Responding to various recent articles on the state of the short story, and on literary magazines more generally, Ed Champion suggests that
if you want to save the short story as a whole and if you want it to be more than merely the niche markets it currently serves, you’re going to have to get the general population reading short fiction. And this means creating magazines, exclusively devoted to fiction that entertains as well as enlightens, that the public will buy.
I suppose it's true that if you want to take short fiction out of its "niche market," you would have to "get the general population reading short fiction," but regrettably this isn't going to happen. The "general population" a) doesn't read and b) wouldn't read short fiction even if it could be coaxed into reading a little bit more of something. Everyone hearkens back to the "golden age" of the short story published in magazines such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post, but those publications ultimately stopped publishing short stories (and most of what they published was tame, conventional fare) and eventually ceased publication altogether precisely because a) the general population doesn't read and b) wouldn't read short fiction even if. . . .
Since the 1950s, university-based literary magazines have taken over the role of publishing short stories, and, if anything, have flooded the market with short fiction. While no one magazine usually lasts for very long (only a handful of those prominent in the 60s and 70s are still publishing today), new ones spring up to take their place as every English department in every college and university in the United States decides it needs to sponsor one. Non-university-based publications start up all the time as well, and although many of their founders appear to believe they will be able to sustain themselves financially, very few of them ever do. Still, its hard to argue that with the proliferation of literary magazines, now abetted by the constant appearance of new literary journals online, that there isn't enough short fiction published in this country. Indeed, most of what is published in the existing journals goes largely unread.
Publishing magazines "exclusively devoted to fiction" that "the public will buy," as futile as this enterprise would surely turn out to be, could only mean to dumb down the current tenor of literary magazines, to publish more conventional, more "accessible" fiction. I can't see what purpose this would serve. Such fiction would not be "better" for its readers than Desperate Housewives. It would identify fiction as just another entertainment option, a way to pass some time while easing up on the electricity bill. You are not better off reading a bland and undemanding short story than you are watching a bland and undemanding tv show. If just weaning a few people away from visual entertainment back to print is the goal, forget it. Not enough people will convert to make the effort worthwhile.
What is needed is not more short story publications "exclusively devoted to fiction" that appeal more widely but fewer publications devoted exclusively to fiction (or poetry, for that matter) and more that appeal to the discerning audience for serious fiction that actually exists. What is needed is for editors of literary magazines, both established and up-and-coming, to not just publish fiction shorn of all context and mixed together in an otherwise indigestible stew but to indicate, both through editorial commentary and consistent editorial choices, what they think is important about the fiction they publish. Why have they selected it? What larger vision of the possibilities of short fiction does the selection illustrate? In my opinion, the "miscellany" approach practiced by most literary magazines--by which the "best fiction available" is printed, with little or no indication of what makes it the "best"--makes all too many of them useless; I can only make my way through a few of them, trying to find the "best" in a scattershot fashion, before I put them aside and conclude it just isn't worth my time (and sometimes money) to prospect for fiction in this way.
Most importantly, literary magazines need to abandon the "exclusively devoted to fiction" strategy altogether. More of them need to publish criticism and serious literary journalism, in part to make up for the sad state of newspaper reviewing, but also to provide the even larger and more crucial context that situates current fiction within literary history as well as present aesthetic and cultural debates. This would signal that we still take short fiction (all fiction) seriously, that it is part of a rich historical traditon to which new fiction continues to aspire and that more is at stake than providing a few more writers with vitae items or adding yet another "little magazine" to all the others sitting forlornly on library shelves. Letting thousands of fictional flowers bloom might seem a pretty idea, but without some critical tending, they will all just rot.