The Discerning Reader of Fantastic Literature's Guide to Literary Journals
By Matthew Cheney
5 November 2007
Though short fiction and poetry are not at the core of mass popular culture, venues for such writing continue to appear and even, occasionally, to thrive. As a writer, I have always been interested in magazines and journals that specialize in fiction and poetry, and as a teenager I discovered both science fiction and literary fiction (for lack of better terms) through magazines. I discovered the SF magazines (Asimov's, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction) on supermarket newsstands and in used bookstores, and I discovered the literary magazines ( TriQuarterly, The Paris Review, and The New England Review) on the shelves on the local college library.
For many years, the most eclectic fiction, it seemed to me, often appeared in the science fiction magazines—particularly Asimov's during the late 1980s, when I remember at least a few letters to the editor complaining that certain stories were only vaguely science fictional or fantastic. Those letters, the responses they received, and the breadth of material published in the magazine gave me—at a young and impressionable age—a view of the genre that was broad and all-encompassing. What I found in the literary magazines at the time, though sometimes interesting, was not so broad or all-encompassing, but was, rather, awfully similar in style and subject matter.
Not having done a comprehensive study of literary magazines in the late 1980s, I don't know whether my impressions were even remotely accurate or simply the result of an unscientific sampling of what was out there. Ten years later, though, having encountered various other literary magazines, along with some of the first openly cross-genre magazines (particularly Century and Crank!), my view began to change—more and more interesting, genre-bending material had begun to appear in places previously given over, I'd thought, to nothing but a narrow sort of psychological realism. Meanwhile, the current of fiction that only fit the label of weird continued to have a home within the SF community in various places—one of the most prominent, of course, being right here at Strange Horizons.
Now, in my capacity as series editor of Best American Fantasy, I get to read all sorts of different publications, from the tiniest 'zines to the major SF magazines to The New Yorker. This is exciting, and I'm astounded at the quality and creativity in so many different magazines that don't get marketed to what seems to me a natural audience—readers who like their fiction to be at least a little bit odd, a little bit out of the ordinary, a little bit more than the sort of "realism" that's all about middle class white people having existential crises because of marital woes.
Recently, some young writers of work that is sometimes SF, sometimes not, and usually weird in wondrous ways have asked me for recommendations of non-SF markets that might be open to the sorts of things they write. The lists I came up with, I thought, might be helpful not only to writers, but to readers who thrive on an eclectic diet—the sorts of readers who have the good taste to read, for instance, Strange Horizons. . .
Here, then, are some brief notes on magazines you might not have heard of, but that are worth your attention. This is an incomplete list intended only as a starting point—some tips for finding more such publications follow at the end.
Backwards City Review is a magazine I discovered recently, and already it is a must-read for me whenever a new issue arrives. Each issue includes not only stories and poems, but also comics of various sorts. The breadth of material could become chaotic, but it rarely does, and I have often become lost—in the best sense of the word—in the magazine's contents, as each piece led me to hunger for more, and to keep reading.
Many genre readers are familiar with Conjunctions because of issue number 39, guest edited by Peter Straub and dubbed "The New Wave Fabulists" issue. Readers might not have realized, though, that Conjunctions is dedicated to an impressive range of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, and that every issue is an eclectic mix of literatures. Because Conjunctions is so broad-ranging, and because each semi-annual issue is the size of a big book, I know of few other places to get as strong a sense of the possibilities offered by contemporary writing.
Hobart is a relatively new magazine, but it has established itself as a fine source for excellent and original fiction, poetry, and art. I was particularly taken with issue 7, which linked various sorts of visual art with various sorts of written art, creating a magazine that is not only beautiful to look at, but extraordinary to read.
McSweeney's is renowned for its design—every issue is meticulously produced and utterly different in shape and feel from the previous—but the quality of the work published within the magazine's pages is generally quite high. This is a magazine that particularly loves quirkiness, sometimes to a fault, but it's a fault I have trouble stirring much outrage against.
Like McSweeney's (but with a different aesthetic), each issue of Ninth Letter feels as much like a work of art as a literary magazine. Every inch of every page is carefully—even aggressively—designed. This does not always make the text easy to read, but it certainly makes the magazine an extraordinary one to flip through. The writing—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—hews to no set standard of realism or anti-realism; sometimes it is surreal, sometimes it is down-and-dirty in its quotidian details, sometimes it is full of flights of purest fantasy.
I cannot even pretend to be objective about One Story—not only have they published some of my favorite writers (Alan DeNiro, Kelly Link, Binyavanga Wainaina), but they also published a story of mine. (This was a temporary lapse of judgment on their part. I didn't question it.) Part of the fun of One Story is that the magazine lives up to its title—every three weeks or so, they publish one story. It's a booklet, tastefully produced, without any advertising. The sorts of fiction they publish vary widely, and editor Hannah Tinti is, I know, committed to finding the best stories she possibly can, whatever they look or smell like. I've given One Story as a gift, and people are invariably charmed by it at first, then addicted.
Porcupine published my favorite story of this year so far, Avi Lall's "Akhil and Judy," and though this story is, itself, not really fantasy of any sort, that doesn't mean Porcupine shuns the weird and surreal. There is a fine commitment to extraordinary imagery in the magazine—whether that imagery be in poems, stories, or visual art—and a commitment to work that seeks to be both accessible to a wide audience and also of the highest quality.
A Public Space is one of my favorite magazines, and one of the very few that, when a new issue arrives, I begin reading immediately. It raises eclecticism to a new level, mixing prose and art, fiction and poetry, journalism and dreams. Each issue also contains a sub-section of writing and art devoted to a particular region of the world—so far, these have included Japan, Russia, Peru, and Antarctica. The writing is invariably of high quality and high interest, and the fiction editors seem to want to represent every style of fiction being written today, so long as the writing is rich with energy and vision.
With a current issue titled "Fantastic Women," Tin House has openly announced what some of us have known for years: that it is a fine place to find stories that are fantastical in all the best senses of the word. The magazine publishes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction of all different types, and it has a stated commitment to new writers, so this is a fine place to read excellent work by people who might possibly be among the most celebrated artists of the next generation. Which is not to suggest that you won't recognize many names in Tin House—indeed, one of their strengths is their ability to attract the top talent from around the world.
The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses estimates there are about 600 active literary magazines in the U.S., which means I've only hinted at the variety of work out there, and I've limited myself to the geographical area I know best. To continue to find magazines—both in print and online—stop by a website such as Duotrope's Digest, Emerging Writers Network, Luna Park, New Pages, Web del Sol, or Zeroland.