Smoking With Jason Reynolds
by Tara Laskowski
Jason Reynolds is the founder and editor of Fiction Weekly. Educated at Antioch College and McNeese State University, he now lives in Dayton, Ohio. He is an English instructor at Sinclair Community College and a surprisingly good billiards player.
Why did you begin Fiction Weekly? Tell us a little bit about the birthing process of the journal and your reasons for starting it.
Fiction Weekly is based on a simple idea, do one thing and do it well. We only publish fiction, and we showcase one story at a time. FW doesn't run book reviews, interviews, essays, or anything else for the matter... just fiction. It's not a horribly original idea, but it has served us well. By focusing on one thing, providing readers with great stories on a regular basis, we've been able to achieve success in a crowded field.
In regard to the nuts and bolts aspects of founding FW, the process was long but relatively painless. At the time, I was attending the MFA program at McNeese State University, and McNeese didn't have a literary journal. So, I was fortunate to be surrounded by talented writers, editors, and academics that were willing to lend a hand. The entire process took a year and involved somewhere between two and three dozen people. After all that, we launched the site in July of 2008.
Since then, we've been quite lucky. We've published a number of notable authors, and writers that were first published in FW have gone on to place works in a plethora of other journals. We have had one story anthologized, another made a "best of" list, and a handful of our contributors have had manuscripts solicited by literary agencies. So, we're getting there, slowly but surely, one story at a time.
What makes Fiction Weekly different from every other online journal out there? Why should people read it?
In a nutshell, I'd have to say quality and variety. Fiction Weekly is a literary journal, and so we only publish pieces that we feel have literary merit. We're highly selective, and I think the stories we showcase make that clear. The works we publish are not only engaging and entertaining, but also have the ability to move readers. When readers leave the site, we want them to leave with something to think about, and I believe the vast majority of our stories are successful in doing just that. They're quality literary works.
At the same time, I think that the term "literary fiction" can be as limiting as any other genre designation. While every story we publish has literary merit, many of the pieces we publish cross over into other genres and could easily be labeled (or mislabeled) historical fiction, travel fiction, experimental fiction, sci-fi, and/or humor. And this is why variety is one of our strong suits. All of our stories are literary, but they don't all revolve around the same themes, contain the same type of characters, or use the same techniques.
Can you talk a little about your editorial process? I know that you do sometimes ask writers for extensive revisions to a story. When do you decide to ask for a rewrite, and when do you outright reject a story? Why is the process of working closely with a writer on a particular piece important to you?
We have an extremely thorough editorial process. When we receive a submission, it's sent out to at least two board members. If it impresses one of those readers, it moves on to at least two more readers. And if the submission continues to impress, we give it serious consideration. By the time we send a positive response, be it an acceptance or a request for revision, at least five people have read that submission, and this allows us to make decisions with confidence.
In addition to accepting submissions, we do send out requests for revision. Our large board and thorough editorial process enable us to do this, and it's worked wonders thus far. Often times, a submission will receive good marks from all of the board members that read it, but it will also receive similar comments from every board member (i.e., "Lots of unnecessary summary in the first two pages."). In this regard, I think it's important to note that our board members don't discuss submissions with each other until their rankings and comments have been compiled, which keeps our readers from influencing each other.
And so I find it easy to request revisions. If four out of five people who haven't spoken to each other feel that a story has the same flaw, I'm 99 percent sure that a revision is necessary for that story to realize its full potential. A lot of out submitters and contributors feel that I'm a very hands-on editor, and that's true. But it's not just me. My opinion is only one of many.
Our editorial process is a group effort, and there's no way that I'd be able to request revisions and furnish quality advice if it weren't for Fiction Weekly's dedicated staff. We do work closely with many of our contributors, but I don't think that this is exceptionally rare for literary journals. It may be rare for some online literary journals, but most print journals work with their contributors on a regular basis.
There are several online journals out there now where the editors make a point out of being anonymous and strive to be as objective and distanced as possible from this idea of editorship. How do you feel about this issue, and where do you think Fiction Weekly falls in that scheme of things?
I think our large board and thorough editorial process ensure the highest level of objectivity possible. We have 15 year round staff members and a half dozen people that lend a hand during peak periods, and they're all either writers or editors. By getting feedback from a number of these people on every submission, the process is exceptionally democratic, if not entirely objective.
When you think about it, objectivity is a lofty and unobtainable goal, but the democratic process probably comes closest. The vast majority of our readers have graduate degrees in English and/or Creative Writing, but I'd be foolish to think that makes them any more or less objective. Regardless of how much writers, editors, and academics analyze and deconstruct fiction, the quality of a story is still best defined by how it makes readers feel. And feelings are, by nature, subjective.
As such, I know our readers vote from the gut as much as they vote from the brain. All I ask is that they keep open minds and give each submission the care it deserves (the same amount of care with which they would want their own work to be treated). By compiling the opinions of multiple readers, even if those opinions are subjective, we get a sense of how good a story truly is.
To impose "objective criteria" on a story is actually quite subjective. In the end, stories should be judged by their ability to move readers, nothing more and nothing less. This may not be objective, but it's unquestionably true.
In regard to editors distancing themselves from editorship, it strikes me as a bad idea. Online literary journals aren't as respected as print literary journals, and this is due in large part to a lack of editorship. I understand that people always want to be on the cutting edge, and I believe this is a good thing because it brings about innovation. But sometimes the best method is the one that's been tried and tested, the one that has produced results for centuries.
What about your own writing? Do you write? What do you write? What are you working on now?
I'm currently completing a collection of short stories for my graduate thesis. The only negative effect of editing FW is that it has made me hypercritical when I read my own work. I think it'll pay off in the long run, but when you read stories all the time, you start to question your own work.
What do you do when you're not reading fiction for the web site?
My wife and I recently moved to Dayton, Ohio, to be closer to our family. When I'm not reading or writing, I'm teaching classes at Sinclair Community College and trying to figure out how to get around town.