Status Report 2

I’ve put up 8 “Flânerie” posts, each excerpting and referencing 7 short fictions: that’s 56 fiction writers. I even double-dipped the 7 stories from Flânerie 1,  citing each of them a second time in a Counteractuals post. All of those posts have been indexed by Google, which means they would show up if the stories’ authors google themselves. Based on the stat tracker attached to the site, maybe 3 or 4 of those writers have visited the site — a rate of less than 10 percent. None has responded to the invitation, posted at the upper right column of the site, to complete an online questionnaire. I conclude therefore, based on the empirical evidence, that the method I’ve adopted for making contact with fiction writers is not successful and will be discontinued forthwith.

What went wrong? In the first Status Report I observed that the newly published short stories I’ve read are rarely referenced on the Internet, so there’s not much reason for authors to google themselves and their stories. Are the authors disappointed by the apparent absence of reader response?

Back in Boulder a friend would take a weekly mountain hike with a literary scholar who’s evidently well regarded in the field. My friend gave me a copy of a recently published article in which this scholar evaluated the (ir)relevance of cognitive science research to narratology. Reading her article I found not just points of disagreement but probable errors and inconsistencies in her interpretations of the scientific literature she was citing. I wrote a fairly extended commentary and emailed it to my friend, who in turn emailed it to his friend. Her response: the article is already published, so there’s no need to respond to this critique.

Maybe fiction writers come to feel the same way about their work. Story writing is a competitive sport; the editors of literary magazines, inundated with far more material than they can publish, judge the competition. Being published is the prize awarded to the author for having won. In an arena where excellence is conflated with personal taste, getting a story published is one of the few tangible indicators of success. If your goal is to get published the only readers that really count are the litmag editors.

In scientific and scholarly circles, having an extensive CV of published articles can bring career rewards: academic jobs and promotions, grant money, possible entrepreneurial opportunities. Presumably it works the same way in fictional circles. Most of the litmags provide brief bios of the authors published in the current issue; those thumbnails typically list the authors’ most prestigious publications and prizes. Them that’s got shall get, as Billie Holliday sang. The magazines, seeking to enhance their own prestige and circulation, invite well-published writers to contribute pieces for publication, leaving the unknowns to battle it out for the leavings in the slush pile. The chosen few are able to buttress their proposals with their lists of pubs when it comes time to seek publication for their story compilations and novels.

Version 1 of Ficticities lamented the false promises of commercial fiction, with agents and publishers and editors and retailers making a living from the works of authors who do not. Writers of literary fiction are even less likely to make money from their work, the highbrow publishing houses being more limited than corporate for-profit publishers in their capacity to turn out new titles and to achieve widespread distribution to mass audiences. Maybe for the highbrow fictionalist the money isn’t in publishing but in teaching: get enough pubs in respected outlets and your applications for academic posts are more likely to be given a second look by the hiring committees.

Money or credit: that was the trade-off my fellow doctoral students and I were making. We could be off in industry making money; instead we were trying to achieve acknowledgment from the scientific community for making significant discoveries. Of course we also harbored expectations that credit would eventually be redeemable for money, money that would pay us to do even more creditable work — them that’s got shall get. And how would we know whether our work had made a significant contribution? If we got publication credit. The journals were the arbiters of scientific merit and the bellwethers pointing toward the future of the field. If our colleagues at other universities were discussing our work we wouldn’t know about it unless and until they cited us in their own published work, a time lag that could stretch into years. No, it was the pub that served as the token of credit.

Print journals, facing strict page restrictions, typically accept for publication only a fraction of submitted manuscripts. Journals, like universities, gain cachet by maintaining low acceptance rates, restricting access to their hallowed pages to the crème de la crème. Now change is afoot in scholarly publishing. Evaluating merit and importance is a judgment call, often resulting in wide inter-rater disagreements among reviewers of the same manuscripts. Journal editors often select from among equally meritorious articles the ones they believe to be most attractive to their readership, a decision criterion based more on popularity than excellence. Electronic publishing, facing no page limit restrictions and incurring no distribution costs,  eliminates the editorial selection bottleneck that artificially restricts supply, exacerbates competitive jockeying for position, and puts the journal publishers in control. Scientists would self-publish their work, making it freely and widely available to all. Peer review, rather than an anonymously rendered once-for-all verdict, becomes the basis for an ongoing public discussion of the published work, conducted online between authors and readers.

I don’t know whether a similar move is being considered with respect to the publication of short fictions. I would support such a move, which would correspond precisely with the Ficticities agenda. Put writers and readers in charge; make texts open access; eliminate the middlemen profit-takers. And we haven’t even gotten to the Ponzi scheme of graduate education in fiction writing, where students shell out big bucks in the scant hope of positioning themselves on the receiving end of the money flow generated by the next generation of students.

But all of this is extrapolation and speculation, tincted with a hint of sour grapes. The gist of this status update is that the attempt to lure short story writers here to Ficticities is demonstrably unsuccessful. So I’m abandoning the effort and going back to the drawing board.

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5 thoughts on “Status Report 2

  1. One more clickthrough from a Flâneries post this afternoon — so that makes it 4 or maybe 5 out of 56 linked writers clicking through, still under 10%. Still no survey responses from the clickthroughers.

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    1. It occurred to me a couple of days ago that you have chosen works by individual writers publishing in online journals (haven’t you?.) Whether or not they get paid, their orientation would probably still be their individual work, and if they joined a collective, yours or anyone’s, they’d still be looking to further their individual ambition. Probably somewhat less to follow a kind of ideal that may seem just that–idealized, and your interest in all the authors might not be shared by the individual authors, whom they don’t know any more than they know you. Your alternative was a hugely tall order, and even for the ones that clicked through–those few would have been enough if they’d conversed with you, and you could convince them that this might be in their personal interests. Unless it’s already up and running with some having ‘joined up’, they might not know what’s in it for them. And they’d have to read all the Phase 1, although you could quickly summarize that for them if they appeared.

      Otherwise, it would need to be someone who wanted to join you in your start-up, who did read the earlier blueprints, and thought the same about it as you. I don’t know, maybe there needed to be an interim stage, in which you invited the authors personally, instead of expecting them to google themselves (I wouldn’t have known whether they would or not either, but you seem to have originally thought they would).

      You could still do that–now that you’ve done it, the failure of most of them to google themselves and come here at all does sound somewhat shot-in-the-dark. Maybe it didn’t at the time (I would have had no idea of whether they would or not, but you seemed to think more would), but it’s been at least proved to be not quite enough. It would seem that direct contact would be more likely to produce results than counting on them coming to you for something in a very early stage–and knowing exactly how it would benefit them. Is it possible that you might want to offer something as an alternative means of exposing their work in addition to their obvious moves toward getting more publication. If they’re already getting published, that’s probably still going to be the major interest, so that giving them airplay and discussion here might be something to lure them in. There was not any discussion on the individual pieces here, although I read a few of the first ones, and mentioned them on email. Liked one of them, thought a couple were good.

      Or maybe also consider attracting unpublished authors, who might consider that there’s more opportunity–like showcasing–than those already published would. And the published ones would vary in the volume they’ve gotten published, some probably have been published a lot, some a little. If they’re getting published regularly, they’d need to have a strong feeling about why you’re doing this, or they won’t be interested. That was always going to be the case, but seeking out unpublished fiction writers may be more difficult to do. In other words, some of these, esp. if they’ve been published with some regularity, whether online or in print, might think they were being asked to change directions instead of enhance the direction they’re already going in (with varying degrees of success), and it’s not likely that they’ll do this, is it? I guess that I’m saying you have to offer them, since not money, some reason to expect that they will be personally, individually benefited in their careers. It could be that the idea of collective comes later, not first.

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      1. In conducting this little experiment I have learned some things about the world of literary short fiction, previously unknown to me, even if the writers never showed up here. I pursued them expecting them to have a more aesthetic and experimental orientation to fiction than do the genre commercial writers, and I’d say that expectation has been borne out to an extent. A writers’ syndicate might offer them greater freedom to write what they want than would traditional publishing houses, and if the peer review process is rigorous enough such a syndicate might attain high enough status to satisfy the academic careerists, for whom the artistry is going to be more important than the sales receipts. So yes, I think that the syndicate idea could benefit these more aesthetic writers’ careers rather than veering them onto a different track. I think your point is well taken also that the collective idea needn’t be foregrounded. It’s the writers’ control over the work rather than the publisher’s, the emphasis on distinctive excellence rather than popularity, that is the primary appeal, and that should be attractive to the individual writer. Self-publishing might offer the same freedom, but maintaining a more formal peer review process keeps things from degenerating into haphazard quirkiness. The advantage of the collective does come later, when it’s time to achieve widespread distribution of the finished works. It’s presumably easier for a whole group of writers to promote a portfolio of books than it is for each writer separately to promote his own book.

        As you point out, it’s not that easy to find unpublished writers. Even published ones are hard to get hold of, since most don’t publish their email addresses or have blogs. It is worth considering though, to try ferreting out contact info for these published short fiction writers and making a more direct case vie email. I’ll definitely consider it for Phase 3.

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      2. I’ve also *not* learned some things about short story writers. The questionnaire was intended to reveal something about their motivations and aspirations — the direction they’re already going in — which would help shape a complementary trajectory here. Instead I’m inferring motivations not from information but from lack of information. And I’m not particularly confident in drawing those inferences based on my own motivations and my intuitive understanding of others’. I don’t write short stories and try to get them published; I don’t know anyone who does. Why didn’t they google themselves? I would have. Why didn’t the ones who showed up here complete the questionnaire? I would have.

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  2. During Phase 1 I drafted a Call for Submissions for a collaborative publication called Strands. At the time I was thinking about sending this Call out to teachers in undergrad and MFA writing programs. Now I’m wondering about revising this idea, issuing the call directly to published writers of short fiction who I’m able to track down via email. The format would be comparable to the traditional literary magazine, but each “issue” would be thematic, the compilations formatted as open-access e-books rather than as online magazines, incorporating into the process a public online peer review and discussion. Having something published in such a venue would serve to augment the writers’ résumés, while also building incrementally toward a writers’ syndicate for publishing and distributing novels. But it would require the writers to do more work than merely submitting a manuscript and awaiting the yes/no editorial decision. I’ll think more on it.

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