E-Lit: Novel Networking

We say everyone has a novel in him. Boring as our own lives may seem to ourselves, they could be packaged and described so as to be interesting to another person - the reader. With a dose of literary flair!

Thanks to the popularity of creative writing courses, everyone, it seems, is finally writing that novel - or at least a short story or two and some poems. Poetry and fiction readings at coffeehouses have become popular in some circles, but apart from this, how do all these new writers find an audience? How do they get in touch with readers?

Traditional book publishers and literary journals can only accept a tiny fraction of the work that writers want to publish. This isn't surprising, considering the investment in printing, distribution and promotional costs. Aside from the few blockbuster novels, most books don't sell enough copies to make a profit for the publisher. With short stories and poetry, even works by the best-known writers may sell only a few thousand copies. Traditional literary magazines can publish only a handful of stories and poems every quarter, with the few copies of each issue usually gathering dust on university library shelves. And traditional publishing is time-consuming, with a delay of many months between finishing a work and seeing it in the bookstore.

Internet to the rescue!

More and more writers and readers are avoiding the frustrations of traditional publishing, and finding each other directly in the online community. Publishing on the Internet - literature in electronic form or "e-lit" - is booming in popularity with writers and readers alike.

Whit Honea, an American writer of short stories who has been published both in the traditional way and on the Internet, confirms that the Internet gives young writers a good chance to get their work published. "The latter is by far an easier medium to crack," says Honea. "Some sites, such as The Blue Moon Review and Pif, may be just as selective as any magazine for short stories or poetry. On the other hand, they, along with a new site called The Diagram, seem to be more willing to take a chance with authors and/or stories that are experimental and outside the mainstream."

Poetry began long before Homer recited his verses about gods and heroes to his fellow ancient Greeks (they didn't know they were ancient, of course). Fiction goes back to the first caveman who, inspired by one hornful too many of fermented yak's blood around the campfire, decided he would impress the other hunters by exaggerating the dimensions of the mastodon that got away. In either case, literature happened in a community where "writer" and audience interacted in an immediate fashion.

Thus it is that e-lit, which together with the word processor is potentially the most important development in writing since Gutenberg's Bible, marks a kind of return to the source. Partly this is because of the style of literature. E-writers tend to write about their own experiences and feelings in a directly accessible way, which makes it easy for readers to relate to them as
human beings.

Literary links

There are also the special technical features of e-lit not available with regular books. Most distinctive are hypertext links - click on a word or phrase (usually underlined in blue), and you are led off to another page, a digression on some theme particularly important to the writer. It's like an aside in a conversation, or where the listener breaks in with a question. ("Excuse me, Homer, but was that the same Cyclops who...?") Writers can use links to create works within a work - e-lit is said to be "non-linear" in the sense that you can jump from one part of the story to another, or off in different directions. Works may be "interactive", meaning that the reader can make choices that affect how the work proceeds. Imagine reading all the way through a novel and then being able to choose whether the ending will be happy or sad! Sound and pictures can be added, as well (as a caveman might illustrate his story with animal noises or by painting an animal on the wall).

Links and the Internet search feature allow readers to find works they want more easily than in a traditional bookstore. You can click on the author's name at the end of the story to see other works by him, or enter the name on your web browser. You could even input a word or theme you'd like to know about, and voila! there is a poem meditating on it.

Nothing to lose

Pushing all of this is the cost factor. For publishers, the costs of maintaining a website are much lower than with traditional methods of printing and distribution. For readers, there is the common belief that everything on the Internet should be free. While many works are sold on the Internet (in electronic form), a great many works out there are indeed free. The websites, such as e-zines, that host the works cover their costs by selling advertising space on the website.

It must be said that because e-lit is more forgiving than traditional publishers, the quality of the writing can suffer. For every potential e-Hemingway or e-e.e. cummings out there, there are probably dozens of duds. But not to worry, if the poem you're reading online sucks, something better is only a mouse-click away. I didn't care for John Rybicki's poem "fire psalm revisited" on the website 5 Trope, which went on a little too enthusiastically about smashing babies' heads, so I flipped over to Blue Moon. There I found a memorable line in Honea's story "Jazz": Two Americans are taking a train to Amsterdam, and passing a herd of cows one asks the other, "Do you suppose that people got mad cow disease because cows had mad grass disease?"

Granted, websites pay writers very little for their works. But no one in his right mind ever wrote poetry to get rich. They do it because they love it, but they also want to reach readers. Now they can do that more with the Internet.

E-writers know there's an audience out there. Most works end with an e-mail link back to the writer. "Not only have editors from other sites contacted me," says Whit Honea, "but I have actually received letters from readers with comments on my stories. That is a very rewarding feeling."