Fiction (et al.) on the Net

by Martha Conway

It has been increasingly difficult to find fiction on the web, at least the sort I'm most interested in -- the kind published outside the traditional structure of publishing. In the beginning, of course, the traditional structure -- the Paris and Antioch and Iowa Reviews, the Carolina and Massachusetts Quarterleys, the Ploughshares, the Bread Loafs -- deigned not to be accessible on the internet, and that was fine. People self-published; they put up their quirky, uneven work on their personal web sites (www.me.com). I liked the freshness of those pieces, the renegade feeling, the this-isn't-a-piece-you-would-normally-read tone. It wasn't apologetic, it rejoiced in finding an outlet. A lot of it was not very good. Gems surfaced.

Now the other guys (see above) have come into the secret, and although the quality of fiction has probably gone up, the range of what is published has narrowed. Nevertheless, after coming across author after author I like to read in the "paper world" now published by Blue Moon Review or the like (my feelings are dichotomized each time -- "oh good, another piece by her" is combined with "shit she's here too now"), I hit a pothole. Rick Bass.

Every time I read Rick Bass -- and I've read him a lot -- he seems to be a different writer, identifiable only by the distinctive flow of his narrative. In this last piece, "Fiber," published in the Mississippi Review, the narrator speaks of different lives he has had (actually, he calls them different sections of his life), which kind of spooked me out. When I couldn't find the sort of fiction I was looking for for this column, I went back to this story thinking I could convince myself to write about it with a little disclaimer in the beginning of my piece ("it has been increasingly difficult to find fiction on the web ..."). Its effect, as I read it, was a strange series of pulls in various directions, not at all what I'm used to by such sanctified authors.

Briefly, the story is about a logger who was once a geologist, then a writer, then an activist, and now is trying to get on with the next phase of his life, though he concedes that "things slip and fall back; the old, even when it is buried beneath the new, sometimes rises and surges, pierces through, and reappears." He used to steal things just for fun, now he gives things, just for fun. There are passages about his present, about his past, about logging (I like those best), about his wife and himself, about their town, about his feelings about lots of things, about the environment. It's quite long. It holds together, just.

But is the story good, or isn't it good? This was the question that kept coming to mind. I wasn't being patronizing; the story itself begs the question. Is it a story? Okay, it is. Is it a good story? I answered "yes" here then "no" there as I read it and re-read it. It's either wonderfully amazing or terribly sentimental and self-pleasing. The narrator seems sometimes to look down at his audience, past and present (I despise that "the audience despised" stance, being the audience), and yet at the end there is a pointblank appeal to the audience. Or is that irony? There is a story in the old-fashioned sense, which the narrator later "takes back." It's all very confusing and well-written.

As a reviewer of sorts, I should never bring up an emotional reading; I'm supposed to be (I think) more clinical. Dissecting the parts. But this piece I read the way I read the early fiction on the internet -- I was rooting for the piece to work, and it kept disappointing me, then redeeming itself in a miraculous way. I felt connected to the narrator, though he did his best to distance himself. This never happens when I read "Best American Short Stories 19--" anymore, I'm never connected, I'm just reading nice turns of phrases. It's pleasant.

This story is not pleasant, although there are nice turns of phrases. There are some very pretty passages. Then it gets all "why write when people are being tortured in Bosnia" (of course, Bass words it better than I do). Well I don't know and it doesn't seem to be a very important question to me. In the space of one paragraph Bass loses it then regains it, like my toddler walking up and down on the fireplace hearth. Sometimes I'm embarrassed for him, he's crossed the line, then he's back. He writes something ridiculous then saves it.

"I read such shit, and see such shit paintings, that I want to gag" -- not very interesting, I think.

"one could spray one's vomit across the canvas and more deeply affect or touch the senses‹what remains of them‹than the things that are spewing out into the culture now." -- maybe not much more interesting but I like the piece again for it.

The fact is, this is the sort of piece I was hoping would come out of self-published wackos who are on the internet because no one else would have them, and I'm very disappointed that it turns out to be from Rick Bass. I'm quite sure from his story that he would never read anything here, which makes the fact of his story published on good internet space all the more annoying.

And what I mean when I say it's the sort of piece I was looking for on the internet is this: it crosses boundaries and it does so very well. It sets boundaries itself then crosses them. It starts out as one thing then morphs, and morphs again. It's a story about a logger, it's a story about a writer, it's an appeal, it's a list of dying flora. As I was reading it I wondered if this is how battered women who stay in their battering relationships feel -- when will it happen again? I'm going to stop reading, soon, but I'm just curious when he's going to hit me again.

I can't make head or tail of "Fiber," but in the end I liked it -- it felt true and real and entirely made-up. Written from the heart, I want to say, but surely no one does that anymore.

Copyright © 1998
Path of Least Resistance