Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Lit Mags (and Likely More)
Jennifer Baker and Brigid Hughes with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, editors Brigid Hughes of A Public Space and Jennifer Baker of Electric Literature and the Minorities in Publishing podcast discuss the world of literary journals with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. What gets an editor’s attention? How much editing do they really do? And where was the AWP hotel bar in Portland? This episode, recorded during the annual AWP conference, has the answers.
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Readings from this episode:
A Public Space, Issue 27, ed. Brigid Hughes · Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Bette Howland (forthcoming, APS Books) · Everyday People: The Color of Life ed. Jennifer Baker · Acentos Review · As/Us · Kweli Journal · Callaloo · Lambda Literary · Papercuts · Paper Darts · Tayo Literary Magazine · Tin House · Copper Nickel · The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling · The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon · Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans · The Bible of Dirty Jokes by Eileen Pollack
Whitney Terrell: So I’m looking at this new issue, and there’s such an incredibly wide range of writers in it. I mean, you have—I’m gonna maybe mess this name up because I have only read it—but Ahmad Fа̄ris Shidyа̄q, who’s a nineteenth century writer, right? But you’ve also—you know, Lea Carpenter is in here, there’s a Greek writer whose story is toward the end of the book that I thought was really fantastic—Nanos Valaoritis?
Brigid Hughes: Nanos Valaoritis. It’s fabulous, yeah.
WT: And then there are wonderful photographs in here. There’s photographs of some architecture . . . there’s collages of rooms from the nineteenth century . . .
BH: Yes, the scrapbooks!
WT: Yeah—so I want readers to get a sense of how dense—or not dense, but how wide-ranging a single issue of your magazine is, and I wonder how you decide how the things fits together. What is your editorial process like?
BH: Well, first I’ll just to say that I think one of the great joys of the magazine is—you’re collecting all of these voices, and to be able to stretch in as many directions in terms of generations and languages and continents and types of material is for me the essence of putting a magazine together. So we started out with an idea—either a piece that we found sparks an idea or there’s something we’ve been thinking about in conversation, and in this case we were just talking about language, and that’s a very abstract idea. But then we go around and we have a very small staff, but then quite a large and committed group of contributing editors, and they are always keeping an eye out and suggesting ideas, so we collect just a whole group of pieces—
WT: So they will just email you and say, “Hey, maybe this would be right,” or “I have an idea here…”
BH: Yeah. “I thought of this . . . ” And sometimes it’s just a conversation and they aren’t specifically suggesting a piece, but in the course of the conversation they’ll mention something that seems kind of exciting. That was how the scrapbook piece came about. One of our contributing editors was doing a fellowship or had a residency at this museum and was telling me about these scrapbooks that she had come across, and it just seemed like a good fit for the issue that we were putting together. And then we just go through the whole list and start kind of piecing things together and come up with what feels like a rough shape for the issue, and then go out and try to fill in the holes from there.
LIVE FROM AWP
Q&A at AWP/FSG Originals Party
WT: All right, more party questions. We’re here with Danielle Evans. We’re gonna ask her a question from listener Kayla—or Kyla—McCullough: How do you know when your work is ready to send out to a magazine?
Danielle Evans: I think when you reach the point when you can answer your own questions about what the project is and you don’t have any obvious sense of what to do next. I’m a terrible compartmentalizer, but my one thing that I’m good at compartmentalizing is your writing life is different than your career, so you don’t have to send something out and then wait for it to come back. You can send it out and if you have a eureka moment a week later—which often happens because you send it out and suddenly the thing that wasn’t clear to you becomes clear—it’s okay, you can still fix it. No editor is going to laugh at you and cross your name off a list forever because you sent them a story that you wrote a better draft of later. So if it feels ready, if you feel you’ve spent time with it, you’ve sat with it, you’ve asked the questions of what the project of the thing is and feel like you’ve answered them, it’s okay to let it go because it’s not the last time you’ll have to send it out, it’s not the last time you’ll have a chance to work on it. And you can recognize that the public part of your writing life and the career part of your writing life is a separate project from the writing part of your writing life.
WT: [whispers] That is awesome. Thank you.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Like some other journals also, you started a press, you’re publishing books in addition to the regular magazine—you mentioned Jamel Brinkley—and you’ve partnered with Graywolf to publish books from past contributors. So Graywolf and APS published Jamel and started APS Books, the first title of which, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Bette Howland, is coming out on May 7. And the book, a collection of stories, has already gotten a starred review from Kirkus—how did you decide that that was an avenue you wanted to pursue, and what has that process been like?
BH: It’s been wonderful. So the Bette Howland project, that started just by chance coming across a book of hers in a used bookstore. And hers was not a name that I had heard before—
WT: I remember when that issue came out, when you put that in the magazine.
BH: Yeah, it was just one of those moments where you’re sort of struck by the writing, you open a book and the first random sentence that you read grabs you. And went home, tried to track her down, see what else she may have published, and could find very little online about her. And one of those situations where the less you could find the more determined you became to find her. So it took a couple of months, but we eventually connected with her son, who is a professor of philosophy in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And he mentioned that he knew his mother had a safety deposit box, and he knew that she had some writing there and he would go down to the bank the next day and see what was there and let us know. And he emailed the next day and said he found essays and some stories and would we be interested in seeing them and, oh, also there were this collections of letters and postcards from a 40-year friendship with Saul Bellow—would we like to see those? And we said, “Oh yes, I think we might.”
WT: Was he surprised to hear from you, or was he like, “I’ve been waiting for this call!”
BH: No, I mean it was not a call he’d been waiting for. And it just started this wonderful project. So we did a portfolio in the magazine with the letters, and some of her work, and then tried to piece the story of her career together and eventually found ourselves with a collection of stories and novellas that she’d written over a number of years. She had published three books in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and then in 1984 won a McArthur Genius Fellowship and never published a book after that, though she did continue writing. It felt like a book that we wanted to see out in the world, and it felt like a project that we wanted to do and a reason to start the book division.
VVG: How do you edit a writer who isn’t there to work with you?
BH: Yeah, I mean, well she has these letters—we have Bellow’s letters to her, and then we ended up finding a number of her letters to him and several of her interviews. So you sort of get a sense of who she was and how she thought about her work in these long, detailed letters she wrote to one of her book editors. So we tried to get a sense of what she would have wanted in the spirit of her work and I hope managed to put together a collection that she would be happy with.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was just thinking about the ways in which we do work expecting certain kinds of quote unquote “payment,” and how virtue signaling works into that, and how people expect, like—looking around this party penthouse of Literary Hub, I see no cookies—you know? This is the sort of work that we think should be the default. That should be assumed, and yet I think people are most willing to do exactly what you’re saying, the work that’s visible. And then there’s all this other work— it’s the work of reading widely and reading in spaces where you might be less comfortable or might just know less and might have to remain silent and take stuff in rather than just commenting all the time. And then there’s also that notion—when you identify a problem there’s the rhetoric of, “well, you’ve seen the problem so you should come up with the solution.” This work, it’s exciting! It’s also—I mean, you were talking about editing the anthology being a lot of work—it gets really tiring too.
Jennifer Baker: It does, and I was paid for the anthology. I was actually given checks for that. It was funny because as you were saying…I remember one of these was face-to-face and I said, “So…” and I think it was also—I’m a black woman, if you didn’t know, and I think there’s this automatic assumption that comes when I sit down, and—I’m from New York, so I know I have this directness to me that’s just like, “What’s the problem? This is what needs to happen.” So I sat down, and she seemed tired. It was a white woman, an editor at a major lit mag. And I said, “So, what are you doing about diversity at your literary magazine?”
And that was my first question because it was these speed-dating situations where you have 10 minutes, so I had to get straight to the question, I can’t do this lead-in crap. And she just said, “Well, what do you expect? What do you suggest we do?” And automatically I saw shut down. Automatically. It was immediate. And the body language changed and she said, “Uh huh, uh huh, well we have readers, and the thing is readers aren’t getting paid, so it kind of affects what we get, but we do reach out and look at the space…and da-da-da-da-da.” And she said, “Oh, so what do you do?” And I said, “Oh, I do this podcast,” and she said, “Oh, what’s the name?” And she didn’t write any of it down or anything. She said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll take a listen to it.” She just checked out.
And then it’s funny because I saw her again the next year because I specifically requested to see her again, and her whole vibe had changed. So maybe it was just that day or something. But I left saying, “I think you don’t give a crap. I really think you don’t give a crap.” And then I see her a year later and she’s like, “I remember you!” And we had a lovely conversation, and I did bring up representation again, and she just seemed more open to it, and I don’t know what happened in the span of a year. I literally don’t know what happened. Things didn’t change that much, but her attitude definitely changed. And so, I just kept pushing a, “Okay, you’re asking me for labor, I might give it to you in this moment . . . ”
But then someone else asked me for labor because they were called out for having no POC mentors and offering a mentorship program, and she said, “Well, I’m in Germany. Can you help me?” And I said, “You know what? No. No.” And this was over Facebook, so I said, “No, I can’t—” and she said, “Okay, I respect that. I appreciate that.” So it depends on the reaction, but if there’s monetary gain for other people I will always do the work and give them names of other people because I want people to benefit monetarily. And then I have to think about it in other respects of “how much am I gonna give to you about this.” But now I actually go to places and say, “If you have a freelance opportunity for a consultant, I would like to help you do this or connect you with people who can.” And now I put it out there that if you’re gonna ask me to do this work, I wanna be financially compensated for it. And then I donate that money a lot of the time. The money goes to my podcast, the money goes to other organizations. It’s not as though I’m buying freaking Jimmy Choos. But Jimmy Choos are lovely.
WT: You can just take a pair from the closet penthouse here—
JB: And some Balenciagas!
WT: People don’t know this, we do it under the table, but we do give those to guests who appear on the show.
Cut to Q&A at AWP/FSG Originals Party:
WT: We’re here with Jessica Eckerstorfer, who’s the art and design editor at Paper Darts, who’s a co-sponsor of this party tonight, and we’re going to ask her a question.
VVG: I think our listeners would like to know how you think about the art that goes with the pieces that the editors accept. What is that process like? How do you read work and come up with images that showcase and illustrate and also stand on their own?
Jessica Eckerstorfer: So we have a whole community of artists that we work with on a regular basis. Our artist-solicitor-editor Maya Beck actually has a pool that she knows are readers of the magazine and know what kind of tone we’re looking for and then assigns stories to illustrators that she thinks would be most appropriate. But in addition, we also do artist features on a regular basis, so I actually curate through the Internet, through festivals, different artists that we interview as well.
WT: Thank you so much!
WT: So you’re in that conversation with that editor, you’re now in the editor’s seat at Electric Lit where you can accept essays and people will write and pitch you, I presume, right?
JB: Of course.
WT: And I know our listeners would love to be published in Electric Literature, so tell us what they should do when they’re writing you. What do you look for? What are you looking at? What is interesting to you about a pitch letter, what kind of things are you . . .
JB: Can I say what you shouldn’t do? You shouldn’t do, “Hello, how much do you pay? And here’s my essay.” Because I’ve literally gotten pitches like that. And don’t do pitches that are as long as the essay itself because I’ve gotten that. Literally 900-word pitches. And I would say, as I say on Twitter all the time, please please please read Electric Literature because it is specialized. It is not a general interest literary magazine. It is a specialized one that looks at literature and the intersections of art. So if your essay is about your dog and it’s not any way related to art and media . . .
WT: Or, skiing?
JB: I’ve gotten the dog, the mom. I’ve gotten a lot of stuff on moms and parents and grief, which is great—that’s great, it’s just not for us. And the number one reason I reject stuff is because people don’t look at the website, sadly. And it’s free. Electric Literature is free. So I’d say I will look at anything as long as it aligns with our mission statement. And I always give direct feedback on why I’m rejecting a piece. I personally do not send form rejections. I will say, “The reason this isn’t working is because you have 18 different things going on in this essay.” “The reason this isn’t working is because what you said it was isn’t what was put on the page. I would love to see you revise and submit.” Or, “The voice isn’t right for us, it’s more right for a kind of trade-y, femme-focused magazine…” or something like that. So I always give very specific feedback on why I’m rejecting you, so that you don’t think that you suck.
VVG: That’s incredibly generous feedback.
JB: It’s because I don’t get 800 submissions. It’s usually because I get several dozen. If I was [Electric Literature editor Jess Zimmerman] and I was doing the Submittable, I would probably be like, “I can’t do this anymore.” But because I get dozens at the time, I take the time to read them. Also because I just want people to learn.
WT: Is that because they’re curated by somebody on their way to you?
JB: People just usually just submit to me. I’ll just say, “Yeah, just submit.” It’s email@example.com.
WT: Well, there’s the end of your dozens of submissions.
JB: Hey, bring it. It will just take longer for me to respond.
VVG: So right now you’re getting dozens in what span of time?
JB: Every few weeks. It kind of—you know, there’s the lull. The holiday season is kind of quiet, and then January: boom! everyone wrote over the . . . Or, you know, “Mother’s Day’s happening, I have this!,” or, “It’s Father’s Day! I have something for Father’s Day . . . ”
WT: Is it helpful to tie things to holidays like that?
JB: Absolutely, absolutely . . .
WT: Okay, and how far ahead do you need to give it?
JB: Yes, way more than two days before Father’s Day. Especially if I have never read your work and—
WT: Is three weeks enough?
JB: Three weeks is great. Because there are things you know that are happening. You know when Father’s Day is coming. It’s not as though we’re predicting when this is happening. It’s like, St. Patrick’s Day: “I don’t know guys, I don’t know when that day is gonna land. It could be weird. It could be the 21st, it could be the 23rd . . . we don’t know.” But you know it’s gonna be March 17th, you know? We know when St. Patty’s Day is gonna be. So, due diligence.
VVG: So it sounds like you’re giving feedback when you’re rejecting people. When you accept something, what kind of editorial work do you do with the writers whose work you accept and going to publish?
JB: I line edit. I’m a line editor by nature. And that’s my full-time job. I do managing editorial. So I go in and I actually highlight areas and say, “You said this, and now you’re contradicting yourself,” or “I Googled this, and you said that no one read her book but she was on 10 ‘best books’ lists so how does that translate to what you’re saying . . . ” “You intro’d this and you made it very personal, and then you totally extract yourself from the rest of the essay . . . ” “This is a lot of passive voice versus active voice…I would change for this . . .” So I do very, very specific line edits in that sense.
VVG: So this is really interesting—I mean, maybe this is a myth, but as the editorial staff at literary magazines has gotten more and more stretched, fewer people getting paid less to read more, I think that one of the things that is a prevailing notion about literary magazines is that when you send your story in, you’re not going to get much in the way of editorial feedback. They’re either going to take it or send it away, and you may never know why, but that editors are not editing any more. And both you and Brigid have basically given us the opposite feedback—that you are really working with writers and giving them feedback, and taking the time to do that.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Amanda Minoff.