1. WHAT IS DECENTRE?
Decentre is a online literary journal written, edited, managed, and promoted by anyone who wants to.
2 HOW DOES THE WRITING BIT WORK?
You write a short story, between 3 and 5 thousand words, or up to 3 poems (hopefully we’ll expand to include personal essays and opinion pieces, but we’ll stick with stories and poems at first.) You upload it to the site. It gets initially assigned, randomly, 3 people who’ll read it. If they like it, more will read it. If loads of people like it, it’ll get published on the site and promoted by everyone who submitted.
3 HOW DOES THE EDITING BIT WORK?
The same process that assigns some readers to your story assigns three stories for you to read. You should read them carefully and respectfully, trying to find the best in them, just as you normally read stories: I think a decent metric would be to assign an hour for each. Then try to assess it. Think, for example, how much you would recommend it to your friends. Consider the standard sort of things we use to assess stories: plot, characterisation, language, dialogue, pacing, and so on. How good is it at these things? Is this author someone you want to hear from again? And then try to express your overall judgement by giving it a score out of 20. This sounds a bit reductive, I know, but we need some way of aggregating opinion, and I can think of no other (if you can, let me know!). Finally, you’ll write a two or three sentence synopsis of the story. This will be used to check that you actually read it (of course, I know you would never think about not doing so, but others might not be so scrupulous, so we need to introduce a safeguard.) This is not a review or appraisal, and won’t be read by the author: it should be a factual account of what happens in the story (if the story is experimental, say it’s experimental and what it experiments with; if you don’t get it, say you don’t get it.)
Once all the round one scores are in, you’ll be asked to read up to two more stories at round two, and up to one more at round six. So, for a given round of 100 entrants, you have to read up to six stories: probably on average five. So that’s five or six hours. I’m aware that’s not an insignificant commitment. All I can say is that literature is a time consuming business, and the current system, according to which writers have no commitments but editors have massive ones, seems to lead to suboptimal results. Moreover, there’s a good chance you’ll get back what you put in: 40% of stories will be read by 5-6 people, 10 percent by 12-15, and a lucky two by around 40. If you have faith in your work, six hours in to get a chance of 40 guaranteed readers doesn’t seem like a bad bet to me.
4 HOW DOES THE MANAGING BIT WORK?
In order to ensure that everyone does their reading, we need a way of checking. Even assuming honest participants (which I do assume), without some safeguard people would have decent reasons to be concerned. So this is how we get around it. Because each story is assigned to several people, and each person has to write a short synopsis for the stories they are assigned it follows that for each story, there are some synopses. What we’ll do is use the synopsses as a way to check people have done their reading. Some people, at some rounds, will be assigned the role of manager, rather than reader. What this means is that they will take the synopses for a given paper, and look for oddities. If someone doesn’t read a story properly, the hope is, their synopsis will stand out compared to the other ones. In such a case, we'll do further investigation into that other person's synopses, and if it becomes apparent they too give evidence of lack of reading, we'll disqualify the writer, and we’ll assign new readers to the stories read by the person in question. The cool thing about this is that the checker needn't have read the original story: they work purely by finding discrepancies between synopses.(You might realise that this requires that most synopses be accurate, otherwise the bad ones won't stick out. It does indeed require it: a precondition of this system working is that most participants be honest.)
This, I should emphasise, isn’t something to be worried about. As I said before, the synopses are meant to be basic, short, factual. They’re not meant to be instances of penetrating literary criticism (indeed, we actively don’t want them to encode value judgements). They're the sort of thing that anybody having read the story would be able to write (again, in the case of complex or ambiguous stories, it’s fine to say, ‘Although this is a complex and ambiguous story, the outline seems to be …’). So if you do the work, you'll be fine!
5 HOW DOES THE PROMOTING BIT WORK?
This is easy: once the winning stories are determined, they’ll be put on the website. You then post about them. If you haven’t read them (you’ll probably have read at least one) or if you have read them and hated them, you can do this without being hypocritical, saying something like ‘I participated in this very cool project, the winning stories are …’. We’ll rely on an honour system here; it won’t be checked up on. This part is nevertheless very important. We can't rely on renown or social capital to get people to pay attention to us: it's up to us each ourselves making our little contribution, and hoping they snowball. If you're reading this with no intention of writing something, but you think this is a cool idea, you can still help by promoting us (again, simply a tweet will suffice (or just, you know, physically tell another physical person in the physical world, if you're into that sort of thing)).
6 WHY ANONYMITY?
You read and assess papers without knowing the author’s identity. I’m not sure how common this is among online literary journals (quite a few say they don’t look at who you are, but then quite a few also ask for a biographical statement …) but it seems like clearly a desirable feature, for everybody involved. It lets us be read (to some extent) clean, free from preconceptions (whether one thinks the story one is reading is by by person x in Brooklyn who’s just graduated from y MFA, or by person z from Hull who stays home tending their two kids will affect, for good or ill, the way one reads it). The thought of being presented directly with other people’s work, and having my work presented directly to others, is exciting to me, and I hope it is to you too. The hope is that the strongest work will prevail, not the strongest credentials.
Anonymity stops at a later stage: the top two or three stories get put on the website along with the authors’ name (indeed, as mentioned, we encourage authors to put the stories on their own site, to direct traffic towards it). Moreover, at this stage you can put your name to your story even if it didn’t progress, in case one person out there realised it for the unappreciated gem it was and wants to follow your work in future. One neat side effect of all this, then, is to bring writers, especially beginning and underrecognised writers, together.
7 HOW CAN YOU GUARANTEE QUALITY?
But this leads to what’s surely the biggest worry one might have with this project: how can you guarantee quality? The role of an editor is to pick the best work. Let’s assume they do this successfully. Is there any reason to think that having many partial editors will also do this successfully?
Well, honestly, I don’t know. Time, hopefully, will tell. But I think so. The reason that I think this is that I believe the typical contributor to a literary journal is roughly as qualified to assess entries as the editor. Not quite: I’m quite happy to admit that the typical editor knows more literature and is more adept at judging it than the typical submitter. But my hypothesis is that they’re not that much better than the average submitter.
One reason for this is that literary fiction journals are extremely niche things. Only people for whom literature is a vocation are even aware of them. And if literature is a vocation for you then, ceteris paribus, I trust you to read my story. Or, rather, I trust that if we get enough of you together, the wisdom of crowds will lead to a fair assessment of my story. In a slogan: a group of people who care enough about literary fiction to know what online literary journals are collectively able to pick the best stories.
Ultimately, we just have to wait and see if this is right. But even if it’s not right, even if we can’t trust people to pick the best story, we can, by definition, trust them to pick the best liked story. And to have one’s story awarded best liked is not something to be sniffed at.
8 I’M STILL UNCONVINCED. WHAT IF THE WORK SUBMITTED IS POOR QUALITY?
The above worry was centred on the thought that many partial editors wouldn’t compare to one proper editor. I believe that isn’t something to be concerned about: I do believe the wisdom of crowds will help us here. But there’s a more fundamental problem. It’s what computer scientists call GIGO–garbage in, garbage out. If we receive many poor submissions, then the whole procedure will be pretty much a waste of time: reading will be no fun, and winning nothing to brag about. In traditional publishing, the rejecting of poor quality submissions is something which falls to the editor or readers. And it’s no fun (I speak with experience; in my day job I co-edit an academic journal where similar problems occasionally pop up.)
Decentre threatens to magnify the unfunness and to plop it in your lap. Say seventy percent of the stories are bad: poorly presented, poor characterisation, poor language, poor everything. By the way the thing is structured, at least some of those very poor stories will progress through to further rounds, gaining readers along the way. While it’s a great feature of Decentre that it guarantees you readers, this has a consequence: it also guarantees bad stories readers, and that wastes your time. Whereas in a traditional journal, a reader can skim the first page of a bad story and reject it, Decentre asks three readers to read the story carefully. I think we just have to accept this. In a sense, it’s perhaps a cost of giving everyone an honest hearing that some time is wasted.
9 WHAT'S TO STOP PEOPLE MARKING STORIES THEY THINK ARE GOOD LOW, IN ORDER TO ELIMINATE THEM?
I've considered competence as far as editing is concerned, and wasn't too worried. And I've considered competence as far as submissions are concerned, and had less to say. A third worry comes not from competence, but from maliciousness. Say you get assigned a story. It's much better than yours. Yours won't win against it. So, you score it unfairly harshly, hoping to eliminate it. What's to stop good stories doing poorly because they get scored unfairly?
Well, note that no one judges a story against which they initially compete. The stories get assigned to groups, and the stories you read won't be vying against yours for progress through the first and sound rounds. However, it is possible that your story and the putative better-than-your story face off in the final. So, does it make sense for you to eliminate it early, against this possibility?
For a couple of reasons, I think not. If you eliminate this story, then a less good story will end up in the final with you. All finalist stories get published, so the issue will be overall weaker than it could have been. The weaker the issue, the fewer people who will be enthused about it and the less cachet which will attach to the journal. So even if you did win against the artificially weakened competition, it'll count for less, and indeed I would think that runner-up to an excellent story is, for all concerned, better than winner over a less good story. Remember, what's good for the journal is good for you, as writer and editor of the journal. So I think the rational, self-interested thing to do is promote the best stories, because that will increase faith in the journal, making any successes of yours in that journal valuable. But less rational-self-interesty, you should score good stories fairly because you're an editor, damnit, and it's your responsibility. This should be thought of as a collaborative project in which we work together to produce the strongest issue, even if your story isn't among it.
9 HOW WILL YOU ENSURE ADEQUATE DIVERSITY, AND AVOID PEOPLE READING STUFF THEY DON’T WANT TO?
One reason for having editors is that they can select works that represent the breadth of people writing, and indeed can serve to amplify the voices of those otherwise marginalised. One might fear that without such centralised editorial control, decentre will lack this.
That’s not so, however. Although it won’t be in the first trial iteration I'm currently seeking participants for, we will introduce reading waivers so as to incentivise underrepresented groups to submit work: if you identify as belonging to an underepresented group, you have to read fewer stories to submit (conversely, if you're some archduke with long days to while away in your castle, you can volunteer for extra reading.)
A related issue is that to be an editor requires a willingness to read just about anything. You open the file and you don’t know what’s coming. That’s not for everyone, and it isn’t something I want to require of the submitters to decentre. To that end, we will have trigger warnings. You specify some keywords when submitting your story, and if someone is assigned to read your story but doesn’t want to because of its keywords, they can pass and it will be reassigned (if you hate trigger warnings, please don’t let this dissuade you from submitting! We could use your willing-to-read-everything nature in circumstances like this!)
Initially, decentre won’t pay. We can look to the possibility of changing that later (every one chips in a couple $ and winner gets the proceeds? links to paypal.me? adverts? Ads which mine cryptocurrency (not joking, this might work in this particular case)? This is one area where I want to hear the thoughts of others.)
11 WHO ARE YOU? WHY SHOULD I ENTRUST MY WORK TO YOU?
You can find out information about me here. I have experience as both a writer and an editor. For fun, I write fiction and submit, unsuccessfully, to literary magazines (I do have a novella coming out though, in case that increases your faith in my literary bona fides). For work, I co-edit a journal of academic philosophy. So I know both sides of the equation, and in particular I know that even with talented, well meaning writers (I am one, I think, but I definitely know some) and talented, well meaning editors (again, I think this applies to me but know it applies to people I know) unsatisfying results abound. Writers languish unread; editors are swamped. This is my attempt to make things better for both sides. Feel free to get in touch with me personally using one of the many means modern life affords us if you want to talk about this project.
11 SHOULD I SUBMIT?You should submit if:
#You take writing seriously. You draft and redraft and think about your craft. You read those unhelpful 'writer's tips' when procrastinating. You have a submittable account. You have a story which you love that's maybe been bouncing around places for a while that you just want people to read already.
#You take reading seriously. You want to read new work. You find that the best work you encounter is often not the hyped stuff, but the obscure blogspot personal essays, or the poems that get retweeted into your twitter feed from some stranger, or the small press novel from 10 years ago you pick up in a second hand book store whose author doesn't seem to exist online. You think there's good writing out there that you and everybody else is missing, and you don't want to miss it any more.
#You like the thought of being part of something bigger than you, of chipping in to make something good, that (mostly) celebrates writing and reading for their own sake.
12 WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS?Pros of submitting:
#Somebody will definitely read your work, soon.
#A few dozen might read it, too, again rather soon.
#If successful, your work will get promoted by a bunch of erstwhile strangers to their erstwhile stranger friends, at the very minimum getting your name in those stranger's heads.
#You'll get to read new writing direct, unfiltered by the apparatus of fame and gatekeeping that results in much good work languishing for years unread. The only filter is the anonymous judgements of anonymous readers like yourself.
Cons of submitting:
#We guarantee some readers, but even in the best case scenario, you won't get as many readers as you would in any fancy literary magazine. The New Yorker this isn't. And it'll be a while before it even gets as many readers as your average mid tier online literary magazine (probably, it's very hard to find stats on how many people actually read what such magazines publish).
#This is extremely experimental: it could go wrong in any number of ways. You shouldn't get too bummed out if the whole thing is a disaster.
13 HOW CAN I GET IN TOUCH?
Email us at this address. And sign up for the below mailing list. We won't spam you and we'll use signups and messages as a metric of how much people are interested in this project. If you're keen on getting started soon, register interest by sending us an email.
14 HOW DO I KNOW YOU OR OTHERS WON'T STEAL MY IDEAS?
In a traditional journal, you send your work to some identified people. If it were to happen that that identified person, or even someone related to the journal, were to come out with a piece very similar to yours, you'd have both reason and the means to complain. You would have receipts: you could go public, if you wished, pointing out the situation, how you submitted (showing the email, maybe), then that person came out with something similar. For that reason alone (and there are many others) the chances of plagiarism are extremely low.
It might seem the chances of plagiarism are higher here. A bunch of strangers will be reading your work, whose anonymity might, it seems, prevent you from holding people accountable for plagiarism.
This, though, is not so. In the (in my view extremely) unlikely that a reader stole your idea, there will be in the system a record of when your story was submitted, and when and to whom it was assigned, and, if it seems like there's a decent case to be made that something untoward has happened, that information will be made available. Although the system is anonymous for the users, all the requisite information will be stored in a big database. There are various ways to implement this, that need to be decided on; the key point is, you needn't worry about plagiarism more here than anywhere else.