Through my interest in and use of the social micropayment service Flattr I came across Aelius Blythe (Website: cheapassfiction.com; Twitter: @CheapassFiction) who also writes free fiction you can Flattr some cash toward. She curates a list of fiction writers who use Flattr, too. After a guilty two months or three of just reading her blog & Twitter feed, I finally downloaded her short story collection Stories About Things. I’ve been reluctant to read fiction on a screen, but given her (and my) support for piracy, it seemed the proper way to read hers. I was also reluctant to read her fiction because even if writers are cool people, their fiction usually sucks — and then I’m all disappointed.
But I’m really glad to have read Stories About Things. That’s my standard: “Was reading this a worthwhile expenditure of my time?” And it was. (Who needs fancier criteria?) Aelius seems really at ease writing fiction, happy doing it and if you don’t like it you can go read something else.
I don’t like Amy Hempel. Hempel writes these “miniaturist” stories where nothing happens and you’re supposed to feel awakened by the beautiful comma placement (and other sentence-level things). One of her fans, a friend of mine, wrote in the course of praising Hempel that “style becomes the writer’s morality.” Really? Your ethical theory is predicated on the placement of commas? The fan meant something more like voice or authenticity. All the same I like Aelius’s perspective better:
If [WebFiction] gets in the way of enjoyment, put the book down and go enjoy something else.
But before you judge to harshly, remember one thing: You are reading the literary version of graffiti art You may not want to stand in line for $20 tickets to a gallery opening for it. But somewhere in the scrawled mess of spray paint there may be a picture that sticks with you. And it gives you something better than a brick wall to stare at while you’re waiting for the gallery to open.
Stories About Things put Hempel in mind because Aelius’s stories are similarly short. Except I enjoy Stories About Things. And in the same way I enjoy The Police. Really talented and thankfully more interested in being enjoyable and rewarding than in being aesthetically elite. Here’s a good excerpt from Aelius’s collection:
Sal’s grandmother always warned him like this when she caught him looking. His mother said this was silly, and he was old enough not to be scared by fairy stories. If he looked into the sun, she told him, he would go blind, and that was that.
He never understood how someone could say that — “Don’t look at it.” People looked. If they could, they did. Sometimes, Sal thought, if he wasn’t paying attention he could turn off his hearing so when the lawnmower was going while he was reading he wouldn’t even notice. He could turn off his nose too by breathing through his mouth. Touch was a sense that everyone ignored unless it was too bad or too good. Taste was the same. But he could only turn off his sight by closing his eyes, and he couldn’t go around like that. He had to look. He didn’t know how not to. If he could see something, he would.
The flower has brown eyes, a bright brown, almost-red. They smile. They don’t shine in the sun. They shine at the sun.
In describing webfiction, (something distinct from fanfiction), Aelius lists a bunch of fiction “errors” — starting a story with weather descriptions, or the white rooms the characters are in, or making tpyos, etc. — and considers them all good, because who’s counting?
Part of the reason why I turned to web fiction was because of a sort of disillusionment with regular fiction in which I find many distractions (repetitive plot patterns, dull characters, predictable everything) that just happen to be dressed up better. I wondered for several years why I couldn’t find books that I liked, even though I read so many. But then when I started writing seriously myself and studying writing, I realized that there are certain styles that are institutionalized in writing — it’s how people are taught and styles change slowly so you get so much of the same thing. I think that’s why I can ignore the flaws in web fiction. Because I needed something DIFFERENT, and web fiction is different.
Charles Darwin’s quote (also paraphrased by Bradley Manning) describes webfiction well: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
As for setting some stories on the Internet, Aelius writes that her collection Brave New World (which I haven’t read yet) is
a collection of stories about the natural world. Not the natural world that Whitman or Thoreau wrote about, but the world that comes just as naturally to my generation as sky and woods did to theirs. Our world is made of more than that. It’s made of computer screens and wifi and endless libraries of information all at the tip of our fingers. This is our Nature, or part of it anyway.
I think she has more courage to do what comes naturally to her than I do. Following her on Twitter, where she often remarks about her fiction-writing, inspires me to write more.
(Perhaps I should cut myself more slack. My life right now primarily consists of divorcing, moving in to a new place, a knee injury, and figuring out my budget + wacky streams of income. But I haven’t ever particularly believed in cutting myself slack.)
One of the really interesting things Aelius is doing is writing authors letters to ask if they know about, if they approve of, their publishers suing their fans over piracy. (I like this exchange she got into.)
So webfiction is the opposite of National Endowment for the Arts writers who want to write comma-perfect books at taxpayer expense, and then charge taxpayers to read them, too! Sharing culture freely is better and artists need to deal with changing technological mediums instead of whining about it and suing people over it.
I feel as if I should say something critical in a token effort at Neutral Point of View. Aelius, don’t start so many sentences with conjunctions, especially “But” and “Yet” — conjunctions kick in readers’ logic modules and thereby reduce emotion. It’s fiction, not Boolean! (Unless you want it to be more logic-y.) Really in a way I don’t want to post any of this, because talking about good things sometimes interferes with them, and she certainly should just continue what she’s doing and not listen to anyone.
You on the other hand should go read her fiction.
About Stories About Things by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: email@example.com.