For the past two weeks I have made an almost daily visit to the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, an electronic world of art, film, and literature. An artist’s idyllic illustration describes a Southern California façade peopled with artists, writers and filmmakers. I click my cursor on the “short story building” and enter a virtual structure where aspiring short story authors convene. I’m looking for reviews of my story, “The Tiger Tamer,” which I submitted two weeks ago. It is on the “live” page, which means it’s available for reading. My story has been at the virtual studio for only two weeks, but now it appears way down the queue below hundreds of other stories that have come in since. This is a popular site, and it is sobering to realize how many short stories are floating around in the vast cosmos of digital technology. Since Francis Coppola opened the Zoetrope website six years ago, 81,000 people have become members, 61,000 submissions have been entered, and 426,000 reviews have been generated. At Zoetrope, writers submit their stories for other writers to read. Everyone reviews everyone else’s work. Authors hope for high rankings because that may get them the attention of a Zoetrope editor. A big draw to this virtual world is the possibility of publication in Zoetrope Magazine, or being featured in e-magazines, or winning recognition through literary awards. Another allure is the constructive criticism of the requisite peer reviews. Guidelines stipulate that after your story is submitted, you must read and review five stories by other writers on a list assigned to you. Only then are you allowed access to the reviews of your story, which you anxiously await. Reviewing writers are admonished to be kind, supportive and insightful. If a writer breaks the rules of etiquette with meanness, he or she will be banished from the site. There are no appeals in this genteel virtual world. Eager to read reviews of “The Tiger Tamer,” I downloaded the required five stories, read them and reviewed them. Critics are archetypal curmudgeons, but I showed restraint and followed the rules of the studio. A shunning, even if it’s virtual, would be painful. Reviewing forced me to focus analytically on language, content, characters, plot – all the elements that make a story. In my role as critic, I discovered insights into my own stories that will hopefully improve them, or at least raise the BS alarm. Peer reviews are generally well-tempered because writers working alone in the vacuum of their creativity are mostly sensitive to the feelings of others. Writers need recognition, feedback, and acknowledgment, which is what Zoetrope provides. When the first review of my story came in, I found it flattering, generous, encouraging, and kind. It made me feel better, so I ranked the reviewer, Miranda, an English teacher living in Japan, with five stars. This enhances her credibility as a reviewer. She wrote: “I really liked reading this. I think it does what all stories should do, ultimately, which is to illuminate human nature and raise as many questions as it answers. Thank you for this creative and original meditation on human nature.” Another reviewer was not so kind. Paul, a composition teacher, wrote: “The last 4-5 paragraphs? Coitus interuptus, or what? Don’t leave your fellow writers with blue balls or we’ll take away your spa privileges. Write it over and give us an ending that shows the passion you gave your characters, not some 11th-hour tax write-off!” I gave Paul only three stars. Maybe that’s not fair, but hey, this is a virtual world, and I will construct my reality with as much positive input as possible. That’s why Miranda will be dropping in at my virtual office next week for a virtual cup of coffee, while Paul is left twiddling his thumbs in my virtual waiting room.Paul Andersen wonders what else this virtual life could bring. His column appears on Mondays.
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