(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.
(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.
(This is chapter 24 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
"I'm making short-term goals ..."
-- Jay-Z, "Can't Knock the Hustle"
I had vague dreams of getting rich in early 1999 when I left Time Warner to join iVillage.com, a high-flying start-up about to go public on the NASDAQ stock exchange. It's a fact, though, that I had no desire for wealth or luxury. I was pursuing money, but material things and lush comforts meant nothing to me. I was pursuing money because I was trying to buy my freedom back.
Nine years of "exciting work" as a software developer in New York City's financial and media sectors had convinced me that I was going insane. Truly -- but gradually, slowly, artistically -- I really was. By early 1999 I was spending my waking days as a nervous wreck in a Manhattan skyscraper -- paranoid, over-caffeinated, angry. I was not enjoying myself. I felt deeply alienated from the "Silicon Alley" lifestyle that swirled around me, I did not feel I fit in, did not think I could keep "playing the game". But I was stuck in this lifestyle because, despite my decent salary, Meg and I had no money in the bank, no cushion to fall back on, big bills and a mortgage to pay.
Like many who work in the media industry, I had become hopelessly cynical about my work. I spent more time every day competing with my co-workers than competing with my company's competitors. I bitterly remembered every insult I'd received, every promotion I hadn't gotten, all the good work I'd done that nobody understood or appreciated. My work on Literary Kicks offered little satisfaction; I had lost track of why I was running this site again, and wasn't doing any original writing at all. I was grumpy and tired all the time. I ate too much junk food and was out of shape.
I needed a break, to save my blistered soul. I needed to cleanse Manhattan from my system for a few months. I felt battered, wasted, exhausted with no chance to rest.
I've posted a chapter of my memoir every week since January. This will be the first week I skip in five months. I think I'll take a breather next week too, and then I'll return with Chapter 24 the week after.
Some have asked me how I manage to keep up this pace, and wonder if I'd begun some of this writing before. I have not; it's all new. If you're reading a chapter of my memoir on a Wednesday night, that probably means that I spent the prior Thursday night to Monday afternoon in a state of advanced writer's block. I then finally started writing late Monday night, scrapped it and started over Tuesday night, and wrote the whole thing on the train in to work Wednesday morning. I then revised it all day, posted it at 5, published it at 7, and fixed the spelling errors and factual mistakes by midnight before I went to sleep. This has not been an easy schedule to keep.
From the beginning, I intended this to be an automatic writing project, though I didn't realize it'd turn out to be such an exercise in brutalism. I'm sure I would never have revealed certain things that I've revealed in these pages if I hadn't turned off certain filters. It feels fine. But if it isn't obvious that the method I'm using here was inspired by Jack Kerouac's experiments with automatic writing, then I must not be doing my job very well.
(This is chapter 23 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
In July 1998 a three-year-old Internet streaming audio startup called Broadcast.com began selling shares on the NASDAQ stock exchange. The shares opened at $18 and shot up to $74 on the first day -- a stunning success, and one of the biggest first-day stock jumps in modern financial history.
Internet stocks had been exciting high-risk buys on Wall Street since Netscape's historic initial public offering in August 1995, but it was still a shock to see a small, little-known company like Broadcast blow the ceiling open. I had visited their site once or twice, but they didn't have much music and were mainly known for college basketball webcasts. Yet somehow Wall Street's many-to-many mind chose Broadcast.com as a super-winner must buy, and shot it to the sky on its first day.
Future anthropologists studying the strange event known as the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s must understand that there were two separate phenomena operating at once: there was a dot-com craze, and there was an IPO craze. The dot-com craze happened when it became the fashion for investors to take unusual risks on futuristic Internet companies with very hazy business models. More and more professional and amateur investors began playing the dot-coms, even as traditional and conservative investors naturally scoffed at the airy stocks. My savvy stepfather Gene had always enjoyed playing the stock market, and had made out very well over the years with blue chips like IBM and General Electric. He advised me to go ahead and work for a dot-com -- Pathfinder was a dead end, he said -- but said I should never, ever put my own money into one.
(This is chapter 22 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
My satisfaction with the response to Notes From Underground didn't last very long. It's a strange thing to suddenly get public attention, especially if you are a shy or quasi-Asperger's person as I generally am. Being noticed is both addictive and repellent.
As slight as my brushes with "web celebrity" were during the middle and late years of the 90s, they always left me feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed. It's easy to see why big celebrities like Lindsay Lohan or Any Winehouse or Michael Jackson or Britney Spears go insane. I don't know how they manage to deal with fame every day. It enervated me just to get my name in WIRED magazine twice.
By the time the clamor over my Notes From Underground CD-Rom movie died down I'd sold about 350 copies, nowhere near enough to break even, and despite the good reviews I felt very discouraged. The truth is, there's nothing like a small taste of success to make a guy feel like a real failure. It's when you reach for something far away, sometimes, that you discover your own limits, your own fatal flaws.
(This is chapter 21 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
And then, every once in a while ... you try something different and it works out just fine.
When I started my "Notes From Underground" movie project I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I was just working something out for myself, getting a few things out of my system. By staging the movements of Fyodor Dostoevsky's sad-sack aging hipster through the worst night of his life in intricate detail, and reliving these scenes over and over and over and over and over and over and over again as I edited the thing to the last microframe of its life, I was doing something I needed to do, and that was the only reason I was doing it.
But when it was done, almost miraculously, I had made a good movie. I knew it was good because I saw it in people's faces when they watched it. I could tell that they related to the story, and to the main character, as much as I did.
So this is the wonderful lesson I learned: sometimes it's only by creating something truly private and personal that you can be understood by others.
(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.
(This is chapter 19 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I love Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground because it may be the most honest novel ever written. It begins as a madman's rant -- "two plus two equals five!" -- but the madman soon reveals himself as a mere poseur, an ineffectual urban nobody, not a real madman at all but just a frustrated and lonely adult, confused about his past and starved for attention.
The "Underground Man" looks back at his own history and concludes that human beings must be essentially irrational, because he has tried to live a rational and honorable life, and his good intentions have been blocked at every turn. The climax of this beautiful and rambling narrative is the terrible tale of a dinner party with friends that turns into a disaster, followed by an attempt at a romantic encounter that ends in complete humiliation. Dostoevsky wrote Notes From Underground about himself, but when I read it in the mid-1990s I couldn't help feeling echoes of my own life.
I guess it was Dostoevsky's gift to make many readers feel this kind of personal connection. I got the idea to direct a modern-day Notes From Underground when I found out that Phil Zampino, a fellow computer programmer who'd performed at my Biblio's web writers reading in February 1996, was also a Dostoevsky freak. So I said it as a lark: "Let's make a movie of Notes From Underground. You can be the star and I'll direct."
It was just a wacky idea, nothing more. I did not realize I was beginning a project that would soon consume my life, that would misdirect my career and help to end my marriage, that would also turn into my biggest success so far. I just thought it was a fun idea. Hah.