The Problem with the Covers of Literary Magazines by Daniel Wallace

 Are you getting The Review Review’s newsletter? If you’re a literary type, you really should. Each nicely-worded letter introduces its readers to lesser known lit mags, as well as commenting on recently published essays on writing, the state of the literary biz, publication and so on.

In the most recent newsletter, I read about Calvin Hennick’s new post at Grub Street Daily, “DO NOT READ.” It’s a good one: take a look.

[Warning: if you click the link, you will see a woman in a bikini.]

Hennick complains that the front covers of too many lit mags are too opaque and uninviting. Whereas commercial magazines plaster their cover with promises of better abs and more frequent sex, literary magazines seem terrified of actually saying anything about what’s offered within their pages. He writes:

Like a lot of readers, I feel guilty that I don’t read more literary magazines. But I have to say, I don’t feel like the editors are trying all that hard to snag me. When you put an unexplained picture of a kid playing an accordion on your cover (a real – and not unrepresentative – example), what you’re saying is, “Read, or don’t read. We don’t care! We’re artists.”

Hennick then tries to reconcile these deliberately enigmatic covers with his personal experience of literary magazine staff, who are wonderful amazing people and deserve our admiration and respect. He finds the juxtaposition troubling:

I should say here that I think literary journal editors are angels on earth. They work long hours, usually for no pay, just to get great work out into the world. But why not then go one step further and hype that work on the cover, so there’s a better chance of it being read? I’m sure the people who run lit mags have thought about their covers more than I have, so if there are any editors reading this, tell us in the comments – why do so many lit mag covers look like they belong in student art shows instead of on newsstands?

I’m not an editor of a literary magazine. But my guess is that the reason why these magazines’ covers are, often, not very reader-friendly, is that they aren’t primarily aimed at readers (casual readers, the sort wandering the aisles at AWP).

After all, a magazine has at least two aspirations, one facing down towards readers, the other upwards towards their superiors: firstly, for readers to buy the journal and enjoy it; secondly, for other editors, celebrated writers, movers and shakers in the business to admire it.

In many ways, these two goals are similar, but they are not the same. Enjoy and admire are different verbs. And given that many literary magazines are not highly profitable enterprises, the editors may be quite sensible to approach these publications not as commercial vehicles, but instead as a tool to garner higher status within the writing world, both for themselves and for their sponsoring institution.

If I’m right about this, then the primary concern about a lit mag’s cover is not its reader-appeal, but its seriousness. How much it helps the lit mag look like a good lit mag.

And, if you look at the comments to Hennick’s piece, an editor from Eleven Eleven journal has left a brief but surprisingly illuminating response. It simply reads:

The journal I edit, Eleven Eleven, does not believe in boring covers either. Here’s our most recent print issue’s front cover, by the fabulous Chitra Ganesh:

I agree with the editor: it’s a very gripping cover. Wow! But, on the other hand, the editor’s comment is not actually responding to what Hennick actually said.

Hennick says that covers are too “abstract,” and the lit mag editor replies that his particular lit mag is not “boring.” These are very different claims. The editor is interested in asserting the aesthetic standards of his journal, and cites the quality of the artist involved. But Hennick was not claiming that the art on literary magazine covers was bad.

Of course, this is a very small mis-reading by the commenter, and it would be fine for someone to claim that I’ve read too much into a couple of sentences. It’s also true that the commenter may simply be responding to how the Review Review’s newsletter described Hennick’s article (they said that Hennick thought journal covers were “boring.” The misreading began earlier, in other words.)

However, my guess, to answer Hennick’s original question, is that lit mags seems customer-unfriendly not because the editors dislike their readers, but that on an instinctive, semi-conscious level, they simply have other goals.

For myself, I agree with Hennick. I would like literary magazine covers to be more “boring,” in the sense of being more helpful guides to what’s actually in them, to ease readers into the work of reading them. Yet it’s also worth acknowledging the institutional pressures that makes it hard for the lit mag editors to take steps in that direction.


Daniel Wallace writes about writing, reading, and literature at The Incompetent Writer and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.