Friday, September 19, 2014

Six Questions for Benjamin Goodney, Managing Editor, Storm Cellar

Storm Cellar is a national literary arts magazine, with a special emphasis on the Midwest, that publishes literary fiction, flash, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art. It publishes quality, innovative, and eclectic work while striving to represent women and minority writers. It is "un-boring." Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Benjamin Goodney: Things really got cooking when we were like, "Women don't get published enough in literary venues, let's do something about that." We were like, "The Midwest is a more diverse place than people give it credit for, so we should be putting out the work of women, of racial and sexual minorities, underrepresented authors of all kinds."

As an ongoing concern, we're trying to publish what we consider the best, full stop, of what we receive, at the same time that we're trying to promote variety, egalitarian conceptions of literature, and methods and perspectives that are unfamiliar to us. We're not really into bourgeois white masculinist psychological realist modernism (apologies for the redundancy), mandarin-class verse, family anecdotes, or jaded postmodern snark. While we're open to making exceptions, for the most part we find that stuff super-boring.

But probably the notion of "best, full stop" is incoherent, so we need to find the finest examples of many ways of putting marks on the page. The authors who send us their work are helping us figure it out. You can understand the tension between received notions of quality and a desire to publish people who aren't doing (whatever) that (is). Every issue, we're trying to resolve that tension. We're saying, this is good, this is risky, there is a place for these and those. There is a chip-on-shoulder quality to our magazine in that regard.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?

BG: All of us here are looking for well-crafted work. Sometimes, as writers, we are conduits for "inspiration"—but most work we publish has been designed to affect the reader in a specific way. (Authors need not be able to explain what that is.) Craft is Michelangelo going back to the block of marble day after day until the statue is complete: it shows.

We always want to like what we publish, where "like" means enthralled by. And that means "making it new." You may not be aware of this if you're not an editor yourself, but reading slush gets samey-samey pretty quick: the average submission is average. We do not like average. In addition, we tend to prefer something ambitious and weird over something familiar and slick. Doing more than one thing at once often helps: try putting some tragedy in your comedy, some prosody in your imagery, some thinking in your memory. Surprising us often helps. When we say we're a journal of "safety and danger" we're not only talking about one thing. Aim fucking high.

The thing that is most important to me personally is a sort of spark or intense aesthetic experience—not necessarily pleasure–produced by reading excellent work. I admit this is a vaguely described, completely intuitive, and subjective standard of judgment. The writers who produce it are usually either very skilled or very committed, and sometimes they are very raw. This is how I describe what nearly all editors do, which is knowing-it-when-you-see-it. (It is a fact of human psychology that we like things first and then rationalize our preferences post hoc. Thanks, science.) See above re: "quality."

SQF: Other than not meeting the above criteria, what turns you off to a submission?

BG: Cliché of form, style, structure, plot, character, dialogue, theme, voice, etc. combined with lack of self-awareness. Sensationalism. Half-assing it. Blather. Imitation instead of theft. Pointlessness. A surprising number of writers seem to implicitly believe that just because they wrote something, it is worth other people's time. (Maybe that is the fault of internet?!?) I really feel like if everyone would stop at some point in the drafting process, and ask themselves, "Why does this matter?" it would increase the general welfare. "Because it's fun" counts as an answer to that question, by the way.

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?

BG: Nobody should send out work looking for comments.

SQF: Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?

BG: Writers, especially early- and mid-career writers, need to read. Probably, you don't have an author you admire willing to mark your every draft. So, to develop an ability to tell the difference between what works and what doesn't, look at examples, break them down, figure out their operation. Your MFA does not substitute for this work. We ourselves read other great magazines, like Ninth Letter and Tin House (and, yes, items in a shit-ton of different publications, from A Public Space to Zyzzyva).

Also, that there is nothing personal about a rejection letter. Editors learn not to care about most submissions, because there are so many; they learn to care about and get excited by just a few, and those they love forever.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

BG: Do you accept bribes?

A: Yes, provided they are big enough.

Thank you, Benjamin. We all appreciate your taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 9/26--Six Questions for Natalie Bowers, Editor/Publisher, 1000words


  1. Benjamin Goodney, you are one entertaining editor. "Aim fucking high" should be on a t-shirt somewhere. And now I'm going to check out what I assume will be an un-boring Storm Cellar site.

  2. Well done. From this moment forward I will put a quarter in a bucket every time I swear. I should have enough to bribe Mr. Goodney before Christmas. :) Storm Cellar is my next stop.