My dealings with UK literary magazines

I like the world of literary magazines. I submit and subscribe to many and have access to more at the University Library and local bookshops. In this piece I'd like to cover the progress of these magazines over the last decade, not in a comprehensive way but through my dealings with them, mostly in the form of rejection slips.

My first accepted story appeared during 1986 in Momentum, a small A5 magazine run by Wrexham Writers Workshop that lasted 11 issues or so. Summit by Coventry Writers came and went at about the same time. Such magazines (that begin small but aspire to greater things) no longer exist. On a glossier scale but in the same era was Jennings. Whether they accepted a piece or not the 3 editors cluttered an A4 page with entertaining comments. It paid, as did Dream, an SF magazine that encouraged reader participation. I treasure a readers' voting table from 1987 which puts a story of mine 4th and one of Stephen Baxter (1996 Arthur C. Clarke prize winner) 14th. They've all gone, along with newer publications like Raconteur and the revived Words International, each of which appeared in newsagents/bookshops and lasted about 2 years. Looking back through early contents pages of these defunct prose magazines one sees now familiar names like Sophie Hannah. It's hard to see where budding prose writers can begin nowadays. Perhaps the genre magazines offer a stepping stone. In its time as a quarterly the SF magazine Interzone published Angela Carter as well as many newcomers. Now it's a monthly also available at newsagents with over 110 issues to its credit. It's a quality publication which has taken care to grow slowly while others have grown too quickly and burst. They sometimes sent me 2 page rejections slips.

I started subscribing to Panurge with issue 2. The editors always replied with a comments or two, even when the stories didn't deserve it. Comments like "all the best and stick at it" helped. I finally got published there not long before it folded in 1995. Jon Murray in the final issue wrote "for a 25 hour week rising to 50 hours near publication date, I pay myself a wage of 11 pounds a week." He was getting 4000 submissions a year in the end. Its departure (and that of Metropolitan which ceased publication for similar reasons in 1997 after 10 issues) leaves a gap in the market. Quartos and Acclaim merged into The New Writer. Granta's been closed to newcomers for quite a while. From them I got my most irritating rejection - "in its own right it is very good work, unfortunately it's not right for Granta right now", supporting Jon Murray's view that Bill Buford never accepted anything from the slush pile no matter how excellent his colleagues thought it. Of course, since few prose contributors can appear per issue, it's hard to hold on to subscribing writers. I think a prose magazine needs at least a letters page so that more subscribers can see their names in print. As well as satisfying readers' egos, magazines must satisfy their tastes. Whereas a poetry magazine has a good chance of having something for everyone, a magazine with half a dozen stories might satisfy too few readers. This in part explains why genre magazines like Interzone which cater for narrower audience have a better chance of survival than general fiction publications. Editors of prose magazines have said that distribution via highstreet outlets is difficult, which was why the later issues of Panurge were disguised as books, a trend that other magazines would do well to follow. In January 1998, World Wide Writers appeared, looking much like Raconteur. Its awareness of the WWW must just aid its longevity.

My first poetry acceptance was in Folio International in the late 80's. It was one of several magazines whose demise closely followed my appearance in them. There's quite a rapid turn-around at the lower or more radical end. Even excluding these there are poetry magazines to suit all tastes - the market's glutted. In contrast with the US there are few UK University-based magazines - Cambridge is especially lacking. The austere but worthy Poetry Durham wound up 3 years ago. Oxford Poetry stopped last year, leaving Thumbscrew as Oxford's only poetry magazine. Verse is now US-based but under Robert Crawford was open to all. His "could you send us some more please" made up for many disappointments. Along with the Honest Ulsterman and Rialto it gave one the chance to rub shoulders with big names (I've been with Les Murray and R.S. Thomas). Other Poetry (revived after a few year's rest), Smith's Knoll and Seam are well edited by established poets, showing that new magazines can emerge. Orbis, Envoi (115+ issues), Poetry Nottingham (150+ issues) and Weyfarers (75+ issues) have been going for decades. Weyfarers rotates editorship. The others, for periods at least, have been decisively led. Iota, with nearly 40 issues under its belt, is small but action packed and keeps arriving on time. I suspect that many of its subscribers have appeared in it. This was the approach of Outposts before Roland John took it upmarket so that it looked like Agenda but it seems to have lost its grassroots support. Perhaps that's deserted to the emerging, populist Forward Press titles like Poetry Now and Rhyme Arrival, which are the largest circulation, non-funded poetry magazines in Great Britain. In quality Poetry Review and PN Review lead the field. Competition at this level is intense. Poetry Review get 30,000 poems a year of which they print 120. They seem to reply ever more quickly and decisively to my submissions.

A few poetry magazines (Smith's Knoll for instance) contain nothing but poetry. Others, especially the more frequent ones, have articles, reviews and encourage reader participation through letters. Acumen is like PN Review in this respect but more readable. Some magazines go further still, attempting to cover both poetry and prose. Stand and London Magazine keep going, maintaining high standards on very different budgets. The recently deceased Iron was lively and variagated. The North is too. Both have publishing arms. Staple is still going strong and is perhaps the most under-estimated of the magazines here. I'm surprised that they don't attract bigger names. It prints only poetry and stories. They pay, and they're now producing about a book a year. There are dangers that a magazine becomes too much of a publicity leaflet for the press. I think Staple's free of that but I was worried to read in Gortschacher's book (p. 644) that in a sample of PN Review's he'd read, 39% of the poets had been published by the related Carcanet press.

Editors tend to be mature males - people with time and money. Sometimes their pre-occupations show through in their choices (lots of parents dying, children leaving home, etc). Most of them are poets whose work appears in other magazines. From what I've seen, they are a sincere, committed and enormously dedicated bunch. With annual turnover of subscribers sometimes as high as 40%, the struggle for survival is endless. I feel more sympathetic towards them the more I hear how strange some writers are. One of their motivations is to have a piece accepted in yearly anthologies. Both the various Best Short Stories anthologies and the Forward Book of Poetry perform the role that the US equivalents do, though we have no equivalent of the Pushcart Prizes especially for small press publications. Editors are so often on a hiding to nothing. Misprints are one danger - few magazines send out proofs. One of my poems contained 3 misprints, including a missed "not" in the final statement. Some editors go to the trouble of commenting on rejected poems - a well meaning but dangerous practise since the volume of submissions (there's often well over 50 times more submissions than space) means that editors sometimes miss the obvious. A few editors ask for changes. One editor suggested the removal of 2 verses. I fought him down to one. The poem's better than it was originally.

With the emergence of the WWW as a publishing medium I can't see the paper market expanding. Besides, I think there are enough poetry magazines on paper already. Perhaps fiction magazines will have more of a chance on the WWW, where editors won't have expense as a constraint on space, and reader's feedback can be rapidly added. Otherwise I can't see much hope for new fiction writers in any medium.

Notes


Updated April 2001
Tim Love

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