is art a numbers game?

Once, when I was at a writing colony, one of my fellow writers (actually, a Famous Writer) asked me, “So–have you been published anywhere?”

Bleah. Publishing is not the most accurate indicator of talent, but it is the most popular indicator. That question peeves me to no end for so many reasons. Yes, I’ve been published. I answered wearily where I’d been published.

“Oh! That’s a really good journal! That’s a TOP journal!” And then this Famous Writer proceeded to pay attention to me; this all made me feel MORE uncomfortable. What would she have done if I were NOT published? What kind of shitrag would I have been in her eyes? What if I had been published in a “lesser” literary magazine? I may as well have been wearing Steve Madden/Manolo-knockoffs with an Old Navy Dress on the Oscar Awards red carpet. No?

Which brings me to the NEXT question–the question of what defines a “top literary” journal. Some may say it’s the number of accolades its writers get…though the editor of ZYZZYVA begs to differ:

All “prize” and “best” lists are corrupt in an essential way: Art is not a race, and whether you prefer apples or oranges is just a matter of taste.

If you were to chart how many of the annual “prize winners” were included at the next level (The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, The Granta Book of The American Short Story, The Best American Short Stories of the Century…), which I once did, you would find that taste is fickle and that almost none of the selections actually made the annual anthologies of the year they were first published.

It is hard to recognize new talent, when it is still new: No one was willing to publish F.X. Toole until he was 69, when he appeared in ZYZZYVA Spring ’99; this story was not selected for any of the annual anthologies, but eventually it helped inspire Million Dollar Baby.

What’s he reacting to? He’s reacting to this tally of Pushcart prize winners per literary magazine since 2001. Is it an accurate indicator of “best literary journals?” You decide.

1 Ploughshares 105
2 Paris Review 66
3 Zoetrope: All Story 62
4 Conjunctions 59
5 Southern Review 56
6 Threepenny Review 48
7 Tin House 43
8 Epoch 37
9 Ontario Review 37
10 TriQuarterly 37
11 Witness 37
12 Georgia Review 34
13 New England Review 33
14 Missouri Review 30
15 Five Points 29
16 McSweeney’s 28
17 Kenyon Review 25
18 Gettysburg Review 23
19 Chelsea 21
20 Shenandoah 21
21 StoryQuarterly 21
22 Antioch Review 20
23 Doubletake 19
24 Agni 16
25 Boulevard 16
26 Third Coast 15
27 Idaho Review 14
28 Mississippi Review 14
29 Willow Spring 13
30 Iowa Review 12
31 Oxford American 12
32 ZYZZYVA 12
33 Manoa 11
34 News from the Republic of Letters 11
35 Salmagundi 11
36 Glimmer Train 10
37 Hudson Review 10
38 New Letters 10
39 Noon 10
40 VQR 10

This list should make you think.  Why do you read literary journals?  Why do you submit to literary journals?  Who is reading literary journals?  What makes a literary journal the “best?”  Is a particular literary journal discovering new writers, or is it publishing the established canon?

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16 Comments

Filed under Reading, Writing

16 responses to “is art a numbers game?

  1. Off in SF-land, we basically do know who’s top-tier, secondary tier, and other in SF publishing, at least for short stories. It’s almost, but not quite, differentiated by pay. The best markets pay a little less, but give great exposure; the next tier pay a little better but are “secondary” markets in terms of notoriety or exposure gained, and then there’s the places you send stuff that the first two tiers won’t publish. But we live in a tiny village, and so it’s not so unusual for this to be fairly clear-cut.

  2. this brings back an unhappy memory. Once I was at a writing conference and we had this “speed-dating” kind of meeting with an agent. I proudly showed her my CV which listed over a dozen story publications. She scanned them quickly and said, “None of these count.” I was so deflated.

    I subscribe and read a few literary journals that I seem to consistently enjoy. I submit to some because I’m a masochist, and because I know that agents and editors DO read them (twice now I’ve been contacted by agents after having stories published in journals) and I have NO IDEA what makes one “the best.”

  3. PS. Conjunctions?!? I have never even heard of this one.

  4. Why does this depress me? I guess I get overwhelmed by the numbers. I love to read literary journals — some of my favorites are on that Pushcart list, but that’s not why I started reading them. I like to send stories in to my most favorite journals, and I still haven’t broken through to my top “fantasy” choices. Tin House seems 10,000 miles away, and yet I know I’ll keep trying because I adore that one. I guess I’m a masochist, too.

    My most dreaded question, when at writers conferences or a colony: “So, do you have a literary agent?” I get sick at that question. *sigh*

  5. I *hate* the “Do you have an agent?” question too. I get asked that at WEDDINGS, even! (What do you do? I’m a writer? Oh! Do you have an agent?).

  6. Pingback: dreaded questions « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  7. Ugh. What do I do? Well as long as I’m in an MFA program I can say I’m getting an MFA. But in a few short months, then what? Finishing my novel, submitting short stories, submitting other stuff.

    How about that old saw “I’m a human being, not a human doing.” Not such a snappy comeback at a wedding.

    I often don’t even claim “writer” because I just don’t want to deal with the questions.

  8. leonessa: there are many facets to identity–self identity, legal identity, social identity.

    the first step to identity, is the self-identity. if you don’t claim yourself as a writer, how can others acknowledge you as a writer?

    there are some positives to the negatives when you claim yourself as a writer in public. this is just my snarky space so you are hearing most of the negative reactions–because well, they are more entertaining.

  9. p.s. Susan, you are so right about the reality of “none of these count” (in publishing) remark. But they do count somewhere, somehow.

    and yes–“Conjunctions”–what IS that magazine?!

  10. Conjunctions is the lit journal at Bard College in upstate New York. Maybe it’s more available on the East Coast? It’s very thick (their 25th anniversary issue is huge), and they publish mainly big-name people. I’ve never submitted because they don’t accept simultaneous submissions.

  11. mel

    I for one would love to be in any of these. Sometimes I think art is just so subjective, we have to keep at it even (and especially) when the numbers are not in our favor. *sigh*

  12. Mel’s right. We have to keep pushing. It’s a numbers game. The more you send out, the higher the odds are of publishing, getting residencies, and maybe the agent call, etc. (I hate doing it though.)

  13. mel

    Wildguppy – I hate doing it, too! I feel like every rejection, I kind of die a little. But every artistic pursuit has that, submissions and auditions and bad critiques/rehearsals/performances. What to do but keep doing?

  14. Pingback: litmag recommendations « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  15. toniv

    hey jade:
    it’s 3am and i can’t sleep so you’ve been entertaining me with blogmania….i went to the teacher christmas party tonight and drank too much “punch.” I feel like i’m on speed…wide awake and ready to clean the house. i had loads of fun at the party. those teachers are partiers. although, it was hard pretending to be a “breeder.” tonight I wore a teacher christmas sweater. it was scary…the first teacherly sweater I have ever owned…hopefully the last. we exchanged white elephant gifts…i brought a long horse whip that i found in the shed…of course the most modest elementary school teacher wanted it and was transformed into some kind of dominatrix before are very eyes. She was so funny…her husband was eight shades of red. i think i get your point about popularity or your dad’s point rather. i was the hit of the party with the whip…this party really introduced me to all the “wild” teachers…i think maybe I will be able to be “out” with them – or perhaps that is just false hope….and if i should come out of the closet the gossip maybe too great to bare in such a small school. it is hard to know which road to take. I think one teacher already is suspecting me… anyway….nice blog 🙂
    toni –

  16. Pingback: is art a numbers game? (part II) « Writing Under a Pseudonym

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