RPCV John Givens on Literary Journals — part one

John Givens (Korea 1967–69) was born in Northern California, got his BA in English literature at the California State University Fresno and his MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa, where he was a Teaching/Writing Fellow. After his Peace Corps tour, he studied language and art in Kyoto for four years; and he worked as a writer & editor in Tokyo for eight years. For fifteen years, Givens was a creative director and branding consultant for advertising agencies in New York then San Francisco. He has published three novels in the US: Sons of the Pioneers, A Friend in the Police, and Living Alone; short stories have appeared in various journals. His non-fiction publications include A Guide to Dublin Bay: Mirror to the City and Irish Walled Towns, both published by The Liffey Press in Dublin. He is currently finishing The Plantain Manner, a long novel set in Japan in the last decade of the seventeenth-century and exploring the lives of followers of the great haikai poet Matsuo Bashō. Portions of this novel are being excerpted in a variety of print and online journals.  Here are some wise words and great suggestions from John about writing and publishing if you take your writing seriously.

On Literary  Journals

Literary Journals have evolved to reflect the expansion of the internet. Some online journals are still the progeny of university English departments while others are labors of love, and writers who submitted stories and poems during college but have since lost interest should reconsider. Book publishing today soars on quavering wings of mediocrity; and while glossy celebrities and promoters of teenage vampires do fine, the so-called mid-list writers — and that includes just about everybody who has the misfortune to be non-famous — are finding it increasingly difficult to attract any attention at all. Originality is less prized than marketing predictability, and spineless publishers offered the next Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy would probably opt instead to throw their money at something perky by Sarah Palin. We live in a dismal age.

But hope dies hard, and those writers who still yearn to pitch agents or perhaps submit to indie publishers on their own should consider establishing a “platform” for themselves. How do you do this? If you haven’t suffered childhood emotional traumas or offered yourself as a candidate for public humiliation by acting or singing or eating live insects on TV (and/or running for elective office), then you need an alternate route. Although the “Peace Corps novel” is sometimes dismissed as a self-indulgent bore, the kinds of experiences survived by RPCVs — and currently serving Volunteers — nevertheless provide the initial planks needed to position oneself as a unique brand. The issue then becomes, how best to make use of what you’ve done? Thanks to blogging and tweeting and other Web 2.0 ephemera, the world is awash with reported experiences. But like self-publishing, that route is too easy. You need something to push against. The serious RPCV writer can establish his or her bona fides by “owning” a slice of reality — be it the joys and tribulations of teach ESL in Pusan or vaccinating goats in Namibia — that has been selected for inclusion by an editor. The pullulating world of literary journals offers a promising route to the holy grail of securing an agent or publisher because it functions like a preliminary sorting mechanism. Although time-consuming and difficult, getting a story or poem or essay in one of the better journals brings with it the aura of literary seriousness.  You have been vetted. You passed.

Five good reasons why you should dive into the slush-pile seas that comprise literary journals today:

  1. You don’t need an agent to submit to journals (a few of the more outré even boast of hostility to agent-fed submissions although one suspects there’s a bitter story tucked away in there somewhere). Most big publishers today no long accept unsolicited manuscripts although there are rare exceptions, and agents are overwhelmed by applications and have become more chary about committing themselves. With the literary journals, you have some control over your fate.
  2. There are a lot of them to choose from. I pay attention to about 100 print journals and about 30 online journals. (No, I don’t read all that great roiling mass of verbiage, I just pay attention to it.) The huge variety means you should be able to place your work in a setting that enhances it. You may get off on the edgy attitude of Locus Novus or Exquisite Corpse. Or you may prefer the design elegance of the Franco-American online journal Cerise Press.
  3. In most cases, there is no cost to participate although some retrograde print journals do require snail-mail submissions — some of the most desirable, alas; a few electronic submissions have a $2 or $3 charge; and a very few literary magazines charge reading fees of $15 or $20. This is mildly controversial, and some excitable types think it’s a scam although the quality of the magazines in question seems pretty good. Go to Narrative Magazine for some of the controversy, but also check out Glimmer Train.
  4. Getting a story or essay or poem accepted in a journal that is known to be overwhelmed by submissions (and they all are) demonstrates to putative agents and/or publishers that at least one heavily-burden gate-keeper of the publishing zoo has chosen your work: pure validation, and essential for a pusillanimous industry where everybody’s afraid to do anything that somebody else hasn’t done already. Moreover, a number of journals are linked to book publishers – Dzanc Books with Monkeybicycle and The Collagist comes to mind, McSweeney’sy, of course, and Fence Books with Fence the magazine.
  5. If nothing else, the requirements of submitting for harsh judgement a finished story or essay or sequence of poems is a fine way to make yourself finish the damn thing. Let’s admit that getting a literary novel published in today’s wretched marketplace really is pretty close to hopeless. But incremental publications are feasible. Publish a half-dozen stories or sets of poems and somebody somewhere is going to return your query email. And when that first story or poem is accepted, and after you’ve danced around the room punching the sky in victory, you’ll hurl yourself back onto your keyboard newly-empowered and rip out great throbbing swaths of deathless whatever.

To this point, we’ve been treating the world of literary journals as monolithic. But it’s not. The question of quality is — or used to be — a real issue; and there are those who see a huge gap between the well-established print journals that come out at fixed intervals and are shipped solemnly to the hushed shelves of libraries where they molder in peace, and the quirky online upstarts that have the weight and gravitas of a mayfly in a hurricane and about as much chance of survival. This distinction may have had some merit a few years ago. But not today. And in the next posting, we’ll look at the astonishing multiplicity of forms that literary journals have evolved into, and argue that the online pure-play is ready to be taken seriously. And that one day, it may be the only game in town.

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  • As he has been doing since I met him in the 60s, John Givens brings a sense of tough-minded, informed, leadership to this issue of what it means to be literary in the face of the Philistines, never mind that the Philistines now are much harder to slay than they used to be. His advice is not only good for young writers winging their way into orbit, but tor old and oft-published ones, too. It’s time for a new brand of self-respect among literary artists.
    This is advice to be followed…. A reinvention of the very idea of publishing, may bring a new golden age.

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