Postcap Shortfic Litmags: Affordances

Aspects of a literary magazine that could generate affordances compatible with a postcapitalist ecosystem:

Open Access

Selling commodities one at a time to consumers is the essence of a capitalist economy. I’m not saying that writers and publishers shouldn’t be compensated for their work. Grants, contributions, co-ops that purchase on behalf of collectives — any number of alternative compensation schemes could be envisioned short of full-blown communism. Maybe one or more of those alternatives will take shape, at least on a limited experimental basis. Meanwhile, the decommodified open-access format for literary magazines is already up and running, with plenty of writers and publishers willing to work for no pay while offering readers free and unlimited access to content. Let’s go with that format, which would be compatible with most postcapitalist compensation mechanisms.

Vetting and Selection

Evidently it’s important to writers that the short fictions they submit to literary magazines be deemed worthy of publication by a qualified arbiter of good taste. It could be argued that upholding the protocol of “submitting” one’s work for judgment to authorities is antidemocratic and elitist — that readers individually and collectively are best qualified to decide what’s worth reading. But capitalism is already responsive to people’s choice — it’s called consumer demand. And the readers of short fictions published in open-access literary magazines are few and far between, with no feedback loops to tell the writers how many readers saw their work or what they thought of it. Of course the publishers, just like any other sort of boss, can be co-opted and corrupted: by tradition, cronyism, groupthink, power, ambition, laziness, incompetence… Besides, the tastes of tastemakers aren’t necessarily reliable — no doubt there’s a lot of variation between publishers as to whether a particular text is worthy of publication. The writers themselves should know whether their stuff is up to snuff, but in most endeavors people tend to overestimate their own excellence while simultaneously craving external validation.

Printed magazines face page constraints: each additional text selected for publication increases incrementally the costs of duplication, storage, and transportation — costs that either the publisher or the purchaser has to absorb. But online magazines aren’t hampered by these material limitations: the online platform or downloadable file can expand enormously with minimal impacts on storage space or access time. Yes, each additional published text requires more effort devoted to copyediting and formatting, but the vetting process that weeds out texts is time-consuming as well. Why not eliminate the artificial restriction on the length of each issue, which in an e-publishing context seems mostly a holdover from capitalistic practices of artificially limiting supply in order to increase prices? On the other hand, readers’ time is limited, so publishing every manuscript that’s submitted would likely prove overwhelming to the readers. For readers the vetting process serves not so much to limit supply as to focus demand, bringing to their attention those texts most worthy of their time.

So let’s tentatively accept that the submission/acceptance vetting tradition is something that most fiction writers and readers want, and that the process of evaluating merit needn’t be inimical to postcapitalism.

Periodical Compilations

The traditional publishing practice of bundling multiple short fictions into a single periodical issue emerged as a practical exigency: printing, copying, and distributing bundles of texts is more cost-effective than dispatching fictions to readers one story at a time. Online publishing obviates the logistical pragmatism of compilation, since individual texts can be posted as soon as they’re ready. And with open-access distribution there’s no need to impose a cumbersome per-story payment scheme on would-be readers.

Are there other reasons for a postcapitalist publisher to uphold the compilation rather than the individual text as the unit of distribution? I can think of two. First, if a compilation is assembled for thematic rather than pragmatic considerations, the publisher can explore ways in which a fragmented and libertarian fictional universe might converge on meanings and aesthetics that link otherwise isolated writers, readers, and texts. Second, by pulling multiple authors into a single compilation, some sort of solidarity, however short-lived, might be cultivated among writers, a solidarity that might give shape to an economy and an ecology that’s not dependent on investors and bosses to coordinate workers into production lines.


Short fictions published in online open-access magazines tend to take the form of stories — narratives about characters passing through situations. But of course fiction encompasses a much vaster territory than that. According to Wikipedia:

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. The resulting world may be called a constructed world.

But worldbuilding isn’t limited to imaginary worlds; it happens in the actually existing world as well. There’s a material substrate to be sure, but humanity has built so many layers of artifice on top of it that most of us spend much of our time living in a reality that’s the product of countless imaginations. Sometimes I think the job of a postcapitalistic fiction is to write worldbuilding texts that can serve as simulations for replacing, in whole or in part, the actually existing world that we presently occupy and that seems on the verge of collapsing around us. In an early Ficticities post I wrote a couple of posts about fiction’s place in the world:

What happens to an idea once it’s been acknowledged as a fiction? First it will be dismissed as unreal, irrelevant to practical concerns. Then, maybe, the fiction will acquire entertainment value as a made-up story, to be read or watched as a temporary diversion from the day-to-day ordeal of grappling with the real world. Even serious fiction, so-called literary fiction, serves real-world functions: as a non-threatening way to practice empathy, for example, or as a means of gaining insight into the world, into the people who populate it and, perhaps especially, into oneself.

This partitioning off of fiction from reality is a death trap, not only for fiction but for reality as well. Fictions are transformed into coping mechanisms, like weekends and happy hours and self-help groups. Sometimes fictions operate as pressure valves to keep people from exploding, at other times as stimulants to help them avoid sagging into inertia. Fiction becomes incorporated into reality, assigned its proper subservient role in keeping things moving along smoothly. And with fictions partitioned off as entertainments, the what-is of actually existing reality becomes reified, immunized from the what-is-nots – the vast and depthless expanse of possibilities and improbabilities and impossibilities on which the actual floats like a rowboat on the ocean…

It’s not fiction’s job to be the scapegoat, reconciling society to its own unintended consequences, to the collateral damage it inflicts on the innocent and the guilty alike while trying to engineer a better world through goal-setting and action plans. Neither is it fiction’s job to entertain the reality engineers when they’re taking a break. It’s not fiction’s job to instruct its readers in how to be more successful reality engineers by illustrating what can go right or wrong in various hypothetical scenarios. It’s not fiction’s job to redeem the facts of the world.

At other times I think that postcapitalist fiction should acknowledge that resistance to the already built world is futile. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about absurdist fiction:

Kids don’t always play to win; sometimes they just play. No goal to be pursued, no tactics to accompish the desired goal, no instrumental agency for deploying tactics, no well-defined outcome, no exultation in victory or desolation in defeat, no lessons to be learned on how to play better and win next time. Aimless play — it seems to escape the boundaries of the training ground, where children acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve success, not just individually but also for those who benefit from their achievements: parents, societies, investors. Jokes without punchlines, stories that diverge from well-defined linear plots and character development, activity without production. Maybe aimless play is a training ground for insurgents, exposing them to a different sort of game, a game where the rules aren’t constraints on play but are part of the game, to be altered at will or even discarded; where process is the outcome; where the play’s the thing, play for play’s sake, art for art’s sake; play staying play without getting co-opted into work; where the aggregate of all games isn’t a zero-sum killing field of winners and losers but a playground where everybody wins or, even better, where nobody wins or loses.

It turns out though that the insurgency playground, just like the competitive playground, is owned and controlled by the players of a larger game. They don’t have to win because they’ve already won, don’t have to resist because nothing stands in their way. You can play whatever games you want — in fact you’re encouraged to do so — but you always have to buy the equipment and rent the playing field, to defer to the refs and in the last resort to the Commissioner. Whatever game you play and however well you play it, you’re bound to lose. Even hammerspace is controlled by The Man, letting him rig the game to suit his own purposes.

The situation is ripe for random irruptions of surreal absurdities.

And finally, here are the last paragraphs of a book I wrote a long time ago about Genesis 1, which in a nutshell I interpreted as a narrative describing the creation of narrative worldbuilding:

Our world is suspended across time by a multiplicity of intertwined realities. A powerful engine is at work, weaving alternative futures right under our feet. Sometimes the push from behind is so strong it seems to be hurling us headlong into chaos. At other times it’s as though we’re riding through a flat and featureless landscape with nothing new under the sun. There are, of course, those who resist the collective lean into the future. They may cast their gaze backward upon a prior golden age, but they aren’t abandoning the future – they’re just looking for the right road to take them there. Leaning backward in order to gain forward momentum: sometimes a revival is just what we need to get the juices flowing again.

Some among us pull the slingshot back even farther, before the foundations of our modern civilization, to the era in which humanity first arose. What are the origins of the upright stance and the cerebral cortex, of consciousness and language, of individuation and society, of love and aggression, of motivation and habit, of innovation and its dissemination, of morality and belief? These are the questions that lure explorers back to the origin of our species. On their pilgrimage they peel away layer upon layer of culture that have accrued over the millennia, layers that becloud our vision of what natural man is “really” like. At last these time travelers return to the beginning, when as yet there was no formal government, no economy, no science or art, no architecture, no written language, no religion – in short, no systems of meaning, no realities. Stripped of culture man looks raw – a complex and unique sort of animal, but an animal all the same, sharing the same genes, the same drives, the same communal instincts as the other creatures.

Natural man, newly evolved, full of potential and devoid of artifice – it’s hard not to see him as more real than the civilized poseurs who surround us, who we ourselves are. It’s this very same ancestor of ours, this natural man, this protoman, who in the beginning witnesses the creation recorded in our scriptures. He has no advanced language, no complex thoughts, no distinctly human culture – yet. The ancient narrative documents the first movement of mankind out of the raw natural state. In associating thing with word and word with idea, natural man begins to make sense of the world in a way no other animal can do. He also comes to a realization about himself: I am someone who can make sense of things. The natural world becomes real for the natural man even as he separates himself from that reality. In this initial act of creation natural man becomes fully real, making of himself an artifact.

We have become a complex and pliable species, able to live in an extremely wide range of habitats and to overwhelm virtually all predators. But these aren’t permanent advantages. Complacent nihilism might undermine us until at last through our own artifice we blow ourselves up, at which point some other species will fill the void and take our place as the crown of creation. It’s all a matter of variation and selection and time. All the other species seem to get along fine without any higher or deeper understanding of themselves and the world. Have we reached the point where this insistence on “higher and deeper” is starting to get in the way, because we’re really just a flat and shallow species living in a flat and shallow universe? Maybe it’s time to slip out from under all this baggage so we can get back to who we really are.

But is it possible ever to make return passage across that first frontier without setting aside what makes us human, and perhaps also what makes us godlike? To position ourselves before the beginning, to take the place of the Witness, to watch as the beginning takes shape around us – do we dismiss the work of the Creator, the sheer nerve and imagination of his project, as just so much charlatanry and legerdemain, designed to distract our attention from the empty truth? Or, as in rapt awe we watch the rapidly-unfolding heavens and earth, are we startled to find ourselves walking in the footsteps of the gods?

In brief, the horizons of postcapitalistic short fiction are limitless, though in all likelihood most of them will never see the light of day.

3 thoughts on “Postcap Shortfic Litmags: Affordances

  1. “‘Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. The resulting world may be called a constructed world.’

    “But worldbuilding isn’t limited to imaginary worlds; it happens in the actually existing world as well. There’s a material substrate to be sure, but humanity has built so many layers of artifice on top of it that most of us spend much of our time living in a reality that’s the product of countless imaginations. Sometimes I think the job of a postcapitalistic fiction is to write worldbuilding texts that can serve as simulations for replacing, in whole or in part, the actually existing world that we presently occupy and that seems on the verge of collapsing around us…”

    What we call “reality” always seems to start out as a fiction, an imagined idea of what could be, what might be. Dreams become reality, even though the shape of that reality is quite often quite different from the worldbuilding we had in mind.

    We are first and foremost animals of story, driven by narratives that make sense of a senseless world that we did not evolve for, a world in which we do not have a natural fit. We need these stories, and so the Powers that Be have always sought to establish institutions that codify and enforce the stories that support the hierarchy.

    What’s interesting to me about our current political climate is that we all finally seem to know it. The jig is up, so to speak. All of the talk of “fake news” has nothing at all to do with facts or figures. It isn’t about establishing accurate data, it’s a competition over which narrative is true. Hence all facts that support the preferred narrative are legit. Data that doesn’t is “fake news,” not based on the merit of the data but based on which story it supports. All of the rage and anger that animates people today is simply vitriol being spewed toward those who are threatening the legitimacy of the narrative.

    We are fighting about narratives and stories, and so here’s my main point: we are basically fighting over which fiction will become reality. Yet the old narratives are failing. MAGA is failing, capitalism is failing, and America itself is a falling star.

    This opens up a void. We really need new stories, a better narrative, but cultural narratives aren’t so easily come by. Often they take time. The process can be condensed, though, during hard times, times of cultural chaos. New and even revolutionary narratives can suddenly emerge from the ash heap of history and sweep across the collective imagination with unstoppable force. So, we may very well be entering a time when the best fiction is yet to come, i.e., it will usher in some new epoch. It’s far from inevitable but simply one possible shape that “reality” could take.

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  2. I agree about the centrality of stories, with certain caveats. Is the Internet a story? A pair of glasses? A lamp? A bag of potato chips? It’s possible to describe the various scientific and engineering breakthroughs behind these inventions in narrative form, but those sorts of stories depend on discovering information about the world as it already is, as well as techniques for changing the world in predictable ways. As you say, these inventions start out as fiction before they become reality. But the meaning of these fictions depends not on shared belief but on correspondence with the world. Or, better: belief in these stories depends on the extend to which they correspond with the world. I hear an intermittent plinking noise in the chimney and infer that it’s raining outside because in my experience that’s what the sound “means.” In effect these sorts of narratives are already out there in the world in the form of cause-effect relationships, and it’s up to me to interpret them accurately. I can write a short story in which the character sitting in his living room hears plinking in the chimney and the reader might well infer that it’s raining in the story, because that’s how the world is put together — that’s what the plinking usually means, even in a made-up story.

    So now you’ve got the made-up stories of somebody like Trump. I agree with your position that his stories aren’t judged by his followers in terms of demonstrable evidence as to whether he’s telling the truth or lying, whether it’s real or fake news. Some kinds of stories serve not as reasons why people do things but as rationales for things they do for other reasons. A story can serve not only as a means of describing and predicting the world but also as a means of justifying the world order. Trump is telling stories that presumably give his followers meaning with a capital M — meaning that transcends mere factual truth, meaning that creates a narrative in which people can occupy stable and desirable roles in a stable and desirable world order, a kind of mythic meaning. As you say, it’s the kind of story that’s invented to codify and enforce and support the hierarchy. There’s no question that these sorts of mythic narratives can shape the material world as effectively as do scientific and engineering narratives. I agree that we need better political narratives, but I for one would rather not replace one mythic narrative that transcends truth and falsehood with another one I like better, or one that can bring unity rather than divisiveness, or enthusiasm rather than indifference. I’d prefer political narratives be put to the test, that belief in these narratives be held loosely and probabilistically, that the narratives be altered incrementally or even swapped out for better ones based on their descriptive and predictive powers rather than on their power to inspire and energize. Coming up with those kinds of testable, probabilistic, modifiable narratives are just as fictional and demand just as much imagination as the untestable mythic narratives.

    “driven by narratives that make sense of a senseless world that we did not evolve for, a world in which we do not have a natural fit.” The world does make sense, though maybe not cosmically: the pinging sound in the chimney makes sense, the lamp makes sense, the potato chips make sense. And though our species didn’t evolve in a world already outfitted with lamps and bags of potato chips, humans seem quite capable of adapting to a world chock-full of these and myriad other human modifications of nature. Humans are among the most resilient and adaptable of species, even though our natural physical abilities aren’t all that impressive. Because humans have the natural ability to understand the stories inherent in the world, the ways in which the world makes sense, we’re able not only to adapt to the natural world but to modify it. Equipped through millions of years of evolution both to hear and to tell stories, to understand the sense of the world and to make sense of it, humans are able to imagine fictions that don’t exist in the world that surrounds them, to make those imaginings real, and to live inside of worlds modified by imagination. They don’t always do a great job of it, but then again non-human animals don’t always survive and thrive either.


  3. I agree though that we need some sort of political narrative about what sorts of modifications to the world should be undertaken. These sorts of overriding values become the basis for trying, testing, and evaluating innovations — fictions that might become incorporated into reality. It’s certainly the case that contemporary capitalistic enterprises are run in order to maximize return on investment for the owners, rather than, say, maximizing value to society or optimizing working conditions. Arguably the US government is run on the same principles: maximize wealth and power for the already wealthy and powerful. Often as not the actual narrative driving decisions isn’t the same as the narrative being presented to the public. I.e., the real reasons for doing things are disguised behind more palatable rationales. Making the distinctions more transparent between managerial narratives and rhetorical narratives, between reasons and rationales, would be a valuable service offered by fictionalists — not just creating new narratives but dismantling and deconstructing and critiquing the ones that are already in circulation.


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