Sunday, May 2, 2010

Big and Short

One of the best things to come out of my failed experiment in novella writing the past two months was a new appreciation for the Big Two of crime short fiction, Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines. It's become fashionable among some in the noir and online writing communities to bad mouth the Big Two for what they believe is a stodgy and old-fashioned taste in fiction. Most of those spouting off do so without having read and recent issues of either magazine and I can say this as one of the guilty. But guys like Dave Zeltserman and Joe Konrath having been preaching the viability of both magazines as an outlet for our stuff without many listeners.

In the recent kerfuffle over payment for fiction, one of the frequent arguments for submitting to online zines that don't pay was the lack of outlets that publish hardcore and dark crime fiction. I was one of the loudest voices saying this. But again, wrong. Now I'm happy I started reading and publishing online. I've had some nice success and made some good friends. But if we're looking at this as a professional game, we've got to look at the professional markets. So any doubters out there, need to hear it from the editors mouth. This is from Ellery Queen editor Janet Hutchins March 2010 Editor's Letter:

A magazine that has flourished for as long as EQMM has thanks to its longtime subscribers owes the expectations of those readers great respect. But as our culture has shifted toward more open portrayal of sexuality and violence in film, television, and novels, the expectation some EQMM readers have that the magazine will entirely avoid explicit treatment of those subjects—and the accompanying use of profanity—has become more difficult to meet.

I say that not because there aren’t enough stories available that wouldn’t offend, but because our readers also expect from us the best that’s being produced in the genre, and the direction the culture as a whole takes is where you find some of its best writers.

Whenever I receive a chastising letter from a reader over a sexually explicit scene or vulgar term, it seems invariably to begin with a reminder that a truly good writer doesn’t need such descriptions, or such language, in order to achieve the desired effect. Sometimes the correspondant will reference great writers of the past to illustrate the point. But that really misses the point. I recall once asking one of our contributors if we could tone down some of the potentially offensive language in a story and she replied that although she didn’t use profanity in her own speech she felt compelled, as a serious writer, to accurately represent the current American vernacular. A contemporary writer can’t always avoid being explicit or profane and still create a realistic scene, because the society being depicted doesn’t recognize the same restraints it did fifty or even fifteen years ago. And since there’s no longer a clear line between “literary” fiction (which generally strives for very realistic portrayal of speech and action) and entertainment or genre fiction, I think this tension between what the story may demand from a literary standpoint and what some readers expect to find in our magazine is sure to persist.

Of course, there’s an awful lot of really bad writing that hides beneath offensive language and gratuitous detailing of sexual or violent acts—writing that gives the impression the author doesn’t think he or she will gain entrance to the club without it. I sympathize entirely with readers who want to make sure that sort of thing stays out of our pages. But at the same time, since EQMM has always aimed to publish the best the genre has to offer, we hope all of our readers will understand that we don’t want to have to automatically reject a good story by a good writer because it contains an essential but explicit sexual or violent image or language. I brought back the Black Mask department a couple of years ago partly so that we could feature some of the darker, more realistic work in the field. We’ve had very little feedback as to whether readers like the department (and what we’re doing in general).

Even she acknowledges the lack of feedback regarding their darker publishing offerings. I like best her point that a leading crime magazine needs to reflect the diversity of not only the times in which it's published but the variety of the offering in that field. The current issue not only has a story from a collection published by a University press, but a story in present tense! So do the genre and it's short fiction flag bearers a favor and check out an issue of EQ or AH.


David Cranmer said...

I buy both every month. I'm unapologetically a huge fan of whats considered by some to be "stodgy and old-fashioned." Besides, magazines that have regular contributions from writers like Loren D. Estleman and Dave Zeltserman (the cutting edge of crime fiction) deserve our attention.

Thanks Bryon for a top post.

Kieran said...

i'm for anything that comes with a paycheck.

Unknown said...

I pretty much buy EQMM every month and AHMM every three months or so. The stories are typically entralling and the best examples of the genre. I think the reason people down talk the magazines is because of the difficulty of being accepted by them. And like Irish said, I'm all for anything that has a paycheck attached to it

John McFetridge said...

I will admit I haven't looked at these magazines in years. Something I will now correct.

Good post, thanks.

sandra seamans said...

A while back on my blog I asked if it was worth it to submit to both of these markets noting the long waiting period and the even longer odds of an acceptance. Michael Bracken pretty much put it into perspective for me. He said that being able to say you've been published in either of these magazines gives you a more professional resume when talking with editors because everyone's heard of EQ and AHMM. Plus he said it took him 20 years of submissions to finally make the cut and he's a very prolific short story writer. And you'll never know if you could have made it, if you don't try.

Mike Dennis said...

But they do tie up your story for four months before they reject it.

Dave Zeltserman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.