My eternal life in cyberspace

How the Internet made me a star (without even asking me)

I recently received an intriguing e-mail message from a Canadian college professor.

“The Quebec Ministry of Education,” she wrote, “chose your short story Magic Jane for inclusion on a standardized test of literary analysis and written expression.”

Raymond Carver and I, together at last.

She was writing, she said, to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my story, even though, as a result of its being on the test, she’d had to read and evaluate hundreds of student-written essays about it.

Wait a minute. One of my stories was being used to evaluate Canadians?

I hadn’t submitted this story to the Quebec Ministry of Education. I’d never even <i>heard</i> of the Quebec Ministry of Education!

On the Ministry’s website, I learned that, indeed, it administers a standardized test to college English majors three times a year, and that Magic Jane had been included on the last test.

Raymond Carver, too

I'd published Magic Jane years ago, in the Puckerbrush Review, a lovely Maine-based literary mag with a tiny circulation. I was “paid” two copies. A year ago, I’d posted it on a website called Fictionaut, to make it available to online readers. (To read Magic Jane, click here.)

Including, apparently, the Quebec Ministry of Education, which decided Magic Jane was just the thing for assessing the reading skills of Canadian college students, thus, unbeknownst to me, bringing thousands of new readers to my work. Not only that, but I was in excellent company. That same test had included a story by the major poet and short story writer Raymond Carver.

Thousands of readers! Ray Carver and me! Wow!

Of course, it wasn’t as if thousands of readers had flocked to Magic Jane of their own accord. Rather, it had been inflicted on them under test conditions.

Did I really want folks to read my work not for pleasure but while undergoing a standardized test?

An ”˜unknown author’

There was also the troubling fact that the folks at the Quebec Ministry of Education had neither asked my permission to use the story nor paid me a cent for it. (I presume they paid Ray Carver’s estate for using <i>his</i>.)

I e-mailed the contact person listed on the website. “I’m thrilled and grateful that you’ve brought my work to so many new readers,” I gushed. “But alarmed by the fact that you did this without asking me first. Or paying me.”

She wrote back promptly to tell me that because the Ministry considered me an “unknown author,” the royalties they owed me were sitting in a Canadian bank account, waiting for me to contact them.

Unknown author? There was a blow to my ego.

“I may not be Raymond Carver,“ I shot back, “But I do write for the <i>New York Times,</i> the <i>Huffington Post</i> and the <i>Broad Street Review</i>. Sure, I’ve been published in <i>Beatniks from Space</i>. But I”˜ve also been published in <i>Good Housekeeping</i>.”

(I refrained from pointing out that since the prof who’d first told me about the story had located me with a quick Google search. The Quebec Ministry, rather than sitting on my money, could have done the same.)

And now, the money

Still, I had to admire the Ministry’s business plan: You pay the big guns. But when it comes to small fry like me, you grab a story, make no effort to find the author, then wait for her to turn up clamoring to be paid.

Or not.

It was very”¦ efficient.

“I’m not an unknown writer,” I huffed. “I have a Facebook page. And a website! I”˜m easy to find if you take the trouble to look for me.”

“We’ve done the math and determined that we owe you $2,000,” she replied. “Do you want it or not?”

Two grand!

“Yes, please,” I said, backpedaling quickly. “And for that kind of dough, please help yourself to my writing whenever you want.”

Canadian kindness

When I posted this little back-and-forth on my Facebook page, several Canadian students who’d taken that test turned up to comment that they’d enjoyed reading Magic Jane, even under test conditions.

Which means either that I’d written a really wonderful story, or that Canadians are very kind.

When the check arrived, the cover letter said that 48,000 copies of the test had been administered.

Amazing. 48,000 readers!

So. You can publish a story in a literary mag, get paid two copies and reach a thousand people. But fling it into cyberspace and you could end up with 48,000 Canadian readers and a check for $2,000.

Or, if a kind Canadian fan of your work doesn’t take the trouble to reach out to you, 48,000 Canadian readers and no check at all.

Then and now

I began writing in the 1980s, when publishing meant getting into “print.” If I was lucky enough to get a story into a literary magazine, or even into <i>Seventeen,</i> it lived for just a month. Then it was gone.

Now everything I write lives forever on the web. I never know who is reading my work, where it might turn up next, and whether (or not) I”˜ll get paid for it.

The Canadian prof who’d first told me about  Magic Jane and the Quebec Ministry of Education got in touch one more time. She’d forgotten to tell me that, given a choice between my story and Carver’s, most of her students had chosen to write about mine.

Knowing that? Priceless!

I cashed the check anyway.

Our readers respond

Andy Johnson

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on October 22, 2013

Her "Magic Jane" is a great story! I've never read anything near so interesting on a U.S. standardized test.

Ellen Sue Jacobson

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on October 22, 2013

What a wonderful tale! Congrats!

Reed Stevens

of Campbell, CA on October 24, 2013

A great story! Our writers' lives need such encouraging words.
There's something about Maine. When I briefly lived in Portland in '76, a small weekly ran my tongue-in-cheek review of an art show I titled, "Bluestocking Reports." It was so nasty I was sure anyone would get the point.
Not so fast, Stevens! A few years later in Washington, D.C. I met some Maniac artists.
"So, you're the one who.."
I was launched.

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