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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.

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

More on Digital Culture
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February 1997

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

To: Ralph Lombreglia
From: Askold Melnyczuk
Subject: Literary Publishing on the Web

RL: Why did you decide to put your literary journal on the Web? What do you hope to see happen? Could you say how you view the Web and its literary prospects?

AM: First, let me introduce an idea I hope you see as a leitmotif throughout my responses: this is a time of great opportunity for those editors and publishers able to keep their eyes on the ball and not just the bottom line. Let's acknowledge just how rich and subtle is the medium of fiction: it takes millions of dollars to translate to the screen what one man, one woman, dreamed up in the stillness of his or her study. It is also harder and more expensive to teach people to appreciate it properly -- it's easier to offer picturebooks to those who won't learn to read. For this reason multimedia can be a terrifically useful teaching supplement. Your Kerouac CD-ROM [A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus (Penguin, 1995)] is an example of a supplement to the reading experience which is helpful and entertaining. This seems to be an exciting area for writer-producers with the temperament for intricately collaborative work. But it's important to remember which came first. The real opportunities right now are in print.

I put AGNI on the Web because Mike Neff of Web del Sol called and offered to hoist it up. The opportunity for going online without too much of one's own elbow grease to get things going seemed irresistible. I was curious. Green. I wanted to see what would happen. Before that we'd been part of the Electronic Newsstand site -- where we regularly received a hundred hits a week (seemed a lot to me) -- until we quit that because it never brought in anywhere near enough in subscriptions to cover the $300 it cost to belong. I suppose that in the back of my mind I hoped that those hitters would discover AGNI and want to subscribe. We wanted more subscribers for the paper magazine. But in fact it doesn't seem to have done much in the way of increasing the number of people subscribing to the magazine.

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

AM: We are not now planning to offer anything on the Web site that's not available in the magazine, because my experimenting with this new medium has distilled itself into a few grumpy and hardly original conclusions. This is a nice medium for people into television, and maybe, because of MTV, into music. But litra'chur, whose common message (and why not risk claiming it has one) may be summed up in Lawrence Binyon's observation that "Slowness is beauty," doesn't have much to gain from this stuff. This is an excellent tool for political organizers. I hope that dissidents everywhere are online. Let this baby's ability to sneak the word out fast to a lot of people rock the enemies of promise and freedom everywhere on the planet. But poetry and fiction -- which are a lot more than just storytelling, don't you think? -- have quite all they need in the already existing means of getting words down on the page.

We don't necessarily need more information. We need to understand how to make better sense -- how to discover meaning in what we already know.

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?

AM: To go multimedia you need a lot of bucks. And you need the temperament of a film director. Let's say that an editor has that, along with unlimited resources. (That's a lot to suppose, and one would have to wonder who would fund such a literary enterprise, and to what end, when the literary enterprise already had all the tools it needed to propagate itself. I can only imagine someone funding such a product out of that rarest thing, genuine curiosity, or because they cunningly or unwittingly wanted to channel people from one medium to the other.) What is to be gained by producing literary multimedia projects? The potential value is that an event that many might miss because they were not able to catch it live might now find its audience. That's legit -- it's one of the motivating forces behind photography, for example.

Part of the power of reading Keats is giving this tired voice to that genius's words, and all I need for that is a page of text. To try to do it online would disturb, disrupt, and dilute the experience (and I've tried reading a Gibson novel on my powerbook -- never again). The silence, outside the birds . . . do I wake or sleep . . . or am I online?

In short, unless one wishes to hurry the demise of poetry -- which seems to me the medium that historically best sustains the memory and the admittedly dimmer promise of the existence of an extrasensory harmony to which some part of the human spirit aspires -- I wouldn't want to encourage the use of this medium among aspirants and hierophants in writing programs. Though it's an interesting question because there seems to be considerable crossover. I know of one Web mistress who's writing some powerful stories and looking to switch from the Web to the page. And I know at least one young poet who, not knowing what to do with his talent for ordering words, took a job developing computer games . . . one sees the connection, of course. But my values are not sufficiently flattened out (or democratized) for me to feel that both choices -- the writing of poetry and the creation of computer games -- are equally valuable to the species.

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

AM: Its impact on the literary world? I don't want to indulge my darkest fears, because hey, that's the territory staked out by our mutual friend (dare we speak his name), Sven Birkerts. On the one hand, I think it will continue to provide another income stream for writers who are always forced to do a little of this and a little of that, and who have the intelligence and the energy to spare. Some will I think be swept up in the undertow as they try to find the vein of gold that's not there -- because the audience for literature is not there. And it's getting darker. I see the audience for literature being stolen away, one reader here, another there, by a new medium, a new distraction; and by the sense everywhere communicated by our leaders -- and let's put Al Gore and Bill Clinton right at the top of the list of collaborators -- who never seem to have read a book that matters to them and whose aesthetic impact was strong enough for them to wish the experience on others.

To repeat: the Web will dilute an already diffuse literary culture. It's hard as hell to get your bearings in this world as it is, and because it is now impossible to read everything, and so make a confident and credible claim about your own tastes, you always feel you're acting without having examined all the evidence. It is more important than ever to determine the principles on which your literary taste is based. Slowness is beauty is one of them, for me.

That our slide down the slippery slope may be leavened by the delights of collaborations with jubilant characters who recognize the trap we're in and plan to make the best of it -- that it may be fun -- goes without saying.

I love paper -- a good book is the apotheosis of which every tree dreams. I would like to see publishers pull back from the hallucination of numbers. I'd like to see publishers act with some dignity -- appreciate their materials, paper and binding, produce better-made books for perhaps a smaller audience that wants wisdom and illumination first, and information later. This can be done -- this will be done -- and those publishers who recognize it will be visionaries.

We'll keep chasing paper. Have you ever tried literary television? It's a great bracing experience -- you begin to see the silliness and the futility of trying to conflate the mediums. I think CD-ROM will develop as a separate form of self-expression which may one day be an art.

  • 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.

    Askold Melnyczuk is the editor of AGNI, a literary journal published at Boston University. His stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in The Antioch Review, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The Nation. His first novel, What Is Told, was named a Notable Book of the Year for 1994 by The New York Times. In 1997 he received a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award and a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for Fiction. He has taught at Harvard University and Emerson College and currently teaches at Boston University and in the Bennington College Graduate Writing Program.

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