Curating short fiction: Recommended Reading


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This post has been updated. See below.

Electric Literature, which started out publishing a quarterly journal simultaneously in print, ebook, iPhone and Kindle form, is always up for trying something new. It regularly invites animators to create short videos of single sentences from its stories, like the one above. And way back in 2009, it published a short story in tweets by Rick Moody on Twitter, an experiment that was only partially creatively successful but that earned it an important literary place in the Twittersphere. What does a quarterly do with 150,000 followers in the long months between publication? Editor Benjamin Samuel decided curation is the thing.


Hence, Recommended Reading. It’s a project that will publish one fiction story per week, with selections being made by a variety of readers who are in the know: an independent press, a writer, the kind folks at Electric Literature, and another literary journal. That’s one month, then the cycle starts again.

The project went up on Kickstarter in April and swiftly reached its $10,000 goal (aided in part by a donor perk of a really cool flask). The organizers now hope to raise double that goal, and have about $3,500 and less than a week to go. Samuel explained what to expect from Recommended Reading, via email.

Jacket Copy: How many recommends will Recommended Reading make each week?

Benjamin Samuel: We’ll publish one piece of fiction each week. It’s an ideal rate for readers who are already overwhelmed with options, and will help them focus on fiction that’s worth spending time with.

The magazine runs on a four-week cycle of curators: the first week is a story chosen by Electric Literature, then an indie press like New Directions excerpts a collection or novel, then a guest editor like Jim Shepard picks a story, and then another journal like A Public Space re-releases work from their archives.

JC: Is Recommended Reading sort of like Longreads for fiction?

BS: I love Longreads and appreciate the comparison. While we have curation in common, the nature of Recommended Reading’s model makes us somewhere between a salon, magazine and a digest. We want Recommended Reading to be a true community that’s passionate about literature, and we’ll do this in part by introducing readers to independent publishers as well as new and emerging writers. Each issue will feature a note from the editor, written by that week’s partner, i.e., when we publish fiction from Melville House, Dennis Johnson will introduce that week’s issue. We hope that this will increase awareness of the diversity of the indie publishing community, and hopefully translate into sales and subscriptions for our partners.

JC: Is there a pool of literary magazines and journals from which you’ll be pulling stories?

BS: The first pool was Brooklyn based: A Public Space, Armchair/Shotgun, The Coffin Factory, and One Story. But we’re not a Brooklyn-centric publication. My co-editor, Halimah Marcus, and I spent most of the mayhem of this year’s AWP meeting other editors and learning about the great magazines they’re creating. The indie publishing is diverse and flourishing, and we want to share our discoveries with our audience.

JC: Do you have plans to expand that pool?

BS: Absolutely. We’re on the lookout for indie publishers with strong mission statements and who are committed to keeping literature a vibrant part of our culture. We’re also looking overseas to bring in international partners, as well as work in translation.

JC: How will people see it -- is it an app, a website, a Twitter delivery system...?

BS: We’re going to start by publishing to Kindle and in a free, read-online version. The web version will be distributed through Tumblr so that we can reach a community that’s accustomed to curation and can easily share the magazine with their followers. The website will also offer ePub downloads for people with Nooks and other eReaders. We’d like to develop an app for the iOS Newstand, and hope that this final week of Kickstarter contributions can help us reach that goal.

JC: Does Recommended Reading draw from the same pool of writers that have been published in Electric Literature?

BS: Because we admire their work and have an established relationship with them, we started reaching out to the writers we know. Jim Shepard and Nathan Englander, who were published in Electric Literature Nos. 1 and 5, respectively, are our first guest editors. But we’ll also be working with new writers, both established and emerging, such as Ben Marcus and Seth Fried, neither of whom we’ve published before.

JC: Is there a way, a la the Pushcart Prizes, for editors to recommend stories to you?

BS: At the moment, it’s just through direct contact. Recommended Reading will do more than publish extraordinary fiction; we’ll also expose our readers to the other great indie publishers and journals out there. Having relationships with other editors and their publications is very much a part of our selection process. We’ve received several inquires as a result of our Kickstarter campaign and are working on building partnerships with those magazines.

JC: Were you surprised by how quickly you reached the original fundraising goal on Kickstarter?

BS: We were stunned. The start-up funding is crucial to getting Recommended Reading off the ground, but we’re also grateful to know that so many people support the idea. The rapid response to support a free magazine means that people immediately saw the value in Recommended Reading.

65% of our donors were at the $25 level and below, which is roughly the price they’d pay to subscribe to a journal. We’re hoping to hit $20,000 in this last week of the campaign so that we can develop new reading technology, pay writers and artists (like Edwin Rostron, who just animated the Ben Marcus story in our first issue), and deliver extraordinary fiction to readers for free.

[UPDATE: May 3, 12:53 p.m.: A previous version of this post said Electric Literature publishes a quarterly journal; in fact, the journal has ceased publication.]


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-- Carolyn Kellogg