“The definition of ‘literary fiction’ I’ve heard from literature professors and other people pretty consistently is, in literature there is a point to reading the story beyond finding out what happens next,” explains Michael Czyzniejewski, fiction editor of the Mid-American Review. And the fiction published in MAR, a literary magazine of Bowling Green State University, is often as experimental in form and language as it is in plot.
“Probably every story we take, I read the first paragraph and I know there’s a good chance we’re going to take that story,” Czyzniejewski says. While he has no strict definition of “quality fiction,” Czyzniejewski is confident he can identify the best writing from the pile of submissions in his in-box. “You can tell fairly quickly if a story is good by how crisp the writing is, the sentence structure and distribution of length, the originality in what’s happening and the word choices. Plot has a lot to do with it, though. If you’ve got a tired old plot and tired old characters that I’ve seen a thousand times, you’re not going to do yourself any good. But if you have a thousand flying rhinoceroses, well okay, you have my attention now. You just have to carry it out for the next how many thousand words.”
But Czyzniejewski is quick to explain that it’s still possible to write a good story with a traditional theme. “I think you can write any story well, no matter what it is. You can write love stories. That’s the oldest story there is, I guess. I think it all depends upon the handling of the writing.” The handling of the writing is also what distinguishes the literary fiction MAR considers from genre fiction, which they don’t publish. But the line between the two is sometimes thin. “I think if somebody sent in a magical realism detective story, I would consider it a literary detective story, and we’d look at it,” he explains. He admits he is a big fan of magical realism.
He’s also a big fan of writing that is sometimes difficult to categorize as fiction. “I guess it’s up to the author,” Czyzniejewski says. “If they send it to me, the fiction editor, then it’s fiction.” If the submission is sent to the poetry editor, then it’s considered prose poetry. “By no means do we take only nontraditional work,” Czyzniejewski explains. “We just want the best work. But I think it’s much easier to catch an editor’s eye with nontraditional work, because it sticks out. If I’ve learned anything form being an editor, I’ve learned that.” Czyzniejewski says he’s altered his own writing style towards the nontraditional since he’s been at MAR.
The magazine, first published in 1980, is approaching its twentieth anniversary and the editors are planning a double issue. “I’ve read our first issue that came out in 1980,” Czyzniejewski says. “It’s just so different. It’s so strange. I’m not saying the stories weren’t good. It was just such a different aesthetic than we have now. If the first editors looked at the fiction we put in this last issue back then, I don’t want to say it would blow their minds, but…” Czyzniejewski doubts they would even recognize some of the pieces as fiction.
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