Before their bylines become household names, many now-revered writers first found acclaim in the pages of small literary magazines. Sylvia Plath’s early work was published in Granta in England, as was AA Milne’s. Over in France, and later in New York, the editors of the Paris Review were among the first to celebrate Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth—in between raucous, legendary parties.
In 1985, an editor of The Missouri Review published a story by a little-known Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature three years later.
The Believer’s first issue gained them a bevy of followers for an essay criticizing the snark of book reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere, and for an interview with Jack White of the White Stripes that explored his early career as an upholsterer.
Today, there are hundreds of literary magazines to choose from, many of which are published only online. (Others refuse to bow to technology and haven’t made the digital transition.) Here are five magazines that appreciate their literary past and can surely see the future.
In this digitally distracted age, Quick Fiction is the perfect way to consume literature, as it offers complete narratives in 500 words or less.
The form, often called “flash fiction,” “micro fiction,” or the form of “short shorts” is an arguably recent form that has become popular in recent years, particularly as MFA programs across the country begin to offer specialized classes.
Founded in 2002 by husband-and-wife team Jen and Adam Pieroni, the adorable Quick Fiction, about the size of a CD case, publishes such luminaries of the form as Steve Almond, Ron Carlson, Pam Painter, Stephen Dixon, and James Tate.
It’s hard to describe exactly what’s inside an issue of Quick Fiction: stories that crackle and pop, that move toward the unexpected and mysterious—from explaining a torturer’s mindset to a woman’s memories of making an alphabet of nude bodies—more akin to a sonnet in some cases than to a short story.
Read one of these quick hits, Why I Said No.
Literary magazines don’t have to be heavy to pack a punch. One Story’s light and frequent format – it publishes one story every three weeks -- makes it a joy to read. This unique format means you can read the whole magazine in a single sitting, and the lack of distracting material around the pieces makes each jewel of prose shine.
Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti’s undeniable knack for editing and her impeccable taste have earned the magazine a Pushcart, O. Henry, or Best American award, or some combination thereof, every year since 2004.
Founded in 2002, One Story publishes work by well-known and first-time authors. The then-little-known John Hodgman appeared in One Story’s first issue in 2002; Gregory Maguire of Wicked fame wrote for issue 4, and literary superstar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also ended up in One Story early on in her career.
It’s not just the size that makes the journal approachable—the stories published are powerful, absorbing, and they have range. The December 2008 double-issue contained Archangel, by noted short-story writer Andrea Barrett, which is the tale of a WWI medical technician stationed in Northern Russia. In contrast, a writer’s first published story, Safe Passage, in which she imagined a giant cruise ship populated by post-mortem grandmas, debuted in last year’s July issue.
Read an excerpt from Safe Passage by Ramona Ausubel.
The title of this journal is a geeky math joke, meant to respond to the grad-school induced idea that intellectual history was over. As Marco Roth, one of its editors put it, “We thought, ‘no, there’s plus one.’”
A group of friends who met each other in Harvard undergrad and Yale PhD programs, including novelists Benjamin Kunkel and Keith Gessen, founded the magazine, which includes cultural commentary, reviews, fiction, and poetry that are unapologetically highbrow, in a good way.
Recent issues have included work on current events, like interviews with anonymous hedge-fund managers about the financial collapse, as well as the events of yesteryear, like Wesley Yang’s feature on the Virginia Tech shooter’s troubled relationship with his poems and other writings. The last issue featured a particularly interesting discussion on whether the environmental movement is using the Bush administration’s same fear tactics to scare the world into conservation.
As for the actual literature, it can be edgy. The magazine recently ran an excerpt of a souped-up version of Italo Calvino’s postmodern tome If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but it was liberally sprinkled with pop-culture references and drug-riddled emails. Plus, it teaches the reader Arabic. The experimental unpublished novel was co-written by novelist Helen DeWitt and Australian journalist Ilya Gridneff.
From thoughts on Roberto Bolano to fiction from Tashkent, read these blurbs from n+1.
Subscribe to n + 1.
The Believer offers fascinating cultural detritus, including reviews and poetry as well as deliberately untimely features and interviews of uncommon depth.
Vendela Vida, Heidi Julavits and Ed Park met in the mid-1990s at Columbia's MFA program and founded The Believer in 2003 to highlight overlooked authors and give writers, musicians, philosophers and ninjas the chance to talk about their work while not on tour for their most recent projects.
Their first issue gained them a bevy of followers for an essay criticizing the snark of book reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere, and for an interview with Jack White of the White Stripes that explored his early career as an upholsterer.
Design buffs love the ‘zine for its cover artwork by graphic novelist Charles Burns, and its thick beige paper gives it a delightful feel in the hands.
Offering nine issues a year, three of them themed double-issues focusing on film, music or art, The Believer is the place to find reviews of overlooked books, features on infiltrating anarchist training camps, and interviews with legendary writers and editors like Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish.
Read this rant, The Curse of the Spurned Hippie, by Steven G. Kellman
Subscribe to The Believer.
Subtropics is the most traditional literary magazine on this list. A young anthology-style magazine put out by the University of Florida and helmed by novelist and short-story writer David Leavitt, Subtropics has managed to distinguish itself by the quality of its work.
The journal began with a bang, featuring work by famed writers John Barth, Harold Bloom, Ariel Dorfman, and Les Murray in its first issue (Winter/Spring 2006).
Leavitt says there’s nothing like publishing a writer he’s just discovered though, like James Magruder’s short story in the current issue, which is about two boys’ doomed efforts to build a sugar cube version of Tenochtitlan. There’s a wide variety of poetry, from Jehanne Dubrow’s verses, written in the persona of “nonexistent” Yiddish poet Ida Lewin, to Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh’s poem “237 More Reasons to Have Sex” (reason 156: “A Kawasaki wasn’t enough to help me through my mid-life crisis.").
Although you can’t find much current content for this magazine online, here is a short piece from an older issue.
Subscribe to Subtropics.
Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Beast . She also edits the lit-mag Fringe and is at work on a narrative nonfiction book about Live Action Role Play, or LARP.