AGNI is the well-regarded literary magazine published by Boston University, and its editor is Sven Birkerts. For the June edition of The AGNI Newsletter, Birkets took advantage of the journal’s current hiatus in accepting author submissions to reflect on what its editors hope to find when they read their “towering backlog” of poem, short story, and essay manuscripts.
How big is that “towering backlog”? Birkets says he typically receives a hundred new manuscripts a day. He made five points for writers to consider.
- Understand the initial screen – submissions are first triaged into three categories: those clearly off the mark one way or another (more than 60 percent); those that may have potential (25 percent); and those with “obvious appeal” (less than 12 percent), which are circulated to appropriate readers. He doesn’t say whether those 60 receive an immediate “No, thanks,” or whether they get into a process that takes the two to four months noted in AGNI’s submission guidelines. (AGNI turned down a short story of mine, and it took six weeks.)
- Understand the need for fit – The approximately one-third of the submissions in the “maybe” queue are reviewed for both quality and goodness-of-fit—as Birkets puts it, whether they fall within its “aesthetic profile.” Determining the likelihood that a story will be a good fit is ideally an author’s responsibility, in part. It’s why literary journals typically suggest a prospective submitter read a few copies before sending in their work. In other words, self-triage. “It does take some time to scout out likely venues for work,” he admits, “but it also takes time sending and re-sending to ones that turn out to be unlikely.”
- Focus on the most important – What AGNI editors look for in a cover letter is a quick statement and a short list of the author’s most notable previous publications, if any. By contrast, the first sentences of the story receive the editors’ careful attention. Birkets describes why beautifully: “As an editor confronting the day’s abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can. As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.”
- Don’t fret about a lack of previous publications – This, he says, is not a barrier with AGNI, and, contrariwise, well established writers can be rejected because of the lack of fit noted above Birkets estimates that about half the stories AGNI publishes are by newly discovered writers.
- Be committed to the importance of the work – This is the hardest of his points to distill into concrete advice, but may be the most critical. He says he wants to see work that is “an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn’t not be written.” In other words, the writing must be propelled by the author’s deep conviction of its necessity in a noisy world. “We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested,” he says. I have a friend whose OK novel was published a few years ago. Sometime later, I asked him whether he was writing another. “No,” he said, with astonishing candor, “I found out I don’t have anything to say.”
For my many writing friends who do have something to say, AGNI’s submissions period opens again September 1.