Critical Mass

Q&A: Jürgen Fauth of Fictionaut

By Eric Banks

Fictionaut describes itself as “bring[ing] the social web to literary fiction” Co-founded in 2008 by Jürgen Fauth, a writer, editor, film critic, and associate editor for fiction at Mississippi Review, the site launched at the end of September. I asked Fauth to say more about the site and its ambitions.

For starters, why don’t you describe exactly what Fictionaut is.

Fictionaut is both a social network for readers and writers and an emergent magazine where every member is also an editor. There are no space limits on the Internet, so we wondered what would happen if you let anyone post their writing. You’d get inundated, right? That’s where the social tools come in.The site relies on collaborative filtering mechanisms to draw attention to work that is worth your time. Any member can post stories or poems to the front page, and a recommendation algorithm creates a list of community favorites. We tested the site privately for a year before we made it public, and it’s working better than we could have hoped.

Do members post their stories and open them up to critique?

Our philosophy is to create a space that’s as open as possible, and writers are using Fictionaut for different purposes. Some of the more established authors—Pia Ehrhardt, Lizzie Skurnick, James Robison, Marcy Dermansky, Terese Svoboda—are posting published work that may be hard to find otherwise. Writers are also putting up unpublished work, either to show it off or to solicit comments. There are spaces on the site dedicated to workshopping stories (you can even set up private writing groups that don’t post to the front page) but a lot of members simply use Fictionaut for the visibility and to attract new readers. The tone of the conversation is generally friendly but discerning, and comments tend to be supportive and constructive.

How many members are there at this point, and how does one go about joining?

We’re quickly approaching 1,500 members, but it’s never been just about the numbers. From the start, we used an invite-only system to manage growth and make sure the site could handle the number of people posting stories. This has made for an eclectic mix of members—we have name authors leaving comments on stories by complete unknowns, writing students whose stories are getting picked up by journals, and agents and small presses are scouting the site for new talent. Anybody who wants to join is welcome to request an invite, and we’re planning to open sign-ups eventually.

What is your relationship with literary magazines?

I’m an associate editor for the Mississippi Review, so when we added a way to form sub-communities on Fictionaut, that was one of the first groups we started. Magazines and publishers are setting up their own groups, including Prairie Schooner, Electric Literature, Featherproof, and many, many more. They’re using groups to solicit contributions, engage in discussions, showcase their authors, and feature stories previously published in their journals.

We also have groups dedicated to different styles, genres, places, and writing programs. The effect is that Fictionaut is turning into something of a hub for online fiction—it’s becoming a great place not just to come and read, but to start exploring any number of literary scenes connected to it.

Are there other networking sites that you see as analogous to Fictionaut? If so, what advantages do you see in your site compared to others?

The inspiration for Fictionaut was a hybrid of Flickr, Metafilter, and Digg, dedicated to short stories and poetry. Since we started building the site, a few other social networks for writers have launched. None of them focus on the writing the way Fictionaut does. I think our no-frills design helps to always draw attention back to the work, but what really sets Fictionaut apart is the community. If you spend any time on the site at all, you’ll see many familiar names and a lot of amazing writing.

What’s with the -naut suffix to the name?

At first, I just liked the sound of it, but over time, I realized why it’s such a good fit: the name suggests a person navigating a vast space of stories, and there’s a sense of adventure that’s entirely appropriate. It takes a little courage to post a story without the explicit approval of an editor, and as a reader, you have to trust your own impulses and judgment. Fictionaut is a radically new way for audiences and authors to connect, and it takes a bit of daring to jump in and participate.