Monday Meander: Is There Online Literature Yet?

I was thrown into a quandary by a remark in the most recent Editorial of the Wilson Quarterly: “The Web, for all its marvels, hasn’t yet provided a home for the kind of focused and sustained dialogue that smaller magazines create.” This comment struck me as both curious and characteristic of a certain residual attitude of disdain for online writing that it is still possible to find in intellectual circles. Part of it, I think, is a natural tendency toward the Luddite in literary folks, particular in those over a certain age.

Some of America’s greatest magazines still treat the web browser like a second class literary citizen. Harper’s, one of the flagships of American writing, has a miserly approach to the internet. You can find many brilliant Features at Harpers.org, as well as great Readings, and fine Cartoons. They’re laid out in an incredibly weird narrow long format that seems to assume its readers use a screen the size of an ancient iMac. Another problem: I can buy a copy of Harper’s at the newsstand before they update their “Current Issue” page. The Prize Winner in the category “Worst Web Site for Best Magazine,” however, with its frames layout (making linking intolerable) and contempt for graphical prettification, has to be Dissent. Harper’s and Dissent, of course, are fine magazines and will continue to be so. Right now, the web needs them more than they need the web, although this might well change over time. The reason, I would argue, is that so much of the national conversation about ideas, culture, and politics now takes place online, via web logs and email. The Right-wing has been savvier in its approach to its message on the internet, with a far more closely connected network of sites linking to each other.

There’s an understandable negative intellectual response to the web. It’s unholy and overwhelming. I often hear in literary circles a snobbish notion of a world awash in barbarous blogorrhea. Certainly the idea of cutting out the middlemen of traditional media – editors and publishers – also means eliminating those people who can act as a writer’s best friend. (By saying, “Listen, you might want to cut this,” or, “Whoa, dude, that’s just crazy.”) The online world, as a great leveler, the ultimate Whitmanesque democratic experiment in free expression, is the central fact of its fizz. But the web is also a great proliferator of nonsense, propaganda, misleading information, and terrible writing. Here’s a site, Boring Boring, that only lists “dull things.”

So, is there online literature yet? Will there ever be? There’s some truth to the claim that many online-only journals either seem like vanity presses or else attempts by the impoverished to mimic the effects of print. But WQ is wrong if it means to suggest that there aren’t good online journals, of which I like the classy and subdued GutCult, the engaging nthposition, smallspiralnotebook, and The Drunken Boat. The most interesting example, however, is Agni, which runs an lively and excellent online parallel journal separate from but connected to its great print organ. Agni might be a model for other journals to follow, since, for established magazines and nonprofit organizations, creating parallel online journals would be an extremely cheap way to boost prestige. It’s paradoxical, however, that one of the best online journals in America would be edited by Agni’s Sven Birkerts, who has decried the death of print louder than anyone else.

One last comment. Somebody ought to start developing some ideas about what writing works best online and whether online writing will change literary production. LitBlogs are certainly changing the way that books get their word-of-mouth buzz these days. What we don’t know yet is whether new literary forms will emerge from online publishing, especially web logs. Will short fiction, for example, get shorter? Will anybody use a web log to create a great fictional persona or literary character? (This one, purporting to be the diary of Captain Morgan, the swashbuckling Rum salesman, is not exactly what I had in mind. Here is the very silly blog of the Incredible Hulk.) Will there be a great American novel that is written on a web log? Right now, the answer seems to be: “Not if there’s no money in it.”

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