A Guide to Literary Magazines
NOTE: This article has been heavily updated.
WHAT? If you came here looking for my literary magazine ranking I’m afraid it is gone. Or, rather, it has been changed from a ranking to a list. This list is a list of magazines that publish fiction and are worth checking out for submissions and subscriptions. It is based on what I’ve gleaned from talking to numerous writers and editors, reading many literary journals and examining various awards such as the O. Henry and the Pushcart Prize. It is not exhaustive (which would be impossible), but I think it is a good place to start. All of the magazines on here are, I believe, notable and worth your attention.
WHO? This list only covers magazines that regularly (sorry Esquire) publishes “literary fiction.” I know that we can have a long debate about the term “literary” and its relation to “genre fiction,” but suffice to say that you know what I mean.
WHY? Being a writer means submitting to journals, yet many starting writers—and even some established ones—can get intimidated by the whole process. The fact is there are an almost unlimited number of literary journals. Almost every university has one, if not two or three, and more and more pop up every day. At the same time, long-established journals routinely fold. A Duotrope search for magazines that accept “literary” fiction brings up over 1700 entries. It can be hard to keep up.
Originally this ranking was a private list I sent to writer friends when they asked me about places to submit. Almost everyone I’ve shown this to has told me they didn’t recognize many if not most of the journals listed, including some of the most famous and award-winning magazines out there. As such, I think it is worth putting out to the public.
My ranking actually got a very positive response with tons of people telling me it was very helpful and most comments I saw agreeing the ranking felt about as correct as a ranking could be. People suggested this or that magazine be one tier higher or lower, but in general people seemed in agreement and I didn’t get any angry letters from editors (well, okay, I got one). I feel good about the ranking and feel it was more accurate than the others out there, which all seemed to be missing many important magazines:
1) Every Writer’s Resource has a list of the Top 50 magazines, but it is too small and woefully out of date (many of the magazines on that raking folded long ago). I’m not even going to link to it since it is so out of date, but you can Google it if you’d like.
2) There is Clifford Garstang’s Pushcart Prize Ranking, which is a great resource and a strong list. I do have some problems with it though (and Garstang openly admits its limitations). For one thing, after the top thirty or so scores, the difference of one prize can be drastic. A magazine that has one special mention is ranked 133rd while a magazine with one prize is ranked 73rd. Getting a Pushcart is fantastic, but one Pushcart hardly means your magazine is 60 places better than another. More to the point, there are a ton of notable magazines that haven’t won a Pushcart, especially newer magazines and prominent online magazines. Electric Literature, Guernica and N+1 are three examples of magazines I believe every writer should be aware of, yet appear nowhere on the list.
3) Lastly, there is John Fox’s tiered ranking at BookFox. I think his is a strong list and good to reference. Still, I feel he is missing a large number of prominent magazines including many from Garstang’s Pushcart list. New York Tyrant, NOON, PEN America, and many others are notably absent from BookFox’s list. I also disagree with many of his rankings (Open City, for example, is one of the strongest and most talked about journals out there and in no way fifth tier.) Lastly, BookFox misses many newer magazines I feel are notable and does not rank online journals with the print, so keep that in mind when reading it.
LIST VS RANK
Despite my feeling that the other rankings are missing too many prominent journals and my feeling than a knowledge of the general layout of the lit mag world is useful for writers, I’ve decided to remove the tiers for a few reasons. First, I realized the up-keep was just going to be too much! I knew if the list was popular I’d need to add magazines, adjust rankings, delete folded magazines now and then. But the list was just getting too many hits and too many comments and taking away my own fiction writing time.
Secondly, I think people were reading the ranking differently than I wanted them too. The ranking was judging the journals to some degree, but mostly for me it was an organizational principle. Being placed in tier 2 versus tier 3 or tier 4 versus tier 5 should not that important, but it is understandable that writers and editors would feel differently. Every magazine here is made by dedicated people and worthy of your time. Most importantly, I realized that the list gives off a somewhat incorrect impression of the literary world as a rigid hierarchy (a mountain to climb, as one writer put it), despite my attempts to avoid that with my introduction. Yes, some magazines have more readers, more buzz, and more awards than others, and it is probably good to know this. But agents and editors read all sorts of journals, not just the big names, and all have their own tastes. Publishing is also obviously not about shooting for the most famous places, it is about shooting for the places you love and want to be a part of.
To take myself, some of my favorite magazines are NOON, Tin House, New York Tyrant, Unsaid and Open City. I love what those magazines do with fiction and will send them my work ahead of other magazines that may or may not have more status or awards.
If you are interested in a more ranked approach, combining the tiered structure of Fox’s list to Garstang’s Pushcart list will mostly reproduce my own ranking. My personal ranking was based largely on the Pushcart list but moderated for several factors:
a) Prizes. Other anthologies like the O. Henry or Best American Short Stories and Non-Required Reading, but also more recent Pushcart scores. If you compare Garstang’s 2010 ranking to his 2006 ranking you will notice that some magazines near the top have absolutely skyrocketed in the past four years while others have gained almost no ground.
b) Circulation. Writing is a form of communication and readers are half the equation, so more readers is a big plus I think. My guess is that the average circulation of these journals is in the neighborhood of 1,000-2,000. Some less, some more, but most have fairly small circulations. So to me, the journals that have circulations of 10,000-60,000 (Granta, Mcsweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, The Sun, Boston Review, Zoetrope, etc.) deserve a bump. That’s a whole lot of readers!
c) Pay rates. Getting money is not essential for writing, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
d) Buzz. To be blunt, some magazines are more talked about and read by literary people than others. Most of the questions I got about my ranking had to do with ranking popular and talked about magazines over older magazines that may still win awards yet I never hear talked about or see in the acknowledgements of new collections. This is a judgement call, but to me a journal that is coasting on its history does not seem as desirable as a magazine that is creating a lot of excitement and launching new careers.
HOW TO USE THIS LIST
If you already know the journals out there and which ones you like, no need to read this. If you are starting out or looking for new journals to read and a lot of these names are unfamiliar, hopefully this list can help a bit. As I’ve noted, all of the magazines I feel are notable magazines either in terms of reputation, awards, buzz, circulation, contributors or (most likely) a combination of those factors. This list is not meant to be exhaustive. There are many great journals that could be included.
You should read this list as a starting point for making your own personalized list. Consider first of all your work and where it will fit. A writer of a certain experimental bent might put Conjunctions, Fence and Black Clock at the top while a more traditional domestic realist writer might avoid those altogether. Then consider the factors you think matter (I’ve listed some of my thoughts above) and whittle it down, replace and expand until you have your own list. Check out Duotrope too.
As always, it is essential to read the journals you are considering submitting to. Not only to keep abreast of current work, but to understand where your work fits and to support the literary world you want to be a part of. Really, if you are submitting you should be subscribing to at least one or two journals.
Journals marked (W) are web-only. Journals marked (P/W) are print journals with a significant web presence that features original fiction not merely republished from the print issue.
A Public Space
Alaska Quarterly Review
American Short Fiction
Bellevue Literary Review
Black Warrior Review
The Collagist (W)
Gigantic (P/W) (note: I co-edit this journal)
Fifty-Two Stories (W)
Five Chapters (W)
Hayden’s Ferry Review
The Literary Review
Michigan Quarterly Review
Mississippi Review (P/W)
New England Review
New Orleans Review
New York Tyrant
The New Yorker
News From the Republic of Letters
North American Review
The Paris Review
Puerto del Sol
Quarter After Eight
Santa Monica Review
The Southern Review
St. Ann’s Review
TriQuarterly Online (W)
Virginia Quarterly Review
Etc. (as per the discussion below, it is important to note that this list could go on for a long time. By way of amends, here are some fine journals that I enjoy or have heard great things about that could easily be argued to belong: Word Riot, LIT, Flatmancrooked, West Branch, Night Train, Gargoyle, The Florida Review, wigleaf, Storyglossia, Vestal Review, Many Mountains Moving, SmokeLong Quarterly, Harp & Altar, Crab Orchard Review, Barrelhouse, Cimarron Review, Harpur Palate, Pear Noir!, Bat City Review, Seattle Review, Anderbo, and one could go on and on. All of those are great journals and there are many others out there so if my list is useful to you, it should only be as a starting point. Readers should feel free to add more to suggest others in the comment section.)
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