(This is chapter 36 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I was just hitting my stride in my new role as Director of Community Services at iVillage when the dot-com stock market began to fall. It happened quietly, imperceptibly. Some trace the start of the crash to a March 2000 article in Barron's magazine naming several Internet companies that were spending money too quickly and likely to go out of business soon.
Given the intensity of new media vs. old media competition during the Internet's early years, it's ironic that a magazine article brought the dot-com economy down.
1. In between making videos for LitKicks and arguing with me about Roman Polanski, Jamelah Earle asked me to write a piece commemorating the 1000th front page feature for the wonderful "tribal photography" website Utata. I was honored to do so. I am not much of a photographer myself, but I recommend this vibrant and friendly community to anybody who is.
2. New York spoken word poet Lemon Anderson, who you might have caught if you ever watched Def Poetry Jam, is starring in his own autobiographical play at the Public Theater, County of Kings. This play is a Spike Lee joint.
3. My buddy and former co-author Christian Crumlish has just published his latest book: Designing Social Interfaces. This book is an O'Reilly joint.
4. Blues expert and ethnomusicologist Sam Charters has a new book, A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora, and describes how he helped unearth the recordings of Robert Johnson recently on the New York Times Paper Cuts blog. When Sam Charters talks about music, listen.
5. Fictionaut is a beautifully designed online writing community, just out of beta. Let's see where this one goes.
6. Naked poets in Canada.
7. Vol 1 Brooklyn presents Battle of the New York Nerds.
8. Simon Owens on xkcd and what newspaper cartoonists can learn from web comics.
9. Wrestling poems. I don't really get it, but maybe John Irving would.
10. "And there's one kind favor I'll ask of you
and there's one kind favor I'll ask of you
and there's one kind favor I'll ask of you ...
See that my grave is running Solaris."
Q: Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?
Mark: ... I largely looked at [litblogs] as models for what not to do. Not because I disliked them, but because I figured that they had already claimed their particular patches of turf, forcing me to avoid their most common habits. (No knee-jerk whining about the contents of the New York Times Book Review, I told myself; no dutiful mentions of the death of a Syrian poet I’d never read and never heard of until the obit popped up in my RSS feed.)
(Later in the same article):
Mark: I appreciate that a lot of book blogs concentrate on areas the more established publications ignore -- romance, small-press books, works in translation, etc. My only complaint is that I could do with less of the keening on those sites about how the NYT or whoever isn’t dedicating enough space and attention to your particular enthusiasm. If you know you’re doing a good thing, bellyaching about how other people aren’t doing it either just makes you look unconfident.
Jeez. Sometimes I wonder why I don't just quit this gig.
I can take Mark Athitakis's comment in good humor -- he's a Twitter buddy and a fine blogger and I'm sure he thinks I'm a swell fellow too, etc. etc. But whether or not I am one of the bloggers he is thinking of above, I know he must be loosely thinking of myself, Ed Champion, Michael Orthofer and maybe Scott Esposito and Chad Post, and I don't think the observation of "whining" and "bellyaching" is accurate in any of these cases.
It is true that Michael, Scott and Chad have repeatedly pointed out that the NYTBR doesn't do a good enough job covering international literature. But is this "bellyaching"? It seems the bloggers been heard at all levels of NYT and NYTBR management, and there's halfway decent evidence that they've even made a positive difference in the coverage of international lit over the past four years.
It's not called "whining" if it's actually meant to make a difference and succeeds in making a difference. It's called "speaking up and being heard", and that's what Michael Orthofer, Scott Esposito and Chad Post have done and will hopefully continue to do.
Then there's the two wild cards, myself and Ed Champion, who admittedly sometimes do have too much fun at the Book Review's expense. However, I don't think we "whine" or "bellyache" either. Ed has a clear and distinct voice, and the only time he whines is when he's doing his Peter Lorre impressions.
As for me, I rarely comment on what books the NYTBR does or doesn't review, and instead I evaluate individual articles on aesthetic grounds. That is, I critique the writing, looking for outstanding artistry, integrity, intellectual authority. By this standard, I tend to praise the articles in the Book Review as often as not. I've been reading the Book Review since I was eight years old, it's the only publication in the world I never miss, and the only reason I critique it is that I enjoy it and I care about it so much.
But if this weekly exercise is starting to come off as whining or harassing or haranguing, it's time for me to hang it up. You all tell me -- is this act getting old?
Anyway, I'm not beefing with Mark Athitakis (who runs an excellent blog called American Fiction Notes). In fact, I hate to prove him temporarily right, but I've got nothing at all good to say about this weekend's issue of our favorite rag. At 20 pages, this is one of the least substantial Book Reviews I can remember. And I searched in vain for a surprising piece.
Robert Reich is given the chance to write a powerful cover article on The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office, a historical treatment of the USA national health care controversy by David Blumenthal and James A. Morone. Unfortunately, his piece is as exciting as a bowl of shredded wheat. If he made any points that will move our current critical health care debate one way or another, I missed them.
David Orr praises Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist but fails to achieve a level of cleverness commensurate with that of the book's author. Finally, Ross Douthat's triumphalist review of The Age of Reagan by Steven Hayward pushes the highly questionable notion that liberals have trouble deciding what to think of Ronald Reagan. Really? Not this liberal. I think Reagan's financial deregulation policies caused the corruption that led to our current economic crash. His administration encouraged wild and irresponsible stock and bond market "innovations" that eventually led to the horrors of AIG, and to our current economic crisis. This is Ross Douthat's hero? And why didn't Douthat even mention this aspect of Ronald Reagan's legacy in this article?
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.
There have been many good books in this field: Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, Kara Swisher's AOL.com, Michael Woolf's Burn Rate, Robert X. Cringely's Accidental Empires and (perhaps best of all) Linus Torvald's Just For Fun. I once read a good history of the early television industry called The Box by Jeff Kisseloff, and I guess our current electronic communications revolution must be at least as bookworthy as that one was.
I'm also (complete disclosure of the utterly obvious) busy writing my own suspense-filled memoir of life as a New York City techie, so I have reasons to hope future generations will want to read about how exactly the Internet came together (or came apart) in its early decades. At least these seem to be exciting times.
I recently read two new books in this field: Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming and Why It Matters by Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg and Accidental Billionaires: the Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Bringing Down the House author Ben Mezrich. Both are good books, but one is a bestseller and one isn't, and I thought it'd be interesting to compare and contrast the two.
Accidental Billionaires is the big seller of the two, and it's also likely to become a major motion picture soon. Ben Mezrich's earlier non-fiction book about tech-savvy young gamblers became the film 21, and he's clearly more interested in exploring the character of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg than in wondering about the meaning of social networking. Tracking the shy teenage entrepreneur as he builds the little website at Harvard University that blows up and takes over the world, Mezrich clearly admires his pluck and taste for mystery, even as the awkward but confident student screws over one former friend after another while clawing his way to the top. Zuckerberg's personality is Mezrich's main topic: this enigmatic mensch is too shy to pick up a girl on his own, but isn't too shy to carry business cards that read "I'm CEO -- bitch." I hope they get an actor clever enough to capture this walking paradox in the movie.
Accidental Billionaires is at its howling worst when Mezrich attempts to talk like a techie. Passages like this, supposedly Zuckerberg's stream of consciousness as he "hacks" into Harvard's student directory system, are cringe-worthy:
12:58 am: Let the hacking begin. First on the list is Kirkland. They keep everything open and allow indexes in their Apache configuration, so a little wget magic is all that's necessary to download the entire Kirkland facebook. Child's play.
No self-respecting hacker in the real world has ever used the phrase "a little wget magic". Wget is a simple and perfectly legal app that sends out web requests on public networks. I don't think many hackers say "Let the hacking begin" either. This is like a movie about auto racing where the driver gets in the car and says "Yippee! The wheels go round!"
But Mezrich is at his best when he zooms in super-close on the amazing cipher that is Mark Zuckerberg, revealed in all his glorified loneliness in a stirring chapter at the end. Accidental Billionaires is not a very brainy or heavy book about the current technological revolution, but it's no less important or relevant for telling its one simple story well.
Scott Rosenberg's Say Everything is a much more substantial effort than Ben Mezrich's, covering the history of blogging from years before the word was invented to today, from Links From the Underground's Justin Hall in 1994 to Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin in 2008. Like Mezrich, though, Rosenberg is at his best when painting pictures of the individual people who like to make themselves visible on the web. His affectionate portrait of Justin Hall (who also turns up in an early chapter of my memoir) is lively and just plain fun; I'm glad that giddy, carefree and sometimes careless people like Justin Hall exist in the world, and I'm glad that Justin's story has been printed in book form for future readers to enjoy.
Rosenberg also tells good stories about folks like Dave Winer, Jorn Barger, Evan Williams and Heather Armstrong. The book is weakest at the end, when Rosenberg attempts to philosophize about the blogging medium. These chapters could have been simply skipped, not because they are badly written, but because this topic is too well-trod. I couldn't even bear to read the section on "Bloggers vs. Journalists". I know I've heard it all before. Maybe posterity will find this chapter interesting, but nobody with a Twitter account will find it unfamiliar.
What do both of these books offer? It's hard to say. No message emerges, except the message of diversity and open-mindedness towards the unexpected. Perhaps the most important testimony is that both books propelled me forward, created suspense, satisfied my urge for resolution. The real story is unfolding around us today, and these printed pages are but leaves that fall to the ground as the story grows.
(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 25 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
Monday morning, February 15, 1999, first day at my new job. I stand outside a slender homey townhouse on the corner of 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the tony section of lower midtown Manhattan that likes to call itself Chelsea even though Chelsea is two blocks west.
I'm looking up at the iVillage main office, a converted residential space with a gilded dome and a bright yellow flag hanging over Fifth Avenue: "iVillage.com: the #1 Women's Network". Across the street, the breathtaking Flatiron building looms over Madison Square, harmonizing with the faux-Venetian Metropolitan Life tower on the far side of the park.
IVillage.com awaits me, but I like it better out here, because I know I'm in for a crazy first day once I walk in this door and report for duty. I let the Nas track on my Sony Walkman play to the very end. Squeeze out every last second of freedom before I start meeting people and getting drawn into the drama.
1. Buy the Lighthouse. The scenic spot that inspired Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse is for sale.
2. I'm not sure if "crying for help" counts as a business model, but I know Archipelago Books is worth helping. I've enjoyed several of their titles in the last few years. Here's their appeal.
3. From Kenyon Review, Cody Walker on Paul Auster and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
4. Pulling Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain Off the Shelf (something I ought to do myself) by Maud Newton.
5. Harold Augenbraum has posted an enthusiastic appreciation of John O'Hara's 1956 National Book Award winning novel Ten North Frederick, which is, incredibly, out of print. This is part of a National Book Awards retrospective.
6. Something about Twitter and Gogol. No, not Google. Gogol.
7. The South Carolina Post and Courier reveals that it maintains a book-reviewing policy from the 19th Century.
8. Check out Backward Books, a small collective of self-published authors (including Kristen Tsetsi, a good indie writer).
9. Wag's Revue is a worthy new literary publication.
10. The Florida Review features poet Eamon Grennan.
11. From Narrative, James Salter on Isaac Babel.
12. Exit Vector is a new "wovel" by Simon Drax, presented by Underland Press.
13. And, one more time for postmodernism: here's a fun and well-designed list from Jacket Copy of 61 classic postmodern books. But I must still complain that here, as in so many discussions of postmodernism, there is no real differentiation between modernism and postmodernism. For instance, one of the indicators on this list is that a work of fiction "disrupts/plays with form". I'm pretty sure that's a mark of modernism.
Still, you can learn a lot from this list. My favorite novels from the selection: Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, Roberto Bolano's 2666 (though I honestly haven't read much of it yet), Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinth, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis (though this is modern, not postmodern), Steven Milhauser's Edwin Mulhouse, Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.
Some works that should be on the list but aren't: Jack Kerouac's On The Road (what could be more postmodern than Kerouac's brew of Joycean free-writing and hipster/jazz slang?), Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man, John Irving's World According to Garp, Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, Orhan Pamuk's Snow. We should probably also find room for Salman Rushdie, Yukio Mishima, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver ... hell, I'd even throw Tao Lin in there. Jonathan Lethem? Whatever. And as much as I love Shakespeare's Hamlet and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, I have no idea what either of them are doing here. Just chilling with the postmodernists, I guess.
1. How delightful to learn that James Joyce may have invented the word 'blog' during a typical conversational ramble in Finnegans Wake! Here it is in context:
Now from Gunner Shotland to Guinness Scenography. Come to the ballay at the Tailors' Hall. We mean to be mellay on the Mailers' Mall. And leap, rink and make follay till the Gaelers' Gall. Awake ! Come, a wake ! Every old skin in the leather world, infect the whole stock company of the old house of the Leaking Barrel, was thomistically drunk, two by two, lairking o' tootlers with tombours a'beggars, the blog and turfs and the brandywine bankrompers, trou Normend fashion, I have been told down to the bank lean clorks? Some nasty blunt clubs were being operated after the tradition of a wellesleyan bottle riot act and a few plates were being shied about and tumblers bearing traces of fresh porter rolling around, independent of that, for the ehren of Fyn's Insul, and then followed that wapping breakfast at the Heaven and Covenant, with Rodey O'echolowing how his breadcost on the voters would be a comeback for e'er a one, like the depredations of Scandalknivery, in and on usedtowobble sloops off cloasts, eh? Would that be a talltale too? This was the grandsire Orther. This was his innwhite horse. Sip?
Enough puns for you there? I assume that "blog" is a play on "bog" (and in fact the word "blog" has always seemed to carry an appealing sort of Joycean phlegmatic physicality). Pictured above: an Irish peat bog.
(This is chapter 20 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I went to San Francisco in March 1998 to attend the Webby Awards. Literary Kicks was a nominee in the Print/Zines category. I was up against Salon (a well-financed new content venture), the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (exciting stuff!), a compendium of electronic literature known as Labyrinth, and, finally, alt.culture (my friend Nathaniel Wice's site, hosted by Pathfinder).
It felt strange to be up against a site edited by my friend and hosted by the company I worked for, but Nathaniel and I both agreed that alt.culture didn't have a chance, and neither did Litkicks. Salon, a darling of the new media industry since its highly publicized introduction, was the clear choice to win.
I flew out to California to attend the awards ceremony at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, bringing the Enterzone crew, Christian and Briggs and Martha and Rich, as my guests. We showed up to the event in an ironic mode, enjoying the hyped-up red carpet atmosphere though we knew my site would lose, and feeling dubious about the crowd of fashionably dressed dot-commers that filled the auditorium. It wasn't until the Print/Zines category was presented and I saw an image of the Litkicks front page on the large theatre screen that I suddenly realized I wanted Litkicks to win.
This sudden epiphany that I wanted to win was quickly followed by the announcement of the winner: Salon. Dammit.
The second time, in 2007, I got invited to the parties but didn't know what to do at the parties once I got there. I walked the convention floors feeling excluded.
This time, it was my own friends hosting the parties, and I walked the convention center floors feeling entirely comfortable. So now I have finally adjusted to Book Expo -- the one USA book industry convention that the entire industry actually shows up for -- just at the moment that many in the industry began to question whether a radical shift towards digital publishing will become necessary in the next year, whether book publishing is in permanent decline, and whether or not there will even be another Book Expo next year.
Attendance is down and fewer galleys are available, but the spirit of innovation is up. I'm sure the economic problems currently obsessing booksellers have more to do with poor consumer spending and less to do with the digital revolution, and so I couldn't stand to sit through a Saturday morning panel discussion about whether large commercial book publishers "still hold the keys to the kingdom", or a later one about how book reviews are changing. The probability of hearing a single fresh thought at either event seemed slight, so instead I saved my event-going for a panel called 7x20x21, organized by Ami Greko and Ryan Champan and offering free-form inspiration from Lauren Cerand, Chris Jackson, Pablo Defendini, Debbie Stier, Matt Supko, Jeff Yamaguchi and Richard Nash. At 7 strictly-timed minutes per speaker, nobody had time to do anything but speak from the heart. Let's forget about the future of the book for a moment and talk instead about the future of the panel discussion: 7x20x21 is a good template for other event organizers to follow.
A "blogger book signing" sponsored by NetGalley.com was a real hoot. I enjoyed sharing my hour with Sarah Johnson, who writes about historical fiction at Reading the Past. I had never heard of several other literary bloggers I shared this schedule with. I gather that many of them specialize in specific genres or areas, and that several are more obsessed with the constant stream of newly published books than I am (personally, I'm also excited about what books are coming out next year, as long as next year is 1863).
But most of these sites also feature the characteristic I value most in a literary blog: an authentic human voice. Here's the whole gang, for your checking-out enjoyment: The Book Maven, Presenting Lenore, Follow the Reader, Maw Books, GalleyCat, Tools of Change for Publishing, Books on the Nightstand, Beatrice.com, Booksquare, Jenn's Bookshelf, The Swivet, Book Club Girl, Booking Mama, My Friend Amy, The Friendly Book Nook, Beth Fish Reads, Pop Culture Junkie, She is Too Fond of Books, Hey Lady! Watcha Readin'?, Reviewer X, My Cozy Book Nook, Book Reviews by Jess , Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Personanondata, Sharon Loves Cats, Janicu’s book blog, The Big Picture, The Olive Reader, Literary License, Stephanie’s Written Word, Bookrastination, Every Day I Write the Book, Reading the Past, Literary Kicks, Wands and Worlds, Mother Reader, Teleread, Laura’s Review Book Shelf, The Tome Traveller's Weblog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, Bat Segundo, The Abbeville Manual of Style.
I could say more about Book Expo 2009, but I can't compete with the Twitter tag for currency. Is the book biz in trouble? I just don't think so, based on the enthusiasm I've spent the last three days soaking in.
After I left BEA Sunday morning I was exhausted and slightly sick of the scene, but I found myself at Penn Station an hour and a half later with some time to kill. Naturally, I spent the next twenty minutes in a bookstore.