Dear James Woods... Love, the Internet

So, I was listening to a New York Review of Books podcast today at work. I know, I know: it sounds stupid. In fact, it is stupid. But I knew that I would be binding books for at least four hours today, so I brought in headphones so that I wouldn't go crazy, nor strain my neck from trying to read ebooks off my tiny iPhone sitting near to being in my lap like I normally do.

So, I was listening to a New York Review of Books podcast, and I promised myself that I would only listen to it for entertainment, and not jump right onto the internet and write a blog post about it. But of course, this got my gears grinding, and because it was Daniel Mendelsohn, Pico Iyer, and James Wood discussing the future of reading in a "world of images", (podcast of 10/06/2008) I was brought back to my other posts about the subject, here, and here, among other various places.

And here we are. The opinions of the three speakers was not really that groundbreaking, though it was entertaining. They waxed on about criticism, how nobody reads anymore, and etc. I don't know what it is about James Woods; I don't much agree with him, but again and again I am drawn back to him in my theoretical thoughts. Perhaps it is just the audacity that one would require to write a book called, How Fiction Works. Maybe I admire that in a way. Regardless, it was a comment that Woods made about the writing process that got my wheels whirring this time.

Woods was sharing an anecdote about how the inter-web and technology changes writing. To paraphrase, he said that using a computer makes him write shorter paragraphs. He expressed the anxiety he feels once words have left the top of the screen, and noted that it drove him to compose quicker, more compressed paragraphs.

I could probably say something psychoanalytically oriented about the anxiety of unseen words on a page (could I?!?! what would it be???) or make some snide comment about old guys who simultaneously can't find the zoom setting in Microsoft Word and/or won't admit they need reading glasses. But these are all cheap shots.

What I really thought, however, was that this anecdote really sums it up. The literary establishment is afraid of the internet.

Of course, everyone says the internet is a great invention. They have to, otherwise they would admit that they don't understand it. Being a Luddite is no longer quaint, like my 8th grade history teacher that referred to computers as "demon boxes". Even classicists must have email accounts. To express dislike for computers and the internet openly would be like refusing to wear clothes.

But, the people who make up the "literary establishment" don't like it, and their anxiety towards it is expressed in numerous ways. It makes sense; you have spend a good portion of your life dealing with books, and probably acheived a certain amount of success in that line. So when some thirteen year-old shows you how quickly they can be stalked online, the first fear is understandable.

And it goes on from there. The folks in the podcast discussed blog posts in which the poster had not even read the book in question, and the "240" following commenters had not either. True, that sort of idiocy does exist on the internet. However, the academy isn't immune, either. Look at the use of "post-modern" in any undergraduate class; and even some books are written and published without proper citation.

But the highlighting of the idiocy on the internet as characteristic of its literary form is about as well-placed as spitting on books for allowing the most annoying charlatans print their tell-all novels. In other words, bad writers are hardly the fault of paper and ink.

All it takes is looking at one or two of the well-formed, talented communities on the internet to see how empty this criticism really is. The best example I have found is Slashdot, a forum for self-described "nerds". One who stumbles upon the board is unlikely to have his post read unless he is well-qualified. The system of post-ranking rivals roly-playing games in its complexity (though intentioned so). The end result is, only the most, most quality posts are read, and the crap is easily filtered out. Not unlike the academy, no?

Understanding the technology is the key to mastering the form. I've said it before, but the fact of near-universal literacy (the mastering of printed symbols) does not make literature universal. There are plenty of people who can read the dictionary, but aren't sure what to do with it. And so, the tech-nerds have some of the best publishing systems on the internet, because for pete's sake, they designed web publishing.

Another fun example is xkcd, a web comic. Written by and for nerds. It is decidedly lo-tech, with an (almost) daily post composed mostly of stick figures and gentle internet witticisms and nerd inside jokes. But check this out:

It pokes fun of the very criticism that the literaries were levying, and in one of the worst examples. YouTube comments are mostly stupid, often hateful and racist, and almost always not contributing to anything that could be called constructive. But something amazing happened.

YouTube actually created an "audio preview" function when you post a comment! This is nothing less that the incredible march of progress in action, and through stick-figure humor no less!

My point is not that stick-figures are the future, though I would not rule that possible future out. My point is that this is something that only people who understand both the technology and how it is used would grasp the genius of, and be able to make use of it. Form, function, and a bit of artistry as well. This is as much of an responsible, quality creative process as there is. Not that YouTube now equals Proust, but I would say Internet Web Comics = Writing and Critique.

Blogging is my strong suit on the internet. Other than that, I would only consider myself a "power user", and that only marginally. (I still have yet to have a comment featured on Slashdot; I'm waiting to submit until I know more about networking.) I can see how the technology of blogging has positively affected my writing abilities.

Before blogs, I would never have attempted to write an aphorism. Now, my non-fiction writing is composed mainly thereof. It may not be AP style, but I've also learned a thing or two about writing succinctly and to the point, and also about trying to maintain an audience. (Audience? Are you out there?)

In addition, there is something lovely about well-formed journal entries that can immediately be exposed to an audience. I don't receive many comments on my posts, but enough to tell me they are read once in a while. And this is more than enough, because it makes the audience real. I wouldn't say that I write "to the masses", or to any other target audience in particular, but it makes me write in a certain way when I know that others will be able to read it instantly, and although I can edit, I can never withdraw what I have posted. Each blog post is a thought, a musing; perhaps they are not that interesting, but they are too me. Each time I post I have reflected on a particular thing, organized my ideas, and composed them into a brief span of text that I am totally willing for anyone to step up and read. It's not that its some sort of amazing digital democracy, or even a second life. It's more of a voice; it is a printing press that I make and maintain myself. It gives my writing and my thoughts a body that they might not have had. Besides what this does for my skills as a writer, it's very enjoyable to myself and my psyche.

So, Mr. Woods, don't sell the internet short. If you can't make the technology do what you want, to represent your thoughts in exactly the way that you wish yourself and others to see them, ask a nerd! Most likely s/he would be more than happy to teach you about these new tools for us writers. New tools are nothing to fear, as long as you're trained.

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