The Great Canadian Lit-Mag Hunt by Nathaniel G. Moore

Excerpt From Honorarium: Essays 2001-2021

Growing up as an aspiring small-press author as I did in the early 2000s, I was of course obsessed with literary magazines and journals. In 2002, small-press author Vern Smith wrote a thoughtful piece called “Pump up The Volumes”in the pages of This Magazine, examining the role of lit mags across the country and urging these creative outlets to consider becoming more diverse: 

Take The Capilano Review. It publishes “the best in fiction, drama, poetry and art from Canada and the rest of the world.” Which sounds something like Grain’s “established writings from Canada and around the world.” Which sounds like “the best of new and established Canadian and international writers” put out by Event. Just in case any of those aren’t your thing, The Antigonish Review has “consistently published fine poetry and prose by emerging and established writers.” The Malahat Review publishes “engaging and contemporary fiction and poetry by Canada’s best writers.” At PRISM International it’s “the best in contemporary writing and translation from Canada.” By defining themselves so broadly, are literary magazines selling themselves, and their readers, short?

Lately, however, I just don’t know. Am I too old? At forty-six, is my time better spent playing a short game—book deals, grants, and take my chances on that level? Or follow the alleged time-honoured tradition of submitting my writing to magazines across the country to accrue some publishing credits to present to a publisher?

“…is my time better spent playing a short game—book deals, grants, and take my chances on that level? Or follow the alleged time-honoured tradition of submitting my writing to magazines across the country to accrue some publishing credits to present to a publisher?”

Or is it a whole new ball game? Online journals, short-run zines, chapbooks, and poetry podcasts have cropped up like satellites in space all across the zeitgeist of our marginalized wasteland of lexical excess. But are these destinations useful tools in the goal of moving ahead in the queue? A lot of writers don’t like to talk about the fact that what we do is, well, sort of a business. It’s not just for the sake of precious art that we’re doing this. And I’m not talking about money—at least directly—but publishing work before it’s in book form. Is that a noble pursuit in this day and age? 

The reason I bring this up is that quite recently, I’ve discovered that many novelists are now getting published without a single publishing credit to their name. That means their very-first-ever publication is a completed novel. (This is never the case for poetry, at least from my vantage point. A poet usually has some obscure credit somewhere before they collapse at the door of their publisher for good).

Early on, I found that sending my work out was part of a ritual that all writers went through. You’d hear about a new zine or magazine at a reading, and someone would suggest you enter a contest, or send a poem for a theme issue. But in the ever-changing world of publishing, with so many different avenues, different geographies, an imbalance of funding, the overall cost to print and distribute, the landscape of literary magazine publishing in Canada is a bit of a wash. As Smith wrote in This Magazine nearly twenty years ago, it’s pretty hard to tell the issues of [insert university-based literary journal here] apart based on design and ads. What is the value, then, of following the path of writers from generations before, when the leaps are so much larger now?

Fredericton poet Jennifer Houle, author of Virga, says the element of surprise is a big factor in the appeal of literary magazines:

You never know what emerging author or new work by a long-time favourite you might discover. It’s easy to fall into ruts where you stop seeking new work, especially if you’re deep into a project or reading jag of your own. Lit mags are the way out of those ruts. I also appreciate the reviews and all the work that goes into reflecting on and considering the immense creative output of writers. It’s an irreplaceable service.

For a long time, the party line was publish in literary magazines; some over the years likened them to the farm system for sports teams. Michael Bryson, a fiction writer from Toronto and editor of The Danforth Review, sees things a bit differently:

I’m not keen on the farm-team metaphor, because it has always seemed to me that literature is a marginal activity. That is, the lit mags and the small presses and the so-called margins of CanLit have always been the heart of literature in Canada. It’s where the innovation happens. The farm-team metaphor works for sports, but the indie music scene is maybe a better analogy. Bands on the margins or coming up do weird, interesting things, but then get a major label and get flattened out (maybe not always, but often). In comedy, even the big comics go back to the small clubs to work on new material, stay fresh. Should we expect the same of big writers?

While completing her debut novel, Daughters of Silence, author Rebecca Fisseha approached literary-magazine publishing with a strategy in mind:

I believed that it was a way to bolster my appeal to agents and publishers. And that was the general advice, something along the lines of have something published elsewhere before you start sending out a full-length manuscript, etc. Whether or not that made a difference, in the end, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the writing practice I got from writing and revising those stories that made the difference rather than having the publication credits.

Fisseha believes that submitting to journals is something she may do in between books, like “sending out signs of life.”  Since publishing her first book, the author feels more comfortable submitting her new work. 

Veteran BC poet Tom Wayman says rejection is part of what defines a writer, as well as preparing them for greater disappointments in their careers.

I think for any beginning writer, being steadily rejected by literary magazines helps them get used to the world not really welcoming their amazing insights and dazzling command of language. Since most novels, like most books, are in effect published straight into the warehouse, i.e., sink into oblivion with astonishing speed, I can imagine someone whose first publication is a novel being stunned and amazed at discovering after publication how little the real world cares about their work. Whereas a rejection-scarred writer, veteran of many submissions to literary magazines, is well prepared for the resounding silence and disregard that is the fate of most publications.

Wayman points out that technology has made it very easy for writers to submit to journals. “Poetry is the worst,” says Wayman, who has heard that a magazine in the Los Angeles area, Rattle, claims they receive 120,000 poems a year and publish 150.

In self-defence, many magazines have set up a screening mechanism consisting of grad students. Since these are often young people who haven’t yet experienced full adult life (the main concerns of a post-secondary student’s life are often far removed from those of a functioning adult out in the world dealing with a  job, family, household, etc.), the danger is that a literary world develops whose main themes are those of interest to students, not the issues that absorb the Canadian population at large. A writer friend in California refers to the people who screen submissions as “the children.” I’d add that the problem is compounded because screeners only know about those literary approaches advocated by instructors whose courses they’ve taken at the universities or colleges they’ve attended—a spectrum of literary possibility that can be quite narrow.

Years ago, Frank magazine characterized the Internet as “the vanity press of the deranged,” and nothing I’ve encountered has led me to doubt this definition. People constantly send me jokes, memes, or funny YouTube postings that they’ve found online. But for the plethora of lit mags that have migrated online due to the dearth of institutional funding, I’ve yet to have anyone—student or colleague—refer me to a piece of writing they enjoyed that they found in an online mag. Whereas people do steadily point out writing in print mags that they’ve found personally meaningful and worthy of drawing my attention.

On balance, I’m grateful that people are willing to do the hard and essentially thankless work of producing print literary magazines. I subscribe at any one time to eight or nine of these, and I continually discover authors and poems and stories that I’m impressed by, even dazzled by, and thus find I can learn from. These are writers I would otherwise not encounter. If literary magazines disappeared, my only alternative would be word-of-mouth recommendations, and since the writers I talk to tend to be those whose aesthetics match my own, I believe that without literary magazines my sense of the possibilities for literature would be much, much poorer.

“As someone who is writing a novel at the moment and has been for the last couple of years, I have to say that I feel screwed when it comes to sending out prose,” says Shazia Hafiz Ramji, author of Port of Being.

There is no space for long form in magazines. Most stories cap at 2,500 or 3,000 words. How are novelists meant to publish without sacrificing the form and length of their work? It’s common for novelists to appear out of nowhere and publish a book without publishing in magazines first, because there is no space for novelists in these venues. Even internationally, first-time novelists often publish a book and then get excerpted in places like Granta, etc.

Having spent a good chunk of time working for both publishers and magazines (sometimes at the same time), Ramji still feels that the vitality of literary magazines is something that should be supported and discussed. “I also think it’s important to talk about contests, which are mostly hosted by magazines. Contests are still a way for a first-time writer to get published. Contests have helped me a lot. Contests often make up a lot of the venue’s income. Without contests, many traditional lit mags could be dead.” 

I think lit mags are anything but dead. Lit mags are moving online and bring their own networks of people with them, which keep them alive and serve more than a magazine function. There is not enough incentive and infrastructure in Canada to have digital lit mags of the kind one sees in the States and elsewhere. We need to be questioning and revamping circulation-based and subscription-based models if magazines want to stay alive in Maple Land.

“I think there’s still some cachet to being published in journals, especially the harder-to-get-into ones like The Fiddlehead,” says poet Ian LeTourneau, who is also managing editor at the Fredericton-based literary journal. “Some publishers still read them to scout for talent. But my experience is mostly with poetry. My sense is that a lot of young writers try to build their resumes up by publishing in lit mags. Of course, young writers have always been in a hurry to publish, so I think lit mags serve a good intermediary step to book publication: you learn how to write cover letters, work with editors, etc.”

Chris Benjamin, editor at Atlantic Books Today, hadn’t published much before his first novel came out. “I’ve always seen lit journals as one route to a book, but not the only one. I’m not sure my novel would have been published if I hadn’t won the Atlantic Writing Competition of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. That got some attention from publishers.” Benjamin believes that journals have value in and of themselves. “I have a short story collection coming out, and almost every story was in a lit journal or an anthology first. I think short story collections are like poetry that way. I can’t imagine submitting a collection of short stories without at least half of them having been published in journals or anthologies first.” 

But it’s not so cut and dried: Benjamin does see the fine line on which an experienced writer dangles. “I do also feel weird sometimes submitting to lit journals, knowing that my work will likely be vetted (on first pass at least) by a young person without a lot of lived experience (or published work under their belt), let alone the kinds of experiences I put my characters through. I worry theirs will be a narrow and heavily theoretical lens. By and large, I like the results (as evidenced in the journals themselves), but then again, we don’t get to see what’s rejected. I wonder if there’s gold in them thar slush piles.” And there lies the mystery, the effort, that enigmatic fathom we need to reach deep down and pluck back up for some fresh air.

Excerpted from Honorarium (Essays 2001-2021, Palimpsest Press, Non-Fiction
ISBN-13: 978-1-926794-80-4$18.95 CDN / $17.95 US | May 2021

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Nathaniel G. Moore is a writer, artist and publishing consultant grateful to be living on the unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi'kmaq peoples.