The Academy and the Literary Journal: Great Expectations and Hard Times
Next up for JOURNAL JOURNAL, I decided to explore something I know little about—university literary journals! And particularly those run by students at universities that accept work from people outside of their school. These types of journals are typically also associated with a graduate program, though not always.
I wound up having a lot to say considering the variety of responses I got from the editors who were generous enough with their time to respond, so we need a sort of cast of characters before we begin. Here’s to whom I spoke & the journals they help to staff:
- Justin Brouckaert, co-Editor at Yemassee, University of South Carolina (submissions open year round)
- Marty Cain, Senior Editor at Yalobusha Review, University of Mississippi (submissions open now)
- Joel Hans, Managing Editor at Fairy Tale Review, University of Arizona (submissions open until May 1st, 2016)
- Patrick Holian, Co-editor-in-chief at Rougarou, University of Louisiana at Lafayette (submissions open year round)
- Dalton Kamish, Web Editor at Symbiosis, University of Pennsylvania (online edition submissions open until March 25th, 2016)
- John Taylor, Poetry Editor at Redivider, Emerson College (open for entries to its Beacon Street Prize until April 30th, 2016– and general submissions)
- Laura Theobald, Editor in Chief at New Delta Review (NDR), Louisiana State University (submissions open through late April)
- Janet Towle, Co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review, University of Arizona (submissions open until May 1st, 2016)
Something I noticed immediately about the journals whose editors who filled out my questionnaire was how each one carves out a particular space for the type of writing it features. While some of them fill this space more traditionally, others have a very specific aesthetic. I’ll tell you about two that look for a more specific type of work.
Fairy Tale Review founded by Kate Bernheimer, came to be because she “felt the literary world lack[ed] a place for all the writers of fiction that didn’t quite belong in the more mainstream, storied journals,” Managing Editor Joel Hans says. Thus was born a journal whose aim was to focus on work of any genre’s take on fairy tale themes.
On a different spectrum, but equally unique, the newest journal in the bunch is Symbiosis, and they publish work that explores where the visual and textual intersect. Originally, they only accepted collaborative pieces from fellow Penn students, hosting workshops to encourage this collaboration. However, Dalton Kamish, Web Editor, says that now they’ll be “accepting work by a single person as well as work by people other than Penn students. Work we’ve published in the past has often taken the form of two separate pieces (visual and written) that were somehow collaborative, but this year we are pushing for more integrated, inseparable, or even indistinguishable visual and textual work.” The journal began as an undergraduate journal and has now branched out to encourage anyone outside of Penn to contribute– and the specificity of the type of work that it seeks to publish makes that branching out logical.
PRINT V. DIGITAL
Way back in 2009, it was a super big deal when Triquarterly went digital, so much so that The New Yorker wrote a piece about it. I wondered how the controversy surrounding their change affected the trajectory of other lit journals at universities, considering the price of printing a journal and the economic meltdown that occurred around then—but also considering how internet-centric reader attention has become. Was Triquarterly going digital like Dylan going electric?
Turns out that many university lit journals that were once print and are now digital moved in that direction post-Triquarterly’s announcement—the New Delta Review published its last print issue in 2010, and in 2012 Yalobusha Review went digital. What went against my hypothesis was the founding of university-affiliated online journals prior to the Triquarterly decision—Rougarou‘s earliest issue can be traced back to 2007, and though since then has been an online production, Patrick Holian, co-editor-in-chief, says that they “hope to produce one print edition, either during the summer or next fall,” and specifically one that will feature the best of the two web editions they traditionally put out.
The changes that some of these journals have made since their inceptions have often been the editors’ decisions rather than the programs’. With younger, hipper-to-the-net students coming in, opting for digital formatting is the most noted change, but there’s still something about the kinesthetics of a print issue that appeals to students running lit mags. Some university journals traditionally print-only now have both online and print presences. Yemassee and Redivider both publish a biannual print edition and a few select works from each issue online and have been doing so for awhile. Symbiosis just this year will be putting out a new online as well as its traditional print edition. Then there are those that are strictly print, Fairy Tale Review, founded in 2005, being one of them and also Sonora Review—both of these are run out of the University of Arizona MFA program.
I anticipated that the most major difference between running an indie journal and being part of a university journal would be twofold: the turnover of the staff and the funding (which we’ll get to.) The staff turnover is obvious: once you’re no longer associated with the program, you have to step aside for incoming/current students to takeover. Therefore, the taste of the journal often will change with its editors. For example, Co-editor Justin Brouckaert says:
“It was important for the founding editors of Yemassee to carve a niche in the tradition of Southern literature, but we’ve moved away from that aesthetic in the many years since then. We still get a lot of those kinds of submissions from folks who think realist Southern lit is what we do, but one of my efforts as fiction editor & now as an editor with a hand in both fiction and non-fiction selections had been to debunk that label.”
While Yemassee’s flouting of its traditional background pushes it towards being like rather than differentiable from other MFA-student-run publications, the move likely helps to extend the reach of the journal, allowing a larger variety of writers to send in work—and therefore, creating the opportunity for a broader range of submissions to choose from and attracting attention from a wider group of potential students/future-editors.
Another journal that has moved towards a change in aesthetics is Yalobusha Review. When the journal, founded in 1995, rebooted as a purely online journal, the staff then rewrote the its mission statement. It now reads:
“We seek to showcase work that alters or subverts mainstream forms of expression–work that is, in a broad sense, experimental, though that takes many forms. We believe the reading experience should be a kinetic one, and to that end, we favor art that has its own source of energy, drawn from tonal individuality, linguistic texture, and above all, a sense of exploration.”
Marty Cain, Senior Editor, talks about how the staff today he’s a part of stands by this re-envisioning of the journal’s role:
“The other editors and I still very much identify with this mission, and we’ve done our best to strike a balance—to publish work that is non-normative, adventurous, and challenging, while resisting monolithic notions of what ‘experimental writing’ has to look like. For me, personally, this has grown into an interest in veins of experimental writing that don’t reject the somatic in favor of the intellectual; those that do not wish to abdicate identity or transcend the body; those that utilize ‘experiment’ as a way to combat structural inequalities.”
While some journals change for aesthetic purposes, others make changes that help showcase something unique to the journal or aim to offer a wider variety of opportunities to grad students in the affiliated program. Holian says of Rougarou:
“We want to continue to publish the highest quality prose and art we can, but one new point of emphasis is to produce more content on the website itself. We have two blogs, one dedicated to the Writer’s Life, pieces about process, publishing, teaching, and all things writing, and a second dedicated to life in The Gulf, writings focused on the diverse music and culture of Louisiana, and more specifically south Louisiana. In this latter forum we hope to produce work that shows an engagement with and contribution to the community and our surrounding environment.”
Thinking about the ideas behind what the journal you run helps to publish, then, allows editors to consider what’s important in the literary world right now–and what they can do to support that work coming up that might not have a home in a strictly traditional literary journal either in print or via its online presence.
WHO’S THE BOSS?
Not only do the constantly swinging doors when it comes to masthead affect the aesthetic of a university publication, but different editors will lead and delegate in different ways and expect different things from their supporting staff. There’s more to running a lit mag, many of these editors discover, than choosing and publishing the best and most important work that comes through your slush pile. Moving into a position at a university journal might feel like having to reinvent the wheel. Not only are editors expected to maintain the prestige of the journal they run and/or expand its reach, but they’re often in positions to decide the direction of the journal, to make choices that will affect editors down the line for years to come.
However, not one editor came close to what I would call complaining about the levity of their positions considering their brevity. At Yemassee, Brouckaert admits that the experience can be both frustrating and rewarding:
“The frustrating part is that you’re only passing through–I’ve got three years to make my mark, and then I’m out. The rewarding part is that there’s a lot that can be accomplished in those three years–in one year, even.”
Staff roles at Yemassee read much like that at Redivider—those at the top figures out their strengths and how they want to utilize the support from the other positions to fill in any weaknesses— and the journals happen from there, growing when and where they need to grow. John Taylor, Poetry Editor, says:
“We are provided with some financial stability and an unending workforce of readers and people willing to donate time and energy to keeping Redivider running. However, because MFAs are typically in the program for anywhere from 2 to 3 years, there is an enormous turnover. It takes an incredible amount of work to keep Redivider’s central structures and processes in place as editors, readers, production, and management filter in and out. We are also often full time students, have full time work outside of Redivider, and often work in some capacity for other journals. But under the right leadership (and our current EiC, Paul Haney, is an incredibly engaged leader) Redivider draws on this multifaceted workforce and produces a complex, interesting, and important literary journal engaged with contemporary poetry, art, nonfiction, and fiction.”
Sometimes changes for a journal, though, are larger than just how-do-we-define-who-does-what-this-time: Kamish of Symbiosis felt so strongly that the journal needed to go digital that they would only “accept the position of Blog Editor contingent upon changing it to Web Editor and publishing an online issue.” As they’re an undergraduate at Penn, I was jazzed to discover that publications like Symbiosis are redefining the undergraduate journal’s role in a variety of progressive ways: publishing unique hybrid work, engaging with the world outside of the university, hosting workshops, etc. Kamish “lead[s] a workshop on using Snapchat to collaboratively produce image macros.” I can’t help but think five years ago a sentence like that would have made little to no sense, and this impresses upon me the importance of university journals at all levels—as students in higher ed, you’re often being asked to think about the world differently than you ever have before, and what results from it can be an astounding and essential newness that is critical to our engagement with and making of literature.
While most known university journals don’t utilize undergraduates necessarily, I was glad to talk to a burgeoning one staffed by them in Symbiosis–and another that does involve their participation. Fairy Tale Review “host[s] roughly 15 editorial assistants a year, who are undergraduates at the University of Arizona, via a course that’s part of the newfangled publishing track in the English Department—we help give them meaningful experience in publishing, mostly by allowing them to create projects based around FTR and then execute them,” Joel Hans tells me.
When it comes to staff, I was glad to hear that some editorial positions were funded—in that, editors received money for the important work that they do. In a literary climate that seems to want to charge rather than pay writers, editorial positions are more often than not unpaid. NDR pays its Editor-in-Chief, always a second- or third-year MFA student, in the form of a stipend that covers tuition. But positions like this are few and far between—and often first of what gets slashed when a university must implement budget cuts.
STACKS OF CASH
When I edited the undergraduate literary journal Gangsters in Concrete (now an online publications: Concrete literary magazine,) our print issues were funded by the department, and we gave them away for free on campus. As that was a long (though we’ll not say how long) time ago– and as GIC was an insular undergraduate journal– I was curious about the funding for graduate university journals and those that publish work outside of their own student body. And I was surprised. Really surprised. By some of the answers.
Two different journals I talked to said that they received no funding at all from the university they were affiliated with. And even those that do get funds don’t receive much or are never sure how much is coming their way or are only granted money for certain things. For instance, Sonora Review doesn’t “get regular/guaranteed financial support from the department or the MFA program, though they donate funds to help with production when they can,” Co-editor Janet Towle tells me. Rougarou and Yalobusha Review get no money—but Cain believes this is because YR hasn’t had a massive amount of submissions yet to require any more than a free Submittable account and also because the website is hosted by the university—though, he says, for the journal’s launch “as an online journal… the MFA program paid for a web developer.”
Other journals were luckier when it came to funding: Symbiosis, at Penn, has its efforts funded and its workshops hosted by the Kelly Writers House. New Delta Review gets money from LSU for AWP and the aforementioned stipend, but not for the journal itself’s daily operations. Redivider is funded “in part” by Emerson’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing program. And Yemassee has an account that was set up by a “founding benefactor” that helps keep them afloat.
So what do journals do to raise funds if they don’t get enough or any at all to meet the cost of their yearly expenditures? They charge submission and contest fees; they encourage subscription and journal sales; they hold fundraisers and accept donations; they apply for grants, and they hope for generosity from other literary organizations on- or off-campus.
I will say, overall, the amount of financial support from the universities that sponsor these journals was not as much as I’d expected it to be—especially considering how more popular, well-run, good-looking literary journals are a great way for creative writing programs to attract attention to their program and therefore entice future students. Am I biased (because I run a literary journal that’s seemingly always in desperate need of more money to stay afloat) to think that at least every graduate-level creative writing program should have a stellar, well-funded literary arts journal? Maybe.
WHY WHY WHY
So why do creative writing/English departments have literary journals, anyway? Many might take for granted that a university with departments like these should sponsor a literary journal. Cain super honestly admits, “I’m not sure why we have the journal specifically, but it does provide good experience for folks interested in small press stuff, and the fact that we have a good, relatively well-known journal might make the program more appealing to prospective students.” This was right on the money with how I expected the university–and therefore the students who run the journal–to feel. Sponsoring a literary journal should help place the university’s name on the creative writing map (–hence my surprise at the paucity of funding suffered by some of them.)
There were a variety of answers from specific editors that could most likely be applied more widely to the others. For instance, Laura Theobald, Editor in Chief of NDR, says:
“There’s lots of reasons why this type of experience is important for students: it helps us learn more about our craft; it gives us access to a larger network of our peers and their work; it teaches us about the process of publishing from an insider’s perspective; it gives us ‘real world’ experience that we can use on job applications; it gives us a space to build a community; it brings us joy.”
Some MFA journals exist more specifically to fill the space between a journal historically affilated with the university and the aesthetics, taste, and potential for opportunity and experience for MFA students. Redivider is one of these, and Taylor says:
“While Ploughshares is an incredible literary magazine that draws on Emerson’s graduate students for readers and other positions, Redivider offers positions in all areas of the journal to MFAs and MAs in the program. This locates the editorial power within the MFA and gives Redivider the flexibility to publish daring writing and focus more attention on emergent writers.”
In addition to directing attention towards the sponsoring/affiliated program and giving those within it needed experience, Brouckaert points out that Yemmasee exists in part as, “a way for students to collaborate in an art which is so often solitary.” And simply and pointedly, Kamish says of Symbiosis, “Penn has a rich tradition of and commitment to literature.”
University journals are not just a great starting point for the careers of the students that run them, but an important part of the literary culture and tradition of the United States. I thought I would be able to speak more generally about university journals, as I thought they would be diverse in content but otherwise similar in practice. I was wrong. I easily could have written eight different articles highlighting the histories, changes, funding, and reasons for existence behind all of the journals whose editors I spoke with to patch this piece together. Some of the best-known journals in America are affiliated with and/or sponsored by universities. Yet with budget cuts and the state of higher education becoming more and more corporate every day, that tradition is under siege.
Hans would agree:
“In the past, I would have said that a university helps provide stability to the journal’s future (less emphasis on making a profit), but now I’m not so sure. In an era of trying to maximize profits from out-of-state undergraduate admits and offering the most direct school to job experience, I worry about the health of our beloved journals, and those who operate them. We should all be planning for emergency—what would we do if our university were to cut support? How would we survive, and sustain? …I wish I had good answers. I hope others have some ideas.”