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Megan Marz | Longreads | October 24, 2023 | 4,164 words (15 minutes)
This spring, the literary critic Laura Miller got annoyed with Brandon Taylor’s new novel, The Late Americans. A fan of Taylor’s “brilliant” Substack and “irresistible patter” on Twitter, she found his book disappointingly lugubrious. “Brandon Taylor’s online writing is vibrant, funny, and true,” read the subhead of her review. “Why is his fiction trying so hard to be something else?” The Slate piece subjected the novel to some churlish complaints. But it was the inclusion of “online writing” that attracted minor controversy; writers and critics tweeted in response that to compare an author’s novel to his tweets was to insult the author and embarrass oneself. One respondent wrote, “this may be the worst piece of writing on a book or author I have ever read.” Another said, “it’s gauche to even mention a professional author’s twitter account in a review.”
People have been writing all kinds of things online for decades now. If you count Justin Hall’s links.net as the first blog—and many do, though Hall himself credits Ranjit Bhatnagar—the original form of popular writing on websites will turn 30 in January. Thirty years ago, I was a child; now I’m middle-aged. Writing on the internet remains young. Its literary milestones and genres are too short to ride the roller coaster of critical regard. Online literature is still usually self-published, doesn’t receive major writing prizes, and isn’t reviewed in newspapers or magazines.
The late Robert Silvers, a founding editor of The New York Review of Books, lamented this situation in 2013. “If a novel is published, we have a novel review,” he said in an interview with New York magazine. But the “millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs” were not getting the critical attention they deserved:
[I]f one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language . . . then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.
Ten years later, that absence is 10 years wider. We have trend pieces about platforms used for writing; posts that aggregate other posts; news stories about things people say and do online; novels, poems, and memoirs that would not exist without having germinated on the internet. But the literary qualities of online writing remain mostly invisible to U.S. literary institutions—even as countless people read it—until the moment it becomes a book.
And, of course, much of it never does. For 30 years, writers have been using blogs, social media, and email to do things with words that are difficult or impossible to do inside books. They have immersed us in stories still unfolding, created personas that interact with readers, woven their writing into inboxes and feeds, and used code to write at a distance. The public record of literature in the 21st century is full of gaping holes where these things should be. The missing material is right there on our screens, but it slides past with little formal acknowledgement. While it’s become banal to observe that online life is fully enmeshed with the rest of the world, an imaginary curtain separates online writing from the rest of U.S. literature. It’s time to take that curtain down.
In the 1990s, the literary press became briefly excited about digital literature. Some writers were using Storyspace, a software program introduced in 1987, to compose hypertext. The ability to add links, even before the web, let them write high-concept, choose-your-own-adventure narratives. In one of the first and best known of these stories, the protagonist’s son lives or dies depending on the reader’s selections. Works like these debuted on floppy disk; you can now buy them on USB or find read-throughs on YouTube. More than the most postmodern novel could, they embodied the era’s values of fragmentation and nonlinearity. The New York Times Book Review ran a handful of articles to introduce the new concept: hypertext fiction. The most famous of these articles, published in 1992, was headlined “The End of Books.”
But books were never really threatened by hypertext fiction, which did not attract many writers, let alone readers. Self-styled “electronic literature” settled into an academic niche dominated by conceptual and technical experiments, while “an always-skeptical literary mainstream gleefully rejected the digital outright,” as the scholar Simone Murray wrote. Thanks to the Kindle and other e-readers, the book eventually became the primary unit of even fiction read digitally.
Nonfiction is another story, though—one that has not permeated the literary mainstream or the experimental “e-lit” margins, despite flowing all around both of them. The story is: around the time hypertext fiction was failing to find an audience, hypertext nonfiction was attracting thousands and then millions of people. “I’ll never forget the Monday morning in the mid-90s when I rushed in to work . . . and hurriedly pointed my browser to www.links.net to see if Justin Hall had broken up with his girlfriend over the weekend,” Rob Wittig, one of the few e-lit people to write much about Hall, remembered in 2003.
Hall was a 19-year-old student at Swarthmore College when he started his site in 1994, soon naming it Justin’s Links from the Underground in homage to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book he hadn’t read. The word “blog” wouldn’t exist for another few years. At first, Hall collected links he’d found browsing the web, including links to sites about sex and drugs. In those days before search engine ubiquity, this was a popular service. But Hall was also a writer. “I just said, I have this medium, so why don’t I see what my stories look like there,” he said on a podcast in 2021. “And if people are coming for this utility of finding links that they want to traverse, well, maybe they’ll accidentally read a poem. And if they want to read a second poem, well, that’s on them.”
Eventually Hall published thousands of pages of interlinked poems and stories, a yearslong diary cataloging his life’s events, people, and thinking in explicit detail for his thousands of readers. During the months he spent as an intern at Wired, his site often got more traffic than the magazine’s. A documentary filmed in 1996 described it as an On the Road for the ’90s. When he took a pause in 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story, estimating that he’d amassed 4,800 pages and wondering if he’d come back. He did; his last post was in 2021.
Hall’s style is evident from what amounts to his About page:
My mom, dad and step-father were/are lawyers, and very dedicated ones at that. Due to their work ethic, I was raised primarily by a series of nannies. When I was eight, my father, an alcoholic, killed himself; much of my early writing wrestles with this.
It is funny, matter-of-factly intimate, and granularly self-documentary in a style that would soon spread everywhere. And while early hypertext fiction used links within closed systems, Hall used links to weave his writing into the outside world. He linked to other people’s sites in addition to his own writing on pretty much anything he mentioned. You could read his story in a straight line, but you didn’t have to. Hall is sometimes juvenile, his prose occasionally rough or purple, but that’s a fair price to pay for his co-inventing the 21st century’s most influential literary genre so far.
In November 2000, The New Yorker estimated there had been only 50 blogs on the internet as recently as spring 1999. After Blogger made it easy in summer 1999 to post without writing HTML, blogs proliferated exponentially. By 2007, when their growth started to taper, there were about 70 million. (Today, a commonly cited count is 600 million.) Like the authors of most books before them and most tweets after them, bloggers were largely uninterested in producing literature. They wrote to help themselves or others, to do journalism or scholarship, to evangelize, to get attention, to find community, to make money if they were lucky, and mostly to share their lives. But none of those motivations excludes the possibility of artmaking, and a few bloggers followed Hall in approaching their writing as art, at least implicitly.
Emily Gould was the one I read most frequently. She began posting at emilymagazine.com in 2005, when we were both just out of college. Like a lot of good blogs, hers was full of the improvisational energy that, before the internet, had been the aesthetic province of comedians and jazz musicians. Gould was documenting her life in real time—books she read, thoughts she had, food she ate, daily enthusiasms and frustrations—which meant she was writing it fast. But those of us who read it as it happened read it slowly. People like to say the internet speeds reading up, but a personal blog, read in real time, can slow a story’s pace down to the timescale of life; the thickest book in existence can be read in less calendar time. Not even the author knew when a blog would end, which is what made it feel so alive.
Gould’s eye for detail and sense of pacing contributed to this vitality. I remember learning that she was quitting her publishing job from a post in which she described the office cafeteria’s switch from “marmalade” to “orange jelly”—a semi-lighthearted complaint that doubled as an augury of corporate decline. Marmalade is real, and a beautiful word. One look at that dignified dactyl and you know you’re in for something good. Orange jelly sounds fake and embarrassing. When Gould said it was the reason she was leaving, you knew it was a joke, but there was also something to it. The actual reason was a gossip-blogging job at Gawker, which raised her profile enough that she was assigned a 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story about her life as a blogger. The story includes a moment when her boyfriend at the time demanded she take down something she’d posted about him. On the surface, the post seemed trivial. But his request “felt like being stifled in some essential way.”
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The same thing had happened to Hall. When a former girlfriend asked him to scrub her from his blog, he’d said, or so The New York Times Magazine reported in 2004, ”This is my art. I’ll remove specific things that bother you, but I can’t go through the entire Web site and remove every mention of your name.” When another girlfriend asked him not to blog about her, he agreed, but the inability to write freely led to an emotional breakdown, about which he posted a video. Gould and Hall felt deeply about what they were doing. They commanded large audiences and appeared in mainstream media, becoming national avatars for a new kind of writing. They also repeatedly referenced literary influences. But journalists categorized their efforts as sociocultural rather than aesthetic phenomena. This would happen again and again to writers who tried new things on the internet. Always a curiosity, sometimes a trend, never a work of art.
It was a practical matter, and a matter of tradition. Books are an excellent medium. Book publishers have always been a useful filter for a world in which the quantity of writing is always increasing. They still manage to publish great written art, thanks to fragile and fraying systems built by writers and editors. Doing so has given them a power around which the literary world revolves. Even the least commercial magazines do not tend to review work not currently being marketed by a publisher. And books—whether e-, audio, or print—are important to certain writers’ compensation. (Though few writers make much money publishing literature, and some writers who do make money are turning away from books.)
Then there are the inconvenient questions. While some online writers might welcome critical attention, for others it might be a nightmare with terrible consequences—broken relationships, lost jobs. How should a critic distinguish “published,” in the sense of technically visible, from “published” in the traditional sense of public? At what point in a work’s lifespan should it be written about? And what aesthetic criteria apply? Blogs are to novels as improv is to sketch or song lyrics are to poetry. They can reach and even surpass the standard set by their finer cousin, but they should not necessarily be held to it.
A great time to answer these questions would have been when books began drawing heavily from the well of online aesthetics. Some of the most celebrated literature of the 2010s recounted daily life in granular detail; incorporated real conversations; was made of plotless fragments; or, even in fiction, used real people’s names. These books were copiously compared to one another under the banners of “autofiction” and “lyric essay.” Names like Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgård, Tao Lin, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine were difficult to escape if you were the type of person who read book reviews. Critics correctly described their books as successors of everything from Saint Augustine’s Confessions to Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. But I have yet to read a book review that acknowledges the influence of specific online work not written by the book’s own author. Blogs and social media are described en masse as a social phenomenon to which these authors responded, but rarely as a textual one to which they are indebted.
The omission is particularly glaring given the number of literary writers whose books grew out of their own online work. While Gould’s novels are pointedly unbloggy, her short-lived e-book startup distributed several examples: Making Scenes (2001), whose author, Adrienne Eisen, claims it was the first “blog-to-book” ever; Meaty (2013), an essay collection inspired by Samantha Irby’s bitchesgottaeat.blogspot.com; and Prostitute Laundry (2015), collected from Charlotte Shane’s email newsletter about her love life and sex work. Blogs lost more in translation than a serialized novel from the 19th century: links, the comments of other people, a cadence determined by the author, a length that could always grow longer. In the words of Bhanu Kapil, whose blog “incubated” her book Ban en Banlieue (2015), “You know that putting Ban in this form is like wearing a three piece suit in the hot springs. I wish I had the courage to let the blog be my book instead.”
That’s what the writer Megan Boyle was going to do. In 2013, she got the idea to liveblog her entire existence, “everything that I could think of on a relatively constant basis,” as she told an interviewer for The Creative Independent five years later. She began on March 17 and intended to do it forever. “That’s what began to excite me,” she said. “That I’d just do this for my whole life, and that would be the ‘art’ of it.” Timestamped passages moved back and forth between quotidian—”mail the goddamned packages”—and poetic:
4:43PM: louis called. interesting dynamic, these phone calls with louis. we sound slow and happy and surprised to hear each other’s voices. let him in. assembled table and chairs while he assembled bed. NPR was on and I felt sometimes … like i wanted to say ‘the opinions on this radio do not reflect the other person in this room.’
After five-and-a-half months, she stopped. In 2018, Tyrant Books published what she had written as a novel called Liveblog. Like any given blog, hers had been followed by real-time fans but not reviewed. The moment it became a book, however, critics suddenly were able to see and expound upon its literary qualities. It was positively reviewed in The New Yorker and Bookforum, and compared to other serious literature. But this valorization could only happen after the “art” of Boyle’s project—its ongoingness—had been stripped from it, compressed into an object that could be read in a few days or weeks.
In a rare expression of literary bullishness, the novelist Edmundo Paz Soldán had suggested at the blog’s apex in 2007 that it was “threatening to supplant the novel as the great genre in which everything can find its place.” But the blog ended up becoming one more thing that found its place in the novel, which has yet to be surpassed as a tool of literary legitimation.
Boyle was associated with “alt lit,” a group of writers in the late 2000s and 2010s who endeavored to “assimilate to literary art the mutant sensibility of a new mass medium,” as Frank Guan said of Tao Lin, the group’s figurehead. They were also some of the first, and remain some of the only, writers to position their online work as equal to books. The poet Mira Gonzalez copublished her Selected Tweets with Lin in 2015. She told The Creative Independent they had done so to show that “once you take Twitter out of the context of being reliant on this relatively new form of technology, there’s no difference between Twitter and any other kind of literature.” By Twitter, Gonzalez clarified, she meant the internet. Twitter was the stand-in closest at hand because by then, social media had overtaken blogs as the dominant form of online expression, and Twitter was popular with the verbally oriented.
While alt lit writers on Twitter mostly continued the bloggy tradition of documenting real-time experiences, other writers experimented with other genres. Patricia Lockwood did absurdist “sexts.” (“Sext: An iceberg whispers to you, ‘Just the tip.’”) Teju Cole did “small fates,” which compressed news stories into epigrammatic tweets full of ironic humor and social critique. (“In Kubwa a man armed with a toy gun stole a real Camry.”) Ranjit Bhatnagar, the blogger who inspired Justin Hall, created @pentametron, a bot that paired tweets written in iambic pentameter to create rhymed couplets. The couplets were sometimes absurd and sometimes surprisingly sensical. One random user’s “I’m kind of thirsty for a valentine” led into another’s “My volume doesn’t have a minus sign.” With recontextualization alone, they put everyday language in a higher register—suggesting, Shakespeare-style, that the line between poetry and daily speech is invisibly thin, a question of viewpoint.
Poetry bots were one of Twitter’s most beautiful genres, bringing e-lit experimentation to the masses. But now most of them have stopped working. X, as Twitter is now known, announced earlier this year that it would restrict free access to its API, which bots need to function. The change was one of many points on the graph of X’s decline in users and cachet. But other longtime Twitter/X projects persist, like the internet-deranged persona @dril (“cops tazing wild hogs ultimate compilation”) and Melissa Broder’s serially sad girl persona @sosadtoday (“i’m alive in a dead way”).
In a New Yorker review of Broder’s So Sad Today, a 2016 essay collection named after the Twitter account, Haley Mlotek wrote that the book’s shortcomings made her appreciate the account’s accomplishments: “It captures how so many of us communicate on social media, crafting a careful persona that hides and reveals.” And yet, even though @sosadtoday was the true literary innovation in the critic’s estimation, it was the book that occasioned a review. I’ve written literary criticism for many publications, and I rarely have trouble placing a book review I want to write. But of the dozen or so pitches I’ve sent about an online work, none have landed. And as a reader of popular literary criticism for two decades now, I’ve only ever come across a single full-length review of an online work in a nonacademic venue: Matt Pearce’s 2011 essay on Cole’s small fates for The New Inquiry. It’s a single example, one that Cole’s status as a newly acclaimed novelist probably helped make possible. But it proves that answering the questions online work raises for mainstream critics is doable, fruitful, and not all that complicated.
In 2013, Lockwood gave a lecture about Twitter at the University of Pennsylvania. Before ending with a reading of sexts, she said:
Innovative literature happens where people have room to play, and it happens where no one is watching. It happens among groups that initially aren’t taken seriously. . . . It happens in darkness. And after a while, people become aware of it. And after an even longer while, it’s called literature. That’s a good thing. That is the way of the world. Mushrooms and literature grow in the shade, but eventually must enter the cold light of day to be eaten by yuppies at $14 a pound.
Calling for tweets or blogs to get reviewed in The New Yorker or become eligible for a Pulitzer is in part to call for their yuppification, which would ruin the fun. Many of the works I’ve discussed play with, and draw aesthetic power from, their lack of professional legitimacy. Having an incentive to get reviewed or win a prize might motivate more people to start writing in certain ways, but it would also change the character of the writing. A @dril looking to get reviewed by The New Yorker would not be @dril, and so the world might be deprived of such classics as: “another day volunteering at the betsy ross museum. everyone keeps asking me if they can fuck the flag. buddy, they wont even let me fuck it.”
But metabolizing the literature of previous generations is necessary to create new literature. And writing on the internet has a way of disappearing, so that it may not be available long enough for enough people to become aware of it, let alone to call it literature. An API might become too expensive, a hosting fee might no longer seem worth it, an author might delete or lock their account after a platform empties out, as X—and social media in general—feels like it’s doing now. In 2017, the Library of Congress decided to stop archiving all public tweets and instead collect only those that are “thematic and event-based, including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy.” The Wayback Machine is a good but gappy source of disappeared blogs, and it probably won’t do any better with email newsletters.
Even if we had a perfect archive, it still wouldn’t tell the whole story. You could find a forgotten novel in a used bookstore and, with some imagination, recreate the experience of reading it around the time of its publication. But a lot of online writing has important temporal and contextual dimensions, and unless someone records the experience of reading at the time or in the context, those dimensions are lost.
So let me tell you about some work that’s still living: there are new magazines, like the html review, which combine a traditional literary magazine format with a more computer-friendly ethos. Like Twitter bots did, they’re introducing more readers to literature written with both human and coding languages. And then, of course, there are email newsletters, which have been around for years but gathered more steam when Substack launched in 2017, giving writers a built-in way to collect payments. One Substack project that uses the form well is Samantha Irby’s “who’s on judge mathis today?” In more than 250 editions, she has twisted TV recaps into comic stories observed through a personal lens: “shearie says that one day she went over to rhian’s house and discovered a used condom.… rhian calls her ‘inspector gadget’ and i’m so sorry to side with a man but that really made me laugh! i loved that cartoon!!!!!!!!”
My favorite newsletter is Justin Wolfe’s thank you notes, which he started writing in 2015. Wolfe modeled his project on Joe Brainard’s I Remember, an experimental memoir published in 1970 in which every sentence begins with “I remember.” Wolfe chose “I’m thankful” as a refrain. “i’m thankful that even though i had built up going back to work as this horrible huge ominous thing, it’s actually been just fine and, as is almost always the case, the blurry projection i built out of anticipatory anxiety far exceeded reality,” he wrote early on, in a post I discovered in the archive and sometimes return to on Sundays. In well over a thousand editions ranging from hundreds of words to one (“pizza”), Wolfe has given a sharper angle to the practice of real-time life-writing. His constraint, even when broken, lends it more structure; his form, email, more tightly stitches the fabric of his days into the fabric of ours.
It’s still true, as the poet Mira Gonzalez said in her Creative Independent interview, that “there are people who are saying things like . . . ‘Writing on the internet doesn’t matter.’” But the internet is nevertheless, as she added, “the future of humor, of writing, of everything.” On our corporate-throttled web, this sounds like a frightening prospect. All we can do, in literature and in life, is try to make it otherwise.
Megan Marz is a writer in Chicago.