What is a Literary Magazine?

Michael Pollick

A literary magazine, often called a "lit mag" in writing circles, is a publication focused primarily on forms of literary and visual art not always found in mainstream magazines. A literary magazine may choose to publish lesser-known works by an established author, or the best work by a promising unknown. A typical literary magazine may also publish interviews, book reviews, short stories, poetry, visual art prints and essays. Sponsorship and revenue for a literary magazine may come from a university, government grant programs or through subscriptions and advertising sales.

Literary magazines may publish lesser-known works of poetry.
Literary magazines may publish lesser-known works of poetry.

Because of its limited circulation and nominal market share, a literary magazine is also known in the publishing trade as a "little magazine." This is not a slight against the quality or artistic merit of a literary magazine, but it does separate the product of a small press from the large-scale print runs of a mainstream publication. A literary magazine's staff and contributors are often proud of this fact, since breaking into mainstream publication can be a very difficult and political process for fledgling writers. A literary magazine offers contributors a more accessible alternative to the often insular world of the mainstream press.

Literary magazines employ copy editors who read through manuscripts prior to publishing.
Literary magazines employ copy editors who read through manuscripts prior to publishing.

A number of famous writers and poets received their first publication credits in a literary magazine. For example, the poet T.S. Eliot's signature poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was first published in Poetry Magazine, a well-known but small literary magazine based out of Chicago, Illinois. Other authors began their professional careers as editors of their college's literary magazine or as regular contributors to an influential literary magazine such as the now-defunct The Hourglass, popular with writers of the 1920s.

A literary magazine today could literally be anything from a professionally printed and bound journal to a stack of photocopied pages held together with a staple and a prayer. Some literary magazines have succeeded in the mainstream publication world, such as Ploughshares and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Others have become a proving ground for emerging writers and poets around the world. The literary magazine world has also embraced the Internet, with literally hundreds of online publications and workshops dedicated to publishing promising (or occasionally not-so-promising) works by amateur or unestablished contributors.

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