Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Short Fiction Thrives in Magazines That Aren't Literary Journals: Hothouse Magazine, Queen's Quarterly, and Tikkun

"Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of  nineteenth century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form. Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish," wrote Paul Vidich, co-founder of Storyville, in The Millions.

Fiction was an essential part of American general interest magazines such as McClure's, Liberty, Collier's, and the Saturday Evening Post. These popular magazines published fiction (by writers from Mark Twain and Edith Wharton to J.D. Salinger and Ray Bradbury) alongside articles on social issues, politics, fashion, and sports.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the introduction of movies, radio, and, television, led to a decline in magazine reading as a form of entertainment. By the 1960s, general interest magazines had mostly disappeared and short fiction publishing shifted into the domain of small circulation literary journals most of which are based in academia.

Queen's Quarterly, Tikkun, and Hothouse are contemporary publications that break with the prevailing model. None of these publications is primarily a literary journal yet they all consider publishing short fiction an important part of their mission.

Founded in 1893 and based at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Queen's Quarterly, is Canada's oldest scholarly publication. In the 1930s, in order to expand its cultural influence and readership, Queen's Quarterly began publishing fiction. The work of top Canadian writers including Mavis Gallant, W.P. Kinsella, and Carol Shields has appeared in its pages.

In more recent years, under the leadership of editor Boris Castel, Queen's Quarterly refreshed itself with a more appealing visual layout and began tackling an even wider range of subject matter including economics, nationalism, free trade, and science. Its commitment to fiction has stayed firm.

Queen's Quarterly, current issue (Summer 2014).
"It’s never been an issue for us," Joan Harcourt, fiction editor of Queen's Quarterly, told The Committee Room in regard to continuing to offer fiction. "Our readers enjoy the short fiction. Even some who read the QQ mainly for the articles, find themselves reading the stories. And the authors are pleased to have an outlet that draws in a wider circle of readers than is available through strictly literary publications."

Harcourt says it is difficult to characterize the fiction that appears in Queen’s Quarterly. "In general we look for an 'intelligent' story, one that says something interesting in an interesting way, plot definitively subordinate to theme," she explains. "Many of the literary mags publish stories by authors we have also published, so our criteria for selecting for publication must overlap."

Queen's Quarterly is a print publication but Harcourt believes that advances in online technology give short fiction a fairly bright future. "There are lots of short stories showing up on the internet, whole sites devoted to them," Harcourt says. "Radio is increasingly devoting chunks of time to reading short fiction - NPR is particularly good at this. So, far from [short fiction] being in a perilous state, these new delivery systems - especially the net - are probably exposing more writers of short fiction to a much larger audience than the printed page ever did."

Based in San Francisco, Tikkun was founded in 1986 as a forum to bring a spiritual dimension rooted in the Jewish tradition to progressive ideas on issues of world peace, social justice, and environmental policy. In its early years, Tikkun published fiction by Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, and other noted authors but financial pressures led to the magazine eliminating fiction. The introduction of an online version (tikkun.org) brought Tikkun back to publishing fiction.

Tikkun print edition (current issue above); fiction
can be found at Tikkun's online edition (tikkun.org). 
"Although Tikkun is focused on spirituality and social change, we tend to see good literature as good literature, regardless of whether it serves those aims. That said, we try to find pieces that will resonate with our readers, who are mainly interested in fiction not to learn new social change strategies but to deepen their own psychological, spiritual and literary understandings," says Joshua Bernstein, fiction editor at Tikkun, told TCR.

According to Bernstein, the fiction that appears in Tikkun is diverse in terms of outlook and does not openly advocate for social justice. However, Bernstein notes that most Tikkun stories "remain at least somewhat skeptical of the status quo, materialism, and the general complacency that might be said to characterize modern America."

Unlike Queen's Quarterly, which Harcourt says receives "quite a lot" of reader reaction to its fiction, Tikkun finds that its fiction offerings do not elicit a great deal of  feedback. "We receive far more responses to our political writings," Bernstein says. "Which is a shame, because I think good fiction can be as divisive, if not more so, than the best political writing...I like to think that we just have to work harder as writers and editors to produce stories that will excite our readers, and that's why we're always looking for new talent, as well as older and under-appreciated talent."

Hothouse offers news and opinion with some short fiction; its
sister publication, Newfound, is a literary journal. 
Bernstein agrees with Harcourt that the future of short fiction is on the internet but he points out that, at least for the present time, online reading habits are not friendly to stories of considerable length. "I have a feeling that in the future, as more people become accustomed to reading on screens, attention spans will lengthen," he says. "But for now...digital reading means shorter reading, I'm afraid. On the plus side, we can run work by a lot more writers, from the new to the long-established. In fact, throughout its history, Tikkun has been a launching pad for a number of prominent writers, and I think the online platform will only continue that."

Hothouse, established in 2011, is an online-only news and opinion magazine that is dedicated to positively transforming how we relate to the natural world and to our human-made communities. In between articles on subjects such as why organic produce is so expensive and how the infrastructures delivering power and water to our homes alter the environment, Hothouse serves up flash-fiction, microfiction, and poetry-hybrid work.

Hothouse is a creation of Newfound, an Austin-based organization that also sponsors the literary magazine Newfound (featured in TCR's Literary Journals Series).

With a sister publication that is a literary journal, why, then, does Hothouse also offer fiction?

"I think good fiction aims to present a unique, distinctly subjective portrait of a setting. In doing so, stories highlight how place shapes a character’s identity, imagination, and understanding—and, by extension, illustrates how place shapes our own," Daniel Levis Keltner, managing editor of Hothouse, explained to TCR.

Keltner says that Hothouse's fiction differs from that of Newfound in that it is aimed at an "audience whose attention is perhaps more attuned to shorter bits...they come to the site by-and-large to read concise web articles."

Consistently offering excellent material, Keltner points out, is ultimately the most important way to earn reader interest and loyalty. "A good web article—one that is current, contemporary, and cultural—is hard to beat in terms of site-traffic [but] I also believe that the only people most authors and publishers can count on to read any story longer than two hundred fifty words in its entirety, without skimming, print or digital, are our friends and the fans we’ve won through our dedication to quality."

The Committee Room. Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.


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