Ranking online magazines and journals

Editor's note: I originally posted this information on my personal blog, but thought storySouth readers would also appreciate it.

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Scott Boyan at Thinksimian has completed a wonderful meta-analysis of storySouth's Million Writers Award to determine the best online literary journals and magazines. Basically, Scott crunched the numbers from the first four years of the award to see which online magazines placed the most stories in the notable and top ten listings. You can access Scott's complete analysis as a Google spreadsheet, but here are his top ranking online journals and magazines:

  1. Pindeldyboz

  2. Eclectica Magazine
  3. Narrative Magazine
  4. Agni
  5. Identity Theory
  6. Word Riot
  7. FRiGG
  8. Fiction Warehouse (Note: See my recent post about this journal)
  9. Strange Horizons
  10. Barcelona Review
  11. Clarkesworld Magazine
  12. Fail Better
  13. Stickman Review
  14. Mississippi Review
  15. HOBART
  16. 42opus
  17. Summerset Review
  18. Small Spiral Notebook (Note: no longer publishing)
  19. Blithe House Quarterly
  20. ChiZine
  21. Thieves Jargon
  22. Storyglossia
  23. Barrelhouse
  24. King's English
  25. Gowanus
  26. Drunken Boat
  27. Intergalactic Medicine Show
  28. Literary Mama
  29. Write This
  30. Danforth Review

Thanks to Scott for doing this analysis. And as a reminder, the 2008 Million Writers Award will start accepting nominations in about a month.

Review: 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market

Editor's note: I originally posted this review on my personal blog, but thought storySouth readers would also appreciate it.

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The 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market (N&SSW) is now out from Writers Digest Books. While I'm of a mixed mind about the book's usefulness in actually submitting to fiction markets, I've decided to recommend it once again for both new and experienced writers.

First, the back story on my mixed recommendation. When I reviewed last year's edition, I mentioned that one problem overtaking the venerable market compilation is that online resources like Duotrope's Digest and Ralan's listing (which is specifically for speculative fiction writers) have overtaken N&SSW by offering free submission information that's more up-to-date than anything a printed book can offer. I especially like Duotrope Digest, which offers an easy-to-use online market and submission database. When I asked N&SSW editor Lauren Mosko if Writer's Digest Books was considering making all of N&SSW's listings available online, she said that "Free market resource sites like Duotrope's Digest are certainly on our radar, but we feel confident Writer's Market will remain the brand writers can trust." Lauren added that they were preparing for the upcoming redesign and relaunch of WritersMarket.com.

So it's now a year later. One very good change is that N&SSW began offering a nice blog, which contains market and other useful writing information. I highly recommend writers check out the blog on a regular basis. In addition, the updated Writersmarket.com has been launched. However, Writersmarket.com remains a subscriber based system which, in my opinion, doesn't offer enough extra information and ability above Duotrope Digest to justify the subscription cost of $29.99 for one year. In addition, purchasing N&SSW doesn't give you access to Writersmarket.com. So when you buy the book you're locked into an already out of date data set, at least with regards to market information.

However, I'm still recommending the market guide because editors Lauren Mosko and Michael Schweer have compiled an amazing collection of articles to aid both beginning or experienced writers. N&SSW once again features in-depth information on writing and submitting in genres such as literary fiction, mysteries, romance, and more; of particular interest to SF/F writers is an informative interview with author Kelly Link and John Joseph Adams' "Speculative Fiction: The Next Generation." For me, the authors interviews are the best part of N&SSW, especially since they give valuable insight into the business side of writing and help writers benefit from the mistakes and successes of others.

So if you're looking for a book which helps you write and submit a compelling story, along with giving useful advice from top authors in all fictional genres, this is a great book to own. But if you're purchasing N&SSW merely for the market listings, I suggest you give N&SSW a pass and move over to Duotrope.

storySouth's Pushcart nominees for 2007

I'm pleased to announce storySouth's Pushcart Prize nominees for 2007:

• the poem "Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods" by Brian Barker (published in the fall 2007 issue of storySouth);
• the poem "Fish Catcher" by Melanie Carter (published in the winter 2007 issue of storySouth);
• the short story "Johnny Cash, Beset by Darkness," by John Marshall Daniel (published in the fall 2007 issue of storySouth)
• the short story "Professing Caliban" by Richard Plant (published in the winter 2007 issue of storySouth);
• the nonfiction story "Welcome to Richmond, Miss Welty" by Tyler Scott published in the spring/summer 2007 issue of storySouth);
• the nonfiction story "The House In Simi Valley" by Darlin' Neal (published in the spring/summer 2007 issue of storySouth).

Congrats and thanks to all these authors.

Pindeldyboz to end print journal

Must be something in the air, because a few weeks after Small Spiral Notebook hung up its editorial coat, another major journal is taking its exit stage left. Pindeldyboz will cease publication of its print edition with the next issue, with a final release party scheduled for Monday, Dec. 10 in New York City. Works from the print Pindeldyboz have been selected for anthologies such as Best American Non-Required Reading and New Stories From the South, The Year's Best.

However, the good news is that Executive Editor Whitney Pastorek tells me the web edition of Pindeldyboz will continue. Over the last seven years, the online Pindeldyboz has published over 1000 stories by more than 600 authors and was named the Best Online Publication of 2003 in the storySouth Million Writers Award. If you're interested in submitting your works for the online edition, they will reopen for subs on January 1.

Jason Sanford's new science fiction and fantasy blog

In the past I've blogged a good bit about science fiction and fantasy on storySouth's main blog. While I still believe there is a lot of crossover between the different literary genres (as indicated by our annual Million Writers Award, which honors all types of online fiction), I am now blogging about science fiction and fantasy matters at my new personal blog. Included in this blog are stories of the week, reviews of SF/F magazines, and highlights of whatever catches my interest, such as my current post on David W. Hill, an American science fiction writer who is not well known on these shores but massively popular in China.

Roadrunner Haiku Journal

Anyone interested in haiku, the traditional syllable and insight driven Japanese style of poetry, should check out Roadrunner Haiku Journal. Just like the poetry style, this online journal features a concise, focused design which helps highlight both the journal's wonderful haiku translations and equally good English language originals. In addition, the Nov. 2007 issue features an interview about haiku with former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Hass.

Small Spiral Notebook to cease publication

I just received an extremely sad e-mail from Felicia Sullivan, editor and publisher of the wonderful online and print journal Small Spiral Notebook. As she says:

"After six years of publication, articles in major newspapers and magazines (NYT, New Yorker, Poets & Writers, Utne, Time Out NY, just to name a few) and solicitations from top agents and publishers, which have helped our writers score agents and book deals, I'm sad to announce that SSN will cease publication on 12.31.07. This was a very difficult decision for me to make, however, it was one that I felt was best for the journal. We will continue to publish reviews, interviews & features until the end of the year, and the site will remain online indefinitely. We will publish a final print issue in 2009. Subscriptions will be fulfilled.

I want to thank you all for your unwavering, wonderful support and for reading! I’d also like to extend a special thanks to my wonderful staff. SSN wouldn’t be where it is today without my incredible and devoted team of editors, reviewers, feature writers and readers. My humble thanks.

Small Spiral Notebook has long been on of the brightest stars in the online literary universe and I both congratulate Felicia for the work she's done and wish her the best in the future. I should also note that SSN just scored several notable mentions in this year's Best American Short Stories and Best American Non Required Reading. Felicia says people can keep track of her in the future through her website.

Story of the Week: Profile of a mine disaster's last survivor

My new selection for story of the week is an excellent journalistic profile from my local paper, The Columbus Dispatch. The article revolves around reporter Randy Ludlow's interview with Sigmund Kozma, who at age 95 is the last living survivor of the 1930 Millfield Mine disaster. The 600 word article is a perfect example of how brevity in prose and writing style can actually heighten a story's emotional impact.

Note the sparse power of the opening:

There's the name of Sigmund Kozma's buddy.


It's chiseled into the stone of the pillar next to the post office.

Wilbur was Sig's best friend. They grew up tramping the fields, hitting the swimming hole and chasing girls. Sig was sweet on Wilbur's sister.

Eighty-one other names are engraved in stone as well, men Kozma knew from the company town of the Sunday Creek Coal Co.

After that powerful introduction, Ludlow resists the urge to veer off into political or historical asides and simply provides the barest of needed background in two descriptive sentences. In the first, he states that "Kozma is the only miner still alive among the 138 who walked out of that hellish hole on Nov. 5, 1930." In the second, he writes that "It was spitting snow the day of Ohio's worst mine disaster." That second sentence is an absolute gem, with "spitting" providing a perfect counterpoint to snow, turning what would normally be a beautiful image into an apt illustration of the horror that unfolded 77 years ago. The story then provides more of Sigmund Kozma's memories of the disaster before closing where it began, with Kozma remembering all the friends he lost so long ago.

This is an absolute masterpiece of local journalism. I'd highly recommend the story not only to any budding journalists, but also to anyone who cares at all about story craft.

Read the entire story:

"Ex-miner mourns pals 77 years after blast" by Randy Ludlow, The Columbus Dispatch.

New online magazines and journals worth checking out

I've been remiss lately in highlighting new online journals and magazines. As I gear up for next year's Million Writers Award for best online fiction, these are some of the places I'm keeping my eyes on.

The first journal I recommend is Our Stories: A Unique Literary Journal. The journal features extremely strong fiction and wonderful interviews with writers such as Matthew Sharpe. and George Saunders. Another strong point are the essays by editor in chief Alexis E. Santi, such as his recent "Life is Not Told In Revision." I should add that Santi is a fellow returned Peace Corps Volunteer--he served in Romania, while I did my tour in Thailand. While this isn't the reason I'm recommending his journal, I wonder if his PCV experiences help explain why his journal focuses so much on creating a strong community between the journal's authors, editors, and readers.

Another online magazine I highly recommend
is Subterranean Press Magazine. Focusing on speculative fiction, Subterranean is a professional-level online magazine which started out in print. While I'm not privy to the details of their conversion from print to online (although I do know they published in print for two years, and I wouldn't be surprised if simple economics dictated the change over earlier this year), the simple fact is that Subterranean is perfectly suited to an online venue and probably has a bigger readership online than they ever did in print. Each quarterly issue features top-notch fiction, essays, and art by the biggest names in speculative fiction. If you are at all interested in spec fic, started digging into Subterranean.

Looking back on a writing career without regrets

Writer Tom Purdom recently turned 70. Fifty years ago he published his first short story; his most recent was published this year. In his new essay "With age, liberation: The young cellist, the mature writer and the rest of us," Tom explores why artists of all stripes do what they do, and how after fifty years he has decided he hasn't wasted his life. I highly recommend this extremely moving and insightful essay.

Josie Fowler and her final book

Just over a year ago, my good friend Josie Fowler passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. I first met Josie while living in the Twin Cities and can honestly say she was one of those rare human beings who bring joy and love into the lives of everyone they meet. I couldn't begin to recount all my great memories of Josie, so let me just say I miss her deeply. I will also share a moving tribute from another of Josie's friends.

Another thing I want to share with you is Josie's life work, or one aspect of her life's work. Her book Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists: Organizing in American and International Communist Movements, 1919-1933 was recently published by Rutgers University Press and I recommend it to everyone with an interest in community and activist organizing. While the book is a heavily researched academic examination, it is also a fascinating read. I remember all the work Josie put into researching this subject in her final years and I'm glad her work is now being shared with others. I'm also glad that Josie learned shortly before her death that the book had been accepted for publication.

A few updates

A few housekeeping updates:

First, the fall 2007 issue of storySouth will come out in middle to late September.

Second, I am now editing a health policy blog through my day job with the Health Policy Institute of Ohio. Anyone interested in learning more can go to the Ohio Health Policy Review.

Story of the Week: Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. My first sin: I've been away on vacation, so I haven't updated this blog in nearly forever. My second sin: I've selected Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" as my new story of the week. Selecting the story, of course, isn’t a sin. The sin comes from praising a story so highly when it isn't online, meaning my readers will have to either buy a copy of the September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction or order the limited edition book from Subterranean Press.

For those who don't know Ted Chiang, let me enlighten you. Chiang is a science fiction and fantasy writer who has published a grand total of ten short stories in 17 years. While that total would be insignificant in most literary genres (let alone in speculative fiction, where some writers churn out that many stories each year), Chiang is still one of the best living fiction writers. Notice I didn’t say best SF/F writers, or best genre writers. Chiang is simply one of the best fiction writers PERIOD.

This isn’t merely my opinion. Chiang’s first eight published short stories were nominated for numerous awards and won three Nebulas and a Hugo. His short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others is a must have for anyone who loves short fiction; I reread the stories in this book at least once a year. Even though Chiang only writes short stories, each of his stories have enough depth and life to fill entire novels. He also combines lyricism with philosophical explorations of the human universe in ways I have seen no other modern writer even attempt to do.

Chiang’s new story "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is no exception. Set in ancient Baghdad, the story channels the Arabian Nights into a tale surrounding Fuwaad ibn Abbas and his experiences with the “Gate of Years,” which depending on how one reads the story is either a magic portal or a scientific wormhole through which one may go 20 years into either the past or future. While lesser writers have used this time-traveling theme to showcase paradoxes like killing your own grandfather, Chiang uses the story to explore how we are all responsible for our own actions, even when we use time itself to try and evade them.

I refuse to share more of the plot, other than to say that I both smiled and cried at the end. This is a great story, equal to Chiang’s best, and I suggest everyone pick up their own copy today.

Best of the Net Anthology Seeks Submissions

Erin Elizabeth Smith, managing editor and founder of Sundress Publications, is putting out a call for the second volume of their Best of the Net Anthology. As she says, "This project works to promote the diverse and growing collection of voices that are choosing to publish their work online, a venue that still sees little respect from such yearly anthologies as the Pushcart and Best American series. This collection is intended to bring more respect to a innovative and continually expanding medium. Our inaugural issue included work by Bob Hicok, Anne Boyar, Matt Hart, David Dodd Lee, and CS Fuqua."

Submissions from editors will be open from July 1, 2007 to August 31st, 2007. Winners will be announced in December. The anthology will be released online on January 1, 2008.

For more information, go to Best of the Net Anthology.

Harvey Goldner, a great poet you've never heard of, dies

Harvey Goldner, a great poet you've probably never heard of, died on July 4th. As it says in his obituary, Harvey lived in Seattle and drove a taxi to make ends meet. More importantly, he'd published several volumes of amazing poetry, along with an upcoming collection titled The Resurrection of Bert Ringold.

His publisher, Cinco Puntos Press, has a nice memorial page up for Goldner. In addition, Bookslack has put together a collection of links to Goldner's poems.

The best thing anyone can do to honor Goldner's life and passing is to read his amazing words and let others know about him.

Read the essay before you join the reaming

A while back The New York Review of Science Fiction accepted an essay of mine called "Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment's Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction." Well, I guess the essay has been published because I've already infuriated the first subscriber of that wonderful publication (not that infuriation was my intention).

Matthew Cheney writes a blog called "The Mumpsimus" and evidently my essay caused him to spend "the last hour yelling at all of the various moving boxes" in his apartment. He also has a lot of other truly unique words to express his view of my essay. Cheney's rebuttal consists mainly of arguing that there isn't a true literary establishment and that I'm part of the "special, marginalized club" of science fiction writers who have martyr complexes over not being accepted by the greater literary world.

Now, anyone who knows me will laugh at this last statement. Through my work with storySouth and the Million Writers Award, I have tried to show that the best writing exists outside of genre. While I’m a firm believer in Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything is crap, the remaining 10% can be an amazing thing to behold, whether or not its classified as literary fiction or speculative fiction.

A number of people have since commented on Cheney's blog attack, including authors L.E. Modesitt and Eric Bosse. Personally, I agree with Modesitt, who says there's more a sense of "cultural indoctrination" among the literary elite than any single monolithic literary establishment.

But that actually brings me to the irritating point about all this—how people are commenting on the essay without having read it. Obviously Cheney and Modesitt read the essay. But I'm not sure the other online commentators discussing Cheney's attack have (and since the essay's not available online, I can't give readers a link). Despite Cheney’s words, the essay isn't about whether or not there is a literary establishment; instead, the essay focuses on how literary fiction is now appropriating the themes and tropes of speculative fiction.

As stated in the essay, literary trends in recent decades have veered toward the unreadable subgenres of metafiction and “small novels.” Metafiction is, at essence, fiction about fiction. This fictional form is laced with large amounts of irony and self-conscious reflection, with David Forest Wallace’s Infinite Jest being one of the best-known recent examples. As for the small novel, perhaps Pulitzer-Prize winner Gail Caldwell best described this type of fiction as the “myopic sensitive heart-rending personal blah, blah, blah, blah, blah small novel.”

As a result of focusing on these types of fiction instead of stories which offer actual plot, character development, and insight into life, fewer people than ever before are reading literary fiction. In an attempt to change this, some of the top literary writers (like Cormac McCarthy) have been producing novels that take on the larger-than-life ideas and themes found in speculative fiction. Despite this change, and despite the amazing reception these literary speculative fiction novels have received, most of the people who make up the literary establishment (such as top-level book reviewers) continue to praise literary authors who write speculative fiction, but denigrate books on similar themes by spec fic authors. The essay explores all this through the reaction to The Road, McCarthy's amazing Pulitzer-Prize winning post-apocalyptic novel, and how the very people who praised that novel felt quite comfortable ignoring the previous spec fic novels in this subgenre which influenced McCarthy's book, like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Some of these reviewers even showed their ignorance of literature by instead acknowledging such questionable influences on McCarthy as the Night of the Living Dead and Mad Max films.

Before people praise the “smackdown” Cheney supposedly laid onto me, grab a copy of the NYRSF and read the essay for yourself. I think you’ll find that the reports of my reaming have been greatly exaggerated.

Update: While I disagee with David Moles' view of my essay, I have to give him credit for this hilarious book cover mockup.

Jonathan McCalmont also offers an interesting analysis of all this in Sanford and Cheney on Genre and the Literary Establishment.

Million Writers Award Top Ten Stories

It's been a grueling and fascinating few weeks. Playing with my kids. Working to support my family. Fighting off the flu bug which is making the rounds in the United States. And, of couse, reading the more than 100 notable short stories of 2006 (as selected by a group of preliminary judges).

I have now picked the top ten stories of the year. Even though I've been judging the Million Writers Award for several years, this was the toughest selection process I've ever had. Simply put, there were a great many stories which deserved to be ranked among the top ten. In the end, I selected those stories to which I returned time and again. Some of these tales have deep insight into the nature of humanity. Others are fun thrill rides, taking the reader to new places and imaginary worlds. All of them are wonderfully written. All of them are by authors at the top of their craft. All of them showcase the wonderful fiction now being published in online magazines and journals.

I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed selecting them. And after you read the stories, don't forget to vote for your favorite.

Million Writers Award update

As people may have noticed, the Million Writers Award is rolling along, with the notable stories of the year now up on the site.

Unfortunately, it will take a little longer for me to finish reading all these notable stories. I'm aiming to have the top ten stories selected by June 1, at which time the public voting will begin. My sincere apologies for the delay.

State of the Short Story

A while back a small, regional magazine—one of those slicks largely filled with real estate ads—asked me for some quotes about the contemporary short story market. You hate to start a piece with the single most clichéd quote from Dickens' entire oeuvre, but I found it hard to avoid, and so I sprung it on the reporter with only a small twinge of guilt: well, you know—the best of times, the worst of times. The writer interviewing me paused for a long moment, and then asked, "Well, which is it?" Leaving aside the fact that she seemed to have missed the whole point of my pithy use of the quotation, it seemed a fair question, and one that was reasonably challenging in terms of a response.

Like Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, you can make a good case for both. On the one hand, the paying short story market has virtually vanished. As Matthew Bruccoli points out in his introduction to The Great Gatsby, in the 1930s writers like Scott Fitzgerald made more money for one story published in mainstream magazines like The Saturday Evening Post than an average teacher made in a year in the south. Granted, we haven't always paid teachers what they're worth down here, but the point is still valid: the twenties and thirties were the golden age of short fiction. Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was published in Esquire; Faulkner's stories that would make up The Unvanquished were published in Saturday Evening Post. Even by the fifties Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was originally published in Life. And I haven't even touched upon Black Mask or the science fiction and fantasy pulps, which numbered in the several hundreds from the twenties through the fifties.

But then there was radio arriving in the twenties, and going strong by the thirties. And then came television, and slowly the market eroded.

Then, not so many years ago, short fiction seemed to enter a renaissance—you had a few slicks still paying serious money for literary short stories (Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and so on), a sizeable number of up and coming small magazines, and writers like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Tama Janowitz, Bobbie Anne Mason, Amy Hempel, and Andre Dubus made their reputations with collections of stories rather than novels.

But television marched on in its assault on our leisure time and attention spans. Cable expanded four channels to twenty, eighty, hundreds. Then it went digital. The slicks have largely quit carrying short fiction; when they publish it, the stories are typically by famous, established writers who are usually hawking their new novels. Publishing houses were bought out by gigantic, market-driven corporations, and the debut collections of short stories that used to pepper the fiction shelves of bookstores seemed to become almost extinct.

So, the worst of times? Sure. But—

but at the same time more short fiction is published now than ever before, at least in literary venues. The genre has continued to thrive in the same place it has for most of the past century, though—the small magazines. Many of these—but by no means all—are linked with universities and creative writing programs (and, most importantly, those programs' budgets). A quick browse of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses website (http://www.clmp.org/index.html) shows how diverse and vital the small, literary, and largely non-paying print magazine scene is. The big houses seem to largely eschew short story collections by less famous authors, but this has worked to the benefit of the small presses such as BOA, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Livingston, and Sarabande, to name a few; similarly, university presses are publishing more creative work than previously.

And then there's web and electronic publishing. Like most of us I love the physical aspects of reading: the weight of the book in your hands, the smell of its pages (so different from hardback to paperback, from old to new), the texture of its cover, the small whisk of sound made when you turn a page. Perched before a monitor or balancing a laptop on your knees doesn't compare, to my way of seeing things. Still, it's important to remember the world of letters has always been fluid. Papyrus got hard to find, so you wrote on parchment. Parchment was super expensive, so for day to day work you wrote on wax. Wax was cumbersome, so someone had to invent paper. Copying by hand is tedious, so let's develop a printing press. In the beginning there was the word, and the word always finds a new path to trickle along, a new course to follow.

Short fiction flourishes on the web. And not just literary fiction: the science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery short story markets—which have suffered even more than the literary side of the street—are all over the place, thriving like kudzu in south Georgia.

Web publishing isn't without its problems, of course. Surely some sites give into the temptation of publishing the sophomore journal poems of the editor's cousin's spouse in order to make the cousin happy. And somewhere out there is doubtless a website dedicated to favorite greeting card poems (ah, the wonders of the net—just found it: http://www.poemsource.com/) or one dedicated to gay Nazis (don't ask). But you also have Blackbird, The King's English, The Barcelona Review, and for that matter Slate and Salon (and storySouth).

Pay is still hard to come by, of course. But if you're doing this to get rich, you're going to be unhappy for much of your life, and would be well-advised to focus on the Hollywood film industry. The chance of success there is even slimmer but there's no question about whether you're in it for the money or not.

Finally, due to multiple requests, a very brief reading list of some great short story writers and collections:

Amy Hempel: Collected Stories
Ron Carlson: A Kind of Flying, or At the Jim Bridger
Alice Munro: pretty much everything. A nice starting place is Vintage Munro
Raymond Carver: Cathedral or Where I'm Calling From
Jill McCorkle: Final Vinyl Days or Creatures of Habit
David Foster Wallace: Oblivion
George Singleton: The Half-Mammals of Dixie and These People are Us
Bobbie Ann Mason: Feather Crowns, Shiloh
George Saunders: Civil War Land in Bad Decline
and of course:
Hemingway, In Our Time, Men Without Women, Winner Take Nothing
and Flannery O'Connor, Collected Stories

Story of the Week: Harry Turtledove's "News from the Front"

Every so often you read a short story which rearranges your conception of life. You go in thinking up is up and down is down, then you finish the story and find yourself walking on the ceiling. Such is the effect of reading Harry Turtledove's "News from the Front" in the June 2007 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.

For those who don't know him, Harry Turtledove is the master of alternative histories, having published a slew of novels exploring what would have happened if, for example, the South had won the Civil War. His stories are heavily researched and always historically accurate—right up until he diverges from how history actually happened and shows readers what might have happened if a few things had been changed.

Now he has written "News from the Front," a short story about World War II and the United States response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Where Turtledove diverges from history is to have the media back then behave as the media behaves today, which is to believe that the public's right to know if more important than helping the country win the war. In the story the media reveals military secrets and picks apart every error the Roosevelt administration and the U.S. Military make in the first year of the war (and as any history buff will testify, there were mistakes a plenty). To say the least, the war doesn't turn out well.

Of course, this is Turtledove's way of analyzing the media's handling of the current Iraq War.

Science fiction writer James Van Pelt says the story has already made him reconsider how the war in Iraq is playing out:

What was cool was how this form of fiction made me think about today's situation. Personally, I think we're wrong to be in Iraq, not because of any deeply informed study of the war on my part, but because I'd always believed that America was the "white hat" character in the western that is the world. In my vision of America, we never draw first. Invading Iraq because of what we thought they might do just feels wrong to me. It doesn't feel American (plus, it sets a horrible precedent that gives us no moral high ground when some other government does a preemptive invasion of another country).

Harry's story, though, made me rethink the progress of this war. The parallel he sets up is that we couldn't have won WWII if the press behaved like it behaves today. By extension then, would the war in Iraq been very different (and perhaps more "successful") if the press' behavior had been more like the press during out WWII?

I don't know, and I'm not a particularly political person anyway (unless you ask me about No Child Left Behind!), but Harry's story once again struck me with the power of fiction, and the power of science fiction in particular, to raise disturbing issues.

I agree. There is a disclaimer at the start of the story, saying it's "foolish to infer a writer's politics from his or her work." Readers can take or leave this disclaimer as they wish.* All that matters is Turtledove doing what all fiction writers should do, which is to cause readers to consider things anew, in this case a major difference between this war and the wars of our grandparent's time. Anyone interested in history or current affairs should read this story. Unfortunately, the June 2007 issue of Asimov's isn't online, so I suggest people run down to their nearest bookstore and buy a copy.

I'm sure Turtledove will be attacked for writing this story, which is a real shame. As they say, those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Only with this story, Turtledove attempts to show that the alternative is also true: That those who don't consider how history might have turned out are also doomed to repeat it.

*Addendum: While I'm not a big fan of disclaimers before stories, and despite my comment about readers taking or leaving the disclaimer as they wish, in Turtledove's case it is definitely accurate to say one shouldn't infer his politics from his work. A few years ago Turtledove published a short story called "Bedfellows," about the Boston wedding of President Bush and Osama bin Laden. To say that story stirred up a hornet's nest is to put things mildly. Bloggers and commentators said that he must be a left-wing loony. Now, with "News from the Front," he'll probably be called a right-wing nut. The truth, though, is that he's simply a great writer who doesn't mind poking holes in everyone's preconceptions.

Interzone: 25 Years of Quality British Speculative Fiction

As a science-fiction-loving teenager in rural 1980s Alabama, my options for quality short fiction were limited. My grandfather subscribed to several science fiction magazines—most notably Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (as it was then called)—but otherwise the only way to find quality sf short stories was to buy paperback anthologies and collections at the local bookstore.

As I read these anthologies and collections, I noticed a fascinating trend: Many of the best short stories were being published in a British magazine called Interzone. Unfortunately, in those pre-internet days, I had no way of locating even a single copy of this trend-setting publication.

The good news, though, is that Interzone—now Britain's longest running science fiction magazine—is still around and as vital as ever. In 2004, long-time editor David Pringle stepped down and sold the magazine to TTA Press. Now edited by Andy Cox and a slew of fellow talented editors, Interzone has returned to its roots, publishing cutting-edge speculative fiction from new and established writers.

The February 2007 issue of Interzone (issue 208) features several strong stories, my favorite being "The Star Necromancers" by Alexander Marsh Freed, which is a far-future tale set in a universe where the stars are fading and the differences between science and religion are hard to state and even harder to believe in. Jason Stoddard also has an amazingly disturbing and well-written tale about the perils and limitations of communications among both humans and aliens in "Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark." The highlights of the issue, though, are essays about three writers: Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. The Hand article/interview is an in-depth exploration of her life and writing, while the essays by Gaiman and Clarke examine their unique views on writing short stories. Their verdict? To Gaiman, "Writing a short story is the equivalent of looking over and thinking it might be fun to try and climb that tree. And you just shin straight up it." For Clarke, though, "Short stories scare me. A novel is something that happens to me. A short story is something I have to make happen."

The April 2007 issue (issue 209) is Interzone's 25th anniversary spectacular. As might be expected, the issue includes retrospectives of the magazine from a number of noted authors, including Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Moorcock (who evidently predicted, back in the 1980s, that Interzone would only last three issues). This issue also packs in a ton of top-quality fiction, including an interview with and new story by Hal Duncan. Other fiction standouts include Alastair Reynolds, who presents a well-written, if slightly predictable, post-apocalyptic story (although it's not the nuclear or virus-laden apocalypse most people expect) with "The Sledge-Maker's Daughter." Finally, new writer Jamie Barras has a great slipstream/science fiction story with "Winter," which is not only well written, but showcases how effective the unreliable narrator technique can be in storytelling. I should note that Barras has published several excellent stories in recent issues of Interzone. That, combined with his wonder of a tale from Strange Horizons last year ("Spinning Out," reviewed here) marks him as a writer to watch. This appears to be yet another case of Interzone recognizing and bringing attention to a talented writer early in his or her career.

I should note that Interzone is the best designed science fiction magazine on the market. The artwork truly strengthens the fiction without ever overwhelming the printed type with designer gimmicks (which is what too many magazines do, making the text unreadable). In addition, both issues feature the best film reviews I've read in ages in Nick Lowe's Mutant Popcorn column. As someone who has tired of the wink-wink, nod-nod insider's game of critiquing which passes for film reviews in most newspapers and magazines, Lowe's writing is truly a breath of Godzilla-flame-throwing, melt-your-eyeballs-to-their-sockets fresh air.

For people in the United States, copies of Interzone are carried by a number of independent bookstores, along with the Barnes and Noble chain of stores (which appears to still have issue 208 in stock). People can also order individual issues or a subscription on Interzone's website. One suggestion: If you order a subscription, order the two-year deal. Overseas subscribers who order two year subscriptions get a large discount on their postage and delivery charges.

Postcard-sized stories from hell

As readers may remember, I've been rather tough on flash fiction over the years. That said, there are some good examples of the short short fiction genre, and editor Jeff Crook (of Southern Gothic fame) has found the perfect place for stories under 500 words: HELL!

Jeff is editing Postcards from Hell, which are (in his words) "postcard-sized stories mailed once a week to your home. The stories are concise, brilliant glimpses of horror, like a door opened and then slammed shut." This is a devilishly clever concept and I encourage people to pop for the $6.66 to receive these postcards (only $3.33 for e-cards sent to your e-mail address). In addition, Jeff is still looking for submissions, so writers should feel free to jump into the burning lake of fire and dash off their best short short fiction.

Million Writers Award now accepting nominations

The 2007 storySouth Million Writers Award for best online fiction, sponsored by Edit Red, is now open for nominations. Readers and writers may nominate one story published in an online magazine or journal during 2006, while editors may nominate up to three stories published in their magazines during that time.

Nominations will be accepted until April 15. On May 1, the notable stories of the year will be released (as selected by a group of preliminary judges). The top ten stories of the year will be released on May 15, at which time public voting for the overall winner will begin.

As a result of Edit Red's sponsorship, the award features a $300 prize for the overall winner and $50 memberships to Edit Red for each of the authors of the top ten stories of the year.

Complete information, including how to nominate a story, is available at http://www.storysouth.com/millionwriters.html

Stories of the week, hodgepodge edition

I'm trying to get back into the swing of selecting regular "stories of the week" (although I make no promise about always doing this on a weekly basis). Because it's been a while since I've picked a great story to share with readers, I'm making up for lost time by selecting a hodgepodge of recent—but great—stories.

My first selection is "Tabloid Reporter To The Stars" by Eric James Stone. This wonderfully written science fiction story deftly pulls off laugh after laugh while also illuminating critical issues surrounding science, religion, culture, and, most importantly, what exactly is that thing we call truth. The ending alone is worth the price of admission. My favorite line: "'Yes, I am a Seeker of Truth.' And I'm willing to lie in order to get it."

And about that price. The story is published in the new issue of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. IGMS is rapidly becoming one of the top speculative fiction publications, a fact that is all the more amazing because IGMS is totally online. Readers purchase each issue for the extremely reasonable price of $2.50. In addition to top-notch fiction, IGMS features excellent columns and reviews (which can be accessed for free) and a new story in each issue by publisher Orson Scott Card (set in his award-winning Ender Saga universe).

My next two selections are from the April 2007 issue of Realms of Fantasy, which focuses this month on fantasy stories "from exotic lands." The first story is "The Rope: A New Tale of the Antique Lands" by Noreen Doyle. Set in a middle-eastern land in the 19th century, this inward-revolving tale focuses on a young girl and the rope charmer she travels with. The story shows the beauty, hope, and terror of reaching for one's dreams—and in letting one's audience influence what your dreams should be.

The other story to check out in the issue is "The Tao of Crocodiles" by Euan Harvey. Set in Thailand, this story of ghosts and violence is a creepy example of how each of us is embedded within our culture—even if we think we aren't. Not only is this a great ghost story, its also a wonderful slice of Thai life and culture. I spent two years in Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer and even though it's been ten years since I left the kingdom, the story washed over me as if I'd never left the country.

I should note that Realms of Fantasy is a purely print magazine. But with all the great fiction in this issue, it’s worth tracking down your own copy.

Of course, speculative fiction isn't the only game in town. The current edition of the Mississippi Review online focuses on "prose poems." Now, as storySouth readers may remember, I have said some harsh words in the past about short short or flash fiction. That said, a number of the prose poems (short shorts, flash fiction, whatever you call them) in the current Mississippi Review are top notch. My favorites are "Thinking of Hansel and Gretel" by Robert Bly and "To My Love" by Mark Budman. While I still believe that too many writers forsake plot, character development, and the other elements of traditional short stories for the easy writing thrill of short shorts, the prose poems by Bly and Budman show that in the hands of a skilled writer, the genre can reach the top levels of literature.

Finally, Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts has a new story by Liliana V. Blum (translated by Toshiya Kamei) called "A New Faith." As with all of Blum's stories (including "A Sip of Light," published last year in storySouth), the language of the story is extremely atmospheric and draws the reader through the lush tale.

So there you have it, the best stories I’ve read in the last month. One of the points I've tried to make over the years with both storySouth and with our Million Writers Award is that great stories exist both within and outside of the boundaries which define traditional literary genres. All of the stories named here may belong to extremely different genres and writing styles, but they share one common element: They are great stories.

Confessions from the man who single-handedly destroyed poetry as we know it!

It's not often we see the true impact of our lives. After all, human lives are immensely complex. To track the outcomes of all the little things we do in life—the cheerful greeting we gave to a sick neighbor, the angry motorist we cut off during rush hour traffic—would be impossible. Still, if life has taught me anything it is that the universe has a strange sense of humor. And so it was that a few months ago I learned the true impact of my life:

I’ve single handedly destroyed poetry as we know it!

First, a little background. In the late 1990s I returned from two years service in the Peace Corps with a need to do what do many human do, which was find a job so I wouldn't starve to death. I eventually landed an editorial position at a small commercial book publisher called Meadowbrook Press. As often happens with editors, I blossomed forth and soon became an older editor, overseeing a number of books for young adults and children, including a fiction line for kids and our press’s giggle poetry books.

Yes, you heard me right. Giggle poetry. Funny poetry for kids. You know, poems along the lines of Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein and The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky.

The catch, though, was that at Meadowbrook Press we only occasionally dipped into the literary leanings of Silverstein and Prelutsky. This is because early on our publisher, Bruce Lansky (now known as the King of Giggle Poetry) had a revolutionary idea. Instead of relying on esteemed poets and literary critics to decide which funny poems should go into our anthologies, we could cut straight to the source and ask actual kids which poems they liked. Lansky soon developed a time-tested recipe for letting kids pick their favorite poems (the methods of which I am forbidden to reveal under threat of tickle torture, except to say that the testing caused kids to sphew milk through noses and laugh nonstop for days). This innovative process soon revealed the long-held secret to getting kids to read poetry:

Give them lots and lots of potty humor!

I can not begin to tell you how liberating this revelation was. We called upon the poets of America to reach deep into their skivies and produce some heaping helpings of rhythmic retention. For example, one poem I helped select for an anthology was "Swimming Ool" by Kenn Nesbitt. I leave it to the reader to follow that link and discover the subtle joys of "Swimming Ool" for yourself. All that needs to be said is that the poem plumbs the watery depths of pure potty humor.

After discovering what kids really wanted in poetry, we proceeded to publish anthology after anthology of pure potty humor. With titles like A Bad Case of the Giggles and Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, these books sold in numbers that most poets and poetry publishers can only dreams of. Millions of copies of the books were soon in circulation.

My particular role was to oversee publication of Miles of Smiles. Shortly after that book hit the bookstores, Bruce Lansky asked me to lead development of an online giggle poetry presence. I soon designed a nice little website called Giggle Poetry and turned the little beast loose in the world. (I should also note that the Giggle Poetry website hasn't changed much since I created it, at least according to the Internet Wayback machine).

At this point, you are no-doubt wishing I would cut to the chase and state exactly how I've destroyed poetry as we know it. Here, then, is the chase:

If you now type the word "poetry" into Google, Giggle Poetry is the number three search item with over 20,000 links to the potty humor site. Only poetry.com (which isn't a good thing, as a number of people have called poetry.com a scam) and the esteemed American Academy of Poets rank higher. In addition, the rankings fluctuate. Only a few weeks ago Giggle Poetry was number two, with the Academy sliding back behind the potty.

That's right. The little Giggle Poetry site I created years ago has gone big time. Every time a new reader searches online for poetry, there's a good chance they are getting a great big pile of rhyming potty humor in the face.

Perhaps this doesn't matter. After all, if potty poems help kids to read, then so be it.

But then I think about some young, impressionable child (perhaps a burgeoning Homer, Shakespeare, or Dickinson) feeling his or her first poetic yearning to create verse. This child types poetry into Google and opens up the Giggle Poetry site, where "Tinkle, Tinkle, Little Bat" by Dianne Rowley jumps out at the youngster. The child goes, "So that's what poetry should be. Maybe one day I will write a great poem like that."

As I said, I've single handedly destroyed poetry as we know it. But whenever I catch my kids howling over some choice piece of Giggle Poetry, I wonder if destroying poetry is really such a bad thing after all?

Why editors liked your story and still rejected it

Every so often someone e-mails me with one of the great questions in any writer's life, "How could you reject my story after saying you liked it?"

The answer to this question comes from Dena Harris, a writer who recently spent a day as an editor. As she writes, the hardest part about dealing with submissions was to separate "the very good from just the good."

While Dena writes about submissions to a speculative fiction magazine, what she says also applies to all fiction publications. It is easy to separate the horrible and excellent stories out of any submission pile. The hard part comes when one sorts the very good from the merely good. Add into that decisions on if a story can be saved through editorial intervention--and if a story is worth the time of said intervention--and you begin to get an idea of why an editor could like a story and still reject it.

Update on 2-16-06:

I failed to mention that I first read Dena's post on Side-Show Freaks, a blog by Edmund Schubert, the editor of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. Unfortunately, Schubert has had some backlash over the posting, which is a true shame. I saw the post as an educational tool for writers, enabling people to learn about the submission process so their next submission will have an even better chance of being published.

Yes, there is humor in the post, but sometimes humor is the best way to describe and handle life. As someone who has read through tons of slush piles in his day, what Dena is describing is the truth of the slush pile. Yes, editors laugh over extremely bad submissions. But editors also live for the thrill of finding that one diamond in the pile of coal. Such is the duality of life. I should also note that a close read of the post will show that the editors are finding a number of diamonds in that slush pile--and that such finds are what drive them to endure reading through more short stories in a single day than most people read all year.

So I'd suggest people refrain from being offended by the post and instead see it as insight into how the editorial process works.

Judges Needed for Million Writers Award

Preparations are underway for storySouth's 2007 Million Writers Award, which will honor the best short stories published online in the previous year (i.e., during the 2006 calendar year). The award will be open for nominations from editors and readers beginning on March 15. For more information on nominating a story, see the rules. Please also check out the winning stories from last year's award.

This year's award will again be sponsored by the Edit Red Writing Community (formerly known as Spoiled Ink). As a result of this sponsorship, the award features a $300 prize for the overall winner and $50 memberships to Edit Red for each of the authors of the top ten stories of the year.

More information, such as where to submit nominated stories, will be made available on March 1. Until then, the storySouth editors are looking for preliminary judges to help select the notable stories of the year. Each preliminary judge picks up to ten notable stories, either selecting from the list of nominated stories or picking stories on their own. The names of the preliminary judges will not be revealed until after the list of notable stories is released. Because this award honors short fiction in all genres of writing, judges with experience in general literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and other fiction genres are needed. Anyone interested in applying to be a judge should contact Jason Sanford. Please include a brief summary of your qualifications to serve as a judge.

And as always, donations are encouraged to help cover the costs of the award.

Southern Gothic Online . . . and in Print

One of the strengths of Southern Literature is that it encompasses such a diverse group of writings, including within its literary borders everything from the African American literature of Zora Neale Hurston, "lost cause" novels like Gone with the Wind, the books of the Southern Renaissance, and, drum roll please, Southern Gothic writings. Southern Gothic literature utilizes gothic archetypes, the fantastic, and the grotesque to illuminate such human frailties as violence, hate, and racism. Among the classics example of this subgenre are As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (along with his short story "A Rose for Emily"), A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison.

A favorite online literary journal of mine in recent years has been Southern Gothic Online. Edited by Jeff Crook, this impresive journal is keeping the Southern Gothic tradition alive while also updating these style of stories for the 21st century. While the site's design could be easier to navigate, the fiction and poetry published by Jeff are first rate. Now I've learned that Jeff has expanded the journal to a print journal. I wish him the best of luck with this wonderful endeavour. Southern Gothic Online is also a paying market, so writers please take note and submit your works. Readers, if you like what you see please consider a donation to help the journal continue its great work.