8 Innovative Online Magazines

Where to Find Great Stories on the Web

Wonderful literary magazines abound in cyberspace, but a few in particular stand out for their ambitious embrace of the possibilities of the electronic form.

Most of the sites on this list define "story" and "storytelling" very broadly. All of them have high editorial standards and clearly defined missions.

They all offer their work for free (lucky us!), but they also accept donations. So if you like what you see, consider supporting them so they'll be around next time you're hungry for a story.

Happy reading!

01
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Image courtesy of Asymptote.

With editorial staff in at least eighteen different countries, Asymptote puts the "world" in world wide web. Founded in 2011, it's a bold, ambitious project.

Most of the stories are available in both English and at least one other language. Some offer audio in the original language, and there are usually bios and translator's notes to help you get oriented to unfamiliar work. Though most of the work on the site is available in English, the editors specifically state that they are trying "to break the mold of the English centered flow of information." The results are exhilarating.

I'm addicted to their map feature, which lets you choose what to read based on genre and geography. Feel like reading a story from Serbia? Try David Albahari's "Trash Is Better" (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac). Maybe you'd like something from Chile? Try Alejandro Zambra's "The Cyclops"  (translated by Elizabeth Fisherkeller). 

Or, if you really want to get a feel for the international perspective of Asymptote, try Lo Kwai Cheung's "Me and Him and Chris on the Northbound 101" (translated by Steve Bradbury). Written in Chinese, it's the story of three young men (one from the Philippines, one from Vietnam, and one from Hong Kong), driving through California in a rainstorm, knowing:

"… without ever having to say it, that we were among the California aliens who had grown up in colonial societies deeply influenced by Western culture and thus had little inclination to return to where we came from."

02
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Founded in 2004, Guernica, which calls itself "a magazine of art & letters," has become a formidable force in both journalism and literature.

Its contributors include both established and emerging writers, and it features a range of stories from the traditional to the experimental (see Nicholas Grider's "Millions of Americans Are Strange").  

Guernica frequently features stories in translation (for example, Wilma Stockenström's haunting "The Expedition to the Baobab Tree," translated from the Afrikaans by J. M. Coetzee) and includes many stories set in countries other than the United States.

03
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Image courtesy of Narrative.

Founded in 2003 by former Esquire editor Tom Jenks and author Carol Edgarian, Narrative was one of the first attempts to develop a serious literary magazine in an online format. (Its strategy is to attract talent by paying authors well, and it works.) Narrative's stated mission is “to advance literary art in the digital age.”

They publish all forms of storytelling, from poetry to fiction to nonfiction. Their contributors include new and emerging writers, as well as literary masters like Alice Munro (try "A Red Dress -- 1946"), T.C. Boyle (try "All the Wrecks I've Crawled Out Of"), Richard Bausch, Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek, and Lorrie Moore.

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Image courtesy of Electric Literature.

Electric Literature's Recommended Reading publishes a single story every week, usually based on recommendations from independent presses, established authors, or literary magazines. Every fourth week, they publish an original story, accompanied by a video called a "single sentence animation."

These animations are brief and riveting. The website states, "In this age of distraction, we’re uncovering writing that’s worth slowing down and spending some time with." The videos accomplish this beautifully by directing a reader's attention to the crafting of one single sentence.

And once you've slowed down to appreciate that single sentence, how can you resist putting your to do list on hold for a little while so you can read the whole story? 

To get a taste of Electric Literature, you can browse through the archives. If you don't know where to start, you might try "You Are the Stepson" by Matt Dojny (recommended by Electric Literature) or "Your Duck Is My Duck" by Deborah Eisenberg (recommended by Fence). Or better yet, jump right in with this week's story.

05
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Image courtesy of FiveChapters.

The FiveChapters premise is simple: each week it publishes a single story serialized into five parts. You read a little bit each weekday, and by the weekend you've finished a substantial story and feel edified. Or entertained. Or deeply moved.  

Founded in 2006, FiveChapters is a one-man show run by David Daley, the Editor in Chief of Salon.com (so from now on, those of us who occasionally feel tempted to declare ourselves "busy" should probably just keep quiet).  

The archives include lots of authors you've probably heard of, like Aimee Bender, Sam Lipsyte, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Orner, Lara Vapnyar, and Charles Yu. And if you read through the bios, you realize that every writer there is someone you should have heard of, even if you haven't.

But you don't go to FiveChapters to read bios. You go to read stories, and though I haven't read them all, I have yet to find one that wasn't mesmerizing, right from the first paragraph. 

06
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Image courtesy of Referential Magazine.

Referential Magazine calls itself "a celebration of the interconnectedness of the written word," and reading it is not quite like reading anything else I've encountered on the web. Some of the pieces are previously unpublished; others are reprints. Most pieces are followed by a reference to at least one other work -- one that inspired it or one that resonates with it (though sometimes a piece is just followed by a statement from the author).

The references sometimes lead to other works on the Referential Magazine site, but often, they lead to other sites. The effect is to put literary works in conversation with each other, creating a sense of context and community rather than the isolation so often created by the abundant material available on the internet. 

07
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Image courtesy of The Brooklyner.

The team at The Brooklyner is engaged in something they call "mediatelling," which is using "a computer, a camera, a smartphone, a microphone" -- whatever technology you want -- to tell a story. It's true that we already have a word for this (storytelling), but I think "mediatelling" emphasizes the diverse ways in which a story can be told, so the neologism seems warranted. And it's a great one-word explanation of their mission.

The Brooklyner offers three categories of fiction: "flash," "long(er) reads," and "horror stories from the Bible." As of this writing, there are only two pieces in the last category, and no, I can't explain why it's there. But was it the first thing I clicked on? Of course it was.

If the Bible horror stories don't suit your fancy, you might like Steve Danziger's "A Life Better than Brooklyn," a lively story about a boy whose mother really, really doesn't want him to spend all summer reading in his room. (Hint: she probably should have let him.)

Paul Beckman's "And God Help You" offers a terrific conversation between a peeved God and a boy who makes too many demands on him. For a more lyrical piece, try Emma Borges-Scott's "Fairytales."

It's possible to download issues of The Brooklyner that look like a beautiful, traditional literary magazine, but given their mission of "mediatelling," you might want to stay on their website awhile, where you can hear audio of some of the stories and explore a few of their videos. 

08
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Operating on the premise that stories are all around us, all the time, and that there are many different ways to tell them, Storyscape resists traditional categories of "story" and instead organizes its pieces as "truth," "untruth," and "we don't know and they won't tell us."

They publish a range of prose and poetry and do not distinguish between forms. Some of the stories here would certainly be categorized as poems elsewhere, like Kimiko Hahn's "Brain Implants #3: Patterns." Others, like Nin Andrews' moving "The Year Prayer Wasn't Enough," might get classified as prose poems in some contexts, or flash fiction in other contexts, which makes you appreciate that Storyscape has decided to throw these classifications out the window.

Now, maybe it's because I have Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood on my mind, but I find myself partial to Storyscape's "we don't know and they won't tell us" category. It raises interesting questions about where the truth of a story really lies.

Consider these lines from Chard DeNiord's "The Prodigal Driver":

"Bill never admitted to his publisher that he was the protagonist of his novel, although everyone guessed he was. The book was such a success that only his story seemed to matter."

Choosing What to Read

If you're looking for something new to read, the choices can be overwhelming. But some of the most exciting writing being published today is online, and with the help of the editors at the magazines on this list, you can explore some new venues knowing that your time will be well spent.