Adventures in Internet Literature

I can’t hold back an amused smile when I hear about new online writing projects like Penguin’s A Million Penguins, in which a large number of people are attempting to compose a collaborative novel using Wiki software (there’s also a side blog to keep things moving and provide structure). At this point, the Million Penguins blog is somewhat readable, while the main wiki-novel is a fast-changing mass of incomprehensible notions apparently involving whales, bananas and a guy named Artie. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be literature, but today it’s whales, bananas and a guy named Artie.

Yet I commend Penguin for attempting this, and for continuing to see this adventure through. Even though nobody’s figured out how to make collaborative online writing fly just yet, many brave souls keep trying. Take Dennis Cooper, for instance, editor of an Akashic Books anthology called Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground (an excellent editor’s introduction helps explain the project’s goals). This is a smart collection of short fiction, most of it transgressive or confessional in nature. Every single piece feels strong, but as I hold the thick book in my hand I feel somehow alienated from the social community that created this book, and this makes it difficult for me to enjoy the book.

This is an inherent problem with books created online: it is very difficult to transmit the strong sense of connection that permeates an online community to a book reader who isn’t there. Reading Userlands, I meet one fascinating voice after another, but it all flashes by like a party where I know I won’t be staying long, and where everybody but me knows everybody else.

Maybe we need to adjust our expectations when we explore these territories. Walter Kirn is another adventurer in internet-based literature, having recently completed The Unbinding, an online serial novel that ran at Slate and has just been published in an attractive paperback edition. This is a funny and thought-provoking fable about an employee of an advanced satellite personal security system who begins to get too deeply involved in “the grid”. Walter Kirn wrote the book “on the grid” too, and he explains in an introductory essay that when he began this online writing project he expected to become captivated by the ability to use hyperlinks freely in his fiction. But, Kirn says, once the project began he quickly realized that it was the real-time aspect of online writing — the immediacy of the exchange between writer and readers — that made the most difference, while hyperlinks turned out to be a creative dead end.

Kirn is smart to let the project find its own way, and if you’re planning to attempt your own online literary project I’d suggest you adopt the same posture. Provide as much structure as you can in advance, and then just let it go and hope for the best.

I speak about this with some authority because, well, it happens your friendly webmaster here has paid his dues on the online literary front. Coffeehouse: Writings from the Web, a book I co-edited with Christian Crumlish in 1997, was verifiably the first anthology of web-based fiction and poetry published in book form. We even got respectable (but small) reviews in the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World (we got ignored — hah– by the New York Times Book Review).

The book is now out of print and copies are hard to find, though it’s pretty clear that Cory Doctorow’s book designer owns a copy. Was Coffeehouse a good book? Looking back, I have to admit that I think Christian and I blew it. We had some great pieces — some of my favorites were by Joseph Squier, Mia Lipner, Jamie Fristrom, Ben Cohen, Janan Platt, E. Stephen Mack, Walter Miller, Carl Steadman, Greg Knauss, Martha Conway, Jason Snell, Lee Ranaldo, Mike Watt, Robert Hunter, quite a collection — but, like Dennis Cooper with Userlands, we failed to provide a compelling and unified product that readers instinctively wanted to own.

I think LitKicks did a better job with Action Poetry in 2004, though this book didn’t fly off any bookshelves either. But we’re getting somewhere! And so is Dennis Cooper, and so is Walter Kirn.

As for Artie with the bananas and the whales and the penguins, I guess he’s getting somewhere too, but he’s got a ways to go.

7 Responses

  1. UserlandsAkashic sent me a

    Akashic sent me a review copy of Userlands, which I have not yet had a chance to read. But I did read Cooper’s introduction, which talks about how all these writers are using blogs and the Internet to create their art, as if this makes them cutting-edge and revolutionary. While this may indeed be the case, the book appears to provide no evidence of such, other than the introduction.

    Only a few of the contributor bios make any reference to the author’s website or blog, so if I really wanted to delve into an author’s online presence to determine how much of an impact the Internet has, I’d have to do quite a bit of Googling in order to do so. Or, to go one step further, each story could have included an afterword from the respective author which explains the genesis of the story, how the Internet influenced the creation of that story, etc. Without either of these features, however, the book comes across (at least on the surface) as just another story anthology.

    I hope I’m wrong, and that the book includes some truly great writing. I’m fascinated by the potential of online communities and their implications for the future of the traditionally lonely art of writing. Being a writer myself, I really want to know that the Internet is having a positive impact on writing, and that other writers are exploiting it to their fullest advantage. But from what I’ve seen here, this book doesn’t fully address any of that. If the editor is going to make such bold revolutionary claims, I really would have liked to have seen those claims being backed up.

  2. Coffeehouse is back?I don’t
    Coffeehouse is back?

    I don’t know why you are critical of Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web. I think it’s a great book and I’m happy to see it available again, as I wished it would be, here.

  3. Thanks Bill! I didn’t mean
    Thanks Bill! I didn’t mean to come off as self-critical. Maybe I only mean to say that Christian and I had big hopes for the book, and I think it’s safe to say we fell short of our ambitions. But the book is a great time capsule of the early days of internet fiction and poetry, and it has at least a handful of really, really good pieces (along with a bit too much fluff).

    I think the “Action Poetry” book aimed not quite so high — rather than trying to anthologize all the good writing on the internet, we just tried to anthologize all the good writing on LitKicks — and I think the end result is better. But I will be proud of “Coffeehouse” till the end of my days.

    Oh, and, I don’t think the book is back for sale. If Amazon indicates so, I think this is a mistake, or maybe they found some old copies in a warehouse somewhere. It’s definitely long out of print.

  4. Pete, I had the same reaction
    Pete, I had the same reaction as you. I could not discern what made the writings in this book different from, say, the best of a good underground print journal. There is some cohesiveness, but this seems to result from Dennis Cooper’s sensibility as editor, rather than from anything inherent in the online form.

  5. Ah…upon closer examination,
    Ah…upon closer examination, I see that there are some used copies floating around, and what bargain prices! Seriously, I recommend that anyone reading this consider buying one of these.

  6. Coffeehouse on my shelf…I’m
    Coffeehouse on my shelf…

    I’m proud to have a copy of Coffeehouse on my shelf, but even more proud to have one of my stories in it. I think having your book be the first of its kind gives you a bit of a pass for any of the weaknesses you see with it. 😉

    -Jason Snell, Man From The Olden Days of the Internet

  7. You wrote ‘Gravity’! I
    You wrote ‘Gravity’! I remember liking that one. I’ll have to go back and re-read it.

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