For the second in our series on literary magazines publishing flash fiction, we've a focus on Bartleby Snopes. A summary of the magazine on the Review Review website says “Bartleby Snopes is an online literary magazine with several goals in mind. We want to publish the best new fiction we can find. We want to give the many writers out there an opportunity to publish their best work. We want to inspire you to create great works of fiction. We currently publish two stories per week and end each month with a Story of the Month contest. We also publish our favorite stories in a semi-annual magazine format available as a free pdf download every January and July.” To find out more, I interviewed Associate Editor April Bradley and founder Nathaniel Tower.
- A feature of the magazine is the quick response to submissions – you also run a Dialogue Only competition once a year and publish a blog with interviews and other interesting pieces on writing, such as the series 'Women who Flash Their Lit.'
AB: The contest is one of our favorite things. This year Kathy Fish is the judge, and we expect the purse to be fatter than last year’s, which was nearly two grand. Thank you for asking about it, Jude! Here’s the technical low-down:
- Is there any thing else you would like to add to the description of the magazine above and are there any new developments in the pipeline?
AB: Some of the ideas we have are compelling, but we don’t have the resources to implement all of them without sacrificing what is essentially Bartleby Snopes. We want to maintain a balance between publishing fine stories and enjoying ourselves. I easily become distracted by the aesthetics of presentation and the possibilities of creating and experimenting with publishing—and Nate supports it, but he’s also a grounding influence who helps channel it into a focus. One of the things I find attractive about Bartleby Snopes is the clean elegance of the presentation that allows readers to concentrate on the stories we publish.
The most significant change in or description recently is that our flash submissions now top out at 1,000 words. Also we decided to publish, at a minimum, one story a week instead of two as well as publish one print volume per year. This gives us more leeway to focus on other projects such the on-going Women Who Flash Their Lit Series & Forum. We feature interviews and reviews of women who write and contribute to flash fiction as editors and publishers, and soon we will publish the content of a closed on-line forum that occurred earlier in the year. We’re thinking about putting together a text of essays involving more creators.
NT: April covered so much, I feel like there's not much left for me to say!
AB: You insisted I go first.
NT: One thing we've wanted to do for a while is pay our contributors. With very limited resources, we tossed around a lot of ideas for how to make that happen. What we ended up going with was awarding $25 to our Story of the Month winner. Ultimately, we felt this was more meaningful than offering a $5 token payment to all contributors.
There are more things we'd like to do, like more special editions similar to our Post-Experimentalism Issue. But with the huge number of submissions we have coming in every day, it's tough to make any of these visions into realities. We all have full-time commitments outside of Bartleby Snopes, and sometimes it seems almost impossible to keep up with what we're already doing. We have had success with other projects, like our flash novels, but even with a big staff of great editors, it's tough to give everything the time it deserves. If we do something we want to do it right.
- Bartleby Snopes is a great name for a magazine. Was Nathaniel Tower, who founded the magazine, inspired in anyway by Bartleby the Scrivener, the Melville story. I read a quote that the story, on one level, is “about a writer who forsakes conventional modes”. You publish a wide variety of unconventional fictional styles.
AB: It is a fabulous name! Nate gets to answer this one, since he gave it The Spark Of Life.
NT: I'd prefer not to answer (wink, wink).
- When did you become involved and what attracted you to the magazine?
NT: I launched the magazine in the summer of 2008. I had been writing for several years, but I had only just started submitting my work. I quickly grew frustrated with the long response time and lack of personal attention to individual submissions. Thus, Bartleby Snopes was born. I had the goal to respond to every submission within a week, and I was going to provide personal feedback on every story. After a couple years, I realized I could no longer do it all by myself, so I began sharing the editorial duties. A staff of one became a staff of two became a staff of nine. We've grown quite a bit over the years, but we've always managed to hang onto that original mission.
AB: I ran across Bartley Snopes years and years ago, when I was a reader with vague hopes of becoming a writer. I read impressive stories there, and so when I finished my first story, I submitted it. They rejected it and gave me excellent feedback that resulted it being snapped up immediately elsewhere, where I won a Pushcart. I’m kidding about the Pushcart. When I learned they were looking for editors, I applied. Actually, the letter they gave me was so helpful, I grew fond of the magazine and was excited when a call for editors went out. In fact, we have a call out for readers right now. We’re looking for readers who love good fiction that grabs them and doesn’t let go.
- The magazine has a very clear guide on submitting stories and also helpfully lists turn-offs. Some of the turn-offs suggest you might be over-run with stories on similar themes, but can you say more about preferring writers not to use second person narration or present tense, in particular third person present?
NT: When the magazine launched, I didn't have a list of turn-offs (at least not a public one). That was something that evolved over time based on the submissions that came in. Regarding the preference against second person and present tense narration, we were so overrun with these types of stories, and very few of them seemed to work. We aren't completely opposed to these writing conventions, but we want to be upfront with writers. If you submit something that goes against the magazine's general tastes, you are less likely to get accepted. With as much time as it takes to submit your writing, I don't think it would be fair for us not to share our turn-offs. Very few writers seem to be able to pull off the second person or present tense stories (I've failed many times myself in both styles). But it can be quite magical when it does work.
AB: It is magical when it works. A masterful example is The Bath Flash Fiction Award February 2016 Second Prize-Winning story by Al Kratz, You Have So Many More Choice Than Fight Or Flight. As a writer, I’ve used third person present, and as an editor who shares the responsibility for the voice of Bartleby Snopes, I’ve also advocated for the publication of stories created with this POV and a few in the second person—among thousands. Although we have a list of turn-offs, it doesn’t mean we don’t read such submissions, give them thoughtful consideration, or even publish them—we have. But we are over-run to a degree with some unvarying types of stories, and we have found that some POVs lend themselves to repetitive themes and structures. These are, however, guidelines, and we don’t want to miss a fine story. Our editorial staff has diverse tastes, experiences, personal writing styles, and publication histories. What takes our breath away versus how it coalesces into a unified voice is something we hash out it discussion. It’s not lost on me that I’m using third person present here.
- Do you think there are any themes or subject matters that are under-represented in the submissions?
AB: Although we publish stories from all over the world, we remain primarily a publisher of American lit. I want to publish more global literature. Also, we receive significantly fewer submissions that feature LGBTQIA characters and experiences. I also prefer to read regional lit that incorporates more nuance in setting and character. What else, Nate? One of my favorite themed issues is Post-Experimentalism. I’d be delighted to see more of that. And excellent science fiction—some genre-bending, genre-jumping sci-fi, some speculative, some fine absurdist, and if there is sex, it should be good—or bad in a good way. Ditch the porn. When we receive a series of flash submissions, they need to be connected in some way. I need a thread, something. And weird. I like weird stories, but that’s not really thematic or a subject.
NT: It's much easier to pick out the over-represented themes and subject matters. There aren't any particular themes or subjects I want to see more of. I just want to see great stories that surprise me and make me feel something. I don't want to see any more takes on the Adam and Eve story. I don't want to see more stories about the stupid things people do when they are drunk or high. I don't want to see more typical failing relationship stories. I want to see powerful stories that resonate, regardless of the theme or subject.
AB: Yes, we want that fierce prose.
- From my reading of your archives, it looks like you don't generally publish very short flash pieces. Is that correct?
AB: It is rare that we receive or publish submissions in the micro range. This is because we prefer stories that contain a complete dramatic action and developed characters with a sense of dimension and nuance (Somewhere, someone has a rejection letter that reads eerily similar to that, and I apologize.) We also like flash fiction that moves and resonates in an emotionally provocative narrative. We prize quality fiction that grabs us and doesn't let go. If that is micro fiction or vignette or a scene, we will publish it—and wish it were a story. What Grant Faulkner and Lynn Mundell have created and published at 100 Word Story, and Faulkner’s book, Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories show how longer form stories and larger story worlds can be contain in compressed narratives.
NT: I don't think we've published anything under 100 words, but there might be one or two in the archive. There are venues dedicated entirely to micro fiction, and I can appreciate the talent it takes to craft these stories. We simply aren't the venue for them.
- I understand you have quite a large team of editors and volunteers to read submissions. But your fast turn around time of around 3-5 days is so impressive. Can you tell us more about how you manage to do this and give feedback too? How do writers get to be part of the team?
NT: All of our current staff members are also writers, but only a few have been published in Bartleby Snopes (just for clarification, we never publish existing staff members' work; any stories by current or past editors were accepted and published prior to them being part of our staff). When the need arises for new staff, we put out a call for editors that generally gets a decent response. We have all potential staff members answer a series of questions about our magazine and writing in general, and we also have each applicant vote and comment on a handful of stories. Some applicants are past contributors, some are readers, and some are writers who want to be involved with a lit mag even though they've obviously never heard of Bartleby Snopes before. We then select the applicants that seem like the best fit for Bartleby Snopes. That doesn't always mean the ones that seem like they agree with our tastes the most. As April said, we're a diverse group in terms of our tastes. And the things we write ourselves often aren't things that we would want to publish in BS. All of our staff members, current and past, have been amazing. The commentary they leave on each submission is better than what you'd get in a lot of paid workshops.
AB: Our editorial team is extraordinary. It’s like having our very own Justice League, but with a litmag instead of an invisible plane, but the plane is not off the table. Everyone says this about their staff, but in our case, it’s true. They offer incisive, helpful critical feedback on submissions based on an impressive depth of experience and knowledge. It’s a challenge to incorporate everyone’s valuable insights into a letter for authors. The high number of submissions that ask for feedback requires an intensive reading load from everyone in order to maintain a tight turn-around and have tried to alleviate that burden with a larger staff. We want to hit that three to five day window, but it’s not always possible, especially since most authors choose our feedback option. When an author chooses the No Feedback option and we decline to publish, they receive a form letter.
- Is there one story you've read during your time at Bartleby Snopes that you'll never forget?
NT: There are dozens I'll never forget. But I don't want to list any because I might forget to list one that I really don't want to forget.
AB: Out of thousands I may choose only one? Right now, I’ll choose Border Crossing by Heather Clitheroe. We were happy to oblige her by taking it down upon request. I believe she’s preparing a collection.
- Has reading so many different stories affected the direction and style of your own writing?
NT: Yes and no. The direction of my writing has changed a lot since I started working with Bartleby Snopes. In many ways, I think it's been for the better. But I also think my writing has become very different from anything Bartleby Snopes would publish. If I submitted my own work, I'd probably be rejected. I don't think this is a result of reading all these different stories, other than maybe the desire to experiment a little which has led me to find my own niche. The way reading all of the submissions has changed me the most is giving me more guidance on what not to do. I recognize many weaknesses in stories that I never would have noticed in my own writing even though I was committing them all the time. Honestly, I think every writer should read for a lit mag, even if only for a few months. It will help in many ways.
AB: I agree with Nate. I often comment that these days more than ever, Bartleby Snopes would reject my flash—they might take some of my longer stuff. Exposure to the work at Bartleby Snopes and reading widely has revealed an expansive possibility in fiction, what writers experiment with, what concerns and preoccupies them, and the ways in which narrative forms new structures, while maintaining a sense of story and revealing the human experience. It’s thrilling to read a story that is truly great, and we publish great stories. It’s made me a better writer, a more careful and attentive one.
- Finally, if you could give one piece of advice all hopeful writers should remember when submitting to a literary magazine, what would it be?
AB: Take the time to read something the magazine publishes to get a feel for what they appreciate. Treat publishing like prospect research and match your work to its best prospective venues. And, try not to take it personally. I know it smarts to receive a rejection. Sometimes, it shatters your heart. But, keep on writing. Send your in your work. We’re all writers too.
NT: Don't submit to a magazine you don't want to read. A "publication credit" isn't worth it unless it's somewhere you want to be. And don't be upset about rejections. Rejections mean nothing in this game.