The Technology of Literary Fiction
I have written short stories for most of my life but only recently decided to see if I could publish some of my words. I had moved to San Francisco and everyone I met told me that I had to get my brand out there. I couldn’t just wait to be discovered. I had to disrupt things. I had to blow things up.
I wasn’t really sure how to go about disrupting things, but I began to search for venues where I might submit my work. I found an online publication called NewPages that had a section where it gathered “Calls for Submissions." I started to scan that page to see if there were any journals calling for short stories like I wrote. I quickly learned that there were hundreds—maybe thousands—of journals in the literary marketplace, though the concept that it was a “marketplace” was euphemistic, for 90% of the journals did not actually pay for stories. Rather it was a kind of marketplace where the farmers brought their crops to a central location in order to give them away, sometimes paying a fee for the privilege.
I also learned that there were categories of writing that I had never heard of before: slipstream, speculative, bizzaro, flash, micro, etc. I couldn’t even tell whether my stories would qualify. Worse still were the explications of what the editors were looking to find.
The Kudzu Review asked me to “inspire and give hope.” I wasn’t sure that was what my writing was about, nor actually what most writing is about, but I guess if you had a journal that wanted to inspire and give hope, that was a fair ask. There was a magazine called TOSKA that wanted micro essays that made “their souls ache.” I wondered how many of their souls there were. Did they all have to ache or was it enough that some of their souls ached?
Pithead Review—great name, for sure—wanted stories that would leave a brilliant bruise. The Storm Cellar said that it was looking for writing and art “to be read during a catastrophe.” That surprised me. I assumed that during a catastrophe most people would be reading texts or tweets. I hadn’t known that they would be actually clamoring for writing that was “sublime and profane, stylized and unpretentious, formally innovative and ideally classical, perfect and perfectly flawed, surreal and cathartic, consistent and contradictory, childlike and world-weary, inevitable and surprising.” I could definitely see smooth sailing and catastrophe there.
I was also finding that the world of literary fiction was a lot more hardass than I had thought. Sundog wanted my “earth-scorching lit.” They wanted “stuff that gets under fingernails, stuff that lingers like the aftertaste of a great whiskey.” That was hardcase for sure, but not as intense as the editors at Colony Collapse who begged for writing “that stands yeti-like & backlit on a riverside cliff shotgunning a pabst and/or burns under your skin well after you've dug the stinger out and/or ghostrides the whip with the kid still in the car seat…” I would have ignored the implorings of Colony Collapse except for those “and/ors.” I loved those and/ors. My writing didn’t have to ghostride the whip and burn after the stinger was gone. One or the other, not necessarily both. Read right, it was a very inclusive call for submission. I definitely would have to submit there.
Some of the journals were outright sadistic. The Boston Review called for sentences so sharp they “cut the eye.” Sanity Not Guaranteed asked me to submit fiction that “cuts to the heart of the holes we are built out of.” Lest that demand be thought incoherent, the editors explained that they wanted fiction that “kicks us in the nads, grabs us by the throat, and makes us listen.” I thought that might be a tall order, but it paled before the Promethean task they set for poets. I was so glad I wasn’t a poet. If a poem “doesn’t make our emphysemic souls whistle, we won’t have it…” That was a vivid image. I could see a broken down chain-smoking ancient mariner of indeterminate sex shuffling down a never-ending corridor lined with crusty but literary books, his or her labored breathing collapsed into one long whistle of exertion. But really? Why were their souls emphysemic? Did they ache? Maybe they should moonlight at TOSKA.
I was beginning to wonder whether I was of stern enough stuff to make it in the world of Literary Fiction. I can work up a good size sense of indignation and I have been told that my rants are considered biting. I was not sure, however, if my work “rages well beyond when the reader has left the page.” And even if I were angry enough to publish in these big leagues, could I go all the way and disrupt them?
And that wasn’t the only problem. What if my prose was angry enough, but not good enough? I mean, I knew that it would be challenging to break into print; there are talented writers everywhere. Daunting for sure. I had some confidence in my typing skills, but could I really say that my stories met Apex Magazine’s requirement that every story emit “sheer unvarnished awesomeness”? Awesome, for sure, but unvarnished awesomeness. A heavy lift.
I confess that I got a bad case of the blues after reading Apex’s call for awesomeness, but I bounced back after reading their editor’s injunction that I must always “keep in mind that the search for awesome stories is as difficult as writing them.” I didn’t know this editor from a pat of butter, but hearing this I couldn’t help but discount his or her opinions. I am pretty sure that there is no universe where searching for awesome stories is as hard as actually writing them, and then getting all the varnish off.
I was so hard at work looking to market my stories in the world of literary fiction that I was not able to attend my son Ajax’s baseball game. His team—the Red Sox—had a Little League face-off against the Pirates. I felt guilty for not going—awesomeness, it appears, does not come quickly for me—and I was anxious to find out how the game had gone. I was delighted to get an email—it arrived even before he returned home—from an outfit called GameChangers that reported that Ajax’s team had won the game 11-10. I opened the email and found that I could actually get a box score from the game. I had to click and download, but next thing I knew I actually had the Red Sox roster laid out on my iPad like the table of baseball statistics you see in the paper.
I wondered how Ajax did. I found his name and looked across the fields—this was really cool—and saw that he got to the plate 4 times. I looked to see how he did in his at bats, but there were question marks under the hits and runs columns. Aw too bad, they don’t really have the detail. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they actually kept track of hits and runs and batting averages? But it is Little League after all, pretty cool at least that they can give you an email with the results virtually minutes after the game is over.
I would have left it there and gone back to searching for markets that might deign to read my stories but I noticed a button that said “Go Premium!” Something in the way it was positioned suggested that the question marks in the scorer’s table might go away if I got the Premium version. I clicked around a bit more and was given the opportunity to buy the Premium version for $7.33 a month or $34.99 for the year. I signed up and oh my god I was bedazzled by what came next. There were over 50 statistical categories maintained for each kid. Of course the standards: Games Played, Plate Appearances, At Bats, RBI, Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage. But that just was the surface. You could go deeper, much deeper. There was a group of statistics arrayed under the Category of “Patience, Speed and Power.” Here I could see how my 12-year had fared with respect to BB/K, PA/BB, GITP, and BA/RSP, among many others.
I played baseball; I love baseball; I know baseball, but I admit I had to look at the key to determine that these acronyms were Walks per Strikeout, Plate Appearances per Walk, Hit into Triple Play (really? They maintained a statistic for hitting into triple plays?), and Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position.
Under the caption of “Quality at Bats and Team Impact,” I found I could determine Ajax’s “Pitches Seen Per Plate Appearance” and his “Two Out RBIs.” I could determine the number of times he had 2 strikes against him but nevertheless saw three or more additional pitches. There was a computation that showed the percentage of plate appearances where Ajax had seen 6 or more pitches. The stats went on and on, and this was just for batting. There was a whole separate area for pitching.
Ajax hadn’t pitched much but he had pitched some. I thought he had done pretty well. But now I knew the numbers. He had hurled 2.1 innings with 3 strikeouts and 1 base-on-balls. He had thrown a total of 25 pitches: 17 strikes and 8 balls. He had two Lead Off Outs, and two 1-2-3 Innings. He threw three or less pitches to 75% of the batters he faced.
I didn’t think there was anything left to amaze me on this webpage, but then I noticed a little button called “Spray Chart” where an astounding graphic plotted every ball Ajax hit this season in lines of different colors laid out visually on a brilliant green diamond. The colors showed which hits had been liners and grounders and flies. Notations showed whether the ball was caught for an out or fell in for a hit. There is no other way to say this: the Spray Chart was gorgeous.
The functionality went on and on. I could not only see the stats on Ajax but also on every other player in his league. I could set an alert to follow the bat-by-bat exploits of any of them. I could invite friends and family to become fans and follow Ajax’s adventures through real time tweets, email messages or Facebook postings.
But as good as everything so far—as amazing as what I had already seen—the piece de resistance was that there was actually a news story about the game that had just been played. Turns out Ajax had had captured the attention of the pundits:
Duret leads the SF Red Sox Majors to 11-10 victory
Ajax Duret carried the SF Red Sox Majors to an 11-10 victory over the Giants on Monday at TI3 with a strong game at the plate and on the mound. Duret was hot from the plate for the SF Red Sox Majors. Duret went 3-4 and scored two runs. He doubled in the third inning and singled in the fourth and sixth innings.
Duret put together a nice outing. Duret held the Giants hitless over 1 1/3 innings, allowed no earned runs, walked one and struck out three.
Each team blasted the other's pitching, and there were 21 total runs and 21 hits during the game. Managers of the two teams seemingly emptied their bullpens in search of the win, as there were seven pitchers used in the game.
At the bottom of the story there was some fine print. I pulled up. It said:
"Powered by Narrative Science and GameChanger. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved." Any reuse or republication of this story must include the preceding attribution.
I tried to figure out who wrote the feed. It must have been posted minutes after the game. Ajax was still en route home. Who would write it? This was 11 and 12 year little league baseball; there weren’t scribes at the games. Was this some new weirdness like the weirdness with the Yelp people? A real head-scratcher.
The mystery was cleared up that night. We got an email from Ajax’s coach telling us about the GameChanger app and explaining:
What is really great is for stats freaks you can see how your son/daughter is performing statistically …. A great tool for analysis (for example, I can show Nick that when he gets strike one on the first pitch that he'll get the batter out 68% of the time or I can show him that he is only seeing 2.7 pitches per at bat and needs to maybe be more patient at the plate).
At the close of his email he noted:
PS— You might see narratives of each game. I do NOT write them. They are auto-generated so all those great comments about a particular kid are by a non-partisan computer.
Wow. The computer looks at a bunch of numbers and has somehow figured out how to put it into the prose of passable news feed. Auto-generated. I thought of the passage from East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets, where Eliot laments the time he has spent
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
Little did Eliot know, one day it would all be done by an app…
Even though I was intimidated by the Calls for Submission, I continued my quest to get my writing to a broader audience. I found a website with the awkward name Duotrope that collected information about thousands of online and print journals. Duotrope categorized the venues and collated key information about preferences and predilections. It was easy to browse Duotrope to find magazines that published different types of fiction. You could easily find which journals were reading electronic submissions in search a novelette of erotica or an 880-word bit of bizzaro.
Duotrope also collected key statistics for each of the journals it covered, including how long on average the journal took to respond to a submission, what percent of its rejection letters were “personal.” There I learned that Apex, the journal that demanded unvarnished awesomeness, accepted only .27% of stories submitted. Not 27%, not 2.7%, .27%. It was 40 times easier to get into Harvard than Apex.
Those statistics were interesting, if discouraging, but I was struck by how much Duotrope could learn from GameChanger, the software that had collected the statistics about Ajax’s prowess as a 12 year old baseball player. If Duotrope had its act together, it wouldn’t just be publishing averages and generalized reports on the magazines, it would be publishing key metrics from each of its writer members. If GameChanger ran things in the world of Literary Fiction, it would be reporting that Jay Duret, an aspiring writer from San Francisco, ordinarily had a .210 PA (Publishing Average) but, when writing in the category of Humor, his PA climbed to nearly .300. I couldn’t understand why the information wasn’t being put out there. There was important analytic work to be done and how could it be done if the stats weren’t collected and shared?
The more I thought about it, the more obvious it seemed to me that Literary Fiction wasn’t going to get where it needed to be without this critical information. Without data, how could a publisher decide what to publish? Without data, there couldn’t be a data-driven process for acceptances. My God, without the statistics, the process couldn’t even be automated. Some actual person would have to read each and every submission. And make a decision based on soft and squishy criteria like whether—just on the basis of reading it—the story seemed “well-written” or “thought-provoking.” They would be stuck with the burden of forming judgments on such wiggly matters as whether the writer was “taking risks” and “digging deep.” How much better to have the statistics at hand. Things like FPPS: Followers Per Posted Story; TL—Total Likes; PMPP—Private Messages Per Post. A publisher needed to know these important facts about the writer.
But that was just the beginning. With time and big computers, the data could be mined to find IPPP—Insights Per Published Paragraph; SPA—Submissions Per Acceptance; and the vital AIR—Acceptance after Initial Rejection. A literary magazine wouldn’t be worth its salt if it didn’t know the stats concerning a writer’s acceptances after being initially rejected—you had to know that—AIR was a key measure of persistence—and, without it, well, how would one know whether the writer had the stuff to survive a hard life on the literary stump? It would all be random and arbitrary without the stats. It would all just come down to what one individual person thought about a story. I mean, literally, just one person’s thinking. Unfathomable.
The literary world would be a better place if GameChanger was in charge, for sure. Not only would there be better decisions, but word of them would get out there. I longed for the day when GameChanger’s algorithm would be auto-cranking out press releases for me and my Brand:
Duret Scores Again; Bags Three Journals in One Month
Jay Duret, San Francisco based writer and blogger, continued a blazing hot June on the literary circuit, lighting up three online journals. Duret scored again last night with a two-day acceptance by The Squamish Review of his story “SlideCar.”
Duret has been having a brilliant season with league leading statistics in Total Asterisks, and Words Published by a Californian. James Blingy of The Squamish Review released a statement saying: “Jay Duret is one of our most exciting new writers, we at TSR are devoted to bringing fresh voices like his to our readers.”
With that type of information coursing through the world of Literary Fiction, pretty soon the money would follow. Ad revenues. Endorsements. There would be product placements. The buyer’s world would tilt slightly toward the seller. There might even come a day—hard to imagine—when literary journals would pay actual money for good stories. Maybe not every one, but at least for those where the writing was so sharp it cut the eye and/or the story so awesome it made the soul ache. Maybe, maybe, maybe, but it could happen. If GameChanger were in charge, there might actually be a marketplace for Literary Fiction.
Now that would be a disruption.