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?

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.