I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
Now I’m neither a doctor nor an esteemed literary critic, but it seems that either the literary culture has made a miraculous recovery, or it wasn’t that sick in the first place. Which is to say that when those famous writers were so certain the patient was ailing, perhaps they were looking at the wrong patient.
● ● ●
A former student interviewed me recently for an audio journalism project about the dangers of undergraduates being online, a perennial topic for faculty, students, and administrators alike, not to mention for newspapers and cultural hand-wringers at large. Her project arose in response to recent articles about social networking being harmful to student health and emotional well-being, and her questions to me concerned the impact of Facebook and Twitter on classwork and grades. It’s an important conversation, but one that too often stops at the level of panic, so I tried to go in another direction, toward an aspect of digital culture that seems as important as bad grades and lost sleep. When I teach, I jump from YouTube to Delicious to Google docs on the classroom screen. I allow—even encourage—my students to use laptops in class, and I don’t worry if they’ve got Facebook in one tab while the day’s assigned reading is in another. They’re the ones getting graded, so I let them own the direction and degree of their attention along with the consequences. I let them work the way I work, or find their own way of working, without pretending these tools don’t exist. So it isn’t their use of Facebook that concerns me as much who they’re using it with, and I don’t mean the predators and creeps and assorted bogeyfolk 20/20 warns us about every sweeps week. To the contrary, I worry the web might be keeping them safe but stunted, because it’s so easy to continue the relationships and conversations they had in high school and carry along to college an entrenched identity built when they were younger. As I told my student, what concerns me about her peers and herself being online is the loss of isolation, of separation, of the ability for 18 year olds to live in their heads for a while. Or at least to own their own minds. By the end of high school I’d had enough of classrooms and sitting still, and I had no interest in college. Sure, the only thing you take with you wherever you go is yourself and all that, but I needed some distance and some time to myself. So I set out with my backpack and passport and hostel card, full of romantic if well-trod notions. I went to Ireland because I’d read The Ginger Man and thought if I hung around Dublin I’d be embraced by a community of songwriters and poets and novelists and become one of those things myself. Never mind that J.P. Donleavy’s novel was set nearly half a century before my arrival. What I found instead was loneliness, isolation, the strain of starting up conversations with strangers and of making friends without the institutionalized encouragement of being stuck in school together all day. It was sink or swim because there was no option to stay in bed: hostel wardens kicked you out from morning until late afternoon. If you’ve read David Foster Wallace’s essay about steeling himself in his cruise ship cabin before venturing out to gather data for an article he was meant to be writing, then running back to his room to recover... let’s just say I could relate when I read it a few years later. That grinding isolation shocked me, then shock became fascination and I suppose I kept traveling to test it like a loose tooth or sprained limb: to challenge myself to be bolder. There was no Facebook then, and mobile phones were rare and as big as our backpacks. Even if I’d had an email address there would have been no one to write. I had no choice but to decide who I wanted to be, without the crutch or cross of who I’d been, of who I’d been told I was and of who I’d become in response to a small school and small town and, perhaps most of all, a small sense of myself. I spent hours alone by necessity, whether hitching on a roadside or riding a bus or wandering the streets of new cities as alien to me as I was to them. And as alien as the inside of my head, until I learned the lay of it. In The Guardian recently, Jennifer Egan said of her own teenage backpacking experience, There was a kind of intensity to the isolation of travel at that time that's completely gone now. You had to wait in line at a phone place, and then there weren't even answering machines. That feeling of waiting in line, paying for the phone and then not only having no one answer, but not being able to leave a message so that they would never know you called. It's hard to fathom what that disconnection felt like. But I'm actually very grateful for it. Because it was extreme. And that kind of extreme isolation showed me that I wanted to be a writer. She goes on to describe the panic attacks and fear isolation brought on, and as I read I remembered a day spent hiking in Cornwall, of hours in the forest then emerging into a village in front of a pub. There were families heads-down over maps, a cricket team warming up on the green, two old men in identical gum boots and waxed canvas coats stopped to chat; ordinary lives going on in everyday ways, in other words, and there was me, ragged and woolly and stepping out of the woods where no one knew me from the Beast of Bodmin. I could have turned around and disappeared into the trees without being noticed, like another anonymous hiker whose body had recently turned up in the moors and was all over the news. Another time in the Australian desert, a few days after I’d been shot at by drunk hunters who mistook my companions and I for overgrown possums, it occurred to me while hiking alone in dry heat and red sand that if I died there, if something happened, it would be a very long time until my family knew. I’d read something by Paul Theroux about a recurring nightmare of his children receiving postcards long after his death, because the places he’d traveled were so far away, and it stuck with me as simultaneously bleak and liberating (though now that I’m a father myself, and past my daughter’s colicky stage, it seems mostly bleak). Postcards went in one direction, and offered so little room to say what I’d been doing they were merely an indication I was still alive. Hostels didn’t yet offer terminals for popping online and updating your friends, and you couldn’t upload your photos as fast as you took them nor could you see what folks were doing at home. Even after lining up as Egan describes, phone calls were expensive and brief, as compressed as postcards, and sometimes there weren’t any phone booths at all. I doubt I’m making any of this sound positive, but here’s the thing: all those experiences, the good and the bad, the everyday and inexplicably strange, were mine and mine alone. There was no one to tell about the midnight train ride to Belfast when a brick smashed through the window over my head after a group of boys had already been hauled off by armored Garda for lighting strings of firecrackers at the end of the carriage. About the nun whose body tangled with mine when the sound of “gunshots” made us dive to the floor, or my arrival in Belfast between a cab driver’s shooting and a retaliatory bomb the next morning. No one knew I’d been fired on by those Australian hunters while camped in a billabong, or had carried a stranger’s dog off a mountain in Colorado only for it to die in my arms at the bottom, within sight of the ranger station. About a party with an Australian MP that, had phones been smarter and had there been a place to post photos, would have gotten us both into trouble, and camping by a desert hot spring the night of an Aboriginal corroboree then observing (for as long as I was allowed to) an outdoor meeting with a government minister the following day. Only I knew about watching and watching and watching an enormous brown snail crawl across my ground sheet when I woke by the Tasman Sea at sunrise, and standing with a German football team on a Galway street corner, each of us holding a lead-plugged axe handle, because a group of thugs had attacked and robbed the hostel warden the night before and were amassing again up the street. If I’d been able to share those things quickly, if I’d been able to tweet them or make them my status or even speak them to someone I knew, I might not have hung onto them. If I’d been able to upload my photo of an apparently ancient stone wall on Inishmore that contained, near the bottom and bearing weight, a rock mysteriously stenciled with a bright yellow pedestrian crossing icon, and had someone commented with a quick explanation of why it was there, I might not be thinking about it almost two decades later. Instead it became a defining question for me, a question I’ve been trying to put into words ever since, in poems and stories and my failed first attempt at a novel (and probably the second and third novels, too, in some way). I might not have felt that “extreme isolation” Egan refers to, that uncrossable gulf between “home” and “away,” between “me” and “you” and between “me now” and “me then,” for that matter. I wouldn’t have been forced by circumstance and separation to redefine myself in my own awkward terms rather than rest comfortably uncomfortable in who I’d already been before setting off to “find myself,” as awfully much as that cliché rankles and rots. Maybe there’s something healthy in telling our stories immediately and in making experience as ephemeral as a bird’s own tweeting is, so we can move on to something else. Maybe my students are better adjusted than I ever was, more aware of themselves because they’re able to share their lives quickly and widely and constantly. Some of my own closest, most meaningful friendships have grown out of blogging and being online; my sense of myself as a writer has come from engaging that wider world the internet offers as much as from engaging the world through more embodied travel—something I haven’t often had the luxury of after taking on college debts and degrees. So perhaps I’m projecting, and as much as I want to deny it all this is one more way of complaining things were better when we were young, blah blah blah. Besides, the whole notion of leaving home at 18 is so ethnocentric, a global rarity arrogantly normalized by a relatively small, relatively affluent part of the world. It’s like the internet, that way. I know, though, for better or worse, I wouldn’t be the writer and person I am if I’d been online earlier. There’s a guy I run into on the subway sometimes, someone I played soccer with in junior high, and twenty-five years later he still thinks I’m not me but another kid we played with. When I moved to town, there were a few weeks at the start of sixth grade when the whole team had me confused with that other kid, a few weeks in which I was not only the new kid but a different new kid, a double disorientation. And now every few months I hear this guy shouting that other kid’s name down the train car and I’m turned back into someone I haven’t been in a very long time and never was, really. So when I worry about my students being online, it’s because I imagine their moments of discovery and reinvention and risk derailed by Facebook comments from people who remember them as they weren’t and won’t let them forget it, tying them down before they lift off. That worries me more, in a way, than the possibility of drunken college hijinks preserved online haunting them as they look for jobs—something I suspect we’ll grow more forgiving of, as a culture, the more inevitable it becomes. I worry there’s less room to try on and cast off new selves, as people and artists alike, but maybe that’s only an issue for someone who always finds himself writing about isolation one way or another, and for whom the most terrifying thing ever seen on TV is that eBay ad asking, “What if nothing was ever forgotten?” Still, even if we move home after college or never go to college at all, even if we stay close to old friends our whole lives, I can’t help but think there’s a value in removing ourselves from all that for a while and in stockpiling experiences no one else knows about. Whether those are big, dramatic experiences or small, quiet ones I doubt makes much difference; the important thing is they’re ours, only ours, and we’ll have them to return to forever—not by Googling to remind ourselves what we wrote when they happened, or by looking at photos (I lost most of those when I mailed home a box of unprocessed film that never arrived). Not by having them pass into the collective memory of the people who know us and the stories that get swapped around campfires and dining room tables for so long it stops mattering who they happened to, but by tucking them away like a tweet left untweeted, in some private corner where 140 characters of pithy distillation might grow into something much more. (Image: Postcard wall from eperales's photostream)
● ● ●
If Miller’s book is an argument for dignity and acceptance, it is also an argument against politeness. It is an argument against letting stray homophobic remarks from your liberal friends just go in the interest of keeping the evening pleasant. It is an argument against letting someone change the topic of conversation when they tell you they feel uncomfortable about gay marriage. It’s an argument for demanding the part of the territory to which you are entitled.
1. I learned about the unfathomable amount of cash that Yahoo planned to throw at Tumblr last month, when the news inevitably crept up on my Tumblr dashboard. The reactions were predictably negative, and the general sentiment was clear: "They are going to ruin all of what we’ve built." For the most part, they echoed the reactions of the press at large, questioning yet another one of these crazy big internet deals, the wisdom of banking so much on users as advertising targets, and the near-universal assertion that you “can’t buy cool.” Was there ever a more stark contrast than between the purple-and-white tabloid jumble of Yahoo’s homepage and the stripped-down malleability of Tumblr? Yahoo went on record promising “not to screw it up,” which was somehow less reassuring than it should have been. But I lead a double life on Tumblr: I follow bookish people and things, posting my own work there, attached to my real name, but I also lurk around a number of interlocking fandoms — interlocking because one has inevitably led me to the next: as people whose taste I trust migrate towards new obsessions, I sometimes migrate in turn. They have begun to crowd my dash, the weight of a thousand animated gifs slowing the site’s functionality to a crawl — and I love everything about them. There is a vernacular that links these communities, some of it held over from the time when LiveJournal ruled the fannish world, and some of it new and constantly evolving, borne on a blogging platform designed for sharing and speed and expansive warm-heartedness — I spend so much time smiling while scrolling around on Tumblr that it’s kind of alarming. (I browse Twitter stony-faced, occasionally barking out a harsh laugh, which means I’m either doing it wrong or Twitter and I just aren’t meant for each other.) For the most part, fan communities seem to shy away from any organization that tries to insert itself from the top down. There is a sense that on Tumblr, fandom is planted and cultivated — grown, in a way that feels more palpable than LiveJournal ever did. It’s in your average stack of reblogged posts, fanning out in a sideways pyramid, each subsequent comment riffing on the one before it — and then seeing it days later, the joke or the expression of sympathy of the series of gifs piling up exponentially. You go to "like" it and note, with some surprise, that you already have. You can literally build on an idea, and this is how fandoms blossom and thrive. It is an organic space, which must be at the heart of what’s made it such an unprofitable space, the sponsored posts unobtrusively tucked over to the far right, simple enough to train your eye away from, and subtle enough to even invite a curious click or two. But how would the intrusion of an organization as heavy-handed as Yahoo affect these communities? Rumors began to spread suggesting that content would soon be censored, and that advertisers would be given much more space within a matter of days. Nothing was confirmed, but a vague sense of foreboding persisted: would they know to leave well enough alone, or would all of this organic community building prove too tempting not to attempt to monetize, to control, to ruin? The answer, of course, remains to be seen — it’s far too early in the game. We woke up to a blogging platform that looked much the same as the day before; a week later, no discernible change. The site chugs onwards, a million little corners of the internet, perfect little microcosms of the world — or the world as we wish it could be. For now, anyway. 2. It is fitting, perhaps, that the same week as the Yahoo/Tumblr acquisition, Amazon announced a project entitled “Kindle Worlds.” It feels like more of a broader trend than a coincidence, because the Kindle Worlds endeavor is about an organization inserting itself from the top down. "Worlds," we learn, are Amazon-ese for fandoms — individual universes constructed by books, movies, television shows, comics, etc. — and the program is a platform for publishing fan fiction — quoting myself here, from a year ago (I’m currently accepting my lot as The Millions’ official fanfic correspondent): “fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely.” Yeah, I apparently used the term “worlds” as well, but at least I didn’t capitalize it. The Amazon deal was struck with Alloy Entertainment, the YA juggernaut behind Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, amongst a number of other ubiquitous book-cum-television-show enterprises about teenage girls being cruel and/or sexy. These three are the official launch-point for Kindle Worlds: fanfic writers in these communities (and elsewhere eventually, Amazon promises, with “licenses for more Worlds on the way”) will be able to digitally publish their stuff for Kindle via Amazon, exchanging full rights to their ideas for somewhere between 20-35% of the profits, based on the length of their stories. The first offerings when the store launches in June will be commissioned works, the Worlds homepage filled with cheerful testimonials from these writers beside a dusting of hard facts and figures. Much has already been written on the financial and legal details of Kindle Worlds, and the interpretations tend to vary based on the source. With a few exceptions, fan fiction is written, disseminated, and consumed entirely for free: obvious legal reasons compel writers to mark each story with very clear disclaimers, crediting their source material, however far an interpretation strays from the original. In the extremely rare instance that a fan work is published for money, it is after the story has been transformed beyond recognition — the Fifty Shades trilogy is the most famous example, evolving from 100 chapters of Twilight fan fiction. To the casual observer, Kindle Worlds might seem like a vast step up for your average fanfic writer, the best of whom are paid in praise alone. There’s actual money here, though, to be fair, not a whole lot of it, accompanied the establishment’s stamp of approval, published by Amazon and sanctioned by the corporation that owns the source material. The actual money leads to other financial questions, because with Alloy, we’re not talking about borrowing the characters of a single author: these books, and the scripts of the accompanying shows, are written by a slew of work-for-hire writers. Book-industry types far more familiar with media tie-in writing than me have suggested that the Kindle Worlds move might be another Amazon attempt to circumvent traditional publishers and writing models. If this actually catches on, Alloy and other organizations may come out winners, because by publishing on this platform, a fan fiction writer gives up rights to the content of their stories — Alloy and Amazon will have full rights to original characters and ideas. Why hire a team of traditional writers when your fans can generate new ideas for you — at no cost beyond the few cents per Kindle single you’re required to pay them? The whole venture hints at broader questions that swirl around a lot of Amazon’s recent projects as they attempt to knock traditional publishing models out of whack. If it didn’t feel like such a fundamental and remotely insulting misunderstanding of fan culture, if it didn’t feel like a prime chance for corporations to exploit rather than promote, I might even praise Amazon (praise Amazon, for Christ’s sakes) for trying yet one more thing that deviates from the publishing status quo. If the barriers for entry are lowered, does publishing great fiction becomes a question of talent alone — even as something crucial is given up in the exchange? There are parallels with self-publishing and parallels with the broader Kindle Single platform. Who deserves to be published? Why isn’t it simply the person whom people would most like to read? 3. Surely every person in the entire realm of fan fiction is tired of the monetization question by now. The simple answer is that it really, really isn’t about the money. But people keep on asking anyway: how can so much time and energy and a sheer dizzying number of words be spent on something for no financial compensation? It’s easy enough to say that the person who asks that question doesn’t understand the idea of fan fiction, or doesn’t fully grasp what it means to be a fan of something in general — but that feels dismissive and unhelpful. There is a disconnect here, though, and it’s one that’s tricky for me to articulate, between Amazon and Alloy and the fan fiction community, or between Tumblr and Yahoo and the people who look at 100,000 reblogs and can only see a missed opportunity for advertising. Is a person who believes in the ultimate democratizing power of the internet bound to be disappointed sooner or later? That scrappy start-ups inevitably sell out — great ideas get acquired by big companies, then twisted beyond recognition? Of course, those great ideas can come from anywhere, right? Perhaps that’s not enough to stem the disillusionment. So maybe that’s one of the appeals of fan fiction, or of the exchange of images and ideas amongst fandoms on Tumblr and elsewhere: there is absolutely no endgame there, beyond the satisfaction of sharing something you like, obsess over, deeply love with other people who love it just as deeply. There is an enormously freeing diversity in the world of fan fiction. I don’t mean that the writers are diverse — they are mostly female, and surely there must be socioeconomic implications in the ability to sustain such a hobby. I mean that the whole point of it, beyond all that deep love and celebrating any given fandom, is taking a character or a setting or just the tiniest inkling of an idea and rolling with it. The possibilities spin off into exponentially increasing permutations, spurring weird stuff and beautiful stuff, quite often fiction that’s better written than the source material that inspired it, creating fandoms that are so broad and varied and encompassing that a person can usually find whatever they’re seeking within. If not, well, that person may as well just write it herself. If that’s not the most accurate reflection of the rest of the internet — the organic, cultivated internet, grown from the bottom up, with no contracts, no exchanges of cash — then I don’t know what is.
● ● ●