Friday 10 February 2012

England's literary magazines, 1985-2012

I like the world of small-press literary magazines. I submit and subscribe to many and have access to more at the University Library and (sometimes) local bookshops. In this piece I'd like to cover the progress of these magazines in England over the last quarter-century - not in a comprehensive way, but biased by the extent of my dealings with them (mostly in the form of rejection slips), starting with prose magazines and ending with poetry magazines. I'll finish by identifying a few themes.


Small magazines were often started by Writers groups, Arts Centres or University English Departments. My first accepted story appeared during 1986 in Momentum, a small A5 magazine run by Wrexham Writers Workshop that lasted 11 issues or so. Summit by Coventry Writers came and went at about the same time. Also A5-stapled was Dream (later New Moon), an SF magazine that encouraged reader participation. I treasure a readers' voting table from 1987 which puts a story of mine 4th and one of Stephen Baxter (1996 Arthur C. Clarke prize winner) 14th.

The New Fiction Magazine (A4) lasted for several years in the 1980s. it contained interviews, articles, reviews and a story or two, mostly by or about established names. I started subscribing to Panurge (1984-1996; a spined paperback of fiction) with issue 2. The editors (David Almond and Jon Murray) always replied with a comment or two, even when the stories didn't deserve it. Comments like "all the best and stick at it" helped. I finally got published there not long before it folded in 1995. Jon Murray in the final issue wrote "for a 25 hour week rising to 50 hours near publication date, I pay myself a wage of 11 pounds a week." He was getting 4000 submissions a year in the end. Editors of prose magazines have said that distribution via highstreet outlets is difficult, which was why the later issues of Panurge were disguised as books, a trend that other magazines followed. More mainstream was Raconteur (a thick paperback of fiction) and the revived Words International (A4 glossy), each of which appeared in newsagents/bookshops and lasted about 2 years. In January 1998, World Wide Writers appeared, looking much like Raconteur. It didn't last long. Their departure (and that of Metropolitan, an A4 glossy which ceased publication for similar reasons in 1997 after 10 issues) left a gap in the market. Looking back through early contents pages of these defunct prose magazines one sees now familiar names like Sophie Hannah. More recently the fiction magazines Libbon and Transmission both disappeared after a few issues.

In its time as a quarterly the SF magazine Interzone published Angela Carter as well as many newcomers. It became a monthly available at newsagents with over 110 issues to its credit. It's a quality publication which has taken care to grow slowly while others have grown too quickly and burst. They sometimes sent me 2 page rejections slips. It's smaller than it was, but survives. From Granta I got my most irritating rejection - "in its own right it is very good work, unfortunately it's not right for Granta right now", supporting Jon Murray's view that Bill Buford never accepted anything from the slush pile no matter how excellent his colleagues thought it. Of course, since few prose contributors can appear per issue, it's hard to hold on to subscribing writers. I think a prose magazine needs at least a letters page so that more subscribers can see their names in print. As well as satisfying readers' egos, magazines must satisfy their tastes. Whereas a poetry magazine has a good chance of having something for everyone, a magazine with half a dozen stories might satisfy too few readers. This in part explains why genre magazines like Interzone which cater for narrower audience have a better chance of survival than general fiction publications.

Attempts to find a sustainable format for prose continue. I think only 2 prose-only, non-genre magazines exist in England at the moment - Riptide (which increasingly has themed issues) and short Fiction (which uses competitions rather in the way that the US magazine Glimmer Train does).

Prose and Poetry

Bananas (1975-1979) was an entertaining tabloid-format magazine, that published people like Angela Carter. Iron was lively and variagated until it disapeared in l997. On a glossier scale but in the same era was Jennings (1985-1987?). Whether they accepted a piece or not the 3 editors cluttered an A4 page with entertaining comments. It paid for poetry and prose. Bottom of the World came and went. The Affectionate Punch (started in 2007) and Lamport Court (2003-2008) came and went too. Sol was last seen in 2009 as an online publication.

Stand (established in 1952) and London Magazine (dating from 1732 - it once found itself embroiled in a quarrel leading to its editor, John Scott, being killed in a duel) keep going, maintaining high standards on very different budgets. Both have been on the brink financially. I think Dreamcatcher's still going. Ambit's been going for ages, printing poetry and prose. Staple is still going and is perhaps the most under-estimated of the magazines here. I'm surprised that they don't attract bigger names. They used to pay, and for a while they produced about a book a year. The Cambridge Literature Review began in 2008 (I got a rejection from them saying "This is a great read - it's extremely entertaining and very witty. I don't think it's quite right for ..." - oh well). Areté (1999-) is an Oxford publication. New Walk is new - a mix of poetry, prose, reviews and interviews - A4 and university-based. Under the Radar is quite new too.

Iota began small and stapled in 1987, poetry only. Now it's spined with some fiction-only issues. Interpreter's House, Tears in the Fence and Brittle Star mostly print poetry, though they publish some prose. Parataxis (about modernism) started in 1991 and still comes out sometimes.

Writing Women lasted for at least 10 years.Wasafiri (African) and MsLexia (women) are less general - good reads, but I've never sent them anything.

London-based magazines seem to boom and bust. The Fred (a 250+ page A6 glossy) disappeared long ago. Smoke A London Peculiar began in 1993 then paused in 2010. Litro is a free circulation publication (100,000 copies distributed monthly).

Creative Writing degree courses are a common source of magazines. Sheffield Thursday lasted longer than most.


My first poetry acceptance was in Folio International in the late 80's. It was one of several magazines whose demise closely followed my appearance in them. There's quite a rapid turn-around at the lower or more radical end, but even heavyweights might be short-lived. Thumbscrew disappeared. Even excluding these there are poetry magazines to suit all tastes - the market's glutted. Howard Sergeant's Outposts was populist before Roland John shifted it upmarket so that it looked like Agenda (begun by Ezra Pound and William Cookson in 1959). Then Outposts disappeared. Prop, Krax (still going), and Bogg were magazines found at small-press fairs and in cardboard boxes in Alternative bookshops. An attempt to revive Brando's Hat (1960-2002) was made in 2005. Leviathon Quarterly lasted only a few issues. Perhaps the biggest boom-and-bust was Liverpool's Poetry Voices. Issue 1 included Szirtes, Scammell, Satyamurti, Adcock, Constantine, Holloway and Patten. I don't think there was a third issue. Poetry Monthly, as the name suggests, attempted to speed up the turn-round time. It closed in 2011. New Hope International (1980-1998) continued as a reviews-only web site for a while. Numbers (1986-1990) was an up-market Cambridge magazine that lasted a few issues. I had a poem in Quartz, which lasted for at least 6 issues. Perhaps budding poets deserted to the emerging, populist Forward Press titles like Poetry Now and Rhyme Arrival, which were the largest circulation, non-funded poetry magazines in Great Britain until the company went bust in 2010.

Verse is now US-based but under Robert Crawford was open to all. His "could you send us some more please" made up for many disappointments. Along with Rialto it gave one the chance to rub shoulders with big names (I've been with Les Murray and R.S. Thomas). Other Poetry (revived after a few year's rest, currently edited in Edinburgh), Smiths Knoll and Seam (which began as an A6 publication) are well edited by established poets, showing that new magazines can emerge (though I think Seam is currently in hibernation). Orbis, Envoi (115+ issues, now a Welsh magazine), Poetry Nottingham (150+ issues - now called Assent) and Weyfarers (75+ issues) have been going for decades, as has Pennine Platform and Obsessed with Pipework . Candelabrum started in 1970. Frogmore Papers was founded in 1983. The Wolf, founded in April 2002, is still going. I think Smoke still exists - it's a few sheets stapled together. ARTEMISpoetry concentrates on women's work.

In quantity perhaps Poetry Review and PN Review lead the field. Competition at this level is intense. Poetry Review gets about 30,000 poems a year of which they print about 120. They seem to reply ever more quickly and decisively to my submissions. Influential nowadays are Poetry London (1988-) and Magma (1994?-). Shearsman remains impressive within its genre. What they say on their website shows a typical magazine lifecycle - "Shearsman magazine was founded in 1981 and ran for two years before being folded into the London-based magazine Ninth Decade (later Tenth Decade), together with Oasis and Atlantic Review. The second series of Shearsman began in 1991, in a smaller format, and ran roughly quarterly until early 2005, when the format changed again to a half-yearly paperback book". Angel_Exhaust started in the late 70s and first appeared online in 1993.

A few poetry magazines (Smiths Knoll for instance) contain nothing but poetry. Others, especially the more frequent ones, have articles, reviews and encourage reader participation through letters. Acumen is like PN Review in this respect (poetry, reviews, articles, interviews, letters) but more readable. The North is too.

Review and Writing magazines

The TLS and London Review of Books have 1 or 2 poems an issue. Sphinx and PQR (Poetry Quarterly Review) were magazines that focused on reviewing (magazines and pamphlets). Both are no longer printed, though Sphinx is alive and well online. The Writers magazines Quartos and Acclaim merged into The New Writer in 1997.

Editors, Presses and Universities

Weyfarers and Magma rotate editorship, and a few magazines (e.g Smiths Knoll) have an editorial team, but in the main magazines tend to be run by one person. The magazine may keep the same name when editorship changes, but can change character entirely. Iota, Envoi and Staple have all changed beyond recognition. Even Poetry Review can lurch dramatically when a new editor (or editors) takes over.

Nearly all the editors (Acumen's Patricia Oxley is the only exception I can think of) are writers whose work appears in other magazines. From what I've seen, they are a sincere, committed and enormously dedicated bunch. With annual turnover of subscribers sometimes as high as 40%, the struggle for survival is endless. I feel more sympathetic towards them the more I hear how strange some writers are. One of their motivations is to have a piece accepted in yearly anthologies. The Best British Short Stories and Best British Poetry anthologies (both recently published by Salt) and the Forward Book of Poetry perform the role that the US equivalents do, though we have no equivalent of the Pushcart Prizes especially for small press publications. Editors are so often on a hiding to nothing. Misprints are one danger - few magazines send out proofs. One of my poems contained 3 misprints, including a missed "not" in the final statement. Some editors go to the trouble of commenting on rejected poems - a well meaning but dangerous practise since the volume of submissions (there's often well over 50 times more submissions than space) means that editors sometimes miss the obvious. A few editors ask for changes. One editor suggested the removal of 2 verses. I fought him down to one. The poem's better than it was originally.

Several of the magazines (Acumen, Smiths Knoll, Rialto, Agenda, etc) developed presses or were an offset of presses. Iron Press still exists though the magazine has gone. Ragged Raven Press used to produce Iota. Now Iota has new editors and publishes poetry pamphlets. PN Review is produced by Carcanet (in Gortschacher's book (p.644) it says that in a sample of PN Reviews he'd read, 39% of the poets had been published by Carcanet press). The North is produced by The Poetry Business, best known for their pamphlet competitions. Shearsman produce books and e-books. Areté has recently published its first book. Under the Radar is the Nine Arches Press's magazine.

In contrast with the US there are few UK University-based magazines. The austere but worthy Poetry Durham wound up many years ago. Virtue Without Terror was by Cambridge University Poetry Society. Oxford Poetry started in 1910 and but for the odd haitus has been going ever since. More magazines have University affiliations (or at least addresses) nowadays - Warwick Review (Warwick), Assent (Derby), Iota (Gloucester), short Fiction (Plymouth) and Stand (Newcastle). The Cambridge Literary Review is run from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

The Challenge of Technology

Rising paper and postal costs combined with reduced grants contributed to the pressure on magazines. With the emergence of the WWW as a publishing medium I can't see the paper market expanding. I think there are enough poetry magazines on paper already. Perhaps fiction magazines will have more of a chance on the WWW, where editors won't have expense as a constraint on space, and reader's feedback can be rapidly added. Otherwise I can't see much hope for new fiction writers in any medium. That said, New Walk has bucked the trend. Stride became a WWW magazine. Many others disappeared. Many of the survivors still don't accept e-mail submissions. Magma does, and has an active blog. Some print magazines still have letters columns but with turnaround times of several months, little dialogue is generated. US submissions and submissions from Creative Writing students are becoming much more common. Now that US magazine are often easier to submit to than UK ones I wonder how many UK writers send their work straight to the States. Besides, for fiction there are hardly any UK markets anyway, and Rialto tells people to expect to wait 6 months for a reply to a submission.

The Wolf and Acumen (with QR codes) have some associated audio files. PN Review reacted differently, putting back issues online, available by subscription. Horizon Review (which "takes its name and its inspiration from Horizon, the magazine Cyril Connolly ran from the outbreak of the War in 1939 until it closed in 1949") is a fine example of the new breed of WWW magazine.

See Also


  1. I'd just like to note that Iota now belongs in your list of university-based publications - we took it over, from Ragged Raven, at the University of Gloucestershire.

  2. Thanks. I've made some changes.