The Half-Lives of Lit Mags

George Plimpton Business Card for Paris Review lit mag
George Plimpton's old subscription form for The Paris Review. (Image: Public Domain)

[Half-life. Symbol: t (1/2) The term is commonly used in nuclear physics to describe how quickly unstable atoms undergo radioactive decay or how long stable atoms survive. Atomically speaking, some lit mags are incredibly stable, i.e., North American Review (in biz since 1815) and The Paris Review (1953), while others have relatively quicker disintegrations per second, i.e., Negative Suck (Page Not Found) and Fuck You Poetry (Page Not Found)]

Keeping a list of publications in which one’s writing has appeared is second nature to many writers making their way in the world of literature, if only as a salve to the onslaught of rejections we all have to deal with. I look at my own list and find it sadly riddled with those journals and reviews that have called it quits. Some, like Prick of the Spindle, were viable, well-thought-of publications with dedicated staffs and work ethics akin to teachers and Gurkhas. Some, unnamed here, were more spur of the moment, Andy Hardy-like ventures and simply couldn’t stand the heat. And some succumbed to the attrition of changing economies and reader preferences and who knows what vagaries of the publishing business. From Able Muse to Zyzzyva, there are some 5,000 lit mags or so, says Duotrope. Plenty to keep the average writer busy. Some say too many.

I just submitted to one which bills itself as The Oldest College Literary Magazine in the Nation. Their method of submittal is email, a Gmail address; not exactly prepossessing for an oldest, but let’s wait and see what their rejections are like. (I got twenty acceptances last year; I won’t say how many rejections, as you’d think I was nuts for submitting so much, but it’s partially a numbers game. On the rough average, three percent make it. 97% don’t). Some are gracious, some are not. I tend to mark a ”good” under those who show some sign of actually having read the thing and/or saying they would be interested in seeing more of my work in the future. I just marked a “very good” under one whose opinion I prize as much as The New Yorker or The Paris Review. Great feedback where usually there is none at all.

The Paris Review had at least two rejection slips (actual slips of paper in writer-supplied SASEs, as they were still hanging onto the idea that trees are a renewable resource so what’s a few hundred pounds of paper mail a year among writers and editors?).

We were a year into the pandemic then, and it seemed reasonable that online subs would mean fewer germ-carrying surfaces for the mail cart at TPR and no more rejection slips. While one slip was a cold, chilling little notice that said, in effect, “God, no!” the other was a bit warmer. It allowed that, though this offering didn’t make the grade, they might be open to another submission in the future. I’ve gotten both a couple of times, meaning that the little slips represent years of my life, due to their answer rate. But they’re going strong, bless them. The cleverly dubbed article “We’ll Always Have (The) Paris (Review)” by NPR writer Juan Vidal attests to that.

The newest TPR editor (at that time) said they were considering going to online submissions in the near future, but no sign of that a year later.*

By odd coextension, I just got (the minute I was writing the above paragraph) an email newsletter from TPR’s (then) chief editor Emily Nemens, in which she said, “Pen to paper does still create some alchemy. Might it be that apologies and entreaties ring truer when delivered by our heroic postal carriers?”

I don’t know. I do like personal notes in small envelopes, but these days I spray them with Lysol. Same with books, or boxes from Chewy. Then I wash my hands. Again. So maybe TPR could give postal carriers a break? By the way, how does the Covid work-from-home editor deal with slush piles of real manila envelopes? Alchemy notwithstanding, it just seems like a propitious time to go to online submissions. And online rejections. (Ms. Nemens is gone like summer wages; though, thanks to her, online submissions are now in place).

2021 is almost over as I edit this, but the pandemic is like an unwelcome guest in one of those British novels that feature a decrepit mansion, lawn tennis, and quinine water for malarial residents. Deadlier, though, by millions worldwide. Vaccine, people. It’s available.

Sigh. Back to the subject. I visited a Bookfox site called “30 Small But Awesome Online Literary Magazines” that I had bookmarked two years ago. I found that seven of the thirty named were out of business, one was on hiatus, sixteen were open (I submitted to one), and six were closed to submissions for various reasons such as expired reading periods. I saw some pretty good names among the living, like Lunch Ticket, Waccamaw, and Failbetter, but didn’t recognize about half the others. The list needs updating or shortening. The seven that bit the dust are Literary Juice, Passing Through, The Great American Literary Magazine, Ostrich Review, Pinball, Milk Journal, and Chantwood Magazine. I looked further into Pinball because, at one time, I had liked their site, their attitude, and it said “closed for submissions.” I clicked on “return to website” and came upon a “website expired” notice. Bury the dead, I say. Pull all artifacts of a once vibrant site and send them out to a proper Viking cyber funeral. Have a service. Fade to black. Or contact Mike Joyce at Literary Orphans Press.

Literary Orphans (one of the above-mentioned “30 Small But Awesome”) has started an unusual project called The Rookery: “Digital archives for dying magazines.” It’s a library for digital journals in danger of e-death. A half-life of speedier atomic disintegration. Its mission is explained here.

Radio Silence, a bay area magazine of  “Literature and Rock and Roll,” has always interested me. I discovered it during its first issue or maybe its second, when it was in the flush of congratulatory blurbs from famous people and reviewers. “One of the Ten Best New Magazines in the Country” according to Library Journal. After three issues and a Pushcart Prize, the name of the magazine was prophetic. They still sell those three issues on their website, and still talk about the early days and the “intimate loft parties” and concerts with luminaries such as Sam Lipsyte, the Golden Suits, and Rick Moody. One gets the impression that the Hoover Dam-like industrial psychic wattage it took to get the magazine running wasn’t sustainable. It must have been a blast at liftoff, though. Coincidentally, the magazine was compared to The Paris Review early on by David Ives,If The Paris Review were starting today, it would be called Radio Silence.” A bit unrestrained, but many of us would like to have seen more of this lit mag. Note: TPR opened in 1953 and aced the test of time among so many other tests. (“We’ll always have [the] Paris [Review]”)

Another one in the category of “sorry to see it go:” Black Clock. It was around for twenty-one issues, twelve years. Started by a favorite author of mine, Steve Erickson, in 2004, it was published semi-annually by CalArts MFA program. Their editorial statement: “Black Clock is audacious rather than safe, visceral rather than academic, intellectually engaging rather than antiseptically cerebral, and not above fun. Produced by writers for writers, Black Clock encourages risk and eschews editorial interference.” They also stated they wanted work that “explored the frontier territory of constructive anarchy.” I guess mine failed to do so. Rejected again but constructive anarchy may not be my purview. I’m not even sure what it is, but I did like Black Clock. And all of Erickson’s novels, including Tours of the Black Clock and Shadowbahn.

On this gray December day, with the advent of the Omicron Variant at the tail end of 2021, I see Entropy will fold its tent as well. Janice Lee, its editor since its beginning in 2014, pens a farewell letter that cannot be faulted for its several mentions of death; after all, she brought it into being and helped it flourish, an admirable feat in the dog years of lit mags. “Endings are simply new beginnings,” she states, so let’s go with that spin on Entropy’s euthanistic demise.

On another note entirely but no less bleak in outlook is a cry for help by a lit mag which is Just Not Ready To Go. This thread from Twitter explains it.

But, in short, The Sycamore Review, a vaunted Purdue University publication since 1988, seems to be threatened by the apparent end of Purdue’s MFA program, but this is not clear to me. One tweet from TSR’s staff says, “So many magazines have shuttered this year. We are in danger of the same fate if we don’t win this fight for our program and our magazine. We ask the members of our community—writers whose work we have published, readers, staff at other magazines—for your help.”

In the face of all the closings, to heed this plea, here are some hashtags: #Purdue and #SaveSycamore. At least it’s still around to defend itself. For now.  There are so many other defunct lit reviews that they begin to assume summer road trip/windshield status. You know, bugs. Splat. Splat splat. There’s another one. And to list them would be crazywork. I’m averse to crazywork. From Skanky Possum, a pretty good Texas lit rag I’m told, to Ramparts, to which I subscribed as a young rebel in the sixties, to Negative Suck and a mimeographed poetry magazine called Fuck You, edited by Ed Sanders who cofounded the Fugs musical group. (His credo, “I’ll print anything,” appeals to me, but dammit, he was gone too soon). So, instead of going on endlessly about roadkill reviews, I’ll wrap this up with Todd Zuniga’s Opium.

I think it’s out of business, but can’t be sure because Zuniga is so unpredictable. I did submit to Opium, years ago, and not only was I accepted, I was a finalist in, or won something judged by Aimee Bender, or Aimee Semple McPherson (it’s been a long time so not at all sure) but whatever it was, it was short and weird. I ran across a 2009 interview of the doughty originator of Opium and The Literary Death Match, Todd Zuniga, and he, as usual, says it all. (To The Gothamist) (PC alert: if you want PC this ain’t it).

"The Gothamist: Where did Opium come from and where is it going?"

Todd Zuniga: Where it came from: Opium began the way all money-losing schemes start: a bunch of smart-asses think they’re smarter than everyone else, and charge out into the world to prove it. Then after eight days, the smart-asses realize the amount of work (lots) will not justify the amount of sex they’ll get from said work. But I stuck around, because of my pet peeve: people who don’t follow through. Five years later, all of those ‘friends’ who didn’t stick around died of herpes complications, and I’m still here, squeaky-clean.”

Where it’s going: A question that I know the answer to! Forgive me if I ramble. To me, reading and writing are worth celebrating in a monster way, and I’m ecstatic to be in a position where I can make Opium a metaphorical focal point of that celebration. In the last year and a half, I’ve surrounded myself with epically talented people who keep Opium thriving online (daily) and in print (biannually), who smooth out the kinks of our reading series (monthly), and inspire me to conceive of different, weirder, more exciting future schemes.”

It goes on. And on. And most of it is quite entertaining, so here’s the link.

Of the roughly 150 literary journals that have allowed my words onto their printed and/or digital pages, I have counted fourteen that are no longer with us. About ten percent. Candidate for lit mag with the most interesting name to fold was a New Zealand outfit named Malevolent Soap. All work was thoroughly vetted and edited. One poem of mine made it in, and it took two rather subjective edits to get it to their requirements. I didn’t disagree with the edits, but, in the end, found them nonessential. But it showed me that they were painstaking and careful. Another lit mag done gone; mournful harmonica blues riff. It seemed to have the right stuff. It will be missed.

Another, Ragazine, was a rather wonderful publication with a long list of subjects and interests, somewhat like a Time or an Esquire. Covering so much ground may have led to its demise after a solid presence, and its hands-on, hardworking editor, Mike Foldes, will surely turn up again, this time in a capacity where he’s appreciated and remunerated bigtime. He puts together a significant magazine.

And a fond farewell to the others, from underground journals like Negative Suck, to more mainstream reviews such as the possibly foredoomed Dying Goose and Cactus Heart Press, the latter maintaining an archives site of its four years’ worth of offerings, 2012 to 2016. Some, like Section 8, leave no gravestone or online evidence they ever existed. They all start with a dream and an editor or two. The combination of magic, hard work, luck and editorial chemistry determine their path. And their staying power.

In the words of a Trish Hopkinson-interviewed new entry, “Hey, I can do that...” But can you? And for how long?

And this: “We’ll always have (The) Paris (Review).”

*The Paris Review did accept online submissions but were so overwhelmed by the volume they had to back off and curtail the online opportunity to a limited time window.

Scroll to Top