A Tentative Ecology of Literary Short Fiction

When I started this website I hoped to open a collaborative experimental space for exploring postcapitalist fictions. While the collaborative part hasn’t taken off, I have run some experiments of my own. In recent months I’ve read quite a few short fictions published in a variety of online literary magazines. Previously I’ve made some empirical observations regarding my efforts to interact with the authors; this time I’m hazarding some preliminary observations about the world of contemporary short fictions that I’ve encountered.

Most of the literary magazines I’ve dipped into are open access, so the publishers aren’t making money from readers’ purchases. Some mags are funded by grants; others are subsidized by universities with which they’re affiliated; no doubt some are labors of love. Few pay the authors of the texts they publish; still, there’s no shortage of submissions. For some short fiction writers, having their unpaid work accepted for publication enhances their market value as commercial writers, teachers, and editors; for others, authoring a published work is evidently its own reward. Few open-access litmags enjoy a wide circulation, so reaching a broad readership isn’t a likely motivator for the writers. Most published short stories enjoy only a short shelf life before fading into the unread archives, so the authors’ longing for literary immortality isn’t likely to be fulfilled by having their works appear in literary magazines.

Published short fiction writers surely read each other’s works, but the linkages among writers and texts are atomistic, with little effort evidenced by the magazine publishers to build interpersonal networks among authors or thematic connections across published pieces. While the online format minimizes barriers to reader access, it also exacerbates the emphasis on individual stories over the compilation. Many of these publications have abandoned altogether the traditional structure of the periodical issue, opting to publish stories online one at a time.

While not all of the stories I’ve read suit my personal tastes, most are well crafted, coherent, fluently phrased, interesting enough to hold my attention to the end. Nearly all of the published short fictions I encountered were stories, in the sense of hewing to the¬† narrative form. Most of the stories were realistic, though some were fantastic, folkloric, surreal; nearly all featured identifiable characters engaged in situations and relationships, though some of the stories took a more poetic, abstract, or expository shape; most set a serious tone, though many incorporated funny moments or absurd developments; most were literary fictions, though many veered into territories traditionally staked out by genre. My impression is that the world of contemporary published short literary fiction exhibits more variety in style and content than I typically encounter in contemporary American literary novels.

There are a lot of literary magazines out there; still, because there are also a lot of fiction writers, most of the mags receive plenty of submissions, so they can be selective in accepting manuscripts for publication. Most of the publishers don’t do much editing of individual texts, so manuscripts must already be in polished form when submitted. Because open-access publishers don’t rely on sales revenue, they can establish selection criteria that meet idiosyncratic rather than popular tastes, that value artistic merit above commercial potential. Authors who submit their work evidently embrace the publishers’ editorial standards. To be published — to meet stringent selection criteria by those deemed qualified to render judgment on literary fiction — is to be validated as a literary artist. Having a story singled out for publication means that the writer has won a competition — not unlike getting an “A” in an English class or getting accepted for admission to a selective liberal arts college, a college whose prestige doesn’t necessarily correlate with its graduates’ earnings. Authors seem less concerned about how widely their stories are read after publication, the presumption being that the magazine’s acquisition editor is a better judge of literary merit than are the magazines’ readers, just as a professor is deemed the best judge of a student’s work by dint of expertise and exposure to a large sample size.

In a subsequent post I hope to explore the possibilities for opening up postcapitalist experimental niches within the contemporary short fiction ecosystem .

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