May 7


Joe Ponepinto Asks, “Where Are Our Readers?”

Are you reading The Saturday Morning Post? You should be. It’s the personal blog of writer and editor Joe Ponepinto, describing the challenges of the author’s life and the pleasures of creating a new literary magazine, The Tahoma Review.

He and co-editor Kelly Davio have some admirable intentions for being transparent and fair with their magazine’s submission process, and I’m very interested to see how the Tahoma Review develops.


At the end of March, Joe wrote a two-part review of the new book “MFA vs NYC,” a collection of essays on the state of fiction writing in today’s America. The book’s basic thesis is that there are two hubs of fiction in the US: the commercial/literary publishing world of New York and the creative writing/small press world of the MFA program, which is spread geographically out through the universities.

In his review, Joe asks some troubling questions about that divide.

One question that leaped out to me was:

Why are there so many writers and so few readers?”

He explains the logic of this question thusly:

Assume each of the 1300 or so CW MFA programs produces just 10 graduates per year, then over the last 20 years the country has produced a quarter million writers. And yet it’s hard to find a literary journal that boasts a readership of more than 1,000, probably 900 of whom are the people who produce the journal, and their friends.

The big picture, in other words, is this: literary journals seek out and publish the best short fiction out there. Most of these magazines are intimately connected to the creative writing departments that, every year, so many aspiring writers are desperate to get into. As a result, there should be a huge number of people who should want to read those magazines, people who have dedicated major portions of their lives to reading and writing literary stories, and who have gone through the kind of writing program that trains you to write and appreciate good fiction. These numbers are substantial: every year, over ten thousand writers and editors attend the AWP conference, alone.

Therefore: even if literary magazines are publishing an odd kind of fiction that only people who do MFA programs really like, or if (alternatively) they are publishing brilliant fiction that everyone likes, but simply lack the marketing budget to reach the general reader, there should still be loads and loads of MFA-trained reader-writers eager to subscribe and read.

Yet, if Joe’s guesstimate is right, most literary journals struggle to find a decent readership. Why?

I have some theories of my own, which I can share later, but I’m curious what you think about this. What do you believe is going on?


Chad Harbach, Joe Ponpinto, Kelly Davio, MFA vs NYC, Tahoma Literary Review, the review review

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  • Thanks for the post (and kudos for spotlighting Tahoma Literary Review, a publication I too am eager to read). If I may:

    There seems to be a certain self-interest that, in my opinion, pervades much of the writing community, especially in the digital realm. This latter space, where so many writers are posting, connecting, sharing, submitting, promoting, and so on, is full of opportunities to become a “reader”; yet many writers seem more interested in sharing their own work and having other people read it than they are in actively perusing the available work of their contemporaries, reading it, and putting the word out about authors and artifacts they want to see more of.

    This lack of balance between promotion and self-promotion is one key part of this, I think (and this all is not to say that there aren’t readers and writers out there engaging with and promoting the work of other authors. Still, there is no denying the lack of readership that Joe Ponepinto brings up).

    The other part, which is in my opinion related to the self-interest that pervades the first, is the fact that, in the digital realm specifically, people don’t put up the cash and support the markets they like and read unless their own work appears in it. They don’t buy that back issue that every single example of Submission Guidelines encourages them to do. They don’t buy a subscription after they read something in say, Boulevard, and it splits their heart in two. They don’t read a free short story and then buy that author’s latest collection. Again, I know there are readers and writers out there putting up their hard-earned duckets to buy a copy and support the cause; but if this was the majority, we wouldn’t be asking questions about readership, would we?

    • Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response.

      I wonder if the sheer pace of the online world makes such generosity / involvement harder. One struggles to keep up even with one’s own productions and concerns, and other people’s work rushes by, sometimes, in an appealing but vague blur. That said, it’s also true that I personally don’t make the connection, often, between reading a good publication and wanting to pay for a subscription. It took me long enough to subscribe to Andrew Sullivan’s Dish, and that’s a newsite I read multiple times a day.

      On the other hand, I do think journals could, sometimes, do more to distinguish themselves from that blur. For example, the reason I’m interested in Tahoma, apart from knowing Joe through his blog and this one, is the statements he and Kelly Davio have made about the high level of integrity they hope to maintain for the journal’s submission process. That ethic is interesting in its own right. When there’s so much being published these days, I’m not sure that it’s a viable option to have a lit mag that simply asserts, “We publish the best stuff we can get.”

      Now, of course, many lit mags do have a distinct vision and character, so I don’t want to diss the complicated work all those editors are doing. I’m just grateful when I can have something to mentally grab hold of–as the web washes over me each day.

      • I agree–there does seem to be this ineffable wash that makes it hard to grab onto something and stay with it after the wave passes over. I also agree with your points about TLR–it has a certain appeal to it thanks to the transparency of its editors (and the fact that it will be in print!).

  • I write for pleasure and I read.. But quite often when I’m absorbed in a story I’m writing it can be weeks without reading.. At which point I want to relax into a novel, not a literary magazine or any other kind of magazine so maybe graduates just don’t have the time for reading.. Especially if they aren’t paid to write and have a day job

    • Hi Nikki,

      Thanks for replying! Why do you think a magazine is harder to relax into than a novel? I agree with you on that (generally speaking), but I’m never quite sure why it should be that way. Shouldn’t the shorter sections of a magazine be less demanding reading?

      • With short fiction you don’t get as absorbed into the story because you’ve barely got into it when it’s finished, and because it’s short it’s likely to be almost constant action, more fast paced, because there’s little word space for other things. I do love short fiction but it’s just not the same. And if the magazine has any non fiction- well that involves making my brain work so not so relaxing. Since commenting the first time I also thought, you can find a lot of similar things for free on the internet, so maybe that’s another factor.

  • brigidawn says:

    There is so much out there, I think that it is partly due to just the sheer volume of material and people only have so much time, if one is to work for a living and do his or her own writing as well. I can, and do, read plenty of blogs and online journal sites and print journals every day, but sometimes at a cost of getting other things done or doing my own writing. Also, if a subscription comes with a cost, and if funds are limited, I’m more likely to spend money submitting to a writing contest than paying to read someone else’s work, especially since there are so many good sources out there that don’t cost anything. Ultimately, I think it comes down to time and money.

    • It’s tough, isn’t it? If there’s only time and money to do one’s own writing, then maybe that writing needs to take precedence. And yet this still seems like a paradox: didn’t we get into this writing thing because we enjoyed reading, because it was fun? Shouldn’t reading other people’s work be fun, too?

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