Orca Blog for August: Under the Radar: Some (Other) Journals That Put Writing First

I did not submit my fiction to literary journals for a long time. Maybe a year. I used to, much to my present embarrassment, seek out those journals that might be good for the resume, put me on the literary map, boost my career, whatever you want to call it—all that egocentric bullshit on which such journals lean and which exact from sincere writers their hopes, their dreams, and quite often their cash.

Not so this time.

Lately in my submission travels I’ve begun to pay closer attention to the focus and quality of the journals where I send my work. I’ve discovered something interesting, a countertrend, a comment on the state of literary journals. There is, flying just beneath the journal world’s radar, a small group of publications that honor the writing over the writer, the opposite of what seems popular in the mainstream. It’s writing for writing’s sake, poetry in prose, a breathtaking use of language that takes a reader out of her existence for a while, and allows her to live another’s life, and honestly experience how people connect to other people.

Instead of groups, or tropes, or stereotypes, this writing deals with singular people, people more curious about what it is to be a person than a member of a culture or a political movement. Not that politically-motivated writing has no place in literature; it always has. But it has never before tried to drown out other good writing with accusations of privilege, as though its practitioners have lost respect for what has come before.

Never before has political writing abandoned its goals in favor of its deeds. (The same could be said of current politics—one problem with both populism and activism is that they tend to disregard the good in their obsessive search for the righteous.)

I resist that trend.

And so, it seems, do these small, obscure literary journals. I’ve begun to compile a list of venues whose editors’ values seem similar to mine, where the stories published make me wish I had written them. None of them pay. They don’t spend a lot of time online in self-promotion. Most likely none will get me or my writing noticed. Their editors are clearly publishing them for the other, more traditional joys of writing: great language, imagination, empathy…

Here are some journals I admire. You won’t find any of the usual suspects here. I hope to keep adding to the list.

I was fortunate, a few weeks ago, to have a story accepted by Bell Ombre—a story I originally wrote several years ago—one that was rejected many dozens of times by those other places, and of which I recall a gallery of confused faces and reactions when I presented it to a writers’ class. You’ve heard that kind of vague, patronizing commentary, I’m sure: “It’s well written, but I didn’t understand…the stakes/character’s choices/point of view/whatever.” (I’ve learned to tune out critiques that begin with, “It’s well written…” I know what comes next.)

Seeing that story accepted, knowing that some editors understood the language and the intent, is no small measure of vindication.

Discovering these new journals tells me there is another movement going on, separate from the ones that dominate the literary space. A quiet one, lest those Jacobins of popular culture get wind of what they’re doing and try to silence them. It’s an undercurrent keeping alive what writing can be, a pulse to let the literary world know that the sentence—the beautifully crafted sentence, the one that floors you with its intelligence—is not dead.

I hope to make Orca that kind of journal, too.


PS: I am my writing. My writing is not me. If you agree, please submit to us.

*PPS: I find The Buenos Aires Review so impressive that I cannot summon the courage to submit to them. And sadly, the staff at Skidrow Penthouse has decided to cease production.

– JP