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The Top 10 Literary Magazines for Reading Flash

September 20, 2013

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How do you get better as a writer?  Two words: Read more. If you want to write better flash, you should read the best flash you can get your hands on.

There are plenty of open-access markets for doing just that. And I’ve whipped up some lists in the past that spotlight them. (Look under “Literary Magazine Reviews” to the right of this post).

But what if you’ve got a hankering to crack open some of those elite markets? You know the ones–markets that have NO acceptances reported on Duotrope. Zero. The ones that have been around for decades, and muster revolving squadrons of MFAs. These are the journals that rarely publish unsolicited authors. Their pages proudly boast the big names. Hot shots. (And no, I don’t just mean Joyce Carol Oates, who is so notoriously prolific as a writer and so democratic in her submission tendencies that I wouldn’t be surprised to see her credited in a high school literary magazine near you… the homecoming issue flaunting a few of her rearranged grocery lists).

If you want to read the flash that gets into the most elite journals, you’re going to need to buy subscriptions.  I highly recommend that by the way. Minus a small outlay of money, you’re liable to spend a few disappointed hours searching for flash on unnavigable websites. The very best journals may have a selection of stories, but these may also be clipped mid way through. Want to read the rest? Guess what? Buy a subscription! When there is an open access archive, flash is difficult to find. Be prepared to wade through unmarked piles of long form narrative while on your wary hunt for flash.

But don’t worry. There’s good news here. I’ve cleared away the haystacks and pricked my reading fingers on all the best needles for you in this latest list. Here are the very best, most elite literary magazines that have some kind of flash readily available for you to read.

I haven’t bothered to say too much about submission practices this time. The name of the game is READ, READ, and READ some more. Let edification happen. Learn how the author constructed the mood, how those specific words or that particular character are buffed and burnished just so. Smell the corks. Lift these narratives up to the light. Put them up to your ear like antique watches or conch shells.  Reading is stopped-time perception, after all. In the crevices of your reading consciousness, write the story you read in slow motion. Let your reading be reverse engineering. Read, in other words, as a form of apprenticeship, the most genuine mode of learning.

In the following list I’ve eliminated all the teasers. Journals that give only the first few paragraphs and then expect readers to purchase something or divulge their mother’s maiden names have been ushered off by stolid men in dark suits and coiled earpieces. This is a library list, for Pete’s sake, and no shenanigans will be tolerated. SHHHHH.

1. Shenandoah — “After sixty years of publishing print editions filled with memorable writing, Washington and Lee’s Shenandoah has gone online, where we will continue to feature work displaying passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.” Shenandoah gets high marks on two counts: one, for having a section clearly labeled as “flash fiction”; and two, for having accompanying audio files for us to hear the stories. One of the most interesting flashes you’ll read is by Amina Gautier, whose “Love, Creusa” laments a wife’s experience in language redolent of courtly love traditions. Ultimately, this flash muses whether sex is anything more than the “ill-aimed flick of a spear against hollowed wood.” Then there’s Sharon Hashimoto’s poignant short “Vindaloo” from Issue 61. In it, Hank is an eighty year old Japanese man attempting rather awkwardly to dine at an Indian restaurant. His hesitation is only partly due to cultural difference. This is the very restaurant he and his departed wife passed on their way to her dialysis treatment. The story is a must-read for anyone interested in balancing the mournful and the spiritually dolorous with the sensuous demands of the moment.

2. Passages North — The annual literary journal of Northern Michigan University, publishing short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction since 1979. The latest issue 34 is a veritable feast of short shorts. You’ll not only find a selection of the winners of the Just Desserts Short-Short Fiction contest, but you’ll also enjoy the likes of such masterful flashes as Darren Morris’s “Soccer Mom” and Jonathan Starke’s “A Constant Stream of Abrupt Movements.” Morris captures Facebook-mediated intimacies in a thoughtful dramatic monologue of a woman jolted by posts from a high school acquaintance struggling with cancer. Starke’s story portrays a rustic boy’s loss of innocence as he witnesses his drunken mother seducing two men at a booth in a dive bar. The finale melds the child’s world of wind-up toys with the adult world of impending danger in a manner that is most instructive for aspiring writers to behold.

3. Witness — “Launched in Detroit in 1987, the magazine is best known for showcasing work that defines its historical moment; special issues have focused on political oppression, religion, the natural world, crime, aging, civil rights, love, ethnic America, and exile. In 2007, Witness moved to Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.” Joel Smith’s “After St. Ex” (Summer 2013) is a delightful fable full of postmodern zest and whimsical oddity. It’s about the deathbed wishes of St. Exupery and the legacy he imparts to his two sons, one of whom plays architect to our present urban arrangements of symmetrically ordered towns: churches, bowling alleys, box stores, and roses. Tom Lake’s “The Chambermaid” (Fall 2012) is necessary reading for any writer eager to squeeze an entire life into the space of three breaths and five hundred words. His story is about a place and a time, and nearly the entire emotional biography of Marie, her early life, her labor, love, and loss–all lucidly, movingly compressed.

4. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place — A lot of the fiction selections here tend to be on the short side even when they are not fully-fledged flash. Editor Anthony Blake has this to say about the journal’s standard: “The guiding aesthetic of this journal is cleanliness; each work that we publish displays in its own way precision of thought and meticulous crafting of sound and language. This is what we expect from submissions. From there, you should feel free to experiment with different forms, ideas, and innovations.” Michael James Rizza’s “A Child’s Due” demonstrates the clean aesthetic plainly, tracing the dizzying sweep of Italian generations in a few hundred words, spanning both the shared lineage and the new alienation separating a young American child from his Old World, now demented grand sire. Ian Murphy’s “6.5” is written in the form of a personal letter. One sibling recounts the car accident the other was in. The title refers to the pain level the addressee of the letter laughingly reports in the ER. In two crisp, highly detailed paragraphs, things turn for the worse as that number rises, culminating in the letter’s final reference to “empty beds, now, and a piece of paper with a letter where tomorrow’s eulogy should be.”

5. New Ohio Review NOR is a publication of the Creative Writing Program of Ohio University’s English Department. Their navigable website increases the likelihood that you’ll find a flash among the few accessible fictions available before losing patience. I can’t say that as confidently for many of the other venues who share their rank. I highly recommend reading “Fidelity” in Issue 12 by William Lychack. One only scratches the surface by describing the contents of this one: a grown man recalling his boyhood impressions of his troubled mother and suggestively adulterous father. The real story here for the attentive writer-reader is the sheer opulence of Lychack’s prose and the peculiarity of the details he shines his linguistic lights upon–The “mother’s voice spooky as she talks to the light fixture on the ceiling, her tone going angry to sad to angry as she starts in on the coats hanging by the door.” In the same issue is Scott Kreeger’s amazing flash “Zigzag. Yeah.” I’m still reeling in astonishment after reading this one. At first, you might think all the Zigzag yeah repetition is some kind of ludic trick, taxing the reader’s patience.  Yet a narrative suddenly emerges in between all the Zigzag Yeah and you realize that your narrator is a child, perhaps manic, disabled or non-neurotypical, who Zigzag Yeahs his way through a conversation with a concerned grandparent and sees to the care of a severely drug addicted parent.  I’m still passing this one around to friends as an exemplification of an unusual characterization that maintains emotional authenticity nevertheless.

6. The Collagist –There’s no dearth to the learning you’ll enjoy as you scan the wondrous offerings brought to you by bad-ass editor incarnate, Matt Bell. There’s usually one strong flash in every issue. Robert Lopez has one called “A Good Percentage” in Issue 49 (Aug. 2013), an ingeniously strange statistical assessment of the smiles that a baby elicits, broken down by type. Another by Kristen Gleason, “The Rider” (Issue 48), is a clinic (in the form of a flash) on crafting dialect without relying upon stereotypes. The alien subject in question is Bu, who may be an Inupiat international student, meeting classmates at a disco and experiencing their post adolescent world of sexual liaison, inebriation, and dancing in terms of whale-pots, communal fires, snow men, and laughing bears.

7. The Journal –“The award-winning literary journal of The Ohio State University, The Journal contributes significantly toward the literary landscape of Ohio and the nation.” Clicking through the issues, one sees a lot of online content here and many of the stories are longish flash pieces of around 1200 words or so. Of the shorter variety, Sabrina Orah Mark’s “The Seventh Wife” makes for educational reading for the would-be flash writer. Lyrical, dreamy, prescient, it is more prose poem than story, about the fish offerings a husband brings to his latest wife, who begins to wonder about all those who came before her and what their absence might mean for her. Lindsey Drager’s “Rate of Growth” is similarly allegorical. This time about size. It is the story of a boy who grows up to be a giant and his mother’s refusal to face the mathematical certainty of his rate of growth–not to mention the foreboding presentiments of death and entropy that such growth entails.

8. Chicago Review — International submissions and work in translation are particularly encouraged here, and the global writings bear out the bounties of that mission. Luisa Valenzuela’s “Expeditious” (Trans. Kirk Nesset) in Issue 57. ¾  reads almost like a joke, about a guy who slips on a ledge and hangs for dear life on a branch. Women listening to the story ask the teller what happened. The resolution is a shock and a punchline all at once. In Issue 58.1 Breyton Breytonbach writes about “The Boonk” — a new animal, described in a style that will make you imagine Dr. Seuss as an anthropologist writing an encyclopedia entry, snickering all the way.

9. Contrary — Founded in 2003 at the University of Chicago and then maintained by graduates of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, Contrary is now an independent publication. “The Flood” (Summer 2013) by Armel Dagorn is a modernized re-telling of the Noah myth, re-located to a backwater setting. As characters trek to Uncle Will’s lofty house, sleeping in trees with hens tied to their belts, readers are forced to wonder about the limits and possibilities of the extended metaphor, flooding the scene.  Edward Mc Whinney’s “A Collapse” (Spring 2013) is a story that seems to be about a writer, a man alone yet fully aware of his surroundings. Even though this is a longer flash than many of the others discussed here, this is also one of those stories that is best appreciated for its language than for its plot. Describing the waitress the protagonist meets at the diner, for example–“She wore a very bright lipstick, so thick that it seemed to be always on her mind, the tip of her little tongue popping out to take a lick now and then. You’re turning a bit grey, she said. Lick the lipstick…” For sheer descriptive genius and for brushing up on your dialogue, consult this one as your next textbook.

10. Subtropics — According to editor David Leavitt, the Subtropics seek out “a piece of writing so startling and memorable as to restore our faith in literature.” The two pieces I strongly urge you to read may or may not have that effect for you. It occurs to me that perhaps I ought to forego my usual loquacity at this point. To allow you to begin your lessons in reading now, to make your own judgments. The stories you should look at are Bennett Sims’s “The Balloon” (Issue 15 2013) and Padgett Powell’s “Cry for Help from France” (Issue 7 2009). For whosoever would be a writer must be an avid reader first. Show me a great writer and I’ll show you an autodidact.

10 Comments
  1. Ronda Roaring permalink

    Thanks for this post, Michael. I read “The Balloon” and found it rather predictable. On the other hand, if one is looking for a piece about a balloon “so startling and memorable as to restore our faith in literature,” one should read or watch “Le ballon rouge.”

    • Hmmm. Well, that’s a tall order for any story to fill–restoring one’s faith in literature. My suggestion on the meme of the balloon is Eula Biss’s The Balloonists. That won’t disappoint.

  2. I appreciated this list and read many of the stories you suggested. Thank you.

  3. very informative and insightful. Thanks for a great post!

  4. armeldagorn permalink

    Thanks for the kind mention. Great article! I’m looking forward to reading all the pieces…

  5. I need to put some time on the calendar to write more flash. I have one piece that is getting published (any year now) but I have a few more in my head. Thanks for all the info here!! What I like about flash is even if it doesn’t get published, I amused myself in the writing of it.

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