Andy Hunter is the founder and chairman of Electric Literature, a “non-profit dedicated to amplifying the power of storytelling through digital innovation.” Since its inception in 2009, Electric Literature has
driven the expansion of publishing and literary discussion into the web sphere. Originally a quarterly journal, it has since expanded into multiple publications and continues to make waves on online publication scene. Now in 2015, Electric Literature is compromised of and contributes to numerous publishing projects and journals, including Recommended Reading (a widely read tumblr-based fiction magazine) and Okey-Panky. Hunter currently resides in Brooklyn. Below, see our interview with him about Electric Literature and his thoughts on writing.
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What drew you to writing, and what prompted you to start Electric Literature?
I had a strange, unstable childhood, and I was terrible at sports, so naturally I found comfort in books. I read constantly, and it expanded my knowledge of myself and the world around me. The awe I felt for the creators of great books, and my gratitude, made me want to write.
But I am a perfectionist, which makes me a procrastinator when it comes to my writing, because so much bad writing inevitably must be plowed through to reach the good, and it’s always hard to face bad writing. So I do other things that occupy my time, like start companies. In some sense everything I do other than write is productive procrastination.
I started Electric Literature because at the time (2009) literary writers and publishers were not engaging with the Internet, by and large. They felt threatened by it, and generally seemed to feel there was an inherent superficiality in digital media. It seemed clear to me that there was an opportunity for someone who had a more optimistic view of technology. To wit: it can connect a lot of people, and writing is ultimately about connection. Also, culture is what people are talking about—it’s a reciprocal process. Our culture was moving online. That meant that if literary culture was not active there, advocating for good books, talking shit, making noise, and engaging readers, then literary culture would diminish and the doomsayers would be proven right.
Now, in 2015, things aren’t so dire. Salman Rushdie and Joyce Carol Oates are stirring things up on Twitter. Books matter and get attention online. Electric Literature has an audience of 700,000 people every month. Literary Hub, which we co-founded, has reached a million people since its launch in April. We are just one voice agitating for literary culture online, and there are many. But every voice matters, I think.
Do you believe that the more liberal Internet has benefited or been detrimental to the pursuit of finding 'good' writing?
This is a very hard question to answer, because it requires you unpack so many things. Is there less ‘good’ writing out there now then there was pre-internet? No. There’s about the same amount. But the percentage of good writing vis-a-vis the total amount of writing is much lower, because the democratization of media and culture fueled by the Internet has empowered so many people, most of whom are not good writers. So we are surrounded by much more bad writing, while the amount of good writing has stayed about constant. However, who can say that this outpouring of creative work is a bad thing? There are virtues to writing beyond writing something good. Writing fuels introspection, exercises empathy, and helps us understand ourselves and our place in the world. So a world in which everyone is a writer is a better world, I think, and working a little harder to find the good writing is a small price to pay.
The real enemy of good writing is the class and social barriers that winnow the ranks of writers to a mostly privileged, upper middle class group of people who have not lived lives of variety, wide ranging experience, or adventure. There are too many people out there telling variations of the same stories. Writers need to live more, and take more risks. And people who are outside of the typical writer demographic need to be encouraged to express themselves.
And if by ‘liberal’ you mean the fact that people on the Internet get touchy and call people out on their lack of gender, racial, political and cultural sensitivity, I don’t mind too much. I don’t think it stifles much good writing, and I think it’s the price to pay for progress, most of the time. But (and, as they say, it’s a big but): If you don’t defend free expression, you’re an enemy of art. So calling attention to something you find problematic is okay, but trying to shame or pillory someone out of existence for something they said or wrote is not. It really troubles me how the mob tries to silence voices, especially because they typically go after their own. It’s the narcissism of small differences—progressives attack other progressives for saying one dumb thing, while the real horrors and villains are ignored.
How does the ever-changing internet affect your work?
I’m glad it changes. I would get bored otherwise. You have to always be aware of audience habits and how media consumption is evolving, what platforms are emerging as important for which demographics, and where opportunity lies. When we started Electric Literature, search engines were extremely important. Now more than half of traffic comes from social networks, and SEO is an afterthought. That doesn’t bother me a bit. We form great communities on social networks – about 130,000 people on Facebook, almost 200,000 on Twitter – and I like the dialog you can have in those places. Generally, my philosophy is that change is opportunity. We’ve grown every time we’ve identified a change and adapted to it.
In terms of my own writing, the changing Internet hasn’t affected it a bit. I would write on a typewriter if I could, but they’re too noisy for the office and too heavy to haul to a café.
What does modernized literature look like to you? Where do you draw the line between contemporary and abstract?
I don’t draw any lines. Everything is permissible. The only trouble with experimentation is it’s easy to fail, because you’re not working in an established form. And sometimes it’s hard to even tell if you’ve succeeded, for the same reason—the criteria of success isn’t obvious. So there’s a lot of pretentious and unsuccessful experimental work out there, but man, if you can pull it off and do it well, it can be stunning. For me, successful modernized literature ranges all the way from books by Nell Zink and Claudia Rankine to Melissa Broder’s Twitter alter ego, @sosadtoday. I don’t believe in high and low culture; I don’t support a hierarchy in the arts. I like it when writing is some combination of smart, funny, moving, empathetic, intuitive, and interesting. It can be careful or sloppy, it can be on Twitter or in hardcover, it can adhere to a three hundred year old form or a platform invented two years ago, who cares? If it works, it works.
What does the future hold for Electric Literature and your own career?
I’m happy to say that Electric Literature’s audience has doubled almost every year since we launched, and in July 2015 we had almost a million readers. I believe our weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading, has a higher readership for literary short stories than any other outlet besides The New Yorker. So Electric Literature will keep growing, I hope. We’ll keep launching new projects like Okey-Panky, our wonderful new magazine headed up by the novelist J. Robert Lennon. We’ll experiment with new platforms and forms. Our mission is to use technology to keep literature a vibrant part of popular culture, so we’ll keep doing that.
My own career is bound up in Catapult.co, a new publishing project launching in September. Catapult is an ecosystem that supports emerging writers, and is dedicated to publishing extraordinary stories. We’ll publish books, host writing classes taught by writers we love, and host a daily editorial website with fiction and nonfiction content. I’ll strive to make it a successful business model for independent literary publishing.
What advice do you have for our readers?
If you’re a writer, write. Do it daily. Most people aren’t honest about it, but almost everything you do is fueled by habit. Not inspiration, and not motivation. Just habits. A good habit has a trigger—say, your morning coffee—and a response—say, writing for two hours. And you can no more write a great novel without first developing a serious habit of writing than you can play a great piece on a piano without practicing. You need to put in the time, and you need to do a lot of bad writing before you become a good writer. You need to be rejected and ignored and stubbornly continue. If you continue, you’ll be fine.