Long Live Fiction: A Guide to Fiction Online

February 22, 2010 | 33 6 min read

coverDeath is change. This is particularly true for abstract things that, by definition, can’t die. So when someone of some repute pronounces the death of something abstract–of God, of art, of history, of poetry, of fiction–I’m quick to think like a serf cheering at the funeral of a king: X may be dead, but long live X.
So it went with a recent Mother Jones article by Ted Genoways. Presiding like a priest over Fiction’s sinking casket, a number of people in the literary world rushed to the scene as though it were a birth. The possibilities of online “comment” sections shined their brightest as writers and editors of some of the better fictional content on the Internet pronounced, with great clarity, that fiction isn’t dead at all. It’s changing, they said. Castigating and criticizing Genoways like any good town hall mob or meeting of minds, they built an insight that, in my mind, goes like this: Fiction is dead, long live Fiction.

Literature is supposed to be a culture’s conversation with itself. A way of telling the story of its time, its moment. It’s a healthy and necessary thing, an authentic expression of the truth of the age. As a writer and student of literature and of this conversation, I went in search of the new fiction. I wanted to see its extent, the borders of its world. I wanted to do a little cartography to glimpse the map of our conversation with ourselves.

And I found gobs and gobs of it. Voices upon voices upon voices. Blogs and journals and magazines, communities of writers and readers and editors all talking at the same time to everyone and therefore no one in particular. It was and continues to be overwhelming. In my search for the conversation, I didn’t know who to listen to or why. I kept looking, keeping track of what I found as I went.

Much of this fiction is short. That is, from 50-1000 words. I’m not sure why. Long fiction exists all over the Internet, but I don’t see it surviving as well as shorter stuff. This could be because of the different kind of attention people pay to text on the Internet as opposed to text on the printed page. We might call this the Tab Effect. If I’m at my office working on the computer, I’ll have at least three tabs open at the same time: The New York Times, Gmail, and something for work. I’ll split my time between these, periodically reading, working, and chatting with friends or writing emails. While these periods of attention may vary, they usually don’t last longer than 30 minutes. The long-story form doesn’t survive this multi-task attention. It’s basic evolutionary competition.

With that in mind, what follows is an annotated list of a few of my favorite finds. These are places I’ve found during my search that I like for various reasons, sites notable for quality of design, content, and approach. Consider them a taste of the new fiction, places to start.

First, look Ben White’s Nanoism. White is a medical school student in Austin who’s developing the quality and presentation of twitter-sized fiction (140 characters or less). This isn’t a new form of fiction: fragments have existed from Gilgamesh to Kafka. But now these small pieces of language have won a currency in our minute-to-minute lives, a chirping and ambient speech. Sites have come about to present these “litwits” (Escarp, Thaumatrope, Outshine, PicFic). The difference with White’s stuff, both his own writing and the writing he publishes, is that in it you can see the litwit taking shape as a valid form, shaped by our technology, for getting at the truth.

For more good editing, but of avant-garde and fantastical stuff, see Dream People. The writing I’ve found here is immaculate in its imagination, both dark and humorous.

Anemone Sidecar also has good avant-garde prose/poetry/language stuff. Organized in unique chapters, these are lighter, more emotive and pastel-ish pieces presented in a very attractive way (sponsored by the ever-growing Ravenna Press).

Robot Melon has a completely unpretentious design. I get an excellent vibration from them. No bells and whistles, just issues full of writing, each piece with a different solid, metallic background. The ancient problem of the throbbing ego is ever-present in online fiction, but RB seems to manage it (as does Sir! Magazine, which I found yesterday.)

For lots of bells and whistles, but not necessarily ego, see two online writing communities: Fictionaut and Six Sentences. Each is under the auspices of another journal (the unstoppable and incredible Luna Park and the smaller but more town-like What Can You Say in Six Sentences, respectively). Each community provides the opportunity to share writing, read and comment on others’ writing, and organizes the data therein by theme and length. These are like perpetual workshops that one may watch as they happen, like a surgery or a convention. There is good writing here, but also many other opportunities to communicate about writing. (Fictionaut is by invitation only, though I’ve joined 6S and made several friends).

Bartleby Snopes is a no-nonsense, well-edited, straight ahead website for consistently good fiction. I’m impressed with their content, but maybe more so with their emphasis on editor-writer communication. Responses to submissions come within two weeks with personalized comments–a rare thing.

For a somewhat small place with great editors and a silly, intrepid style, see Zygote in My Coffee. The issues flow like water with all manner of poems and stories–it’s like going to that small coffee shop whose t-shirt you bought and wear all the time. You root for them.

Though it’s not a journal anymore per se, Eyeshot has created a unique approach to fiction’s relationship to social justice. Email the editors of Eyeshot with a donation for earthquake relief in Haiti, and they’ll thoroughly comment on your short story or poem. Everyone’s looking for comments on their fiction. The world is full of problems. Eyeshot puts these two truths together. For more of what I’d call “pragmatic fiction,” or fiction that works, see Greg McQueen’s project 100 Stories for Haiti, The Zero Emissions Book Project, Bottom Dog Press, and this issue of The Short Review.

I also think more conversation should occur between the literary and genre worlds of fiction. Images and fantasy are a part of storytelling, and each community would benefit from increased interaction with the other. Space Westerns is a reliable site that provides stories about exactly what its title says. Space Westerns. These are imaginative and indicative stories presented by a magazine that cares for its writers and readers. (See also Jason Sanford, Short Story Me, and Short, Fast, and Deadly.)

Meanwhile, the famous comment of the Nobel committee-member about the insularity of literature in English in the US continues to be true. Here we’ve only mentioned literature written originally in English and not literature in translation from everywhere else in the world. To branch out to more world literature, see the St. Petersburg Review, The Barcelona Review, and Words Without Borders.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to recognize all the purveyors of fiction that don’t need recognition. The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Esquire, etc.  There are also many literary magazines that have been around for years or decades that post fiction online. I know this list should continue with these other names, but I’m more interested for now in learning about what exists but isn’t as well known.

And furthermore, let all this be said with the obvious caveat: there’s much much more out there. Every site has a list of links to other sites that have lists of links to other sites that have lists of links, etc. The above are merely good indications of different types that I’ve found. (For a growing list, see the site I curate, fictiondaily.org.)

If one were to make a map of this new world of fiction (and it’s starting–see the Indie Publishing Wiki) the title of the map would have to be something like “The Thriving Life of Fiction.” This is because fiction is flourishing in myriad directions. Though, to continue with the map metaphor, its capitals and governments are shifting power and location. What was once a strict monarchy is evolving more and more into a muscular democracy. Voices, speaking from all corners, are gaining legitimacy through their own emergent means as opposed to the upper crust of university journals and large publishing houses. This isn’t a new shift: small zines and self-publishers have existed for decades (Chicago seems to have a penchant for tracking this: see Quimby’s and the Chicago Underground Library).

What’s changing is access. I might read a short story in a magazine in Australia. Then I’ll follow a link to a new journal that’s just popped up in York, England. Then I’ll read an author bio and find the author’s blog, which has more of her writing and links to other magazines and the magazines and blogs of her friends in Nashville, New York, Portland, Austin, etc. The et cetera continues indefinitely. I find new places everyday. More and more and more writing.

Like the political revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the people are acting and felling old, crumbling giants of power in favor of their own voices, slowly bringing the system to the masses. And this is the hope of fiction: that it take an active role in our culture’s conversation with itself. That citizens read and explore and question what it means to be a human being by reading the stories that their peers compose. In this sense fiction is very much alive, but in the mode of becoming. It’s old forms may be dying, but in these small journals and blogs it’s being born again. So I say, once more: Fiction is dead, long live Fiction.

[Image credit: boo!berry]

edits fictiondaily.org, an aggregater site that collects and presents three pieces of fiction every day from all over the Internet, as well as relevant twitter feeds and interviews with authors and editors.