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.