12 Winters Blog

Reflections on Best of the Net

Posted in February 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 5, 2012

The last several weeks have been so busy that time for blogging was all but nonexistent. There was syllabus writing, and preparing my presentation on William H. Gass’s The Tunnel for the fast-approaching Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, and — most time-consuming, but also most interesting, of all — was reading fiction for the Best of the Net 2011 anthology, published by Sundress Publications.

Sundress was founded and is managed by Erin Elizabeth Smith (whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing her read her own poetry in the fall), but it was my friend and colleague Meagan Cass who invited me to read fiction nominations for Best of the Net, which strives to publish the best poetry, fiction and nonfiction that appeared originally in online journals. Journal editors must nominate the work (unless it was self-published, in which case the author may submit the piece). See Sundress’s submissions page for full guidelines.

Meagan had lined up several readers for fiction, so I was in a group that was assigned just under seventy short stories to read; in other words, I read about half of the total fiction submissions — so the observations I’m about to share are based solely on that half; perhaps the other half would have suggested different impressions altogether (though I suspect not). According to the email to readers that organized the reading, this was the largest number of nominations Best of the Net had received, a sign, it seems clear, that the anthology is catching on and more and more editors are aware of it and appreciate its mission to give kudos to work published online, as opposed to that which first appeared in print publications.

Strictly online publications (though many do their own “best of” print editions on, say, an annual basis) are gaining legitimacy to be sure. The Modern Language Association, for example, has been establishing criteria for online publication of scholarly work to assist in the tenure-granting process as more and more academics have been turning to peer-reviewed online and e-outlets. (See the MLA’s “The Future of Scholarly Publishing.”)

There remains a certain prestige to being published in traditional print, especially if by a long-established journal (this is true for both academic and creative writers), but I do believe electronic publication is catching up — thanks to a complex web (ha) of factors, including projects like Best of the Net that call attention to the excellent writing which is appearing in online venues.

It was an honor to be asked to read for Sundress’s project, and I knew it would be an educational experience. As a writer (especially as a creative writer) I’m very much interested in trends in electronic publication, and I had certain questions going into my reading that I hoped the experience would help me answer — and I believe it has. First and foremost I was curious about this legitimacy issue; that is, I wanted to know how online-published work seemed to stack up against work appearing in more traditional, and established, journals. I wondered about the writers themselves: Would they primarily be first-timers in terms of publication, or ones who had only published in obscure and eclectic online sites?

And I wondered about the journals and their editors and designers. I’m hardly a babe in the woods when it comes to my exploring and reading online publications (in fact, I like to think of myself as something of an expert, or as much of an expert as one can be in a field that literally changes by the minute); however, I knew the project would introduce me to journals I’d never encountered, in spite of my regular trolling of Duotrope’s Digest, NewPages.com, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses’ member directory. I wondered where these journals were originating (from a university English department or from somebody’s basement or from somebody’s smartphone while sipping a latte at Starbucks). I wondered who their editors were, and I wondered what sorts of designs and formats were being used (and how reader friendly they were).

I’m about to get to my observations, I promise, but I should probably point out that I’ve been reading literary journal submissions for years, going back to my undergrad days at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale reading and editing the English Department’s Grassroots journal, but much more recently I published/edited my own chapbook-style journal, A Summer’s Reading, from 1997 to 2004, and since 2007 I’ve been editing then simply reading for Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program.

So let’s just say I’ve supped deeply from the slush pile.

I suppose I thought reading for Best of the Net would be a lot like slush-pile reading in that I would discover early on in a given piece that I wasn’t smelling what its author was cooking, but this wasn’t the case at all. I said earlier that it was time-consuming, and that’s because I found I really needed to read just about every piece to the final mark of punctuation to try to decide yea or nay, and even then it was often a difficult decision. We fiction readers had been charged with finding only about twelve to fifteen “yeses” (in other words, we had to say “no” to around fifty-five in our own batch). I discovered that the writing was overall very, very good; and, for me, it was often the end of the story that moved my metaphorical thumb up or down — which I suppose isn’t surprising seeing that as a writer and teacher I know how difficult endings can be (much more challenging than writing an effective beginning).

The process was also time-consuming because by and large the submissions were full-length stories. Reading online, it’s difficult to gauge lengths as one might when reading from paper, but in my group there were only a handful that I’d call flash fiction or even a short short, and a roughly equal number were in the neighborhood of 10,000 words (which in paper manuscript would be about forty pages). As an editor and publisher of print journals, I’ve been frustrated by space limitations and have had to say “no” to many a worthy offering because there simply wasn’t room for it in the journal; and, as a writer, I’ve been curious why more journal editors didn’t take advantage of the infinity of cyberspace by publishing longer pieces (to be read by whom I’m not precisely sure — but that’s a whole different issue).

In terms of form, I’d say that in contrast to the cutting-edge nature of online publishing, the stories themselves tended to be very traditional. Again, I’d say only a half dozen or so of my seventy-ish were what I’d term experimental in narrative structure or style. I suppose since writers tend to write in a way that would be publishable by either print or online journals, the web editors receive pieces that have also been sent to their print counterparts. And even the story-writers who did play with form did so in a way that would translate to paper-print in essentially the same manner. (Here I am, I should acknowledge, writing quite specifically for the web, and yet I’m composing almost exactly as I did thirty-five years ago when writing a sports story for the Galesburg Register-Mail newspaper, so it seems the medium itself has not greatly affected how we write and process text, regardless of whether we are a forty-something or a twenty-something.)

Thus it’s fair to say that I was surprised by both the consistently high quality of the nominated pieces and also by their consistent ties to their print forebears. Perhaps online editors had published numerous highly experimental pieces but chose to nominate their more traditional ones. My sense, however, from both my Best of the Net reading and my usual snooping about online journals, is that the vast, vast majority of what’s being published on the web would be equally suited to traditional print.

As far as the writers themselves go, I only scanned bios after I’d read the piece and made my yea/nay decision, but I found quite a mix, just as one does in a print publication. There were writers who had not published before and ones who had only published in barely-on-the-radar venues, but there were also many, many writers who had impressive lists of credits and awards. Also just like their traditional brethren, the editors of these online journals tend to be academically trained and, often, affiliated; they are writers and poets themselves, with their own publishing credits and accolades; many are MFAs and PhDs, or are candidates, respectively.

I found that many of the journal sites were attractive and very readable, but at the same time there were those whose designers didn’t appear to believe that people would actually be attempting to read what they were publishing — with tiny, highly compressed text that seemed to say “Go ahead, just try to read me … I dare ya!” Reader fatigue was a problem I often struggled with, and I tried not to let it affect my judgment of the individual story. I should say that editors tended to nominate pieces in two forms, both in text documents and with links to their publications; I generally toggled back and forth to determine which would be easier on my eyes (even if I opted for the text document, I was curious about the journal itself and would poke around a bit).

Here are just a few journals I encountered due to my BOTN reading that I was especially impressed with in terms of design and, in some cases, general mood or aesthetic philosophy, but it is hardly an exhaustive list: Juked, Cha, Serving House Journal, Fiction Weekly, Ghost Ocean Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of excellent work being published in online venues, thanks to the loving labor of a lot of dedicated editors and web designers, and as a consequence web-based publication, at least in the creative arts, is quickly achieving the prestige which had been granted exclusively to traditional print journals.

So kudos to these writers and editors; and to presses like Sundress that are dedicated to recognizing online excellence.


Pathfinding: a blog dedicated to helping new writers find outlets for their work

2 Responses

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  1. Writing Jobs said, on February 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    I enjoyed today’s post very much. Thanks for sharing.

    Enjoy writing? Join us today

    Writers Wanted

  2. […] number of entries to date. The author also read for the 2011 edition of Best of the Net (see his blog post about the […]

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