Reading for Best American Fantasy has been very interesting. Unlike reading a slushpile, there is a basic level of competence but sometimes not much more than that. After reading continuously for several days and weeks now, a few negative trends emerge.
I think this trend is definitely due to the influence of television, in particular the end shot after the main storyline has been resolved. Like, all the cops back at the station and a conversation like "Boy, that was scary." Yeah, glad I had my flashlight." Laughs all around. Cut to commercial. A crippling number of stories in print seem to end with this kind of inane resolution after the climax, trivializing the seriousness (sometimes) of what went before.
Inability to construct a solid paragraph
I have to say I found this in genre magazines more than in the literary magazines. At the paragraph level, there's a whole lot of nothing going on in a lot of published stories. Instead of recognizing that sentences and paragraphs can do triple or quadruple duty, the writers are using them merely to advance the story. But you can encode paragraphs with a lot more information about character, setting, and subtext without actually making them longer. But a lot of writers are apparently looking ahead to the next event rather than understanding that the events occur on a word, sentence, and paragraph level as well as at the level of action or conflict. If your sentences or paragraphs are dead, in a sense your story is, too. I'm not just talking about emotional life, but intellectual life as well. In most short stories, you should be able to pull out individual paragraphs and parse some deeper meaning or take a pleasure out of them that is both relevant to the larger story and also exists independent of the larger story.
One particular magazine featured ridiculous, unbelievable dialogue in story after story, issue after issue. Basically, if anyone--from the writer to the editor who took these stories--had read even a page or two of these stories aloud, they might have realized that the dialogue had invalidated the protagonists' credibility to the point of invalidating the remaining worth of the story. The dialogue I've read is particularly heinous in secondary world fantasy, which is exactly where it needs to be the strongest, to support the necessary suspension of disbelief. I think the problem is the same problem you see in much historical fiction: a kind of subconscious belief that everyone needs to talk like they're in a Shakespeare play, or with a kind of false and ensanguinating bravado. At base, if your character talks like an idiot then he or she is an idiot, no matter what their actions. There are times when you want to use this as a counterbalance or counterweight to some effect you are trying to achieve, but only writers really skilled with dialogue can pull this off.
Inability to flesh out an idea or concept
At the level of concept or idea, far too many published stories seem very proud of having been able to come up with a semi-unique fantastical idea. Period. A kind of brimming with self-congratulatory ardor. "Look at this cool, shiny thing I thought up!" And the story ends with the "look at my originality" when that is often the starting point of a story and all else has been preamble. Nascent is not adult. It is as child is to parent. Often, this coincides with a flattening of characterization, in that the fruition of the idea lies in the fleshing out of the characters as well. I also think this failure is tied to ego.
Anyway, we have found lots of wonderful material, but I have found it interesting how many published stories display the flaws set out above. Perhaps more depressingly, there have been whole issues of publications which feel like dead weight, where the stories are inert and lifeless. Going through the motions. Writing from a plot spine and just draping papermache over the skeleton and hoping no one will notice the creature isn't alive. When there is nothing personal or at stake for the writer in the story, there often is nothing personal or at stake for the reader. But this is not just the responsibility of the writer. It's the responsibility of the editor. The fact is, there are few enough stories in any year that really needed to be published, needed to be read, and will survive in the public imagination for more than a few hours or months.
And, yet, as I mention, we have found loads of good stuff, too.