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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Rewind the Reboot?

I’m already regretting yesterday’s post. The proposed reboot is likely doomed before it’s properly begun.

I got started with the best of intentions, letting a throw of the dice select a short story for me to read. After the first sentence I could tell that ordinarily I wouldn’t have made it to the second sentence before moving on. But that’s part of the point of the proposed project, to delve into fictions I might not otherwise choose. So I read the story top to bottom, confirming that for the most part it’s not my cup of tea. But the story is about something that’s of interest to me. I read it a second time: the way the story addresses its subject matter proved provocative. I thought about it for a while, then set it aside. That night I dreamed about it. Next day I thought about the story some more; I started writing a post about it, then set it aside. This morning I woke up early already thinking about the story.

It’s not just the story in isolation that’s gotten me captivated; it’s the story as connected with so many other things that have at times grabbed my attention, variously inspiring, perplexing, and disturbing me. These secondary concerns then started propagating through the network into tertiary concerns, taking me ever further afield from the story itself. I could write an alternative version of the story that’s longer than the original, a series of essays , a whole book elaborating on an array of themes centrally and tangentially addressed by the story. Maybe after a few months I’d be ready to deal with a second story.

Instead of conceding the reboot’s failure I could declare its success. I’ll be explicitly trying to reconnect my own fictional circuitry, is how I summarized my intent. It took only one story to get the wires hooked back up and the engine running again. I’ve come to realize that this is a habit of mine: sinking down into something, perhaps something trivial, and letting it extend and reticulate itself. This one story reactivated that habit.

But do I really want to set the habit loose? Its movements are obsessive, hermetic: when I finally resurface from the mines I typically find that one guy’s gold is the next guy’s dross. I’m not sure I want to delve back under again. Now, after only one trial run at panning in the stream, I’m already strapping on the headlamp and picking up the pick. It’s just too much.

So let’s say that I restrain myself, writing a brief online engagement with the short story. It would give the author one reader’s response, as well as an open invitation to engage in conversation about her work. When I was an active blogger I came to enjoy participating in the online discussions more than writing the posts. I didn’t mind if the conversation went wildly astray, since as far as I’m concerned nothing is so far off-topic that it can’t be looped back in. The story’s author has a blog, so I could drop a comment there telling her about my post and inviting her to enter into an online discussion.

Then again, I suspect that she wouldn’t much care for my reaction to her story, and if she came over here to discuss it we wouldn’t see eye to eye. More likely she’d not engage at all. She’s had books published, been nominated for prestigious awards: why bother with me? But I’m no mind reader, no deep empath: in my own fictions the characters are opaque to one another, to themselves, to the narrator. As a fiction writer I might not like it if somebody tells me they don’t appreciate or enjoy or understand something about what I’ve written, but as far as I’m concerned it’s better than hearing nothing at all except my own voice echoing through the empty canyons. If my post is short and open-ended, I can wait to see what the author — or some other reader for that matter — has to say, then elaborate interactively in response rather than turning the post into a discursive essay.

Okay, I’ve talked myself into carrying on with this latest reboot. À demain

Another Reboot

Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been about two and a half weeks since my last post. Ten days ago I got pretty far along with one called “Already Too Late” before intent wavered and momentum flagged. In the interim I’ve continued to imagine what sort of public interactive fictional space might open up here, what it might accomplish, whether I could generate the energy and enthusiasm to give it another go. In the most recent iteration of this website I linked to  and engaged with dozens of short stories, hoping to lure their authors into exploring the possibilities of collective publishing. Most of the stories were good; several stimulated my active written engagement, not in the form of critique or review but as interpretations and experimental fan fictions. However, with one notable exception, the writers didn’t take the clickbait. That lone exception, however, has proven an unexpected source of renewed enthusiasm for me as both reader and writer.

While there are a lot of magazines publishing short fictions, there aren’t many public forums where readers and writers can discuss these texts. It’s a similar situation with academic articles: the texts might challenge and intrigue and provoke readers, they might be discussed and debated informally in labs or formally in classrooms, they might influence new work, all without the original author getting wind of it. I’m prepared to put some of my responses to short fictions out there where the writers can see them.

So I’m going to give this website another shot. Like last time, I’m going to read short fictions selected at random from various online litmags. This time instead I’ll read at most one piece per day, posting whatever observations come to mind. Rather than passively waiting for the authors to google themselves, I’ll do my best to notify them directly about these posts by tracking down their emails, commenting on their blogs, or figuring out how to work my inactive Twitter account. Maybe discussions will ensue. This time though, instead of trying to catalyze an overhaul of the industry, I’ll be explicitly trying to reconnect my own fictional circuitry.

Libraries Should Replace Amazon

The other day Forbes published an online op-ed arguing that local Amazon bookstores should replace public libraries. A shitstorm blowback ensued, prompting Forbes to take down the article. Unfortunately I never got to read the offending piece, but from the reactions posted online it seems that the public outcry centered on the value of the local library as a “third place” — a social environment that’s neither home nor the workplace. For members of the local community the library offers free meeting space, educational programs and services, access to computers and the Internet, and a place to hang out without having to buy a cup of coffee. The Forbes writer pointed out that libraries aren’t free because they’re funded by tax revenues. That’s right: the venerable public library is a socialist institution, paid for as a collective resource by the citizenry rather than as a commodity by individual consumers.

In an earlier incarnation of this website I made a strong pitch for decommodifying books altogether, replacing bookstores with libraries. E-books cost nothing to copy and distribute, so an unlimited number of free copies could be made available on demand without ever having to return them. But what about the authors: how do they get compensated when copies of their books get handed out for free to all comers? My proposal: have the local libraries retain their socialist function by buying the copies of the books they distribute.

The United States has around 16 thousand public libraries, including branch facilities in larger cities, providing localized services to a nation of 320 million people. Suppose 10% of U.S. libraries — 1600 of them — were each to buy a copy of a particular book. At $10 a pop that’s total sales of $16,000. For that price 10 percent of the national population, or 32 million people, can acquire, on demand and for free and for keeps, their own personal copy of the book. That’s a cost to the general public of less than one cent per copy.

But $16,000 total revenue — that’s not enough to pay the author, is it? Well, it’s nearly double the status quo: most authors get paid $6,000 or less per book. Yes, but it’s not just the author who needs to get compensated: what about the publishing house, the agent, the editor, the printer, the warehouse, the distributor, the retailer? In today’s book industry the author gets maybe 12 percent of the total revenues, with the remaining 88 percent going to these various middlemen. By getting rid of printed books and replacing them with e-books, a lot of those costs disappear. Get rid of for-profit publishing houses by having authors organize themselves into publishing collectives and even more costs go away. Get rid of retail outlets, selling books only to libraries, and the costs go down even more. Pretty soon most of the $16K in hypothetical revenues goes to the author — still not enough to quit your day job, but a much better deal than the commercial book industry offers most writers.

Replacing local libraries with Amazon retail outlets merely perpetuates the status quo of commodity capitalism, which in the book industry has been rendered an obsolete business model. Instead, replace Amazon by local libraries. It’s a better deal for the readers, and it’s a better deal for the writers.

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?