By Jeff Maehre
Where Do Your Words Go—in Print or Online?
When I think of the short stories I’ve published in literary journals, I picture lovely open space—sand, cacti, mesas, a skinny road slicing it all in half. It’s windy, and sometimes a car zips by, reminding one of places not as empty. It’s where the words go after you write them.
With the exceptions of my publications in Story, which was, when it was still publishing, a high-profile coup of a magazine, and Backbone Mountain Review, which held a reading for its authors after the stories came out, I never got a hint of an actual readership. You pump your fist when you get the phone call—is the story still available?—you feel a buzz returning the galleys—and then you realize what you’ve done is put the story to bed—that’s the last you’ll ever hear of it or communicate with anyone about it.
The journals I’ve published in, like most I’m familiar with, don’t publish letters to the editor giving reactions to pieces, and, not surprisingly, none of my pieces inspired letters to me sent in care of the publication. The editors never emailed with a word of praise passed on from a friend at a conference, from one of their 200, 600, or 19 subscribers.
I didn’t expect any of these things to happen and was—and still am—more than happy with the publication credit. One can assume readership from a good percentage of the journal’s subscribers, and a writer has to think somewhere there’s a person who to this day retains a stray image from one of his stories, who may look at his relations with people or her place in the world just a bit differently.
But for the most part it isn’t our business to know this. We write knowing that, at the rare times we blunder into the imprimatur of an established publication, most of the work our words do is done quietly, out there on the prairie. I’ve never mourned the absence of any post-publication kudos.
Yet their absence became conspicuous after I started blogging. A blog entry goes not to the lonely highway but to a large gathering thrown by a casual acquaintance. There, while it’s not guaranteed to make a friend or have a meaningful conversation, it will at least be seen by human eyes.
If Blog Post wants to stand next to the booze and blurt out comments to everyone who walks by, he’ll meet more people than the quiet girl quarter-turned toward the wall, but he’ll also get more replies of awkward silence, people walking away in the middle of his sentence.
I recently spent a couple of months blogging on Open Salon, the blogging and social-networking site hosted by Salon.com. I posted mostly long, complex personal essays on my OS blog, with the red herring of the occasional poem or social commentary ( if “Miley Cyrus, Please Post Here” qualifies as the latter).
After a slow start, my work got some notice, some feedback. A couple of pieces were viewed by more people than subscribe to some of the journals I’ve published in, and I got praise on the work and interest in me as a person—in comment boxes and personal messages.
In the best cases, the pieces I sent to the party felt alive, and that made me feel alive as a writer—like an active writer. But this is not the beginning of an argument that blogging is somehow better than publishing traditionally.
The Miley Cyrus post hung out, if not next to the booze, at least near the imitation crab dip. Until another post was held up as an Editor’s Pick, Miley was the most viewed, more than doubling up on—funny, that—a poem about an orca.
But it was just viewed—clicked on probably because people thought I was taunting the girl or that I’d posted a bare-legged photo of her. It got only one or two comments that weren’t throwaways and none of the thumbs-up ratings users can give. A sort of misclick—oh, this wasn’t what I was looking for.
A poem about an orca in a place where it can be visible is still a poem about an orca, ignored by many who see its title, just as poems published in lit journals are ignored by everyone on Earth who does not subscribe to the journal. The Internet gives a venue for all sorts of work, but it can’t rewire people’s reading preferences.
One of the personal essays I posted runs about 3,000 words, not long by personal-essay standards, but several times longer than just about anything else on Open Salon. I decided to post it in three segments, and to my mild dismay, Part Three got 177 views; Part One, 130; and sad, lonely Part Two, just 64.
Not only did people not read the whole thing, but they did their partial reads out of order. (While skimming is common in the print milieu, I’ve never seen anyone take such a Dadaist approach there.) That’s great in a certain postmodern theory way—make the text your own!—but only in that way.
Although I think the essay itself is successful, it reads oddly on the monitor—there’s this wait, there hasn’t been any mouse activity for a long, long time feeling that comes over me, and that’s while reading just one of the three parts.
Instead of trying to publish this essay in a literary journal, which could ultimately result in failure, by posting it, I’m sending it out, not to editors, but to reader-editors, who, in the majority of cases, seem to have clicked on it but not made it past Part One. How many of them clicked and just started scrolling, only to say “er, this is too long, I’m clicking out”? without reading a word?
Ultimately, I closed my Open Salon account. My posts got lost in the party’s crowded living room—that particular blog just wasn’t the right place for it. The problem is, you can see that by tracking statistics. While traditional publishing keeps its readers’ actions a secret, blogging makes them only too transparent.
Jeff Maehre is an academic librarian in Maryland whose hobbies are chopping and sauteeing. His stories have appeared in Story, Cutbank, The Northwest Review, Phoebe, and Backbone Mountain Review, and other work in Pleiades and College Teaching.