canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

FICTION SITED: A Look at Fiction Online

by Corin Cummings

Websites featured in this article:

As noted by TDR editors, there's been a lot of speculation that the short story is a dying form. It's becoming increasingly lifeless and pretentious, we hear, as the field of its practitioners narrow to MFA teachers and their students trying impress each other. Fewer magazines are running short fiction; fewer publishing houses are interested in it, and nobody's making money. But what if I told you that there are thousands of people publishing and distributing creative writing in another way, without agents or well-connected professors, without corporate or market approval? It's online, of course.

While writing on the web is often disparaged and more often ignored, I think of it as a phenomenon similar to the much-celebrated Samizdat movement of Soviet-era Russia and eastern Europe. Our oppressor isn't the government (yet), but (1) the prevailing value in publishing of reliable profit over risk and (2) an increasingly small and established group of editors and writers, often who seem of homogeneous tastes, deciding what gets published.

Obviously, there's more to it than that as well. Internet publishing is cheap, easy, and is unrivaled as a channel for distribution. In some ways, it really is a better way of publishing. The work is immediately and perpetually accessible; it can be shared around the world in an instant. The big holdup, as I see it, is hardware. Nobody likes to read on the screen. I think that's unlikely to change, no matter how long we have to get used to it. What we need is something portable, affordable, and with total print quality, sort of the literary equivalent of the iPod. That's when we'll see online publishers actually compete with traditional houses.

I've been reading, submitting, and occasionally publishing fiction online for five years. There's no question that you have to search out the good stuff, but when isn't that true? Movies, music, books, you always have to hunt down the best work. The best thing about fiction on the Internet is that you can immediately share what you've discovered. You can let its creator know you liked it. The most rewarding experiences I've had as an online writer is getting emails from strangers who have enjoyed my work. I also regularly hear from other writers who've discovered a link to their stories on my site (it's okay, we all google ourselves). Like samizdat, this is how the good stuff gets passed from hand to hand.

For this article I contacted the editors of some of my favorite sites and asked them a few questions. This is not an exhaustive survey of the online story. I know there are lots of sites out there I haven't seen. Nevertheless, here are the sites I think are the best and some words from their editors.

Please note: I have edited responses.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to my questions.


Editor: Thom Didato
HQ: Brooklyn, NY
Updated: Quarterly
Online Since: 2000

Just months after appearing in these very virtual pages, several recent failbetterers have had stories appear in "The New Yorker." Coincidence? We think not! (Homepage boast, Spring 2004)

Impact on the literary establishment

TD: "What was once a forum for self-publishing and some rather poor genre site stuff, the Web now houses both emerging and well-established authors' works. Due to the cost (and audience) benefit, a good portion of academic-affiliated journals have moved to online only, and almost all traditional print journals now have a online presence. Just look at the likes of traditional literary publications like The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly and/or Ploughshares and see what they've doing now with their online sites (audio interviews, back issues, etc). Heck, the Iowa Review Web has in fact become its own entity. Meanwhile original online publications continue to prosper (both in number and readership)."

The online byline

TD: "For a long time, the online pub credit was looked down upon, but those days are becoming increasingly numbered. Those in the know (writers, editors, agents) recognize the merit of quality online publications."

Prize anthologies

TD: "While the editor of Best American Short Stories still hedges on recognizing work published online, the Best American Poetry editors do consider and recognize poems published online. And as for Pushcart Prizes, since Failbetter has had work recognized in that annual award anthology, I can tell you first hand, that the Pushcart folks definitely do recognize the online literary community."

Who cares?

TD: "About 30,000 individual readers cared enough to stop for each Failbetter issue last year. Now, in some eyes 30,000 may not seem a lot, but in comparison to the standard lit journal distribution, that's an impressive number. Then again, I'll site that recent NEA study about the lack of general readership and ask, Since when has literature, truly great literature, been readily eaten up by the American populace? And for that matter, the works in Failbetter are not intended for general mass consumption (nor did the writers likely write them to be). No, way I figure, for a five-year-old publication, 30,000 hungry and happy readers is fine with us (though we're not against upping that to say 30,001, or 30,002, or...)"

The future

TD: "Failbetter, while remaining an online quarterly, will begin printing an annual anthology in 2005 --and we're not alone in this trend. What I think the future holds in store for literary publications is a sort of "meeting of the minds" between online and print with those publications that last the long haul pushing the envelope of each medium while using both (print/online) to secure their given audience and spread the good word. Quality, no matter what form (or format) it is delivered in, will always be well received."

TD recommends: Web Del Sol "the grand daddy of online lit pubs."

Mississippi Review

Editor: Frederick Barthelme
HQ: Hattisburg, MS
Updated: Quarterly
Online since: 1995

"To me the Internet looked like a wonderful opportunity to spread the literary wealth, and it still does."

Finding audience

FB: "Nobody "buys" books anymore. I mean, students buy some books, well-to-do folk buy a certain kind of books, etc. It's a very target marketplace. And literary work, well, let's just say it's not a big seller.

"So the Internet is great because you can do literary work, art work, and push it out there and it will find its audience. And it's better than book stores or magazines because you can get all kinds of stuff from the comfort of your own trashy apartment."

Crap & Knopf

FB: "While [the ease of publishing online] may bring some crap to the fore, publishing on the Internet also brings out into the public eye lots of strange and wonderful stuff, a lot of stuff that Knopf is not going to publish, but which, in its own peculiar and isolated way is symptomatic and revelatory, and tells us about our world in a way we might not hear through other channels. Art communicating with us in its own way using whatever means are available.

"Publishing is a mess, now more than ever. Most of what is published is not very good, and this applies equally to the crap books we could all identify, and to the "literary" books that are very often touted in the literary press, in reviews, etc.

"By contrast, a lot of web sites do very interesting but very small scale stuff. It's detailed, it's focused, it's very self-aware. A lot of it is funny (by contrast, print publishing is like television, the funny stuff gets worn away by the time it gets to the screen, because only the broadest stuff really counts)."

Tastes better online

FB: "Most of all, the online web sites publishing fiction have better taste and more interesting ideas about what we might be writing than the mainstream literary press. Take a look at a half-dozen web sites and a half dozen literary magazines, and you'll see where the vitality is. It's on the web. There's excitement, enterprise, experimentation, play, writing, art. In the printed lit magazines you find the same rather dreary fodder that's been there a good while. It's not that there is no good work being done in print, just that the web is much more lively and scattered and hopeful-it's a richer environment in which to publish.

"For me the online option is splendid because it prizes individuality, peculiarity, humor, a wide range of views about the world we live in. I guess that's a good thing. And it levels the field somewhat, since you can make a decent looking web site without spending thousands of dollars on some Flash-crazy web designer. The truth is, I think, that by and large the work that you bump into online is usually more interesting, and more idiosyncratic, than what you'll find at B&N."

State of the story

FB: "I don't know that we have to 'save' the story. It's true that stories get less attention now than they did a while ago, but you always have a segment being popularized. You give your anthology a catchy name and suddenly there's a renaissance. These things run in cycles, so if the story is in decline at the moment, wait fifteen minutes."

Where is it going?

FB: "This is a question that doesn't want answering. As I said years ago in a comment to Atlantic Unbound, to the degree the large publishers and corporations take over the Internet and online publishing they will destroy it, homogenize it, make it just like the stuff that they churn out 24/7. To the extent that online publishing remains in the hands of individuals-writers, artists, small magazine editors, interested parties, persons of interest--it will prosper and enrich our literature."

The fat cats

FB: "I don't think they're terrified yet. For a while the publishers and the mag people were trying like the devil to figure out how to make a buck off the Internet. Some have succeeded, others have not. Acquisition editors and agents read the fiction on the web, just to keep their hands in. I think everyone knows there is lots of interesting stuff on the web, and new stuff coming online every day. So they watch and try to cherry pick."

It's not the writing, it's the machines

FB: "My sense is that nobody who reads well still thinks this about publishing online. There is still a fear of computers and so on that shapes some uninformed opinions. I know smart people who still don't have a clue about using computers and are forever calling Geeks 'R Us to get their computers rebooted, or get reconnected to the Internet, but that kind of fear is wearing away over time. Eventually it will not be a factor.

"A lot of people cannot bear to read off the screen. That's a simple tech problem, and as soon as you give these folks a good quality high-res LCD they'll be perfectly comfortable reading off a computer screen. They might not prefer to do so, but they won't be afraid to."


Fiction editor: Shauna McKenna
HQ: Astoria, NY
Updated: weekly
Online Since: 2000

"We get more accesses on a weekly basis to Pboz than most literary journals sell of a given print run. So, you know, there."

The small audience for short fiction

SM: "Yep! Book sales for short story collections, anthologies, and literary journals are dismal, so all signs point to the grim fact that short fiction isn't so very popular with the larger reading public. The silver lining (and how can there be a silver lining, you may ask) is that the limited audience for short fiction is passionate and expert. When you connect with that kind of a reading audience, you're doing a shimmy on Cloud 9."


SM: "As the big publishing houses huddle into fewer and fewer conglomerated camps, perhaps online publishing is what will save fiction from an ugly all-or-nothing commercial vs. art stratification like you find in Hollywood and television... Not to harp too much on the theme of the over-commodified literary marketplace (I've been much preoccupied lately), but I think it's in the online realm you'll see publishers and editors taking more risks with subject and style, simply because there aren't the same financial repercussions if they fail."

The future

SM: "I think it'll be in a holding pattern for a little while. Like it or not, the literary world naturally organizes into hierarchies, and until recently everything online was thought of as secondary to everything in print. The efforts of some open-minded and hardworking individuals have started to bring about some change, but I think it'll be a little while yet before the majority of writers feel like publishing online is an end unto itself."

Tough love

SM: "If you toss out the notion of career and contribute to publications -- online and print alike -- that have their hearts laid out and bare, witnessing in that strange vulnerable mass a sickly fetish with good literature in whatever form it comes, you'll be feeling fine. Broke, maybe, but fine."

SM's other recommended sites:


Editor: John Rubins
HQ: Urbana, IL
Updated: Monthly (currently on hiatus)
Online Since: 2000

"TT writers have been contacted by agents and print journals, and I've also been told by writing instructors and profs that they have used TT stories for their courses. All of this is in addition to the stories having been read by thousands."

Lit today

JR: "Most everything in America has become institutionalized and this includes the enjoyment of literature. I wish it weren't so but it does look like it is the case... [But] I think art does matter, and I wish more people believed this in our culture, that as metaphor it is a powerful mirror, a way in which we might begin to define ourselves, but there are other forces at work in our culture, very powerful forces that do not want people to see the value in their lives and our relationships --who are more interested in making as many people as possible feel inadequate."


JR: "I think [online publishing] has scared a lot of publishers. At a CLMP conference a number of years ago I heard managing editors saying things like, "Don't be stupid by going on the web, you can't give this stuff away for free," even though they were heading magazines where the subscription and sales income met only a half or a little more of their production costs and whose circulations were a thousand if they were lucky. But many print journals have embraced the Barnum approach of giving the town a free parade first before charging them for the big top, and they offer some content online, and this has turned out to be a good marketing tool."

On Awards/Anthologies

JR: "Look, who gives a fuck what Bill Henderson thinks of their writing? Who the hell is he? You know how many people buy those anthologies? --take a look at the rankings on Amazon." [
#156,625 on Nov. 1]

Wish list

JR: "I wish there was more content and better content online and more indexing and some reviewing, real reviewing of online content, and I wish that writers cared more about reaching readers than adding a "notable" credit to their resumes.

The C-word

JR: "If you are worried about how to launch your career, or how you are going to win the Nobel maybe you shouldn't be writing. Look at all of the fiction out in the past ten years in America --there something about all of this stuff, even so-called literary work, that just screams and screams career, which I think is really just a euphemism for $$$$$$. Where are our souls for Christ's sake? In the past ten years, the only truly accomplished book that I can safely say must have been a labor of love, that is a work of art, is Danielewski's House of Leaves. Where are all of the other books that seem to cost their writers something? The idea of writing as some kind of investment, as a career is very dull. Accountants have careers, writers have lives."

Identity Theory

Editor: Matt Borondy
HQ: Gainesville, FL
Updated: Monthly
Online Since: 2000

"People read it, or at least mistake it for porn long enough to stay at the site for a few seconds."


MB: "I think any time you get published and have the opportunity to receive feedback, it's a good thing, and with the Internet you can get almost instantaneous feedback from a lot of different people. The ease of getting feedback from readers is probably the best part of publishing online, from a writer's standpoint."

The haters

MB: "It seems like the primary reasons for the general disregard for online publishing are twofold: there is less name recognition (no one's heard of most of the sites, even the really good ones) and less editorial strictness. A lot of the sites just haven't had time to build a reputation yet, and once they do, they die out anyway."

Moving to print, getting cred

MB: "A lot of sites are going the print route--Small.Spiral.Notebook comes to mind--and we will end up doing that soon enough. One of the things that was interesting was that storySouth million writers competition that highlighted some of the best fiction that was published online. That kind of stuff is really good for the "industry."


Founder / Managing Editor: Felicia Sullivan
HQ: New York, NY
Updated: Quarterly
Online Since: 2001

"Small.spiral.notebook boasts a steady readership of over 8,000 readers a month, worldwide. I venture that as supremely successful for an emerging writer desiring to get their work out there."


FS: "Initially, small.spiral.notebook evolved because I recognized friends and peers who were wonderful and prolific writers and for some reason were not being published in the mainstream, or perhaps stodgy, literary journals and the high-brow slicks. The journal was created for the purpose of fostering writers. The audience, I perceived, would solely be other writers. However, over the course of almost four years, I've slowly noticed that audience expanding. Notably, with the ease and accessibility of accessing good writing online, I found people really responding to good stories. And these emails and letters didn't come from MFA candidates or aspiring writers, they came from housewives in Missouri, high school kids who maybe have just discovered their first inspiring writer."

Going forward

FS: "I think this is a crucial moment for online journals. Editors must be selective, must strive to publish the best work. Essentially, they need to implement the same methodology of the print journals and need to be consistent. I've seen online journals make a huge splash with the glitz design and big-name authors, however, they disappear within a few issues, a year. The momentum fades. For the online world to reach the prestige (and I do believe that this is a realistic possibility) as the print world, editors need staying power."


FS: "Online journals have been recognized in the Best American Non Required Reading (edited by Dave Eggers). Remember, print journals have had a vast head start. I think we need to be a bit more patient with the online world's acceptance in the literary community. I think we need to be a little less demanding and a little more determined and persistent. As an editor friend of mine at a highly regarded literary journal once said, if you consistently put good work out there, it will be acknowledged."

Paumanok Review

Editor: Katherine Arline
HQ: Hersey, PA
Updated: Quarterly
Online Since: 2000

"I think of the people who read and contribute to The Paumanok Review as a community that shares a love for words. ...To me, TPR's most important critics are its readers."


KA: "I hope it has encouraged new writers to find first publications. When I was started writing, print publishing was an incredibly difficult market to break into, not solely because of the quality of the competition, but also because of the emotional impact of waiting so many months for a solitary rejection slip to trickle back. In my opinion, the best thing about online publishing is the fluidity of communication. In the course of a day, I may read submissions, talk with other editors about their publications, edit contributions, and review galleys. I'm talking with writers during the entirety of this process -- they're involved, they're taking part. It's a tremendously different, and I hope more encouraging and instructive process than print publishing."

The Future

KA: "Online publishing is an organic phenomenon. It will go where its contributors and readers -- not its publishers and editors -- take it. The Internet invests power in consumers, and that is particularly true of free publications, our analogue to open source software. Contributors and readers, and the criticism and time they invest in the publications they read, represent the future of online publishing."


Word Riot

Editor / Publisher: Jackie Corely
HQ:Middletown, NJ
Online Since: 2002
Updated: Monthly

"People actually do read this stuff. Not in droves, but in large enough numbers to keep my spirits up."

Who's reading?

JC: "It’s trite, but it reveals a lot about the current state of literature in our culture that most readers of literary fiction are writers, that few people will take to reading fiction for fun. The past 20 years have been sort of crisis mode for literature and the mainstream publishing world. The MFA programs have produced a wealth of dull, trivial, affected bullshit (and that of course doesn’t apply to all MFA grads – any system that produces the likes of
Flannery O’Connor has succeeded at some level) – this is what is sold to us rather snobbishly by NYC publishers as “true” literature. If you’re bored by it, if you’re longing at some visceral level for something more, you’re a peasant."

Blood & Guts

JK: "What’s lost is the substance – stories that gut you or leave you shaking. Fiction is a form of entertainment, no doubt. It doesn’t cheapen fiction or books to say that. What mainstream publishing has missed for the past twenty years is that you actually can and should put out works of substance AND style. The medium doesn’t require that you make a sacrifice.

But of course, big publishers are running naked across highways in desperate-mode trying to make ends meet and make literature “legitimate” again. When you’re trying to work under those auspices, it’s impossible to look around you and try to figure out where to start cleaning up the carnage."

Rant, Jackie

JC: "I think the online sites have enormous potential to help revive the lit world because we’re not really beholden to it. We don’t have to look for work that’ll “sell” well. We publish stories because they really blow our minds. We publish stories because we want to – we don’t have to worry about putting food on the table with our online product. We don’t have to worry about appealing to a particular financier or grant provider.

"And I think that keeping that kind of attitude will be our saving grace. Online publishers have more than enough time and energy to think up unique ways to use the Internet or the print media to reach out to a broader audience. For example, just think about how books are advertised: the primary motivation for publishers is to get noticed by booksellers, not to readers. And catering to getting “sold” definitely changes the whole dynamic of what books/fiction you’re looking to put out there. Books are advertised in Publisher’s Weekly and not nifty niche magazines.

"Mainstream publishing is stuck in neutral with no means of getting out.

"(Boy, that was some rant.)"

Getting noticed

JC: "Two of our writers have been contacted by an agent based on what that agent saw of their work on the site. That’s amazing to me. It shows that the online zines are making some sort of mark on mainstream publishing, though I can’t really be sure what that is yet.

"Online journals are starting to get respect in larger circles. A number of Pindeldyboz stories received nods in the Best American Non-Required Reading. We have a ways to go, but I think that eventually, the jump to Best American Short Stories will happen.

Additionally, a lot of Pushcart nominees publish their work in online venues. It broadens their audience, particularly if they are publishing books of literary fiction, which are a tough sell n the public domain, and it helps legitimize the zines, so it’s an excellent give and take."


Corin Cummings is from Vermont and lives in Toronto. An excerpt from his novella "Night Support" appeared in the March 2004 issue of TDR.







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