Yet I commend Penguin for attempting this, and for continuing to see this adventure through. Even though nobody's figured out how to make collaborative online writing fly just yet, many brave souls keep trying. Take Dennis Cooper, for instance, editor of an Akashic Books anthology called Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground (an excellent editor's introduction helps explain the project's goals). This is a smart collection of short fiction, most of it transgressive or confessional in nature. Every single piece feels strong, but as I hold the thick book in my hand I feel somehow alienated from the social community that created this book, and this makes it difficult for me to enjoy the book.
This is an inherent problem with books created online: it is very difficult to transmit the strong sense of connection that permeates an online community to a book reader who isn't there. Reading Userlands, I meet one fascinating voice after another, but it all flashes by like a party where I know I won't be staying long, and where everybody but me knows everybody else.
Maybe we need to adjust our expectations when we explore these territories. Walter Kirn is another adventurer in internet-based literature, having recently completed The Unbinding, an online serial novel that ran at Slate and has just been published in an attractive paperback edition. This is a funny and thought-provoking fable about an employee of an advanced satellite personal security system who begins to get too deeply involved in "the grid". Walter Kirn wrote the book "on the grid" too, and he explains in an introductory essay that when he began this online writing project he expected to become captivated by the ability to use hyperlinks freely in his fiction. But, Kirn says, once the project began he quickly realized that it was the real-time aspect of online writing -- the immediacy of the exchange between writer and readers -- that made the most difference, while hyperlinks turned out to be a creative dead end.
Kirn is smart to let the project find its own way, and if you're planning to attempt your own online literary project I'd suggest you adopt the same posture. Provide as much structure as you can in advance, and then just let it go and hope for the best.
I speak about this with some authority because, well, it happens your friendly webmaster here has paid his dues on the online literary front. Coffeehouse: Writings from the Web, a book I co-edited with Christian Crumlish in 1997, was verifiably the first anthology of web-based fiction and poetry published in book form. We even got respectable (but small) reviews in the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World (we got ignored -- hah-- by the New York Times Book Review).
The book is now out of print and copies are hard to find, though it's pretty clear that Cory Doctorow's book designer owns a copy. Was Coffeehouse a good book? Looking back, I have to admit that I think Christian and I blew it. We had some great pieces -- some of my favorites were by Joseph Squier, Mia Lipner, Jamie Fristrom, Ben Cohen, Janan Platt, E. Stephen Mack, Walter Miller, Carl Steadman, Greg Knauss, Martha Conway, Jason Snell, Lee Ranaldo, Mike Watt, Robert Hunter, quite a collection -- but, like Dennis Cooper with Userlands, we failed to provide a compelling and unified product that readers instinctively wanted to own.
I think LitKicks did a better job with Action Poetry in 2004, though this book didn't fly off any bookshelves either. But we're getting somewhere! And so is Dennis Cooper, and so is Walter Kirn.
As for Artie with the bananas and the whales and the penguins, I guess he's getting somewhere too, but he's got a ways to go.
Nor is this what George Orwell fondly called good bad writing. This is bad bad writing. There are tautologies (offices that are "unobtrusively tucked away"). There are mixed metaphors (the "bull of a man" whose frame was "going to seed"). There are mistakes -- the use of the word "diligently" where "carefully" is meant. And there are unfortunate ambiguities, as when Welsh describes Kibby's erection as "poking through the material of his trousers." We must assume either that Welsh means "showing through," or that Kibby has an unusually sharp phallus.
Ouch, Welsh, and from a fellow Scot too. That must hurt like a beer glass breaking on your head in a bar.
Don Fante, son of legendary John Fante, gets nicer treatment from John Wranovics for his new Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L. A. Streets in today's New York Times Book Review, and I think Meghan Daum is possibly a little too generous to Eliza Minot's The Brambles, because the book as she describes it sounds rather flat but, Daum says:
The novel is imperfect in a way that leaves you marveling at the many things it does right and looking forward to the author's next move.
If that's all a novel does for a reviewer, I'd just as soon wait for the author's next move and skip this one.
Dave Itzkoff does a good job with Julie Phillips' new biography of Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr. I've never heard of Tiptree/Sheldon before, but this article makes me want to start catching up. I'm particularly intrigued by one point Itzkoff brushes over: author Sheldon killed her ailing, aging husband and then killed herself. That puts her in an exclusive (and sorry) club, along with William S. Burroughs, of writers who have committed murder.
Field Maloney provides a nice introduction to New Orleans-based Poppy Z. Brite's Soul Kitchen, which sounds quite intriguing. Poetry critic David Kirby's review of Maggie Dietz's Perennial Fall is a pleasure to read.
This weekend's only dull note is (no big surprise) the endpaper by Rachel Donadio, which takes us inside exclusive writers' colonies like Yaddo and MacDowell. Donadio's article is too chirpy in tone, and it fails to draw any surprising conclusions. I also can't imagine why the article lists several novels that contain scenes depicting workshops like Yaddo or MacDowell but fails to mention Jonathan Ames' Wake Up Sir!, a truly original comic novel that takes place almost entirely at a colony based on Yaddo.
I'm on vacation starting right this second, and the delightful Jamelah Earle is going to be holding this place down all week.
Jamelah has been with LitKicks since the days when sock puppets roamed the world, and I'm also glad to report that she will be contributing more often to LitKicks in the future. I've been overloaded lately (NOTE TO SELF: if you join the Litblog Co-op you are going to start getting five times as many review books in the mail ...) and so I've asked Jamelah if she can pitch in occasionally with her own takes on the literary topics of the day. Be nice to her this week -- I'll be on the beach! Have fun.
It's occurred to me that many people visit LitKicks regularly but never post on our poetry forum because they don't know what it's all about. Action Poetry is a free-form showcase for amateur or professional poets or writers. You can post an original piece, or you can write a response to another writer's poem. We try to maintain a zen atmosphere on this page -- each poem simply exists for the sake of existing, and may or may not get a response. There is no "official voice", and we never interrupt the flow to make announcements or provide structure of any kind. You may never know whether anybody liked your poem or not, and that's how Action Poetry works.
Any format, style or subject matter is okay, as long as you are sincerely trying to write well. We ask only a few things: check your spelling and formatting before you post, post only original work, and keep it short (this is not the place to upload your unpublished novel).
You can use Action Poetry as therapy, or you can use it to express secrets that won't fit on a postcard, or you can use it to show off your poetic skills. If you've never posted on Action Poetry before, all you have to do is create a LitKicks member name and you're all set.
Whoever you are, please consider writing us a poem soon.
I'd like to thank the contest's esteemed judges for making this decision, and I'd also like to thank the great LitKicks writing community for making the book happen. More than anything else, I want to brag about the fact that I totally called this one, Babe-Ruth style, back in December over at Metaxu Cafe. I knew we'd at least make it to the final round, because the writing in this book is that good.
Will we go all the way? Well, some of the other finalists look pretty good, so I'm going to refrain from calling it a second time (even the Bambino knew better than to push his luck). If our book doesn't win, the book I'd most like to get beaten by is Keith Thompson's novel Gus Openshaw's Whale Killing Journal, an appealingly bizarre sendup of Moby Dick featuring a white whale with a scar in the shape of a double letter 'B' on his forehead, which his hunters believe stands for 'blubbery bastard'.
We didn't have the budget for any big whales or other special effects when we published Action Poetry in 2004, but we hope we still have a chance.
In fact, through the happy accident of alphabetism, our book is at the very top of the list, and we like the way that feels. We believe we should win this award, and in a vain attempt to drum up a huge groundswell of popular support I'd like to talk about what this book is and how it came about.
If you also sometimes miss an important literary birthday or anniversary, we have the answer for you. If you'll please scan your eyes a few pixels to the right, you'll notice a new daily feature, Today In Literature. We hope this will inspire people to visit LitKicks each and every day, not only because a good litblog really is an important part of a balanced breakfast, but also because you can now find out what significant literary events -- fictional, biographical or otherwise -- happened each day.
I know that I'll get shouted down if I speak the above paragraph in any kind of crowd. Literature is entertainment and escape, some will say. Others scoff at entertainment and escape but only want to speak of literature as refined aesthetic experience, or personal and private enlightenment. Still others will admit that literature could possibly help end wars and break racial, economic and social barriers in theory, but balk at trying to translate this theory into action.
I say our world is an awful mess, and any discussion of this mess will quickly founder upon the bedrock of ideology. From communism to capitalism to fascism to scientific racialism to anarchism to hippie utopianism to religious fundamentalism, our past century has been a loud pinball game of theories and beliefs. But ideology is a mercurial pursuit, and most attempts to debate these types of world views go nowhere. I'm thinking, for instance, of the chilling chapter in Orhan Pamuk's Snow in which an Islamic fundamentalist debates a secular bureaucrat in a pastry cafe before shooting him. The conversation reminds me of many I've had (though I haven't been shot yet) because both are talking but neither are listening. It's a defensive game -- one character speaks a volley, and the other tries to intercept and return it. The argument is inevitably settled with a gun, a natural progression in a conversation that was all bullets and shields to begin with.
A year ago this month, we turned the entire LitKicks site into a special one-time-only project called October Earth. This was my attempt at an exploration of basic human principles through the discussion of literature. We asked one controversial question each day, illustrated with a selection from a relevant work of fiction or poetry or drama, and we required respondents to choose a definite "Yes" or "No" along with their answer.
The "Yes/No" thing got a lot of criticism. We were lambasted for requiring simple answers to tough questions. In fact, that was the whole scheme. Of course there were no simple answers to the questions we were asking, and by asking each person to commit to an "Agree" or "Disagree" with each response we were trying to make each participant feel the insufficiency of simple answers, the frustration of propaganda and institutionalized stupidity.
October Earth was my baby, my self-indulgence. I'm not sure if anybody in the world liked the project except for me, but it was something I had been dreaming of doing for years, and it was a thrill to finally see it in action. Jamelah and Caryn and I took turns selecting topics, and while we touched on everything from love to fear to money to religion, the focus was clearly on the state of our planet in an age dominated by intellectual extremism and massively distributed propaganda. In October 2004, my country was in the final stage of a virulently contested presidential election that also stood as a referendum on our war with Iraq. Opinions were abounding on all sides, and October Earth was my little shout in the midst of all the noise.
A year later, the world's no better, so I guess the project failed. Still I enjoy looking back on the discussions we had that month, like this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one. Today, in the spirit of October Earth, I'd like to ask you one more question: do you believe literature can help cure the world of its current plague of institutionalized violence, injustice and oppression? Please include a clear "Yes" or "No" along with your response.
Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.
It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn't cause a riot like Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.
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