I’ve been thinking a lot about my motivations behind trying to publish, and I’ve got 3 theories worked out. They’re sorted from least to most probable. It is descriptive of my own reasoning and not intended to be prescriptive.
The first way is the most complicated, and also the most problematic. We’re going to assume that a piece of fiction is an experiment. I should clarify that by an experiment, I don’t mean what is commonly referred to as “experimental fiction” — I simply mean that we should consider the story like we would a scientific experiment. We can then assume that the piece will achieve varying degrees of success or failure. While one could argue that the author should be the judge of the story’s success, it makes more sense that a reader should judge this, the reader being more objective and less personally involved with the piece. So, in this situation, the writer sets the conditions of the experiment, performs it, and the reader determines its success. The writer requires a reader for the piece to be evaluated as successful.
There’s plenty of issues with this model. First, there’s the issue of the term “experimental.” Stories are not analogous to experiments — experiments involve concrete, logical systems, where fiction is more scattershot, less organized.
There’s also the issue of the reader’s involvement in the story. A person evaluating the success and failure of a scientific experiment is not involved in the process of the experiment. The reader, however, is directly involved in the “experiment,” or the manifestation of the piece. Their active reading of the piece is different than any other person’s reading, thus creating an inevitably subjective view. Which is fine, we create subjective viewpoints of works of fiction every time we read them. But it makes the process of an experiment impossible.
A second possible reason is to be involved in a community. I like this reason a lot, despite its flaws. A community provides support, allows for the exchange of ideas.
The chief complaint is pretty well articulated by M Kitchell here: “I offered the idea that lit journals are futile as literally nobody reads them except for writers, and generally writers who are interested in being published by said magazine.”
The problem isn’t that the readers are all just aspiring writers. I think that’s fine — I want to get published in places that I respect and who feature work that I enjoy. That’s not exactly controversial. And, yes, that implies that the audience will be small, but, well, whatever. There’s plenty of other art forms that provide bigger audiences (self-flagellation, breakdancing).
It’s the attitude that smaller lit mags only exist as stepping stones to larger ones. I tend to think that this motive is self-defeating (if you’re only focused on the game of getting published then you’re not focusing on the quality of the work), but it’s difficult to determine people’s motives for publishing. A person can say they’re trying to publish for purely altruistic reasons, but maybe they don’t know themselves well enough to know that they’re doing it to stroke their own ego.
The last reason gets a little abstract: publishing fiction as a method of communication.
There’s some obvious problems with that, namely that communication is usually best done directly. If I’m trying to tell you that the best sandwich shop in Denver is Fat Jacks, I’m not going to compose a libretto. Instead, for this reason to be legitimate you have to assume that there are ideas and concepts that are best communicated through fiction.
The best example of this that I know if is the response to the murder of women in Juarez in the novel 2666 by Roberto Bolano. The murders have been and are occurring on such a scale that it’s incredibly difficult (maybe impossible) to understand the magnitude. Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s novel Desert Blood addresses the murders very directly, but it doesn’t really get at the larger, cultural forces behind them. Bolano’s novel is more wide reaching — it addresses the murders both from the ground level (The Part About the Murders) and indirectly (pretty much the rest of the book). The subject of violence against women is a massive cultural problem — it is almost too big to be communicated. You end up swimming in the subject, rather than addressing it.
I don’t think any of these reasons is a final and all encompassing reason to try and publish writing, but they push a little closer to a reason. There’s just one more reason, a really basic one — if you spend a ridiculous amount of time alone in a room working on something, isn’t it a natural human reaction to share that thing?