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Copyright © 1997 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.

Nasty, Brutish, and Short Stories: Introduction

by J. Neil Schulman

"[In a state of nature] No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
--Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [1651]

Okay, you got me.

This collection of short stories probably doesn't have a lot to do with Hobbes' musings, over three centuries ago, about the necessity for government so that we don't all live in a state of nature, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." It's just a writer's trick.

You see, this is a book of short stories. Short. Get it? I had to come up with a title. So, after playing around with titles having to do with strawberry short cake, short cuts, and short-sheeted beds, I remembered the quote from Hobbes.

On the other hand, some of these stories do have an anti-statist bent to them, and I do have a few acts of nastiness, brutality, and foreshortened lives within, so maybe I just can get away with this title after all, without being accused of cheating.

I have been threatening to publish a collection of my short stories for about seven years. When I first published several of my books through my old electronic publishing company, SoftServ, back around 1990, I included an "Also by J. Neil Schulman" file which included such forthcoming titles as The Second Remove and Other Departures and The Musician and Other Musings. As it happens, most of the worthwhile nonfiction material I intended to publish under those titles, along with the short stories of those titles, has already been published in other of my books -- which left the question of what to do with the fiction.

I have not written a lot of fictional short stories to begin with, and some of my early short stories are rightfully packed up in boxes in my storage locker -- and deserve to remain there. So, until recently, I just didn't have enough short stories available to justify a collection.

But over the last few years, Brad Linaweaver -- a prolific writer of fine short stories, himself -- has encouraged me to get back into writing short fiction, and I am just at the minimum threshhold which makes a collection of short stories book length.

Putting together a collection of stories that go back to when I started writing is not without its embarrassments. It has a lot in common with going through an album of family photos; and a casual stranger may rightfully wonder why I think anyone else would be interested in them.

That is, however, the risk of publishing anything I write in any case, I have found. For reasons not entirely clear to me, some earlier things I've written which I consider inferior to things I wrote later when I knew better what I was doing, are more accessible to readers than the later works.

With my first short story, "The Second Remove," in particular, I just don't know what to think or feel about the sixteen-year-old kid who started writing it, and the twenty-year-old who decided it needed a polish. I do not feel as if I wrote this story, although I remember the details of writing and rewriting. I worshipped J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye at that age, and the influence of that book on my story is somewhere between an homage and stylistic plagiarism. But this story, and the reactions I got to it, probably account for my deciding to stick to being a writer. My Aunt Henri liked the story so much she gave it to Sybil Conrad, a friend of hers who wrote children's books; and Sybil thought well enough of it to pass it along to her literary agent, Bonnie Bryant at the Curtis Brown Agency. So, at age sixteen, because of this story, I found myself being represented by what many considered at the time to be the most prestigious literary agency in New York. Bonnie Bryant submitted the story on my behalf to the top magazine-fiction markets, publications such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. It didn't sell to any of them, but just having your literary agent send your stuff out to the same magazines that had published your literary icons was an exhilerating experience for a sixteen-year-old, who was just beginning to consider writing as a career possibility.

In fact, I was not to make a sale of a short story I'd written for another decade -- and by that time I'd had my first novel published and my second novel was under contract and almost completed. The first short story I ever managed to get paid for was "The Musician." Until that time, the only publications that I managed to place my short stories in were New Libertarian Notes and its eventual successor, New Libertarian, both published by my friend, Samuel Edward Konkin III.

Sam didn't pay at that time ... and I often had to collate, staple, and mail out the magazines to boot.

Given the pile of rejections slips I'd built up for the short stories I'd already written, it's not surprising that I didn't spend more effort writing more of them. Oddly enough, it was easier for me to sell a novel than a short story.

"The Second Remove" isn't the only story in this collection that I release after hesitation.

"Benny Rich is Dead" is a joke written as a short story. It may only be funny to a New Yorker, which I was when I wrote it. I kept on trying to get Sam Konkin to publish it. We even went so far as to have illustrations made up for it. But Sam, in his wisdom, kept on putting it off. Sorry, Sam. After a quarter of a century, the story is now officially withdrawn from publication, unless you change your decades-long policy of not doing reprints.

"For the Sake of Ten Men" is a thinly disguised libertarian tract, which makes several points I don't even agree with any more. If I wrote such a story today, I'd be much more accurate in describing military protocols. In any event, I'd feel it necessary to research them, which it's evident to me, in reading this now, I didn't do. But I decided to put the story back into print, its shortcomings notwithstanding, because I find it prescient in some respects: I was cynical enough to make some good guesses. And, I find its main point is still interesting.

"Diary of a Former Science Fiction Writer" is interesting for its point of view. I was writing first person as a science-fiction writer -- and I wasn't one yet which is, I suppose, a form of science-fiction, itself. Like "Benny Rich is Dead," it's as much a joke as it is a short story.

"Pilgrim's Egress" is an unabashed allegory, in the tradition of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and C.S. Lewis's own riff on Bunyan, Pilgrim's Regress. I don't know that anybody likes the allegorical form any more; but if you do, here's mine -- with a little Groucho Marx and Wizard of Oz thrown in for flavoring.

The remaining stories in this collection are some of what I consider my best work in any form. I won't make any apologies for them. If you like them, great. If you don't like them, well, I still do. My only comments on these stories are that "The Musician" draws heavily from my background as the son of a concert violinist; I wrote "The Repossessed" in one day because I had a speech I was supposed to give to a libertarian supper club and didn't have a topic I wanted to talk about; "Day of Atonement" was an idea I tossed off in a conversation with Brad Linaweaver and he liked it so much he asked me to write it instead of the story I'd planned to write for Free Space; and "When Freemen Shall Stand" is probably both my most uplifting and depressing story -- depending on your point of view. It's the story of mine that I think Robert Heinlein would have liked the best.

And now, permit me to put on my publisher's hat and say a few words about the marketing of this book.

About 1987, I got the idea that the existing publishing industry wasn't as interested in publishing the sorts of things I wanted to write as I was interested in writing them. A professional writer, concerned only with sales, would have decided to write what the market wanted to buy instead of what he wanted to write. But, I started in this business because I wanted to write things which had a lot of my own ideas in them. I found that if there wasn't an idea that interested me, I was simply incapable of producing pages filled with coherent sentences and paragraphs. I started exploring other alternatives, and began looking into the possibilities of using data communication as an alternative publishing medium to printed books.

So, at the end of 1987, I started a company called SoftServ Publishing, and by 1990, I was running an online service on a major computer network which made books by established authors available for download. The details of that story are to be found in my two-volume paperless booktm, Book Publishing in the 21st Century, available on the Pulpless.Comtm web site. That the book you are now reading is being distributed here is a proof that the idea works.

But, at this stage of development, there just aren't enough sales to allow a writer to make a living doing this. I believe this is a temporary limitation which will end as hand-held computers get better and cheaper, thus becoming competitive with printed books in comfort and ease of use.

For the ten years I've been distributing books via the computer and data-communications media, my idea was to make the selling of paperless bookstm as close to the selling of printed books as possible. Instead of binding printed pages with stitching and glue, text files would be bound with compression archiving. But, whether bound stitched or zipped, the book would be bought by the reader and then read.

After seeing sales figures for paperless bookstm topping off in the hundreds and comparing these to the thousands of copies I was able to distribute in two months of The Frame of the Century?, it became clear to me that it was possible to achieve distribution of a book on the World Wide Web that was competitive to the distribution of a successful book through bookstores. The only problem was that you had to give the books away to the reader for free -- which is not too good for paying the rent and buying groceries -- things writers need to do as much as anybody else.

About six weeks ago, I had a new idea.

Since I could achieve distribution but not get the end-user to pay for it, I asked myself, why not do what magazines and broadcasters do: give the product away for free -- and make the money for the distributor and the writer by selling advertising?

Nasty, Brutish, And Short Stories is my experimental entry into this new marketing plan. If I can find sponsors willing to pay for advertising in paperless bookstm,instead of making their advertising buys in radio, TV, and print ads, then we just may have found a way to open up a new writing market and a new advertising medium at the same time -- a synergistic new marketplace.

I think this new marketplace would be good for freedom of the press. I have been sorely bothered by the idea that while a few conglomerates now control the publishing industry, a bunch of fine writers I know can't make a living writing any more.

This is unacceptable for a society which has any plans for creating a decent future for its children -- a future in which good novels and short stories aren't an antiquity, the way sonatas and symphonies have become.

If you have a product you think would be suitable for advertising inside a book to be downloaded from the World Wide Web -- or, if you have a business or institution which would simply like to support writers in their pursuit of literary excellence in the way that companies like Texaco used to sponsor live television plays -- email me at jneil@pulpless.com.

Of course, if you discover that reading books has value even if you might want to to supply your own paper, I hope you'll consider buying some of the other books for sale here on the Pulpless.Comtm web site.

Forget about making the world safe for democracy. If anything is nasty, brutish, and short-lived, those sorts of plans usually are. But with any luck at all, we may just make the world safe for literacy.

--JNS, August 3, 1997



Go to The Repossessed.

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