2018 Literary Magazine Rankings

Below are links to the 2018 Perpetual Folly Literary Magazine Rankings for Fiction, Poetry, and Non-Fiction. Scroll down for a discussion of the rationale and methodology behind the lists.

If you find the lists useful, please consider making a donation to support this site.

 

Literary Magazine Ranking — Fiction

Literary Magazine Ranking — Poetry

Literary Magazine Ranking — Non-Fiction

Rationale for the rankings. Years ago, when I was first submitting short stories to literary magazines, I wanted a way to tier my submissions. I believe in simultaneous submissions, but I didn’t want to submit a story to a great magazine and a not-so-great magazine at the same time because of the risk of multiple acceptances. (If the not-so-great magazine accepted first, it would pain me to withdraw the story from the great magazine.) Developing a ranking of literary magazines allowed me to submit only to those magazines in roughly the same tier. I began sharing the list on my blog because I knew other writers used the same tiered approach to submissions. Eventually, I added poetry and non-fiction rankings and also links to magazine websites.

Basis for the rankings. I base the rankings on the annual Pushcart Prize anthology that comes out in November. That anthology includes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction and excludes the magazines of general circulation like The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, and so on. Other anthologies, like the Best American series and the O.Henry Prize Stories are excellent books, but their approach to assembling their winners is different. As these things go, the Pushcart Prize anthology draws from a wide range of nominating magazines, which makes it the best choice for these rankings. One criticism of the Pushcart Prizes is that they have a print-publication bias. Although there are an increasing number of online publications earning recognition in the anthology, that bias is probably real. There are some fine online magazines that won’t appear on these lists, unfortunately.

Methodology.  After several years of making these lists, I made a change last year that I have retained. Originally, I based the rankings on a ten-year rolling score that assigned a constant value for Pushcart Prizes earned over that period and a lower value for Special Mentions. Some readers suggested that a five-year rolling score would be better because it would result in newer publications rising in the rankings sooner. But reputations take years to develop, and I didn’t like the shorter period, while acknowledging the validity of the point. So last year I compromised. Now the formula assigns one value for Prizes and Special Mentions received in the most recent five years and half that value for Prizes received in the preceding five years.

Symbols. You’ll notice a few symbols next to the names of some magazines on the lists. (c) indicates a closed magazine; (w) indicates a broken link for a live magazine; and (?) indicates some question about the magazine or an unknown link.

Feedback and Support. I welcome your feedback. Let me know if you find a broken or incorrect link, either by leaving a comment or contacting me through this website. I don’t mind hearing criticism of my approach, either, if that’s what you want to share. (Praise is also welcome.) And if you find the lists at all useful, please consider making a donation to support the site. You’ll find a Donation button above and on each of the ranking pages.

Everywhere Stories–an update

Everywhere Stories Volume I

I’m pleased that we are on track to finalize Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet for a fall publication date.

The series arose from an idea I presented to Press 53 back in 2013, one that I’d been kicking around in my head for some time. As a world-traveler myself, I am drawn to fiction set outside the United States. An anthology of stories set around the world, I reasoned, would certainly appeal to me. Surely other people would be interested, as well.

We opened submissions for the project that fall and were overwhelmed. I had about 800 short stories to sift through. I selected 20 stories set in 20 countries for the first volume and, optimistically looking toward a possible second volume at some point, held on to another 10. I think it was my idea to put a world map on the cover, but it was the publisher who found the map we eventually used and secured the rights. He added red dots to mark the countries covered by the stories in the book, and Volume I appeared in October of 2014.

We were very pleased with the book, the theme of which was “It’s a dangerous world.” We included stories set on every continent, including Antarctica, and the response was uniformly positive.

Everywhere Stories Volume II

A year went by and we decided to proceed with a second volume. I had the stories I’d reserved from the first submission period, but in the fall of 2015 we reopened to new submissions. Once again we had a great response to the submission call and I was able to assemble a collection of 20 fine stories set in 20 countries. (We decided we would not repeat any countries except the United States, and within the US we would shift the setting to a different state for each volume.) We used the same cover image but tinted the background a different color to differentiate it from the first volume. Our theme for Volume II, which came out in October 2016, was “It’s a mysterious world.”

Both the publisher and I were pleased with the response to both volumes, and so after a year, we made plans for a third. Last fall we reopened submissions and I spent several months sifting through hundreds of stories to select 20. Again, the only country we’ve repeated is the U.S. I’m nearly done with the editing of the 20 stories—it’s been a real pleasure to read the stories again closely—and we’ll soon move into the production phase of the project with a view toward fall publication. Same cover, different tint. Theme? The world is still dangerous and mysterious, but it’s also surprising.

Will there be a fourth volume? We will have covered 58 countries in the first three books, so there are about 150 more countries in the world that we could find stories for. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility.  Too soon to say.

 

Report from the Virginia Festival of the Book

Shortly after I moved to this part of Virginia I began to attend the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. I would sit in audiences at the Barnes & Noble or the library or the New Dominion Bookshop and imagine what it would be like to one day be an author on one of the panels, talking about my books. Eventually, after the publication of my first book in 2009, that dream became a reality, and since then I have either been on a panel talking about my own work or have moderated a panel featuring other authors every year. This year I moderated two fiction panels, and I continue to be delighted to be part of the festival.

Fractured Characters Panel featuring me (moderator), Jessie Chaffee, Noley Reid, and Lauren Sanders

We got off to a rocky start this year, though, as weather affected the festival’s first day. Where I live, 40 miles west of Charlottesville, in the Shenandoah Valley, we had between 6-8 inches of snow that day, so I spent the afternoon shoveling my driveway instead of attending book discussions (many of which were canceled, anyway). By Thursday, however, the roads were fine and I had no trouble getting over the mountain and to the Noon session I was moderating. The title of the program was Fractured Characters and featured fine novels by Jessie Chaffee (Florence in Ecstasy), Noley Reid (Pretend We are Lovely), and Lauren Sanders (The Book of Love and Hate). We had good attendance, the authors were prepared and eloquent, and everything went smoothly.

I then went over to Tilman’s, a new restaurant on the Downtown Mall, for a private event with Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, the first “Carol Troxell Reader”—supported by a fund to which I’d contributed named in honor of the late owner of the New Dominion Bookshop. That was fun and I enjoyed chatting with Ko and hearing her speak about her excellent book (which I had read the previous week in anticipation of meeting her). As if I hadn’t had enough book talk for the day, I hurried home for the monthly gathering of my book club. The book club (a mostly non-fiction club called Reading Liberally) meets in a restaurant that has a habit of screwing up the reservations I make, so I wasn’t surprised when the staff had no record of my reservation for 14 people! We waited while they made up a table and I fumed, but then we went on with our dinner and discussion about a collection of anti-Trump books. (We mostly agreed that we are sick of talking about Trump and so will read other sorts of books in the future.)

I had no Festival duties on Friday, but there were several panels I wanted to attend, starting at noon. That was a panel with Jon Pineda—a versatile writer who has published books of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction—and Wiley Cash. I know Jon, who teaches in the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte and had previously met Cash, but it was fun to hear them talk about their new books. I already had Cash’s novel, The Last Ballad, but Jon’s book, Let’s No One Get Hurt, had just been released so I picked up a copy of that. This panel was done in an interview format and the charm of both authors came through. Then there was a panel on International Stories featuring Annabelle Kim (Tiger Pelt), Katia Ulysse (Mouths Don’t Speak), and Adrienne Benson (The Brightest Sun)—books set in Korea, Haiti, and Kenya, respectively. I enjoyed all three of the authors’ remarks and got copies of their books. Although I was tempted to squeeze in another panel at the end of the day, I had made plans to see a play that night at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, so I headed home. (The play, a rarely performed play by John Marston called Antonio’s Revenge, was excellent. And bloody.)

Saturday is the Festival’s biggest day. In addition to literary programs in all the usual venues, the Festival’s Crime Day and Publishing Day happen at the Omni Hotel, along with the annual book fair. I did a quick pass through the book fair and then started my day back at the library for a panel on “Epic & Audacious” Fiction, i.e., fat books. This program featured Elizabeth Kostova (best known for her novel The Historian but now out with her new book, The Shadow Land), Martin Seay (who went to the same MFA program I did and has published a novel called The Mirror Thief), and Brendan Mathews (who was my suite-mate when we were Scholars at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006 and has now published his first novel, The World of Tomorrow).  They all gave fascinating talks about their work and, naturally, I bought their books. They’re big ones, though, so I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading them! I then gave myself some time off for lunch because there is a new Korean restaurant on the Downtown Mall I wanted to try. It’s good. I expect I’ll go back. After lunch, I decided to attend a panel on suspense thrillers. I can’t say it was terribly helpful to me as it is far from what I write or read. I was hoping the authors would talk about the craft of writing suspense, but it was mostly about what it’s like to actually work at the CIA. Interesting, but not terribly helpful. Then I decided to attend the program on the new-ish biography of Elizabeth Bishop by Pulitzer Prize-winner Megan Marshall, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast. That was fascinating and I was glad to come away with a copy of the book.

Then it was time for one of my favorite events of the Festival—the Authors’ Reception. Good food, wine, and mingling among the Festival authors who were still in town.

On Sunday, I had one more event to attend—the panel I was asked to moderate with Chris Offutt and Janet Peery, both of whom have new novels out–Country Dark by Offutt and The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Peery. Before I got there, while I was strolling around the Downtown Mall, I ran into Peter Ho Davies, a former teacher of mine, so we got to chat a bit. (I’d also seen him at the AWP Conference in Tampa the week before, so there wasn’t much catching up to do.) The program at New Dominion got off to a bit of a rocky start when it turned out Chris had not received my email with my outline of the program. The only email address for him was the one given to me for his publicist at Grove Atlantic, who may not have forwarded my message to him. So he was not prepared to say much or read anything from the novel, as Janet was, having assumed the format would be strictly an interview and conversation. Fortunately, I did have plenty of questions prepared, so Chris improvised for a few minutes, then Janet spoke, and we launched into questions. It actually went rather well, I thought, but I was relieved when it was over.

The books I picked up during the Virginia Festival of the Book

That was the end of the Festival for me. And now I’m ready to get back to my own work! Dates for next year are March 20-24, 2019 (the week before AWP in Portland). (I guess it’s too early to worry about, but the two events will next coincide in 2022 when AWP will be in Philadelphia. How can I be in two places at once?)

Report from AWP18

After the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington D.C. (AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and holds an annual conference in a different city each year), I vowed I would not be attending the 2018 Conference in Tampa. There were several reasons for that decision.

First, I had no interest in visiting Tampa. It’s not particular easy to get to from where I live in rural Virginia, and Florida does nothing for me as a destination (I get enough sunshine at home in the summer). Second, the conference itself is problematic on several levels. It’s expensive (registration, airfare, hotel, meals—it adds up to a hefty sum if you are an independent writer without institutional funding). Presentations are of disparate and unpredictable quality. It has become something of a young-writers’ gathering, and I have felt increasingly out of place in recent years. Plus, efforts to improve the organization’s gender diversity record have resulted in a conference that is dominated by women (a significant majority of presenters are women—nearly two-thirds). There may be good reasons for all of these developments, but it makes the conference feel less relevant to me. And third, I did not have a book come out in the past year, so I had no new publications to sell at the book fair.

But as the deadline for registration (not to mention travel and hotel reservations) grew closer, I felt my resolve slipping. Many friends made plans to go and urged me to come. Press 53, publisher of my two books and two anthologies, expected to have a large presence, including almost 30 of its authors. And I realized that it might be valuable to touch base with some of the small presses in attendance to stir some interest in a completed novel manuscript that needs a publisher. There is nothing like the AWP Bookfair for making those connections—800 exhibitors ranging from tiny magazines to large publishers all in one football-field-sized space.

In the end, I changed my mind and decided to go. This, then, is my report of my AWP experience and a few lessons learned.

  1. Travel/Hotel. Book early. Because I waited too long, my best flight option was to fly from Roanoke VA to Chicago to Tampa. (One blessing is that I used frequent flier miles, so at least it didn’t cost anything.) Because my flight out of ROA left at 6:23 am, I had to leave home at 3:30 am. That was no fun. I have no idea how one gets to Portland OR (site of AWP 2019) from here, but I’ll definitely book the trip earlier than I did for this year. And my hotel was pretty funky. It didn’t bother me much that it was a mile away from the convention center—I love to walk, especially when the temperatures are mild—but being closer is potentially convenient and better. I’ll try to book the main hotel for next year.
  2. Panels. I didn’t attend as many panels as I thought I might, but the ones I did go to were pretty good. Like many writers of literary fiction, I’m torn between plot—which I struggle with—and style. So I attended several panels on structure and plot and one on style, and I think I learned a few things, although I’m still torn. Plot is important—readers expect something to happen—but sentences are just as important. So I got something out of the panels I attended. However, looking at the schedule of panels, I was astounded by the number of panels that were made up entirely of women. And I’m not talking about subjects that are only of interest to women, whatever those might be. I would have thought that AWP would want to see diversity on its panels, but only 31% of panelists this year were male, down from 33% the year before. As noted above, maybe there are good reasons for this imbalance, but if the goal is equality then we’ve taken a wrong turn, in my estimation. Because panelists get some advantages—discounted registration and early access to conference hotel reservations—I have resolved to participate in panel proposals for 2019, against the apparent odds.
  3. Offsite Events. At AWP, there are the regular panels and the sanctioned evening events, like the keynote address (this year delivered by George Saunders). For some people—perhaps the people who didn’t have panel proposals accepted?—the “offsite” events are just as important. I usually stick pretty close to the main events, but this year I ventured out and attended a few things, such as an Authors’ Guild party and a reading at an Irish pub by alums of the Indiana University MFA program. (I didn’t get my MFA there, but I did get an MA in English there, plus one of the readers has contributed a story to the anthology I’m editing and I wanted to meet her.) Another event I wanted to attend resulted in a rather bizarre evening. I made my way in the rain to the venue listed in the program, a wine bar several blocks north of the convention center. It was loud and busy and no one there knew about the reading. Puzzled, I paced on the sidewalk outside wondering what to do. I was sure I had the right place, although the program listing mentioned a second floor space, and this wine bar clearly did not have a second floor. Just as I was about to give up, a manager came out and told me that she didn’t know what the mix up had been, but the reading had moved to another location, and she named a bar. As it happened, I’d seen that bar in my walks between my hotel and the convention center, so I knew where it was. I got there, ordered a drink, and waited. Eventually, the event organizers arrived and started to get things set up with the management, except that it became clear that the bar was not prepared for the event. The organizers reached a conclusion: there would be no reading. Instead, we were invited to a pub across the street for a drink on their dime. So we headed en masse across the street, had a drink, and then disbanded. But a few folks wanted to find dinner, so six of us—people I’d never met before—went to a Vietnamese fusion place not far away—and asked for a table. While we waited outside for the table to be ready, three of our group gave short readings on the sidewalk. So the reading happened after all. And then we had a pleasant dinner together.
  4. Bookfair. For me, the best part of AWP is the bookfair. Some years, when I’ve been actively submitting short stories to journals, I enjoy visiting their tables or booths and talking to editors. This year I was more interested in learning about small presses who might publish a novel manuscript I have available. I had even gone to the trouble of checking out these presses in advance and had made a list of the publishers I wanted to talk to and also the places I’d already submitted the book so I could follow up with them if they were in the fair. I printed the list out, and then forgot to bring it with me! But no matter, having done the work, I remembered most of what I needed to know. As a result, I had several productive discussions. Also I got to spend some time with the folks from Braddock Avenue Books who are bringing out my novel next year (in time for AWP in Portland) as well as my current publisher, Press 53 and visitors to their booth. I also bought a load of books and was also given a few books, making my suitcase way heavier for the trip home.
  5. Friends. AWP is one big reunion. I was able to see old friends from my MFA program, from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, from my publisher’s stable of writers, plus other writers I’ve met over the years. I also got to see several of the authors from my anthology series, including the new one that comes out this fall. I even had drinks with a friend from high school! (That was a long time ago.)

As noted above, I have some concerns about AWP and wonder if the conference is still relevant to me. I’ve committed to attending next year in conjunction with the launch of my novel, but if it weren’t for that, I doubt that I would go.

No, I did not “retire.”

When people learn that I used to practice law, they often ask “So, you’re retired?” I can’t blame them for using the ‘R’ word. After all, I’m not as young as I used to be, and that’s what many people do when they’ve had long and successful careers. But, unfailingly, I correct them: “That’s not the word I use,” I say. “I changed careers.”

Although I continued for several years to do some legal consulting with my former employer, I left my last full-time job in 2001, when I was just 47. It was my intention to change course in a fairly dramatic way: I would become a writer and that would be my new career. I prepared to become a lawyer by going to law school, so it made sense to prepare to become a writer by going to school, and so I entered a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, which I completed in 2003.

Since then, I have been a self-employed writer, not a retired lawyer. (Admittedly, it took me a long time to shake my identity as a lawyer. How do you reply to the question “What do you do?” when you meet someone at a cocktail party? “I’m a lawyer,” I used to say. After some years, I was finally able to say, “I’m a writer.”)

I sometimes wish I had had the discipline to write fiction while working fulltime—I actually enjoyed my last legal job, which was in the legal department of the World Bank—but I knew I did not. The job was draining, with lots of international travel, and I just wasn’t good at using my off time for a creative purpose. I tried. I took writing classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, just outside Washington to learn some basics. I worked to edit a manuscript I had managed to write before I started work at the World Bank when I was in a less-demanding consulting job. But I concluded that I needed to really focus on writing if I were going to be successful at it.

Now, many years later, I have had, by some measures, success at being a writer. I haven’t published a bestseller or even a book with a large press. But I treat the writing as a job, although one with flexible hours, and I set goals for myself. I’m trying to be the best writer I can be, and I can’t imagine that I will ever retire.

Happy New Year! (Year of the Dog)

Happy New Year! It’s the year of the dog, which probably has some significance for someone, but I can’t say I know what it might be. Like the Western Zodiac, the Chinese version is derived from myth and superstition, without any basis in science. I do like the idea of celebrating the new lunar year, though, and in modern China, the holiday is known as the Spring Festival. Given the warm temperatures around here this week, that’s completely appropriate!

In Asia, this is a big week for travel. Last year, the holiday was in late January and happened to occur during my research trip to Singapore. Although that was disruptive—some businesses close for the holiday and a day or two on either side—it was also fun to be part of the celebrations. I was staying in a hotel near Singapore’s “Chinatown” (an ironic name, given that the majority of the population of the country is of Chinese descent) and enjoyed walking the streets packed with vendors spelling special foods and traditional items for the holiday. It’s big business in Singapore.

In any case, it’s another chance at renewal. Happy Spring Festival! Happy New Year! Happy Year of the Dog! Gong Xi Fa Cai! 恭喜发财!

Library Liberation

I’m a book hoarder. I couldn’t tell you how many I have, but it numbers in the thousands. I still own a few books I picked up in high school and many from college and grad school days. Despite frequent moves (including two moves to and from Singapore), virtually all of my books have stayed with me over the years. Until recently.

I’ve been in my current house since 2001. Before I moved in, I had bookshelves built in the living room/den and in the third bedroom/office. I also brought with me a few freestanding bookshelves that I’d had in my last home. Those shelves were adequate for a while, but eventually, my library grew beyond capacity. Now, besides the built-ins, I have bookshelves in the guest room, the hallway outside the guest room, and in my bedroom. Not to mention piles on the floor of my office. And also not to mention the boxes of literary magazines that came off shelves to accommodate books that were previously on the floor. I’m swimming in them.

I generally subscribe to the belief that one cannot have too many books, but that assumes that space is expandable infinitely, as if all of the universe were available to me for book storage. There simply comes a time when you run out of room, and I’ve reached that time. (Books aren’t the only problem, I have to say. Where did all those clothes come from? And do I really need all those wine glasses? Plus, what’s with all those coffee mugs?)

If I don’t do something about the books now, someone—who that someone is remains unclear—will have to deal with them when (not if, obviously) I die. (You’ve probably heard about the Swedish Death Cleaning rage; I’m giving it a lot of thought.) So here’s what I’m doing about my book problem.

  1. eBooks/Audiobooks. I own a Kindle. When possible, I buy eBooks. I also listen to books in the car that I get on Audible. I guess those books will “die” with me, as no one else can access them easily, but at least they don’t take up space. (Yes, I feel guilty about feeding the Amazon beast with these purchases, but these are options that fit into my lifestyle neatly.)
  2. Libraries. I’ve rediscovered the library! One book I wanted recently was only available in electronic form from the library, which I thought was ironic, and generally I’m checking out books that I can consult as I’m listening to the audio version, but definitely, the libraries can help relieve my book-acquiring problem. Also, they can be repositories for some books as they come off the shelf at home and look for new homes, although my library only wants books (for its fundraising sales) published within the last two years. That eliminates a lot of the books I would part with willingly.
  3. Selling Books. We have a great used bookstore in my town. They won’t take just any book, but they will take most hardcovers and will pay me for them with store credit. It isn’t much, but it’s something, which is more than nothing. Yes, that means I’ll end up bringing home more books, but it works out to about six books out for one book in, a ratio I can live with that will relieve pressure on the shelving crisis.
  4. BookCrossing. This is the most entertaining option. Take a book from your shelf. Register it at the website to get the book’s particular ID number (not its ISBN). Print a label and add the number. Stick the label inside the cover of the book. Then leave the book somewhere. A finder can then pick up the book and keep it. Ideally, they’ll log onto the website, as instructed by the label, and you can follow the path of the book as it moves from one hand to the next as long as the temporary owners keep the website updated. I released one book several years ago and nothing happened—I have no idea what became of it because whoever picked it up didn’t update the website—but I’m going to do several more in the coming week, so maybe I can stir up some interest. If you find a BookCrossing book, be sure and long on to let the liberator know. I was at a coffee shop today and left a book on a table when I left. A helpful gentleman saw that I’d exited without picking up the book and ran after me with it. I explained what was up and showed him the label I’d put inside. He seemed to have heard of the idea and took the back inside. Perhaps he’ll take the book home. I hope so.
  5. Giveaways. Because I have a growing pile of books that the bookstore won’t buy and the library won’t take, I’ll end up giving them away. Many will end up donated to various organizations, or I’ll give them to individuals, including readers of my blog.
  6. Trash. Sadly, some books in my collection will end up in the trash (or, ideally, in the recycling bin). I’m trying to avoid that, but I fear it’s inevitable.

The Joy of Shakespeare

When was the last time you saw a Shakespeare play? For me, the answer is “last week.” I have the great good fortune of living just outside the small city of Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and its fabulous Blackfriars Playhouse, which means I can see live productions of Shakespeare’s plays almost every week of the year.

Truly, though, it’s not just good fortune. It was good planning. When I was looking to relocate from the Washington DC area in late 2000, I visited Staunton and learned that the playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, was under construction. That was enough to convince me that this was the right place for me to move. I arrived in the spring of 2001 and the theater opened that fall. To say that I have been a loyal patron of the theater from the beginning is probably an understatement. I think I missed a few productions in the early years—I was still doing a lot of travel for the World Bank on top of the reading and writing I was doing for my MFA program—but since about 2006 or so I’ve seen every play the ASC has produced on the Blackfriars stage. That’s 16 shows most years, including a broad selection of Shakespeare (History, Comedy, and Tragedy), plus plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Marlowe et al.), a few contemporary plays that in some way speak to or relate to one or more of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard), and two or three Holiday Season plays including the annual tradition of A Christmas Carol.

That means I have seen the entire Shakespeare Canon of 38 plays, something that few can say (unless, of course, you are another regular at the ASC).

The current Renaissance Season, which runs from mid-January to mid-April, is one of the most exciting times of year at the theater. The company of actors, without a director, will put up five plays with very limited rehearsal time. From an audience member’s perspective, that gives the plays a sort of energy that well-rehearsed plays sometimes lack. I had the privilege of watching a couple of early rehearsals of two of the five plays, and I was thoroughly impressed by the collaborative nature of the decision-making process. These actors are professionals, they know what they’re doing, and when they make suggestions they are taken seriously. It was a pleasure to behold.

Three plays are running currently. Both Hamlet and Richard II opened on January 20 and the third, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, opened last week (I’m seeing it this Thursday night). I love this Stoppard play, having first read it in high school in about 1970, and I still have my copy of the script we read back then. Next up are The Way of the World by William Congreve and Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston. (The theater also operates a touring company that is currently on the road with three productions: Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, and an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.)

The wonder of this theater is a little hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. First, the space is amazing. It’s an intimate theater, where truly there are no bad seats, and it’s gorgeous, made mostly of wood. Enhancing the intimacy, it’s a thrust stage, so the performers are surrounded on three sides by the audience, and they frequently make use of the aisles for entrances and exits, bringing the action even closer to theater-goers. And that’s not to mention the gallant stools, seats that are actually on stage and so close that one is in danger of being used as a prop in the play. Second, the actors are true professionals, many of them members of Actors’ Equity, the union for actors. They are highly trained and experienced and they are a joy to watch. And third, most of the actors are also fabulous musicians, and an ASC performance includes a concert before the show and during the intermission.  (The music is so great, the resident and touring companies put together a “greatest hits” concert once a year to help raise money for the theater.)

We are extremely fortunate to have the ASC here in Staunton, and it benefits us in other ways, too. Many theater-goers are from out of town. Their presence means business for hotels and restaurants, and as a result, we have a thriving dining scene, stronger than other cities our size. I, for one, am grateful.

Full disclosure: In November of last year, I was elected to the Board of Trustees of the ASC, largely because I was a fan and cheerleader for the theater. I’m honored to serve!

Back to VCCA

Toward the end of last year, I had a long writing residency at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the conclusion of which I wrote about here: End of Residency Blues. While that month was wonderful, it also had its frustrations, generating doubts about the project I was working on.

Over the weeks that followed, I had a chance to think about writing goals for 2018, which I wrote about here: 2018 Writing Goals. People who read about my goals confirmed what I already knew: they were terribly ambitious. But less than six weeks into the year, I’m feeling pretty good about them.

For one thing, I finished selecting the 20 short stories that will make up the anthology I’m editing, Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. There’s still a lot of work to be done (contracting, editing, formatting, publicity, etc.), but we’re easily on track for publication in the fall.

Another goal was to finish a story collection I was working on. I had thought about hiding out in the mountains at a B&B to focus on that, but a different opportunity knocked: a chance to return to VCCA for a short residency. While my last residency of a full month was my longest ever, this five-day stay is my shortest, but it has been incredibly productive. I’ve finished several stories for the new collection—they were already begun and in draft form—and I should be able to complete the manuscript in the next couple of weeks, before my self-imposed deadline of March 1. I’m very excited about that and look forward to submitting some of those stories to magazines and the whole manuscript to publishers in the near future. The image above is my studio, W5, also known as the “corn crib.” Very funky, but it has served me well.

With those two major projects in hand, I’ve begun to turn my thoughts back to the novel that had been frustrating me during my last residency. I have some ideas for restructuring what I have so far, and I’m hopeful that will give me the momentum I need to reach the finish line (“The End”) later this year.

So this residency, despite being extremely short, has been highly productive. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here.

(If you are a writer, visual artist, or composer and have not yet done a residency at VCCA, consider applying. Go here for more information.)

The Omnivorous Reader

I grew up in small cities in the Midwest, in a pretty typical middle-class home. Both of my parents worked, but somehow we managed to have a full, together-at-the-dining-table dinner most nights (thanks, Mom!). My mother liked to cook, she said—she claimed she read cookbooks the way other people read novels—but I don’t recall all that much variety in our menu. Fried chicken. Hamburgers. Spaghetti. Something she called “campfire stew,” which I loved. Basic, wholesome stuff. No complaints from me. Not many, anyway. I refused to eat liver or Brussels sprouts, and my sister got my share of the acorn squash.

My diet didn’t change much when I went to college. My fraternity had a cook, Mattie, with a repertoire even more limited than my mother’s—mac and cheese, chili, fish sticks. Certainly nothing exotic. The only item I even remember from those years is something we called “Mattie brownies,” massive slabs of baked, chocolatey sweetness. Yum. When I began graduate school, I lived in the grad student dorm. They probably tried to liven up the menu with “international” choices—maybe chow mein or tacos—but if they did I don’t remember, and it’s almost certain that any such items were toned down for the average palate of rural, Midwestern America.

All of which is to say, for the first 22 years of my life, I was not an adventurous eater.

But in January of 1976 that changed when I boarded a plane bound for Seoul, Korea to serve in the Peace Corps. My first taste of Korean food was in San Francisco where our service group gathered for pre-departure briefings. Not everyone in our group liked it, but I did, for reasons I couldn’t then explain. I was just ready for a new experience, I guess, and the unfamiliar food was the first manifestation of that experience. Upon arrival in Seoul, where there was no turning back, and then at our training site down-country, we had to eat Korean food (or Korean versions of Chinese food) or starve, basically, because even in metropolitan Seoul in 1976 there were not many other affordable options. But that was fine with me. Bulgogi, kimchi, and bibimbap were just fine with me. Over the next two years of working in a provincial capital city in Korea’s “rice bowl,” famous for its food, I came to love the cuisine. It’s still my favorite. (If someone opened a Korean restaurant near me, I guarantee I’d be one of their best customers.)

Since then, I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of foods, mostly Asian because I spent most of my legal career working in East Asia but dishes from other parts of the world, too. I love to travel and I love to eat, so it’s a good combination.

But not everyone has such a broad appetite. You don’t like Pad Thai? Or Beef Rendang? Far be it from me to judge your tastes. I still won’t eat liver, although at this point I’ve come to love Brussels sprouts and squash. Taste is a curious thing.

Which brings me to literature. (You knew I was headed there, right?)

If you are a woman and you prefer to read only books by women, that’s okay with me. I believe you might find that you’d also like some work by men if you gave it a read, but I won’t judge. Some men say they don’t read books by women. I find that curious since some of my favorite writers are women, but again I’m not going to judge.

Maybe these prejudices are in reality matters of genre, not gender. My father, who spent his whole career as an automotive parts salesman, liked to read Westerns. Most such books are by men, I think, or at least they were while my father was alive. My mother read some literary fiction by both men and women, but mostly she read romance novels, probably by women. It used to be that war novels were written by and read mostly by men. Thrillers, too, although that has changed, as discussed below. Mysteries have long been written by both men and women, although I have the impression that many of the modern superstars of the genre are women. Although the category is in dispute, publishers market some work as “women’s fiction,” and not surprisingly these titles are mostly by women. (I did a cursory online search for statistics to bolster my impressions and didn’t find anything, so take these assertions for what they’re worth.)

As an aside, publishing industry bias is obviously a factor in the gender/genre puzzle. There has long been a perception that the industry was biased in favor of male writers, so much so that women adopted male or gender-less pseudonyms in order to gain publication and readership. It’s possible that the pendulum has swung the other way at this point, as this recent article suggests: Why Men Pretend to be Women to Sell Thrillers.

The question I am struggling to get to is this: How widely should we read?

The question, of course, is huge. There is the issue of gender. If I read mostly work by men, should I make an effort to read more women? There is genre. If I read mostly literary fiction, should I read more genre work—mysteries, thrillers, young adult? There is also culture, which I’ve not mentioned until now. If I read mostly work by white writers, should I be intentional about reading work by writers of color?

The answer depends, I think, on who you are and why you read in the first place. I don’t blame my father for reading mostly books by men or my mother for reading mostly books by women. They were both busy people who read primarily for escape, and the genres that appealed to them were dominated by writers of one gender. I recently saw an article online by a woman who was upset with her date when he revealed that he read only books by men. Now, I can understand if this woman might choose not to go out with this guy again solely because of his narrow choice of reading material, but I don’t think it makes him a bad person, just not the right guy for her. I’m happy to discover that people read anything at all, frankly, given the studies that show reading on the decline. Books are like food (you knew I was going to circle back eventually, right?) and taste is personal. Not everyone likes kimchi, although I think it’s awesome. You only read work by writers who are like you? Can’t say I blame you, even though you’re missing out on some pretty great writing.

I read like I eat—whatever is handy. Nonfiction, novels, short stories. The fiction I read is balanced between the genders, although not with great intentionality. (If I realize that the last couple of books I’ve read are by men I might choose a book by a woman next and vice versa, but I don’t give it much more thought than that.) I also try to make sure I’m reading writers of color, although I have had to make more of an effort there. Because of my interest in Asia, I do seem to read a fair number of Asian and Asian American writers, but I could do better when it comes to African American and Hispanic writers. Most of my non-fiction reading is dictated by my book club’s choices, but we (an even mix of men and women) do try to balance genders and read some books by writers of color. Most of the fiction I read is literary, but I will occasionally read a mystery or thriller if the writing is good. I’ve read a few young adult books in recent years, too, because good writing shows up everywhere. (Having said that the only Westerns I’m likely to read will be by the likes of Cormac McCarthy, and I don’t foresee any romance novels in my future. Nor will I be reading Christian fiction, Zombie/Werewolf fiction, etc. Just not my thing.)

As a writer, my reading is about learning, not escape. I’m not only hoping to improve my craft through exposure to successful work, I’m hoping to open my mind to ideas and experiences in the world. That means reading more than just writers who look like me or come from my background. Still, it’s a question of taste. I’m omnivorous, but I understand those who are not.

For more thoughts on the subject, I recommend: 12 Reasons Reading Widely is Important.

 

 

 

 

An Editor’s Notes

Everywhere Stories: Volume I

One of my many projects for the year is to compile, edit, and publish (with Press 53) Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. Like the first two volumes, the book will have twenty stories set in twenty countries by twenty writers (unless I have room for a few more than that). We opened submissions at the end of 2017 and I am currently reading through a few hundred stories to find the best pieces to include in the book.

Curating an anthology is challenging work, for a variety of reasons. Among other things, I find myself rejecting stories that are perfectly fine, excellent even, that just don’t fit my evolving vision for the book.

For example, I recently turned down a submission that was a very good exploration of character that could have been set anywhere in the world. In fact, if the author hadn’t told me in his cover letter where the story was set, I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out. Given the nature of the series, though, developing a strong sense of place in the work is one of the markers I look for.

There are no taboo subjects in my view, but some topics are hard to bring off with freshness or appropriate sensitivity. As a result, stories that involve abuse toward women or children rarely appeal to me. Same with violence toward animals. Stories about characters with cancer are often overly sentimental or too familiar, and that’s true whether the setting is California or Kathmandu. (Sometimes, however, as with one of the stories in Volume I of the series, cancer is only an ancillary part of the story, not its sole focus, and provides poignancy rather than melodrama.) It turns out that I’m not a big fan of stories about drug use, either.

Everywhere Stories: Volume II

Writers who demonstrate a familiarity with the kinds of stories we published in the first two volumes probably have an advantage over those who clearly haven’t read either of those books. This is true with ordinary literary magazines, too. Why submit a poem to a publication that says in its title that it includes only short fiction? And while we have dipped our toes into magical realism, a story that is over-the-top surreal probably isn’t going to make the cut in a collection of stories that is, for the most part, hyper-real.

I’m both amused and disappointed when writers ignore the submission guidelines that specify the countries we’ve covered in the first two volumes that we will NOT include in Volume III. “The story is set in France,” says the cover letter, even though we did France in Volume I. Other than the United States, we aren’t repeating countries, as we stated explicitly.

And speaking of the United States, if you sent us a story set in this country your odds of having it included in the book are very small. Of all the submissions we received this time, about a third of them were set in the U.S. It’s been very difficult to wade through all of those submissions to find the one story set in America that will work for us, because many of the stories are extremely good.

One of the things you’ll hear from or about over-worked editors is that we’re looking for excuses to reject a story. Anything to move it off the table so we can get to the next submission. This is why writers are advised to proofread carefully, to use standard fonts and formatting, to follow submission guidelines exactly, and so on. But for this project, I find myself being more tolerant than when I was editing a magazine. I wish every story had the wordcount on the first page, but it’s not fatal to the submission if it doesn’t. I just use page count instead to judge length. The writer uses “alright” instead of “all right?” No problem. We’ll fix that in the editing process if we have to. Punctuation mistakes? Confusing “which” for “that?” Wrong word choices? (One writer used the word “costumer” when he meant “customer,” which gave me a chuckle at the writer’s expense.) Not really a problem. Maybe, if there is an accumulation of these sorts of errors that will give me headaches in the editing process, then I will turn a piece down. But if the story otherwise has merit, I’m more likely to give it a chance despite these superficial flaws.

I am getting close to making the final selections for the anthology and writers should be hearing from me within the next two weeks. At that point, we’ll start working on edits—also a time-consuming task—and soliciting author bios and statements. By late spring I should be able to turn the whole manuscript over to the publisher with a view to publication in October. Stay tuned for the pre-order announcement in August and September!

If you’re curious about the series and the stories we included in the first two volumes, take a look at Press 53’s Anthology page.