At Books on the Nightstand, we’re dubbing 2013 “The Year of the Short Story.” In celebration, Ann is reading one story a day, for the entire year. We’ll also be highlighting new story collections, lit magazines, and online resources for short fiction. To see all of our posts that are part of Project Short Story, please click the tab at the top of the page.
When I started Project Short Story, several readers recommended that Five Chapters. Five Chapters publishes a new short story every week, in five parts. For those of you who are trying to read more short fiction this year, Five Chapters is a great way to do that, since each installment is quick enough to read on a mobile device or in other instances where there is not a lot of time. Since new stories start on Monday and installments run each weekday, it’s a great diversion when you need a break at work. There’s even an iPhone app that might make your reading easier; I’m not sure if there are apps for Android or other devices.
I was intrigued by the concept of Five Stories, so asked editor David Daley to do an email Q&A interview. I hope you enjoy it, and please do check out Five Stories.
How is Five Chapters different from other literary magazines?
FiveChapters publishes a new story every week in five parts. I like to think of it as adapting the old 19th century newspaper serial to modern technology. My hope is that the site makes it easy for people to add a little fiction to their online reading diet every day, either by stopping by the site or using our iPhone app. At the same time, FiveChapters is its in seventh year, so there are some 350-plus stories in the archive by lots of amazing writers — Jennifer Egan, Maile Meloy, Lauren Groff, Wells Tower, Sam Lipsyte, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jess Walter, Arthur Phillips, Kate Christensen, Danielle Evans and so many more. So whether you stop by every day, or the site is brand new to you, there is a lot there to read. I’d be willing to say this is one of the very strongest collections of modern short stories anywhere on the web. There are so many great literary magazines. The journals I consider in FC’s peer group as far as the caliber of writers we publish — Tin House, A Public Space, One Story, The Paris Review — do some very cool things online, but are really amazing in print. They don’t — for very good reason — make everything available online and provide open access. I very much want FiveChapters to bring great short stories to the places where people read right now, on the web, on their phones, at work, during their commute. FiveChapters also looks for a mix of well-known writers and writers who are very much on their way. FC has published some of the very first stories by writers who’ve gone on to win awards, sign great book deals, get published in the New Yorker, the whole deal. And something else I’d like to emphasize — at a time when literary journals and book reviews are under deserved fire for being heavily weighted toward men in the counts produced by VIDA — is that for each of the three years in which VIDA has done a count, FiveChapters has published more women than men. I don’t think a lot of other journals can say that.
What was the impetus for Five Chapters?
I had done two really fun fiction projects. One was for McSweeney’s, called Twenty-Minute Fiction. We asked almost 100 writers to write three stories in an hour and published the best in one of the early issues of McSweeney’s. I think in some ways that series helped repopularize the idea of flash fiction. And then I worked at a newspaper in New York on a series called Tag-team fiction, where two writers kicked a story back and forth over email. There were some great ones — Aimee Bender with Jonathan Lethem, Gary Shteyngart with Darin Strauss, probably 100 more. But the real impetus for the web site, honestly, came from working at newspapers and magazines and seeing what embarrassing sites so many smart people looked at all day. I wanted to start a site you could feel good about having in your morning websurfing routine, or reading at lunch. I’ve always loved newspapers and the idea of serial storytelling, and putting all of this together seemed so natural and fun.
How do you find stories for Five Chapters? What do you look for in submissions?
FiveChapters is pretty heavily curated — I seek out most of the stories which appear on the site directly from writers. I do accept submissions and have gotten some great work that way, but I think I still solicit the vast majority of what gets published on the site, or stories come from writers who know other people who have been published on FC. I’m looking to be dazzled by a great story. There isn’t one type of story or genre — really, it’s just the desire to be gripped by something which you can’t put down because something in the writing or the language or the storytelling is so fresh, compelling and urgent. But it is also just me, so for better or worse, this is the sense of what one person finds interesting. It’s the indie-music model, in some ways — I discovered a lot of my favorite bands simply because they were on a label I trusted. I hope that there are some readers who look at FiveChapters the same way that I’ll buy anything that comes out on Merge.
What is the best way for readers to consume the stories you publish? Do you send them by email, or do you recommend an RSS reader, or ??
I don’t send them by email, but probably should make that kind of newsletter available. You can get them over RSS,or on our iPhone app, or by visiting the site every day.
You have an online journal and also publish print books. Have you ever considered a print version of Five Chapters?
I have. There’s been talk over the years of an anthology of FiveChapters stories. But I also think it would be a lot of fun to do a monthly magazine with the stories which have appeared in the last month. I know as a reader myself, as excited as I get when the new issues of my favorite journals arrive, they’re sometimes too beautiful as objects to want to take them on the subway, or stuff in my pocket like I might the New Yorker. Maybe there would be a market for a magazine that’s purely fiction, but which you wouldn’t feel bad about recycling or leaving in the coffee shop when you were done with it.
How did the book publishing side of Five Chapters come about? Can you tell us a little bit about the books on your list, both present and forthcoming?
It’s such an interesting time for publishing. It seemed to me that there were thousands of people coming to FiveChapters and that all of them had one thing in common — they loved short stories by modern writers. I had a mailing list of people who loved reading short stories. Several thousand people were reading every week, and If you come back to the site, hopefully that’s because you trust the taste and the sensibility. Now most story collections only sell a couple thousand copies, even those on big houses with major review attention. It seemed to me that a new model might be effective now — a model based around direct sales to readers, with no need for Amazon or big infrastructure. And it also seemed that this might be a great way to launch or relaunch writers. Emma Straub and Jess Row both had two brilliant collections in need of a home. All Emma needed was a publisher to stand behind her and put her work out — she’s a sensation, and I’m very proud of the role FC played in placing her on the road to stardom. Jess Row is one of our great writers, and it was a real thrill to put out stories of that caliber, work which landed in Best American Short Stories. They both sold first novels to Riverhead and I hope that’s the start of a pipeline. I’m putting out two more collections in the fall: Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians and Ian Stansel’s Everybody’s Irish. They are both first collections, both completely fantastic, and I think big things are going to happen for them both. And then there will be two more early in 2014; I’m not quite ready to announce names, but the work is incredibly good.
Which one story featured on Five Chapters stands out the most for you? I’m not necessarily looking for your favorite story, but rather, the one that has the most interesting back story, maybe won a major award, or perhaps hit you at just the right time to have an impact.
One story is hard! I’ll sneak in three: One of the very first stories published on FiveChapters was Jennifer Egan’s Selling the General, which in a revised form, went on to be one of the stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad, which, of course, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. Another really exciting one was Jay McInerney’s If Wishes Were Porsches. This was the beginning of a novel that he started right after Bright Lights, Big City, and was stolen from his apartment by a fan and returned years later. The only place to read it is on FiveChapters! And lastly, Molly Ringwald is a supremely talented writer. She’d shared early stabs at fiction with me many years ago, but wasn’t ready to publish anything before last year’s thunderclap of a debut, When It Happens to You. It was really an honor to publish her first fiction on the site.
What the heck is Infinite Five Chapters?
Short story marathons! Twice, over the December holidays and then in late August, weeks when a lot of magazines and web sites go dark, I decided that FC would fill the space. Instead of a story a week, we did a story a day — including the weekend. It took its name from Infinite Summer, the David Foster Wallace reading project which was going on at the same time. They were big undertakings but a lot of fun — and allowed me to mix things up, to work in new voices, take stories of different lengths. This would have been 2008. Some amazing people were part of the marathons — Lauren Grodstein, Jami Attenberg, Joe Pernice, Ashley Warlick. There was early work by several writers about to have big books on major presses — Paul Yoon, Edan Lepucki and Peyton Marshall. It’s probably time to do another one.
How would you describe the environment for short fiction in the U.S. at the moment? Do you think it is it different in other countries?
I think we’re in a golden age of the short story. It’s amazing, of course, to see Karen Russell and George Saunders and Junot Diaz get the huge sales to match their brilliance and acclaim. Claire Vaye Watkins just won the Story Prize for what was my favorite collection of last year. Either just out, or about to come out, are genius collections from Amber Dermont, Jim Gavin, Jamie Quatro, Ramona Ausubel, Ethan Rutherford, Jess Walter, Kate Milliken, Laura van den Berg and Sam Lipsyte… I could keep going. The work which gets submitted to FC is very strong — I wish I was able to accept more of it. So it’s a great time to write, and I also think a great time to be a reader, with technology making it easier and easier to take stories with us everywhere we go. But optimistic New York Times trend stories aside, I think we need to be realistic. The marketplace for short stories is not huge, and certainly not big enough to support all the writers who’d like to publish them. It’s disappointing, in that I have always thought the short story is perfect for our short attention span times. You really can inhabit this whole world on your commute, or before you fall asleep, or if you read FC, during the short Internet breaks we all take during the day. We have to be honest though: the marketplace for literary fiction is small, and the market for short stories is a subset of that. We need to grow that audience!
If you had an unlimited budget to market, promote and advertise the concept of reading short stories to the general reader (i.e., a “Got Milk” campaign), what would you do?
So how do we grow that audience? It’s a really hard question. The traditional avenues — newspaper book reviews, advertising — are either drying up or ineffective these days. I really do believe that we are reading more than ever — now we all stand in lines and walk down the street and stare at our phones. We read at our desks all day. I don’t know how to get people to read a short story during that time instead of going to Facebook or Words with Friends. The short answer is it has to be as interesting to them as seeing what their friends’ status updates are. And then we have to make sure that stories are available on the phone, on tablets, in all the places where people read. There is a way to make the case that the short story is that perfect literary form for this time. I think we can build readers. But it is going to require really innovative delivery systems — on top of great stories. How writers and journals are able to get paid during this rush to free, well, I also don’t know the answer to that. But building readers is how you build a career, one at a time, for the next novel, and a story can be the perfect calling card.
What books are on your nightstand?
Too many! The Amber Dermont and Ethan Rutherford collections are near-perfect. I’ve saved a story or two in each because I can’t bear to be done. I’m carrying around Owen King’s Double Feature and Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine. The Blake Bailey biography of Charles Jackson. New novels by Allison Amend and Elliott Holt and Ben Lytal and James Salter. I just ordered the updated re-issue of Tony Fletcher’s R.E.M. biography. The pile grows and grows….
We ask all of our interview subjects to recommend two books, new or old, in print our out of print. Please tell us two books you can’t wait for us to read.
At the risk of seeming cheesy: I can’t wait for people to read these Nina McConigley and Ian Stansel collections. I’m deep in the copy editing and cover design phases right now, and it’s that point in the process when you just want to hurry the months along so you can share their work with the world. They’ll be ready by August and I could not be more excited to have people get to know two of their next favorite authors.