short story

Fiction Magazines Worth Reading: 2010

It's been just over a year since I posted about the fiction magazines I felt were still worth reading, and already two magazines I liked (Farrogo's Wainscot and the not-mentioned-but-should-have-been Lone Star Stories) have gone out of business. Since then, I've also read a lot more widely, discovering new venues. Given that these things may continue to happen, it seemed appropriate enough to turn the list into a yearly outing. There's a glut of completely unreadable fiction magazines out there (with the "literary" magazines tending toward tepid boredom and the genre magazines tending toward uninspired hack-work), and the world sorely needs someone to sort through them and pick out the ones that are actually worth paying attention to.

Why I Love Short Stories

I love the short story form. Unlike JF Quackenbush, Flash Fiction always feels incomplete to me, like an appetizer without a main course. And I love novels, but sometimes an idea can and should be expressed compactly; indeed often the joy of the short story is seeing how the author pulls off the full expression of something in so few pages.

Why I Hate Short Stories: A Short Article on Why Short Fiction is Short on Interest

I don't like short stories. I have never made this a secret. There is the occasional writer like Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel Garcia Marquez who writes short stories that I like. But these writers are few and far between.

Fiction Magazines Worth Reading

Not so long ago, I despaired at the idea of finding a place to publish my own fiction. Like many aspiring writers, I flipped through Writer's Market and sent stuff out to the supposed top of the short story food chain, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, etc., with predictable results (that is, rejection). But then why should I have been surprised? I didn't generally like the stories published in those magazines (they are usually, shall we say, boring). Even if I was writing the best possible stories I could in the style I liked (and I definitely wasn't) I probably wouldn't have been published in those venues. With this in mind, I set out to find short story publications that I could actually read regularly and enjoy. This is the list I've come up with (so far) in alphabetical order, though I more than welcome recommendations:

The State of SF Magazines

In a recent blog post, comics and prose writer Warren Ellis discusses why the print SF magazines are dying. The key for me is when he says,

As was stated over and over last year, any number of things could be done to help these magazines. But, naturally enough, the magazines’ various teams appear not to consider anything to be wrong.

You all may recall that I recently did a not very flattering review of a recent issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in which I discussed in some depth how almost all the stories within were derivative, uninteresting and for the most part crap. However, when that post was discussed on the F&SF message board, I found the editor in chief, Gordon van Gelder, not only unreceptive to my comments, but completely dismissive of them and of me.

First he wrote "I think my attitudes were a lot like yours back when I was 19 or 20. ... One thing I learned is that while I'm completely entitled to my tastes, my likes, my dislikes, it's a mistake to think that everyone else shares them." What are we, in high school? Are you really arguing that all opinions are subjective and the view that they aren't can't be true because you thought that way when you were young?

Then he says that I would be "better served by anthologies" and that it's an old joke that a "Slipstream" magazine would lose money, because he's obviously raking in a fortune as it is. Moreover, he keeps insisting that F&SF is better than ever, and if that was the case why are they loosing readership year after year? And don't say because people are watching TV and movies and playing video games instead; that's a cop out. As Ellis explains in a later post, print is not dead. Not even close. Ellis seems to think that it's too late for the existing SF magazines, for F&SF, Analog, Interzone, and Asimov's. I'm inclined to think he's right.

Fuck Narrative Magazine

Narrative Magazine has gotten a write up in the San Francisco Chronicle recently which seems to make a game of how completely it can crawl up the Magazine's asshole. The editors, Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarton, are revolutionaries, the article tells us, because they've put fiction on the Internet and gotten "40,000" subscribers instead of the "5,000" subscribers "most 'small magazines,' on- or offline" have. (Try 500 and you might be closer to the truth, but I digress.) Yes, Jenks and Edgarton, a loving couple, a "symbiotic" match made in yuppieville, took time off from writing their own, "acclaimed" novels and went to Martha's Vineyard to put together their revolutionary website. How revolutionary?

Narrative is also atypical in terms of quality. There is no whiff of literary hipsterism here, no veil of coolness to cover up the mediocre writing that is often found in new publications by editors who have spent their college years boning up on David Foster Wallace.

Fuck you.

Instead, Jenks and Edgarian offer a wide, well-edited and stimulating selection of narrative forms.

If by "stimulating selection of narrative forms" you mean countless interchangeable, meandering, pointless slice-of-life vignettes that go nowhere, then yes, I see exactly what you mean.

But there is one major, overriding reason to hate Narrative Magazine, which can be seen in their submission guidelines:

Except during our open-submission periods, we require a reading fee for submission, as follows:

—a $20 reading fee for short short stories of 750 to 2,000 words.

—a $10 reading fee for up to five poems in a single submission.

—a $10 reading fee for short audio (MP3) submissions of poetry. Audio poetry submissions may be up to five minutes in length.

—a $10 reading fee for short audio (MP3) submissions of prose, for our TELL ME A STORY category (see description below). Audio prose submissions may be up to five minutes in length.

—a $20 reading fee for a single manuscript (fiction or nonfiction) of 2,000 to 10,000 words in length.

—a $20 reading fee for novellas and book-length works.

And when is their open submissions period?

Narrative is not currently accepting open submissions.

This is a magazine that asks its potential writers to pay them for the privilege of submitting work. I can't imagine a bigger middle finger to the working fiction writer, a way a magazine could treat the already struggling and unpaid short fiction writer more poorly. I mean, fuck you Narrative Magazine.

As for their supposed "40,000" member subscriber list: we linked to Narrative Magazine once in our original mission statement, and the magazine promptly started sending us regular emails about the crappy writing they were publishing, which makes me think their business ethics fall somewhere between porn spammers and casino spammers, and calls into question any numbers that come out of them. But even at face value the number is incredibly weaselly. A "subscriber" to Narrative Magazine is merely someone who has registered (for free) at their site, which you need to do to read anything on it. So someone who signed up on the site once, read a few stories and never went back is still considered a "subscriber", which is nothing like someone who plunks down money to get every issue of a magazine mailed to them. Calling registered users "subscribers" is not only misleading, it's just plain dishonest. Besides the fact that forcing people to register to look at work on your site is kind of a dick move to begin with, especially since it seems to be done with the express purpose of boosting these fraudulent "subscriber" numbers.

In short, fuck Narrative Magazine. If they're "the future of reading" then reading is not something I want to be a part of.

EDIT 3/28/2008: See my follow up for information about Narrative Magazine selling your information to spammers and junk mailers.

What Are You Going to Do, Bleed On Me?

There's been a lot of talk on the Interwebs about the state of the short story, especially since Stephen King's introduction to "The Best American Short Stories 2007" anthology, in which he observes that the short story is a dying art. People have objected to this assertion (from King and others), but most of the objections come off specious and empty. For instance, a recent blog post on Galley Cat called "The Short Story is Doing Fine" says

Quick, somebody tell Alice Munro she doesn't have a valid career. She's up in Canada; you can swing by George Saunders's house on the way and break the news to him as well. I'll stay here in New York and let Amy Hempel and Deborah Eisenberg know it's time for them to move on.

I can see the whiny, no-doubt-anonymous objection now: "Yeah, but if those last four weren't creative writing professors..." But if we started saying you couldn't be "successful" as a writer unless all you did to make money was write—well, let's just say the ranks of successful writers would be a lot less interesting.

Granted, measures of success are different among different people, but Alice Munro's "career" is not writing short stories. Her career is teaching creative writing. Writing short stories is at best her vocation and at worst her hobby.

Or consider this reaction in the Quarterly Conversation. First, evidence of the short stories' decline is attempted to be reframed so that it's actually a good thing, as in, "maybe just writing for other writers is all we want". Then, arguments are made for the supposed health of the form that are bafflingly poor, the worst of which is this quote from Alexander Chee:

"I have modest blog traffic at best for my blog, Koreanish: 150 to 300 hits per day. But that means in a week my blog is read by at least a 1,000 people. Many small literary magazines hope to sell a 1,000 issues per print run."

Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of websites knows that 1,000 hits a week is not anything like 1,000 readers, and for the author to not even point that out just reinforces the utter desperation lurking behind the whole thing, peering out between the sentences. PLEASE believe me the short story is FINE! PLEASE!

Finally, the author says, "Writers, like everyone else, will continue to need day jobs or sugar daddies." which has so many levels of wrong I don't know where to start. Not only do lots of people most emphatically not need a day job, but lots of writers don't need day jobs. TV and movie writers, for instance, make quite excellent livings. And you know, people who write TV and movies and don't make a living at it don't get to be called professionals. Aspiring professionals, maybe.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (a decrepit and anachronistic organization if ever there was one) defines a professional short story publication as three cents a word, a laughable figure which hasn't changed in decades. As for "literary" short fiction, the number of publications which pay decent rates for it can be counted on the fingers of one hand -- The New Yorker, Harpers, Playboy, Esquire, and once a year the Atlantic Monthly. Did I forget anyone? On the other hand there are an ever increasing abundance of "literary magazines" with circulations in three or even two digits, published by universities or the equivalent of two guys in a garage. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but it's incredibly obvious that today having a "career" in writing short fiction and reaching out to a large audience on a regular basis simply isn't possible.

Let's be clear: I like short stories and I both read and write them. But we wouldn't need a Save the Short Story campaign if it wasn't in trouble. Let us not play pretend, let us not close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears and make believe the art form that once provided an income for a multitude of professionals isn't becoming (or hasn't become) irrelevant to the population at large. The short story is not a healthy art form, but rather a once mighty appendage of the greater literary body that's been gradually severed off and reduced until all that remains is a single lonely ligament, desperately clinging for all its worth.

I don't want it to be this way. I want the short story to be widely read, and I too have hopes for the potential of the Internet and for the future of iPod and Kindle-type devices to allow people to read short stories easily and thus reinvigorate the form. But pretending that there's nothing wrong with the short story is not helping. It is, in fact, counter-productive, akin to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, insisting he's fine and ready to fight after having his arms and legs chopped off. ("What are you going to do, bleed on me?") And that's just kind of laughable.

Some Notes and Corrections on the Short Story

In looking again at the article I wrote on the nature of the short story, I realize perhaps I was a little too hard on the NBCC piece I was criticising. I think I was just so taken aback by the very narrow definition of "art" and the glib manner of dismissing old short stories as "not art" that it was difficult for me to be fair.

The thing is, film and television did change the short story. Yes, Joyce's Dubliners was part of a continuum of naturalism that reached back well into the 19th century and represented what short fiction would become, but its dominance was not an inevitability simply because modernism and realism were the new fashions. Indeed, while those things have dominated literary fiction in novels, they did not dominate novels completely, as any glance at the New York Times best-seller list, replete with its Stephen Kings and Harry Potters will tell you. Nor did it even dominate short-stories completely (only mostly), since work has continued to be done in the genre ghettos and published in places like Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Asimov's Science Fiction.

When the short story was created in the nineteenth century, it was the right form at the right time. Literacy had expanded to unprecedented proportions in the West, and industrialism had created the means for many more publications to exist than before. In other words, there was a public who would desire written stories, and there was an environment that could produce lots of magazines and newspapers happy to give it to them. The short story exploded, coming to the height of its popularity around the turn of the 20th century when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells walked the Earth. The short story was something people could read over coffee in the morning, or with a beer after they got off work and wound down, a quick hit of story, here and then gone.

As film became popular, it's true the the popularity of the short story began to fall off, and when television came around the short stories' narrative hold on the public was thoroughly broken. They no longer needed short fiction to get quick doses of entertainment. Once a lucrative career, short fiction became more and more difficult to make a living at, and the kind of people who really wanted to make a living entertaining people with stories started writing television and movies, which quickly became very lucrative indeed. The only people left to write short fiction were the people who really loved the form, or sought to use it as a stepping stone to success writing novels. Without the audience, publications stopped publishing short fiction, except for a few hold-outs like the New Yorker, Harpers or Playboy and some few genre magazines whose pay rates are ludicrously low. The form was really kept alive by literary journals and universities, exactly the kind of places which preferred Joycean Modernism, and that is the real reason why Joycean Modernism came to be the dominant style in short fiction.

Which is to say that the essay at the NBCC on the history of the short story isn't wrong, exactly, it's merely wrong-headed. And I think that with the rise of the Internet, with people reading off of screens all the time anyway, perhaps it's possible that the short story could make a quiet comeback. The trick would be to have short stories compelling enough to tear people away from Wikipedia or MySpace. Maybe they could read them over coffee in the morning, or a beer after work...

The Nature of the Short Story

Debunking a false history of the short story put forth by the National Book Critics Circle blog, explaining the real history of the form and how a short story is like a pop song.