Roxanne Gay recently agonized over the profusion of literary magazines available to too few readers:
One of the primary challenges with getting people to buy magazines is that there are too many. It’s not that magazines aren’t doing great work or that editors aren’t marketing their product well or that they haven’t found the right price point or whatever magical solution we’re all desperately searching for. People want to read the exciting work in Magazines A, B, C, D, E, F, and G through Z but it’s not financially feasible to subscribe to all those magazines and there’s so much noise that it’s hard to find a way of saying that Magazine P is worth buying over Magazine V. . . .
The same problem exists with books, something that the closing of Borders only reinforces:
People milled about the store like buzzards feasting on a carrion and hey, I was there too, looking for bargains. . .As I looked around the store, even in it’s diminished capacity, I thought, “This is too much.” How could anyone possibly know what to read in that store swollen with books, too many of them mediocre? How could any reading experience be meaningful amidst so many choices?
I certainly agree that "too many" of the books available in most bookstores--even the beloved "independent" stores-- are "mediocre," but I have to say I also think too many, probably even a majority, of the fiction published in literary magazines (A-Z) is mediocre as well. If there is a source of the feeling there are too many magazines publishing more fiction than anyone could possibly read, it is here, in the stuffing of literary magazines with stories few will read because they aren't really worth reading, are most likely being published because the authors need the credits to keep their creative writing teaching jobs, just as most of the magazines exist in the first place to bestow such credits.
I realize this is a harsh assessment, but it seems to me that anyone truly interested in addressing the oversupply problem Roxanne Gay has honestly described needs first of all to acknowledge my assessment isn't completely inaccurate. There is sometimes "exciting work" to be found in many literary magazines--and not just the most well-known--but the real problem is being able to keep track of that exciting work in the midst of so much that is just perfunctory. Literary magazines have historically played an important role in maintaining the vitality of American fiction and poetry, and they need to continue playing that role. However, for that to happen their mission must first of all be to provide a place for the publication of potentially significant additions to literature, not of routine, indifferent work by instructors wanting tenure or aspiring "authors" whose fondest wish is to "be published" rather than to write interesting poetry and fiction.
Gay wonders whether the underlying problem is that "everyone wants to be an editor." Starting up a new magazine and publishing worthy writers seems a noble calling, never mind the difficulties of actually getting your magazine into the hands (or on the screens) of actual readers, and so there is a lot of starting-up and not enough following-through.
Another magazine where the editors don’t know how they’re going to fund each print issue? Are these magazines, multiplying exponentially, really going to offer something we’ve never seen before? Is becoming an editor really that important?
I would suggest instead that editors and would-be editors are making a mistake by not including more literary criticism among the contents of their journals. A few magazines run a few book reviews in a given issue, but these reviews tend to be relatively brief, short on analysis and long on boosterism. It is understandable that reviewers in such a context would want to reinforce a sense of literary community, but finally that is precisely the biggest problem: Literary magazines may be the only remaining site of what could be called a common literary culture, and one wants to encourage and cultivate that culture, but not at the expense of a frank estimation of practices and achievements. The current situation, in which academics no longer engage in "mere" evaluation and appraisal, and in which newspaper and magazine reviewing is becoming more and more cursory when it isn't simply disappearing, in my opinion no longer makes it acceptable for literary magazines to blunt a necessary critical edge.
It seems to me that literary culture is just as likely to wither away through the neglect of impartial, substantive criticism as it is through the oversupply (or undersupply) of literary magazines per se. Without it, literary works just get folded into the "entertainment culture," and since poetry and serious fiction cannot hope to compete with most of the other choices offered by this culture, it is permanently marginalized, without even the lingering respect conferred by tradition. Without conscientious criticism, which goes beyond making superficial judgments of value and attempts to explain, describe, interpret, works of literature disappear into the undifferentiated mass at which Roxanne Gay despairs.
Why couldn't literary magazines include such criticism as part of their effort to maintain a literary culture? Surely one or two substantial book reviews and/or an essay on a contemporary writer or work wouldn't deprive many deserving stories or poems of their space. Such criticism might even make that space seem more valuable. Perhaps an especially intrepid editor might invite a critical examination of one or more of the "creative" contributions in the present, or a past, issue. Beyond helping readers make specific decisions about what to read and appropriate discriminations in what they have read, critical contributions like this might help readers understand why what they read is important, why continuing to publish and read literary magazines is important. They might help to reduce the noise.