The wide variety of periodicals that comes out of the small press market is often grouped together under the term literary magazines. And the word literary is no accident. While there are literary journals that accept genre-style writing that has a strongly commercial bent, most literary magazines focus on publishing literary works. But what does that even mean? And is your writing “literary enough” to merit making a submission to a literary magazine?
What Does It Mean To Say Something Is “Literary”?
Scholars love to debate the question “What is literary writing?” Should a given work be considered literary or mainstream (commercial)? But we know you need a practical, working definition to help you make choices about your submission strategy and your craft, so that’s what we’re presenting here.
Literary works, whether poetry or prose, are often focused on ideas—themes, philosophies, moral ambiguities, creeds, and possibilities of expression. In prose, the primary vehicles for these ideas tend to be rich, complex, three-dimensional characters, which is why literary writing is sometimes called “character-driven” writing. It’s also why character development is so important if you’re submitting to literary journals. In poetry, the vehicle for ideas tends to stem from the language (imagery, lyricism, etc.), as well as emotional or intellectual insight.
Unlike commercial works, a literary piece doesn’t have a wide, mainstream appeal. For prose, commercial genres in the publishing industry include Westerns, romances, thrillers, mysteries, and all of the various other genres that are gobbled up by the millions in bookstores everywhere. Poetry, too, can have a mainstream sensibility; consider the types of poems that are published in greeting cards or that are emblazoned on wall hangings for home décor. Those poems have wide, popular (commercial) appeal.
Literary works, however, are regarded as speaking to a smaller, niche market. There’s a reason you rarely see books by new, contemporary poets on the bookshelf next to the latest breakout thriller. And poems that are difficult to understand tend not to be featured in the home décor magazines of mainstream America.
The Difference Between “Commercial” Writing And “Literary” Writing
Here are just a few of the many key differences between commercial and literary writing:
The style is easy to read and the topics are accessible.
Commercial writing tends to embrace big, memorable scenarios that transport readers beyond their normal day-to-day lives (that’s why it’s sometimes called “escapist”).
Commercial writing can sometimes (but not always) be aspirational, sentimental, heartwarming, comforting, and soothing—like real life, only better.
Commercial writing often depends on tried-and-true tropes of storytelling and plotting.
Literary works can be (but are not always) experimental and challenging. In fact, literary journal editors love to see writers who successfully take risks.
Some (but not all) literary fiction can also be referred to as “quiet”—which means the characters aren’t necessarily dropped into larger-than-life scenarios, but are instead navigating the twists and turns of a “normal” life.
Literary writing tends not to shy away from putting readers in emotionally uncomfortable situations.
Literary writing can eschew tradition.
If the piece that you are considering submitting to literary journals meets most or some of the criteria below, then it could be a good fit for literary journals:
- Unafraid of tackling difficult topics
- Rich in language and style
- Experimental or nontraditional
- Unlikely to be fully appreciated/enjoyed by commercial readers
What If You’re Still Not Sure If Your Writing Is Literary Enough For Lit Mags?
If you’re still not sure whether your creative writing is “literary” enough for literary magazines, we have one bit of advice for you: Submit anyway.
Do your research and send your submission to publications that embrace a more accessible style (they are out there—yes, even for poetry). Or try submitting your piece to highly literary journals even if it might not be literary enough. Just be sure to always respect a literary journal’s submission guidelines (some literary journals will specify that they do not accept specific genres). The worst that could happen is that you’ll get a rejection letter. It just means your work wasn’t a good fit. And the best that could happen—an acceptance!
QUESTION: What do you think is a key difference between literary and mainstream/commercial writing?
Hi, I am sure you are doing well. Its good to read about the two things elaborated with such clarity. I had a difficult time categorizing my first novel to a specific genre until recently i got a critique giveaway, and the agent told me it was a contemporary YA. I am still having a hard time finding a home for it.
Similarly, my poetry constantly gets appreciation from literary journals (they even point out their favourite ones in the submission), but pass on publication which confuses me about my style of writing and their choices. So far, I have published a short story in a literary journal, and looking for more opportunities in the near future.
Defining ‘literary writing’ will always be problematic and can be obfuscating. Safer to say: who feels it knows it. One major attribute is its dealing with subject matter in a way that is not ephemeral or faddish but transcendental. Again, these are merely descriptive words. This piece conflates prose with fiction but nonfiction is prose too and would not fit into some of the criteria listed above.