“The technologies that we have available substantially define who we are.”
—Steven Shapin, “What Else Is New?”
1997–a year situated at the beginning of the dot-com bubble and fewer than four years after theWeb became free for everyone to use. It was a time when desktop computers were cheaper than laptops, cell phones were getting smaller rather than bigger, and Internet traffic was just .02 percent of what it is today. In February of that year, The Atlantic Monthly published an interview with novelist and Mississippi Review editor Frederick Barthelme, titled “The Web Is a Gun.” In it, Rick famously described the Internet as “all potential” and made a strong and, at the time, fairly novel case that it would be “the most powerful agent of change since the printing press.” Two years before the interview, in 1995, Rick had begun publishing Mississippi Review Online, arguably the first literary magazine online—right at the beginning of our virtual lives.
I was 18 years old in 1997, and I scarcely noticed the galvanizing force that was being born right in front of me. My brother, however, saw it. In middle school, when I was busy drawing comic books and obsessing over girls, playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading Salinger books, he was taking computers apart and putting them back together, dumpster-diving at the electric company to get parts he needed. He was hacking online. He was figuring out how to make free phone calls on payphones.
He was breaking into backrooms at the mall. He was, I came to see years later, preparing himself for the future while I was dreaming about the past.
In the spring of 1997, Amazon.com issued its initial public stock offering, and IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world chess master Garry Kasparov. The warp drive had been kicked on. Google came along soon after, followed by the dot-com bubble implosion, Facebook, YouTube and so forth, on into the present, where I am composing much of this column with the notes app on my iPhone, shifting occasionally to Twitter and Safari.
I began blogging about literary magazines in 2007 for the same reason most people begin blogging about anything:They feel something is missing. One afternoon, I complained to my wife, Sarah, about how everyone wanted to publish in lit mags but no one seemed to know much about them. “Well, you know stuff about them,” she said. By dinner, I had a Blogspot account, a name—Luna Park Review—and two posts published. Though Luna Park had a masthead with advisory editors and contributing writers from early on, it wasn’t until Marcelle Heath came on as a copy editor and, soon, the managing editor that things really came together.We began publishing quarterly issues in 2008, copying the print model of periodical literary publication.The NewYorker and the Los Angeles Times and others mentioned the site, and this was nice for a time, but the quarterly model soon hit the “round peg, square hole” problem.The site would get a lot of traffic the week the issue went up, then just a trickle for the next three months. So I shifted to a more chaotic format in 2010, publishing new work as it came in. Ironically, however, when Luna Park abandoned the quarterly print model and began to lose its structure, instead of reveling in a digital medium that flourishes in random-seeming interconnectivity, I lost interest. I used the medium, but I didn’t really take the time to understand it and so became frustrated when it didn’t function like a print magazine.
Earlier this year, I decided to stop publishing in any formal way on Luna Park, meaning I would no longer
consciously solicit or search for content, and editing and publishing things like essays and interviews would no longer be a priority. I would no longer affect to publish a magazine-style object online, which I must admit has been quite freeing.
It was surprisingly easy to shut down any sort of formal production at
Luna Park and just blog once again. Blogging is a publishing model driven by aggregatory behavior and opinion that functions seamlessly, almost unconsciously, online; the Internet is a rhizomatic structure built solely from connections: computer
to computer, data to data, people to people. Now that I think about it, it’s probably no coincidence that the best performing literary Web site today, HTMLGIANT, is a group blog, with multiple people tossing their literary commentary onto the Web with little to no oversight from Blake Butler, who runs the Web site. The medium
is just different: A blog is not a magazine. The online world is not the print world.The online world is loose, informal and constantly revisable; print is hard, largely formal and inherently static. My mistake was to think the former world should mimic the latter. Print was what I admired, what I had grown up with. I wasn’t really taking the Internet on its own terms and exploring the best way to talk about literary magazines online; rather, I was doing the print model out in cyberspace.
Novelist and editor of The Rumpus, Stephen Elliott, said this about print and digital writing during a panel
on 21st-century publishing at the 2012 conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Chicago: “They’re different things, and we know when we’re writing one and not the other.” Personally, though, I worry I’m not always making that distinction when I’m writing. In his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” which is highly critical of online reading, Nicholas Carr writes that “[t]he cellular structure of the human brain, scientists have discovered, adapts readily to the tools we use to find, store and share information.” But what if my mind hasn’t hardwired itself correctly? What if—as I fear right now—I am writing for offline in the way I should be writing for online, or vice versa? David Shields, who recently argued in “Reality Hunger” that literature needs to adapt to the new realities of information access and audience desires in the 21st century, would see that as a good thing, but I don’t share his surety. Writing this, I’ve been trying hard to keep thinking of the print object: what it will look like, how it will be handled, disseminated, someday even destroyed.
Pushcart Prize founding editor Bill Henderson recently described writing online as “barfing into the electronic void.” While I don’t agree with him exactly, I would be lying if I said I couldn’t relate to his point. In fact, I recently wrote an essay on Luna Park that was critical of Henderson for not including in the annual Pushcart anthology more work originally published online because there is so much great stuff out there. (Check out Triple Canopy or Octopus Magazine if you don’t believe me.) The post got many nice comments from friends and people in the industry, but I felt a certain unease with such accolades when, on some level, I share some of Henderson’s distrust of the Internet. This distrust is complicated—a tension that I find woven into the implied author/reader contract of online publishing. I don’t think a concern over the intangibility of writing and publishing online should be taken as a blanket criticism of the medium. Something more nuanced is going on here.
Though 35 years younger than Mississippi Review’s Frederick Barthelme, I still haven’t managed to become a true believer in the value of digital publishing—not even to the extent that Rick was 15 years ago. I use it, but I distrust it. Rick says, “[T]he Web version is now the real Mississippi Review. The paper version is vestigial.” I’m just not willing to go that far. Perhaps this has more to do with our age difference than might be assumed on the surface. I grew up reading “Neuromancer” and watching “Ghost in the Shell”; I have a Matrix- like anxiety regarding the creation and consumption of digital artifacts. Rick, on the other hand, was born 12 years before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and just a decade or so after the men who first started messing around with packet switching in the first place, which eventually led to the creation of the Internet in 1982. His generation built the thing while my generation simply inherited it. This is not an arbitrary distinction.
In the 15 years since getting my first Hotmail address, I have been unable to shake this apprehension about writing and publishing in the digital world, one I am not alone in feeling. All you have to do is Google “Jonathan Franzen Twitter” for a somewhat stronger expression of what I mean: “A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.” In a similar vein, novelist Douglas Coupland was recently quoted in The New York Times Book Review saying he misses his “pre-Internet brain.” I understand completely. When I combine what I do for work and pleasure, I must admit I am online much of the day, and I have been for at least the past five years. It’s a noisy place online, and writing and editing there takes up a lot of headspace. I wouldn’t mind getting out now, even if just for a while.
The semi-permanent nature of printed matter is impossible to miss; if changes were made, we would notice them by markings of the pen or residue of Wite- Out. It’s the nature of the print system. When we read stuff online, it is just as impossible to miss the absolute transience of everything, how a simple power failure or administrator keystroke could change everything in a millisecond.
My father spent most of his adult life teaching auto mechanics to high school students. He also worked as a welder and as a photographer in the Navy, and when I was young, he was constantly tinkering with things, rebuilding things, adding onto the house, dismantling the cars.
He was, and is, a maker of and tinkerer with objects. In contrast, my own life has largely been dedicated to the more ephemeral arts, with my bachelor’s degree in acting and a career teaching literature and creative writing. Luna Park is just one more thing that seems intangible and slated to disappear at any moment—if I forget to back up the files before a software update, maybe, or if I eventually stop paying the Web-hosting bill. It could all just go away.
Maybe this is why, when sharing some of my work with my students the other week, I insisted on waiting to bring in some poems in print, rather than hopping onto the computer to show them a recent online issue of H_NGM_N. I knew they would consider the print publication a more authentic form of publication, these people a decade and a half younger thanI, and I wanted them to see these poems as something beyond a Twitter post, Wikipedia page or advertisement. Selfishly, I didn’t want the students to see my work as something ephemeral.
Back in February of 1997, while Rick was being interviewed for The Atlantic, Scottish scientists announced to the world they had successfully cloned an adult sheep named Dolly, and, far above them, U.S. astronauts performed interstellar repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope. I was there down below, driving a 1986 Ford pickup across the country, reading James Baldwin at the rest stops, staunchly wedded to the past. Maybe I still am. Online publishing surely has its place, and I will be there, but more and more, I see it as a very different place than print. I watch my stepdaughter devour stories in books and on our Kindle, and I can’t help wondering how her brain will be wired for the future.