Behind the Scenes
HTMLGIANT OBIT — (HTMLEULOGY) —- (by Drew Smith)
in response to my Twitter calls for HMTLGIANT obits/curses/whatnot I received this reply from Drew Smith:
HTMLGIANT is ceasing operations on October 24th. I wish it wasn’t. I’ll miss it.
When I mention how much I love HTMLGIANT, people often react the same way they do when I tell them how much I love Reddit.
Wait, isn’t that a just a bunch of child molesters? Isn’t that a bunch of teenage hackers and trolls? Isn’t that where internet weirdos post nude pics of celebrities?
Well, yeah, it is. And that’s far from the worst of it. But it’s also the place where the “stop smoking” subreddit supported me through my quit. And where someone took the time to teach me how to change the oil on my car. It’s where I get recipes and workouts and shaving lessons and free business advice. It’s just a cross-section of the world at large, where there are almost as many Mother Teresas as there are motherfuckers.
So it is/was/has been with HTMLGIANT, which for the past six years has served as a cross-section—from best to worst—of the world of literature. At least the literature of a big chunk of twenty and thirtysomethings, the ones who aren’t on the Best 20 Under 40 lists, who aren’t publishing in the New Yorker, but who are likely still reading it, half-covetous, half-mocking.
Every morning, I review the entries on my list of literary bookmarks: The Melville House blog, The Millions, Book Beast, The Rumpus, The Paris Review blog, BookForum: Paper Trail, Slate Books, LARB, Jacket Copy. They each have their place. Some are aspirational (see: The Rumpus’s coffee mugs emblazoned with the slogans “Write like a motherfucker” and “Be brave enough to break your own heart”). Some are newsy (Book Beast). Some are brainy (LARB). Some are fusty and august (the New Yorker). Some are political. One tirelessly rages against Amazon and Jeff Bezos (MH). Others I’ve long since removed from my bookmarks list, having deemed them pandering, too insidery, too commercial, too angry.
HTMLGIANT is the bookmark I always save for last. Excepting commercialism, it has been the perfect mix of all of the qualities listed above and more: brainy, newsy, political, drama-filled, suspicious, raging, funny, odd. Even comforting. (See: the responses to the prompt by contributor Sean Lovelace “I would like to hear optimistic statements about the writing life.” My favorite reply: “Imagine the non-writing life.”)
For years, this site has been a rare island on the internet, populated by bookish people filled with enthusiasm and envy, mutual support and mutual cruelty, and a fair dose of the usual writerly rapid-cycling between insecurity and grandiosity, all of it unfolding before its readers, itself a piece of meta-art.
There have been fights, like this one, in which Leigh Stein aired her complaints against the site’s (and the culture’s) sexism problem. The resulting upset led, from what I understood, to the sad (for me, anyway) resignation of contributor Jimmy Chen. (Oh, the resignations!) Check out that comment section. So much support, so much ire and ugliness, and my favorite comment, which I can just
picture being typed by a nodding stoner lit sage: “I see you spent a lot of time writing/editing this piece. Seems legit.”
You see, this isn’t in the style of some catty Huffington Post comment section—well, maybe some (okay, a lot) of it is—but it’s something far better too. The readers of HTMLGIANT have been invested in the site, in the community, and in the messages they’re sending to one another, in the art they’re absorbing and distributing.
Even more exciting and impressive than the emotional buy-in of this community is the fact that HTMLGIANT has always been a place filled with people who are actually making things. They don’t merely aspire or gripe about how they can’t quite get themselves to sit down and write. Or about how they wished they could get a book published or start a publishing house of their own.
They don’t merely hope or groan or Tweet. They do! They write. Some of them write quite a lot. And they publish their work and the work of their friends and the people they admire, alternating between making fun art, and pompous art, and art that doesn’t take itself very seriously, except when it does. They’re self-publishing, and debating the very question of self-publishing’s value and legitimacy, and, alternately, the legitimacy of the gatekeepers that claim self-publishing to be illegitimate. I particularly enjoyed this recent post titled “Self Publishing Question” by Adam Robinson, founding editor of Publishing Genius Press, a terrific house I might never have heard of (let alone submitted to) if not for this site.
In a world where woefully few zines are being written let alone read, HTMLG has been a terrific substitute in its way, a place where artistic people doing weird things are the subject of interest and admiration. See: this poetry chapbook, the title of which, “I Feel Yes,” is spelled out on its cover in powdered lemonade. That minor announcement garnered a comments-section reaction that strikes me as the quintessence of the fascinating derision/admiration bipolarity forever on display at HTMLG: “I hate-bought this immediately.”
HTMLGIANT has also been a place where people could share their thoughts about the theory behind writing, the craft of writing, and genuine questions and ideas about writers themselves—often wearing a veneer of triviality over a thought-provoking core. And, just as frequently, truly trivial.
I know some people have felt treated unfairly by the site and its community (See: Matt Bell. “One of the best things I ever did for my mental health was delete HTMLGiant from my Google Reader”), while others (myself included) have at times been bewildered by its chosen heroes and saints. Steve Roggenbuck, labeled in this post as the “Poet Laureate of Alt Lit” received quite a bit of coverage here. Check out the video in that post. Heartbreakingly earnest and so seemingly unselfconscious and strange, to such an extent that it makes me kind of wince and feel nervous and embarrassed, and maybe a little envious as well. I don’t think I’ve ever been that enthusiastic about anything in my entire life, certainly not the idea of being a poet in the age of the internet, certainly not the image of Walt Whitman “on TweetDeck, kicking his legs up and ‘going hard.’”
As one would expect, HTMLGIANT could always be relied upon to post reviews and coverage of literary magazines, and weird and wonderful projects like Stephanie Barber’s book, Night Moves, and “experimental”/”difficult” fiction, including works by Ben Marcus and Jesse Ball. But that’s not all they did. HMTLGIANT also covered more overtly “normal” works, like Bright Lights, Big City, or genre fiction, as in this review of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, or this one of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, which opens with the charmingly honest and almost openly anti-literati, “Like many writers my age (31), I probably wouldn’t be one if it weren’t for Stephen King.”
My admiration for HTLMGIANT is not because I’ve always connected with the work championed here, but because I respect the courage and heartfelt interest its contributors have funneled into promotion and discussion of things that others could not be counted on to cover. HTMLG considered chapbooks and story collections and novels that very few people would ever read and gave them real coverage—pieces that would never have found a home in any other forum of a similar audience size. Thanks to HTMLGIANT, I learned about innumerable happenings in culture and literature that otherwise would have escaped my attention entirely. I hate to think what incredible list of things I’ll miss now that it’s going away.
What happened at HTMLGIANT was astonishing stupid amazing beautiful pathetic funny sad childish absurd inimitable ostentatious great.
HTMLGIANT, you were a perfect mess.
P.S. Though I have tried here to keep my take on HTMLGIANT light and positive—in the spirit of any eulogy—it’s perhaps worth nothing that I’m not blind to a darker side of this community. The comments have at times been a sewer of mean-spiritedness, and there were other problems to boot. Still, there was far more good than bad, and I was grateful for it.
(Drew Smith, Austin, Tx, Oct, 2014)
Tags: drew smith