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.

###

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.

###

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

 

Advertisements

Now What?

Okay, so suppose this…

I keep reading online open-access short fictions and interacting with them here. Maybe I shorten up my textual responses: instead of the 500 word average of my recent output I aim for something more like 150. At the same time I amp up my posting frequency, from 5 per week to 15 or so. I focus my attention on texts to which I experience a personal resonance and whose authors I can readily contact via social media. I continue to notify authors directly about my online interactions with their texts; this time I also follow them on Twitter etc., anticipating that at least some will reciprocate.

When the authors arrive here to read my posts, I won’t attempt to lure them into participating in online discussions or surveys. Instead I’ll invite them to consider joining forces in building an alternative fiction publishing house that’s owned and operated by fiction writers themselves.

The authors of fictions published in literary magazines can certainly generate the product. They’ve responded to publishers’ requests for submission, written and edited their own texts, formatted them in conformance with the litmags’ specs, had their work deemed worthy of publication by acquisition editors. It’s at the back end of the publication cycle that the authors’ co-op might falter.

As a cooperative can writers exercise quality control over their own collective output, ensuring that the texts have been thoroughly vetted, honed to excellence, and formatted professionally in the house style before being published? A traditionally published book gets blurbed on the back cover by other published authors, heightening the book’s attractiveness to the potential reader. Mutual blurbing probably also enhances the sense of camaraderie among blurbers and blurbees. But can fellow writers exercise editorial judgment with respect to one another’s manuscripts — a responsibility from which they’ve traditionally been buffered by agents and publishers?

I believe they can. Academic journals have historically relied on peer review in accepting and rejecting manuscripts for publication. Blind review is the usual procedure, avoiding cronyism on the one hand and vendetta on the other. With enough fiction writers in the peer network, blind review would be practicable and swift. Can fiction writers exercise reliable and valid judgment about the merits of other writers’ fictional texts? With practice they could. Many literary magazines already rely on blind peer reviewers to make a first pass through the pool of submissions. Through experience and conversation a set of house standards would surely take shape.

What about money? If the writers are doing most of the work, and if only e-books are published, then overhead costs are reduced nearly to zero. Advances and royalties? For now let’s assume that the novels published by the writers’ co-op are open access, generating no revenue from sales. Many litmags operate that way; many if not most don’t pay their authors. While many writers of short fictions hope to have a novel or compilation of their own published, often as not they expect the publisher to be a small independent operation that pays only a small advance with no additional royalties generated from sales. But a small-press publication conveys prestige on its author. The book might serve as a stepping stone to a bigger and more lucrative book deal with a commercial press; it also might enhance the writer’s credentials for securing paid work as an editor or a teacher. If the writers’ co-op publishing house can attract excellent submissions, and if the editorial selection process is rigorous, then it could convey the same sort of prestige on its authors as would the small independent publishers. In addition to the pragmatics, there are also the aesthetics and the egoistics that come into play. Being published by a well-respected outfit offers validation of the author’s art and craft; it also gives the author something to talk about at parties.

Could the authors publicize not just their own books but the co-op’s entire portfolio of literary offerings in order to attract broad readership? If the co-op publishes open-access e-books, then it wouldn’t make use of bookstores or Amazon, which generate their revenues as percentages of book sales. Online literary magazines cultivate readership through online promotion and social media; the co-op could pursue a similar strategy. Rather than relying exclusively on the publishing house’s online presence to build readership for the books, the writers themselves would take an active role in announcing book releases through their own social networks. The authors of short fictions on which I recently wrote posts generated quite a bit of traffic through their Facebook friends. If the writers were to make social media announcements not solely for their own individual works but for all of the books in the co-op’s portfolio, reader awareness could expand exponentially.

*  *  *

On the other hand…

Of the 14 randomly selected short fictions I wrote blog posts about, only one author engaged in an ongoing discussion, going beyond the specifics of her own story into the larger societal contexts of education, ecology, empirical evidence, and personal agency in which her story is embedded. Three other writers offered a single comment, focusing exclusively on their own texts, without pursuing further conversation. The other writers never engaged, never even acknowledged that I’d written a post about their stories. None of the 14 authors commented on any of my other posts in the series, or on any of the recently published short fictions written by other authors on which those posts were based. None asked me why I’d read and written about their stories, nor did they offer any reaction to my larger agenda as outlined in other fairly visible places on the website. In short, based on the limited evidence available, with one exception the authors were interested exclusively in the attention I gave to their own stories, or else they were entirely indifferent.

Participants in a writers’ collective publishing company would doubtless need to be motivated by self-interest — the collective can advance my career, or increase my readership, or make me money. A sense of outrage with the status quo would also help: the traditional publishing industry is a racket, a pyramid scheme, a false hope, a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. But wouldn’t there also have to be a sense of authorial collegiality, or at least an awareness of a shared fate, of swimming or sinking together? Even better, wouldn’t the prospects of success be enhanced if the writers’ collegiality extend to the readers, who collectively are exploited by the same industry that exploits the writers, whose own interests could be served by joining forces with each other and with the writers?

I’m not much of a rhetorician; my expectation is that, once the evidence is laid out on the table, the advantages of anarcho-syndicalism speak for themselves. In an earlier iteration of this website I marshalled evidence indicting the status quo and outlined the parameters of an alternative system predicated on collective pursuit of mutual interests. Those posts and pamphlets went nowhere, largely because so few people showed up to read them. Maybe I shouldn’t take the rejection personally: if you google “postcapitalist fiction,” Ficticities shows up on the first page of the results. The fact that so few people clicked through to my postcapitalist content tells me that very few people give much thought to the topic. It’s hard to know whether that’s because most writers and readers are satisfied with the status quo, or because they’ve not given serious consideration to alternatives.

I could perhaps launch a fiction publishing house that wasn’t collectively owned and managed. It would operate similarly to to the open-source literary magazines, specializing not in online periodicals but in e-books, mostly novels. The writers wouldn’t get paid, but then neither would I. Instead of trying to reach consensus on manuscript selection, house style, distribution, and so on, I’d decide unilaterally. My publishing house would still rely heavily on the writers for editing, formatting, and promotion, but so do other publishers. With minimal overhead costs, the house could expand its offerings more rapidly than do many of the small independent presses. I suspect that, like most publishing houses, my operation would draw a lot of interest from authors. But why would I do it? Running such an operation would be a full-time job, for no pay — a do-gooder project. Besides, I’m a novelist myself, dammit! I don’t just want to help other fiction writers to get their novels read; I want them to return the favor.

You could say that I’ve already got my own publishing company, just like every other self-published author. Mine is an open-source e-book operation: anyone can download any of my books for free. I could expand, inviting other novelists to submit their manuscripts. But doesn’t that look like precisely what it is — an expanded self-publishing endeavor? Besides, a prospective author might well ask, just how many readers have taken you up on your personal open-access postcapitalist publishing house’s free book offer?

I could set aside the publishing house idea for now, focusing instead on affiliating with a cohort of fiction writers, and maybe readers too, linked not so much on economic considerations — on explicitly pursuing alternatives to commodity capitalism in the world of fiction —  but on aesthetic ones. A decided advantage offered by open-source literary magazines is that they can feature good work that doesn’t necessarily generate commercial potential for either the writer or the publisher. There are compensatory dangers: on the one hand a suspicion that the no-pay outlet is a lower-status venue best suited for mediocrities and novices; on the other, a whiff of esoteric preciousness wafting from the self-appointed literary elite who through academic appointment are able to buffer themselves from crass commercialism and popular tastes. These are the risks intrinsic to decommodified publishing — the same risks that a writers’ syndicate would face in publishing one another’s longer fictions. Open source literary magazines provide an ongoing source of market research for postcapitalistic fiction.

Of the 14 short fictions I recently read, 3 or 4 struck me as unusually good — not far better than usual, but good in an unusual way. I could allow myself to be drawn selectively to the unusual short fictions  — the same pull I rely follow when looking at novels on the New Releases shelves at the public library. I could write about each of these unusual short fictions, notify the author, perhaps strike up a discussion, maybe even a correspondence. We might converge onto some form of collective collaboration founded on a shared appreciation for the unusual. Or, as seems equally likely, I would find that those who cultivate the unusual diverge not only from the norm but from one another. I could give this project some time — considerably longer than the 3 weeks of my latest experiment — to see what develops. Meanwhile I will have read some alluring short fictions, will have let those fictions inflect some idiosyncratic textual engagements of my own, will possibly have initiated some stimulating conversations.

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.

 

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.