The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Should Literary Journals Charge Writers to Read Their Work?

In her essay in The Atlantic, “Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?” Joy Lanzendorfer laments the fact more and more literary journals are charging writers from $3.00 to $25.00 to progress unsolicited submissions.

And what does that get you? It allows your manuscript to be tossed into the magazine’s slush pile, a place where most editors say virtually nothing is ever published.

Reading fees are traditionally evidence of a shady operation. With some of the better known publications charging fees, we can skip past the notion of shady and go straight to the heart of the problem: These magazines, as prestigious as they may be, are publishing stuff almost nobody wants to read.

The magazines have small staffs and are chronically underfunded. Why is that? Even the magazine’s parent institutions are guilty of non-support. When you pay a reading fee, you still have to wait six to nine months for your form rejection slip that was probably stuffed into your SASE or your e-mail in-basket by a grad student tasked with wading through dozens of selections per day.

Since a lot of those selections come from recent MFA graduates, it’s a certainty most of them will be unreadable because they teach people how to write more stuff that looks like the stuff that’s already being published by magazines few people are reading.

So, rather than charging aspiring writers–who are usually broke or nearly broke–a reading fee, let’s ask these magazines why they are so poorly run they can barely survive. Now, a gutsy university might take a look at its rich football program which is more of a business than an educational pursuit, and say that the university press and the literary magazine get a cut of all that dough.

Or, quite possibly, literary magazines might want to ask why most mainstream magazines, including The Atlantic, seldom publish fiction and poetry any more. When they answer that question, the next question will be: why are you still doing it without a rich patron and a large endowment?

The answer isn’t soaking the writers for a one in a million chance to get into a publication that expects to use their work for free or for an embarrassing pittance.



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