Source: The stories editors buy and why, Ed. Jean Wick, Publisher: Small, Maynard and Company, 1921
THE best, indeed the only reply to the question as to the needs of a magazine that I can think of is — read it. That is the answer for Short Stories.
When a writer asks me what we want for Short Stories, I am apt to feel a bit hopeless for, as I see it, my first duty is to seek and develop talent, and my second is to select material. I cannot feel that it is good for a fiction magazine, nor good for a fiction writer, to have the editor suggest ideas, or plots. (General magazines using non-fiction articles are different. In the nature of things they must suggest articles and ideas to their writers.) An intelligent reading of a fiction magazine will give a better idea of its aims and field than any amount of talking by the editor. We can at best, in the time at our disposal, give an idea of our field. The more important thing is the spirit of the magazine, and that can only be taken in by reading it.
Once a writer gets the spirit of the magazines he wishes to write for and has determined their respective fields, it is up to him.
Within the scope of his publication, and in its general spirit, what an editor wants most of all is ideas — something new, fresh, different.
There is one more preliminary point — self-analysis. Many writers suffer from lack of understanding of their own material. The field is so large to-day that any writer can develop his own natural imaginative expression and find a market for it. If one is more interested in outdoor adventure — write it. If a writer’s mind runs to psychological problem stories — write those. There are magazines looking for adventure and others looking for psychological character analysis. But don’t, Mr. Writer, try to force yourself to write something you yourself do not like. You cannot write down to a field successfully, and you must develop into a higher literary class naturally, by hard work.
As for Short Stories: Being primarily a magazine of adventure and the outdoors, our interest naturally lies in that field first. Our public is, a wide one embracing many kinds of people. Yet, when they buy a fiction magazine like Short Stories, we are convinced they do so in pretty much the same frame of mind. They want to be amused. They want a good story. They want to read it in a hurry, on a railroad train, in a spare hour, or to relieve a tedious wait. We believe they do not want too much complexity, nor too highly polished a style. Literary excellence is all to the good. We want it and our readers appreciate it, but it must be within our field and done in our spirit. For example, imagine the joy of our public if we could publish as brand new to-day some of Kipling’s early short stories — “The Man That Would Be King.” “William the Conqueror,” and the rest. They fall perfectly “within our scope,” and in spite of the fact that they were done by the greatest literary craftsman of the age, they are not, like some of his later work, too subtle for our public. They are mostly on the objective plane, full of action, stories straight from the shoulder.
Of course, our public like stories of the far places, of the West, both old and new, of the North and the Tropics. Yet, even to these there are some strange exceptions such as the question of remoteness from the reader’s understanding. Miles are nothing to the author or to the reader of the printed page, but unless the author succeeds in making the reader feel his locality, the sense of remoteness creeps in and the story fails. Naturally, with this small world and the fairly limited number of situations possible to a human being in adventure, variety becomes a very desirable thing with us — variety, remember, within our field.
The public that reads Short Stories likes mystery stories. That in itself is a broad field and includes the tales of the tracking down of the perpetrators of crime — detective stories. We have mighty few hard and fast rules, but we never use a story in which we make crime and criminals heroic. If the hero of a story is a burglar, we want the story to show his redemption, the failure of crime with its ultimate punishment, or we want his actions within the story to be for a laudable purpose. Our attitude may best be summed up by the phrase, “the effect on the young.” We want no story which will have an evil effect on any reader.
Mystery stories tend to run along conventional lines. We would like some variety there. The playwrights have accomplished something new and thrilling in pieces such as: “The Unknown Purple,” “The 13th Chair,” “The Alibi” with excellent results. Why cannot some equally ingenious writers work out mystery tales as far from the ordinary murder or jewel mysteries as these?
And humor! Oh, give us humor! Not too subtle, nor too rough. But give us a laugh. Human interest stories too. Business stories and the sports interest our readers. They are fairly scarce, the good ones, so we are always on the lookout for them.
Short Stories, like its contemporaries, including The Saturday Evening Post, was created by a reading public’s demand. Therefore, with the exception of the purely love stories and speaking quite generally, any story that would hit The Saturday Evening Post would hit us. Many and many a writer appearing regularly in that great weekly has found himself through the medium of Short Stories and similar magazines.
The love theme is desirable in our field. Our public, we believe, likes it, but only as a normal motive in a plot. We do not use love stories, as such, but love naturally enters into and strengthens any story, adventure, mystery, business, humor, sports, or what not.
We are not squeamish, yet we never forget that phrase, “the influence on the young.” We do not want to print any story that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Our public do not want nor expect that in Short Stories. Hence, the so-called sex story is not for us.
A word as to dialect. We try to print stories that read easily and smoothly. Too hard or too consistent a dialect repels readers. Likewise, the widely popular slang “roughneck” story. We use ’em of course, but we do not want ’em too rough. Every reader likes the relief of straight English rather than to go through page after page of dialect or slangy misspelling.
But, read the magazine, and then within our scope give us something different.