brown wooden framed candle holder on top of books
brown wooden framed candle holder on top of books
library shelf near black wooden ladder
library shelf near black wooden ladder
white and brown book on brown woven surface
white and brown book on brown woven surface

Who Is Tom Tolnay Anyway?

Tom was born in Manhattan, and growing up lived in four of NYC’s five boroughs. He graduated from CCNY, and studied at the New School for Social Research. He spent three years in the U.S. Army and was stationed near Nancy, France, where he learned the French language. Back in New York he held various jobs until he joined Back Stage weekly theatrical newspaper and ultimately became its editor. After he resigned from the newspaper, he founded his own publishing company, Birch Brook Press, where he printed letterpress editions of literary books. While engaged in these activities, he stumbled into the habit of writing fiction regularly and sold dozens of stories to consumer and literary magazines, ranging from the Saturday Evening Post and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to North Dakota Quarterly and Confrontation. Awards for his fiction include the Theodore Goodman Short Story Award and first prize in Literal Latte’s National Fiction Competition. His story “The Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald” was made into a short film by Sea Lions Productions starring Alexa Davalos and screened at festivals in Toronto, Savannah, and Woodstock.

Here's what they're saying about these books...


**Profane Feasts was recently honored with the 2024 Literary Titan Book Award**

Profane Feasts by Tom Tolnay is a compelling narrative that traces the journey of a male protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Set against the backdrop of his dynamic Greek family in the United States, the story is a tapestry of humor and drama. Tolnay deftly captures the essence of familial bonds and cultural nuances, portraying characters like Aunt Harriet with her unconventional lifestyle, Cousin Peter’s unexpected coming out, the enigmatic Christos, and the frequently present Stavros with his erratic work life. Despite struggling with financial challenges, the family strives to uphold their dignity and cultural heritage. The narrative weaves through a series of unique events and trials, including a lost infant, bustling funerals, moments of tension, and a poignant tale of interracial love, among others.

One of the book’s standout features is its exquisite use of language. Tolnay’s prose is not just a vehicle for storytelling but an artistic element in itself. The lyrical quality and imaginative metaphors enrich the narrative, adding depth and vibrancy to the story. Another remarkable aspect is the authentic portrayal of Greek culture. Tolnay skillfully intersperses cultural insights with the plot, enlightening readers about Greek traditions and history, such as the Thesmophoria festival in Athens. This blend of Greek heritage with the setting of the 1970s provides a unique cultural perspective. The book brims with unexpected twists and humorous moments. The protagonist, Alexandros, with his first-person narration, brings a lively and engaging voice to the story. His observations on various aspects of life, from cultural disparities and romantic entanglements to family dynamics and societal issues, are both insightful and entertaining.

Profane Feasts stands out for its rich cultural portrayal, humor, and educational value. It is a testament to Tolnay’s ability to craft a story that is both informative and engaging. The character of Alexandros Dropolous, Jr. is particularly memorable for his candor and wit. This book not only entertains but also provides a window into the Greek-American experience, making it a notable addition to contemporary literature.--Literary Titan


The book, Profane Feasts by Tom Tolnay is a brilliant narrative tracing the life of a male protagonist within his dynamic Greek-American family. Tolnay combines humor and drama, depicting characters like the wholly unique Aunt Harriet, Cousin Peter' and his issues, and the mysterious Christos, in the backdrop of money struggles and cultural pride. The story unfurls through a series of unique events, including personal trials and tribulations, spirited funerals, and interesting interracial romance, offering a rich amalgamation of experiences.

One of the book's remarkable features is Tolnay's lovely use of language. His prose transcends mere storytelling, becoming an artistic element in itself. The lyrical quality and imaginative metaphors enhance the narrative, adding depth and energy to the story. In addition, Tolnay authentically portrays Greek culture, seamlessly integrating cultural insights with the plot. Readers gain valuable insights into Greek traditions and history, such as the Thesmophoria festival in Athens, providing a unique cultural perspective against the backdrop of the 1970s.

The protagonist, Alexandros, with his first-person narration, brings a lively and engaging voice to the story. His observations on various aspects of life, from cultural disparities and romantic entanglements to family dynamics and societal issues, are both insightful and entertaining. Tolnay skillfully balances the preservation of family heritage with modern societal changes, offering poignant commentary on the evolving Greek-American experience.

"Profane Feasts" is a testament to Tolnay's storytelling ability, blending humor, drama, and educational value seamlessly. The characters, particularly Alexandros Dropolous, Jr., are memorable for their candor and wit. Tolnay's narrative resonates deeply, offering you a mesmerizing glimpse into the Greek-American experience while addressing universal themes of family, identity, and cultural pride.

With its engaging characters and rich storytelling, this book is a compelling read that leaves a lasting impression. Tolnay's ability to blend personal experiences with cultural commentary creates a story that resonates deeply with readers of all backgrounds. Whether read in bite-sized chapters or devoured all at once, "Profane Feasts" is an excellent work of fictionalized realism that comes highly recommended.--Valery Elias--Discovery/Reedsy


If comedian Don Rickles was born, as he claimed, with a Fudgicle in his mouth, fellow New Yorker, Alexandros Dropolous, Jr., emerged with a lump of feta in his — the food of Greek shepherds and, arguably, the cyclops Polyphemus — à la Flatbush, Brooklyn (and, later, Queens), in the 1960s. Alexandros is the beset, coming-of-age narrator of Profane Feasts who if not quite himself a hero, his Greek-American family, collectively, certainly qualifies. Self-sacrificing, hard-working (many of them) and outlandish, their often holiday-rooted escapades are memorably — and never not humorously — related by Alex. He is a capable storyteller with the reliable pertinacity of a BMT subway express. Birth, death, marriage (or “holy hammerlock” as Alex would have it), not to mention The Evil Eye, are all subject to his youthful, ever amazed, unblinkered vision in this taut collection (there is nary a wasted word) of fictional “story-chapters.” And we readers are immeasurably the richer for it. So, too, society, lest these tales of passionate endurance by a group people who never acknowledged “the harsh reality” of their poverty (being too rich in other ways to bother) be lost to the ages.

There are more than a few moments in the Profane Feasts when a true seriousness (“borrowed shade”, to deploy an Alex expression) emerges. These are as affecting as they are unexpected. When a grown Alex asks his mother to reveal how her antidote for The Evil Eye worked back when he was a ten-year-old victim of the dreaded stare, she replies, “‘It’s not so good … to talk on it, otherwise it won’t work next time.’” He then continues, “From that I gathered she simply didn’t know the answer. Like so much in her life, she took Greek matters and myths on unfiltered faith, a commodity so rare in these faithless times we sometimes mistake it for stupidity.” In the story “The Devil Loves to Roll the Dice & Play a Hand of Cards”, wherein Alex, facing financial ruin, is bailed at the last minute — big time. Afterwards, he muses “That prayers are answered if not by a host of angels, then at least through the human beings who love us.”--Marshall Brooks, editor/publisher, Arts End Books


Profane Feasts by Tom Tolnay traces the life of Alexandros Jr. and his unique Greek-American family in Brooklyn. Written in chapter vignettes, Alexandros' first-person narrative begins with Aunt Harriet's unconventional marital history and the family's integration of ancient heritage into daily life, which are juxtaposed against financial constraints. As Alexandros matures, dynamic shifts and humorous events arise, including Christos's marriage and Ya-Ya's memorable parade splash. Family rituals, spiritual interventions by Father Nick, and uncomfortable revelations, such as cousin Peter's homosexuality, are brought to light. Alexandros describes the challenges of academia and romance amid conservative family views and leans toward family tragedies, myth-building, and Alexandros's reluctant management of the family restaurant. Throughout, Alexandros paints a picture of a life flush with divergent family mechanics, identity, tradition, and generational differences within the Greek American experience.

It's incredibly difficult not to read Profane Feasts by Tom Tolnay and think, “Could this be a memoir?” It's that good, that real, and that engrossing. Tolnay manages a balancing act in the preservation of family heritage. As a woman of East Asian descent with an Irish father, sometimes Tolnay's stories felt personal to me, just with different food. I laughed out loud when Alexandros muses, "Guess God likes Irish Catholics better than Orthodox Greeks." I love how Tolnay integrates cultural and historical commentary, like discussing Alexandros's family's views on romantic relationships, especially regarding Greeks marrying non-Greeks, to provide a window into the juxtaposition of old-world morality with changing societal norms. The writing is clean, overflows with intelligent wit, and paints scenes that are almost cinematic in detail. There is one scene in particular where the detailed depiction of the parish hall comes into play, with its sturdy yet warped plank floors and damaged ceiling panels, all creating a near-tangible sense of the environment. Tolnay deftly uses visual metaphors, such as the optical illusion of crosses formed by adjoining white rectangles. Overall, this is an excellent work of fictionalized realism that can be enjoyed equally, whether read in bite-sized chapters or swallowed all at once. Very highly recommended.--Jamie Michele, Reader’s Favorites


Showcasing author Tom Tolnay's genuine, impressive and exceptional flair for originality coupled with a knack for the kind of narrative driven storytelling style that intrigues, entertains, and fully engages his reader's full attention from start to finish, One of those novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf, "Profane Feasts: from Atmosphere Press is an especially and unreservedly recommended pick for personal, community, and college/university library Contemporary Literary Fiction collections. It should be noted that "Profane Feasts" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $9.99) as well. --Paul T. Vogel, Midwest Review of Books


Profane Feasts: New American Edition, written by Tom Tolnay, follows the narration of Alex. Alex is a boy born in a family of Greeks who immigrated from Greece to the United States of America.

Alexandrios Jr. Dropoulos, son of Alexandrios Sr. and Evangelina Dropoulos, narrates various incidents and funny anecdotes. Some will make the readers chuckle, others will teach them a thing or two about Greek culture, others will tell how the Greek immigrants live in the USA, and others will force the readers to think about certain things.

The story I enjoyed the most is the evil eye story. We have a similar phenomenon in India, and it is interesting to know that the Greeks have something similar, too. Using lemons as a cure for evil eye is another common similarity in both cultures, but we also use chillies.

There are some stories in the book that I enjoyed more than others. The book is relatable and forces the readers to feel the characters' feelings. I laughed hard when Alex’s grandma was marching in a bikini in public, but I might have shed a tear or two when his father called his mother ‘little sparrow.’ I enjoyed the character of Alex’s grandma, known as ‘Ya-Ya’ the most.

The book was beautiful. I did not find many errors in the book. Since the book is so good, I would like to give the book 5 out of 5 stars. The author did a good job with this book. I hope I get to read more of his works.-- Kshitija Sonawane, Online Book Club


Be ready for the rollercoaster highs and lows of love in Tom Tolnay’s Reading Old Books. The bland title masks the teasers inside: "How Herman Melville Saved My Life" and "The Iambic Pentameter of Intimacy." Tolnay calls the two novellas “farce”—ludicrous, improbable, ridiculous, full of hilarious surprise—but in his hands, farce reaches far into his characters’ innermost desires and rewards the reader with renewal of faith through the tragi-comedy of being human.

He's a fox, that Tom Tolnay. Leave it to him to turn an overdue library book into a life-changing revelation for all the zanies—our hero (the library clerk), the overbearing head librarian, the book-thieving library board member, and the clerk's alcoholic landlady. Eric Binde, the clerk in question, is the lucky one. Just when it seems all is lost, he saves the library from financial ruin and closure, he retrieves the rare book, and he gets his dream job: to get paid for reading! He emerges a happier man, less at odds with everyone and shorn of his misanthropic reduction of everyone to his or her farcical stereotype, including his own, thanks to heart-felt confessions from the thief, the library, and unlikeliest of all, his landlady. Nobody has been living the life they want. But in the end, they want the life they lead.

In "The Iambic Pentameter of Intimacy," the stakes are even higher, the twists and turns more abrupt and risky for Jasper Keats, the other protagonist devoted to a life of "reading dilapidated volumes of forgotten lore." Lore gladly forgotten, I should say, by the high school students who resist his efforts to initiate them into the pleasures of the classics. Strangely enough, his predilection for, indeed his addiction to the poetry of romance wins him first a divorce from his social-climbing spouse and then a surprise soul-mate in the real estate agent Beatrice, who sells their house—to herself, no less—and then invites Jasper to come live with her and be her love in the very house he'd moved out of! What puzzles Jasper is how his new love came to be conditioned (as he thinks) to be sexually "supercharged" when he reads poetry to her. John Keats turns her on to Jasper Keats. But the mysterious intimacies of the novella are hardly gratuitous, and Jasper is no predator, and his lover Beatrice no victim. The united power of language and love makes what Tolnay says is an "audacious claim that life is not entirely without meaning." When all is almost certain about to be lost—Jasper’s job, Beatrice’s agency, and the house that brought them together—they hold fast to each other. Such is the heart of romance.--Robert Bensen, author, What Lightning Spoke


R​eading Old Books, written by Tom Tolnay, is a comedic work intended to make people laugh. This farce comprises two novellas: "How Herman Melville Saved My Life" and "The Iambic Petameter of Intimacy." Readers who are familiar with classic literature will appreciate the humor found in this book more than readers who are less acquainted with those notable publications. The author's extensive experience in writing, editing, and publishing is obvious in his witty prose.

T​he narrator of the first story is a librarian's assistant whose love of books encompasses more than the contents of those tomes. Experiencing all the sensory elements of touch, smell, and sight is what drives this individual. I found it ironic that I was reading about this on an electronic device deprived of those pleasures. I liked the many allusions to authors and their works, and I enjoyed the passages that the author included. References to literary geniuses, besides Melville, are included in this novella.

T​he narrator of the second story is a high school English teacher. I was able to relate to this because we share the same career. The improbable relationships of this individual were hilarious. I laughed at his description of the faculty meeting and recognized some of the personality types in attendance. The premise of how poetry changed his love life was absurd, but believable, which was the author's goal. There are erotic parts of this story that might be offensive to some readers.

There was nothing in the storytelling that I disliked. The author took many artistic liberties with capitalization, but these were subjective errors. I did not find any other errors. Tolnay's excessive use of compound sentences with colons was somewhat unpleasant, but my score is still a resounding five out of five stars. This was a fun read, and I completely enjoyed the highly exaggerated and ridiculous tales.--Online Book Club


"Love in the Shadows of Mountains: 19 Adirondack Episodes is a wonderful collection of short stories--human, very well written, and wise. With so much meanness and mendacity in the world today, the quiet humanity of Tolnay's stories is a strong antidote to all that's going on. I enjoyed them greatly..." Nick Lyons, founding editor/publisher, Nick Lyons Books, & author of Spring Creek.


"Several stories in this collection originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. They include a couple of classic noir tales, a light-hearted caper story, stories which flirt with the supernatural, and a thriller with a haunting ending. There's a darkness to some of these tales, but this is an author who manages to leave readers with a sense that redemption, in some form, is always possible. Add to that the keen observations and remarkable sense of place that infuse these stories and you've got a recipe for evenings of fine reading in front of your Adirondack stove or in your armchair anywhere..." --Janet Hutchings, Editor-in-Chief, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.


"I have the uncanny feeling I've met the people in the stories of Tom Tolnay's Love in the Shadows of Mountains. Perhaps that's why I didn't binge-read them, but read all nineteen of them slowly to let their strangeness play out--rather like dreams one awakens from that refuse to recede in the light of day. I'm haunted by the frightening, terrible aloneness of the characters. Lovers in the shadows of the Adirondacks are more deeply shadowed by concealment, often from themselves, of their inner lives that are revealed in ways at once improbable and inevitable. Often they seek a life in the surround of family or friends or lovers, and this sometimes reduces them to their own caricatures, whose essential misalignments outfit their lives with discontents, their conversations with division, and their silences with disquiet. Like the stories in Tolnay's preceding collection, Profane Feasts, these stories take place on occasions of significance--feast or hunger, homecoming or abandonment, beginning or end of life, ceremony or celebration. The rural poverty, the hard winters and unwholesome climate, and the mountains' ever-renewed beauty like nothing else on earth, aptly place the struggles and victories of these characters in their proper settings. .."--Robert Bensen, Professor of English and Director of Writing at Hartwick College (1978-2017).


Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million,
Ingram Book Service, Indiebound, Thrift Books, Walmart, etc.

url for Profane Feasts at Barnes&Noble:

url for Profane Feasts at Amazon:


Atmosphere Press, Delhi NY 13753/607-746-7453 ($5.00 discount &free shipping if ordered with a check to Tom Tolnay at this address)


Other Books by Tom Tolnay


Celluloid Gangs (Walker & Co.)

The Big House (Walker & Co.)


Selling America (Silk Label Books)

The Magic Whorehouse (Smith Publishers)


Spirits of the Adirondack Mountains


Baseball & the Lyrical Life (Birch Brook Press)

Christmas in the Wild (Birch Brook Press)

Editors in the Stream (Birch Brook Press)

Fiction, Flyfishing & the Search for Innocence (Birch Brook)

The Suspense of Loneliness (Birch Brook)


Tom Tolnay's latest books:

Profane Feasts, Reading Old Books, & Love in the Shadows of the Adirondack Mountains


“Whatever Became of Ebeneezez Scrooge?”/Dell Publications Anthology

Down East Books/Stories From Maine

Theodore Goodman Short Story Award: “The Miracle of Uncle Stavros"

Literal Latte Anthology: “The Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald"

Literal Latte First Prize: National Fiction Award

Literary Titan Book Award: Profane Feasts

Twisted Voices: Stories From Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: “Summertime & the Livin’s Easy in Saratoga”: Level Best Books

Writer’s Digest Award Anthology

From the opening page of "How Herman Melville Saved My Life," one of two novellas in READING OLD BOOKS

I was raised in the rough-and-ruthless guts of Hartford, Connecticut, in a penny- pinched household where, in our earliest days, four of us shared a single a bag at breakfast (being the youngest, I always sipped the most ethereal cup of tea); and where, later in the family saga, books were not read so much as looked upon in awe: A miscellany of volumes had been accumulated by my mom and pop, near as I can determine, as a way to avoid visualizing the mugging and drug-dealing and prostitution and murder which took place just beyond our triple bolted doors and half boarded up windows. Occasionally these wicked deeds transpired right on the sagging porch of our house. Did I say house? More it was a pitiful heap of warped clap-boards and fractured shingles and busted pipes and rotted wires that would've been more costly to knock down and cart to the dump than the joint was worth in rent receipts. Which is why it remained upright, achieving a weird equilibrium through the inadvertent support of the semi-abandoned crack houses pressed up against it on both sides.

From the opening page of "A History of Snakes," from LOVE IN THE SHADOWS OF THE ADIRONDACK MOUNTAINS:

Early in their history as husband and wife it was the raising of two sons and, later, commitment to their developing careers, which kept Mr. and Mrs. Bleeker from attending to their promises to love, honor and, especially, to obey. Occasionally they noticed what had been happening between them, and each thought, apart from the other, that they really ought to do something about it. Not knowing where to begin such a daunting task, however, they continued to drift apart . . . like a pair of battered rowboats someone had neglected to tie up at an acid-tainted, murky, melancholy lake that once had been clear and pleasant.

From the opening page of "A Gaggle of Braggarts Living With Poverty" from PROFANE FEASTS:

My family is a “gaggle of Greek braggarts.” I call them “braggarts” because, whenever handed the slightest opening, they would drop the name of an ancient hero or three into their prattle with a neighbor, mail lady, shoe repairer, garbage truck driver, or any other innocent bystander: Aristotle, Diogenes, Epicurus, Heraclitus, Plato, Socrates, and so forth. It’s not that my mother (Evangelina), Uncle Stavros, Cousin Peter, my pretend-uncle Christos or, for that matter, me—Alexandros Dropoulos Jr.--ever actually sat down and read a few pages of the brooding wisdom left behind by these wise guys. At most we may have read about them in school or heard them mentioned in the playing out of a Greek legend in a movie. Even so, the names of these illustrious thinkers would skip off their tongues freely and frequently. “Plato was a cool cat!” “Socrates dreamed big.” “Aristotle taught us that money is the measure of all things.” But I can’t really blame my family for expressing themselves in this manner. After what had become of Greece’s golden age of enlightenment, these modern day Hellenics didn’t have much to brighten their immediate prospects, so they boasted about their 2,000-plus year old, magnificent past. As it turned out, this remote connection to their Olympian history was the only wealth my family ever possessed.

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Tom Tolnay's Library:

While Relaxing Here, You Might Wish to Read His Blog

The Short Story Then & Now

In his renowned 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe declared: “There is a distinct limit . . . to all works of literary art--the limit of a single sitting.” If any written work is too long to be read at one sitting, he wrote, “we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression…. If two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed….” Poe went on to say he could find no advantage in counterbalancing the loss of unity of impression.

Even before beginning to write a short story, Poe said he knew the general route he would follow in its development, and even how the story would end. Many writers today might eschew such an operating principle. Thomas McGuane referred to how he gets to where he’s going in a story as his “long-way-around-the horn” approach. Louise Erdrich said her story, “Shamengwa,” circulated in her mind over several years, and that she'd lived with it so long that by the time it was published in The New Yorker she’d begun to believe it had actually happened. Regardless of how a writer gets to where she's going in a story, not knowing initially how it will get to wherever it's going might be counted as one of the satisfactions of writing and reading a short story: the gradual discovery of where you’re being led as the words, like clusters of grapes, ferment and transform into wine.

A short story defines itself each time one is written, even though it will share elements and attitudes with many other published stories; even though each story is being funneled through the precincts of one class of story or another. In all genres of fiction, the opening paragraphs are merely the first steps in the writer's journey to somewhere or other in the ever-expanding spectrum of human as well as non-human experience, with many different approaches to craft and artistic strategy employed along the way. Of course each of these environments--the genres of fiction--is capable of shaping, narrowing, broadening or layering the experience of the story by surrounding it with the traditions, gratifications, as well as limitations of the genre in which the writer happens to be working.

While each genre establishes a reasonably specific environment as to the nature of the characters, events, situations, locales, as well as outcomes, the parameters within a particular discipline can obviously be stretched as far as the imagination of the particular writer makes possible. Not infrequently those established principles overlap from one field of writing into another within the same work, thereby expanding the genre horizontally rather than merely vertically. Even before reading a mystery/crime story, common fictional conditions have been established by the genre’s customs and history, granting both writer and reader a zone within which to create or follow the drama in one’s mind. In a mystery story, the reader can expect a crime to be committed, often but not always (some would say preferably) murder, frequently (though not always) with official involvement as a police detective, private eye, insurance investigator, or talented amateur sleuth pursues an erratic sociopath, a career criminal, or an ordinary citizen who, beneath a law-abiding facade, is capable of the most heinous atrocities. Of course there are numerous sub-genres in the mystery/crime realm--the "cozy," police procedural, hard-boiled, the caper to name a few--and collectively these offshoots help to broaden this genre’s psychological terrain while continuing to respect its base-level attributes.

*While constrictions may exist in all classes of short fiction, certain forms of story-telling appear to be utterly limitless. Science fiction has the farthest reaches of the universe at the disposal of its writers' imaginations, but may also telescope down to invisible microbes to relate their adventures. Fantasy stories open innumerable whimsical possibilities to the imagination while harboring a seemingly unlimited number of sub-interest areas--sword and sorcerer, witches and werewolves, walking dead, or magic/realism to name a handful. Even before turning the first page of a story in any genre--Adventure, Ghost, Horror, Romance, Thriller, Western--the reader has already had some of the framework for these specialized “worlds” established through its traditions and history. This “comfort zone” might explain in part why readers may become fiercely loyal to a particular genre.

Whether or not we are willing to accept the idea, the literary short story is yet another genre with its own particular dictates. But its abiding principles don’t seem to remain quite as locked-in as they appear to be in other genres. In part that may be because literary stories are subject to academic fashions more than the others. These trends, unlike those in other literary arts, aren’t set in motion by the tastes of the reading public so much as by the editors, critics, and scholars who shepherd this more rarified realm of fiction. Because of ongoing fluctuations in attitudes over the decades, one suspects that some “serious” stories published in the last century would not be considered “literary” by today’s arbiters; yet they are silently accepted as such primarily because of their place in the history of literature.

Many editors of university literary periodicals state unequivocally in their calls for submissions that they do not want to see “genre fiction” surfacing in their computer submission systems or, in dwindling numbers, in their mail boxes: Few of them seem willing to accommodate the idea that literary fiction is a genre in its own right, and that it often intermingles with other styles of fiction. Fact is, many of the world’s greatest literary figures--Jorges Luis Borges and William Faulkner among them--successfully wrote engagingly, and seriously, in genres other than literary. Nowadays, the astounding fictional output by Joyce Carol Oates can be found in The New Yorker, in countless "little magazines," as well as in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. While Poe is honored as a world literary figure, he is credited with having invented the detective yarn via stories like “Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter"; some scholars also consider Poe to be a master of the horror story. More recent evidence of this cross-over between genres can be observed in the 2019 volume, Best Mystery Stories, edited by Jonathan Lethem. Of the book's twenty stories, nine appeared first in literary journals--Epoch, Colorado Review, New Ohio Review, One Story among them.

Because fashions in literary stories seem to fluctuate more over time than those within other genres, the components of their inner machinery are more difficult to nail down. Or so one can deduce from many stories appearing in today’s literary magazines--small press, university, and the few mass circulation magazines still publishing “serious” fiction. In his blog on writing, author Nathan Bransford asked this question: “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” The answer to that question seems to alter periodically, and often depends upon whom is answering it. Bransford approached this conundrum by separating fiction into commercial and literary and focusing on “plot." Notwithstanding the bias against plot among some editors in the realms of academically approved fiction these days, Bransford wrote that plot exists in literary as well as commercial fiction; the difference, he said, is that plot is more difficult to detect in "serious" fiction. In commercial fiction, he continued, plot tends to lie on the surface--how a character interacts with the world around him, while in literary fiction the plot tends to unfold beneath the surface and is often more concerned with what goes on in the minds of characters than in their observable actions.

Later in the previous century a host of literary editors championed a trend wherein stories which presented a clear and present ending were summarily rejected; their printed fictions were much more likely to trail off into a vaguely suggestive, sometimes baffling oblivion. Randall Jarrell notoriously observed that the short stories published in The New Yorker don’t end so much as stop. (In some instances, indeed, the only way of knowing a story has “ended” in some of today’s literary publications is that the reader has arrived at its final page.) Current day readers and writers might have been better served in this regard if Anton Chekhov, author of more than two hundred short stories in 19th century Russia, had not assigned this title to one of his pieces: “A Story without an End,” which concludes: “It is as though I had lost something.” Indeed, it might be said that Chekhov’s protagonist, Vassilyev, had lost his ending! One possible rationale for publishing stories without clearly delineated conclusions, certainly, may be that they allow the reader to participate proactively in a story by trying to figure out what the writer had in mind.

While some “modern” literary stories do “end” in a straightforward manner, others seem to avoid the taint of resolution as if it were a communicable disease. Why? To some degree, one suspects, it's because it simply isn't fashionable in literary short fiction now. Of course we are free to acknowledge that this happens every day in life--events occur and involve us without ever getting around to tying a conclusive knot. Occasionally years may pass before we understand, if ever, the true “ending” of a particular experience we have lived through. So why not in fiction as well? Nevertheless, a tinge of irony along the way, with a brush stroke of ambiguity toward the conclusion, can certainly add energy and depth to a story.

More than a few editors in the present literary realm admire stories in which time sequences are flip-flopped, flashbacks are shuffled like a deck of cards, locations across the globe are tossed about like so much confetti, and multiple motivations are layered on top of existential debris. Protagonists are encouraged to surface at different ages, disappear for a time, and reappear at other points on the psychological as well as geographical map. This predisposition for the juggling of time, location, and situation may be filed under the contemporary literary no-no of linear fiction: The theory seems to be that the writer of “serious” fiction ought to be leaping about like Twain’s celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County, as if to test whether the reader is up to the task of making sense of these shifting elements in short fiction.

Admittedly the issue some observers perceive in this regard could simply be written off as our own limitations as readers and thinkers. But even if that's true, surely there remains sufficient elbow room in the broad spectrum of respectable, serious fiction to accept writers who relate stories which are insightful and beautiful in a sequential manner, without having to jump through the current line up of academically approved hoops. After all, don't human beings continue to live out their lives straight ahead, one incident after another in a timely fashion, with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Even in this thoroughly digitized age, one suspects many human beings continue to be gratified by hearing the sound of the other shoe dropping in a timely, perhaps even in a sequential manner.

What we call "short stories" today began in an oral tradition, of course, as village raconteurs and traveling troubadours related legends, myths, and folk tales along the dusty bypaths of Europe and Asia. Some scholars date the short story as far back as Homer's Odyssey and the Arabian Nights. For much of that time, from then to the present, it is reasonable to believe, story tellers and, later, the scribers of such tales, told their stories in a straight-ahead manner; that is, without juggling words like balls in a circus act and, ultimately, arriving at a satisfactory ending nevertheless. After all, the more recent techniques in story telling have only been around perhaps for a bushel or two of decades, and who can say how long these trends may last? Does this mean the short story form should never change or grow? Certainly not. At the same time, it does not mean that readers cannot continue to enjoy stories in the form out of which tales originally arose and which have been satisfying them for centuries.

Raymond Carver remains high on the list of modernist short fiction writers, with his minimalist approach to tale-telling. Nevertheless, Carver confessed he was drawn toward traditional methods of storytelling: “one layer of reality unfolding and giving way to another, perhaps even richer layer; the gradual accretion of meaningful detail; dialogue that not only reveals something about character but advances the story.” While Carver avoided making all of what was going on in his own stories observable on their surface--the Iceberg Theory of fiction, where 90% of its hard substance remains underwater--he professed an affinity for the straightforward narrative in short fiction: “If the reader loses his way and his interest, for whatever reason, the story suffers and usually dies…”

Another pattern that continues to surface in some literary magazines are stories in which nothing much actually happens. Such protagonists will not be found preparing to dine over an open fire surrounded by cannibals in New Guinea, or walking a rocky ledge in a gale in search of a lost utopia. In tales with little in the way of human action, or interaction between characters outside the mind, the introspective narrator tends to squat within the psychological enclosure of his construction and muse away the pages; perhaps the story’s creator is merely assuming the reader will be fascinated by his/her brilliant expounding. On occasion such a character may actually cogitate in an attention-holding manner, but too often this technique is carried to exasperating lengths while the reader is expected to continue riding the writer's ego like a roller coaster, up and down, without ever arriving at anywhere worth the trip.

Whenever language becomes all in fiction, you can expect the monster of "experimental" writing to surface like Grendle rising out of the sea. To certain editors, the more convoluted and extended the sentences, the more arcane the word-choices, the more grammatically contrived, the more the story seems worthy of publication. The kind of stories, to quote Carver again, in which “method or technique is all.” It’s as if this group of editors is operating under a collective desire to be among the first to recognize (and publish) what "important writing" will look and sound like in the years ahead. (At least for a time.) Always a considerable gamble, certainly. The futurists among us, don't forget, told us decades ago that with the advent of e-books, the printed book would be extinct by the millenium. Fact is, sales of print books continue to explode around the world.

In some experimental stories inflated language is stacked up by the author as if working to achieve a monumental mass as opposed to ferreting out each mot juste until they add up to something worth spending one's time reading. Admittedly some of these experimentalists are capable of performing remarkable linguistic acrobatics, but too often the performance ultimately lies still-born on the page. “I believe in the efficacy of the concrete word, be it noun or verb, as opposed to the abstract or arbitrary or slippery word--or phrase, or sentence…words that seem to slide into one another and blur the meaning.” This again from Carver who, like Hemingway, revealed much of what was going on in his fiction through omission rather than the piling on of language.

A variety of literary fashions have come and gone since the days when fiction writers were expected to create characters who “come alive” on the page, regardless of whether these figures represented good, evil, or, more realistically, something in between those extreems. That paradigm went hand-in-hand with credibility: characters which readers believe (through an author’s creative artifice) are actually living the drama within a story are infinitely more credible than those who are dead on arrival. Too many of the characters on printed as well as digital pages today--from the smallest lit mags to the most widely circulated periodicals--come across as bloodless, rather like cadavers, and this makes it difficult for readers to care about what becomes of them. Could this be one of the reasons the vast majority of short stories today are published mostly in periodicals which have no more than a handful of readers?

Despite the declining fortunes of short fiction, the benefits of reading short stories has remained pretty much the same: A fine, tightly, astutely written story has the power to leave a reader breathless, not to mention contemplative. Moreover, in the time it takes to read a novel, one is able, by reading an anthology of short fiction, to slip into the minds of fifteen, twenty or more writers, enabling us to become involved not only with whatever matters these writers feel driven to dramatize, but also in each of these writers' approaches to the act of creation. Unavoidably we rub elbows with what each of them has learned and found meaningful or repugnant, as presented through their one-of-a-kind voices.

Except for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (now in its 80th year), Fantasy & Science Fiction (in its 72nd year) and a few others, the publication of the longest-lived mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi magazines has been in fatal decline for many decades; the most prominent of them disappeared without a whimper, as if they had never engaged thousands of readers on a monthly basis over many years. (More recently, in the literary realm, after twenty-nine years of publication we lost the excellent sister-edited literary journal, Glimmer Train, which packed four annual issues with lively, diverse short stories in print.)

Except for a handful of the better endowed “little magazines,” such as Paris Review, Hudson Review, Partisan Review--each boasting a few to several thousand readers, the remainder have considerably less than a thousand readers--many less than a hundred. Selling so few copies, non-funded journals often don’t make it past the first couple of published issues, though that average is climbing if we include the considerable number which are appearing online only. From the short story writer’s perspective, it should be said, most still prefer the physical presence and feel of print to enshrine their work. But it should also be mentioned that many online publications aspire to engage their readers eventually in printed magazines. In its call for submissions, for example, Little Stone Journal declares "We'd love to grow into print."

Another unpleasant truth for fiction writers submitting stories to little mags, and even to mainstream periodicals, is that increasingly these publications don't bother to inform the writer that her/his submission has been rejected. Their response to a submission usually goes something like this: “If you don't hear from us in three/four/five/six months, your story has been rejected.” Nor do most of these small periodicals pay anything to authors for their intense, dedicated labors: a story of 5,000 words may take some writers years to “get it right.” Publishers of these small journals really do want to pay their authors, but the sad truth is that they simply don't have the wherewithal. A number of lit mags offer a single copy of the issue in which the story appears as “payment,” while others don’t even offer one free copy in the hope the writer, and the writer’s family and friends, will purchase a copy or two. Talk about the need to raise minimum wages! Dead for evermore are the days when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Booth Tarkington and company, in the 1920s-30s, earned thousands of dollars for each story sold to The Saturday Evening Post, Woman’s Home Journal, Esquire, and other mass-circulation outlets.

The brighter side of this dark coin is that despite the long-running downturn in the mass publication of short fiction, writers continue to expend their blood and sweat to create short stories and, largely because of the proliferation of stories floating about in cyber space, in greater numbers than ever before. Duotrope, an online database of small literary publications, estimates at least 4,700 presses are bringing out digital and/or print periodicals, many of which include short fiction in annuals, semi-annuals, tri-quarterlies, quarterlies, and “occasional periodicals.” As a result, thousands of short stories are finding their way into digital and (in far fewer) print editions each year here and abroad, especially if we include the more widely circulated genre and “serious” magazines. In the mystery/crime field, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine publishes about 120 stories a year, while The New Yorker, the glossy international weekly, publishes approximately sixty stories a year, including an occasional mystery and science fiction yarn; this includes a summer fiction issue with half a dozen or so stories.

In How We Live, a hefty short story anthology published by Macmillan back in 1968, the decline of short fiction in publication had been noted as already having been underway for many decades. Some of that drop off was attributed to the rise of television and other entertainment distractions, but the increased complexity of fictional writing was also cited. Ordinary readers, apparently, were being turned off by how writers were telling their stories. Penney Chapin Hills and Esquire's legendary fiction editor, L. Rust Hills, the anthology’s editors, wrote: “Many readers have gotten the idea that much contemporary fiction is hard to read, and impossible to understand . . . it is true that modern fiction may demand a bit more from modern readers, but that is because of its subtlety, its complexity, its excellence…when fiction is considered appreciatively, its meanings and values and excellences become apparent and provide entertainment…” It should be mentioned perhaps that the Hills were not ordinary readers.

Today we can point to additional powerful distractions which have helped to extend the decline of the publishing and reading of short fiction, the most obvious of course being the mushrooming effects of the internet; hand-in-hand with this phenomenon is the universal wave of personal electronic media which are carried with us wherever we go, to be consulted repeatedly throughout the day and night. But rarely to read short stories. According to media reporter Michael Wolff, writing in USA Today some time ago, “The average adult spends eleven hours a day on digital media, and twenty-three hours a week texting.” That figure undoubtedly has climbed considerably since those words were printed.

As periodical print publishers--up against pervasive competition from internet publication--became increasingly pressed to turn pages into profit-makers, hundreds of them folded their tents and disappeared, some after many decades of publication. Those which managed to hang on responded to the challenge, in part, by turning away from fiction because short stories were looked upon as “non-profit” space-fillers. On the other hand, articles focusing on self-help, health, cosmetics, clothing, foods/cooking, and similar goods and services could readily be tied into products that may be supported by advertising dollars. In doing so, unfortunately, they watered down the breadth and cultural richness of their offerings to their respective readerships, eliminating that essential connection to lives being lived through a fiction writer’s imagination. As L. Rust and Penney Chapin Hills observed in How We Live, “Fiction has a special way of seeing and showing.”


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