Blog, Bookish Life, Social Justice

Literary Magazines Still Grapple with a Lack of Diversity


literary magazine stack

As a freelancer, every day is a new adventure. Depending upon which deadlines I’m juggling, I engage in a mix of research, Zoom interviews, brainstorming, pitching, writing, and yes, let’s be real, scrolling through my Instagram feed. But now that I’m an editor at a literary magazine (a magazine devoted to creative, hoity-toity, literary writing like short stories, poetry, and essays), my Friday mornings are devoted to The Queue.

Every Friday morning, I log into Submittable and check out the status of the submissions I’ve already assigned to members of my reading panel. I look at the mix of votes on each piece (yes/no/maybe) and read the feedback readers have left. I read those pieces that have risen to the top and, whenever I can, I send constructive feedback to writers based upon the comments from my reading panel and upon my own reading. Then, I assign the reading panel a new batch of submissions.

Meanwhile, I maintain a spreadsheet of the pieces I’m seriously considering for publication in the magazine. There are always more pieces I love than I actually have room for. But the spreadsheet helps me ensure I put together an issue that has a healthy mix of subject matter, voice, and tone. And while this spreadsheet fills me with angst (why can’t I publish eeeeeveryone???), it also fills me with glee. I get excited to work with writers on developing their pieces. It feels like a gift to help them accomplish their goals with a piece. To make sure they’re telling the story they want to tell. It feels like a gift to be a part of that.

When I was asked to be an editor for the magazine, I had only been a part of the community for five years. I’d had a piece accepted by the magazine in early 2016. Five months later, I attended their conference. Soon after, I volunteered to be a part of the reading panel. By the following year, I was presenting at the conference. Promoting my book. Making the writer friends who would eventually keep me sane — albeit virtually — during the pandemic. In what felt like a short amount of time, these people and this organization became an essential part of my life.

Still, the magazine was grappling with the same problem most other magazines were grappling with. Both at the conference and on the website, most of the faces one saw were cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual white ladies, myself included. How could we showcase a wider range of voices and, more than that, how could we make our community one that felt welcoming and safe for a wider range of people?

The Literary World’s Diversity Problem

The headline of this post feels obvious. Publishing has long upheld whiteness (particularly the white male) as the norm. Meanwhile, it’s treated other voices as, well, Other.

The world of literary magazines is a microcosm of this, so much so that, in 2010, a small group of women created VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (VIDA). Initially, the group — and their annual count — were intended to “further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture.” They did this by counting out the percentage of women’s voices represented in major literary magazines and book reviews. In 2016, they expanded the VIDA Count to include numbers on race and ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and ability.

With these numbers impossible to ignore, the number of thinkpieces on how to create greater diversity and inclusivity in publishing increased. What were the existing barriers to inclusivity? What did we need to do?

What Are the Barriers to Inclusivity in Literary Magazines?

A lot of the early conversations around the lack of diversity in literary magazines revolved around blind submissions. For those not in the know, a “blind” submission is one that does not reveal to editors or readers the name or background of a writer. This is typically accomplished by keeping a writer’s cover letter separate from the submission itself, and asking that the writer not include their name or other identifying information in the file containing their piece. The logic behind blind submissions is that it allows one to read a piece without being swayed by their own biases toward gender, professional background, personal connection, etc.

But recent discourse has questioned the effectiveness of blind submissions in ensuring a more level playing field for writers. After all, we have been trained to value certain types of writing over others — certain stylistic flourishes and narrative structures — and this training is grounded in an inherently white supremacist system. If readers and editors are evaluating submissions based upon this inherent bias toward certain types of writing, blind submissions won’t solve anything.

Then there are the submission fees, a practice that has only increased with the advent of Submittable and other submission management platforms. And sure, many literary magazines struggle to stay afloat, employing volunteer-only skeleton crews, putting all their money into production and, well, Submittable. But as those $3+ submission fees add up, they act as another form of gatekeeping. Publishing is a numbers game and writers are rewarded by sending out ever more pitches and submissions. But when writers have to spend money each time they send out a new submission, they are limited in the scope of their reach by their financial resources.

Beyond these forms of gatekeeping, many literary magazines just don’t seem welcoming to writers who are not themselves highly educated white males. Masthead after masthead shows this. Issues and archives show this. If writers don’t see themselves in the pages of a magazine, they may be less inclined to submit their work in the first place.

What Needs to Change?

When I was asked to be the essays editor for Hippocampus Magazine, I was overcome with all the feels, but I also felt like part of the problem. As a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied woman, how could I promote inclusion in the mag?

The first thing I did was put out a call to expand my reading panel. “As Essays Editor, I work with my identity and experiences as a white cis woman behind me,” I wrote as part of one tweet thread. “And while my perspective has value, it’s also limited. Which is why I want a variety of perspectives on my team… people with different identities and experiences and backgrounds who can help me ensure that [the magazine] reflects the full spectrum of human truth.”

This call for panelists allowed me to build a team of readers who brought a variety of perspectives to their evaluations of writers’ work.

I also read books like Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World and Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, which helped me interrogate the biases I was carrying, and see how those biases might play out as I evaluated various submissions. And sure, these books examine the systemic issues within the academic workshop environment versus the literary magazine environment. But I found the lessons therein to also be applicable to how I approach the work I do at Hippocampus.

But attempts like these are only a start. Literary magazines should also consider including statements of inclusion within their mission statements and as part of their calls for submission. They should take the time to do focused outreach into various communities, reaching out directly to writers of varying backgrounds and experiences, becoming active in the literary communities that exist to increase diversity and inclusion. They should solicit folks of varying backgrounds and experiences for spots at the top of their masthead. And in working with writers, they should nurture and value writing that gives writers permission to write about something other than the thing that makes them feel othered.

Continuing Education

I’m just one white lady and I’m sure I’m making a ton of mistakes. But there are other groups out there working hard to change things for the better.

If you’re interested in supporting increased diversity and inclusion within the lit mag world, I encourage you to check out groups like VIDA and VONA (a longstanding multi-genre workshop for writers of color). I also encourage you to read those magazines that are devoted to showcasing diverse voices. The lit mag world is vast, but the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) maintains an ever-evolving list, and Chavez (author of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop) also offers a living document of places that platform writers of color. Scroll down to page 25 for a list of Online Publishing Platforms.

And I’d love to know which lit mags are ringing your bell.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, VQR, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of GuerrillaSexEd.org. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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