Proving Ground (an essay from the editor)

October 12, 2010 § 4 Comments

Proving Ground

Riskless

Let’s be honest. It is too easy to a) start a journal online b) declare oneself an “editor” c) pay for a website d) write HTML, CSS, use other web building tools, etc. and e) have your work published, regardless of merit, in at least one of the myriad of online journals desparate for submissions.

I run this online journal. It’s called ABJECTIVE. Within weeks, I bought the domain, crash coursed myself in CSS, wrote a very basic site in HTML, declared myself Editor, and started receiving submissions instantly. I have not even a minor degree in English. I maintain all aspects of this journal in my spare time, working a fulltime career in a different field. I pay out of pocket for the web domain and hosting. It is a fully sustainable model that anyone can do inexpensively and with little effort. There is no screening or applying for a job or having to even mention credentials (which I have–I had guest edited an issue of Smokelong Quarterly and also served as a web editor at Pindeldyboz for about six months) to anyone before submissions start coming in from literally all over the world. (I’ll grant that my own clout in online publishing prior to this may have played a small role in building an early submission queue, I had been publishing my own fiction online for about six years prior to this.).

I’m aware that this declaration, something too easy = worth less, is a falacy. Many things of value are produced from situations of little effort. It’s more a matter of the amount of risk involved in the start-up. If something is inexpensive and takes little effort/time to do, then there is little risk involved in doing it. If ABJECTIVE fails to garner submissions at some point in the future, I’ll simply close it up, or start soliciting submissions (something I’ve never done yet). Looking back, it will have been very little out-of-pocket expense and very little time wasted.

I have considered making ABJECTIVE a print journal, but I am very aware of the risks involved and I don’t feel like I could sustain the model I would want. It’s this awareness that makes me value print journals so much more. Risk-taking is a meaningful and progressive value, one I admit to not possessing. It’s proof that someone cares about something. Large books, books that took ten or more years to write, have inherent value, simply from how much of a risk an author must have took to create it, to work so hard and so long on something that might never be published. We have to admit that, if anything, the author cared deeply about the work. I am not saying writers of shorter fiction care less about their work, just that there is more proof.

Supply/Demand

A work of fiction in a digital medium is economically worth less than that same work of fiction in a print medium. Online supply is always infinite. Print supply is always finite. Therefore, within this abstract, online worth equals 0. Print worth equals greater than 0.

Of course, I am not talking about the quality of writing or any other subjective definition of “value.” It is only worth considering the tangible avenues of value lest the conversation derails into matters of taste and preference in contemporary literature. When determining value, it is more realistic to look at the amount of resources behind the production of something. The more resources that go into the making of a thing, the more that thing should be worth, the more the maker is going to care about it, and charge for it. Online fiction is free, therefore, by this model, worth nothing. What determines the value of anything is what someone is willing to pay for it. We should assume that editors of print journals, more than editors of online journals, are going to take more care in the production of their journal, since more is at stake resource-wise, including, I feel, more potential for a more scrutinizing editorial process. If I am going to put the time and money into putting words onto physical paper, I want to feel like those words are good enough to exist in this expensive and unmalleable medium. It is that very unmalleability that makes print such a desirable thing for our words to exist on. Online publishing is very easy to change, even after publiction. I have, many times, gone back and fixed small typos in works previously published here at ABJECTIVE. If I wanted to, I could go back and completely re-write other people’s works. It’s not a crazy assumption, it’s just me doing this, no one asked for my credentials when I started the journal. Who’s to say I don’t have some weird plan in the future to completely revise, to my own liking, everything I’ve published so far? There are no rules. It’s all malleable. It’s all messy and bumbling and confusing. Coupled with the suspicion that novice writers seem to be the only people reading online fiction, the whole thing is like too many amateur acrobats stuffed into a circus with no audience.

The Lure of Authorship

The desire to publish online is always the lesser desire to being the author of a book. Look at any writer who has a history of publishing online and then suddenly finds a publisher for their booklength work, and the book is published. You will notice that they will start publishing online less and less. The more successful their print work becomes, the more prestigious the publisher, the less you will find their work online, or in venues that do not pay or have little clout in the industry. This is because we have a desire to hold our own book in our hands. Very rarely is someone’s writing goal to publish flash fiction online. I know for a fact there are writers who are completely content with this, but most writers have dreams of having their books on shelves. In this dream model, online publishing serves as a proving ground, both in a writer’s ability to produce mulitple works that can impress editors across multiple journals, as well as, in cases, establishing a kind of online persona that is friendly and helpful, willing to blurb and write reviews (see next section), etc. It is useful for publishers and agents to see how you behave as a social person, how charming you are, if they are going to be paying for your book tour.

Unreviewable

When the New Yorker comes to your mailbox and you read the new work of fiction published that week, do you have any restraint as to your opinion of it? Do you have any restraint as to your opinion of anything in popular culture? We are allowed, and kind of expected to have severe opinions as to the state of fiction published in top tier journals. Now, when you click on a low tier online journal and read a work of fiction in a new issue, and you have a severe opinion about it, you pretty much have to keep that opinion to yourself.

We can’t write blog posts that critically and/or honestly evaluate a work of fiction online because we know the author is going to google themselves. And now there is a threat of actually being confronted by the author, not to mention the editor who chose the work, and since we are all writers at about the same point in our careers (because we are the only audience of these journals), the author and editor become people we need to be nice to because our own manuscript is, or may be in the future, in their slushpile.

The reason we can rant on and on about popular culture and portray them in incredibly humiliating bikinis in tabloids is because we have the luxury of not considering them as human beings who we will ever be in contact with. The more distanced we are from the makers and performers of our art and entertainment, the less bars are held in our opinions about them.

The situation is now such that social networking shares the same medium as the publication of literature. This has made the relationship between reader and writer, something we’ve become very used to as being utterly distant, too close for comfort. Art, absent the ability to criticize, becomes static and unwilling to grow because it never learns what it needs to do to grow. Online criticism ends up moving toward the opposite extreme of pop culture criticism, the kind of criticism a loving mother would give to their child, self-conscious in its fear of damaging an author’s self-esteem, and saying nothing substantial about the work itself. Online reviewing exists singularly to boost egos within a community. In this environment, silence is the only real critical review.

Online publication is not a real venue for art in the traditional sense, but rather just a curious aspect of social networking for writers. It is a huge creative writing community that publishes in avenues within itself, unable, for fear of damaging itself as a community, to look at itself critically.

Proving Ground

So far, the nature of this essay has been antagonistic, but it is in the “proving ground” analogy that I feel online literature has real value. Until about ten years ago, publishers where blind to the goings-on of independent presses and struggling authors. Writings that never would have been published before are suddenly being published everywhere. It’s as if all of the writing in the history of slushpiles have risen from the dead and are now prancing around, calling themselves “published.” “Published” or not, it provides those old guard publishers a window, a chance to follow the development of writers in their blooming stages.

Most online social networking concepts function as proving grounds. Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube are popularity proving grounds (how many followers/friends/hits do your tweets/statuses/videos garner?). Forums rife with debate are intellectual proving grounds. Any time a playing field is leveled, as the internet has done to so many fields, human nature finds ways to develop new filters.

What online literature needs are more filters that help bridge the gap between online literature and readers of top tier literature, like Dzanc’s annual Best of the Web anthology and storySouth’s Million Writer’s Award. These are award systems that prop online literature up into the best light possible. These are the best seats under the tent.

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§ 4 Responses to Proving Ground (an essay from the editor)

  • ce. says:

    Hey Darby, I’ve been mulling on this for awhile, and I really dig a lot of the stuff you point out, but something didn’t sit quite right on me towards the later part of it. I minally managed to get my thoughts down about this last night in an article for Smalldoggies. It’s posting next week, but I thought I’d share them here in case you have some thoughts/response:

    I tend to disagree regarding this breakdown of writer/reader distance.

    Criticism isn’t the only ingredient necessary for art and literature to grow. As much as a writer needs criticism, a writer needs to know their work is appreciated, needs to know people are connecting to their work. Beyond worthwhile criticism, what art and literature needs to grow are appreciators beyond the producers. Else, what’s the point? Art doesn’t exist to grow itself. Art exists to grow the world. And what’s the use of growing a world disconnected from its art?

  • hi ce. thanks for commenting. Yes, I agree. Criticism isn’t the only ingredient, but its the one I see a desperate lack of. I feel like there is plenty of appreciation to go around, so it wasn’t part of the problem I was addressing. But yes, it could’ve been mentioned. I didn’t mean to use “boosting egos” as an entirely negative thing, more just matter-of-factly that’s what happens, but ego boosting is an important part of it all, yes.

  • ce. says:

    Understandable. And yeah, I don’t deny the overall idea of this essay. In fact, it really highlighted something I struggle with myself in reviews–knowing I’ve pulled a few punches myself in reviewing something from a pal.

    I think what jeered me the most was the part about the accessibility of the author as a bad thing for art, whereas I’m something of a champion of author accessibility, often times encouraging people who buy books from the Vouched table to go to the author’s blog and let them know what they thought of the book.

    Two sides of a coin, &c., but I suppose the good thing is the coin as a whole can still buy a stick of bubble gum.

  • […] at the Abjective blog, Darby Larson had this to say: “The situation is now such that social […]

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