Editors at publishing houses, big and small, often suggest submitting to literary journals as a way to start getting your work published. What they don’t tell you is the game is fixed. Your chances of getting selected are very, very slim.
Many journals have guest editors who invite authors to submit stories or poems for each edition. This whittles down your chances even more. I read an interesting article in the Atlantic about these journals and how they’ve degenerated over the decades. They rarely pay the author anymore when a story is accepted, but instead give a one or two year subscription to some of the most pretentious and boring writing ever committed to paper. The writing is chock full of what David Foster Wallace called linguistic calisthenics. A brief aside: Sad the guy killed himself. Not only for the obvious reason but because the faults he was starting to recognize in his own writing (short on any true feeling, trying too hard to be clever or avant garde) applies to so much contemporary writing (painting too); and he had a platform big enough for people to listen. I’m going to have to give Infinite Jest a try, and I’m hoping it lives up to its reputation. And, at any rate, all my favorite writers, with the exception of Houellebecq, are dead, so maybe I’ll be able to add him to the list. Man, that even sounds morbid to me! And I wrote it!
Back to the article in the Atlantic. The woman who wrote the article (a published author, by the way) contended that the whole thing with these journals has degenerated into a revenue generating scheme. Submittable may only charge 3 dollars per entry, but most authors will shotgun their work to as many as 20 or 30 journals, so that their outlay is 60 to 90 bucks per story or poem. She contends correctly that that is a hardship for many young, struggling writers and may push out a good writer who knows the odds are against him, especially if he travels outside the creative writing crowd of the university system. And don’t forget, many of these journals have a very small readership; so, even if accepted, very few people are reading your story or poem. But if you do decide to give it whirl, let me make a few suggestions:
1- Be pretentious, the more the better. I can’t stress this enough.
2- Clever, clever and more clever! Clever in your use of simile and metaphor and clever in your phrasing. C’mon, I want to hear the gears turning in that head of yours. Don’t worry if the simile makes no sense or is arbitrary, just so long as it’s clever. An example from a recent, trashy best seller: “The corned beef sandwich was pink and overstuffed like a wedding invitation.” Maybe I get invited to the wrong weddings or order the wrong corned beef sandwiches, but that simile couldn’t be more contrived.
3- Self-righteous moralizing on social or political issues is a big plus. Try to do this with issues such as race, gender bias or bullying. You can try to be subtle but don’t worry about getting too heavy handed with the messaging; they love that stuff. This is particularly true when submitting to literary journals associated with Universities. By the way, I’m not saying racism, gender bias and bullying are OK, I’m just saying don’t hit me over the head with it; unless you’re submitting to a journal, then by all means–go for it.
4- Be politically correct! Again, this is particularly important when submitting to university journals. I know–there is no such thing as a politically correct artist. If you’re concerned about political correctness, then you’re not an artist. I hear you. But hey, fuck that! Do you want to be an artist or do you want to get published? Imagine if political correctness had a stranglehold on past generations. I can hear Manet now, ” Hey Degas, maybe it would be better if I painted some clothes on my Olympia.” Or Henry Miller, “Hey Anais, I better clean this Tropic of Cancer up!” Of course, today it’s OK to throw some sex into your writing. That way you can appear to be politically incorrect without really being so. Just make sure it doesn’t sound too misogynistic. It’s tricky but if you cross that line, all hell will break loose.
5- In the bio section, mention that you have an MFA in creative writing from somewhere, even if you don’t. Trust me on this. Do you really think they check that shit?
6- And don’t worry if the arc of the plot seems preposterous and unrealistic. As long as it’s pretentious, politically correct and clever, you’ll be fine.
Well, I hope this helps. Good Luck!