Laura Ellen Scott has had a flurry of fiction publications recently — a notably large number of them online: “From Laura’s Pocket Guidebook to the Americas: Belize City and Beyond” in Hobart; “Exoskeletal” in Behind the Wainscot; “Felly Stories” in Storyglossia; “Do you know what it means to miss,” an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, in Juked; “Render, or to transmit to another” in elmmae; and “Wish Tank” in the latest issue of Barrelhouse, this latter the only one you’ll have to buy at the newsstand. It’s an impressive array of stories, and you can add them to a resume that already includes journals and online magazines as diverse as Ploughshares, Mississippi Review (and another one there), Hayden’s Ferry Review, Identity Theory, Plots with Guns, Ink Pot Special Edition Short Story & Flash Fiction, and Eclectica, among others.
A graduate of George Mason University’s MFA program in creative writing, Scott teaches now fiction writing at the undergraduate level at Mason, and her work as both student and teacher, both reader and writer, has all come together to provide her some refreshing perspectives on the current state — and the future — of the short story.
Scott spoke recently on fiction and new media at a seminar sponsored by American Independent Writers and by Mason’s MFA program, and she’ll also be speaking on flash fiction at the “Conversations and Connections” conference in D.C. in early April.
If you can’t catch her in person, she also blogs regularly on writing at Probably Just A Story. I’m a regular reader of that blog, and I’m glad to have her for an interview here as well.
Art Taylor: You’ve published stories both in print and online, but you’ve recently talked about preference for online fiction. What’s the root of that preference, both as a writer and as a reader?
Laura Ellen Scott: I’ve never been a fan of any print literary journal in that “I can’t wait for the next issue of X-Quarterly” sense, and I’m embarrassed to say that I published stories in places like Hayden’s Ferry Review and Ploughshares because that was the only path I understood. Ironically, Ploughshares introduced me to new possibilities when it put its archives online, in essence re-publishing my work for a much bigger audience. At which point I realized that my inability to surrender to short fiction in print journals had more to do with my feelings about literary commodity and access than it did with quality. To put it bluntly, print literary journals make me feel bad because their contents are available to very few readers. Whereas I know online fiction is read, and more importantly, read for pleasure. I hear from my readers fairly often, and as a reader myself, I delight in discovering new stories, sharing them widely, and interacting with writers—something not easily done in print.
I’m part of a living, freewheeling discussion about art. Plus, it’s easy to send links to my mom.
At a recent Fiction Seminar hosted by AIW and Mason’s MFA program, you discussed how the rise of online publishing can be connected to the changes in the idea of the short story — the move from a certain trend of storytelling that prevailed for a couple of decades to something… else. How would you characterize that “something else”? Is it just shorter — just more “flash” oriented, for example — or somehow more substantially different?
So many writers trained in the ’80s and ’90s became excellent technicians who produced rock solid stories that worked but contained few surprises. A lot of online fiction is all about surprise and grabbing attention — it can be very immaturely pitched, but I see that as a correction to an excess of maturity in academy fostered writing.
Some of the strategies are obvious. Online stories tend to feature weird titles, provocative voices, hook-y first lines and paragraphs. The emphasis is on facilitating quick entry and capture, just as in commercial genre fiction. Flash, in particular, dispenses with or collapses points on the dramatic arc but retains Poe’s unities, and is typically brave with language and content. The Bold Idea or The Big Gesture has a comfy place in a brief fiction, but so does the nonsensical manipulation of epiphany. I’m impressed by the seeming equal ratio of sentimental to surreal stories, and in fact I see the “domestic” narrative as being reinvigorated by flash. “Soap” by Katrina Denza is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.
Definitely, and it is made a easier by the fact that so many online lit zines are in the small press business as well. That’s why I like to say that the online indie publishers are opening up fiction the way beat publishers opened up poetry in the ’60s. Shane Jones and Nick Antosca are writers to watch. They published short work everywhere and created dedicated followings before their novels came out. Their writing is so distinctive — Shane writes the most startling love stories, and Nick is reinventing the gothic — that their readers hunger to see those imaginations let loose in the long form. The majority of books coming out of this process are collections though. I’m not sure about that strategy, especially if stories in a collection have already appeared online. A friend of mine who has a collection out complained to me that everyone tells him how pretty the book is because no one has bothered to read it. But it is essentially a greatest hits package, and his biggest fans are already familiar with the contents.
Do you yourself have a longer project in the works?
I have completed a West Virginia based novel called Unattended, which is sort of a fish-out-of-water black comedy. I’m finishing a draft of a magical realist novel set in New Orleans that I’m calling Social Aid & Pleasure. It’s a terrible time to be trying to sell novels, I know. I took a ghost story out of the WV novel, and it will show up in the Paycock Press anthology Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women, due out this spring. That’s a print venue to which I was invited to submit. I extracted two stories from the Louisiana novel, one of which appeared in Juked, which is online. The other appears in the latest issue of Barrelhouse as part of their “The Future” issue, and that’s a print thing as well, but only accidentally. I thought I was submitting to their online issue. The long gaps between clusters of short story publications are years when I was working on novel projects.
As a professor at Mason, how much do you encourage your students to think about new forms of fiction? or do you teach “traditional” nuts and bolts first?
I mix it up, but for the last two classes I’ve taught, I started with a flash unit, just to get a taste of everyone’s imagination out there, and that has been really successful. Then we move into more conventional forms, but nuts and bolts are part of every discussion. For readings, I assign Poe, O’Connor, and the Wigleaf Top 50, all of which is accessible online. Wigleaf.com is an extremely influential site for very brief fiction, founded and edited by Scott Garson.