Nobody said it was easy (copperbadge) wrote,
Nobody said it was easy

I wrote this about three weeks ago and I've been dithering about posting because when anyone posts any kind of strong opinion to a forum with 1800 people it can get...edgy. Besides, the piece itself is a bit tl;dr.

But you know -- not only do I feel strongly about this, I want to know what other people feel and think. Between Howard Hendrix repudiating the internet Sci-Fi community ( ) and an editorial article about "a month without internet" in this month's Poets & Writers ( ), I wanted to say something. So, I'm posting. Intelligent discourse and debate is welcome; please be aware, however, that I am home for the rest of the day and at the first sign of trolling or wank I will shut down comments.

This is my manifesto about Writers On The Internet (be grateful I have no thoughts on yaoi).

For most of my life -- which is roughly analogous to the early life of the internet, the pair of us growing up awkwardly together -- I've watched communication intensify in a marvelous fashion. Modem speed increased and turned into broadband, then went wireless; cellular telephones got smaller every year and easy trans-oceanic telecom emerged via digital technology. Internet telephone. How crazy is that?

I've seen the backlash too -- my first sense of it was as a teenager reading newspaper articles about how Your Children (hey...that's me!) might be Prey of Scary Internet Pervs (possibly me ten years on, given the body of adult-rated work I've produced in the last four years). I was indignant then, a combination of youthful belief that I could protect myself and disgust that people would think that about my friends.

I knew that outside of the world of AOL chat rooms and dodgy messageboards there was Them That Know, what one might call Alpha users -- people for whom this new medium was pure communication, a method of connection, a society no different from a community centre without faces. For me, this community was internet fandom on the usenet, which offered intellectual stimulation, a wide and diverse peer group, and a chance to be peer-judged and mentored in an utterly safe intellectual environment. People were -- still are -- measured in words and attitudes and I had the time a socially awkward, stammering adolescent needs to form coherent replies. Age was no barrier, either; without lying about my age or proclaiming it, via the quality of my fifteen-year-old discourse I was simply assumed to be an adult, treated as an adult by adults, and allowed to make adult decisions, learning from my mistakes in a place where the consequences were minimized.

Though, looking back, it is likely that I can never run for public office for fear some of my hanky-panky is still hanging around on the Wayback Machine. Still, I never wanted to be president.

Whenever something society-changing is in its infancy, these little waves of backlash always occur. Television had its own baby steps to make, and is still making them -- witness Janet Jackson's breast, if you care to. No doubt Gutenberg took some flak for the printing press in his day. You get the idea.

What I did not expect, in terms of anti-internet backlash, is that the complaints would now be coming from writers, people who live and die by words, especially for the reasons they cite.

Writing is a lonely profession, something difficult to convey to others or engage in while they are present. In some ways, however, it is 'safe' -- it is possible, as a writer, to express an opinion, publish it, and never have to defend it at all once it's been distributed. A popular writer may receive response from an audience and from critics, but they address their audiences en masse rather than individually, and critics that really require answers are few and far between. Writers of this level may pick and choose what criticisms they wish to address, if any. In addition, the more famous an author is, the more circles of protection are available -- and usually employed -- to prevent contact directly between writer and reader outside of published works. Perhaps rightly so; if a writer had contact with everyone who wrote to them, they'd never get anything done.

Via the internet, however, readers can discuss a writer's works with never-before-seen ease and keep verbatim records of their discussions to show to the public. They can also contact -- or attack -- a writer directly, through that writer's blog or website and sometimes (in the infamous case of Anne Rice) through commercial websites like Most writers do have a blog or website these days, if only to keep up with a fast-moving internet market. The problem is that having these tools means others may make use of them, and not necessarily in the way the Good Lord intended a website to be used.

A lot has been said recently about the fact that a major figure in SFWA, a Science Fiction writers' association, has repudiated the internet, its users, and its use as a publicity machine. A lot of people were baffled and hurt, insulted and confused. Why would a man who had devoted his life to embracing scientific development and speculating about its future want to forcibly reject, in the most insulting way possible, this enormous branch of the future of science and communication?

A few minutes' thought suggest one possible answer, at least for Howard Hendrix: Fiction is about control. Science Fiction is based on ideas of technological advancement, interstellar travel, instantaneous communication, and other future-dreams, but it rarely fully analyzes their impact on society. Nobody really minds; a book that thoroughly examines the social ramifications of FTL travel would be difficult to make interesting. Fans of science-fiction don't necessarily care about the actual technology, because the majority are interested in what the technology makes possible for characters within the confines of a story. The upshot: writers control what changes and what stays the same when new techology is introduced in a fictional piece, and their readers generally accept that.

Unfortunately, when the nonfiction world encounters new technology, it is not a controlled process. Humanity is organic; we don't always follow the most logical path, but we do always reach for the sun. We will make use of new things in any way we can, including ways we probably shouldn't, and because we are individuals we don't always see what the social ramifications are. Science Fiction writers are therefore faced with the fact that while they are assumed to be the artistic group most likely to embrace new technology, in reality they may be the ones most frightened of its unpredictability.

Even more frightening is the fact that young writers in all genres are learning their craft without the slow trial by fire of the older generation, emerging fully formed from internet fandom and writing groups. Publishing on webjournals, messageboards, and archive websites, they experience intense critical attention and the chance to discuss their work with their readers long before the young writers of twenty or forty years ago could even get their work published in a magazine or looked at by a college professor.

It feels, somehow, as if they aren't paying their dues.

Despite the fact that some may in fact be getting a stronger and faster -- if perhaps sometimes less well-rounded -- education in the hard knocks of fiction writing, it looks to an outsider like it must have come too easily. And to top it all off, these youthful forays into peer-reviewed fiction are free. Free for readers, free for writers minus time and energy; at the library even the internet itself is free.

So some of these established men and women of letters, who are owed respect for their hard work and who were without the benefit of early review, free publishing, or free publicity, are afraid. Right or wrong, who can blame them? Young, energetic writers with more access to the public and more methods of advancing their career are coming up like sharks in the water, waiting for their turn with impatience.

But this is always the way -- the new generation supplants the old, sometimes violently, sometimes gradually, sometimes with reverence and sometimes without. The way in which power changes hands has a lot to do with how the older generation views the younger and how they treat them. Lashing out in fear at something that is only a tool, calling it an addictive drug or some sort of infernal agent of The Man is not going to help anyone.

These children -- I'm one of them -- still need guidance and wisdom from their elders, even if we may not always be very gracious about accepting it. If tradition is to be passed on, the people who control that tradition have a responsibility not to reject the sometimes clumsy attempts of others to absorb it. We're trying.

The Internet is not some crashing nuclear monster stomping on Tokyo; it's not a mindless Dalek bent on your destruction. It is a community of users hooked into a tool. Repudiating the internet is not going to bring it to a crashing halt or do much more than annoy its users; those with the most wit are likely to be most insulted, and the wrath of the internet's intelligencia is fierce.

Studying this tool instead, learning its uses, comprehending that moderation applies here as to anything and coming to the tool with a willingness not only to learn but also to teach -- that can change the world.

The bar's open and the drinks are cheap -- you're still invited to the party, Mr. Hendrix. You tell me about writing tight storylines and I'll explain the whole "cat macro" thing to you.

Comment conservation:

those with the most wit are likely to be most insulted, and the wrath of the internet's intelligencia is fierce.

Oh ain't that the truth. Say stupid things about the internet...and you'll be all over the internet - in parody, ridicule, graphic art, limerick and any way in which the sharpest fastest young minds of the western world can make you a laughing stock. In a similar vein for constant criticisim (You internet monkeys are stealing and raping MY characters!) "In Praise of Fanfic" from Cory Doctorow made me clap & cheer a few weeks back. :)

There's something to the idea of the autonomous character. Big chunks of our wetware are devoted to simulating other people, trying to figure out if we are likely to fight or fondle them. It's unsurprising that when you ask your brain to model some other person, it rises to the task. But that's exactly what happens to a reader when you hand your book over to him: he simulates your characters in his head, trying to interpret that character's actions through his own lens.

Writers can't ask readers not to interpret their work. You can't enjoy a novel that you haven't interpreted — unless you model the author's characters in your head, you can't care about what they do and why they do it. And once readers model a character, it's only natural that readers will take pleasure in imagining what that character might do offstage, to noodle around with it. This isn't disrespect: it's active reading.

That's a novel way of putting it. I hadn't really thought of the in-with-the-new-out-with-the-old spin, but it makes sense. And hey, in another twenty years we'll be the old order, and if nothing else we should remember to be graceful towards whoever supplants us.

Once again our Sam nails it. I was a witness to fanfic as it was practiced in about 1963: a classmate of mine wrote a whole novel in pencil and manual typewriter, which ran to about 200 pages and had the Beatles as main characters. She let a few of us read it. That was all.

As for kids who wrote: a friend of mine clubbed together with me in about 8th grade to buy (for I think about $4) a thing called a Hectograph, which involved a tray full of a jellylike substance upon which one caaaarefulllly laid a sheet of typewritten material, typed on this special paper. Then, you could lay blank sheets of paper on the reverse image of the ink on the jelly, and make I forget how many copies-- I think about 20. There was a certain amount of difficulty with "issues" because, to meet the eventual demand, we wound up making several "originals" for each page, and they differed somewhat in number of typos and actual content as well.)

We wrote a weekly satirical newspaper ("The Saturday Evening Clod") and sold it to our classmates for ten cents apiece. This activity caused me to get an F in English from this witch of a teacher who told me I should be writing for the school newspaper, and not making trouble by outselling it! Our reading public numbered maybe a couple hundred at most-- we went to different junior high schools and so had a double crowd to sell to.

On the whole, I would have been ecstatic to have had the internet. We had the attitude, the energy, and the irreverence, but not the immense pool of information, the standards of comparison, or the technology. Our fans, and our detracters, counted in double digits, rather than the amazingly broad range of input available at Sam's Cafe!

Yay Internet.

It feels, somehow, as if they aren't paying their dues.

It is somewhat depressing, but this rings a lot of bells -- not just with this incident but with a lot of other similar attitudes from established authors.

I grew up and graduated from high school in a world before the personal computer, ATM cards, etc. We barely had car phones, never mind anything LIKE the internet. (I graduated in 1982, just for the record.) I learned to write fiction on an old Royal manual typewriter. I still have it; it sets on its own small table in my house, almost like a shrine. (G) Electric typewriters with correction tape inserts (not onion paper for erasing or even White Out) were a revelation.

And Word Processors ...? Oh, my. My second year in college, I'd saved my pennies for an Atari computer, primitive word-processor, and daisy-wheel printer (because there was no way in hell publishers would consider a manuscript that didn't look like it came out of a typewriter). Lack of funds had meant I could buy the printer or buy a floppy drive. Of course I bought the printer. I'd type in my story, print it out all nice and neat (no erasures!), and I could even correct typos, restructure sentences and MOVE AROUND WHOLE BLOCKS OF TEXT! ... all before printing. It was AMAZING. LOL!

So here I was with my brilliant improvement over previous writing methods. One day, a computer-engineering major was visiting my roommate. She watched me work while she and my roomie watched MTV (back when it actually HAD music). After a bit, I printed out the latest additions to my story ... and shut down the computer. I thought Michelle was going to suffer apoplexy! "BUT ... BUT ... you didn't SAVE it!" she howled. I just blinked at her. "Well, sure I did." I pointed to my pretty manuscript. "But, but, that's not SAVING it!" she protested. "What are you talking about?" I replied. "I have a hardcopy. How is that not saving it?"


I think the joke is obvious. She quickly disabused me of my paper-bound mindset, and I took to computers and word-processors like the proverbial fish to water. Be that as it may, I remember those days, and the laborious prep and mailing of query letters, the frustration at the Rise of the Notorious Agent in publishing, etc. I sold my first story at 21, saw it in print at 22, and that was even before the rise of early BB networks like GEnie or Compuserv or NVN. I was ushered into those by SF/F writer friends. (I actually write mainstream in RL, but all my close friends are SF/F authors.) They dragged me online in late 1988 and I was talking about my email when most people's reaction was, "E-what?"

So the Internet doesn't scare me. I wish I'd had it when I was younger. It might not have taken me so long to learn some necessary things about storytelling. And I can hardly wait for the advent of a truly workable e-reader so we can go to e-books and get out of the Tyranny of Paper Costs dominating publishing (although now that marketing has a foothold, I doubt it'll ever give that up). I do see it all as mostly a valuable thing.

My primary reservations are just the "electronic" version of things I've seen plenty of in writing groups -- writers unable to take critique or editing. The difference is that in a workshop, if someone gets diva-ish and flounces out with hurt feelings, we shrug and move on. She'll learn, or not, but if she wants to get published, she'll have to learn.

Fanfic, of course, has no barrier to the "getting published" part. (g) In fact, one can throw up a story on, get hundreds of reviews from other readers who couldn't find their ass (much less their grammar) with a map and a flashlight. They think they're hot shit. For the most part, I find this amusing. Fandom is a very small pond, even a gigantic fandom like HP. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter if Miss Young Writer at thinks she's terrific when she's actually atrocious. Fandom's a hobby, right? Right. "It's just fanfic." That's the usual excuse.

The downside is that it does foster a general inability to learn to take critique. Not by all, by any means. But if online fandom has a problem in terms of writing and would like to be taken more seriously -- which I realize is a much-debated point as not everyone does -- then it needs to get over itself. (g) Suck it up and take some criticism. From my perspective, fandom's biggest problem AS WELL AS its biggest asset is a general lack of gate-controlling entity (e.g., the publishers). OTOH, the publishers can get odd notions in their heads of what's "marketable" based on half-assed research. OTOH, they do provide a certain level of quality control. As always, the coin has both a heads and a tails. And lacking quality control, fandom is simply the electronic equivalent of a publishing house slushpile. Some good stuff, some decent stuff, a small percentage of really, really good stuff ... and the rest of it dreck.

Hmm, at the end, I'm not entirely sure what my point was, or if I even had one. (G) But I thought I'd toss out some observations from somebody who got into publishing before the internet, and backed into fandom almost by accident. Mostly I see it as a positive thing, but it has weaknesses. Rather than reject it, I think it's far more productive to figure out how to get around those weaknesses ... just like anything else. We human beings throughout history have shown ourselves to be wonderfully clever at adopting and adapting.

Huh, I hadn't even heard about the Hendrix thing or the "a month without internet" article till now but I'm loving what you have to say about the internet as a writer/reader community and the different ways established authors can respond to it. I really do think they shoot themselves in the foot when they flip out about it and usually end up condemning their most devoted fans.

Conversely, I get giddy as a school girl when they react positively to it. (::ahem ahem:: Joss Whedon in response to the question "What should your fans do with the extra time they have, now that your series are no longer on the air?": "They should write a lot of fanfic." I'm just saying, possibly the most brilliant man alive.)

I also feel like every sociology class I've ever taken has had some text or unit or theory that basically goes "The Interwebs are THE MAN/killing community/turning us into creepy loners!!!" And yeah, as someone who grew up with it and who sees so much diversity and discussion and awesomeness produced by it, I'm always surprised when even my peers pretty much just nod and go along with it... and then go back to checking Facebook. ::bitterness::

As an aspiring writer who's not really considering being published offline except in a sort of on-demand way if readers want it, I was struck by your willingness to reach out to naysayers like Hendrix. I think you're being really gracious in extending an olive branch here, especially since there's an implicit sort of 'or else' leaf included because of the nature of the internet: "start a dialogue with the new generation, or get forgotten or left behind". Most of the time, when I come across people bashing the internet, I've sighed and muttered, "yes, please get left behind". Faced with the thought of one less voice to compete with for mindspace and attention, I just sort of shrug and move on. The thought of the experience and advice I'd probably be missing due to the non-pixel-stained person's departure never really occurred to me in the first place, simply because I've mostly gotten such advice by reading around online.

You've given me a lot of food for thought here; thanks. And I'll join in saying that this essay wasn't tl;dr at all ;). There are worse examples lurking behind the links at [info]metafandom, I assure you - remember that daft troll scroll essay by bradhicks or whatsisname?

The internet is a ship of a million souls, all screamingly eager to connect, to grow, to learn, to debate, to write, to think, to express, to share, to validate, to critique, and to create. How can anyone's reaction that that be: "no thanks" ?

Between the birth of any new technology and the regulation of that technology there is always a lag.

In 1888 Edison worked out a radio system to send radio signals across valleys. Years passed before the first laws were passed- the Radio Act of 1927, creating the Federal Radio Commission (before the commission was established, radio was regulated by the Commerce Department, and it was pretty haphazard). The 1934 Communications Act abolished the FRC and transferred jurisdiction over radio licensing to a new Federal Communications Commission.

That's 46 years of inefficient and ineffective control. New technologies are gotten onto much more quickly because of the problems the government had with that, the first piece of technology to change the interpersonal landscape. As much as everyone loves internet neutrality, it came with an expiration date embedded in it. There will inevitably be oversight, and sometimes-dastardly people getting around that oversight. But freedom is inherently unsafe, and most people like to put boundaries on it for their own safety. Trying to keep safe from change and the spread of ideas, however, is always counterproductive.

I agree with Mister Elliot that internet addiction and the temptation to screw around is not good for getting things done, but the same is true of any addictive behavior, and has nothing to do with the internet itself.

Mr Hendrix is just sort of a tool. Poor Mr. Hendrix.

I can relate very much to your experience of growing up with, and alongside, the internet, and I want to thank you for a sane, rational, articulate explanation of where we, as a community, have grown up.

My initial reaction to Hendrix - before everyone started making PSTPW tee-shirts and the whole incident just turned into an affirmation of my long-standing faith in the general awesomeness of internet community (I mean, you insult us and we make tee-shirts; that's just really cool. And I think that possibly makes us people you do not want to **** with.) - but anyway, my initial reaction was to feel very snubbed. It was a familiar feeling - I remembered it from elementary school, when the parents of some other kid I'd befriended at school learned where I lived, and little Meg or Timmy just somehow always had something else to do if I issued an invitation. It stings a bit, then and now - but anyone who's grown up with that learns quickly and well to take that rejection and turn it into pride. It's the only way not to eat yourself alive. That's how I feel about the internet and about fandom - this is who I am, this is where I live. It'll be a cold day in hell before I apologize for it, and anyone who wants no part of it, just doesn't know what they're missing.

"It's really all about working with people whose skills exceed yours."

Yes, this is often true, and important. But it is also not necessarily true about 'professional editors' and 'professional copyeditors'. I've known editors in real life publishing, before they became editors and afterwards. Some of them were intelligent critical clear-thinking folks who could see the flaws in other people's works well, and explain how to fix them. Once they became 'professionals', works that they had considered dreck, but that their publishing company made a great deal of money on, suddenly became 'brilliant.'

Paychecks can subvert as well as inspire.
Tags: highly memorable
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