Literary Magazines

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.

Trailer for "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You"

Electric Literature just put together this animated trailer for the short story "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" by Wet Asphalt favorite Jim Shephard. It's... pretty damn awesome.

Full disclosure: Electric Literature pays us money to put ads on the site (but not to post things like this). Irregardless of that, I honestly believe that they are a pretty great literary magazine that appears to be doing everything right--and offering their magazine for a reasonable price in a myriad of formats including DRM-free ebooks. But most importantly they publish really good writers like Jim Shephard and pay him real money for the privilege. So go buy their first issue already.

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:

What's the Issue with Issue 1?

So a couple of guys named Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter have created a new poetry Journal called Issue 1. It's nearly 4000 pages long and is available in PDF form here. It's been creating quite a stir among certain poetry circles lately, mostly because a quick survey of the contributors shows it to be possibly the most significant collection of poets ever assembled. With work ranging from the likes of William Shakespeare, my own 13th Great Grandfather Geof Chaucer, to Contemporary figures like Ron Silliman and Susan Howe, to less widely known but still enormously talented poets like Anny Ballardini, Amy King, and, um, yours truly.

Now, of course, none of us actually wrote any of the pieces attributed to us in the book, but frankly i kind of wish I had written my three contributions. "A Cat of Countries" (page 1248):

A cat of countries

The sympathy of darkness
Singleness
Beardless and eternal
A room of countries
Of progress
Reluctance and fun
Firing beside a cat
Like a considerable sweeping
Feeling love

"Whole as a passage" (page 2646):

Whole as a passage
Into a swept whisper a fascinating trader
   arrived
The passages mumbled
Those were whole
A rapid rib, cheap rib,
   useful rib of an impossible thieving
Was he impenetrable?
Let her stare
Should he have been silent?
From his difficult arm he hungered for
   one, having, from his throat demoralization
     waiting
That was the creek’s wilderness
Sorrow, you were
   not there, making like a head
Fascinating and enthralling
He would sooner
   be different,
Big and little
”I save brass,” he whispered
He was lived by a
   mutter
He was thinking of the ghastly lives
   of bailiffs, knocking silently beside reckless conceptions
Now the thievings filled in the breeze

And my favorite, and the one that sounds the most like me, "Changing news like intelligence" (page 3573):

Changing News Like Intelligence

To burn descending on an art
A person
His anodyne news

Beginning beside a tree
More minor than a beggar

Now, of course there are some people who think this is lame. Others who take issue, like Silliman who made some vague mention of legal action in his blog about it.

To such people, I say chill out. It's a nice piece of something. There's no damage to your reputation taking place here. Clearly the list of authors was gleaned in someway from Buffalo poetics/the kinds of magazines folks like us get printed in. And frankly, taking Rita Dove at one end, and myself at the other, of a spectrum of fame, none of us are all that well known to the point that anybody outside our little poetry world will care about this one way or another. Take it as a compliment and relax. This thing is the best piece of flarf I've ever come across and frankly, like Anny Ballardini said on the Buffalo list today, I wish I'd had the idea.

Narrative Magazine: It's Worse Than You Thought

Over at Literary Rejections on Display, some commenters have discovered the real reason Narrative Magazine is so eager to pump up their fraudulent subscriber numbers: they sell their email list to spammers and junk mailers.

Let's be clear: Narrative Magazine is run by a bunch of scumbags. Do not patronize their website, "subscribe" or, god forbid, pay them to submit work. Avoid at all costs.

See also my original post Fuck Narrative Magazine

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.

Fiction Magazines of the Future

Daniel Green recently responded to Ed Champion's musings on what fiction magazines should be like. He writes:

...its hard to argue that with the proliferation of literary magazines, now abetted by the constant appearance of new literary journals online, that there isn't enough short fiction published in this country. Indeed, most of what is published in the existing journals goes largely unread.

True enough, certainly. But,

Publishing magazines "exclusively devoted to fiction" that "the public will buy," as futile as this enterprise would surely turn out to be, could only mean to dumb down the current tenor of literary magazines, to publish more conventional, more "accessible" fiction. I can't see what purpose this would serve. Such fiction would not be "better" for its readers than Desperate Housewives. It would identify fiction as just another entertainment option, a way to pass some time while easing up on the electricity bill. You are not better off reading a bland and undemanding short story than you are watching a bland and undemanding tv show. If just weaning a few people away from visual entertainment back to print is the goal, forget it. Not enough people will convert to make the effort worthwhile.

This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of what Ed was trying to say, and moreover it continues the assumption that for something to be accessible to general public it must be dumb or bland, a notion that I've objected to many times. We know that there's intelligent, interesting work that is widely loved; why point to Desperate Housewives when you can point to Lost or Deadwood? Just because something's entertaining doesn't at all mean it's bland and undemanding, and the notion that for something to be of high quality it must somehow not entertain is crazy. However, Green then writes,

What is needed is not more short story publications "exclusively devoted to fiction" that appeal more widely but fewer publications devoted exclusively to fiction (or poetry, for that matter) and more that appeal to the discerning audience for serious fiction that actually exists. What is needed is for editors of literary magazines, both established and up-and-coming, to not just publish fiction shorn of all context and mixed together in an otherwise indigestible stew but to indicate, both through editorial commentary and consistent editorial choices, what they think is important about the fiction they publish. Why have they selected it? What larger vision of the possibilities of short fiction does the selection illustrate? In my opinion, the "miscellany" approach practiced by most literary magazines--by which the "best fiction available" is printed, with little or no indication of what makes it the "best"--makes all too many of them useless; I can only make my way through a few of them, trying to find the "best" in a scattershot fashion, before I put them aside and conclude it just isn't worth my time (and sometimes money) to prospect for fiction in this way.

Which is absolutely right on, and the idea of publishing fiction, criticism and commentary with a very particular context and aesthetic was the guiding idea for this site. It makes me wonder, should we be talking more about what we publish and why we publish it? We've been fortunate enough to publish some pretty great stuff, and maybe we should do more to tell you why, what criteria exactly we're using to judge it.

In fact, one of the things I like about sf magazines and anthologies over literary ones is that they tend to have more of the editor and the author talking about their work, a few paragraphs before or after to help draw you in or give you context. It's also something I like about One Story's interviews with their own authors that give you some background. My fear is that people are seeing the fiction and poetry on this site and ignoring it, even if they like reading the commentary. And, let me tell you, most of the time on this site, the fiction and poetry is where it's at. This is partially because the commentary is mostly written by me, and the fiction and poetry is written by other people, and so I have some critical and editorial distance.

How to Save Fiction Magazines

Warren Ellis has written a series of posts about sf short fiction magazines which relate to the state of literary magazines and the larger issue of the survival of short fiction. Magazine sales overall are up, you see, and yet sales of the major sf fiction magazines are down. The problem? These magazines aren't designed to be wanted:

i-D Magazine, with its famous “wink” portrait covers, at once put-on and come-on, seducing with its knowledge of The New Scene and yet laughing at its transience. The Arts & Crafts conceits of The Believer, the subtle comedy of the covers, balancing hipster here and intellectual there.

These are things that are designed to be wanted. We are supposed to get pleasure from viewing and handling these objects. Things that are designed to be wanted do the job of drawing our eye to them on the newsagent’s shelf. And that’s the key.

Subscription sales are great, but they’re almost a closed system. To survive, new accounts must constantly be injected into it. And that chiefly happens through people finding a magazine on a rack and thinking, yes, I’d like to have this, and wouldn’t it be nicer if it was delivered straight to my house?

He adds later:

But you know what? ASIMOV’S, ANALOG, F&SF — they don’t think they need saving. I mean, they haven’t changed for years, have they? They’re not designed to be wanted because they don’t want to be wanted, not really. They want to be left alone to do their thing, and they don’t want any loud new people in the room. They serve a dwindling audience, and they have to be aware of that — so they have to be in it to simply serve that audience, to provide that presumably cosy experience to their people until the last light goes out. Otherwise they would have done something different years ago. This is why those three magazines have a web presence that can charitably be described as “vestigial.” That’s not a dishonourable thing.

Cory Doctorow over on Boing Boing chimes in

I think the biggest impediment to the magazines' sales is that there's no easy way for people who love the stories in them to bring them to the attention of other, potential customers. By the time you've read the current issue and found a story you want everyone else to read, the issue isn't on the stands anymore and the best you can do is to try to get your pals to shell out to pay for an ebook edition.

...

If I were running the mags, I'd pick a bunch of sfnal bloggers and offer them advance looks at the mag, get them to vote on a favorite story to blog and put it online the week before the issue hits the stands. I'd podcast a second story, and run excerpts from the remaining stories in podcast. I'd get Evo Terra to interview the author of a third story for The Dragon Page. I'd make every issue of every magazine into an event that thousands of people talked about, sending them to the bookstores to demand copies -- and I'd offer commissions, bonuses, and recognition to bloggers who sold super-cheap-ass subscriptions to the print editions.

Sure it's lot of work, and a huge shift in the way the mags do business. But hell, how many more years' worth of 13 percent declines can the magazines hack?

Part of what's troubling about this is that if my own experience is any indication, sf short fiction is better than its ever been. So it's not quality that's hurting the sf magazines, and assuming there is still a potential audience for this stuff at all then the problem is packaging, publicity and perhaps medium.

Back when I first started complaining about literary magazines, my main complaint was the size and price. But it's true that McSweeney's is doing well (they "print 20,000 copies an issue") and it's precisely because of their design and image and ability to promote themselves. One Story, our old favorite, also has an innovative design and presentation, but I worry about them because they're subscription-only and their main promotional plan seems to involve trips to writer's conferences and MFA programs which invite a kind of incestuous ceiling of popularity. Perhaps this is uncharitable, they do go to the Brooklyn Book Festival and have a blog and a good web presence. But I think the answer for One Story might be a better web presence; which is to say, to put all their stories online, complete. Doctorow's been exploring the idea that giving things away online helps sell print copies for quite some time; he's given away all his books online and the sales of print copies have made him a successful novelist. The reason One Story's format is so compelling is because each story is such a small, portable little booklet. I think that if they put their stories online, then people who found them would be impressed by their quality and want very much to subscribe so that reading them would be that much easier. And this may be the ideal format for the fiction magazine: a free online edition, with the ability to obtain single issues either by subscription or of individual issues—as in, you start reading a story, realize you like it and want to finish it offline and with the click of a button you can have it mailed to you. (Of course, you can always also print the thing out, but you want to support the people who made it and those little booklets are so well designed you just have to have one.) You could even make the first one free, just click and here it comes, and then you'd want the next one and the next...

Had I time and resources I would happily try this experiment with Wet Asphalt; I would love to offer little booklets of Wet Asphalt material, or even eventually a "Wet Asphalt Reader" in cheap, portable paperback. Perhaps some day.

Why n+1 is the Worst Literary Magazine on the Market

There's been a recent dust-up in the lit blogs over some criminally stupid things that n+1 printed about literary blogs. This after Keith Gessen's previous inflammatory remarks on the subject. One of the things they're on about lit blogs about is being publicity shills to the publishing industry, which is a bit ironic considering that emails published by the Elegant Variation reveal that Gessen was in fact trying to use the lit blogs for just that same purpose himself. But this hypocrisy is simply one way of underlining the obvious: n+1 is run by a cadre of pretentious, arrogant assholes with strange and insupportable ideas about literature and criticism, with Keith Gessen chief among them.

Let us not forget that n+1 is the organ that thinks normal people go on $130 dinner dates, get paid $40 an hour for copy-editing, and sleep with 10 people on a "busy but not extravagant Spring Break." But then n+1's essays always seem to follow a similar pattern: a mildly valid critical thought is blown up into Iraq proportions, and then addressed with a rapidly escalating series of inane and insupportable conclusions. This is true of the dating article (the notion that dating can be a pain in the ass is valid enough, but n+1 shines that through a perverse and distorted lens, projecting something alien and somewhat nauseating). Likewise with the Elif Batuman's article on the short story, which takes the problem of workshop fiction and somehow deduces that the problem with these stories involves too many proper names and implied familiarity—again, a perplexing, weird conclusion. And, of course, this is true with their criticisms of lit blogs.

Consider:

People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough.

...

The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction - "The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!" - or displeasure - "I shit on Dante!" So man hands on information to man.

...

Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic][pointed out by The Millions] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits - by their clicks you shall know them - and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses - fillips of contempt, wet kisses - aren't criticism.

Now, it's one thing to say that a lot of lit bloggers write shallow things, and certainly we see enough of "This book is SO great, you have to read it right now!" from certain quarters I won't name. But to then imply that the lit bloggers are somehow in the pocket of the publishing houses just because those publishing houses send them review copies, and give them recognition simply doesn't follow. In fact, that argument is better applied to profession newspaper and magazine reviewrs, such as n+1 editor Marco Roth. After all, they not only get free books, they get paid to write about them by giant corporations, who themselves get advertising money from the publishing houses. Blogs aren't on the payroll of publishing companies, and there is no more incentive for a lit blogger to print a positive review of The DaVinci Code than there is for printing one of Everyman, Black Swan Green, or the kind of small press books that blogs are known for championing like Stranger Things Happen or Home Land. Indeed n+1's attitude, including and especially the statement "responses aren't criticism," strikes one as a kind of petulant childishness, like a little girl sneering at a more popular girl and saying, "what a bitch!" Not just because there's plenty of good criticism in the blogosphere if you care to look, that's entirely beside the point. Blogs are not always meant to be literary magazines, and bloggers don't have to be critics. Bloggers are bloggers, and one of the things that separates a blog from a literary review is that in the medium of the blog a blogger can chat informally about books if she wants to. Complaining that blog posts aren't long and rigorous enough is kind of like complaining that some motorcycles don't have four wheel drive. It's not just stupid, it's bizarre.

Like The Elegant Variation, I too had an email correspondence with Keith Gessen, though I'm too much of a gentleman to print it. But I will report that among the things he said was that I was somehow "freeloading"* off his content by reading it when he put it up on his own website instead of buying the magazine. Keith Gessen is a weird little man and n+1 is a weird little magazine, and not a very good one at that. Frankly, you shouldn't buy it or read it or otherwise bother with it, and we'll all be better off when it (inevitably) goes under.

* This originally read "stealing." Keith Gessen wrote to correct me, that he had accused me of "freeloading" and not stealing. Looking back through the emails, this is correct.
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Silliman on Conjunctions

Perhaps it's a sign of the times that when Ron Silliman posts about the new issue of Conjunctions (calling Conjunctions the best literary review in America), his comments fill with backlash about how journals are too long, too obsequent to big names, and that there are simply too many of them. In a follow-up post, Silliman writes, "I found myself sympathizing also with the commentators who bemoaned the difficulty of 'keeping up' with journals in an era of shit distribution, increasing reliance on web publishing & still way too many print magazines." (Let's also point out that they're too expensive.) Silliman then proceeds with a very interesting review of the poetry in the Conjunctions issue in question, including a piece of poetry within a short story by Jonathan Lethem.