Behind the Scenes
I will miss you.
I live in Iowa City, which is a town that is very slightly famous for some of the writers who live, work, and teach there. For the most part, I spend very little time with other writers. Recently I had a book come out. It was my first book. Sometimes I worry that it’s going to be my last. Probably that won’t happen. I’m a worrier. Worrying is what I do.
I think that writing fiction is often just an advanced form of worrying. You worry about a person or a number of people in an imaginary situation. You worry about what would happen to them if they were real, if their situation were real. You worry about how sad they would be, how much they would worry. You worry about dying. You worry them until they die.
(I like to watch crime shows. I love The Wire. I enjoyed The Sopranos a lot more than I thought I would. Currently I’m watching Boardwalk Empire, which is in its last season. Actually this Sunday will be its last episode. The big question people seem to be asking is, “Will the Steve Buscemi character die?” That’s always the question in these shows — at least the ones that are focused on one particular criminal. It was the question with Breaking Bad, too, which was especially funny, because the first thing that really happens in the show is the character discovers he has a terminal case of lung cancer, so, yes, he’s definitely going to die, as will probably all of us. People were upset by the way The Sopranos ended because it didn’t seem to conclusively answer whether Tony Soprano had died or not. Recently, the show’s creator came out and said definitively that Tony had lived. James Gandolfini has been dead for more than a year. (Does a person get more dead over time, or do they die once and then stay the same amount of dead forever?))
But so recently I’ve been spending more time among self-described writers, whom we might also call professional worriers. And I was reminded that most writers choose to express their worries as complaints. For example, they complain bitterly about one-star Amazon reviews. Among these writers, complaining about one-star Amazon reviews (about Amazon in general) is like a handshake. “It arrived a day late,” they’ll say. “One star.” Everyone’s supposed to laugh about this because it’s such a stupid thing to say, because it’s not a review of the product in question (the book) at all.
These writers will say things like, “Everyone has a voice now.” They say this in a way that suggests it was better before. I’m not sure when the before was or what it was like. If you dig so much as two inches in American history you will find a layer of mud wherein nobody but white men like me “had a voice.” Women say this too, in fact I am presently quoting a woman, so one imagines they are mainly fixating on a brief period where (white) women could speak but there wasn’t an Internet yet. That barely constitutes a blip’s worth of history, but I guess it was pretty high times.
My book (I hope you appreciate the restraint I am showing in not making every mention of this book a link to Amazon or my publisher’s page (but equally I hope you know that I know how easy it is to google my name and find it from there (go ahead (check it out)))) has a one-star review on Amazon. I love this review. It’s not interesting or smart, and there is nothing constructive or useful about it. But I think it’s really funny. If I met the guy who wrote it, I would try to be his friend.
People talk a lot about how toxic the Internet is. It weirds me out, not because they’re wrong but because it seems to imply that the world outside the Internet is not toxic. Do they live on the same planet I do? Do you?
Quick, here’s a test: what color is your moon? Do you even call it “the moon?”
Most people have always had terrible ideas. If you know someone who seems to have good ideas, it’s either because A) you agree with his or her bad ideas and therefore think they are good, or B) they haven’t had the chance to really talk yet in your presence. The Internet seems toxic because it gives everyone all but unlimited time to say what they’re thinking. That’s how I grew up on the Internet: I said all my worst ideas until they were exhausted. Then I moved on to new ones.
When writers complain about their one-star Amazon reviews, when they whine about how “everyone has a voice now,” I can only wonder who they wrote their books for in the first place. Did they plan to only sell them to intelligent, interesting people who were more than capable of thoughtful critical engagement? Were only New York Times critics supposed to get copies? Presumably not. Presumably they’re happy to take money from those ignorant suckers. The only thing that really bothers them is that now these people they’ve duped — people who believe, wrongly, that they are welcome in the world of reading — are trying to talk back. They weren’t supposed to talk back. They were supposed to hand over their money, take a book, and vanish forever.
All of which is to say, reading and writing are not only for good, intelligent, moral people, and it’s a good thing, because otherwise people like you and me would be locked out forever.
Soon, people will stop complaining that HTMLGiant is sexist and hateful, because soon (very soon), it won’t exist anymore. When this was still a commonplace, when it was something some writers talked about a lot, that weirded me out. Not because I disagreed — at times, HTMLGiant was certainly sexist and hateful — but because of what it implied about those who were making the complaint. It implied that they were not sexist and not hateful. It implied that they were good people. They weren’t.
HTMLGiant was never mostly hateful. It was mostly about love. It was about pleasure. It was about self promotion. It was about promoting friends. It was about promoting strangers. It was an opportunity — an invitation — to fall in love with a book you would have probably never heard of otherwise. It was built on the belief that if you love a book hard enough, and if you share that love, and if you do it in the right way, then a community might form around that book, and that community might join you in your love. It was built on the idea that love might be enough to lift a book out of obscurity when nothing else could. It was built on the suspicion that the whole world was about to start reading again, and that when they did, they would be pleased to discover that books had grown strange in their absence. I’ve been waiting for that moment for years now. This blog made me feel less alone in my confidence the day was coming soon.
It was widely believed at one time that this blog ran “indie lit.” People toiled in the comments section in hopes they would be elevated to the main page. The next step would be a book deal. The next step would be fame or notoriety. The next step would be finally making some friends. HTMLGiant was perceived as unusually cliquish. Listen: all you had to do to post here was ask. I was too shy to do it. (Roxane Gay did it for me, and later, when Blake hadn’t given me a password yet and I was unemployed and needed something to do to make myself feel I was advancing my career, I reminded him, and then he sent me a password.) But that was really all you had to do.
As a result of this policy, dumb shit was posted to this page more or less every week. Some of it was mine. People put dumb shit in the comments, too. Of course they did. You can’t have a community without tolerating a lot of dumb shit. We don’t have any friends in real life anymore because we all think we’re smarter than our neighbors, because we think of our jobs as stepping stones on the path to our true calling, our novels, our rap careers, our just deserts. Then we get online and hate everybody there too. Back when we didn’t have any choice in the matter, when geography chose our communities for us, we used to know how to put up with dumb shit. Now we confuse excoriating bad opinions and shaming mostly harmless idiots with revolution. We think that boycotting a blog will make editors publish women. It didn’t. It won’t.
For a period of several years, HTMLGiant was my favorite place on the Internet. Not because it was perfect, not because I loved every post, but because people got genuinely excited about books here. It was a place where writers — advanced complainers — mostly didn’t whine about how “nobody reads anymore.” It was a place where nobody asked if the novel was dead. It was a place where action (aggression) was preferred to moaning. It was a place where someone started a press or a magazine pretty much every day. It was a place that would give any book a shot. I loved it. I still do. I’ve missed it for a while now. I’m going to keep missing it. We’ll all be poorer for its absence.
I’m going to miss this. I’m going to miss you.