There is a good crop of literary journals in Australia at the moment, from stalwarts like Meanjin, the Griffith Review and Overland to newer projects like The Lifted Brow, Stilts, and the Review of Australian Fiction, and many in between. Some, like Voiceworks, have a particular brief (to publish young writers). These can be proving grounds for the next generation of authors.
Young and emerging writers often see literary journals as the traditional path to publishing a full-length book. This kind of publication can be a great help when applying for grants or sending work to publishers. Publishers like to know that a writer has a history and has been working hard to build their audience over time. But journals do much more than just provide a line on your CV.
A publication in a literary journal is often the first time a writer has contact with a professional editor. As fiction editor at Overland, I’m always conscious of the role that I can play in offering the kind of editorial process that will encourage talented writers to develop their skills and focus their strengths (I found this process invaluable in my own early career as a writer). Professionalism at this stage will keep editors on side.
Apart from the anthology and the occasional place in a newspaper or magazine, the literary journal is where short stories find their home in Australia. This can be a blessing and a curse for writers who focus their talents on short fiction. Ideally, the forms of short fiction and poetry are nourished by literary journals, not restrained by them. More and more single-author collections are being published now, which is a good sign for lovers of short fiction. But reading literary journals is still by far the best way to get a sense of the movements in contemporary Australian writing.
Lit mags are embracing the digital age much faster than traditional publishers, with more journals being more widely read online and on devices – a short story is always in your pocket. There are a bewildering array of small journals and delivery systems, so it’s important to do your research (read and subscribe!) and find out which projects publish the kind of work that excites you as a writer. Most of the journals have a strong social media presence and encourage debate. It’s easy for readers to get involved in discussions and share what they’re reading. A lot of non-fiction finds an audience in this way.
The best lit mags create a community around which writers can build their audience and stretch their skills. This kind of community can be very nourishing for a writer at all stages of their career, encouraging them to take risks and experiment, and offsetting the isolation of writing practice. Smart writers want more than just an audience; they want to be part of a community of engaged readers. That means reading!