A confession: I didn't really start reading online publications until late 2005.

Prior to 2005, I was aware that online magazines existed, and occasionally, a friend of mine would publish a story in one, and I would go to that magazine and read it, and maybe a few other stories as well, but I didn't regularly look for stories or poems online.

In 2005, I finished grad school and began working in the fall as an adjunct instructor at two small liberal arts schools. I was grateful for the work, and happy to get to spend my days talking about stories and writing with undergrads, but it exhausted me. After the first few months, I realized I hadn't opened a book at home to read for pleasure since school began.

But I was always checking my email, and sometimes, I'd hop around to a few literary sites to remind me that there were, after all, people out there reading and writing stories and poems and books. Somehow, in one of those acts of serendipity that only the Internet can produce, I ended up at the website of Pia Z. Ehrhardt. I read and loved Pia's stories—especially her short-short stories—and via her blog, eventually discovered several other writers—people like Matt Bell, Kim Chinquee, Jeff Landon, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith—and the magazines in which a lot of these writers published their flash fictions and short-short stories.

Things changed for me. Rather than lament the fact that I'd been missing out on reading all this great work online, I spent my spare moments between classes or late at night catching up on things. I printed out stories that I especially liked and shared them with my classes. In one composition class, after we read the stories from our required textbook by people like William Carlos Williams and James Joyce, I made them packets of stories culled from elimae, Juked, and SmokeLong Quarterly.

And I began, too, not surprisingly, to write a little more in my spare moments between classes. Since I didn't have a lot of time—and probably because I'd been reading a lot of flash and short-shorts—the stories I wrote were very short, the kind that I'd come to realize were perfect for reading online. I even began to compose the stories in blocks of text, and when one of those stories went on to a second page, I imagined what it would look like when all of its words were captured on a single webpage, one a reader would barely have to scroll all the way through to read.

*     *     *
Not long before Scott contacted me, asking if I’d like to select Wigleaf’s Top 50, I read online an interview with the writer Mazie Louise Montgomery in which she talked about the energy the online writing community had way back in 2002-2003. She didn't necessarily say that online publications had begun to decline, but she certainly seemed to miss something about the way things used to be.

Reading this, I felt a small twinge of regret that I'd maybe missed the golden years of online publishing, and my second thought was, "It figures." I'm always coming to things late. Just last year, for instance, I listened for the first time to an album called Let it Bleed by The Rolling Stones.  

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I feel like I had almost no role at all in selecting Wigleaf's Top 50.

I don't mean that in a bad way. All I mean to say is: Attached to that email Scott sent me letting me know about Wigleaf's project, there was a document that contained two hundred stories that had already been culled from all over the Internet. The stories came from magazines like Esquire and Harp & Altar and Conjunctions and The Dream People. They came from people whose work was alternately familiar and unknown to me.

I began reading in January. I read three or four stories a day and took notes on a hard copy of the list I'd been sent. My plan was to cross out the stories that I didn't like, or that I didn't think stood a chance of making the top fifty, but by the end of January, after I'd read about eighty stories, I hadn't crossed out a single story. All of them, I thought, were good enough to make my final list.

Eventually, regrettably, I started to reread and draw lines through some of the stories. I had no real criteria other than my personal preferences. The stories that remained were the ones that moved me, or made me laugh, or showed me in just a few paragraphs another way of looking at the world. They were the stories that stuck with me—and continue to do so.

The only real role I played in this was bumping up the number of selected stories. There were several writers with more than one story on the list of two hundred, and my goal was to include fifty stories by fifty different writers. In the end, I felt like a few of those writers deserved to have more than one story in the top fifty, mostly because I couldn't bring myself to choose only one from them. So, what follows is not Wigleaf's Top 50, but Wigleaf's Top 55. As Scott said when I asked him if this would be all right, if Houghton Mifflin were behind this, then I might not have such leniency, but, well, they're not.

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I'll never know whether or not I missed the golden years of online publishing. Maybe I did, but I'm grateful that I eventually found a lot of the good work that has been and continues to be published online. And I'm grateful to the editors of Wigleaf for bringing to my attention several writers and magazines that I had not yet come across until I received that list of two hundred stories.

As for the extra five that accompany the Top 50, I hope you don't mind having them around. I certainly don't think that you will.

Now that my work here is done, there's an album I just downloaded that I've been meaning to listen to. It's by a band called Neutral Milk Hotel. And there's a book around here called The Corrections that I keep hearing good things about.

Chad Simpson lives in Galesburg, Illinois, where he teaches fiction writing at Knox College. His stories have appeared in several magazines, including McSweeney's Quarterly, Barrelhouse, The Rambler, and The Sun, and he has received awards from the Illinois Arts Council, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences. He sometimes keeps up with a blog here.

To link to this directly: http://wigleaf.com/08top50intro.htm

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