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Why writers are parasites: A writer’s debt to the literary community

Once upon a time (actually, two times) I was the person who read your submission to a lit journal and decided yes, it was worth the fiction editor’s time or no, it started with an alarm clock going off so please no no no. I actually really liked reading the slush piles. It was a little power trip and also, for a brief period, one of the editors called me the ‘slush pile whisperer’, because everything I pushed to the second round made it into the book.

What I learned from reading the slush pile: people lie on their cover letters (I can use Google and no you weren’t in Glimmer Train), past performance was not a measure of future results (there was some stanky fiction coming from people with impressive pedigrees) and also, the submitters clearly weren’t reading the journal. I’m not exaggerating: we had more submissions than subscribers. I  mean,  I was a subscriber and I wasn’t submitting, and I knew lots of other people who were subscribing (past authors we had published, professors, alumni, etc) who also weren’t submitting. So who the hell did these slush pile authors think they were? I mean, sure, one or two, but like 90% of them weren’t even reading the journals.

Can someone explain that to me? How can a lit journal be good enough to support your work but not good enough for you to read the work inside it?

I have a very controversial opinion that has made me somewhat unpopular among my writer friends and it is this: if you don’t subscribe to at least five lit journals while you’re trying to get published in lit journals, then you’re a literary parasite.

I’m not trying to be provocative. I earnestly don’t understand the logic. From where I sit, there are two possible arguments:

Writers are writers. We write for readers and also, we’re often broke because we now have thousands of dollars in student loan debt for a graduate degree that doesn’t usually come with a high paying job. Hell, even professors barely make above the poverty line without tenure, and I know people with PhDs who are fighting tooth and nail to get full-time work. In theory, there are readers out there, readers who enjoy fiction and poetry with no designs on ever creating it themselves. I want to believe those people are out there, but perhaps they are magical unicorns or maybe they only subscribe to The New Yorker.

Writers are readers. If a brain surgeon had never himself experienced brain surgery, no one would think twice (and maybe would be concerned if he had) but unlike brain surgery, you’ve absolutely got to experience the work of your fellow writers as a consumer. Ok, maybe that’s arguable, but let’s just choose to accept that one fact for the moment. Writers got to read.

So, if you’re submitting to Journal A and you don’t have a subscription, why exactly is that? I can think of a few reasons:

  1. You’re already subscribing to too many other journals who have already or won’t publish your work.
  2. You’re broke.
  3. You don’t like that journal.
  4. You just saw a call for submissions, liked what you saw on the website and plan to subscribe at some point. Maybe.

What did I miss? I totally understand #1, but I have no patience for #2 and #3 (which doesn’t even make sense but I’ve heard it several times when I’ve asked writers this question), and I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and think that it’s #4 and then something else comes up and/or they’re flakes.

You know those writers who moan loudly about the deaths of their favorite markets for submitting and yet, never supported those great little journals in the first place? They just spam editors with their work and demand to be noticed in the slush pile without having the courtesy to read and support other writers. A slush pile shouldn’t be larger than the print run of a magazine, you know? Who the fuck is going to read it?

It’s parasitic. Yes, writers tend to be poor, but they also are probably typing away (as I am right now) on a MacBook, possibly sitting in a hipster cafe drinking four dollar lattes. Four damned coffees could pay for one subscription, and that is a sad truth. Suck it up. No one owes you anything. Robert Olen Butler and Amy Hempel might be courted by lit journals left and right, but unless they’re coming to you, then you owe it to the journal to really understand whether your work belongs in those pages.

Full disclosure: I subscribe to seven lit journals, am a member of AWP (which was a stupid spend of my lit dollar, quite frankly, because I could have gotten like five journal subscriptions out of that) and, looking at my PayPal history, have donated to four different online publications in the last six months. I do it because I take responsibility for my role in this community. And you should too. You read my work and I’ll read yours. That’s only fair.

I think it is a shame that Pank has to resort to a frickin’ tip jar. I mean, come on guys. A tip jar. I’ll bet if every writer who submitted to Pank actually subscribed, they won’t need to be begging for your spare dollars.

Writers who don’t subscribe to at least five lit journals are like that guy at the party who spends all evening talking about himself. And the slush pile that I used to cull from? A party full of boors.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I hope someone will enlighten me in the comments and tell me why I’m completely wrong and being unfair. Please. Seriously, I want to understand why writers don’t subscribe to the lit journals they hope will publish them.



  1. I think your viewpoint is more common sense than controversial. I can’t even begin to tell you what writers I might not have otherwise known about had it not been for those literary labors of love I’ve subscribed to. For the longest time, I’d been trying to track down an article I read in Poets & Writers re: the fact that, statistically, more people are writing than reading. In that serendipitous way those saved articles and bookmarked sites surface when you want/need them, here it is: ‘The Law of Diminishing Readership.’ It’s a few years old, yes, but I think your statistical mind will still appreciate the observations here.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Kate Maurer wrote:

    A friend posted your column on Facebook and I read it. I’ve heard this basic argument many times and today feel like defending myself a little. I really don’t feel like the overall issues of publishing are solved by guilting writers into being the audience for their own work. I am currently subscribed to 3 journals (though one of those is a contributor’s subscription). But, frankly, I already don’t have time to read all the journals that arrive. I am a writer who is at my day job 35 hours a week (a schedule I was lucky to get and that involved taking a $3,000 annual pay cut to eek out five extra hours a week to write), and as an editor in a non-literary field, a good deal of that time I am reading things that I wouldn’t read if I didn’t have to pay the bills. In the remaining time, I try to find the wherewithal to read books and journals plus actually write my own work and revise it and submit it and fight through all those familiar forms of self-doubt, etc. (plus do all the things normal people do when they aren’t at work) Meanwhile I feel guilty that I don’t read more books or journals, buy more books or journals, attend more local live music shows, go to the art theater, go to more readings, comment on the work of any number of writer friends who are waiting on me, participate in more community activism, or do any number of things that support things that are important to me (even though I already do more of all of the above than many people). But I don’t think this means that I am not entitled to be a writer or to attempt to publish my work in whatever venues are available to it. This is a bad time for content-producing industries in general–people across the board are less and less willing to pay for content (and add that to the trouble already inherent with producing challenging content that and requires reflection). Dealing with that is an important and frightening and major challenge. But right now, I’m just trying to keep showing up at my second job every Saturday to do what’s most important to me.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Robin Kalinich wrote:

    Well said! I agree wholeheartedly. I’m an aspiring (and most failing) writer, and I consider subscribing and reading lit mags almost as important as the writing itself. The financial support is essential. I also believe that in order to be an informed writer, you must be as involved in the literary community as possible.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Chris Roberts wrote:

    Either Wendy is ninety years old or operating in an alternate state of reality. More unreality. Slush pile? Really? Hint: it’s 2011, not the Roaring Twenties.

    It’s such an droll, antiquated term that it leads me to believe that Wendy worked at a literary magazine office located under a rock.

    “Slush Pile Whisperer” That’s a hoot. I guess W. is going to break out into the Charleston…cut a rug dinosaur!

    Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  5. Marne Grinolds wrote:

    What you say here is provocative, and I agree to a certain extent, but I’d like to propose an alternative reason to add to your list.

    5. You read that journal at your library.

    I’m fortunate enough to have a day job as a librarian at a research university that has a Ph.D. program in English, and I (along with all the students, faculty, and staff at my institution) am able to read a wide variety of literary journals through my library’s subscriptions, some in print and some online. I know (because they have told me) that some editors feel using this tactic is somehow cheating, but I don’t see how you can make that argument stick. Wise journals already charge more for institutional subscriptions than they do for personal ones, and there’s certainly no way I could afford to subscribe to the hundreds of lit journals my library can.

    Of course, no library can offer access to everything, and so I have over the past year subscribed to four other journals I particularly like (which I guess according to your definition makes me almost not a parasite?) and have sent away for sample copies of many more. I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is lunacy to send a submission to a publication you’ve never seen, but that’s an entirely separate issue in my opinion.

    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  6. Shannon wrote:

    This comes across as coming from a really privileged position.

    I think it is more than fantastic that you can do all of those things with your money. It is, I envy that a little bit.

    That said, there are a lot of writers like me who are the breadwinners in their households, who are the working poor, who are otherwise not in a position to financially support literary magazines when a lot of us are on the verge of being unable to financially support ourselves and our families. I don’t honestly think I would have ever even started to even try getting work published if I had to wait until I could afford to subscribe to every magazine I like.

    If it is suddenly common sense to say, screw you poor folks, that doesn’t honestly sound like the kind of literary world that has room for me or anyone like me. And it’s not one I’d like to be a part of even if it would have me.

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 3:59 am | Permalink