Leah Schnelbach is an editor and writer with feet planted firmly in both the literary and the genre world. She edits for No Tokens, a literary magazine “run entirely by women and non-binary individuals, dedicated to featuring the words and artwork of all voices of the past, present, and future.” She also works at Tor.com, one of the most popular sites for science fiction and fantasy and reads for the innovative fantasy magazine Fairy Tale Review. We talked to Schnelbach about how editing informs writing, the literary/genre divide, and the importance of diversity in publishing.
In addition to editing, you write fiction and nonfiction. How does your editing inform your writing?
Hopefully makes it better? Reading for No Tokens and Fairy Tale Review forces me to think carefully before I send anything out. I see so many amazing stories each submission period that it makes me ask myself: why am I writing this story? If I’m going to send this to an editor, how can I make it worth their time? And maybe most important right now, I’ve been applying that same need for urgency to my novel edits. I tend to overwrite, so I’m working to shear down to the vital parts of my book.
You are a fiction editor at the literary magazine No Tokens and a staff writer and editor for the genre magazine Tor.com. Do you feel that there is still a divide between genre fiction and literary fiction in publishing?
I’ve been at Tor.com for five years now, and even in that time there has been so much more crossover than when I started that I tend to think the divide is effectively over. Sarah Lawrence College (my MFA alma mater) has a dedicated speculative fiction track now. Tor.com reviews books by Toni Morrison, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, and Donna Tartt. There will certainly still be hardcore SFF fans who turn their noses up at some lit fic, and there are some lit fic people who view SFF as childish, but I think most people accept that they’re all just genres, and—I know this is crazy—people are allowed to read across those genres. Like, even in the same day.
What’s one thing that literary fiction writers could learn from genre writers, and vice versa?
I read widely in literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Sometimes in genre there’s so much emphasis on plot or tone that characters are too flat. This is where I love someone like Victor LaValle: The Changeling and The Ballad of Black Tom are both horror. Straight up, blood-curdling horror. But they work because you care about the people the horror is happening to. Same thing with Grady Hendrix, whose stuff is maybe a little more “pop” than LaValle’s—if you read Horrorstör it looks like a gag. It’s a novel about a haunted IKEA-type store, and it’s designed to look like a parody of an IKEA catalogue. But he makes you care about the two main characters, so in the beginning, when the book is a comedy, it’s all the funnier because these absurd situations are happening to people you have an investment in, and then when things turn bad (and believe me, they turn really, really bad) you’re rooting for them to make it out of the haunting alive. The horror actually means something. Also, in both of those cases LaValle and Hendrix are using horror to interrogate race and class, and they’re really good about balancing the social commentary with the fun of exploring and subverting genre tropes.
In literary fiction, writers (and I’m very much including myself here) could learn more about structure from genre books. Sometimes I read work where there are long fallow patches, or so much emphasis on tone or giving the reader beautiful sentences, that you lose the urgency. It’s what I’m trying to work on in my own stuff—why should people keep reading? Have I done enough here to hook my reader that they want to turn the page? If they’re getting off the train now, will they want to jump back into the book on their commute home? Can I make them spend their lunch—if they get one—reading my book while they eat? One book I keep thinking of is Lincoln in the Bardo, where George Saunders goes all over the map, and squishes in all these digressions about history, the food being served at Abraham Lincoln’s party, newspaper clippings about the Civil War, long backstories for each of the ghosts—but through it all there’s this engine that Lincoln’s child, Willy, refuses to move on to the afterlife. If the boy can’t let go of his life he’ll be trapped in a horrifying purgatory forever. If Abraham Lincoln can’t let his son go he won’t be able to win the Civil War and reunite the country. So there are two huge, cosmic problems at the heart of the book, and Saunders checks in with them often enough that you never lose track of the stakes, even while he’s hopping through the lives and consciousnesses of a dozen other people.
How did No Tokens start? And what makes the magazine unique?
Our EIC, T. Kira Madden, noticed that even though tokens haven’t been used on the NYC subway system in years, the turnstiles still specifically say “No Tokens” on them. She started thinking about objects that used to be used everyday that have become obsolete—typewriters, rotary phones, calligraphy, physical mail. It became an underpinning of the journal, this idea of honoring beautiful material things that have been left by the wayside while we all rush to adopt new tech.
But at the same time, thinking about the term “no tokens” lead into some long discussions about the double meaning of tokens and tokenism. Most of the editors have been active in various lit scenes, and most of us attended MFA programs, so we would attend panels and readings, and what we were seeing was a preponderance of white men. Now, please understand, some of my favorite writers are white men (I love David Foster Wallace, and I came to him on my own, with nary a recommendation from a dude), but the more we talked about it, we were all tired of having our experiences mediated by white men, and receiving workshop syllabi that were one white guy writer after another. We were tired of going to panels where the weight of “diversity in publishing” would fall on the one black author, or female author, or Chinese-Hawaiian author that the organizers had invited. We were tired of reading interviews where male authors only recommended other male authors, and where white male editors only published people who reflected their own life experience back to them. So from the first meeting we had, we all agreed that we wanted to publish people who could show us different corners of life. We read our submissions blind, but we’ve been very proactive in encouraging people from all different backgrounds to submit to us, which has lead to the delightful experience that when we meet up and discuss the work that we’ve loved, it’s always a truly diverse group.
I’d like to break the word diverse apart for a second, because I worry that a lot of people use it in the same way that tokenism used to be used:
First, stylistically: The editors of No Tokens are not a monolith. We all have very different backgrounds, reading tastes, and writing styles. We get work from all around the world, from MFA graduates and from people who have never taken a writing class. Every single piece is read and treated with care, and since the editors all have oceans of respect for each other, when we bring a piece to a meeting, we listen to each other. If someone loves a piece, it goes in. We’ve published fables from the Syrian writer Osama Alomar, a brutal memoir about growing up in Florida from Brittany Ackerman, an experimental nonfiction piece about queer love from Beasa Dukes. We got a flash fiction about a sentient yam from Henry Giardina, and our editor Justine Champine loved it so much she illustrated it for the issue. We’ve published photo-essays, comics, a couple of plays. We’ve published a series of text messages as an art piece. Coming-of-age stories, and stories about elderly farmers. And those are just the ones I thought of as I read your question! We work very hard to reflect the world, and I think this has created a cycle where people see that variety in each issue, and they know they can trust us with their work. At least that’s my hope.
Second, culturally: Our masthead is culturally diverse, it’s made up entirely of women and non-binary people, we’re from a range of class backgrounds, religious backgrounds, and we all grew up in different regions. I’m white, Irish primarily, and I spent my youth in Pittsburgh and Central Florida—so that’s me. But if we get a story that uses Gullah, for instance, I’m going to do my best with it, I’m going to do as much research as I need to so I can edit it well, to make sure I’m helping the author tell their story without imposing my own cultural background on it. And hopefully that story acts as a pebble so someone who wants to write their Creole story or their poor white Missouri story or their Turkish story or their Tagalog story will see it and know that we’ll handle their words with respect, so that pebble turns into a landslide of stories that reflect our entire world, and not just, y’know, Park Slope.
But then, if the Park Slope story is good we want that one, too.
What kind of submissions or pitches excite you the most?
For Tor.com, anytime someone writes to me with something I don’t already know about, or with a unique angle, I’ll be excited to get it onto the site. Gabrielle Bellot, for instance, wrote a beautiful piece on a Moebius comic that I’d never heard of before, and made me want to read it! I love being introduced to work that has inspired people, and shaped them as writers or people. I love finding out why someone loves something.
For No Tokens there’s no one type of submission I’m looking for (although, if you can make me laugh, I’ll go to bat for you in our meetings). I just want to be immersed in a world, or language, and I want to be sad to leave it when I finish the story.
What’s the biggest mistake you see writers make in submissions or pitches?
I can’t speak for all of Tor.com, but I do think that sometimes people will try to jump on a trend or a news story when we’re usually more interested in the heartfelt story or the weird angle. Send us your weird shit!
For No Tokens and Fairy Tale Review, I’d say just try to sit on the submission for a few days after you think it’s done, and read it over again before you send. If you have a writing buddy or a workshop group, ask them to lend you their eyes. The more care you’ve taken with your submission, we’ll be able to see that. Also, we do occasionally get weird misogynistic ravings at NT, and it would be nice if that stopped? But that might just be life on the internet at this point. The weird misogynistic ravings we will always have with us.