Conversations With Literary Websites: Full Stop

by Mark Athitakis (membership) | May-04-2011

The brainchild of a group of Oberlin College alumni, Full Stop launched earlier this year and has since featured a host of intelligent reviews, interviews, and roundtables, with a focus on contemporary literary fiction. As the "About" page puts it: "Full Stop aims to focus on young writers, works in translation, and books we feel are being neglected by other outlets while engaging with the significant changes occurring in the publishing industry and the evolution of print media."

Full Stop editor in chief Alex Shephard answered questions from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis via email.

Full Stop launched just this year, at a time when there are a number of well-established independent literary websites, and when established publications like the Paris Review and New Yorker have built robust web presences around books as well. What led you and your editors to feel that there was room for one more? What's missing from the ones that are out there?

When Jesse Montgomery and I first came up with the idea of starting an online literary magazine in late November of last year, the motivation was almost entirely personal and generational. I had written for a few other places, but wanted real editorial experience, and we both wanted a medium where we could experiment as both editors and writers.

Jesse and I also noticed that there weren’t a whole lot of fiction sites run by people our age (we’re both 23). A lot of the current online giants were started by people in their 20s, but, for whatever reason there hasn’t been the same generational response among people our age. Full Stop was a way for us to get younger voices out there.

The more we talked about it with each other and with the people who became involved with the site – particularly Max Rivlin-Nadler, Amanda Shubert, and Eric Jett – the more we realized that a lot of print and online outlets were devoting a lot of attention to certain books, while other things completely fell through the cracks. And that a lot of the things that fell through the cracks were books we thought were interesting.
 
We’ve also tried to keep things pretty loose. Again, none of us had a lot of experience doing this kind of thing, so we’ve tried, as much as possible, to try everything and anything we can think of (and I expect you’ll see even more of this in the future). We’re learning on the fly, and maintaining an energetic, experimental spirit is really important to us. The blog is a good example – it’s a mix of humor pieces, media criticism, and news. So many sites are obsessed with having a distinct identity. We want to experiment, see what we’re capable of, what works and what doesn’t, while not taking ourselves too seriously.
 
Who are your writers, and how to do you find them? Are they interested in establishing themselves as book critics over the long run? Are they interested in discussing particular authors or types of books?
 
Jesse, Max, Amanda, Eric, Nika, and I (the editors) went to Oberlin College together. At this point, the majority of our writers are people we either went to college with or grew up with, though we’re starting to cast a wider net – bringing in people we’ve met since the site launched or soliciting contributions from people whose writing we really like. At this point, I think, our oldest contributor is 27, but, despite everything I’ve said about youth, I don’t see age as being a prerequisite for contributing to the site. As we continue to move forward, I’d like to get an even more diverse group of people involved with the site.

What our contributors share, unsurprisingly, is a passion for literature. We’ve tried to create a collective of writers with disparate interests though – some are interested in 18th century literature, some “experimental literature,” etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of our contributors go on to become academics; a few of us are interested in writing fiction. I believe only a couple of our contributors are interested in making a career out of criticism – I’m one, but it wasn’t something I had thought much about when we started the site. When we first pitched the site to people it was mostly as a means of writing regularly, of finding creative outlets from the numbing entry-level or dead-end jobs a lot of us have.

The "About" page on the site says that Full Stop focuses on "young writers, works in translation, and books we feel are being neglected by other outlets," though you've covered more mainstream books as well. What is the selection process like for the books that you review?
 
We create a list of everything we would cover, given infinite resources, and then whittle it down to something manageable. I think at first we covered a few books only because we felt an imaginary pressure to cover them – books that were interesting merely because they were written by someone whose name we recognized. We’re trying to move away from that. We’ve gained a lot of confidence as editors over the past few months and I think that that’s going to start showing pretty soon: the books we’ll be covering starting very soon are all things that we’re really pulled toward – whether it’s the author, the topic, the prose, an excerpt, whatever. In some cases, it’s even the publisher: given infinite resources I, for one, would cover just about everything Dalkey, Melville House, Red Lemonade, and Open Letter to name a few, put out. The six of us are all interested in very different things (the first installment of Full Stop Recommends is a pretty good example of our disparate interests), and I hope that shows in what we cover. Ultimately, what we aspire to do is to ignore “buzz” as best we can and to just, well, follow our nose.

Can you talk a little bit about the partnership with FictionDaily? What brought that partnership about, and what does each side get out of it?
 
I met David Backer, who runs Fiction Daily, through a mutual friend; we hit it off and came up with the idea for Fiction Weekly pretty quickly. I think that FictionDaily is a tremendous resource for online fiction, which often gets ignored. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to stay up to date with FictionDaily, though, because they link to three pieces every day. I’ve tried and I’ve never been able to keep up.

The idea behind Fiction Weekly is to aggregate an aggregate: to take the best of what FictionDaily posts and present it in a way that’s more digestible and accessible. I think that’s in keeping with the idea behind FictionDaily: to bring attention to the largely neglected area of online fiction. I’m proud to be a part of that project.
 
Additionally, I’m really interested in forming partnerships with sites like FictionDaily and am hoping to foster new new relationships in the coming months.
 
What is the site not doing right now that you wish you could do? What would it take to get there?
 
At this point, our biggest obstacles are time and money – which are obstacles we share with every other online literary review/person on the planet.

Right now, we’re just not able to publish reviews and essays every day because all of us have to work other jobs to support ourselves. So much of our attention is focused on keeping everything going, which sometimes thwarts our ambition to experiment and often comes at the expense of our own writing.
 
At times, our lack of experience has probably caused us to make a decision that, in hindsight was not the best, or to take longer making decisions than we needed to. That being said, the thing I’m probably most proud of thus far is that we’ve run the site, as much as possible, by consensus. The six of us all have very different critical approaches and styles, but I think the site really benefits from that tension. So far, nothing has been further from the truth than the aphorism, “a camel is a horse built by committee.” I’ve never had more productive disagreements in my life. Similarly, I’ve never worked with 5 people I trust more: if something seems remotely plausible it gets the green light and our collective backing.
 
Like many literary websites, Full Stop has a mix of quick-hit blog posts and longform pieces, including a multiday roundtable on The Late American Novel, a collection of essays about the future of books. What do you see your readers gravitating toward? Do you feel like you have to course-correct based on traffic and comments?

Right now it’s pretty difficult to say what our readers our gravitating towards. Interviews have been consistently popular, regardless of who we’re interviewing, which has been really encouraging. We really like long-form Q & A’s and it’s really nice to see people respond so enthusiastically.
Regardless of the book, our reviews have a remarkably consistent readership. Some essays and features have been more popular than others, but, again I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a pattern there. It was really heartening to see so many people read our Book Club about The Late American Novel day after day -- that was one of the most popular things we’ve done and something we’re definitely going to do again soon. The blog, which we started in March, has also been surprisingly popular, which is also great, as we try out a lot of things that may end up on other parts of the site there.

I don’t feel much pressure to course-correct based on hits or page views though. The site’s sudden popularity has been incredibly moving to me, but we didn’t start the site to get a million pageviews. We started it to write about what we’re interested in, to contribute to a conversation that, without energy and integrity, can easily stagnate. If nobody was reading something, perhaps we’d pay attention to that, but we generally want to write and read about what we want to write and read about and I hope that doesn’t change. If you ever see a “trend piece” on the site, I’ll resign.
I don’t want to come across as ignoring our readers though – we want to have a kind of dialogue with our readership, just not at the expense of credibility or integrity.

Editorially speaking, though, we’ve barely begun to worry about increasing our readership – that conversation has barely begun at this point. For the most part, we’re still back where we were in December, when we first began talking about the site. We want to try a bunch of different things, to write about what we care about.



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