Call Me Plankton, Not Ishmael

Quality literary journals aim to publish works worthy of inclusion in anthologies such as Best American Short Stories (BASS) or the Pushcart Prize. With that very serious statement, I’m more of the mind to consider the acronym, BASS, and fall to the temptation of dreaming about fly fishing and lures named Woolly Bugger and Sneeky Pete Popper. Oh, I didn’t stop there. Videos on the Orvis How to Fly Fish Center show graceful casting and educate in short one minute segments. It occurs to me the pursuit of bass for sport and BASS (Best American Short Stories) for literature require some of the same techniques for casting and choosing lures.

In the great literary fish tank, the food chain dominates. As an emerging author, I am small, like plankton floating among the smallest of fish. Editors in journals or magazines prefer to publish as big a fish as possible. Often, submissions are skewed to published authors with novels on their resumes, and hence, no plankton need apply. Selective editors prefer certain lures with statements of “no simultaneous submissions” to avoid chum tossed overboard and a feeding frenzy.

For the sake of this article, let’s assume BASS is a large mouth bass, which swims in deeper and slower water. Like the aquatic fish, BASS wants only smaller fish that are published in American and Canadian national journals. These journals, the first publishers of a great short story, are baitfish for BASS. And from my research, BASS prefers certain fish more than others. Some might also argue that the editors of these journals work much harder to get selected by BASS.

John Fox, on Bookfox, ranks literary journals and magazines for the ability to publish stories which are eventually selected for the annual BASS anthology. He assigns points for both appearance and mentions. Every Writers’ Resource also ranks the journals using different criteria such as the number of years a journal has been in publication and a broader range of anthologies are considered. The favorite baitfish in these rankings are: The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, Glimmer Train, Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Georgia Review, New England Review, The Kenyon Review and Paris Review.

The Pushcart Prize is the best of the worlds’ small presses for poetry, short stories, essays, memoirs or excerpts from novels. If in our example, Pushcart is a small mouth bass, then expect feeding on the surface in moving water, around rocks and ledges. According to the Orvis videos, a fisherman should observe the food sources in the water and emulate the food with the lure. Upon seeing baby crayfish, use the lure with the reddish-orange feathers and fur.  Clifford Garstang’s Pushcart Prize Rankings also list Tin House, Ploughshares and Paris Review as top ten favorites, but Pushcart draws heavily from Conjunctions, One Story, Southern Review, A Public Space, Zoetrope: All Story, Kenyon Review, and Three Penny.

As the apex predator, the reader, I want what is considered the best, but quite honestly, I enjoy reading everything. At bottom of the food chain, as the emerging writer, I learn and submit to places which might offer an opportunity. My goal is to create my own top ten list and submit them to death. However, I did submit to a February contest in the BASS top ten feeder journals. Although my probability of winning is low, actually infinitesimal, I receive a subscription to the review which makes it a win for plankton, apex readers and the journal’s overall readership.


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    • Samuel Mchovenstein on June 25, 2015 at 1:16 pm
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    Great metaphors! I love the food chain analogy. Figurative language makes this work great. Like the dedication and inside understanding of the publishing world

  1. Karen, you’ve done writers who aspire to publication in the literary journals a great service. This is a savvy analysis of just how it all goes down (gets in print?) in those pubs.

    Writers need to remember that the reason the eye of the literary journal needle is so narrow boils down to one thing: Insecurity. Editors often fear plucking an obscure writer from obscurity.

    Why? It sounds like circular logic, but it’s because the writer is obscure. Editors, like writers, aim to build a reputation. If they take a chance on an unknown and the writer turns out to be a one-story wonder – their generosity may come back to bite them. Their judgment may be perceived as lacking. And that’s why writers who have established a bit of a track record generally do get kindlier consideration.

    That said, an unknown who writes something absolutely fantastic and fabulous and toe-curling, won’t have to wait long to find a home for his/her work. That work Will get published.

    For writers who know they are creating good work, yet still are struggling to achieve publication, it might be good to keep in mind that J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel was rejected eight times. Then it finally landed with a publisher who decided to give the book a chance – with a very small print run.

    The rest is history.

    • Book Lover on April 8, 2015 at 11:04 pm
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    From one plankton to another, I understand and wish you good luck.

  2. nice analogy Karen. Keep swimming!

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