Magazines were my road into writing.
For a long time, I barely published anything under my own name (there was no great clamour for it): instead, I worked for magazines and paid attention to language; learned how to behave with people’s work; sold advertising; noticed that the best pitches were polite, precise, and quick; fact-checked; produced podcasts; read submissions.
I discovered that rearranging text was invigorating, but when I put together a piece of my own, I would justify it for its use, often promotional. I couldn’t justify just writing. Meanwhile I studied magazines as though they were engines, how each columnist, funding decision, and design feature contributed.
Now, when I’m pitching something, I read the paper issue, figure out how the publication works as a whole, and make a part that fits.
Like a lot of people who get into magazines, I was fuelled by a dissatisfaction with what was around me and the impulse to collaborate. At university I’d started my own publication with two other students, a loose-leaf collection of items, lonely hearts, poems, etc, which we printed on chewing gum packets, envelopes, and spools that I’d collected in a binbag from a scrapstore with sporadic opening hours.
Once, during the holidays, I picked up an American bimonthly in my local bookshop; the next term, drunk, I emailed someone on the masthead; soon, with a grant awarded on the basis of my student magazine, I got an internship there. At the time it was comforting to discover that making printed matter involved less ego than studying it in class – it was a practical affair.
‘Little’ magazines (or literary magazines) are communities that dissolve and reconstruct themselves – they are social and, unfortunately, nepotistic. A serious barrier is the cost of entry; for years I had to work several jobs to support myself. But the process of working for them helped me grow as a writer and gain recognition.
First, through understanding the publishing ecosystem: as the link between obscurity and professionalism, discovering writers that agents then pick up, they are exhilarating places of transformation staffed by the most serious, dedicated people in the industry.
Second, through reading a good volume of contemporary writing: at little magazines you can study and discuss a relatively unfiltered selection of the writing that’s out there. And also, because in these environments you meet people who emerge in different roles, with different power relations later: I met one of my book editors several years before (seemingly in a different life) when working at a magazine. While it’s worth not being cliquey, identifying people you trust is vital. When my novel came out, writers I’d published alongside in small outlets supported me by doing events together.
As well as introducing me to communities whose work I value, once I screwed my ego back on and began to write, little magazines helped me find a great editor who changed my life. I posted my first short story to a journal I’d heard about in passing while I was at a stint at another quarterly. Publishing in that journal year after year has encouraged me to grow my voice and keep questioning what is true in a story, what works, what I want, what I enjoy, what I fear, what I hate.
It’s been an exacting and exciting relationship, a slow, focused process detached from the outside world of clicks and attention. Through these stories, editors from larger publications have found me.
The lessons I learned by being on both sides of the editorial relationship in little magazines remain the most important ones I have.
Lucie Elven has written for publications including NOON, the London Review of Books, Granta, and the New York Times. She has worked at the Paris Review, the White Review, the Believer, the Baffler and, currently, Le Monde diplomatique. Her first novel The Weak Spot is published by Soft Skull in the US, and by Prototype in the UK.
© Photo by Sophie Davidson