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The Next Big Thing -- Words!
Digital media are transforming the publishing industry. It's time for publishers to return the favor, writes Ralph Lombreglia.


"What we already know"
An e-mail exchange with Askold Melnyczuk


More on Digital Culture
in Atlantic Unbound
February 1997

Frederick Barthelme
"The Web is a gun"
An e-mail exchange


To: Ralph Lombreglia
From: Frederick Barthelme
Subject: Literary Publishing on the Web


RL: Could you say how you view the Web and its literary prospects?

FB: There seem to be two basic views of the Web among literary folk. The first and most common is that the Web is a wasteland, another television, a form of advertising -- all utterly unsuitable for literary activity. Among these folk there is a curious parallel between response to the Web and response to alternative literatures. Those who are terrorized by any change in the habits, practices, and product of writers, any change that might tend to disenfranchise them, are also, and perhaps not surprisingly, terrorized by the rise of the Web as a publishing forum. The second common view is the giddy "it's all experimental" approach that proclaims that anything on the Web is a fabulous extension of literary activity as we have known it and will clearly destroy all not up-to-date literary activity in about twenty minutes.

Both these views are, even in their most sophisticated disguises, silly.

My sense is that the Web is a gun. It's all potential, what we do with it; it's a device, a system, a "site" in the linguistic sense, a prospect. How we use it over the next decade or two will define it. At the moment it's politically and socially semi-neutral, uninflected, a tool for, in our case, the distribution of literary information. Years ago Charles Newman wrote a series of acute essays for TriQuarterly in which he discussed at length the power and potential of literary distribution systems. I know he didn't have the Web in mind, and who knows what he thinks about the Web, but the Web certainly qualifies as a stunning development in distribution systems.

RL: Why did you decide to put your literary journal on the Web? What do you hope to see happen?

FB: The simplest answer is that the Web was there. I've been working on computers since the very late seventies. They've always intrigued me. When the Internet got out of the geeks-only stage in late 1993 and the Web emerged, I got involved. My main interest in it was as an extraordinary new delivery system that put stories and poems right into readers' homes and offices.

I've edited a literary magazine for twenty years, partly because I did my time among the unpublished and thought-to-be-unpublishable, and partly for the joy of finding a wonderful story or poem or essay that I know will not be allowed to show its face in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. It's a not undesirable duty. When the Web came along, this duty compelled me to move the magazine online.

Certain things became clear at once. It's a great deal easier to publish online than on paper. This may not be true if you're a publishing Goliath, but for mom-and-pop lit mags it is absolutely true. Because it's easier, you can do more of it -- we print the paper magazine twice a year, and even that is hard with no staff, no money, no time. By contrast, the Web magazine is a monthly, it's relatively easy to produce (everything is digital, first to last, so there's no typesetting, no scanning, no paste up), and the production costs next to nothing.

Sure, we've dispensed with niceties such as paying contributors, but literary magazines don't pay enough to count anyway, and, in some sense, the fundamental idea of art is that art should be free. The artist makes a gift for the world. It's a book, a story, a painting, a piece of music. With the Web we've got a delivery system with such a radically reduced overhead that carrying out the idealized notion of giving the art away becomes practical.

RL: Are you doing (or planning to do) anything on the Web that you can't do on paper?

FB: Yes. We're getting a literary journal out once a month. We're reaching a much larger audience than the paper magazine does. As far as the writing goes there's not much difference -- we find curious fictions and poems, curious written artifacts, and we provide a public venue.

There are a hundred obvious things about the presentation that are different. The most interesting of these may be that Web publishing allows, even encourages, the kind of tinkering that paper publication prohibits. Often I add a story mid-month, or redesign the site, or add graphics, or change the way I'm treating type. The Web allows much more hands-on activity than paper printing. This has the potential for making the Web a more pliable and responsive medium than print. I'm also adding a few typical Web bells and whistles. Sound is something I'm very interested in. I hope to deliver new music of some kind on the MR site. It's no good simply to pipe in some Muzak, or some comfortable jazz, so I'll use Koan to produce the music to start with, then try to get involved with people who are making interesting hearable things. The prospects for doing similar things with visual material are slimmer at the moment, but I expect that to change.

RL: Has your journal's Web site changed anything about the way you design or produce the paper publication? If not, can you foresee changes down the road?

FB: It hasn't had much impact on the paper magazine. It has changed the way we look at the magazine, and I suppose it must be admitted that for me the Web version is now the real Mississippi Review. The paper version is vestigial. I should add that this isn't a widely shared view -- there's still a premium among writers in appearing in a paper publication over a Web publication. But I expect this to pass also.

RL: Web publishing isn't free, and nobody seems to be paying to read what's published online. Do you see a workable financial model besides killing the paper magazines to feed the Web sites?

FB: The only reason Web publishing isn't free is that some larger sites are paying editors. For those of us who work in small-scale publishing, the Web is free, or close enough. I don't have to do a Web magazine, and the university I work for isn't paying me more because I'm doing it (and wouldn't pay me less if I stopped tomorrow). If I were operating outside the university, publishing a Web magazine might cost me $20 a month, unlike paper publishing where paper and printing and distribution would make doing a magazine impossible.

Slick magazines will no doubt build big editorial staffs, paying many people for doing little work, and this will necessitate that the Web be profitable. What many of us are hoping is that this sort of publishing will just die, leaving the Web to the rest of us. That said, I know well enough that this sort of publishing won't die, that money will be made, and made in abundance, and made in the literary business, on the Web. What I don't know yet is whether this will destroy the Web by reducing it to another mechanism of cultural control of the many by the few, though this is what I fear. See next question.

RL: How do you see the long-term impact of the Web on the literary life of the country?

FB: This is tricky. The answer depends more or less on whether the Web is essentially taken over by large publishing and media corporations. If it is not, then the Web will be the most powerful agent of change since the printing press, and the changes that it will bring about are not readily foreseeable. On the other hand, if the Web is gobbled up by the standard purveyors of culture (magazines, newspapers, television, and so on), then it will become another means of control, like television, and the long-term impact will be to enhance the dominion over the culture by its established "owners."

RL: Do you see your journal ever sponsoring or publishing "multimedia literature" that cannot be experienced without a computer, or a collaborative ongoing literature created by many writers in some networked "groupware" situation? Or some other experiments impossible in a paper-based magazine? Or would you rather keep doing more or less what you've always done on paper? And why?

FB: This is a dicey area for me, since I started off as a visual artist, and came into literary work through the then multimedia door (here I'm referring to the sixties, Fluxus, happenings, indeterminacy, books with graphics, photos, objects, peculiar texts, odd ways of meaning, and so on). Thus many things now presented as hypertext do not interest me. It's a grave indictment of experimental literature, and in particular hypertext, that the best work on offer so far pales by comparison to the elegant work of Alain Robbe-Grillet (and a dozen others) who took uncertainty as a central system of construction and as a central thematic interest some thirty years ago and made successful literary art. We can't simply rehash all these old ideas and present them as the fabulous new art of hypertext.

I've seen a few things worthy of attention. In particular the work of Christy Sheffield Sanford seems to be an authentic step. There's also a site at http://www.jodi.org/index.html that confuses the boundaries of literary action on the Web in an interesting way. I'm sure there are others working at the edges and genuinely changing the definition of literary art, but I wouldn't expect there are many such artists. So far, the tendency has been old messages in new bottles.


  • More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound

  • Have an idea for a future Digital Culture column? Let us know or e-mail Ralph at Lombreglia@aol.com.


    Frederick Barthelme is the author of nine books including Moon Deluxe, Second Marriage, Tracer, Two Against One, Natural Selection, The Brothers, and most recently, Painted Desert. He is an occasional contributor to The New Yorker, and his work has appeared in GQ, Kansas Quarterly, Epoch, Playboy, Esquire, TriQuarterly, North American Review, Frank, and other publications. He teaches writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he also edits the Mississippi Review.


    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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