Surveying the Texts: Fictional Counterfactuals

This morning I woke up thinking about the number of short fictions I’m likely to track down and read over the next 3 months. I intend to survey the authors of those texts, but what about the texts themselves — why not survey them too?

The central organizing scheme of Ficticities Mach 2: each day I track down a few online short fictions; I excerpt some portion of each text that refers to some aspect of the setting in which the narrative takes place; I accumulate a single day’s excerpts into a single post, as if I’d witnessed each of these scenes or events in sequence while strolling through a fictional city; all of these strolling posts displayed together on the site comprise a kind of grand tour of the fictional city. It’s sort of the complement to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which what seem like descriptions of various fictional cities all refer to the same actual city of Venice.

So I’m wondering: what sort of data could I accumulate from these multiple short fictions that is relevant to the site’s core conceit? Each of the short fictions takes place somewhere in particular, but from the standpoint of the website the particulars aren’t of central concern; it’s the relationship between the fictional and the actual that comes into focus. I wonder: in a short story, can textual indicators of fictional versus actual be discerned? I don’t mean actual versus fictional places and times during which the stories unfold, nor am I concerned particularly with the author’s use of “realism effects” to make the setting seeem actual. I’m wondering about the extent to which the place and time in which a story takes place drift into realms of the imaginary, the speculative, the abstract, the unreal — the fictional.

I’m going to assay the feasibility of such a project with reference to the next story in James Purdy’s volume of short stories, a library book that I just renewed. I’m going to read it for the first time right now, making observations relevant to the proposed textual survey project.

*   *   *

I hadn’t the slightest intention of pampering Naomi, the story begins. Intent isn’t actual; it’s speculative, about achieving some desired future state. And here it’s a negated intention, an undesired future state, implying two possible futures, one in which Naomi is pampered, another in which she’s not.

the wages I paid her were far in advance of their day when she came to me… — Here the narrator is reflecting on the past, which of course isn’t the story’s actual present; further, she’s regarding the wages she paid back then as in advance of their day, manifesting a future state that would later be actualized, even though its actualization is by now part of the past.

the rumor she has been circulating… — a rumor is a dubious recounting, unverified, probably fake news — a hypothetical situation that probably varies from the actual fact.

what I did to Naomi could never, not even in a court of law, be construed as striking — again, a counterfactual speculation.

Naomi had changed. She was not a double personality… — the narrator invokes the idea of a doubled reality while at the same time revoking it.

Naomi had simply become another woman… not a doubled reality, but an altered reality.

And that’s just the first paragraph. The next paragraph begins with dialogue: “You’re a woman of at least forty, though you lie to your men friends about your age!” — again, a counterfactual.

I went on, nearly beside myself… — is this just a hackneyed old-lady expression, or is the narrator herself beginning to occupy two realities at once?

*   *   *

I can see already that the task of distinguishing actual from fictional within a fictional text would entail a lot of work. The textual indicators of counterfactuality aren’t readily reduced to sets of keywords I could easily gather and count; close reading seems required. But maybe Purdy is exceptional in this regard; maybe contemporary writers of short fiction stick more resolutely to the actual heres and nows of their storied worlds. Still, finding a needle in a haystack requires sifting the whole haystack — just as much work as finding a dozen needles.

Maybe the thing to do is to select story excerpts based on their textual counterfactuality. Or maybe I should select excerpts based on other criteria, then conduct the counterfactual analysis post hoc?

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Overhaul Update

Version 2 of this site should be up and running by next week. It will look more like a straight-up blog, displaying a series of posts, with the most recent ones at the top of the stack. There will be three categories of posts:

The City. I’ll spend a portion of most days as an online flâneur wandering through online literary magazines, excerpting fragments from short fictions and posting them on Ficticities. Each fragment will be labeled with some salient aspect of the fictional City that it occupies; e.g., Menswear, Sidewalk, Speed, Windows. The fragments collected during a single stroll through the e-magazines will be gathered together into a single post, with original sources cited and linked. I expect that writers googling themselves will come to the site to see what’s up, and while they’re here they’ll be invited to respond to…

Surveys. Respondents are asked questions relevant to two main questions: (1) Could writers and readers of fiction jointly run an open access e-book publishing house of distinction? (2) Would they want to? Google has an app called “Forms” that lets you embed formatted questionnaires in blog posts, so if I can figure out how to use it I’ll be in good shape. Here’s a draft of the first survey:

How important is each these motivations to you as a fiction writer? (1 = not important at all, 5 = extremely important)

  1.  to express and understand myself.
  2.  to describe and interpret the world.
  3.  to imagine and create.
  4.  to master the art and craft.
  5.  to make an impact on the world.
  6.  for people to read what I write.
  7.  to be published.
  8.  to be well regarded by other writers and critics.
  9. to make money from my writing.
  10. to qualify for an academic job.
  11. to think of myself as a writer.
  12. other (please write in) _________________

Findings from Surveys, along with interpretations, will be posted online.

*   *   *

I’ve reread all of the posts and comments from Ficticities version 1, excerpting and modifying the Pamphlets as needed. I don’t expect to display the Pamphlets on version 2, in part because I want the Surveys and Findings to do the work via the ask-don’t-assume, show-don’t-tell approach.

Heading Out the Door

Here’s what’s going to happen now on Ficticities.

I’m going to attempt to lure a bunch of writers who have recently published short fictions in open source online literary magazines. I’ll do this by going to those magazines and reading a selection of pieces published there, then I’ll post excerpts of those short fictions here on Ficticities, along with links to the original sources. If the writers of these texts are googling themselves, they’ll come across the Ficticities references and will likely click through to see what’s going on.

When they show up here, the writers will find excerpts from their short fictions embedded in a “fictiCity” — an imaginary city comprised of various imaginary places: the Bar, the Office, the Neighborhood, the School, the Courthouse, the Dump, etc. Each place in the fictiCity will be populated by excerpts from multiple fictional texts. The idea is to create an imaginary sense of collective identity among fiction writers, all of them occupying a fictional ecosystem cobbled together from a wide variety of disparate fictional worlds.

Illustration: I just flipped to a random page in The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, a book I checked out from the library recently. I landed on page 519, which is part of a story entitled “Easy Street.” Here’s an excerpt from page 519:

One thing of course they could not help noticing. Bewie hardly ever returned without he was carrying a heavy package or two. At the ladies’ look of astonishment, he sat down and said in a joking tone, “My wardrobe. In my profession, you have to look your best. And the film people of course insist on it.”

I could post this excerpt in the Shopping Mall section of fictiCities, or perhaps in the Menswear Store.

While they’re here at the site, the fiction writers will see prominently displayed an invitation to participate in brief online surveys. These surveys will be designed to evaluate fiction writers’ attitudes toward specific components of the fiction publishing industry, as well as attitudes toward possible alternatives. For example, a survey could ask respondents to evaluate the importance to them of getting published, of being read, and of making money from their fiction writing. Survey results will be compiled and analyzed, with results posted on Ficticities. The survey questions will encourage writers to self-reflect; the published results will give them a glimpse of themselves in the aggregate, as a virtual collective called “fiction writers.” Hopefully the surveys and findings will generate enough interest for writers to keep returning to the site, perhaps also to recommend the site to fellow writers. And of course results will be useful in evaluating assumptions about the perceived attractiveness to fiction writers of a postcapitalistic alternative model to traditional publishing.

There will also be a brief description of the alternative postcapitalistic publishing scheme I’ve outlined here previously; the rest of the content — posts and discussions, pages, pamphlets — will be removed.

Let’s say this version of Ficticities runs for three months. Suppose I find, read, and excerpt from 30 short fictions per week: that’s nearly 400 texts, 400 writers. Let’s further say that I put up a new survey every week: that’s 13 surveys, plus results and analyses. By then maybe it’ll become clear what comes next.

So there will need to be a complete overhaul of the site, which will take some time. I’ll leave it open, maybe posting occasional progress reports.

Wading Out of the Water

Integral to human understanding and invention, fiction plays an essential role in imagining alternatives to reality, in shaping reality, in disguising reality, and in providing avenues of escape from reality. Fictional narratives are more than entertaining stories; they are simulations of worlds, not unlike scientific experiments, algorithms, and AIs. Realizing that they are trapped in an artificial world invented to serve commercial interests, writers and readers of fictional texts can escape together into an alternative world of their own invention.

– from the Postcapitalist Realities outline

What constrains fiction writers in perpetrating a collective escape from escapism? Habit is a big limiting factor:

People adapt to environments, even artificial ones. Adaptations become habits, hard to break even when moving into an alternative environment where those habits are no longer adaptive. Freed from the constraints of the traditional publishing world, would readers and writers of fictions remain locked into their habitual ways of reading and writing? Or would the alternate reality of writers’ syndicates and readers’ duplicating libraries establish a different ecology, calling for different adaptations from which different habits take shape?

Erdman has endorsed this idea of fiction writers being immersed in a habit-forming ecosystem. In the Blog Fail post he analogized from a DF Wallace commencement address:

An older fish swims along and two younger fish pass him coming the other direction . “How’s the water,boys?” he asks. “What’s water?” is their reply. Since capitalism is the water we swim in, most humans – and particularly Americans – have no idea there is anything else or that capitalism even exists. Why does a fish even need to know what “water” is when there’s no other reality in which they can live? Why do we need to know what capitalism is, since there’s no other reality in which we can survive? I run into this quite a bit in discussing socialism. It’s hard enough to talk about capitalism as though it exists, even harder to talk about it as though it doesn’t exist (as though there is another reality).

Wallace’s fish story doesn’t offer much room for optimism. Even if the fish realize they’re in the water, why would they want to escape from it? Water is the medium in which they evolved, to which they’re adapted, which provides the essentials for their survival. The older fish gets it, understands that he’s swimming in water, but he’s managed to get old by staying in the water, not by trying to make a go of it in some other medium. If fiction writers are adapted to a capitalist ecosystem, why would they want to get out of that water only to flounder around on dry land? As Erdman remarked on the Profession of Doubt post:

Americans thoroughly identify as capitalists, and as such I think that the psychology is one and the same. We sort of assume that the market is always working things out in the best way possible, more or less… As such, capitalism is so thoroughly our way of being that it drives our creativity, and I think that most American artists are more or less okay with that.

In my response to Erdman’s comment I conceded that most fiction writers seem to be trying to succeed in marketplace terms, either by writing popular fiction they hope sells well or by padding their CVs with published stories that don’t pay at all but that might eventually get them a gig teaching creative writing.

So let’s assume that most fiction writers are adapted to swimming in the waters of capitalism. But what if the waters are drying up while the number of fish is increasing — so many fish swimming around in shrinking ponds that there’s no room to move, no oxygen to breathe, nothing to eat. That’s the scenario I was trying to sketch in one of the earliest posts on this site: hardly any novels get published, and even published novelists typically earn a pittance from sales of their books, while most self-published authors make next to nothing. I’ve not yet written about the writing schools, but the situation is comparably dire: far fewer teaching slots than qualified applicants, the jobs being mostly adjunct and temp positions that don’t pay enough to make a living. In short, the capitalistic ecological niche can’t support most of the fiction writers whose talents and predilections are optimally adapted to that niche.

If Erdman is right — if most fiction writers aren’t consciously aware of how their immersion in the capitalistic pond influences the way they write — then describing an alternative postcapitalistic ecosystem to them isn’t likely to alter their habitual writing practices. The alternative ecosystem I’ve outlined on this sight doesn’t actually exist, so it’s not possible to lure writers into it to see how they adapt.

But what if Erdman is wrong? What if fiction writers are aware that they’re adapted to an ecosystem that can’t support them? Would that awareness make them more likely to climb out of the water and step into an alternative ecosystem, even if that ecosystem is only an experimental laboratory that’s not ready to support life on an ongoing basis?

One way to find out would be to open up the alternative ecosystem, issue invitations to writers to step in through the portal, and see who responds. The biggest obstacle is that the alternative ecosystem isn’t an empty habitat waiting for occupants, like a newly constructed housing subdivision waiting for buyers to move in or a newly established corporation waiting for applicants to reply to its help wanted ads. It’s more like a bunch of homesteaders building a settlement together, with houses and shops, a corral and a railway station, a church and a schoolhouse and a tavern, a town hall and a Boot Hill… Another way to find out whether writers are adapted to an alternative ecosystem is to ask them. Maybe don’t ask them point blank if they’d like to pitch in, sign up as one of the pioneers in the homesteading project. Instead, ask them about themselves as fiction writers: their preferences and practices, their hopes and fears. Ask them also about their perceptions of the fictional ecosystem in which they operate: its features and its bugs, what it affords and what it prevents. Eventually ask them to speculate about possible features of alternative fictional ecosystems. We’d learn something about writers’ enthusiasm and readiness for getting out of the water, while writers would learn something about themselves and about one another.

And what if I too am wrong? What if there already is a fictional habitat compatible with the postcapitalistic scheme I’ve outlined here? Would it be possible to expand and deepen that habitat?

There are a lot of online open-access literary magazines: readers don’t pay to read; writers don’t get paid for writing. I’ve been assuming that fiction writers publish in these venues as a way of paying their dues, building up their résumés, establishing credibility with agents and publishers when eventually they submit novels for consideration as commercially viable commodities. But maybe writers write short stories for free because those publishing venues encourage more variety in style and content, more experimentation in art and craft, than do the commercial publishers. There are, to be sure, some boutique publishers of long fictions that emphasize artistic merit rather than potential popularity, but those publishers, being short on staff and on revenues, tend to put out only a small number of new titles every year. Maybe these more adventurous writers would thrive in an alternative fictional ecosystem, a habitat run by and for writers themselves, a venue where they can edit and publish and distribute long fictions of distinction, its capacity constrained only by the merits of the books themselves.

I’m closing in on a redesign of this site…