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The Death of > kill author

The Death of > kill author

> kill author was an anonymously edited online journal that published twenty issues from 2009 to 2012. Although who ran the site was a mystery, the journal had a strong identity, which was present in all aspects of the project. Every issue of > kill author was titled after a writer: Roland Barthes, Donald Barthelme, Janet Frame, Grace Paley, David Markson… These names give a clear idea of the type of writing the site valued. The qualities of this writing were defined in the site’s manifesto as Imagination, Impact, Individuality, and Invention. > kill author embodied all of these traits and published a lot of outstanding work. I was sad to see it stop publishing and still remember it fondly.

Some people who contributed to the site shared their memories of it with me:

> kill author’s editorial veil of anonymity gave me the space as a new writer to feel like I could be a writer, could be a part of a community– at a time when both of those ideas seemed part alien, part blasphemy. That clean, gorgeous sparse plain was the digital landscape that started tearing up the page for me: destruction in the most firework way.

Caroline Crew

> kill author was, and remains, one of my favorite journals, online or otherwise. Though they were run anonymously, there was always a distinct editorial voice and intelligence behind >k.a., which showed itself in the choices made each issue: language-driven, often experimental work that was always really good. Of course were rumors about who was behind >k.a. You’d meet people who would tell you, with a sort of in-group satisfaction, that they knew, and would be happy to tell you, if you’d like. But I never wanted to know. I loved the fact that it was anonymous, that there was somebody out there willing to put so much care and love into something without hoping to cash in on the usual social capital that goes along with editorship. Not that I have any problem with Vaughan Simon taking all due credit now: I mean damn, twenty beautiful issues. That’s a hell of a run, sir. Thank you.

James Tadd Adcox

> kill author, which I sorely miss, was open to experimentation, risk-taking, and various other unconventional literary carrying-on. It was a congenial spot for someone like me whose writing falls between categories.

Howie Good

Vaughn Simons, the previously anonymous editor of > kill author, answered my questions about the journal:

Why did you first start > kill author? Was there anything specific you hoped to achieve with it?

Well, first I just want to say that I’m honoured to be invited to answer these questions given that > kill author ceased publication over four years ago, and was only in existence for about three years. Many thanks for that. I continue to be rather humbled when I see > ka mentioned online or even receive the occasional email about it.

As to why I started it, I guess there are a few reasons. First, I was heavily into the whole online literary scene at the time, but I also felt that it lacked – and certainly the leading names lacked – work that veered towards more experimental approaches. Frankly, I was seeing rather too many ‘childhood recollection’ stories, pieces that came across like desperately edgy attempts at second-rate Bukowski, and rather too much poetry based around nature themes (enough verse about trees and sunsets already). Having said all that, however, I’m about to contradict myself because I absolutely loathe the term ‘experimental’ as it’s utterly subjective depending on what you’ve read and experienced previously. So I guess, to put it more mundanely, many of the online literary journals in existence when > kill author began in 2009 seemed to have all too similar themes and styles. I simply wanted to produce something ‘different’, as vague as that sounds and whatever that might mean.

Second … well, your next question hints at that second reason, so I’ll answer it there.

Third: among many of the established online journals at the time, I got the feeling that being based on the web was seen a little as the poor relation. “Yes, we’re a website, but that’s only a means to an end because ultimately print is the only thing that matters, yeah?” – that kind of attitude. My career had been centred around the web for over ten years – it still is, in fact – and both in > kill author’s design and its approach I wanted to communicate pride in being online only. The design, for instance, had none of the approach of trying to look like a paper magazine that so many journals had at the time. No serif fonts. No paper texture background, thank you very much. Don’t forget that this was also at a time when e-readers were starting to gain popularity, so a few issues in I learned how to put together e-book versions too, thereby making it even clearer that the journal was a defiantly electronic proposition.

And the final reason? A mistaken sense of my own self-importance and far, far too much time on my hands. I think that’s behind much of anyone’s reasoning for starting literary magazines, to be honest. I’m happy to admit to it too.

Issues 1-3

Why did you decide to run the site anonymously? Did anyone know your true identity?

Back to that second reason, then. At the time > kill author started, the online literary scene seemed to be in thrall to the ‘cult of personality’. “Hey, the new issue of Effervescent Aardvark [or Corpulent Squirrel, Turtle-Faced Haddock, Walmart Uber Groover or simlar outré name] features crazy new work by hip dudes like Sasquatch Thundershack and Marcey Glitterbomb. Go get it. BANG. And it’s produced by the awesome 83-strong team of [lists apparently amazing people that most of us have never heard of]”. This kind of approach – along with the inexplicably huge number of editors apparently on the production team – seemed determined to build up its own mythology and thrived on the incestuous nature of the ‘scene’. To be brutally honest, I didn’t really give a shit about the names. It was the content I was interested in.

There’s also the salient fact that I was – and still am – a complete and utter nobody. My name listed as the editor would likely have received the response of “Uh … who?”

So the anonymity was a reaction against the personality-centric nature of the online literary scene – a hope that it would focus minds on each issue’s content – and, well, my own anonymity as a person.

Of course, I wasn’t unaware that this anonymous editorial approach would itself cause debate and become a ‘hook’ to reel people in, both in terms of reading and submitting work. But I can honestly say that I never thought it would become such a hot topic during the early months of publication. From referral links to the site, I found some shockingly viterupative comments threads saying that the editor(s) were cheating people and that whoever was behind > kill author should be ‘unmasked’. Violence was even threatened on one occasion. Incredible. I’m glad that as the journal stuck around the anonymity became less of a big deal and readers begin to appreciate > kill author for the work it published, nothing else.

The only person who knew my true identity was my partner at the time, but even then it was only after I started > ka. It’s not that I really made it some huge secret, but just that I’m utterly insignificant and no one who tried to guess remotely factored little old insignificant me as the editor(s) behind it.

Issues 4-6

How did you source the work you published? Was it all from open submissions or did you solicit as well?

Open submissions – even when > kill author was announced prior to the first issue – in all but two cases (I think, but my memory is hazy after all these years). Both those writers took their time to consider my approach, especially given the editorial anonymity, but graciously accepted. And no, I’m not saying who those two writers were – primarily because while I think I might have the names of the people correct, I can’t be entirely certain anymore. It would be unfair to put them on the spot.

How did you choose the authors whose names you titled the issues after?

In the comments I used to see online and in emails I received, people would come up with some grand theories on this subject. I frequently saw reasoning like “It’s so appropriate that [author] was the title of this issue, because the pieces by [Contributor X] and [Contributor Y] really echo their styles and themes”. If I responded, it was always to deny there was any deliberate link.

But four years after > kill author ceased publication, the truth can now be told. It was intricately and cunningly worked out.

Except it wasn’t.

I’m sorry, but there really was no connection between the authors chosen to title each issue and the pieces the issue contained. None. Absolutely none. Not even slightly. The authors and poets I chose were completely at random, simply because I liked their work. It’s really was that non-deep and non-meaningful.

Issues 7-9

Starting with Issue 11, each issue had a guest introduction. What’s the story behind those?

I’m not entirely sure. I think I just liked the idea of a gentle introduction to each issue, rather than just dropping the reader straight into the content, perhaps because it gave the impression of being a ‘collection’ that could be read from virtual cover to virtual cover. I’d done the ‘Letter from the Editors’ from Issue Five onwards, but I didn’t want to continue it myself because I thought it might reveal too much of my personality, so that’s when I arrived at the idea of guest editors. Unlike submissions, however, these writers were deliberately invited. They were given no instructions and had a free rein as regards style, theme and approach. The only thing I did request was that they didn’t just ignore the content of each issue entirely. They were given a preview of the forthcoming issue at a secret URL and they had to refer to pieces they liked in their guest introduction. As far as I can recollect, every guest intro writer always referred to every piece in the issue, never leaving one out – perhaps for fear that readers might assume any neglected piece was loathed.

How else did > kill author change over the years?

A few ways, but never too radically. The manifesto, such as it was, remained throughout

Perhaps the most radical change, but one which no one ever really saw, was very early on. The first couple of issues – and I shudder at this thought now – were produced as hand-coded HTML. I then realised that would soon become a ridiculous organisational nightmare and moved it all into WordPress. Which meant I could also produce a > kill author blog. Though the blog was always a bit rubbish, to be honest, which is why it ended up mostly consisting of the posts written by some of each issue’s contributors about the other pieces they liked from the same collection.

I began to produce PDF versions from Issue Four, December 2009. I think that happened because I received a few requests for it. I also realised that, well, as much as I wanted > kill author to be a completely online entity, swathes of text aren’t always pleasant to read on computer screens (and that’s especially true on 2009-10 computer screens). The e-book versions in both Kindle and Mobi formats followed in Issue 9, October 2010, complete with this now rather hilarious e-book guide on how to download your e-book to your newfangled reading device constructed entirely of magic crystals. “What be this wizardry?” etc.

In terms of content, I also introduced audio readings in later 2010, if the writers wanted to record them, and I tried to include more multimedia – though video content was  disappointingly rare.

Over the lifespan of > kill author I gradually selected a greater number pieces that were, perhaps, what might be regarded as more conventional stories, but still with a typical > kill author style based on the thing that invariably grabbed me most in a submission: the language. Writing that, as I described it, had “a desire to step out of the everyday… that experiment[ed] with form and language”. So, to return to an earlier point, there may have been some poetry about nature or some stories based around childhood recollections, which may not have featured earlier because I might well have dismissed it with a sigh. But when I did publish them later, it was because the language and style really grabbed my attention and provoked my imagination.

Issues 10-12

You published some of your own work on the site. Did you have any qualms about that?

I suppose I should say yes, shouldn’t I? I should confess with immense embarrassment that I did have qualms. But it would be a lie because I didn’t. And I still don’t. Why not? Because to be completely honest and perhaps rather immodest, if I hadn’t been the editor of > ka and only a reader, it would have been one of the literary journals that I would have been desperate to feature in. There were a handful of others too, I hasten to add, but I would definitely have been a huge fan of > kill author.

Ironically, from the other work I had written at the time, over the course of twenty issues and over four hundred pieces the two self-penned examples I ended up publishing weren’t even my best. I was never any good at the whole submissions game, not even when it came to submitting work to my own literary journal. I’m clearly an idiot.

What was your favourite thing about running > kill author?

The salacious emails I received, of course – full of lustful promises of sexual favours if only I would publish the writer’s work. I received precisely none of those. Pah, shouldn’t have been anonymous, should I?

More seriously … well, it was primarily all about the language. I can’t actually put it any better than > kill author’s own ‘About’ page that I wrote for the first issue in 2009. None of that has changed. The favourite thing was opening up a submission and reading language that seemed to come from some place else, that made my jaw drop with the inventive phrasing, the strangeness of it, writing that really made me want to get inside the mind of the author to find out where their words came from. I’ve always been an addict for captivating words.

The other favourite things: receiving an amazing submission from a writer I’d never heard of on the online literary scene. A new discovery. And receiving complimentary emails from readers who weren’t part of the ‘scene’, who didn’t do the constant merry-go-round of submitting to journals, maybe those who weren’t writers and had just happened across > kill author in some other way. There weren’t many such emails, true, but there were a few over a years, and that really thrilled me. It made it feel like  > ka had somehow reached outside that cocooned, incestuous world of the ‘lit scene’.

Issues 13-15

Why did > kill author come to an end?

Prosaic reasons: there was a risk I was becoming jaded by reading submissions singlehandedly. I didn’t want to find myself not treating each piece on its merits. I didn’t want to lose control of my critical judgement or indeed my entire mind if I read a story that began “It was the summer of ’86 and I’d just joined the school field hockey team”, a poem that started “The birds / fly between the tree branches / cooing and tweeting in that way / that birds do / like wow, man”, or a piece in which the main subject had ingested 73 lines of cocaine, shot heroin into their eyeballs and killed 17 people before the end of the first paragraph. Because after those terrible openings there might have been something that would make my jaw drop again. (Unlikely, I know, but it could have happened).

Producing > kill author was a lot of work, especially at a time when my life was changing: I’d just left a job I’d had for nearly fifteen years, and I was suddenly wondering what I was going to do with my life. (As it turned out, what I ended up doing with life was nothing too different.) Suddenly, editing > kill author seemed like a much bigger task than it had been. Yet I also intensely disliked editors who complained about the amount of work they had to put in to a literary magazine that they had chosen to start in the first place, that nobody was forcing them to do at gunpoint. So I decided to stop.

I also felt – as I said in my introduction to the final issue – that the world of online literary journals was about to change radically due to the advent of e-books. I would have wanted > kill author to keep pace with all the changes, but I don’t think I still had the will to do that. As to whether those changes have occurred, I don’t know, because I’ve almost completely lost touch with following such journals. I read almost everything on a Kindle now.

Issues 16-18

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

I wish I could say there was. But no, I don’t think so. I’m still proud of what I did – though I rarely mention it now to anyone – and I think it lasted just the right amount of time.

All the issues are still available on the website. Do you intend to keep them up there indefinitely?

For as long as I can, yes. It’s a good archive of some great writing. I’m now a freelance web designer and web editor under the name Pilcrow + Pixel  and host the majority of my clients’ websites on my own VPS (that’s a Virtual Private Server for the sensibly non-geeky amongst you). Every time I’ve moved hosting over the years, I’ve faithfully moved > kill author with it along with another couple of long-dormant personal sites, despite the cost and admin. In the last server move I didn’t transfer the audio files because they were taking up a ridiculous amount of web space, so none of the recorded readings now play. I update plugins on the site regularly and monitor for malware, but ultimately I’ve got to be realistic about the fact that the original site is now over seven years old. At some point it’s inevitably going to fatally break and I won’t have either the time or the will to rectify the problem, meaning that the > author will finally be > killed. But until then…

Issues 19-20

What have you been working on since > kill author? Anything we should check out?

One of the reasons that was likely behind the birth of > kill author was a period of writer’s block on my part. That period of writer’s block hung around like a putrid odour and has so far lasted well over seven years (apart from the navel-gazing crap I occasionally rip from the diseased bowels of my atrocious mental health at two o’clock in the morning to spew onto some neglected web page somewhere). I haven’t written anything that might loosely be considered fiction or poetry in all that time. Whatever negligible literary skill I may have allegedly once possessed has completely vanished. So there’s no ’new work’ to check out. I suppose that might be considered sad, but I also think that the world has got quite enough writers, people who want to be writers and apparently have a novel inside them (God forbid), as well as those people who endlessly share or retweet articles about writers in an effort to convince their friends of their own profound literary lifestyle. I could try to be anyone of those three types, but I think it best not to inflict such behaviour on the world. Apparently I do write good emails to my web design/web content clients, though. So it’s not all lost.

Besides, in terms of writing now, alI I see are people on social networks who are clearly desperate to portray themselves as personality columnists and share their profound, oh-so-controversial, self-important opinions with the world. Maybe I’ll become one of them. (Don’t worry, I won’t do that either.)

Jackson Nieuwland

Jackson Nieuwland likes unicorns.

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Jackson Nieuwland likes unicorns.

  • Donald Dunbar

    Loved > ka, mostly for the potpourri of strange and compelling stuff, but also because it was a step or two away from the echo chamber online lit can sometimes be. I was sad to see the experiment end, but I think it should be judged a true success.

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