Fictional Correspondence

Skip Fox’s “Sortilege” was the first short fiction I  excerpted in the Flânerie series. I found it, as I found the others, through a sortilege procedure of my own, so it’s understandable that I would have regarded the story as a talisman endorsing my undertaking. Not only that, but the substance of the story jibed perfectly with the motivation for my project. The day I read “Sortilege” — January 21, the winter solstice, a portentious date if ever there was one —  I tracked down the author’s email address to notify him of my intent. I also sent him an excerpt from something I’d  written that complemented his text. (Four years ago I posted an earlier, somewhat extended version of it on my old blog as “Untitled Revenge Fantasy Fragment.”)

Later that day I received a reply: Skip Fox liked my piece, granting me carte blanche to use his story however I liked. A lively extended correspondence has ensued.

Though the sample size is admittedly small, I’ve found that fiction writers do tend to respond to emails asking them about or commenting on their work. Problem is, it’s not always easy to track down their email addresses. I was able to correspond with Skip Fox, and a dozen years earlier with Robert Coover and DF Wallace, because they held positions at academic institutions that publish all faculty email addresses on their websites.




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.

Status Report 1

Ficticities version 2 has been up and running for 9 days; here’s how it’s going so far.

Short Fiction Readings

I’ve found, read, excerpted, linked, and posted 7 short fictions on 7 different days — those aggregated excerpt posts are titled Flânerie 1 through 7. In my readings I’ve selected recently published pieces more or less randomly from 49 different online open-access literary magazines. I’ve read each piece in its entirely, selecting excerpts I found particularly compelling and that could be adapted to fit the central conceit of a stroll through a fictional City.

Nearly all of the pieces I’ve read are very good; a few I’ve found striking, memorable. Most of the short fictions are clearly framed as stories and, while there’s pretty wide cultural and geographic diversity represented across the collection, most of the stories share the same basic premise: a central character is dealing with a minor crisis arising in some aspect of contemporary life. The fictions that aren’t stories tend to be the ones that stand out in my memory, which isn’t surprising since the non-storied  imaginary is what I was hoping to come across. I’ve also been struck by stories that aren’t so resolutely focused on the people, as well as stories set in the distant past or distant future. If I were to keep reading short fictions at this pace for a few more weeks I’d probably be able to start assigning them to categories — no doubt the first readers and editors of these literary magazines, exposed as they are to perhaps hundreds of submissions per week, become adept at sorting them into piles without even reading more than a paragraph or two.

Outreach To Authors: Click-Throughs

Version 1 of this site made an extended case for fiction writers organizing themselves into e-book publishing houses; Ficticities Version 2 is predicated on exploring the feasibility and desirability of moving forward with this hypothetical scheme. Writers who publish in open-access litmags should be in an excellent position to evaluate the attractiveness of a collaborative publishing scheme. The expectation is that, in googling themselves and seeing that their pieces have been cited here, fiction writers would click in to Ficticities and participate in online surveys designed to explore their views on the writers’ syndicate idea.

Google’s indexing of blog posts isn’t instantaneous. How long is the time lag? I’ve been keeping track: it turns out that it takes 5 days for Google to index content from a new Ficticities post. That’s not particularly problematic in the long run; in the short run it is more difficult to evaluate the pull-through from posts to authorial visits. On a daily basis WordPress shows how many people have visited the Ficticities site and which posts they’ve looked at. As of yesterday 3 of the Flâneries posts had been indexed by Google. A self-googling author coming here to see what’s up would click in on the specific Flânerie post on which he or she was cited. Of the 21 authors specifically cited in those first 3 Flânerie posts, 3 authors, or perhaps 4, have clicked in to Ficticities. It’s a small sample size to be sure, but so far the click-through rate is under 20 percent. The rate might increase as the days go by, but those actual 3 or 4 click-throughs all happened within 24 hours of Google’s first indexing the posts being visited — which makes sense if the authors have a standing order placed with Google to notify them of any mentions of their names and publications.

What about the rest of the authors — don’t they google themselves? As I’ve tracked the authors cited in the Ficticities posts I’ve discovered that it’s very rare for anyone other than the magazine publisher to cite these published short fictions. It’s conceivable that the authors are aware of the public obscurity into which their works are launched, and so they don’t even bother tracking themselves on Google.

Input From Authors: Surveys

At the top of the right column on every Ficticities page and post an invitation is issued to writers to complete a short online survey. Of the 3 or possibly 4 cited fiction writers who have clicked in to the website, how many have completed the first survey? None. So far there have been 2 responses to the first survey, one of which came from me, the other from someone who showed up on-site before the first Flânerie posts were indexed by Google. Granted, only 3 or 4 authors have shown up in total, but still: a zero response rate? Is it because the visitors didn’t notice the invitation, or did they prefer not to participate, or did they find the questions boring? I don’t know.

Next Steps

I’m going to keep at it for at least another week, reading and excerpting short fictions pretty much every day. Within the next few days I’ll put up a second questionnaire, featuring questions more aggressively geared toward the writers’ syndicate scheme, to see if the response rate goes up. But at this point I’m not optimistic about Ficticities Version 2 as a means of exploring the writers’ publishing house idea. Let’s see how things are looking by next Friday.

Meanwhile if you’ve got any thoughts about it please leave a comment on this post or send me an email (