Lit Mags: Why’s Yours Better Than Mine?

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference—A three-day caffeine fueled convention where us new writers feel overwhelmed in a sea of established publications and end up leaving with an array of different literary magazines we had forgotten we even grabbed.

At your first AWP Conference you’re going to want to grab as many books and magazines as you can hold without thinking of how you’re going to bring them back home (and consequently making a Target run to buy a duffel bag for your new “souvenirs”). Will you actually end up reading all of these magazines? Of course not. Most of them will end up on your coffee table at home, sprawled out in a way that will make your guests feel like they’re around a real-life literary intellectual.

All of the magazines I picked up during my first AWP experience are interesting reads, but as everybody does, I have my favorites. As an editor of one of these magazines, I find myself very critical of others, as if mine is the best of all-time and everyone else should strive for the greatness of a state school’s magazine. Comparing them can seem almost impossible because every one has their own aesthetic and goal, but there are a few basics that every magazine should be judged on: length, genres, and quality of content. Although, no matter how high the magazine rates on those three scales, personal preference always reigns when deciding which one will be the number one, re-read cover to cover, all-time favorite.

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Thin Air Magazine—Volume 20: 7.5 out of 10 Folded Pages

Thin Air Magazine is run out of Flagstaff, Arizona. They have a total of eight editors and 30 editorial assistants, which is an overwhelming number of people working on a magazine that has just over 100 pages. The Northern Arizona University’s MFA Program publishes this magazine annually, as opposed to others who try to get editions out bi-annually, quarterly, or even monthly.

The hundred pages of this magazine hold 49 different pieces, which I would say makes this edition’s length short to medium, although since they only publish annually you’d think they would have a longer edition. However, being titled Thin Air Magazine, having a thinner volume can just be part of the aesthetic.

They don’t take much creative risk with the genres, only publishing the three basics: nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Art is not included, at least in this edition, which creates a monotonous yet solid look for the magazine. A quick flip through it only shows larger black text on yellow tinted pages, the only varying faction being the spacing on the pages of poetry. The prose was short and to the point, the longest piece being only eight pages long. This magazine is primarily filled by poetry with this genre having over 20 more pieces than fiction and nonfiction combined.

As for quality of content, I was greeted with writing that completely met my expectations for a magazine run by students in a Master’s Program. There were no plot holes in the prose, no convoluted or confusing poetry, and no major grammatical errors. Overall I felt that this magazine was a very standard literary magazine; it was accessible, easy to read, and contained some very interesting pieces of work.

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Whiskey Island Magazine—Issue 66: 6 out of 10 Folded Pages

Whiskey Island is a literary magazine that has been running for over thirty years from Cleveland State University. They only have five actual editors, but they have eight readers and four interns, which brings their staff total up to 17. They take submissions only two times during the year, August 15th—November 15th and January 15th—April 15th.

This magazine is more dense than the last, with a total of 135 pages. The 65 different pieces of work fit into this medium sized magazine nicely, with the poetry weaved in with the prose. The cover art is also very intriguing. It’s an intricate acrylic painting of a man (who somewhat resembles a zombie) from the neck up, opening his mouth, and a black and white bird is perched on his lower lip. The whole painting is done in greyscale, which gives the magazine an eerie vibe.

Other than the cover, there is no art in the magazine. The editors of Whiskey Island only publish fiction and poetry, creating a very slim window of pieces they will accept. The poetry overpowers the fiction in this edition, with 53 poems and only 10 fiction pieces. I personally love a good nonfiction piece, and the fact that there are none makes this edition feel like it’s missing something to me.

This magazine has some very different types of content. Most of the poetry was fairly easy to follow, and used the white space of the page very well. For the fiction, most of it wasn’t really my style of literature.  Most, if not all of the pieces were interesting and caught my attention, but I couldn’t personally get invested in any particular story enough to say that I truly liked it. Fortunately, a lot of people enjoy their types of fiction stories which is why the magazine is so popular when they publish issues.

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Front Porch Journal—Issue 31: 9 out of 10 Folded Pages

Front Porch is another one of the literary magazines I looked at while attending AWP. Similar to Thin Air Magazine, this journal is run by a group of students in an MFA program, but instead of Arizona, they’re based in Texas. They are an online-only magazine right now; partly to create a way for the authors whose work they publish to be able to share it with their friends and family easily, but also partly because of how expensive actually printing the magazines is.

For length, this edition published 21 different pieces, arranged in rows of three on their webpage. The genres are all mixed together, which means that if a reader was just trying to read all of the poetry pieces, they would still have to scroll through the whole issue. Each piece of work is accompanied by a square photo right above the title, some that are related to the piece of work (like a picture of the book for a book review, or a picture of the subject for an interview) and some are artist submissions.

Front Porch Journal publishes more than just a few genres, and have enough editors to make it work. They publish fiction, nonfiction, poetry, interviews, and book reviews, and art, even having a link on the bottom of their issue to read biographies about the artists who are featured. Each genre has an editor, plus they have two executive directors, two managing editors, a blog editor, a copy editor, a public relations manager, and an associate editor. Along with them, they have a number of student readers to help with choosing pieces for inquiry. Their decision to publish many different types of work makes their magazine a bit more broad, giving more people reason to read.

The quality of content in this magazine is very high. Each piece is looked over seriously before being accepted, and then thoroughly read and edited by the editor for that genre. Since their acceptance rate is so low (15-20 pieces accepted for every 150-200 submitted), they really only pick the work they believe is the best quality. Their interviews are straight forward, the reviews are informative, and I find their literary pieces to be thought provoking and exciting.

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Literary magazines come in all different forms—there’s no right way. The dedication spent making a magazine that keeps readers interested, helps new writers get their work seen, and has an editorial staff who love what they do, creates a space for artistic expression that cannot ever be measured by a scale.