2018, Archives, January 2018, The MFA Years

Don’t Work Your Way Up, Actually

The following article was something I had to rewrite approximately one million times, which is to say that I don’t mean to make people feel awful about where they choose to publish. It’s more a matter of making sure that everybody feels okay about where they are publishing. I have certainly published in places, and been delighted to publish in places, that I am aware are considered mid-tier by many other writers and those writers’ agents. But I wanted to publish in those places. I made a conscious decision, and did not suffer from any delusions about making other literary magazines impressed with me. I wasn’t really thinking in terms of a career enhancer. With that in mind, please keep reading in the knowledge that I like you and think you are good enough, but want you, as well, to make conscious decisions.



Once, a very long time ago, I sat in a room at a local writing nonprofit and had an instructor explain to me that one ought to work one’s way up, starting at mid-tier publications where it was more likely one’s work would get accepted, and sort of climbing higher. I have no idea why she said this. It’s both a common attitude and a really horrible idea.

First of all, nobody wants to publish the work that you secretly wish you could publish elsewhere. No mid-tier or fledgling mag is dying for stories by writers who think they’re too good for this shit. Second, the mid-tier publications my instructor told us about were actually not what most people would consider mid-tier. To my mind, places that accept five percent or fewer of submissions can often be considered mid-tier, or are definitely mid-tier if they’ve won Pushcarts and been featured in Best American. Top tier, according to people I know, is pretty much The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Tin House, Paris Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Narrative, One Story, Missouri Review, Virginia Quarterly, Gettysburg, Ploughshares, and maybe a couple others I’ve forgotten here. The sort of magazines you’re much more likely to be accepted to if you have an agent or are a lucky genius. I’d consider my publications in Glimmer Train (posted above because I am so honored and proud) and New Letters top tier, though even that I’ve heard the snootiest of New York lit world types call those places place mid-tier. These things are, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder.

Maybe you don’t give a sloppy fuck if you’re in Harper’s or a magazine I’ve never heard of, one that currently accepts about half of submissions but is scrappy and striving and has good politics and you like them, and maybe they’re run by your friends. That’s a valid choice. Maybe you swing between publishing in Poetry and Anonymous Bacon Literary Magazine as part of a conscious effort to prove these petty distinctions don’t matter–in which case I think you are very brave and I want to be your bff.

The important thing is to be publishing your work in specific venues on purpose, with full knowledge of what will get you to the place where you want to be. If I want to get into Harper’s, I’m not going to brag about Anonymous Bacon in my cover letter. I’m not going to submit to Anonymous Bacon in hopes of “working my way up” to Harper’s. Working my way up is not, in fact, how it works. What I’ll do if I want Harper’s is submit there until I get in. I’ll probably need an agent to make that happen, so I might write a couple chapters of a novel, solicit until I get that agent, and then ask that agent to make the subs for me.

It’s absolutely not a fair system. There are people who don’t even want to write novels and keep getting told by well-meaning agents that short story collections won’t sell, and so they have to submit work by themselves with no agent. There are people who–for reasons having to do with class and race and disability and geographic location and misogyny and queerphobia and isolation from the fancier writing communities and simple luck–do not have access to the cultural knowledge, the secret handshake, whatever it is that makes some instinctively know the rules and write what are considered good cover letters.

But know this: If I brag about my Anonymous Bacon publication in a cover letter for a Harper’s submission, this will make Harper’s editors think less of me, because, well, according to the sort of people who edit Harper’s, this shows I have no standards and am too clueless about how the literary world works to know when to shut up. Even and especially if I brag about how Anonymous Bacon nominated me for a Pushcart. Doesn’t she know, think such editors, that Anonymous Bacon doesn’t matter and Pushcart nominations from such magazines are a dime a dozen?

If your heart’s desire is to get into Harper’s or The New Yorker or what have you, then you could, of course, just not brag about Anonymous Bacon in the cover letter and assume nobody will Google you. But then you ought to ask yourself: What’s the point? What is even the point? Why did I waste a perfectly good story on Anonymous Bacon when my true goal is not that? And am I being fair to Anonymous Bacon?

Of course, there is the lack of confidence some people feel. They assume they can’t pull off any Paris Review-level acceptances, even if this is all they ever wanted, and so they limit themselves to submitting to places they’re not even wild about. I get why this might happen, especially for members of marginalized populations who’ve spent their whole lives being told not to expect too much. And yet. Why take yourself out of the running for the thing you really want? Literally what logic is there to not ever asking anybody for the thing that is your career goal? You are fab; show the world how fab you are. What do you possibly think you could lose here? Someone might tell you no? People are going to tell you no anyways.

In conclusion, good luck, and I’m rooting for you. Keep in mind that I’m really, really not telling you what choices to make or disparaging your dearest accomplishments. Rather, I’m trying to pull back the curtain a little when it comes to how some of you reading this might go about enacting the choices you’ve already made.