Clicking on the Web's Short-Fiction Offerings
At least on paper. For those simply interested in the work itself, Internet-based fiction journals have become a significant force in publishing, especially for serious short fiction. Between Web-only lit journals (such as Blithe House Quarterly, www. blithe.com), print journals excerpted online (Conjunctions, www.conjunctions.com), and sites that offer fiction in addition to other content (such as the Web-only Feed, www.Feedmag.com and the online edition of Atlantic Monthly, www.theatlantic.com), the short-story form is alive and clicking.
Full disclosure here: I logged on for this story under a cloud of complete cynicism, expecting to find only smarmy genre fiction and electronic reprints of paper media. After all, the rise of e-books, e-booksellers, and just about all else e-literary has received an irrational amount of media attention, and for every story about the way the electronic novel is changing the face of American letters, there is a tale of a digital-age shyster making an easy profit off the hopes of aspiring, perhaps not very talented writers. In the mainstream press, the proliferation of electronic literary journals has received much less coverage than that lavished on e-publishers, but the e-journal trend poses some of the same questions regarding legitimacy. Are e-journals capable of upholding similar standards of editorial rigor, content quality, and cultural import as their ink-on-paper peers?
Happily, though, I did wade through a mother lode of ludicrous speculative fiction (aka sci-fi) and generic erotica, I also found a lode of brilliant and near-brilliant original literature online. Furthermore, high production values, slick design, and techie treats such as hypertext and multimedia add a layer of complexity to content.
The editorial selection on e-journals ranges from the "you post it, we publish it" approach to highly competitive, thoughtful reviews of contributions. Blithe House Quarterly, for instance, gives seven pages' worth of submission guidelines to potential contributors, first explaining that the journal takes only "unpublished short stories by emerging and established gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered authors." Editor's Picks, a section of the literary site Web Del Sol (www.webdelsol.com), publishes works solely on the recommendation of the site's editors and does not consider unsolicited pieces.
A mothership of online literature, Web Del Sol hosts nearly 20 of the most intriguing literary Web journals, including Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Letters & Life, the übersite of Andrei Codrescu, who relocated his print journal (which he started in Baltimore in 1983) to the Internet in 1998. Among Web Del Sol's giddy array of other offerings are poetry-workshop boards, extensive links to the wider e-literary community, and a search engine, features a print magazine obviously couldn't begin to offer.
The inclusion of hypertext--links triggered by clicking on a highlighted word in a story's main text--allows each reader to tailor the text to his or her interests, exploding the boundaries of traditional fiction. While the narrative can feel less meaty when it's online--its shape-shifting certainly makes it seem less tangible--hypertext creates the opportunity for experimental fiction in which the reader is a participant. For some of the best explorations of the art of hypertext, it's worth taking a look at The Iowa Review's Web edition (www.uiowa.edu/~iareview). Unlike paper journals such as Conjunctions that share content with their companion Internet sites, the Iowa Review site is a discrete entity, publishing hypermedia and hypertext works that could never appear in the pages of its print edition.
Since e-lit sites are free of real-world logistical issues such as printing costs, these journals can publish as often or as infrequently as they like and, arguably, are more willing to give voice to new writers. Emerging Voices Online (www2.netdoor.com/~rief), for example, is dedicated exclusively to works by writers still enrolled in undergraduate and graduate writing programs. Rigorously edited by writing students and produced in association with Mississippi Review (orca.st.usm. edu/mrw), EVO published innovative, expertly crafted fiction in its recent debut issue.
Online literary magazines can also serve as powerful marketing tools. Random House, for instance, publishes excerpts from some of its most heralded new novels and short story collections on Bold Type (www.randomhouse.com/boldtype). Recent features include works by Matthew Klam, Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, and Nathan Englander, all of whose books are available at Amazon.com or a bookstore near you.
The most surprising finds on the Internet are the caches of credible speculative fiction and outstanding erotic writing. For the former, head to Jackhammer (www.eggplant-productions.com/ jackhammer) for short stories and essays regarding the site's Question of the Week, as well as a full page of links to other online rags of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror ilk.
For the erotica, log on to www.Nerve. com, an ambitious and intelligently raunchy compendium of essays and fiction about sex. Nerve.com was one of the first online magazines to offer potential contributors (including Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, according to The New York Times) stock options as well as a handsome per-word stipend. Despite being an unabashedly genre-driven site, Nerve.com shares with the best of the mainstream online journals a commitment to publishing "some of the most exceptional writing and photography in the country." The site includes excerpts from novels by A.M. Homes (Music for Torching) and Robert Olen Butler (The Deep Green Sea), as well as original short fiction. Furthermore, its e-mail links allow readers to respond to what they've read, offering an immediacy no print journal can rival. A magazine publishing stories about all things carnal might seem redundant in an era when so much mainstream short fiction is already about sex, but the interactive element of Nerve.com offers a higher level of intimacy between storyteller and audience.
The same holds true for the entire slate of online literary publications. If anything, going digital reinvigorates the short- story medium without endangering the sanctity of the print literary magazine. The sad demise of Story and The American Voice aside, there's still no shortage of established and new print journals for readers and writers who live for the tactile appeal of paper. For those who delight in the sensory overload, access lag time, and unconventional narrative of the Internet format, literature of uncompromising merit is readily served up online.
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