Our Words
Are No Longer
Engraved in Stone;
They're Graved
In Light

For those of us in the book review business, there are two publications that we look to for our inspiration. Both are from England. One is the London Review of Books, the "LRB." The other is the TLS --- what was once known as The London Times Literary Supplement.

In both, the reviewers are informed, often funny, and have (apparently) unlimited space to describe, review, and argue with the books that come to them from all over the world.

Not long ago, in the TLS, Hugh Kenner, who teaches English in Athens --- Athens, Georgia, that is --- wrote a fairly extensive article about 'zines on the web, describing some that he had called up, and concluding that the best, and most professional of them all, was Salon.

We don't dispute this: Salon is well-written and professionally presented, though some of us have difficulty describing it --- and our own magazine --- as 'zines. (We prefer to think of them as "On-line book-review magazines.")

This, in slightly expanded form, is a reply we sent to Kenner to give him another perspective:

ears ago, when we first put out The Fessenden Review in its regular magazine format --- 100 pages, 5,000 - 10,000 copies --- it cost us $25,000 an issue. Now, online, it costs us about $350 --- our only expenses being the monthly cost for the server, volunteer editors and for our writers, many of whom donate their services.

What the reviewers send us by e-mail we convert directly into net language --- so getting it published costs nothing except our time to stick Hyper-Text Mark-up Language (HTML) into the text and add a picture, plus the $10 per review that we pay.

That's one of the strange things: these words that go out to god-knows-who cost very little to produce and transmit. It was the opposite with the printed, mailed-out magazine (production costs were 80% of our budget; transmission --- that is postage --- was 20%).

Another of the eccentric things about Internet is its effect on language. When doing day-to-day playing about on-line --- e-mail, for example --- we ignore capital letters, make text larger or smaller, and are required to use strange runic characters, ones so rare we forgot their very existence: < and ~ and _ and >. For dolts, there is :); there is the now omnipresent @; and in HTML, a proliferation of goobledygook: & # 1 6 9 ; translates into the standard copyright symbol, ©. Every word turns into a complex and the entire marked-up page is totally unintelligible to those unfamiliar with the language.

The text has to be shrunk down, which affects quantity, and possibly quality, and certainly thoughtfulness. A typical review in the old Fessenden Review could be two- or three-thousand words. The computer monitor (and the typical reader) will not tolerate such a massing of words. We have to provide variety on the screen (the sea of type cannot be turned into an ocean of thoughts; readers will not look at a monitor screen for long without getting impatient to move on; pictures must be catchy --- viz., our recent review of a book on Lincoln).

For our own magazine, variety is created by black-and-white pictures (for fast downloading), and lots of pale --- not white --- space behind them and the letters. The spectacular numbers of colors available in HTML encourage a dialogue rainbowing back-and-forth between letters, design, and background, something that was not available on the more expensive print form, where colors could double or triple the cost of the end product.

In an article we did many years ago for The Whole Earth Review, we claimed that the single most important symbol of technical change in the last fifty years was not the jet, nor the television set, nor the computer --- but the cursor: that tiny point of light stationed just before us, winking and blinking, asking nothing more than to be moved about. Because it can be chased all over --- vertically and horizontally --- through the sea of text (not to say to the front or back of whole documents), it has transformed the way we look at thoughts (ours, and others').

Moreover, the lines immediately above or below --- or at the top or bottom of the page --- have come to have a new interrelationship to each other, and to the writer. The typewriter moved in a linear fashion; gutting a word or sentence would skew the whole layout; but the cursor moves as quickly and neatly as a particle in the mysterious quantum leap, and any spaces created are magically filled with light. The cursor thus gives us the ability to pick up a whole complex of ideas, move them about not only in our heads, but up or down the page; or make them begone forever into an electronic trash-bin.

The mobility of the cursor has not only affected the way we read, but also the way we see words. At one and the same time it simplifies and compounds the writers' dilemma: how best to communicate the most potent of all non-substantive entities, that being the massive cerebral electronic unit called "a thought."

§     §     §

he paper-and-ink that you and I grew up with is now called, in the wonderful world of compute-words, "hard," making it sound like a clip left over from Debbie Does Dallas.

Structure has had to change. In books, paragraphs traditionally had the first lines indented to indicate change (of mind, of point-of-view, of speaker). With so many different computers interpreting the language differently, HTML cannot offer consistency and regularity for something as straightforward as a linear indentation, so the new style has to be a single blank line sandwiched between paragraphs as a switcher. There is no indentation at all, and the art in place since golden medieval manuscripts of the Bible has been left by the wayside.

In addition, HTML permits no control over the typeface. At first, we tried to tell the thousand or so computers viewing us each day what type-style should appear on our page once it became their page, but readers advised us that since they owned the means of production (their personal computers) Garamond Bold on our screen could turn out to be a ghastly mix of Old English and Geneva on theirs.

Despite that, on-line magazines have, in some ways, made us more Blakean, possibly even more Medieval. We get to do all design, layout, and color (background, foreground) ourselves. We ourselves get to place the pictures to the left or right or top or bottom, disciplines previously left to the discretion of the print-shop and the layout editor. This also means that the editing process of an on-line magazine can go on forever. (Sometimes we look back at a page we did ten years ago, and, not liking it, dive into the HTML and bring it up to snuff.)

In addition, in some reviews, if we can't find appropriate pictures on Google images, or in our stock, we can put large decorative letters at the beginning of each section of text, a traditional form of indentation. And the monitor screen --- in contrast to the movie screen (or the page of a book) --- is back-lit, giving us what might be thought-of as Cybernated Illuminated Manuscripts.

§     §     §

o one in our experience has written about the strange concept of "hits." We get a count of them each morning from our server (I almost wrote "servant," only to remember that those who man this operation in some unnamed far-off city often speak without a touch of emotion, often in testy fashion --- especially to the technically uninitiated --- so "servant" might be the better word. Who knows where they come from and why. )

Certainly none of us can explain why out of almost 3,000 reviews, readings, articles, and poems we've put up in the last ten years, on every conceivable subject, the ones that get the most hits are

  • Mara Selva Palazzoli --- the great Italian family therapist --- speaking, and often quite harshly, about anorexics;
  • "Fatty," being a short history of Fatty Arbuckle;
  • A review of, and reading from, "In Flanders Fields" by Leon Wolff, and
  • An article on footbinding which suggested that the Chinese turned our current culture on its head by deliberately creating handicaps then, paradoxically, worshipping the disabled member;
  • "Credo," a poem by a Venezuelan poet, that begins,
      I believe in Pablo Neruda, almighty creator of heaven and earth
      I believe in Charlie Chaplin
      Son of violets and mice
      Who was crucified, died, and laid in the grave by his era,
      but who each day is revived in the hearts of men...

Internet publishing is another business where the greater the consumption, the greater the absolute expense (no volume discounts here). When our hits soar above 250,000 or 300,000 a month, the bill from our server goes up. They charge on the basis of information downloaded each day. The word is "megabytes." It puts one in mind of a very hungry duck. When we achieve the success of a million hits a month, we'll be literally nibbled to death by bytes.

--- R. R. Doister


If you wish, these will take you to the five reviews,
articles, or the poem mentioned above: