Intertext as Fan Fiction

“You guys ever read ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’?
– Shane the ghost hunter on Buzzfeed

In setting out to read and to write about a random selection of 14 recently published short fictions, I was curious to see what sorts of engagements they would provoke in me. I intentionally suppressed the urge to judge. Each of the stories had already  been deemed worthy of publication by a literary magazine, distinguishing it from most of the other submissions competing for display in the textual gallery. In reading these stories I wanted to regard them neither as competitors to be judged by my own personal standards nor as case studies by which I might hone those standards, but as colleagues in an imaginary collective of writers and readers.

Writings about recently published works so often take the form of a review, evaluating the merits and flaws of the text and assigning it an overall rating. There’s merit in the review textual form: I acknowledge that I’m more likely to read a book that gets excellent marks, especially from respected sources. Presumably the writers too benefit from glowing reviews, not just in attracting readership to the reviewed text itself but in accumulating prestige, which can hopefully be be cashed in as opportunities for wider readership, greater critical recognition, and more money on subsequent efforts. The litmags too are ranked in terms of prestige, judged primarily on the perceived excellence of the works they publish. And how is the level of a magazine’s authorial excellence judged? Mostly by proxy: manuscript acceptance rate, a “by invitation only” solicitation of new submissions, a higher honorarium paid to published authors — like the evaluation of universities’ prestige based on their students’ average GPAs and test scores and the number of Merit Scholarships awarded.

To publish is to make public. Newly launched into the public sphere, a short story can strive for accolades and audience, competing with other published stories for attention. But a public story also joins the wider fictional society, encountered by readers not only as a separate and distinct work but as a nexus of strands, linking it to the readers’ lives and to other stories they’ve read or will read. Implicitly or explicitly, the public story might extend its influence to other stories not yet written. Even a critical review embeds the story in a public ecosystem, comparing it with other published texts, evaluating the strength and length of the strands woven through it, linking it to the broader public sphere. Intertextuality.

Over a 3-week interval I wrote 14 posts in which I responded to strands traced out by 14 recently published short fictions. These posts could be deemed intertextual commentary, but I think of them as fan fiction, where I appropriated a public work of fiction as the basis for spinning my own derivative piece of writing. Fan fiction spans a wide range of texts, from the preteen’s romantic fantasy linking two Harry Potter characters to Shakespeare elaborating theatrically on an old Scandinavian legend and calling it Hamlet. Some of my fanfics were idiosyncratic and personal; others linked me through the story into broader cultural and literary trajectories. In a few cases my text prompted the story’s writer to respond in writing: degree 2 intertextuality.

My favorite fanfictional event might have been this one. I found the short story perplexing and made no bones about it in my post: “The fuck?” it begins, followed by a brief synopsis of what I deemed the story’s most puzzling aspects. It was certainly the most negative and sarcastic of the 14 fanfics I wrote. The next day, walking through a cemetery, I stopped to inspect a headstone commemorating the deceased’s service as a Confederate soldier. I referenced the epitaph in my next post:

I thought about the perplexing short story I’d read and posted on the day before. It began with a young couple jumping together off a bridge. Maybe all of the hallucinatory fireworks that followed had been another occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

A few days later Shawn Goldberg, the author of the perplexing story wrote a comment on my post acknowledging the intertextual influences woven into his story:

It should be noted that Cathay refers to Hart Crane’s Atlantis and his Romantic America. Rereading it now, I do believe the final image is taken from the end of Fellini’s 8½.

In response I wondered whether Fellini’s distinctive cinematic style owed a debt of influence to the Catholic pageantry of Mardi Gras. In his earlier comment Shawn had provided a link to his website, where he now posts his stories. I clicked through: the first story I found there begins at a party where a farcical performance of a Catholic Holy Week ritual is being staged.

Writers of fiction think about their own literary influences; rarely, I suspect, do they consider the possibility that their fictional texts influence readers or other writers. Shawn’s comment began:

Sure is weird to get a random email from a guy I don’t know, asking about a story that I thought was lost on the internet, but it sure did cheer me.

It cheered me too.

 

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Interacting Online With Short Fictions and Their Authors

Introduction

In the beginning Ficticities was envisioned as a collaborative laboratory for exploring postcapitalist alternatives to publishing and distributing fictional texts. I intended to tap into writers’ perspectives and preferences about publishing via a series of surveys and discussions. To lure potential survey respondents to the website I posted excerpts from online short stories, anticipating that the stories’ authors would google themselves, click onto my post citing their work, and fill out the latest survey while they were here. However, very few of the cited authors ever showed up here, suggesting that few of them google themselves. So I tried an alternative, more intensive lure. Not only did I post excerpts from short fictional texts; I actively engaged those texts with texts of my own. I didn’t passively expect the stories’ authors to find my posts via google; instead I actively sought the authors out, notifying them of my posts interacting with their work. The tactical question: would more authors be lured to Ficticities via this more proactive approach?

Method

Over a 3-week interval I wrote 14 posts. In each post I interacted with a different work of short fiction, selected randomly from the most recent online issues of randomly selected literary magazines. I avoided reviewing the fictional pieces or rating them based on merit or personal taste, focusing instead on facets of the text that engaged me in some way. After publishing each post I attempted to contact the author of the short fiction on which the post was based, providing a link to the post.

Results

I found something to write about in each of the randomly assigned short fictions. Typically I would find and read the story during the afternoon, then write the post the next morning. The posts averaged around 500 words in length.

I was able to contact 11 of the 14 short fiction authors, typically using Google to locate them on various online social media: websites/blogs, published emails, Twitter, Instagram. I couldn’t contact 3 authors: 1 has died, the other 2 have no readily identifiable online presence.

Of the 11 contacted authors, 5 responded with comments. Three commented here on Ficticities, while 2 others replied briefly on Twitter. One of the responding authors engaged with me in an ongoing online discussion about their story. Each author who responded to my post expressed enthusiasm for my having written about their stories; most also noted their surprise.

The 6 nonrespondents: did they not notice my contact message, or ignore it; how many of them clicked onto the relevant Ficticities post without making their presence known?

Each post was titled with the title of the relevant short story and the name of its author, thereby enhancing self-googling results by the authors. Within a couple of days each of the 14 posts appeared in Google searches. However, there was no evidence of authors finding their way to the relevant Ficticities post via self-googling.

Four of the posts generated quite a bit of reader traffic. Each was a post to which the author commented in reply to my contact; each had quite a number of people clicking in from Facebook. In all 4 instances the author wrote a Facebook post mentioning my Ficticities post, providing a link to it. While a number of the Facebook viewers left comments on the authors’ Facebook pages, none commented on the Ficticities post, clicked the “Like” button, or otherwise signaled their presence.

None of the 5 authors who commented in response to my posts about their stories went on to comment about any other Ficticities posts. I don’t know how many of those authors read any other posts here.

Discussion

Reaching out online to authors I don’t know with observations about their writings was an effective means of engaging with them. Some authors,  referencing my posts about their work in their own social media, expanded my outreach to a wider readership. As a stranger who took their writings seriously in my posts, I may have given the authors a rationale for encouraging people in their networks to read their works. In short, by my tooting their horns they may have felt more confident about tooting their own horns.

I didn’t make any effort to steer authors toward completing surveys. However, I suspect that this “bait and switch” maneuver wouldn’t have been very successful. The writers were interested especially in what I’d written about their own stories, and in letting their Facebook know about their stories and my observations about them. I saw no evidence of their engaging in posts about other authors’ stories, or about the broader agenda of the website. Some did click the “About” page, which describes that agenda in brief, but it seems more likely that they were trying to find out more about the identity of this stranger who, out of the blue, read and wrote about their stories.

Might the text-based contacts I established with these authors be leveraged into some other sort of collaborative endeavor? Would I want to continue writing these posts for their own sake? I’d like to explore those possibilities in subsequent posts.

Bartleby the Litmag Publisher

Now I’m going to check back in on “Between Sleeps,” that Salvatore Difalco story I referenced in my last post, the one where I wrote a comment late last week that has been awaiting moderation. Between my own sleeps has the comment finally been ushered from the waiting room onto the comment thread, or maybe even rejected by the moderator as spam? Let’s see… and nope: still waiting.

In late March I reported that fewer than 10 percent of the short story authors I excerpted in my “Flânerie” posts actually clicked through to the Ficticities website. What about the literary magazines in which those stories appeared: did any of the publishers show up here? Each story highlighted in a Flânerie post was written by a different author and was published in a different litmag. As best as I could discern from limited data, maybe 1 or 2 of those 57 publishers followed the google keyword trail from title-author of stories they’d published back to their citations in Ficticities. None left a comment or sent an email.

If I published an online literary magazine I’d google every story I published for a few months. No doubt there’s a way of placing a standing order with Google to track particular strings of keywords on an ongoing basis, so my online monitoring protocol wouldn’t even require me to do it by hand one at a time on a daily or weekly basis. I’d keep the authors apprised of my findings, passing on the links to websites mentioning their published pieces. And if the linking websites had a comment feature I’d probably also drop comments, at least thanking them for reading and referencing the texts, perhaps also engaging in online discussion.

Why would I do it, at least hypothetically? To satisfy my curiosity about how many readers refer to the texts online and how they interact with those texts — do they cite, critique, analyze, interpret, make intertextual references, etc. To promote the magazine I suppose. Certainly to promote the authors. Mostly to encourage and to participate in the culture of fiction, the virtual ecosystem that links writers, readers, and publishers through texts.

What about the actually-existing online litmag publishers: why don’t they do it? Evidently they prefer not to.

Reasons to Write — Survey Results

Backstory:  Last November I launched Ficticities by issuing an invitation:

Enter a collaborative laboratory where fictions are transformed from commodities into cultural resources, from entertaining distractions into worlds that extend their borders widely and freely in the collective imagination; where readers and writers build an alternate fictional multiverse together. The Experimental Agenda: Readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality.

I put up a series of posts exploring the design space for forming an anarcho-collective alternative to traditional publishing and self-publishing, with writers organizing themselves into publishing houses and distributing their e-books through reader-run duplicating libraries. I expected these posts to stimulate interest and discussion among fiction writers, leading toward the launch of a few demonstration projects. Unfortunately, those posts mostly rattled around in a solipsistic echo chamber, so I took them all down and regrouped.

On to Phase Two. The plan was to conduct surveys assessing fiction writers’ opinions about two central questions: (1) Could writers and readers of fiction jointly run an open access e-book publishing house of distinction? (2) Would they want to?  In order to attract writers to the site, and thereby to answering the survey questions, I would read and link to short fictions published in online literary journals.

Methods

On 18 March I put up the first survey, designed to evaluate why fiction writers write fiction. I then wrote posts linking to 57 short fictions in an effort to recruit respondents. The Google Forms online survey technology worked nicely: respondents’ results were recorded (anonymously) and aggregated on a dedicated file, making analysis easy. However, the method for recruiting respondents sucked. Few of the linked writers clicked through to the Ficticities site, and even fewer completed the survey. Four people completed the survey, one of whom was me. I don’t know how many of the other three were authors of short fictions linked on the website.

Results

There’s not much point in running statistical analyses on such a small sample. However, to the extent that those four respondents reflect any sort of consensus, some very tentative conclusions can be drawn:

Fiction writers want to interpret the world, to imagine and create, to make an impact on the world, and to have people read what they write. Self-expression is less important.

Fiction writers write for its own sake. It’s also fairly important for them to master the craft and to be regarded as good writers by other writers, by publishers, and by critics.

Making a living from writing fictions isn’t a particularly strong motivator, either directly through selling stories/books or indirectly in padding résumés for jobs as academicians or editors. It’s more likely that writers take those paying jobs in order to support their fiction-writing habits.

Survey questions addressing identity issues — self-expression, thinking of oneself as a writer, associating with like-minded people — were deemed less important. However, the two respondents (I wasn’t one of them) who answered the fill-in-the-blank question at the end of the survey — What is the main reason you write fiction? — emphasized aspects of self:

expression of my freedom

It’s fun. It’s challenging, and it gives me a great sense of accomplishment. The main reason that I write fiction, though, is because I have ideas that intrigue me and I can’t not turn them into stories.

Discussion

Results, though scant, are intriguing; plenty more questions could be posed that would shed light on the postcapitalist publishing agenda. And the online litmags do provide ready access to lots of fiction writers. The challenge is to lure those writers more effectively to the website and to the surveys.

For the first survey I cited recently published short stories, relying on the stories’ authors googling themselves and clicking over here to Ficticities, then clicking again onto the survey. That didn’t work. I would need to track down the authors’ email addresses or websites or Twitter accounts, letting them know about this website and specifically inviting them to complete a survey. It’s not easy to find online contact information even for published short fiction writers, so no doubt I’d miss a significant percentage of eligible respondents. Still, if I could reach half of the story authors it’d be a worthwhile tactic.

Do I need to read and comment on and link all of these stories in order to establish my credibility and to attract the authors’ attention? Or could I just send them emails; e.g.:

Dear So-and-So: I saw your story in the recent issue of X Magazine. I’m conducting a survey of fiction writers and would like to invite you to participate.

I could embed the survey right in the email; alternatively, I could put a link to the survey posted here at Ficticities. I’d establish a deadline for responding — let’s say 2 weeks — after which I’d post the findings here on the website and roll out the next survey, notifying the invitees by email. Then I’d do another fresh wave of emails to new authors. Hopefully writers find the survey questions and answers intriguing, luring many of them back to fill out multiple surveys and thus amping up the response rates. This rolling process of enrolling survey respondents would also build up a reservoir of possible participants in demonstration projects suggested by the survey findings.

Questions, comments, suggestions?

 

 

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 (portalic@gmail.com).