Dispatches | September 29, 2014

By Michael Nye

The literary magazine submission system is in full swing. While a few magazines open for submissions on August 1st or October 1st, the majority of magazines open up their submissions on September 1st. Many read until April or May of the following year, though a few will shut it down in December or January because it only takes four months to receive enough submissions to fill the forthcoming issues. By now, of course, you very likely know that The Missouri Review reads submissions all year round and currently our big focus is the Editors’ Prize, which has an October 1st deadline.

(hint: enter our Editors’ Prize!)

As with many literary magazines, our senior staff is comprised of writers, too. We also send out our stories, poems, and essays in the hope of finding a readership for our work. Fortunately for me, I’ve spent my last few months writing a novel, so the only thing that I have that is “short” is a novella that is over 20K. I think there are, I dunno, ten journals that would even consider a novella of that length.

But, I am working on a new story that I’m moderately happy with, which means, when I’m finished with it in the forthcoming weeks, I’ll need to look at the literary magazine scene and determine which magazine is the best for my work. Fire up the cover letter, hop on their Submission Manager, and send my story out into the world. How do I decide which journals to send my work to for publication?

There are a variety of factors that go into my decision. I think about the journals whose work I admire and whose work I read. I think about if my story fits their aesthetic, as this particular story I’m working on is a little bit different for me. I look up their reading period, their response time, limits on word count, and make sure everything is a good fit. Every writer has two or three journals that she/he would love to publish in, and those personal goals and aspirations are always a factor, too.

But there are two terrific journals I will never submit to: River Styx and Natural Bridge.

River Styx is an international, award-winning journal of poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, and art. A triannual publication with no university affiliation, the magazine is slim and elegantly designed, and has featured writers such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Ted Kooser, Lawrence Raab, and many others in its thirty plus years of publication. Natural Bridge, a journal of contemporary literature, is published twice per year at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and each issue is curated by a guest editor. Selections are made by the editorial assistants, who are comprised of graduate students at the university. The magazine is, like River Styx, a true miscellany, publishing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and translations. Basically, both are excellent, and any writer would be proud to have work published in either journal.

So why won’t I send them work? Because I used to work there.

My first experience working on a literary journal was as a graduate student making selections for Natural Bridge. Naturally, the current editorial assistants do not know who I am (and vice versa), so it really doesn’t matter if I send them work: my name means nothing to them. And, my first job as a managing editor was at River Styx, where I worked for almost five years. Richard Newman, the long time editor-in-chief, probably doesn’t care if I submit work either; I’ve been in the office when he’s turned down poems from poets whose work he really likes, poets he’s good friends with, and poets he respects. Neither magazine has guidelines on their website indicating they won’t consider work from previous editors, which is, of course, the prerogative of the current editorial staff. If I didn’t bring it up, they probably don’t think about it one way or the other.

Nonetheless, I think it’s inappropriate for me to send my work to those magazines. This is my choice. I don’t want to put those staffs in the position of having to consider work from someone they know worked there in the recent past. My position on this might be a bit over the top. It might then logically follow that I shouldn’t send work to any magazine where I was friends of, or friendly with, the editors. This would eliminate most magazines from my list. I know many literary magazine editors … and many of them have turned down my stories. And vice versa. It isn’t personal. That’s just how it goes.

In the grand scheme of things, this stance of mine probably doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot. That’s okay. The literary magazine world, and the large publishing world, has bigger fish to fry than whether or not we should send our writing to a place where we used to work (which is a cliché, but I’m hungry, and fish sounds tasty right now, so Imma leave it in…).

The reason I bring this up is to emphasis that as a writer and an editor, I have to have ethical standards for my work. All writers and editors do: take a spin around the web about quoting sources or “anonymous sources” and all that related material and you’ll find a wide spectrum of what is ethical, what is acceptable, in the world of journalism. Whatever your standards might be, you have to stick with them. No one else is going to police you. And it does matter: when you aim to publish your writing, you’re acting as a professional, and need to be one regardless of which side of the publishing wall you’re on.

Small stuff? Of course! But it’s all small stuff. The small stuff is what separates your work—whether it’s your writing or your magazine—from all the rest.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye