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Martha Conway

Don't Look

I am reading the Blip Magazine Archiveon the Web with mixed feelings. I don't mean the content--the content is good--I mean the fact of it here. On the one hand, the Blip Magazine Archiveis an established literary journal which will legitimize the Web. On the other hand, the Blip Magazine Archiveis an established literary journal which will legitimize the Web.

In the already legitimate paper publishing industry there is a certain prevailing attitude about what one reads on the internet -- crap is a word often bandied -- that safeguards it from much of the literati. I like that. And I like the folks who are not afraid, who plunge right in regardless of warnings -- the geeks, the students, the bureaucrats, the technophile artists; in short, the people like me.

Geeks like me take secret pleasure in finding wonderful, creative sites, such as Levi Asher's Queensboro Ballads, or the unabashedly silly Spatula City. Since I am not a member of the literati, when I find good writing on the Web I feel covert and out of my class, like a slave learning how to read. I want to teach other slaves to read, and I don't want any of us to get caught by the Establishment. So I am glad whenever the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker comes out with yet another article expressing distaste for the internet as a whole. Yeah, you're not missing anything, I want to tell them. Go away, it's not really fun.

But the Establishment is creeping in, slowly. The Paris Review, the New Yorker, Houghton Mifflin, Knopf. The Paris Review has a terrible web site that is made up of gifs with blurry text, as if they don't yet understand production and layout for this new medium, or simply could not learn how to code. And the New Yorker, which maintains a small gopher site with excerpts from its current issue and ordering information, has really only a token presence. Their gopher site is no more than advertisement, and a New Yorker staff person told me he suspected they would never publish full text on-line.

This is good news. In fact, as I spoke to various journals and publishing houses, this is the news I received over and over -- that the net is or would be used as a marketing tool, not as a publishing milieu.

Large publishing houses such as Houghton Mifflin and Penguin, which both have attractive, link-laden Web sites, are publishing catalogues, ordering information, a few excerpts, but not complete texts. Nor will they in the near future. Similarly, Farrar Straus Giroux, which currently has no presence on the internet, is planning to do something somewhere on the net at sometime. However, I was told that there will be no whole texts on-line and no "keep your eye out for the next chapter" business. For that, you must go to the bookstore and plunk down your cash.

And this is the crux of the problem. Back in the paper world, the literati (like the Mafia) serve a useful function: they select what is good and charge for the reading thereof, thus forcing readers to pay for "protection" from crap. But how will they get paid for this on the net? On the production side, high print costs and distribution difficulties should make an electronic alternative attractive for publishers, but again the issue returns to money. These places are businesses, after all, and it would be foolish to expect them to give something away for free. Also, real problems such as copyright laws and intellectual property rights just won't go away. But I suspect publishers would not care so much about writers' rights if the profit potential was real.

Smaller venues might be more of a threat, because they are getting paid so little anyway they might as well give it away. But even they are shy when it comes to publishing full texts on-line. Ploughshares, which will have a Web site up by the end of the summer (but no full texts), is mainly hoping the site will draw a new audience for their paper journal. Story is not on the internet, nor are there any concrete plans to become so, but wanted to know who else was here. And when I asked a woman from the New England Review if they were planning to publish on the net, she said, "It has never crossed our minds."

The real dangers are the places like Gutter Press, which publishes The Quarterly. They not only have full (albeit short) texts on their Web site, they also have a Web name distinct from their press name -- Gutter Voice. Okay so it's not so different, but it demonstrates a shift in attitude. And that new attitude is: we are connected to, but distinct from, our paper edition. Currently Gutter Voice counts 50 visitors per day. 

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