Has the Internet saved short fiction? I think it has. While for many years editors and writers for print turned their noses up at the Internet, I think the Internet is the best thing that has happened to short fiction and poetry as well. Last time I had access to statistics for The Rose & Thorn, the zine was receiving upwards of 100,000 hits per month. Considering that according to this 2004 article, circulation for the The Paris Review, which apparently is on the high side, was about 10,000, then if even half or a third of R&T's hits were actual readers, that still compares very favorably.
Why is this happening? Two reasons that can't be ignored is that online publications are convenient and usually free. That's hard to compete with. According to the CLMP website
there are about 500 independent literary magazines now publishing. Anyone who subscribes or has purchased "sample copies before submitting" knows these guys are pricey. They have to be. That limits the number most of us can afford to subscribe to. If you don't subscribe you have to get yourself out to the local bookstores, which I've found, rarely carry more than a handful of literary journals at a time, making purchasing and reading them somewhat inconvenient.
Convenience and price can't be the only factors, though. Otherwise, why would periodicals like The New Yorker and the Atlantic ,with strong circulations, have cut back their fiction so drastically? The reasoning, from what I've heard, it that readers weren't interested in fiction the way they used to be, and the excuse for that was all the competing distractions, like TV and the Internet, providing instant gratification, so that consumers no longer wanted to take the time for a slow read.
Well, consumers are reading their other articles aren't they? And if you want to talk about distractions, where will you find more competition for the reader's attention than on the Internet where readers are being alerted to new e-mails and IMs, and with just a click can visit friends on MySpace and Face Book or view the newest video on YouTube or even listen to a radio show or watch a movie? Yet, people regularly sit at their laptops and seek out places to read short fiction, poetry, and essays on their computer screens.
The only reasonable explanation is that readers are finding more work on the Internet that they want to read.
I think many readers and writers have come to see the literary scene as a "closed system" or a good ole boy/girl network. Sure, young writers are emerging all the time, but check their bios and you'll usually find a prestigious MFA program or workshop or, what you might not see, is the well-known writer who recommended them. Indeed, as I noted on another blog, writers may not even realize just how weighted toward the "connected" writer, the selection process can be.
Many have complained that this favoring of writers within the network breeds a s certain sameness. I think it's more the opposite, that the new and unschooled writers are more likely to try out something different. Like babies trying out their first words, they're not worrying about how it sounds. They just want to communicate, and the result can sometimes be quite exciting.
I say sometimes, because every editor knows more people believe they can write than actually can. I'm not going to beat around the bush here. Most of the stuff we read is pretty bad. On the other hand, having credentials doesn't always make a writer good, or at least what I've been looking for at the zines I reviewed for. Sometimes, more experienced and schooled writers focus so much on technique they forget to write a good story. A work exhibiting a better than average technique can be edited into something much more polished, but a bad story can't be edited into a good one.
Most strictly online publications simply don't pay much attention to past credits. They vary an from anonymous submissions process to simply not giving credits listed in the e-mail or comments much value. Opening publications to a wide range of writers and genres has led to more of the kind of work readers like to read.
And that's how the Internet saved fiction.