Tuesday, June 19, 2012

TCR Literary Journal Series: Beloit Fiction Journal

The Committee Room is happy to continue its Literary Journal Series with a look at the Beloit Fiction Journal.  Founded in 1985 by novelist and journalist Clint McCown, who was then a young professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin, and a group of enthusiastic Beloit College students, the BFJ has since its inception provided a showcase for both established and unknown writers. Fred Burwell, writer and blogger, was a member of the original student staff.  He sums up one of the BFJ's guiding principles when he recalls those early days -- "We discovered that manuscript cover letters with laundry lists of past publications meant nothing – it would be too easy to stock a magazine with names familiar to the literary magazine establishment. Only the quality of the story mattered."

Chris Fink took over as editor of the Beloit Fiction Journal when McCown stepped down in 2005.  A widely published writer of fiction and non-fiction, Fink's stories and essays have appeared in many publications including the Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Malahat Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Other Voices, and Phoebe. His book of fiction, Farmer's Almanac, is forthcoming from Emergency Press in 2012.  He formerly edited the Cream City Review.

Fink graciously sat down for an interview with TCR.

TCR Talks with Chris Fink, Editor of the Beloit Fiction Journal

Chirs Fink
Q: What separates the BFJ from other literary journals?
A: The Beloit Fiction Journal has had only two editors in its twenty-seven year history. We have history and we have continuity. These are two qualities that the majority of literary magazines lack. Further, as a fiction-only journal, the BFJ is certainly in the minority among literary journals in the United States. A traditional three-genre journal might feature two or three short stories per issue, while the BFJ usually prints thirteen to fifteen. Because of this format, we have the luxury — and I almost feel it’s an obligation — to consider longer fictional works, such as long stories and occasional novel excerpts. The trend over the past fifteen years has been toward longer stories, and at the BFJ we don’t turn these away because of space restraints. So, history, continuity and commitment to fiction sets the BFJ apart.

Beloit College newspaper, 1984
Q: What vision did you have for the BFJ when you took over as editor in 2005?
A: I wanted to continue and to honor what Clint McCown started in terms of his commitment to publishing fiction-only. On the other hand, I wanted to leave my own mark on the journal. The biggest change, I think, is that I have a little wider range of appreciation when it comes to contemporary fiction. In each issue, I like to see a mix of traditional story-telling and experimental modes. I like fiction that takes formal and stylistic risks, and I want experimental writers to know they have a potential home in our pages. I sometimes feel asthough readers and writers of realistic fiction aren’t even aware there’s another way. I still admire a well-plotted, realistic narrative. I know this is currently the most popular way to tell a story — but it’s not the only way.  Also, it’s very important to me as an editor to work against the anonymous culture of the literary publishing business. I can’t respond personally to each submission, but I certainly can respond to each acceptance! I know as a writer that most journals don’t do this. It’s common for me to get an acceptance, a contract, and a copy of a journal with my story in it without having any personal interaction with an editor. As writers we wonder if an editor is even reading our submissions. I sometimes have this feeling even with accepted stories! So, I always write a personal note to each writer whose work I accept, telling her what I admired about the story, and why I chose it, among its hundreds of brethren, for publication. I’ll often call a writer on the phone. This may not be much, but I want the writers in the BFJ to know that their work moved me, and how it moved me, and to congratulate them for their success. I’m also more liable than some editors to work with a writer whose work I feel is “close.” Finally, I've made a few stylistic updates to the journal, both on the covers and the page design

Q: What is the BFJ's circulation?
A: We’ve printed as many as 1,200 and as few as 800 copies. Between libraries and individuals, we fill about 300 subscriptions. The rest of our sales occur at local venues, conferences and exchanges.

Q: How many manuscripts does the BFJ receive in a typical month during its submission period?
A: About 175 per month. Over our four month reading period we receive about 700 submissions.

Q: What percentage of submissions are rejected in the first round of reading by staff?
A: I would say that eighty to ninety percent of submissions are rejected in the first round.

Q: What are some common reasons a manuscript is rejected?
A: In most cases, a manuscript is rejected because the prose lacks polish, originality and cohesion. At the level of the sentence the writing just isn’t publishable. Or it’s uneven: the writer doesn’t have control of the language. I can usually tell very soon if the writer has control and perspective; this is the most difficult aspect of fiction writing. Another common cause for rejection is that the story just isn’t finished. I’ll like the concept, the prose, the voice, but at some point the story takes a wrong turn and never gets back on track. I see a story as an artistic composition — like a painting — and the composition must be whole. Occasionally, if I can identify the missing elements, I’ll work with a writer on “finishing” the story. I don’t mind difficult stories, and so I’m not an editor who says the story has to have me by the first page. I’m a good reader, but I’m not so arrogant as to think that I always know by page one if a story is publishable. Some of my favorite stories in the BFJ are ones I had to put down and come back to. I know that stories that are “easy” to enter — usually chronological, first-person narratives — have an advantage, so I try to read with that awareness.

Q: The staff of the BFJ is made up of undergraduates.  Does having such a young staff affect what we see in the BFJ?
A: It’s hard to say. My fear is that they miss something, especially the challenging story that is difficult to appreciate on first-read. On the other hand, if I were reading all 700 submissions myself, I’d miss stories through fatigue and distractedness. I have teams of four editors, so every single story that comes across our desk is read by at least four editors. I wonder how many other magazines can say that. I know when I read for the Cream City Review as a graduate student — before I became fiction editor there — a story would live or die on the reading of a single graduate student. I think that’s more the norm in this industry. In the end, I’m confident of the system I have in place. In each issue I believe readers will find thirteen to fifteen stories that could have been published in any of the finest literary magazines in the country, including the glossies.

Q: Does the BFJ seek readers beyond the academic "field" of creative writing?  If so, how do you reach these readers?
A: This is a tough one. The primary audience for literary journals tends to be other writers and students of writing. If you’re in this business you’re constantly unsettled by that closed circle, the snake eating its tail, if you will. On the other hand, we do very well locally and regionally, at coffee shops and bookstores. I know the sales here are not going to other writers. One of my biggest goals for the BFJ is to increase our circulation, and every year we make strides toward that goal.

Q: Could you talk a little about the benefits of the BFJ publishing only fiction?
A: As I mentioned earlier, publishing fiction-only allows us to consider a broader spectrum of styles, approaches and lengths. If you’re editing a three-genre journal and you have forty pages to devote to fiction, you’re not going to tend to give those pages to a single voice. In each issue I’ve edited, we’ve had stories that exceed 6,000 words. We’re always on the lookout for flash fiction as well. Also, in each issue I’ve edited, we’ve featured at least one writer’s first published story. I’m proud of this. And it’s simply not going to happen in a different format.

Q: Do you agree that contemporary readers are more interested in non-fiction than fiction? If so, why?
A: I suppose this is true. This is the subject of a dissertation, but I’ll give you my gut reaction. I think it has mostly to do with marketing. I think one could track the rise of reality TV to the rise of the memoir. Not to discount the memoir form, but its spike in popularity isn’t due to the superiority of the form (versus the novel). It has something to do with an audience’s voyeuristic impulse on which both producers and publishers have capitalized. A fiction writer’s job is to tell the truth. The same as the memoirist’s. The most fundamental goal of realistic fiction is verisimilitude. But it’s easier and it takes less imagination to see the truth labeled in all caps: BASED ON  A TRUE STORY. Writers know that all stories are based on true stories. Audiences have forgotten. But form is a fashion, like anything else. I hope in my lifetime the pendulum swings back to the short story, which is my favorite form.

Q: Does the BFJ have any plans to expand its online element or to become an online-only publication?
A: We’re not going online-only anytime soon, though we have updated our website and we’re now including some online content.

Q: You previously edited the Cream City Review and Reed Magazine. Could you comment a bit on the changes in the literary world since you worked on those other journals?
A: One big change, as I’ve noted, is the length of a short story. When I was a graduate student (editor and writer) in the mid to late 1990s we were told that you couldn’t publish a story that was longer than about fifteen pages. Pick up an issue of the Best American Short Stories from the '90s and one from 2010. You’ll see a dramatic increase in the length of the average short story. I would say that the average published story in 1998 was about 3,500 words. Today it’s about 5,000 words. I think this trend follows (or perhaps leads) the rise of the memoir. For certainly there has been a parallel rise in realistic fiction. There were still a good number of postmodern stories being published in the '90s. Those experiments tended to be shorter. Realistic stories, especially stories of domestic realism, tend to be longer. I personally think that the genius of Alice Munro, who routinely publishes fifty page stories, has more to do with this trend than any other single factor.  Fifteen years ago a fifty page story was a novella. If you’re an aspiring writer, and you’re reading these long, gorgeous, brilliant stories in every other issue of The New Yorker, what are you going to do, write like Barthelme, or write like Munro?

Q: How do you balance your work as a writer, editor, and teacher?
A: At the BFJ we have a reading period of August 1 to December 1. We publish in the spring. After each issue, I get to take break from editing. Over the years I’ve grown to love editing, but I wouldn’t want to be doing it year-round. Same with teaching. It’s very gratifying work, but you can fill up on student fiction, and then you need a break. I tend to do most of my writing now in the summer and on breaks. During the school year, I can devote time to a project or two, but teaching takes a front seat, for me. All three endeavors take a substantial time commitment—if ones hopes to be any good. And contrary to what many writers say, I find the energy for teaching, writing and editing all comes from the same well. I suppose they feed each other, but I know for sure they compete with each other.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as the editor of a literary journal?
A:  For me, honestly, it’s keeping up with technology. I don’t have any personal interest in web design or social media.  I know a lot of journals have a stronger web presence than the BFJ. I suppose a journal is a reflection of its editor. I don’t have a Facebook account and you won’t catch me tweeting. This personal characteristic (flaw?) is reflected in the BFJ. Distribution is also a constant (and related) challenge. When you produce a beautiful, intelligent, and meticulous journal like the BFJ, you want to get it out there for people to read. It’s much more difficult to get distribution than it was a decade ago.


  1. Not sure why my last comment was deleted, but what I'd written rings as true today as it did several days ago: while we should be happy that there are places like the BFJ out there, to compare the quality of the work it publishes to the "glossies" is simply hyperbole of the worst kind that smacks of envy. There is no writer in America who--given the choice--would publish in BFJ over the New Yorker, not even the proud editor of this small journal.

  2. Sometimes I'm humbled by the qualitty of the stories that come across my desk. I read this beautiful manuscript and I think, my god, this story could rightfully appear in any magazine in the country, yet the author chose to send it to us. That's what I hoped to convey by my comparison, and I stand by it.

    --Chris Fink

  3. I really appreciate this insight into the history and editorial policies of such a venerated literary magazine. Keep up the good work!

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