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 .

Surrealist Facets in Contemporary Short Fiction

Does Breunig’s interpretation of contemporary absurd surrealism apply not only to humor but to fiction? To find out, I’m revisiting the 21 short fictions in the current issue of Gone Lawn that I posted on earlier.

“How Would You Call Me if You Forgot My Name,” By Mileva Anastasiadou

My mind is stuck on this song, as if all meaning of life is hidden in it. I repeat it over and over. So there’s the meaninglessness, but it’s wrapped up inside the head of a character with dementia, for whom meaning, like memory and language and eventually life itself, gradually drifts away. It’s a subjective loss of meaning, but the narrator believes that the meaningfulness of life had begun to slip long before the disease set in. So I suppose there’s a kind of metaphoric nihilism at work here. What about the “grim, jolly absurdism”? It’s grim to be sure, but whatever jolliness there was is long gone, from the world and from the minds of those who occupy it. What about absurdity? Well there is an awareness that everything has become pointless, but there’s nothing incongruous or preposterous going on. Surrealism? Well, the narrator refers to herself and her partner as formerly being clouds, now transformed into trees, but it’s metaphorical — a transition from drift into rootedness.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

Grim, jolly absurdity: check. Surrealism: check. Nihilism: not really; the perspectives are too subjective for evaluating the state of the world. But then the story ends with a “purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope”: a mood of nostalgic sorrow that retrospectively embeds the whole story in a more traditional inwardness or depth psychology.

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

Decidedly nihilistic and absurd, there’s plenty of crazy incompatible stuff going on in this story. It’s self-reflexively cubist, which suggests multifaceted views of a recognizably meaningful subject, but the center cannot hold for long and the text veers onto full-on chaotic neo-surrealism. Grim? Serious to be sure, the story is too abstract and external to be grim. Jolly? To quote myself from my earlier post: “Not a funny one, this story; not just disorienting and disconcerting either. It’s fully aware that things are falling apart, that attempts to build alternate realities from fragments and components is doomed, that entropy will prevail. Not a lamentation, more an abstract expedition into the weird.”

“The Imp and the Bones,” by Joanna Galbraith

This is a folk tale, which provides a traditional premise for deviating from ordinary reality. There is a kind of grim humor interspersed at times, though for the most part it’s a serious and linear narrative. The story is meaningful; it even has a moral to the story. It is posthuman though — evidently the humans didn’t get the moral, didn’t heed the warning — which gives it a nihilistic edge.

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I realize in going through these stories a second time that I pretty well covered the neo-surreal aspects of each in my first post. I also see no point in building the Surrealty Algorithm and running each story through it. The idea of the stories’ “mood” seems more important, more pervasive than breaking it down into discrete variables and scores. Does the story itself generate affordances of grimly jolly absurdity? The other overriding consideration is the relationship between the world of the story and the actually existing world we all live in. Does the story, whatever fantastic and impossible contortions it describes and whatever imaginary reality it occupies, purport to offer commentary on or interpretation of the actual world?

On quick review I’d say that each of the 21 stories makes at least some commentary on the actual world. For two of them, the links to ordinary reality are particularly tangential. Still, the writers who create/discover/describe these fantastic worlds find themselves unable to escape their own humanity.

Carrao’s “Three Anomalies”: the title describes the relationship of the fantastic fiction to the actual world: anomalous. The text is self-aware; it notes its own trajectory of increasing deviation from normalcy. There are also explicit references to the text’s relationship to other artistic media, notably painting and film, drawing parallels to their previously executed exit from realism into fantasy, distortion, abstraction. While Carrao’s neo-surrealistic worlds might be born of nihilism, they’re anything but a formless void, overflowing with impossible hybrid entities exercising varying degrees of agency.  In the end: Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented: this could refer to a kind of computer engineering, but more likely it’s a reference to the online ontologies of the so-called “speculative realists,” who purport to describe objects as they are, independent of human ways of perceiving and knowing. These subjects turned objects will become meaningful in the way that Someone is not. Does this text enter a realm of meaning outside of human perspective? The text ends with this promise, or threat; it doesn’t elaborate on this new kind of meaningfulness. But isn’t meaning an all-too-human affordance; isn’t the insistence on becoming meaningful a concession, an acknowledgment that he can’t object-oriented enough?

Ives’s “In a Country East of South Chicago”: like Carrao, Ives invokes the plastic arts and the cinema as he veers sharply away from realism. Also like Carrao, Ives’s strange worlds aren’t empty but overflowing with content. Again like Carrao, Ives acknowledges his own inescapable humanity in these neo-surreal depictions, bringing him up short in his escape from the actual. Is there something else, some way of seeing or creating that isn’t human anymore? sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it’s not as hungry as I am, and it doesn’t need me. It’s got something better to do, and I want to know what it is. Wanting to know what it is keeps him from going over the edge, from exiting the human, from exiting himself — not unlike Carrao’s becoming-meaningful.

What about the grim jollity? There’s plenty of grimness in these 21 short fictions, along with other sombre variants: sorrow, regret, loss, anomie. There is some playfulness and wonder expressed, especially in the folk tales. There are some funny moments scattered here and there. Still, for most of these stories the overriding mood is a serious one. This is a literary magazine after all, meant for the showcasing of serious fictions. In only one of the stories does funniness figure as dominant mood: Pfister’s “A Family Reunion.” And it is a grim sort of funny, a nihilistic and absurd kind of funny. But it’s not a surreal sort of weird: the story remains resolutely embedded in ordinary reality, even when it’s past time for the denizens of that reality to acknowledge that something out of the ordinary has been happening. Kafkaesque absurdity, where someone ordinary crosses without fanfare the threshold into the realm of the inhuman.

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Why is this analysis meaningful? I forget; please discuss amongst yourselves.