Story Lines

INFORMATION WANTS TO be free. I hear it every day in online circles, and frankly I'm sick of it. If information wants to be so free, just let it quit its day job and pack its bags. We'll just see how soon it comes crawling back, hat in hand, nicked from bar brawls, malnourished and gaunt--because we all know that information needs a whole phalanx of information-processors, information-managers, and information-storage technicians to keep it fat and healthy.

Meanwhile, you don't hear literature whining about wanting to be free. Literature's been free for eons--kicking around the mean streets, wishing someone would come to its poetry readings, desperate for libraries to shell out 10 bucks for a novelist's last decade of work. Literature knows that freedom isn't all beer and skittles--and it knows a good piggyback ride when it sees one. That's why literature has set up shop in the very bones of the information beast, with websites dedicated to bringing the best new work to the greatest amount of people.

The prestigious Mississippi Review went online a few years ago, and editor Frederick Barthelme soon found the advantages--no more space restrictions, no more waiting for printers, no more set-in-stone editorial decisions: "Now if I don't like a story that I put up last night, I can take it down tomorrow," he says. "One time I did." Barthelme believes in putting up the full texts of as many writers as he can, and thinks it's silly that some journals--like the famous, stuffy Paris Review--will only put up its work in teaser-fragments. "I don't think that is really in the spirit of things at all," he says. Allowing readers access to full texts of short stories by writers like Ann Beattie, Margaret Atwood, and Padgett Powell "corresponds in my thinking to some fundamental aspect of making art, that art should be free. We don't pay anybody, the objective is not to sell something, the objective is to bring the work to a greater audience, and I think that this is an honorable and a sufficient job. We have about 250 visitors a day, and they look at about four pages each--a few short stories or a set of poems--it seems like an awful lot of readers compared to the print journal."

In fact, this increased traffic and exposure has transformed the venerable publication. "For me the online magazine is now the real Mississippi Review, and the other is the vestigial thing. It seems to me that we've seen the birth of a new and more powerful delivery system, and I think that this will probably continue to be the main distribution for the magazine."

Of course the Mississippi Review is supported by University of Mississippi, and so can afford to put up a lavish site without expecting any return. But even little literary journals are finding that the Internet's audience access gives them a shot in the arm. The tiny Georgetown Review, which recently moved from Georgetown, Kentucky to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is able to reach readers on the Internet that it never would have otherwise. "Down here in Hattiesburg it's really hard to find these kinds of journals," says editor Victoria Lancelotta. "If you live in a small town and want to read this stuff you have to go online." Indexed on literature sites like Web del Sol and the extensive link-list hosted by the Mississippi Review,Lancelotta's small journal now has readers and writers from all over the world.

A journey starting at Web del Sol or the link-section of the Mississippi Review or E-Scene is a worthwhile trip for any literature lover. With patience you'll find some wonderful writing--like David Appell's "My Tax Dollars at Work" from Kudzu , or Mark Steven Long's funny " Temporary Town", from InterText, which has my current favorite line: "The sun was beating down on him like a good woman with sense when he rode into Temporary Town." But be warned--you'll also find dreck like the uber-Southern schlock from the award-winning Oyster Boy Review (http://sunsite.unc.edu/ob/index.html), where the men all eat out of cans and the women are alcoholic Delilahs or stoic grandmothers; or the conservative frat-pirate nightmare of the Jolly Roger.

E-Scene is an online journal that rewards and re-publishes the best fiction culled from dozens of online sources, presented with links to the original journals. Editors of the various journals nominate their favorite stories, the staff at E-Scenenarrows the field, and then a well-known guest editor gives out the awards. The 1996 issue was edited by novelist and poet Robert Sward, who has been publishing in traditional venues for 40-odd years, and is well involved with the literary web.

"I think of myself as a bridge between two worlds," says Sward. "Through the '50s and '60s--and for that matter the '70s and '80s--I was writing for and publishing in a wide variety of traditional venues; university quarterlies, magazines, newspapers, and books." Sward discovered the Internet while writing technical manuals, and was won over by the playfulness and stylishness of it. He launched his own webpage where he posts poems, short stories (like the sweet "How to Succeed as St. Nick"), and excerpts from his recent novel, A Much Married Man. Sward sees as many as a thousand readers a week on his site, and has even gained a devoted Chilean fan, who translated Sward's work into Spanish and hosted it on his own computer in Chile.

"Now it seems like there might be a Spanish version of A Much Married Man, and the only way this could have happened is through the internet. The game is still what it's always been--a labor of love. But now it's a labor of love with more readers." Sward describes the Internet as a construction of trust between writers, not only in the work they put up, but even in the links, which act like personal recommendations for other work: "There's an intelligence, a filter behind each link--it's not so much word of mouth, but it's virtually word of mouth."

Word of mouth is what stories and poems have depended on for thousands of years. But now that the word is buttressed with electrons, it seems like writing could enter a new golden age, where readers and writers who would otherwise never have encountered one another can, and do. Maybe that's what happens when free grows freer.

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