has a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS and a  M.A. in English from the University of Illinois.  In Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, she taught beginning writing classes and the occasional literature class as a TA. Over the past thirty years in Arkansas, she’s worked as an accountant, as a technical writer, and, more recently as a part-time teacher (reading, grammar, basic composition) at UACCM.
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