The Onion false hope

The Atlantic has just run an excellent, very detailed piece by Joy Lanzendorfer on the growing trend of established literary magazines charging reading fees. Concurrently, The Onion has just opened a can of Grade A jibes all over the MFA in Creative Writing industry (see picture above). From different directions, both raise some interesting questions about the way the writer’s traditional path to publication is going. Increasingly, this looks like the new vanity press.

Lanzendorfer rightly points out that reading fees are “nonexistent in the rest of publishing, where it’s always been free for writers to send their work to editors. In fact, literary agents who charge reading fees are usually considered shady, and writers are warned to stay away. But over the last few years, more and more literary journals have started charging fees.” She does enlarge on the impact this has on inclusion. “It’s fine to charge fees if you’re targeting mostly white, male writers who went to elite schools and who have a financial safety net. It’s not so great if you want to hear from the single mom working two jobs who writes poetry at night.” But she also notes that: “the major reason literary journals charge fees has less to do with money, and more to do with the enormous number of submissions they receive. Around the country, MFA programs are graduating people who want to be writers, so they submit creative writing to literary journals. The journals, with small staffs and minuscule budgets, are overwhelmed.”

All those traditional publishing complaints about the self-publishing/online writing slushpile rather get thrown into perspective by this development. If Lanzendorfer is correct, hopeful online writers haven’t made one bit of difference to the practices of literary journals. The MFA industry has. Time and again, writers and others involved in the book world have complained about it. And here’s one evidence of it doing actual harm and penalizing poorer writers.

There is a massive problem of felt entitlement around MFA programs, as has been chronicled at length. The problem is clearly not being helped by the fact that there’s an alternative path to writing success that MFA participants are apparently ignoring. Yes, jump into the online writing/self-publishing slush pond. You may be drowning in a pool of talentless peers, and struggling to get your head above the general level, but know what? Looks like exactly the same will apply in MFA programs these days. So much so that literary journals are effectively putting up paywalls to make you stay away. At least the internet doesn’t do that.

But it doesn’t confer an obvious qualification and other snob value brownie points either. An MFA does. Publication in an accredited literary journal, of course, also confers snob value. And this is snob value you pay for. Why wouldn’t you? It carries the Jonathan Franzen Seal of Approval.

Chris Meadows ran a couple of insightful pieces on how The Martian went from self-published surprise hit to Ridley Scott movie script. And the problem of snobbery that still lingers despite such breakout successes. The hidden, prejudiced assumption he cites there is that “self-publishing was vanity publishing.” Well, despite the work of Penguin Random House and Author Solutions, it now looks as though the equation has been turned on its head.

Snob writers from snob backgrounds are now paying snob fees for snob credentials and the snob kudos of proper publication in real literary journals. Not for them the sordid smut of a Fifty Shades-style popular success. They aspire to higher things, with real publication, on paper. After all, that’s what they paid for.

The Onion’s piece concludes: “The professor added that his efforts have yielded some notable results, asserting that a number of his most deluded former students have gone on to humiliating, short-lived attempts at writing careers.” As so often, that sting in the tail comes perilously close to being the painful truth. Should you really stick to that time-honored route of publication in distinguished literary journal, followed by call from an agent, followed by a printed paper book? Get over it, and go online instead.

(Author disclaimer: I do realize there are some fine MFA programs out there, producing some fine writers. However, for anyone tempted to go that route, take a good hard and discriminating look at what you’re buying into, and an equally hard look at yourself and your work, and ask whether you’re not better off saving your time and money, and just taking it online.)


  1. “It’s fine to charge fees if you’re targeting mostly white, male writers who went to elite schools…”

    In other words, the audience of literary journals is not their readers, but the writers they publish? Which presumably makes the readers into the *product* sold to the aforementioned audience? That sounds disturbingly familiar… and damning. It’s the same inversion that happened in other media due to advertising, and we all know how things are going in that department.

    Is it time to “ad-block” traditionally published writers?

  2. The key attribute of Vanity Presses is that they (primarily) make their money off the authors, not off book sales.
    Literary magazines tend to have limited distribution so it wouldn’t take much for reading fees to go from cost amelioration to profit center. That doesn’t look like a slippery slope so much as a cliff; it they aren’t there yet they aren’t far from it. They may not even notice what they’ve become until it’s too late.

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