(This is chapter 26 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The day I began working at iVillage was the first day I ever found myself truly excited to meet the president of a company I worked for. But there has never been, and probably never will be again, a CEO like Candice Carpenter.
This wiry and fierce woman was one of the most controversial figures in the Internet industry in the early months of 1999. Her company's IPO was widely expected to succeed, despite the fact that many industry commentators considered her a bewitching fake. It was true that she could thrill a crowd (I had become inspired to join iVillage myself after hearing her speak), and she was obviously thrilling Wall Street as well, even though iVillage was the epitome of a money-losing, big-spending dot-com, with a highly uncertain financial future.
To those who wanted more substance in their dot-coms -- more e-commerce revenue, more advertising dollars, fewer press releases, fewer TV commercials -- iVillage represented the worst of hype-crazed Silicon Alley. I guess that's why I thought Candice Carpenter was so cool.
She would take the criticism and spit it back in their faces. On talk shows and newspaper or magazine interviews, Candice Carpenter would insist that iVillage had a great business model and true staying power (despite the current lack of revenue), and I never heard her back down or hedge this bet. She always spoke with style and verve, often while wearing skin-tight leather dresses, pink jungle-print mini-skirts or other truly strange outfits, and was known to say outrageously philosophical things about the true meaning of work, about why people are afraid to compete, about the business world as a character-building exercise. Most of the things she said made sense to me.
(This is chapter 27 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
It never occurred to me, during my early years running Literary Kicks, that I could use the site to discuss contemporary literature or current writers. There were no lit bloggers around (yet) to compare notes about new books with. Literary Kicks had always been about dead writers, about the literature of the past. The contemporary fiction scene barely interested me at all.
It had been better a few years earlier in the late 80s/early 90s, when Paul Auster wrote City of Glass and Nicholson Baker wrote The Mezzanine and Art Speigelman wrote Maus and Donna Tartt wrote The Secret History. Now in the late 1990s I felt postmodern literature was stuck in a phony phase, a mannered phase, more wrapped up in chic style than moral or intellectual substance.
I loved to look at the early McSweeney's publications produced by the talented Dave Eggers -- but I found the fiction in these beautiful books hollow. Probably the hippest postmodern book in town was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, but I didn't see why he needed 1000 pages to tell that story, and I deeply resented his assumption that I had this much free time. I'm a slow reader, and I had about two good hours of book time each day -- an hour on the R train in the morning from Forest Hills to 23rd Street, and an hour during the evening trip back. If I'd stuck with Infinite Jest, it would have occupied half a year.
I felt similarly annoyed by the brutally long and intentionally difficult works of William Vollmann, another postmodern maximalist darling of the time, whose works seemed designed to allow timid brainy readers to prove how tough they were, how much abuse they could take. Me, I'd managed to suffer through books on advanced object oriented programming in C++, so I didn't need to read William Vollmann to prove I was tough.
1. Here are the teenage classics covered in Lizzie Skurnick's delightful new reading memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading that I've also read:
• From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwieler by E. L. Konigsburg
• Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
• Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
• Blubber by Judy Blume
• The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume
• The Pigman by Paul Zindel
• Deenie by Judy Blume
• Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
• My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel
• Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.
• All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Lizzie Skurnick writes best about the books that excite her most, like From the Mixed-up Files, which she illuminates in surprising ways (I never actually thought about it, but the Michelangelo statue does seem to symbolize Claudia herself) and the two great Louise Fitzhugh novels, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. Skurnick gets extra points for recognizing that The Long Secret is every bit as good as Harriet the Spy, though very different (it also occurs to me, thinking of these books today, that a good friend of mine recently went through an experience very much like the climactic scene in Harriet the Spy).
We went to a county fair in Manassas, Virginia this weekend (Caryn took the photo above from the ferris wheel). It was a nice day, though naturally I can't go to a county fair without thinking about James Joyce's short story Araby, in which a boy yearns to go to a local bazaar but, upon finally reaching the place, finds only a sense of unreality and a crushing metaphor for the sexual and philosophical anxiety that awaits him in adulthood.
(This is chapter 28 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The iVillage.com initial public offering was scheduled for Friday morning, March 19, 1999.
Somehow, I realized, for once in my sorry career, I'd played my cards right. I was scheduled to vest in 25,000 shares of iVillage stock over the next four years. I also had an option to buy $30,000 worth of shares at the stock's opening price, a price designed to be artificially low so that early investors, employees and "friends and family" could flip their shares and make a killing on IPO day. This was the maneuver that powered the dot-com craze of the 1990s -- it was all about the opening day price, about the "flip".
And, for once in my life, I was on the inside. For once, I'd be doing the flipping.
Summertime by J. M. Coetzee
Dead serious even at his most metafictional, J. M. Coetzee is one of the most important writers in the field today. Summertime is another third-person autobiographical outing, continuing the thread begun with Boyhood and Youth.
(This is chapter 29 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
So then it was Friday morning, March 19, 1999. IPO day. We'd spent the last couple of days reading news blurbs about how nobody knew what to expect from iVillage's stock debut, about how weird Candice Carpenter was, about lawsuits that could ruin the company, about the fact that iVillage had never made a profit. Other Silicon Alley dot-coms also got bad publicity before their IPOs, but there seemed to be a special pitch to the negative press we were getting.
I don't know if this was because the boys club down on Wall Street didn't like the rambunctious Candice Carpenter and Nancy Evans muscling into the cigar room or not, but this seemed like a pretty good theory at the time.
Amidst all the bad publicity, our projected offering price rocked up and down before finally settling at $24, an unusually high price for any new stock. I would have been more nervous about my $30,000 opening-day investment if I hadn't had a private conversation with Chief Financial Officer Craig Monaghan the night before. "It'll be just fine," he told me. "Everything's going according to plan. Tomorrow will be an exciting day."
More books are published each year about the Internet's future than about its past. But it's not clear that readers who wish to better understand the paradigm changes of our time aren't better off with solid history than with ponderous trendspotting. I'd rather read a book with a story to tell than a book with guesses to make.