One of the great things about working for Submishmash is that our customers are invariably interesting people. Take our word for it: you could do worse than to involve yourself with publishers and curators all day long. As we talk to more and more publishers, we are endlessly impressed at the energy and ingenuity that they bring to the project of remaking an industry that matters to them. With that in mind, we thought we would inaugurate a series of blog posts focusing on some of these enterprising folks.
For this first installment of our “Innovators in Publishing” series, we interviewed Matthew Salesses, fiction editor for The Good Men Project magazine (and an up-and-coming fiction writer in his own right). If you haven’t heard of The Good Men Project, you will soon, if there’s any justice in the world. They have rolled out a new kind of men’s magazine, one that deals with some of the usual subjects–sports, sex–but with an intelligence and sensitivity that sets them apart from the usual suspects. They say that they want to “make the world a better place” and to publish content that “challenges men to think deeply–and to talk about things they don’t normally talk about.” If that doesn’t convince you that their hearts are in the right place, consider this: they are a general-interest publisher (think Esquireor GQ) who decided to start the year 2011 by rolling out a fancy new fiction section. We caught up with Matthew by email recently to ask a few questions about this interesting development.
Submittable: As you know, Matthew, in the last ten or fifteen years, virtually all for-profit magazine publishers have cut back or eliminated their fiction sections. Could you tell us how The Good Men Project, which is intent on generating positive cash flow, decided to add a fiction section? Do you guys know something that Esquire or GQ doesn’t?
Matthew Salesses: Part of the difference is space: in those glossies, fiction represents an investment of physical pages (though even so, it is worthy of this investment). I’m sure there’s some cost-benefit analysis involved. GMP, being online, doesn’t have to justify pages with advertising income. I don’t want this to sound like I’m defending the decision to leave fiction out, though. What I think many big magazines are ignoring is a cost-benefit beyond cash. Including fiction makes literature more visible to general readers, which keeps it a part of our culture and which in turn encourages general readers to read more of it. All of this is a vicious cycle. Cutting fiction out is like telling readers that literature is not something they should invest in, either, which means that many do not and more fiction gets the chop.
Here’s something about Americans: we see a commercial for x-brand soap, y-brand soap, z-brand soap. And maybe it doesn’t convince us to buy x-brand over y-brand, but when we get to the grocery store, and we see x-brand soap, y-brand soap, z-brand soap, and w-brand soap, we’re not buying the w-brand soap. That soap has basically been made invisible to us, simply due to lesser recognition. When readers don’t see fiction within the pages of a magazine anymore, it’s being made more and more invisible in general culture.
I would also add, while I’m talking about space, that the availability of webspace allows us to run longer pieces, since the length of a piece is a non-issue. I feel like longer stories are in short supply on the web. Also, GMP‘s mission is more about community than about money, so maybe that’s part of why we made the decision to go with fiction.
Submittable: Wanting to publish longer fiction sounds a little counterintuitive. The proliferation of web journals in the last several years has, it seems to me, led to an overall shortening of the average word-count for the short story, a shortening that seems to have worked its way into the practices of print journals, too. Would you say we are, as a reading culture, ready to move past our impatience with reading fiction on a screen?
Salesses: I would say that the reader’s reluctance to invest in a long story online is not so much impatience as it is a matter of there being so much out there to read. I will read a 5,000-word article on the discovery of an asteroid in the New York Times online, or 5,000 words on Ray Allen on espn.com. I will read a long story online in The New Yorker. I think it’s more a matter of trust and expectation. Why should I read this when I could be reading that? A lot of online journals set themselves up as places that publish very short pieces, and we come to expect that from online fiction. But when we go to The New Yorker’s page, we expect to read a longer story. I think if a story is good enough, you forget about the world around you—whether in print or online. It’s about getting the reader to start, to sit down and say, okay, I’m going to read a 20-page story right now; it’s about developing a relationship with the reader, developing trust that this will be worth it.
Submittable: The Good Men Project distinguishes itself from other men’s magazines by its commitment to “make the world a better place” and to “bring out the best in men.” How does this translate into curating a fiction section? Will you be looking for fiction that advances the above causes in direct ways, or is there something about fiction itself that might advance them?
Salesses: I am never looking for fiction with morals. Fiction can make us better people simply by showing us what the world is like. I highly doubt that fiction which sets out to teach a lesson or to tell us how to act in that world will ever change us for the better.
I’m looking for fiction that is true. I don’t think men are wholly good or wholly evil, or even have that potential.
Submittable: So when GMP says it’s looking for fiction about the “male experience,” what does that mean? I’m guessing you’re unlikely to publish stories without male characters, but are there any other parameters in play, or do you just leave it up to your contributors to interpret that guideline?
Salesses: That’s about the only guideline I would “specify.” I don’t want writers to worry about fitting their work to a theme. I want to read the best story they’ve got. Let me worry about whether it’s a GMP story or not.
Submittable: You have already chosen work for your first several “Weekend Fiction” installments. I presume that you solicited most of these writers, but I know that you are also on the hunt for unsolicited work. What kind of balance do you expect to strike, going forward, between established and emerging writers, or between solicited and unsolicited work?
Salesses: I’m sure a venue like The New Yorker turns away hundreds of amazing stories every year. Send those to us. I’m not sure that answered your question, but in a way, didn’t it?
Submittable: Yes, I think it did. Thanks, Matthew. Good luck with the magazine.
Salesses: Thanks for taking time out for this, and for supporting fiction.