How to rank literary magazines
Author Mohsin Hamid has written an extraordinary story, “Focus on the Fundamentals,” that leads off the fall issue of the Paris Review. The story’s broad scope and intimate voice—and its tackling of themes related to immigration, assimilation, and 9/11—not only got me to add Hamid’s upcoming novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist to my wishlist but also convinced me, after some time of resisting, to consider the Paris Review the best literary magazine around.
Others would make the same case, certainly. It’s like saying the New Yorker publishes good profiles or that bears crap in the woods. I had wanted to avoid, though, opening the door to pharisaism or self-serving praise of insiders to the detriment of new or different talent.
But now that I’ve been doing some fiction editing, I’ve started to take measurable editorial success more seriously. But then, what in the very small, very squishy literary field is measurable? To what should an editor or a literary magazine staff in general aspire, particularly in considering the health of the field as a whole?
Here are the measurable attributes, then, as I’ve come to see them. Note that they exclude traditional but misleading descriptors of magazine success, such as circulation or geographic base:
- Age (<5/>5/>15): The years a publication has been publishing regularly.
- Independence (no/partial/full): Is the publication independent? What percentage of its operating costs are paid directly by subscribers? By advertisers? By donors? By how many different donors? By a single patron, such as the university on whose campus the publication operates? This is the hardest to measure but can be done with some research skills.
- Compensation (yes/no): does the publication pay its authors and staff? Find out by reading submission guidelines and analyzing the masthead. Do staff members work elsewhere (almost always yes).
- Timeliness (yes/no): The flexibility or anticipatory talents of a publication’s editors, including the ability to solicit work appropriate to a particular event, anniversary, etc. Does each issue feature something related to the season or month in which it was published?
- Nurturing (yes/partial/no): The prioritizing and active promotion of the literary field through readings, festivals, workshops, scholarships, and outreach.
In finding measurable attributes, I’ve identified four levels of literary magazine success that can be fairly evenly applied across geography, genre, and even size. They should be useful to readers, writers, editors, and donors alike when deciding whom to support or evaluating the growing or waning influence of a publication.
The four levels, from least to most successful:
A vanity publication may feature two kinds of vanity—and often features both: an editor who is the publication and/or, more commonly, a mission that in effect reads, “We started this magazine because we thought everything else sucked.”
- Age: <5 years old.
- Independence: No. Has 1-5 sponsors, who are often also editors, but no subscribers.
- Compensation: No. Does not compensate its writers.
- Timeliness: No. Irregular publishing schedule makes timeliness difficult.
- Nurturing: No. Does not have the ability to nurture their mission or field outside of their publication.
Immature publications are not necessarily bad publications. They print the bulk of literary writing, if not by totally circulation then by manuscript pages. They are college student literary magazines, most online-only magazines, a large number of niche publications, and even a handful of magazines published by well-respected personalities. A respected example would be the new magazine A Public Space. While edited by a former Paris Review editor and featuring very high-end writing, it still struggles with the business side of magazine publishing, such as when it ran into subscriber fulfillment problems with its second issue. In the immature category would also be a publication like N+1, which publishes excellent political and creative writing from established authors but which recently—and kudos to them for being able to laugh at themselves—lost $3,000 cash to a thief at a fundraiser.
- Age: <5 years old or still/regularly have fulfillment problems.
- Independence: No. Still depend greatly on single-copy sales, rather than subscriber sales. May have a few benefactors.
- Compensation: No. Do not compensate their writers but may hold fee-funded contests. Are volunteer run.
- Timeliness: No. Are usually inflexible, but better run publications can plan ahead well and solicit appropriate pieces.
- Nurturing: No. Consider it an important part of their mission to participate in literary field events but do not yet have the resources (especially time) to manage something themselves.
Established publications, such as Tin House, the Missouri Review, the Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, and McSweeney’s, are where the average reader is most likely to find new, good writing; where the average writer is to find the most competition; and where the average editor and donor are to find the most gratification.
- Age: >5 years old.
- Independence: Partial. Large subscriber base, often a board of trustees, staff member dedicated to fundraising. Breakeven budgets and university sponsorship is common; both make for little peace of mind.
- Compensation: Yes. Compensates writers but may still be all-volunteer run.
- Timeliness: Yes. Tradition of regular publishing cycles allows for advance planning. Strong, long-term relationships with individual writers allows for timely solicitation of needed pieces.
- Nurturing: Partial. Can and does hold readings and release parties in home city and region. Staff runs workshops at parent institutions, with the editor-in-chief often holding a full-time faculty position. No money, however, for festivals or scholarships, unless, in the latter case, a donor provides specific funds.
Institutional publications are very few in the literary field. Granta, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the Paris Review . . . are there many others? These are the kinds of publications that, were they to stop publishing tomorrow, would leave a distinct gap in the way the literary world understands itself. Were Ploughshares to move from Boston to Washington, Boston would feel a small twinge of pain; when the Atlantic announced just that, Boston felt punched in the gut, losing an institution with which it had shared so much history.
- Age: >15 years old.
- Independence: Full. Very large subscriber base; a board of active, devoted trustees; full-time professional staff; diverse pool of donors. Financially independent.
- Compensation: Yes. Compensates writers well. Staff compensation rates vary but exists.
- Timeliness: Yes. Planning happens months, sometimes a year or more, in advance. Highly professionalized staff means quick adjustments to events and fast turnaround of everything except fiction submissions, which number in the thousands.
- Nurturing: Yes. Is the beacon to which the literary world looks for worldwide sustenance. Especially with festivals, institutional sponsorship allows people from around the world to share in common literary values. Size sometimes gets in the way of more personal ventures, but institution-publication events are affirmations of the literary life and of the institution itself.
I call these “rankings,” but really they are steps, rather like how athletes play their sport in high school, in college, and professionally, with only a small percentage making it from one level to another. For the here-and-now, it’s useful to know which publication falls where. But let no one forget that there’s another George Plimpton out there somewhere, just waiting to turn his “vanity” publication into the next Paris Review.