Sean Bishop on Better
Tell me about the creation of Better. When and how and why was it conceived?
I started building Better in early 2012, about a year and a half after finishing my two-year gig as the managing editor of Gulf Coast. I just missed being an editor, basically, and I wanted to get back into it, to push further with what I'd learned and accomplished back at the University of Houston.
It seemed very clear to me that the future of literary magazine publishing was online, because a lot more exciting and versatile things can be done in that format, it's a hell of a lot cheaper to produce, and it can reach a much wider audience than ink-and-paper publishing. But most online literary journals at the time weren't well regarded. Writers saw them as inferior to print journals, partly out of snooty ignorance, but also because most online journals were just aping the conventions of ink-and-paper publishing without exploring the audio, video, nonlinear, and interactive capabilities of the Internet. People saw them as being an easy, amateurish alternative to print publication, but that wasn't quite right: the real problem was that those early online journal editors were trying to play ice hockey on a soccer field. And many still are.
So the motivation was (and is) simple: let's build a better online journal, and show the world what online literary publishing can (and should) look like. Let's destroy this old dumb notion that "real" publishing is the kind that gets mailed to a few hundred or at best a few thousand people, but then sits unread beside the junk mail. It was a very simple (and also, we knew, conceited and egotistical) idea, so we gave the magazine an equally simple, self-consciously conceited, tongue-in-cheek but also dead-serious name: Better.
What makes Better different from other places to encounter poetry (and fiction and nonfiction and art) on the internet?
Well, for starters, we feature audio and video of (almost) everything we publish, in addition to the traditional text versions. We think that the experience of reading a poem is made a lot richer when you have the option of hearing and seeing it in the voice and from the body that wrote it. Reading / watching / listening to Better is sort of like attending a poetry reading, except you can be naked in your apartment if you want, and you can hit the "pause" button if you get bored, without offending the writer.
In all genres—but especially in nonfiction and art—Better is able to feature mixed-media and interactive work, so that when you read Katya Apekina's audio-comic, Line Kallmayer's lyric essay about Vatican exorcist Padre José Fortea, Elena Passarello's essay about Frank Sinatra, or Steve Wasserman's essay about Frédéric Bourdin and the Backstreet Boys, you don't need to be intimately familiar with those contexts, references, back-stories, or subjects before reading: you can listen to the songs, and watch the video clips under discussion, within the context of the essays and stories themselves.
And then I guess one final thing that sets Better apart is that we tend to feature more women than men on the site (by our best guess, there are fifteen female-identified contributors in our most recent issue, six male-identified contributors, and at least one genderqueer contributor). This is completely accidental, although of course we care very much about gender parity. We just publish the best stuff submitted to us, and as it turns out, we seem to receive more submissions and better submissions from women. I know a lot of editors have been stressed out recently (and sometimes even annoyed or openly hostile) by community pressures to publish more women, especially with the increasing influence of the VIDA count, but that hasn't been Better's experience at all. If anything we might need to start making a conscious effort to publish a few more men.
What is something that you have recently published that really excited you, and why?
Oh, wow. We really do love everything we publish, so I'll just stick to a few of the bookless up-and-comers and the poetry-related features here, since this is a PSA interview and all. We're very proud of our text-based interactive browser adventure "POET The Game," which was written by Glenn Shaheen and programmed by yours truly. In terms of straight-up poetry, though, we see very big things in the future for Lo Kwa Mei-en, Tyler Gobble, Eric Kocher, Natalie Eilbert, Jessica Fjeld, Henry Walters, and Lauren Russell, to name just a few.
What should someone submitting work to Better know about the site?
The other thing you should know before you submit to Better is that if we accept your work, we're going to ask you to record a video of yourself reading the poem / story / essay / whatever. If you're not comfortable with that—or if you're going to insist on submitting a long shot of trees and butterflies with your voice playing behind it—then Better is probably not the venue for you. We're working very hard to reach a day when all of our published works, without exception, include audio and video versions. That said, we don't want shyness to prevent anyone from submitting—we just want those submitters to take a brave step away from shyness! Take the plunge! We wish everyone would be less self-conscious about shooting the videos, because we genuinely love the simplicity and often the strangeness or awkwardness of our writers' recordings, warts and all. That's part of their charm.
What other literary sites, journals, or broadcasts, online or print, are your go-to?
Jeez. Another hard question. We are, of course, admirers of the Electronic Literature Organization and Born magazine (which is tragically now defunct), who beat us to the punch by far in terms of trying to push the boundaries of what online literary publishing might look like. We also like A Public Space, The Believer, Black Warrior Review, and jubilat. And we love Gulf Coast, obviously, because it's the mother that birthed and raised many of Better's founding editorial staff. There are so many others, though. I'm probably forgetting something huge and obvious. But that's the nature of the game: there's no shortage of amazing journals out there.