Klare Lanson Interviews Ben Stebbing

20 January 2004

Press send now: Manchester-based the-phone-book.com publishes micro-writing of 150 words or less to the Internet and mobile phones. Klare Lanson talks to co-editor Ben Stebbing about all things short, or micro.

Manchester is the city that time remembered, but space forgot. The skyline is unrecognisable from day to day. Each morning the streets are covered in chicken bones. It doesn't quite snow, but my shaven head hurts from the cold. The once-a-year drinkers are filling up the bars and the sensible people are doing the christmas shopping online, and going home to their sensible suburban homes. The rest roar and rage over sport, and food, and work. The twenty-four hour city shuts at two, and they all go home with wet, leafy feet.

Ben Stebbing

KL: Hi Ben, congratulations on driving this project over the past 3 years. How did it first come about and was it a difficult birth? Who else is involved?

BS: Thank you very much. The project had a remarkably easy birth, which is not to undermine the work put in by the-phone-book.com team! The three of us – animator Ben Jones, multimedia curator Fee Plumley and myself, a publisher – owned a server on which we hosted our various websites. Jones was reading some technical books and realised we could host a WAP [Wireless Application Protocol] site. The severe limitations of WAP meant that images were out, as were long chunks of text and furthermore the text couldn't be overly formatted. The obvious creative content was short fiction, especially as books are the main driving force behind amazon.com – not a bad site to take as an inspiration. I was approached to be the Editor, as my background was in bookselling and publishing. Ben Jones did the coding, originally hand coding in html and eventually moving up to the high tech perl you see there today. Fee was the Producer, raising money and doing the administration, as well as giving the two Ben's a much-needed kick every now and again.

KL: Tell us about micro-writing. Did it start with communication technologies? Do you think it's amplifying the blur between short stories and poetry? How does the idea of 'genre' fit into this project and micro writing?

BS: We have three disciplines at the-phone-book.com – the Mini Story (150 words or less), the Micro Story (50 words or less) and the Short Micro Story, or SMS (15 characters or less). These stem directly from the technology. Roughly speaking the longest page coded in WML [Website Meta Language] will be 150 words long. That gave us our maximum length. However I wanted to encourage brevity, so we took the text message as our next hurdle: to write a story in 150 characters or less. The Micro story got put in as a sort of “catch me” discipline.

It was surprising how quickly I began to identify what does and what does not work in stories of this sort of length. Genre fiction being a case in point. Crime works excellently: it lends itself to the powerful twist in the tale, the Aristotelian peripeteia. Check out Bloodstained Fivers or Dead Easy for examples. Also Magic Realism worked marvellously well, since a writer can manufacture a conceit which will provide a good story very quickly, that element of change which is so essential to a good piece of fiction (any aspiring writers who want a good long explanation of this should check out Robert McKee's book “Story”). That said very few instances of science fiction worked. I think a reader needs time to become immersed in that sort of speculative fiction, and 150 words is just not enough.

Does the project blur the boundaries of prose and poetry? Although a lot of readers and indeed authors might disagree with me, I think not. A novel like John McGregor's “If Nobody Talks of Remarkable Things” is highly poetic – more so than many of the stories at the-phone-book.com. Just because our stories are short, and on the page have the same footprint as a poem, doesn't mean there is any more similarity between the two disciplines than if the works were longer.

KL: The site has a beautiful sense of love, loss and the everyday. A nice focus on the poetics of local/global community. What's the most important outcome of this project?

BS: I suppose the sense of love, loss and the everyday you refer to is the feeling you get when reading the stories, and not the concept of the project as a whole? I worry that you are perhaps referring here to a sort of self help for readers and especially writers through autobiographical “fiction”. There is a huge market out there for that sort of thing, and it is valuable in its way, but it is I think of value most to the writer.

I never set out to publish a particular sort of fiction. Before we “went to print” on v1.0 people were asking if I wanted the stories aimed at a particular readership – children, women's magazine readers, horror fans etc. I was firmly of the belief that these categories are fairly useless if you want a large readership, and indeed if you want to publish several hundred stories a year, all of exceptional quality. I promised myself that I would choose the best stories I could from the pot, and that they would be readable by all readers for their quality. One thing that did come from that freedom was an ability to select “nice” stories. Many of the compliments I received over my editing commented on the refreshing change to see kindness, a lack of cynicism, tenderness and so on in literary fiction. So, although there are a lot of guns and broken homes, equally there are a lot of loving couples, a lot of babies heads kissed. Ultimately I am pleased that within the context of the project all the stories compliment each other, so nothing looks overly mawkish, nor too brutal. It lends a certain sparkle to the site, I think.

I have long adored short fiction, just as I prefer advertisements or really good pop videos to film. Unfortunately the rest of the publishing world is demonising the short story. A collection is seen as a filler between novels, something to fulfil a contract, rather than something of merit in its own right. At the-phone-book.com we provided a very lucrative market for short stories. In fact we were the best paying fiction market in the world, on a word for word basis. I operated a no favouritism policy, and well published writers often said that we were one of the hardest journals in which to get accepted. Furthermore the simplicity and brevity of the ultra-short fiction meant that most visitors to the site felt they could have a go too, and many people got their first piece of published work through just that process. I am proud that we generated interest in the short story, that we stimulated new writers and indeed readers (in the last 12 months our webalizer suggests we had about 100,000 visitors and well over half a million stories were read). That I think is the most important outcome: support for writers and readers and the neglected short story.

KL: the-phone-book.com is also available in a very cool limited edition mini-book format. Is it just as important to print versions of this project through traditional means or is it simply a secondary form of 'merchandise' for the project?

BS: The books are a sort of joke, in a way! Obviously as a publisher I always had my greedy eye on a printed anthology of the site, but when it came down to it I didn't want a bog standard, glossy covered, 256 page anthology. It didn't feel right. So I got a designer and an artist involved, and we bashed ideas around for a while and came up with these gorgeous, tiny books. The joke, I suppose, is that they are hand painted, hand embossed, hand labelled, hand bagged, hand bound, individually signed and numbered works of art. Perhaps as far removed from the mobile phone as you can imagine . . . and yet, they will go anywhere with you. They will sit in your back pocket until you are in that bar waiting for someone, or on that train. Precisely those moments we first envisioned people logging on to the site through the wireless Internet!

KL: There's a weird kind of immediacy and intimacy with a lot of the writing on the website, perhaps driven by the use of Internet and mobile technology. Do you agree and if so why do you think this is? What kind of writers are submitting work?

BS: In the early days, before our hit rate went through the roof, we could quite accurately track people's navigation through the site through out webalizer software. One thing we noticed again and again was a reader visiting the site, reading maybe ten stories, and then reading the submission guidelines, and coming back a week or so later and submitting a story. It has a sort of charming inclusiveness about it. Not everyone can write a whole novel, but everyone can write a sentence or two! We have a vast range of authors on our books, from all over the world, of all ages. Many do not have English as their first language even, and some do not have a computer. I guess the vast majority, however, are computer literate, and well over half are professional or semi-professional writers. One of the greatest joys of being the Editor here was giving a writer their first ever royalty cheque. I just hope they all go on to bigger and better things. It would be nice to think there is a future bestseller or Booker Prize winner that has the-phone-book.com to thank for getting them started!

KL: Writing to the Internet and mobile phones could be seen by some as restrictive. How 'free' are we when we write for this medium?

BS: It certainly is restrictive when you have a 150 word limit. As for subject matter, I am not sure. There are a number of stories that embrace the fact that the stories are going to be read on a mobile phone, Robert Delahunty's “Untitled” is narrated by an entity caught in the operating system of a phone. Interestingly Delahunty is one of our computerless writers. Essentially the printed page can be taken anywhere to be read from, and so can a telephone. There is no subject matter more suited to one than the other. There are certain technical restrictions though – for instance WML does not allow italics, or many special characters.

KL: Do you think this project is filling a gap within traditional and other online forms of publishing such as ezines, emags and blogs?

BS: The site fills a certain gap, but I am not vain enough to suggest that it is the only site publishing Ultra Short Fiction. I might be vain enough to say we pay better and publish more than the others, but that is all. The flash fiction community is small, but growing, and all of the flash/micro.sudden fiction sites are doing a truly important job publishing a relatively new and under-supported genre.

KL: How do you think the Internet is changing the face of publishing?

BS: There is a parallel between the desk top publishing revolution of the 80s and 90s I think. Any number of small companies, community groups, schools or whatever started publishing their own in-house newsletters. At the end of the day, however, there are no more newspapers or book or magazine publishers than there were, but there are far more people interested in the industry. Similarly, nowadays anyone can write something, publish it to the net for next to nothing and with luck someone will read it. But there are no more “real” authors out there. I don't mean to sound belittling, but at the end of the day the writer wants someone to read his or her work, decide that it is better than other writing and choose to publish it. So more people than ever are interested in publishing, in getting published, so something has changed, but the industry has not really changed all that much at the end of the day. The Internet is another form of the printed word, and a fascinating one at that.

KL: When work is published and distributed across a creative network it becomes harder to distinguish developer from user and artist from audience. The communal approach of many interactive and web based projects can sometimes obscure the biographical context in which they were created. Do you think distribution across creative networks such as the Internet affects authorship? How does the-phone-book.com sit in relation to this idea?

BS: There is a sense in which authorship, or an editor's view of it, is altered by an online project. I could never be sure who had written a story (until we wrote a cheque for the royalty). Anyone can set up an avatar, with a false name and only a hotmail account as contact. I encouraged my friends to submit anonymously in this way, so they wouldn't feel embarrassed if/when they were rejected. But with the exception of two or three authors the-phone-book.com knows who wrote all of the stories, even if the casual reader does not. The nature of the business of publishing has always muddied the waters – who is ultimately responsible for my pleasure in reading a book? The author certainly, but equally without the publisher I would not have the chance of reading it. Equally with a bad cover designer I might never have picked it up, or with a bad typographer I might not have read further than the first page. The distribution networks of libraries, booksellers, friends lending also play a huge role. I guess the business of words as works of art has always been less direct than images. Where a painting could be painted and then viewed, books have been multiples since their inception.

KL: Do you think that the micro-story and micro-poetry can maintain a sense of cultural identity within the practice of writing?

BS: In the anglophone literary tradition this is a very new discipline, so the question should may be ask whether it can create an identity, rather than maintain it. Whereas there is a reasonably long tradition in Latin American writing of this sort of thing (Borges adored it) we are at the birth of ultra short fiction. Obviously there is some sort of a precedent: Brautigan, Barthelme and so on, but I think this is an artform in its infancy. And I do think it can find a lasting place in literary history. Let us not forget that the novel is only 400 years old.

KL: To quote my favourite Architecture in Helsinki song “Clever isn't where it's at / Dumb is back”. What kind of role do you think communication technologies are playing in the 'dumbing down' and the overall compression of language within Western Culture?

BS: Everything to do with it! What radio and television started, mobiles and computers are carrying on. But it is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as we are still creative and stimulating I am not sure that brevity is a problem. Just because most people nowadays would rather read a short poem than “Paradise Lost”, doesn't mean they are less intelligent. Our tastes are changing dramatically, and the media is the chief catalyst for this change. But isn't it exciting?

For a taste of micro writing, visit the-phone-book.com. Images: top (Mark Heseltine), middle (Ivy Alvarez).

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