Dan Shewan's picture
Dan Shewan from Boston, MA is reading Crime and Punishment January 10, 2012 - 9:08am

So, I guess what I want to talk about is publishing standards.

As the title suggests, maybe I'm reading the wrong journals. Maybe I'm reading the wrong kinds of writers. But - is it just my imagination, or is a lot of what ends up published in 'prestigious' literary journals kinda crappy? 

I've read some excellent work in the short time I've been here, and in the few years I was active at The Cult, and although some people posted success stories from time to time, I'm guessing that a lot of well-received stories went unpublished. Looking through several journals, reading the kinds of stories that get picked up and 'praised', a lot of it strikes me as indulgent, navel-gazing, pretentious crap.

What do you think about publication standards in general these days? I read a lot of people that suggest it's much harder to get stories / essays picked up these days, but so much of what I read in journals sometimes suggests otherwise.

On a side note, any recommendations of really (genuinely) great journals for short fiction?

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle from Rio Grande Valley, TX is reading Chronology of Water January 10, 2012 - 9:18am

Without any specific examples it's hard to say.  But I'd definitely disagree with you that, "what ends up published in 'prestigious' literary journals [is] kinda crappy."  First, I don't know why you put scare quotes around "prestigious."  Some journals really are more prestigious than others.  Second, I think most of what I've seen in literary journals is really quite good.  What journals are you reading and do you have a link or cite to a story published in a "prestigious" journal that you think is "kinda crappy"?

Dan Shewan's picture
Dan Shewan from Boston, MA is reading Crime and Punishment January 10, 2012 - 9:32am

Nothing immediately leaps to mind, it's more of a generalized observation over time, which got me thinking about publication standards overall.

I agree that some journals, no matter how hard some may try to convey an image and reputation of exclusivity, are more prestigious than others. My use of quotes around 'prestigious' was to address the perceptions of some journals that seem to try too hard.

Don't get me wrong - some of the stories I've read in journals in the past year have been excellent. It just seems that a lot of what I'd wager would be worked over pretty well in an environment like LitReactor for too lazy storytelling, poor dialogue etc. ends up being published and hyped as the next big thing.

 

 

 

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle from Rio Grande Valley, TX is reading Chronology of Water January 10, 2012 - 9:40am

Don't get me wrong - some of the stories I've read in journals in the past year have been excellent. It just seems that a lot of what I'd wager would be worked over pretty well in an environment like LitReactor for too lazy storytelling, poor dialogue etc. ends up being published and hyped as the next big thing.

Could be, but the aesthetic is different.  The Litreactor Workshop, in my view, seems to have a very minimalist/transgressive bias to it. The mainstream literary establishment (again only in my view) seems to have a bias against transgressive work.  So, I'm not sure that the comparison can really be made.  Personally, I like both, but for different reasons.  There's good and bad with both. 

I do think that the aesthetic discussion is interesting and worth having, though.  What would you prefer to see more of in literary journals?  What would you change about the prevailing Litreactor Workshop aesthetic?

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 10, 2012 - 7:16pm

I think literary journals need to take more chances on transgressive writers. Sometimes the darker or more surreal side of life is more interesting to me than yuppies in the city or dissatisfied suburbanites. Or it seems if you write about slavery or terrorism or a period piece, it's taken seriously while the real issues of contemporary society are ignored. Even though, American Beauty was suburbia, I felt that it addressed issues in a very contemporary way and had surreal elements.

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle from Rio Grande Valley, TX is reading Chronology of Water January 10, 2012 - 8:12pm

What issues do you think that transgressive writers cover that are not covered by literary writers?

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 11, 2012 - 12:13am

Well, they root for the anti-hero more, they show us that not everything is as simple as it seems and a lot of literary writing doesn't take horror, sci-fi or genre writing seriously while transgressive can be all of the above.  Plus the very definition of transgressive which is:

 

trans·gress
   [trans-gres, tranz-] Show IPA
verb (used without object)
1.
to violate a law, command, moral code, etc.; offend; sin.

verb (used with object)
2.
to pass over or go beyond (a limit, boundary, etc.): to transgress bounds of prudence.
3.
to go beyond the limits imposed by (a law, command, etc.); violate; infringe: to transgress the will of God.

 

So transgressive lit tries to push the boundaries of what is considered lit. In a way, it wouldn't exist without the stifling boundaries of lit. God needs the devil as much as the devil needs God in other words.  Without evil what need is there for good or a basis to judge good and evil. If you want to be a transgressive writer, you must play devil's advocate to all of human experience. If you can make a reader sympathize or even understand a terrible person, all the better. I personally like to know what makes a sociopath tick, I want to know what that crazy whore on the corner is thinking, I want to know what happens in that darkened apartment when they are alone. I think transgressive lit fills a dark obsession while normal lit sometimes is too clever for it's own good and aims to make people feel safe.

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions January 11, 2012 - 4:11am

I think it's fair to say the most celebrated short story collection of 2011 was Volt by Alan Heathcock.  I'm 5 stories in and made a brief count of murders/rapes/mutilations/animal corpses, but deleted to avoid potential spoilers.  It's a pretty stark collection. Stories from Volt first appeared in the Harvard Review, the Kenyon Review, Storyville, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story, which is a pretty "prestigious" list of journals.  

I don't think that it's your imagination that what often appears in prestigious literary magazines is crappy: I think it's your opinion.  The publishing standards at The Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, The Missouri Review, etc, are  as high as they have ever been.  Not liking a a "New Yorker" story, or literary fiction, or the classics is fine--but if you're going to argue that they're crap, you should do more to explain the opinion.

I read the Best American Short Stories every year (a kind of writerly duty), and I dislike 75% of what I read there.  A lot of it's not for me; but I wouldn't call it crap.  And there's always a gem or two, and this year's was George Saunder's "Escape from Spiderhead."  It appeared in the New Yorker.  It's sci-fi, and a very odd amalgam of experimental sex and violence and institutional evil.  Transgressive is kind of a slippery term in my opinion.  Is George Saunders transgressive? Larry Brown? Nabakov?  Tennessee Williams?  Roberto Bolano?  Dostoyevski?  Selby?  By definition, they are--and a hundred other classic literary writers as well.  Important fiction has long had a strong transgressive element.  I sometimes feel like the term transgressive is most often used to defend modern writing that's just not very good--and that's unfortunate.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading January 11, 2012 - 4:26am

MattF, stick around. I like what you're about.

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters January 11, 2012 - 6:04am

@MattF - I agree with you completely, especially about the term 'transgressive'.  I don't care for the term.  I often find people using it to put others down - you just don't get it, it's transgressive.  And it's such a relatively new idea (came about in the 80's if I'm not wrong), but if you go thinking about it, it can apply to the majority of famous writers in it's purest definition. 

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle from Rio Grande Valley, TX is reading Chronology of Water January 11, 2012 - 10:02am

Another highly-touted "literary" short story collection from last year was Daniel Woodrell's The Outlaw Album.  The opening story deals with an MC who returns to beat the murdered corpse of his neighbor whenever the mood catches him.  The second is about an adolescent girl dumping her brain-damaged rapist uncle into a river to drown.....I'd say that these stories sufficiently explore the darker side of life.  In general, I'd highly recommend that collection, particularly the story "Night Stand."  Definitely worth a read.

a lot of literary writing doesn't take horror, sci-fi or genre writing seriously

There's some truth to this, but I think it might be overstated a bit.  Granta just did an entire issue dedicated to horror.  You should definitely check it out - it's a great read.

I sometimes feel like the term transgressive is most often used to defend modern writing that's just not very good--and that's unfortunate.

That might be a bit unfair.  But then again, I'm trying to think of what the term "transgressive" means and why we decided we needed it.  I'd have to do more thinking about it, but I'm a bit hesitant to agree with your conclusion there.   I'd be interested in people's opinions on the Litreactor aesthetic and on transgressive literature in general.

Bekanator's picture
Bekanator from Kamloops, British Columbia is reading Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter January 11, 2012 - 10:44am

I do understand what Dan's talking about, and I did have a similar experience when I started submitting.  I found that a lot of the stuff in the magazines I sampled was careful, pretty prose that sounded nice, but there wasn't much else there.  I always thought of it as "absent" writing.  I felt like I didn't really know the characters; every story was about something but none of them were entirely solid on the details.  I didn't like it, but clearly the editors did, and then I'd sample my writing next to the stories in the magazine and I really felt like an outsider.  Literary short fiction is this world I really don't understand.

I'm on the fence about the term "transgressive".  I think it works well to describe the array of work most of us here gravitate to read and write, but I also feel like it kind of blocks in a little too much, like all "transgressive" work has to be about criminals and dark-seeded people, and that it has to be written in a minimalist way.  Works for Palahniuk and Cleavenger and Ellis, but I don't like seeing my work fenced in with theirs.  I don't like thinking that if I don't write like any of those three writers that my work isn't "transgressive". 

To me, transgressive just means dark; it explores more of the character than it does plot, and it does so in a very human way.  And it doesn't have to be about sociopaths and drug addicts and the worst kind of criminals.  It could easily be about a guy who cheats on his wife, just so long as it shows his transgressions while he does it, how he copes, how it all really affects him.  It's about making people's coping mechanisms seem real and honest and gripping as opposed to what society typically sees as vile or morbid or shocking.

A lot of the stuff in the literary journals do explore the same issues, but I don't think it's done in as blunt a way.  It skitters around a little, adds more flair.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not for some of us, and so we have to gravitate elsewhere.  Sadly, there isn't much out there as of yet for our work to go.  Sometimes I find a lot of newer journals looking for more edgier stuff, but of course, there's no knowing if a new journal is going to be able to stick it out for the long haul.  That said, support that vision.  Read new magazines that strike your fancy, and then submit to them.  I've seen what this community can do just because we're all people with a passion for the same literary values. 

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs January 11, 2012 - 4:06pm

No, the stories aren't bad. Instead, they're often boring and same-y.

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle from Rio Grande Valley, TX is reading Chronology of Water January 11, 2012 - 4:35pm

No, the stories aren't bad. Instead, they're often boring and same-y.

What recent literary magazine issue did you read where the stories were "boring and same-y"?  The only way we can get any headway in this discussion is if someone actually cites some examples.  MattF and I both cited examples of literary short story collections that we thought were fresh and exciting.  I'd like to see the opposite end.  Also, would be nice to hear of short story collections that you don't consider boring and same-y.  Just for contrast.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs January 11, 2012 - 6:58pm

Almost every college lit journal that I've ever read. Zoetrope would be a good example as far as a non-college lit magazine like what I'm talking about.

Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You isn't boring, but the stories are very similar to each other (although not similar to the writing of other authors). I enjoyed reading her stories a lot more when they appeared in issues of literary journals and surrounded by stories written by other authors than when they were collected in the book along with other stories that I hadn't read yet. Stories in collections need to be diverse or the book is a failure (even if the stories are good).

A collection that isn't boring or same-y: Carlton Mellick III's Fantastic Orgy. I don't finish books that are boring.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 11, 2012 - 6:14pm

Something can't be pretentious if it does in fact meet its goal. In other words, if stories published in X-lit-mag are in fact what the editors like, then where is the pretense? If a musician plays a song which you don't like but won a Grammy anyway, where is the pretense?

And I like what MattF wrote. But I haven't read Volt.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs January 11, 2012 - 6:43pm

Pretentious? What?

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 11, 2012 - 6:45pm

JY, you are pretentious for saying that. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 11, 2012 - 11:26pm

@Bradley -- I should have used a block quote -- from the initial post:

Looking through several journals, reading the kinds of stories that get picked up and 'praised', a lot of it strikes me as indulgent, navel-gazing, pretentious crap.

Indulgent, navel-gazing - not everyone likes that, but some people do (though they might use the term contemplative or something.) If the intent is to entertain oneself by picking lint out of a knot of flesh, then there is no pretension in doing so. If the intent is to convince people that a piece of fiction is already important when it is not, then there is pretension. The word 'pretentious' gets thrown around a lot by people who assume they understand someone's motivations and intentions based on a cursory investigation. I'm not saying Dan was doing that, but sometimes people do. I was just pointing out that one's tastes does do not define what is or is not pretentious, it is defined by claims made or implied and their relation to reality.

Why did I bother to type that shit in the first place? Because I was bored and I like thinking about shit.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 12, 2012 - 4:51am

I like stories about people who collect seashells and think of past relationships and then a guy finds a seashell that reminds him of a girl, then he sees another girl who looks like his ex but he speaks to her and she isn't. Then he tosses the seashell into the sea.  The end.  Is that the kind of pointless story you are talking about?

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 12, 2012 - 4:52am

And the title is, "He Smells Seashells by the Sea Shore".

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break January 12, 2012 - 5:36am

I read Volt and besides the first two stories, it really dragged ass.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading January 12, 2012 - 5:56am

A lot of what passes for "transgressive" fiction is samey and dull, too. Disaffected protagonists, violence, sex, drugs, staccato sentences and facile cliffhangers — that doesn't mean there's no good "transgressive" stuff out there, of course, but a great deal of what's being called transgressive doesn't actually transgress anything at all.

Publications often get caught in a comfortable spot and develop an aesthetic vision. Then the texts that conform to the vision get published, and the aesthetic is strengthened even more. So on.

I do agree that many journals publish slightly tiresome fiction. I help run a quite prestigious journal for a university, and we try to be varied, but the fact is, simply, that many of the people who complain about the quality of the fiction published in journals don't see the amount of ridiculous shit that gets submitted. Unless you're The New Yorker and have established a new for yourself as a publication filled with "safely edgy" fiction, etc, you're going to be publishing things that are good by picking the good from the swamp of the terrible.

"Prestigious" or not, many publications stick to what has worked in the past. Not very many mainstream publications take risks of any significance, at least not often. That means stagnation, eventually.

 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters January 12, 2012 - 5:58am

"Is that the kind of pointless story you are talking about?"

Okay, and I'm not offended or anything, but you do realize that is exactly the kind of lame story I write, don't you?  It starts, and nothing happens, and we talk about some stuff, and consider a few things, and then he tosses a seashell into the ocean.  The End. 

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 12, 2012 - 6:36am

You do not avery. I liked your postpartum story and you didn't even have to kill the baby. You aren't tossing seashells, you toss real emotion lol

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 12, 2012 - 6:39am

Double post! Donkey balls!

Bekanator's picture
Bekanator from Kamloops, British Columbia is reading Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter January 12, 2012 - 11:58am

That's the balance, between the symbolism and the reality.  I like your work, too, Avery, and I'll agree with Danny.  Just so long as you talk about the fucking guy a bit to balance out the four pages of purple used to describe the seashells, well, I'm game.

There was a story in Pedestal once about some dude playing a chess game with a kid that was supposed to be a metaphor for something.  I didn't even get past the first half because the chess game was so damn long.  And this was a story that the editor of the magazine wrote an intro for...a rather long and dull intro for.

Even most of the flash fiction I stumble over doesn't make a lot of sense to me.  I always read it and feel like an idiot for not getting what the story was really about.

Fritz's picture
Fritz February 7, 2012 - 10:52pm

Gotta preface this - I like this discussion - there are so many nuances that could come out to play in regards to this.

Good truth about writing - there are no hard rules that must be followed - there are endless avenues of pursuit.

Writing is both an introverted and extroverted affair - It's introverted in that subconscious gut letting rough that pounces on the paper - the making sense of the madness of life - kernal of truth stuff.  And it's extroverted in the learning - the how to write, the setting, pace, conflict resolution, character development, etc...  It's extroverted in the networking - the markets - the editors - the mags - what they want, what they publish

And sure - there's the whole opinions and asshole issue - the one man's castle is another man's dungheap.

So - my thought - simple:  You can either write your story and do the duotrope thing and search for a home or you can find a mag - read it - get a feel for what the editor is all about - and try to shape that monster of a subconsious you've got into the right shape to fit the venue.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 17, 2012 - 2:14pm

Dan, you're not reading the wrong journals. You're just reading the wrong journals FOR YOU. If you don't like literary stories, then don't read The New Yorker or The Paris Review or AGNI or whatever. Find the kind of journals, magazines and websites that publish what you are into. TO YOU, these literary stories are boring. To the editor(s) and boards and universities that are attached, they are exactly what they want.

I do agree that when reading these Best American Short Stories anthologies I don't love everything in them, maybe 50%. But these are the top stories in the nation, published at the elite journals, by successful authors. Ignore this information at your own risk. George Saunders had "Puppy" in one, and I loved it (originally in the New Yorker). Jill McCorkle has a story "Magic Words" that was in a BASS (originally in Narrative). I loved both of those stories. 

The best way to find journals and magazine, IMO, that will work for you is to see where your favorite authors are publishing. Do you love Stephen Graham Jones? He's been in Juked several times. Do you like Matt Bell, then see where he's placed. Same thing works for bigger names, be it William Gay, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King, or Aimee Bender.

Like Fritz said, you can also go to Duotrope (a site that helps you to publish stories) and do some research on what they are looking for. I've discovered so many great places because I submitted there, and want to publish there. Everything from PANK, Barrelhouse and Metazen (edgy lit) to Shock Totem, Shroud and Shimmer (horror) to F&SF and Weird Tales (fantasy/sf).

There aren't many general interest magazines that publish fiction (Playboy, Esquire, The Atlantic). Most are either a genre magazine focusing on a niche, or a literary journal attached to a university.

I like dark, edgy, transgressive fiction. Here's a short list of some of my favorite places:

3AM
Annalemma
Apex
Barrelhouse
Big Lucks
Black Clock
Caketrain
Camera Obscura
Cemetery Dance
ChiZine
Clarkesworld
Collagist, The
Crime Factory
Dark Sky Magazine
GUD
Hobart
Juked
Keyhole
Monkeybicycle
PANK
Shimmer
Shock Totem
Shroud
Snubnose Press
Tin House
Unstuck
Vain
Weird Tales

You can find my full list here:

http://whatdoesnotkillme.com/2009/07/28/richards-submissions/