[A friend and colleague has asked me, "What are your thoughts now about Fictionaut?" His are mostly critical, and he seem perplexed by the site's notion of "publishing" -- which means simply uploading to the site. Someone else may be interested in this discussion, so I'm posting my response here. I'd be interested in your reactions.]
Yes, as could only be expected, the comments [on stories in Fictionaut] are mostly gushes of praise without critique. If someone doesn't especially like a story, I suppose he just passes on without leaving a comment. So it doesn't work as a fiction workshop, which would have to be seriously critical. It's simply (for me) a place to park stories I hope somebody will look at while I seek some other, more selective publisher. Except that I (like other users) have also sometimes posted a story that has already been successful elsewhere, in hopes of impressing the crowd. "Melliflua" always seems to make a hit.
The only serious on line fiction workshop I know is Zoetrope. I used to post there often, and may return. You are not permitted to upload a story until you have earned the right by critiquing a certain number (3? 5? - I don't remember) of other stories, and there are intelligent guidelines for critiques. "Melliflua" is one of the stories I posted there, where it was spotted by a woman who edited In Posse and who asked me to submit it. That doesn't happen often, but the fact that it can happen makes the site especially attractive.
What is "publishing" today? I think we have to go back to its basic, core meaning: making publicly accessible, "publicly" implying people you don't personally know. The Fictionaut public used to be limited to registered users, but I guess it is now open to anyone with an Internet connection. Like my blog and your web page.
So today the challenge is not to get published. That is now easier than it has been for millennia, since the days when a singer of epics could gather the whole tribe around him or herself. (Something recently brought to mind a course I took in college with Albert Lord, author of Singer of Tales, about those epic singers. Lord was convinced that the Iliad and Odyssey had been composed and originally "published" in the same way as Serbian epics sung to the rhythm of the one-stringed gusle. But I digress.)
The challenge, as I started to say, is not to get published but to get read, and especially to get read by people who like the kind of things we write. That's where book-producing houses and Internet sites with critical editing ("publishers") are useful. Certain Internet sites have developed a readership larger than you are likely to find on your own, and the older-style publishers still producing paper artifacts sometimes promote their products effectively. If you publish your own stuff, you can still get it read, but it takes more effort and a lot of connections to draw attention to it.