Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008) and the forthcoming critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2010). An instructor at Loyola University, Chicago, Dew also reviews books for Rain Taxi Review of Books and art for Newcity Chicago. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010 is a strange artifact, falsely advertised, for even as it offers samples of excellent talent, there is an absence at its heart, a lack of that very thing which should be its subject. I found it a disturbing book to read—disturbingly homogenous, albeit with an array of experimental tactics employed; disturbingly ghettoized, speaking from select niches of a largely young American world; and, in terms of form, disturbingly conventional if not antique. Further, with a few exceptions—and some of these perhaps too heavy-handed, as Matthew Glenwood’s nonetheless tonic “John Henry’s Tracks,” originally from DIAGRAM, which indicts “corporate-driven democracy” by focusing on the price for, and process of selling, human plasma—there is a disturbingly insulated tone in politics in addition to those of demographics and geography. In sum, here is a conservative artifact, offered up from the edge of the future, the most now part of now.
Best of the Web 2010 is an anthology of pieces selected from online literary magazines. By no means does this collection reflect “the best” Internet content generally, but the semantics here belie a deeper confusion, for what is on—and possible on&mdash“the web” is much more than the old standard of words on paper. This book could—and perhaps should—have been called something like The Best of America’s Literary Web Sites, yet even that title, while explicit about selecting out the year’s best Internet journalism, say, leaves open the hope of audio, of visual art, of hybrid genres.
When, in his “Series Introduction,” Matt Bell discusses growing up on computers and how he thus “never had an attachment to notebooks or certain brands of pens ... never typed a single page on a typewriter,” and does not know what a typewriter’s “component parts are called, although I’m sure I could look it up on Wikipedia,” he is presenting us not only with a fragment of autobiography but also with a glimpse of method, of reflex. For those things he does not know, he clicks a button, types a phrase; likewise, if, as a writer, he really eschews all pens and notebooks, then surely he has some device always handy, in a pocket, where he records queries and observations, typing lines that then have a life of their own, pasted and attached and linked and downloaded. There is a reference, in his comment about typewriter parts, to the action that is central and ever-present in our experience of the Internet. This technology is not static, even if, surely, we can use it to meditate on a single image or spend a slow hour with a small Dickinson poem. The potential for some radical change—the arrow icon which starts the music, or the video embedded on a digital mimic of a newspaper page—is part of the very texture of the Internet. Interruption, the unexpected shift—these, it seems, while sometimes annoyances, are also at least possible strengths, and they are what makes the experience of reading on the Internet different from the experience of reading on the page.
For Bell, however, the focus is on “the written word” online, and in reference to what he calls “the ‘split’ between the internet and the print world (as if nearly every print journal did not also have a website, as if every book is not also available for sale online, as if those spheres will ever be mutually exclusive ever again),” he says only that discussion of said “split” is “no longer a conversation I’m interested in having at great length. I do not believe an argument can still be made that the print journals are ‘better’ than the web ones, or vice verse, of the argument that the internet literary scene is somehow diminished by the fact that ‘anyone’ can start a literary journal, since that’s no more or less true now than it was in the days before the internet.” Bell’s dismissal of the charge that online sites may often be inferior to print sites—a charge that is based not merely on Luddite elitism but, perhaps, also on the differences in editing staff, the differences both funding and expense can make in terms of the selection and polish and presentation of literature—avoids entirely any sense that perhaps a “split” is a good thing, that perhaps the poetry of the Web can be different from the poetry of print journals because the Web is different, as a thing and as an experience, than those print journals.
Bell’s reference to “the days before the internet” could also use some nuance, as, in arguing that it’s “no more or less true now” that “anyone” can start a magazine, he’s speaking of a specific history. The age of mechanical reproduction, after all, started with Guttenberg, but the explosive literary scene in which “anyone” could reasonably produce and distribute a journal was a result of Mimeograph, then Xerox. Before the Zine Revolution there was the Mimeograph Revolution, and American literature, in particular, was forever changed by the speed with which new, innovative work could be distributed and, more important even than the communities which could be created by like-minded artists, the collapse of distance between a kid in Tulsa, say, and the avant-garde underground of New York City. Mimeograph folded space, and the Internet, of course, continued this trend, only exponentially so. Likewise, as earlier technology made possible formal innovations—when most people think “zine,” they think in terms of the visual collage made possible by machines that printed inexpensive photocopies—the Internet’s potential for new, radical forms is unprecedented, and such forms are emerging in tandem with new ways of conceiving information and engaging in the act of reading (precisely like Bell’s reflex to click over to Wikipedia when faced with something unknown).
Best of the Web 2010 does not include such new form. Physically, after all, it is a book, and the pieces here—while sometimes experimental in ways I will detail below—are pieces that read as well, as “naturally,” on the printed page as on the Web. The Web, ultimately, is unnecessary for them. It gave them their birth, their start, but they are traditional pieces of writing that look handsome in a bound volume and can be preserved, via acid-free paper, for some time, on a high shelf.
Most of the pieces in this book are, of course, quite short. On this aspect, Bell refers to “markets.” Identifying “flash fiction” as “one of the hallmarks of current online literature,” Bell dismisses the straw man notion that flash is “a response to or panacea for the supposedly shortened attention span of contemporary Americans” and holds, instead, “that the internet merely provided the room for new markets to arise, particularly those that might focus on the kinds of fiction or essays or poetry somehow less popular with already existing magazines, and that these new magazines used the accessibility of the internet to quickly gather and cultivate a community of like-minded readers.” Fair enough, for many of the “flash” writers included here are also authors of long form works and seek publication of different forms in different “markets.” Yet as Best of the Web 2010 itself indicates, once a market has proved itself sufficient, products can be tailored to it. That Joseph Young—an excellent writer, not included in this volume, who works in remarkably short forms—can find an audience on the Internet is, surely, an issue of communities becoming markets, and not unrelated to attention spans or speed of online production and distribution. But I suspect I am not alone in believing that Young’s tiny pieces are best viewed on the page, surrounded by the white space our minds find necessary to aid in their digestion. Might not the “hallmarks” of our online literature exhibit traits that are, themselves, bound to and rooted in their very “onlineness”?
Consider an example from Best of the Web 2010, a selection from what is presumably a longer piece, Sucker Jane, by Sean Kilpatrick:
I attend a webcam orgy, choking myself with my bra. I laugh asking if father catches feast in my diaphragm. He died in childbirth. Literally, he’s negative seven years old. His prick looks like a coat hanger. Boything from Colorado wants to watch me piss on cam. Girlcreature from school asks what drugs her boyfriend stuffed me with. LSD suppositories and I got pyrotechnic groin trauma. So he shampooed your cunt for CNN? Acronyms are hot. I’ll punch your clit later. LOL. I type upside down in the hatebox, legs over the chair top like white feathers that hate themselves. I invented wingspan. I’m typing I fucked your mom over and over to my own screen name. I answer my cell and continue an online conversation mid-sentence. The television is loud enough to upset my stomach. I hold music to my ear and type with one finger and yell ‘What!’ into the phone while performing on cam, taking another picture, switching the lights on and off with my toe.
Here we have something of the online experience, albeit rendered traditionally. Here, then, is a description of something that it is not. It captures something of the electric sizzle of the Web, the randomness and collapse of walls, and it does so with verve and blunt-edged satire, but it is not flashing Webcam screens or pop-up windows, and that, whether we want to use it or not, is the material of the Web.
Of course, I review books, and, moreover, I review books for one of those thousand, scrappy little literary Web sites, striving to assemble a sense of community, spread the word and the passion for the word. Any manifesto for a possible, more radical future—and any critique of Best of the Web 2010 as a failure in terms of surveying that frontier—must not prevent me from taking seriously the excellent work contained in this volume. Herein, for instance, is the always great Mary Hamilton, offering a narrator who builds “a bridge out of paper gowns and syringes stolen from my doctor’s office. I built a bridge out of soap dispensers and air hoses stolen from my doctor’s office. ... I cut my hand and made a river to run under. I cut my hair and made a mattress, a shirt, a rug to shake and beat over the railing.” In “Requiem for the Orchard,” Oliver de la Paz looks back on “The dumb hours of early risings, ... Hush-a-bye/ of sprinkler heads. We’d cinch the joints us, thread to thread/ and we’d take dabs of stolen chewing tobacco. ... What of our youth?” his piece asks, presenting it as something ghosted out, like “salt burned into the brim of a cap.” Angi Becker Stevens offers another exploration of childhood and its fears, while Dave Housley addresses the sense of time’s slippage, saying “Now everything else is going to be after, and before is going to be the good times, like those 80’s drug movies where everything is awesome and funny and bubbly soundtrack until somebody’s nose starts bleeding, and then it’s all rehab, narcs, and power ballads, everybody crying and getting too skinny and sad and ugly.”
Many of the pieces here play out like exercises, various formal or conceptual constraints imposed to frame the thing, from Sarah Sloat’s wine descriptions to Brandi Wells’s “Fifteen Unrelated Stories Titled ‘The Man Inside Her Pillowcase’” to Matthew Simmons’s story of a man who only dates caves. Stephen Graham Jones’s “Modern Love” accumulates, section by section, such that the seven parts come to relate, or are read as related, drawing together themes in a swirl of quick imagery that, again, is not unlike the sort of happenstance and hopscotch that categorizes the experience of reading on the Web. Sample the strength of this section, number six, in its entirety:
The most terrifying moment of the twentieth century has to have been when I walked into the living room one night and sat beside my wife in front of the TV. We watched it together for a while and I didn’t tell her that my love was like a wooly mammoth frozen beneath the tundra, a half-chewed daisy in its teeth, and she didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, that topiary gardeners dream of a naturally occurring shrub in the form of a horse. Instead I asked her if this was a commercial we were watching, and she shrugged, and we waited it out.
Included are hypnotic short pieces by Jensen Beach, Peter Markus, Meredith Martinez, and Joanna Ruocco, samples of their author’s broader skills. In an excerpt from a larger piece—“Chorus from the Land of Grownups”—Donora Hillard gives us: “There’s a lesson on how to sit properly going on in the cafeteria. (Don’t straddle.) There’s also a Student Council meeting about ways to get the boys to stop chewing tobacco and masturbating in the lavatory between classes. They’ve been writing on the walls with themselves.” And in that manner most of the work here straddles poetry and prose. While Mary Biddinger contributes something great, recognizably in verse, Frank Dahai’s equally moving piece about “a balloon animal zoo in a broken chemical factory” may or may not fit a definition of poetry, but bit by the teeth of it, the thick weave, one is not likely to care. Indeed, this recitation of exemplary names is worthwhile because you’re well served Googling them, following the quick hot links to their work, assembling some experience of it, and ordering or waiting for their book. Best of the Web 2010 is, without a doubt, a collection of pieces from solid and exciting writers. But there’s no real trace of Web to any of it.
I was on a site the other day, the homepage of a writer and polymath artist, the darkly comic Chicagoan Jill Summers—www.callingallmonkeys.com. If you click on the word “writing,” at the entrance to some digestive organ, you are taken to a heart, and the parts of the heart are labeled, in a way, and some of these labels are titles and these titles take you to new places and new texts. There’s nothing particularly elaborate about this set-up, though I find the aesthetic lovely. But what happens here, on this page, is something very much of the Web—a sense of mystery, a sense of wonder, the exhilaration of falling through the rabbit hole, with all the weirdness and wild newness of that act. This little Web page is undeniably a Web page, and while it could be printed out and used as a frontispiece or background design for a table of contents, that wouldn’t be the same thing that it is now, or anything close.
Dzanc Books has given us, with Best of the Web 2010, a book without any of that, a book without any Web to it at all. There are good pieces here, from fresh talents, in short forms, but bound together as it is, framed as it is, the book reads foremost like a cautionary tale, leaving the reader hungry, even aching, for variety, for unpredictably diverse genres, imagery, raw facts, the uncategorizable...for the wideness of the world and its most rooted particulars...for Lapland, its native crafts, and for the sweaty forehead of the slam poet as she leaves the stage...the face of the famine victim, practical strategies in response to oppression...orchestras and archipelagos...old country ghost stories, passed down orally, or the schematics for some Soviet-era hippopotamus paddock. There is a constraint to Best of the Web 2010 that is not merely the constraints dreamt up by some of the writers as ways to muscle-tone their art; the constraint is its very book-ness, static, acid-free, chronological—a weighty rectangle which, as one wades through it, despite the gems within, will make one long to stretch and click and soar.
Perhaps designers and artists of all stripe are already working together to make Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2011 a Web experience like none we have seen. Putting the 2010 version up on the shelf, one can only hope.
Official Matt Bell Web Site
Official Dzanc Books Web Site