Electric Literature: an interview

door Dirk Vis

Dirk Vis: First of all thanks for having me. Could you outline for our readers what Electric Literature is?

Halimah Marcus: Electric Literature is a quarterly anthology of short fiction. Each issue provides a “cover to cover” reading experience of five great stories that grab you and take you somewhere unexpected. Other than our content, what distinguishes us is that we’ve embraced the digital publishing revolution. Our mission is to use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture, which means you can read Electric Literature every possible way: in paperback, on your phone, your eReader, or your computer.

We also commission animations for every story we publish. The author chooses a favorite sentence from his or her story and an animator brings it to life. We call them Single Sentence Animations. You can view them all on our website, www.electricliterature.com.

An easy question: do you consider fiction important for a broad public? And why exactly?

Yes. Good fiction is both observant and thoughtful, but great fiction is also surprising. To be great, it has to tell you something you don’t already know, or reformulate something familiar in a new way. When you are immersed in a story, the way the author views the world influences your view. And by view I don’t mean politics or opinions, I mean methods of observation and taking inventory: what you notice an how. So if you’re reading great fiction, you’re interacting with the world in a more respondent and contemplative way. Old becomes new. Confusion become curiosity. Asleep becomes awake.

Do you look for a specific kind of author when you compile an issue? Are EL-authors mostly ‘media-savvy’? Are they mostly young?

Being “media-savvy” is the responsibility of the publisher, not the writer. Take Joy Williams, for example. Correspondence regarding her story, “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” which was published in EL No. 4, was done entirely through snail mail. She doesn’t have an email account or own a computer. But on the other end of the spectrum is another EL author, Rick Moody. His story, “Some Contemporary Characters” from EL No. 3, was written for twitter in 140 character segments. We originally published the story on twitter over several days, tweeting every few minutes. Williams and Moody represent the extremes; most of our authors probably fall somewhere in the middle.

As for age; it doesn’t matter as long as the author’s work appeals to a wide audience.

Does publishing on different media help you approach a public that would normally not so easily pick up a book or follow new literature?

Absolutely. The argument of the hour is that people don’t read any more. But when we look around, on the subway, in line at DMV, wherever, people are reading. It might be a blog, it might be a tweet, but still, they’re reading. We deliver content to those would-be readers on devices they’re already using, helping them be more open to consuming literary content.

A study from Harris Interactive recently came out that says people who own eReaders buy and read more books, and 1 out of 6 people own eReaders, so that’s good news.

Do you invite people to write for you or do you select from copy offered to you?

We read hundreds of stories for each issue, of which we chose five. Most of the stories we receive are unsolicited submissions, although we do ask writers we admire to send us their work. Some take more convincing than others. Andy drove three hours to buy Jim Shepard a cup of coffee and ask him to give a story for EL No. 1. And it was well worth the effort, because that story, “You’re Fate Hurtles Down at You,” which you get for free when you download the ElectricLit Free app from the iTunes store, just won a PEN/O’Henry Prize.

Many young writers here enjoy contributing to online literature: short fiction for websites etcetera, mainly because they become Googleable, because all their friends and followers spot it instantly and they get immediate feedback. However, when asked about it, what they value most is still to publish in a renowned magazines paper version. Would you consider this old-fashioned or would you say you recognize this?

I certainly recognize the desire, especially for writers just starting out, to see their name in print. However, this desire is largely motivated by the fact that many renowned magazines have yet to embrace digital publishing. In order to remain competitive and financially viable, even the most reluctant holdouts will have to publish digitally eventually, and when they do, the tide of public opinion will begin to turn and publishing digitally will be seen as equally legitimate to publishing in print. It is also a matter of producing digital content that is attractive and appealing enough to be considered a consumer product--something that people will pay for in lieu of print editions.

Would you say that the format of a text, i.e. book, magazine, mobile device has influence on the text itself?

I wouldn’t say that the format influences the meaning of text, but it does influence the reading experience, which can, in turn, affect the reader’s interpretation of content. When you read a story on your phone or an eReader, it’s not the size of the device that has the primary effect on your reading experience--books are different sizes too, with different margins, font size, etc--it’s where you are and what you’re doing. Maybe you’re caught with an unexpected wait with nothing to read until you remember your phone in your pocket. But reading has always been an experience you can take with you, even before the advent of the iPhone and the Kindle--it’s just getting more portable.

When you publish a new issue on all of the different formats, do you notice differences within the critical reception according to format?

That we publish in different formats has earned us a lot of attention. However, many critics were responding to the concept and mission of our magazine, less so than the content. Literary critics review novels, and for the most part, don’t pay attention to literary magazines. We’re sending review copies of our new issue (in PDF) to lit critics and bloggers, we’ll see of anyone writes back saying they’d prefer a paper copy.

Have you ever published contributions that you think would never have been able to be published on paper for whatever reason?

All of our issues are available in paperback as well as digital editions. Even the Rick Moody story was published in print as well as on twitter. I can imagine a situation in which a story incorporates visual and/or audio content in such a way that makes in incompatible with print, but generally speaking, text is text, whether it’s in a PDF or a book.

Do you track where you sell issues around the world? Where would that be?

We’re popular in Canada, Brazil, Australia and the UK. And now, maybe Holland as well.

In Holland most literary magazines are or used to be state-subsidized and pay (some of) the staff and authors. Do you pay your authors a fixed amount, does it depend on sales? Do you finance the different formats all by sales or do you also work with donations etc? Could you give a quick outline of your business model?

We pay all of our authors $1,000 per story, no matter how much the issue sells. This is a payment, not a prize--we believe that writers, like anyone, deserve to be compensated for what they do. $1,000 is significantly more that other magazines our size pay, but we offset the cost by publishing digitally--it doesn’t cost anything to email a PDF or reproduce and ePub, which is one of the reasons we encourage our readers to purchase digital editions of the magazine. For our readers who prefer hard copies, we use a print on demand model to reduce costs.

EL is a business, not a non-profit, so we must rely on sales to keep us a float. We also do not run contests, which take advantage of writers for the sake of their entry fees. We have an excellent and hard working staff, many of whom are unpaid. It sounds like maybe we should move to Holland.

You mentioned an upcoming issue with translated literature. Do you translate yourselves? What kind of attention is there for foreign literature in the USA? In Holland foreign literature of course is very important.

We have to hire translators for individual stories. We’d like to publish more literature in translation, but it is difficult for us to consider an as-yet untranslated story, because it requires taking a leap of faith and hiring a translator without having read the story. I’d say that literature in translation is very much overlooked in the typical American education, but is gaining more prominence in the literary community. Roberto Bola
o, Steig Larsson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez are all very popular. Israeli writers Alex Epstein and Etgar Keret were recently published on our blog, The Outlet, and Javier MarÃas and Roberto Ransom were published in translation in EL No. 4.

With thanks to the editors of Electric Literature.