"Even esteemed journals sometimes seem like they're run by squirrels, marmots, or lemurs."
— Timothy Schaffert
At the AWP panel "The Road from Journal to Book," five writers/editors talked about the fiction of literary journal hierarchies. They named Cliff Garstang's Perpetual Folly Pushcart Rankings and the Top 50 Journals by Every Writer's Resource as examples of journal hierarchies (the latter woefully dated — they have several dead journals and glaring exceptions).
The best point made during the panel was that journal editors don't think of journals along a spectrum from worse to better, but more like least favorite to most favorite. In other words, every editor has a personal hierarchy of literary journals. Therefore, attempts to make static, universal hierarchies of literary journals are doomed to fail.
This means some "good" journals might mean little to a journal editor if they know that journal's aesthetic clashes with their own. Or conversely, if a lesser known journal matches the aesthetic of their journal, it could really boost a story's chances.
So writers should be focused less on trying to make it into the best journal they possibly can (So many writers I know always send out a new story to Atlantic Monthly, Granta, Paris Review, and Ploughshares), and more on trying to make it into journals that really matches the type of fiction they write.
Those are all great points. I agree with them wholeheartedly. But despite the antagonism of the panel to hierarchal lists of journals, I believe Perpetual Folly and the list here on BookFox and Duotrope's statistics of acceptances all serve a useful, if limited, function: they give newbie and emerging writers a chance to get acquainted with the relative status of a journal in the literary community. I don't think any of the list creators would fight to the death for a particular spot for any journal — they're just guidelines, and by triangulating between these multiple sources as well as prizes like O'Henry and BASS, beginning writers can figure out where to send. The lists just helps establish relative difficulty of acceptance — that's it.
For example, someone just left a comment on my blog that they were preparing to send stories out to the Tier 5 journals on my list. I think that's good — my list saved them from the futility of marching through all the top journals who accept a tenth of 1% of their slush piles. It gave them a list of good journals that are publishing a number of emerging authors, where they have a chance.
Ultimately, though, it is about taste. It's about the type of story editors are accepting, the type of aesthetic they're publishing. You can't rank aesthetics. You can't rank taste. So as one member of the panel said, read the journals. If you read a journal like The Gettysburg Review and find the stories boring, don't send them your "exciting" story, because to them those "boring" stories are exciting. Find a journal that thrills you and send stories there.