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In developing a discussion on magazine fiction, it is first necessary to develop strong reasoning as to why this is a relevant topic at all. If one is to discuss fiction in books, which many people have, why does the subject of magazine fiction even have to be brought up? Aren't the two of them one and the same?
The answer to this is no. It is true that magazine fiction and book fiction have much in common, but they have many differences as well. For instance, the medium itself is cause for much difference. The process of creating a book is minimally a year long. So, a person who picks out a book of short stories from their local bookstore will be reading books that are at least a year old. Magazine fiction, however, is more recent, and thus much more exciting. It is very possible for a writer to have his story published only a couple of months after he has written it. Magazine fiction has a stronger feel for the pulse of literary society, which makes it relevant and interesting when speaking of fiction in general.
There are hundreds and hundreds of literary magazines. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is seemingly starting a journal. However, in the entire scope of literary magazines, there are three basic types.
The first type is the largely circulated, prestigious magazine. These include The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Playboy, among others. These magazines usually only publish one piece of fiction per issue. It is extremely difficult to get published in this first type of magazine because 1) they don't publish as many pieces of fiction a year, and 2) every writer is trying to get published in this sort of magazine. However, if you do get published in this sort of journal, the paybacks are larger. You normally get paid more for getting published than in the other two types, and the prestige of getting published will likely land you many more published stories and much more publicity.
The second type of literary magazine is the medium journal, which is one scale smaller than the first. These include Story, Paris Review, and others. These magazines publish more pieces per issue, and tend to be easier to get published in. The prestige of getting published, however, is still very good, although not as great as the first type.
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The third and final type is yet smaller. These include New England Review, Iowa Review, and Georgia Review. Most of this third type operate out of a university, and receive what funding they need from there. This third type of journal is even easier to get published in, and they tend to publish more new writers than the other two types. The prestige in getting published is not as immediate, yet it still exists. Often, magazines of the medium type pick out stories they find worthwhile from these smaller publications, and eventually publish other stories from these writers in their own journal. Submission numbers from these smaller type are not as many as from the other types.
Despite this discrepancy in submission numbers, all editorial staffs of these magazines tend to be small. Most have a group of three or four staff readers, who are the first to get a hold of the story. Then there are usually two or three editors, who are ranked depending upon experience and other qualifications.
There is a clear hierarchy among all magazine fiction staffs. When a story comes in, the first people to read them are usually the staff readers. The two exceptions to this are 1) the editor recognizes the writer as a good one, and 2) the story comes in through an agent. In these two cases, the story will get read faster, and will garner more attention. However, the majority of submissions are unsolicited, which means that they were not sent in by an agent. In the majority of these unsolicited cases, the story is first read by the staff readers. If it is picked out as being a good story by these staff readers, it is passed on to the lowest ranked editor. This is usually the managing editor or the associate editor. This editor then reads those stories and picks out what he likes, and passes it on. This filtering process continues until the few select stories reach the editor-in-chief, often just called "editor", who picks out from this pile what will be published.
Now, there are two skills an editor must possess in order to be a good editor. These two skills are sensibility and craft. Thomas McCormack describes in The Fiction Editor what sensibility is:
...the apparatus within that reacts to what's immediately given - a good (or bad) sentence, a vivid, exciting (or blurred, flat) scene; it's the sensor that feels fear, hope, curiosity; that registers dismay, joy, relief; that purrs in the presence of wit and drama and poetry (5).
What McCormack is talking about here is instinct. Sensibility is the editor's ability to know whether a story is good or not, if it is worth further attention. McCormack goes on to state that good sensibility is when an editor agrees with the common reader as to what good literature consists of (10). Therefore, the fiction magazine editor has to know exactly what his reader wants. If he does not, then he is not a good fiction editor. This ability has nothing to do with a high GPA in graduate school, or the desire to write (11). It simply has to do with a person's intuitive sense as to what's good and what is not, and it "cannot be taught" (12).
Now, let us say that an editor has great sensibility, the best even. Let us further speculate, and say a story comes in that the editor feels strongly about. There is just one thing in the story that is bothering the editor, something that is just not right. Craft is the ability to determine the reason why a story is good, or why a story is trash. As McCormack says, a private reader's sensibilty could be great, but what separates the editor from him is the editor's ability to "identify what is causing the response" (15). Examples of this could be character depth, a missing scene, or a jumbled plotline. However, as McCormack later discusses, craft does not decide whether a story is good or not (52). That is, if an editor has good sensibility and takes a liking to a story, craft means nothing. If the story doesn't follow the traditional rules of craft, but feels good, then craft doesn't matter. If there is something wrong with a story, however, then its craft should be examined in order to fix the problem.
Each magazine publishing fiction has its own editing styles, and each editor within that magazine also has his own editing style. But how can an editor tell whether a story is good or not? That is, what are the secrets behind their sensibility? The first story aspect that all editors look at is the ability of the writer to write. Does the writer have good literary style, good grammar, and good spelling? If he doesn't, then the editor can't expect the story to be very good. Some editors also look at the narrator. They want to know who the narrator is, what's at stake in the story, and why the reader should care about the narrator. Some magazines try to read through each and every submission they receive, even the story does not look very hopeful. Their argument for this is that the most important parts of every story are the opening and the ending. An editor can not get a good feel for a story unless he reads the entire thing. Some magazines tend to avoid cliché stories (coming of age, typical love story, dead mom and dad story), unless the cliché has a fresh twist to it. Others argue and say that if a story is good literature, then nothing else should matter.
An important question is the revision styles of fiction magazine editors. Again, each magazine is different, and each editor is different within that magazine. All editors fix grammatical and spelling errors. There is no exception to this. When it comes to story structure, and thematic concerns, every editor is different. Some will only edit by subtraction. This means that they will never suggest the writer add a scene in the story. They will only take out parts of the story, or tinker around with word choice and language without imposing their own grammatical style on the authors. Other editors disagree with this. Their claim is that editing by subtraction creates a more efficient story, but not necessarily a better one. These editors say that if what the story needs is another scene to make it better, then that is what must be suggested.
The relationships between the editors and authors is also important in the publishing of their stories. The majority of authors are very cooperative. They listen to the editor's suggestions, and respond in a generous manner. Most writers are open to suggestions and change. Most editors are also very cooperative as well. If an author disagrees with an editor's suggestion, most editors will go back and reconsider their suggestion. There is a minority of authors that are more resistant to change. This happens when the author and writer's views on the story are completely different, when they disagree as to what the story is trying to say, and how the story should go about saying it. This willingness to cooperate has nothing to do with track record. It might be thought that well-known authors are more resistant to change because their egos have grown large, or new writers are more resistant because they are new to the entire author-editor relationship. The fact is that none of this matters. Some writers are stubborn while some aren't, and rarely does this have to do with whether the writer is well-known or not.
So it is that every fiction magazine is different, and the spectrum of editing styles is just as broad as the one encompassed by those within books. A fiction magazine editor, like a writer, is an individual. Each will go about his job in a different manner, just as each baseball player has a different batting stance. In the end, some editors get a base hit. Every once in awhile, they might get a home run, a grand slam even. Then there is that bad day, where they strike out three times in a row. The good editor will have a better average than the poor one. Who knows, he might even have an unbelievable year and break Max Perkins' record for season average. Instead of strong forearms and speedy legs, the fiction editor yearns for two things: good sensibility, and good craft. If all of the editors of a magazine have these two things, then that fiction magazine will achieve its final goals, 1) lots of money, and 2) the respect of the literary society.
McCormack, Thomas. The Fiction Editor. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.