Some thoughts about 'zines on the internet
Our Words
Are No Longer
Engraved in Stone;
They're Graved
In Light

For those of us in the book review business, there is one publication, the ultimate magazine, that we look to for our inspiration. It's the TLS --- The London Times Literary Supplement. 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.

Recently, Hugh Kenner, who teaches English in Athens --- Athens, Georgia, that is --- wrote a fairly extensive article for TLS 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 professionally 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 magazines.")

This, in slightly expanded form, is what we wrote him:

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 $150 --- our only expense --- which is the monthly cost for the server and for our writers.

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 into the text and add a picture, plus the $10 per review that we pay them. That's one of the strange things: these words going out to god-knows-who cost damn near nothing to produce and transmit, which was pretty much the opposite with the printed and mailed out form of the magazine (production costs were 90% of our budget; transmission --- that is postage --- was 10%).

One of the strange things about Internet is its effect on language. When doing day-to-day playing about on-line, we ignore capital letters, and are required to use the strange and heretofore ignored runic characters appearing on our keyboard --- < and ~ and _ and > --- and so every word turns small, every phrase becomes different, and the entire mark-up page is totally unintelligible to those unfamiliar with the language.

In all (transmitting, receiving) 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 doesn't tolerate that. 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 screen long without getting electronically impatient).

For our own internet 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.

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). 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, getting to another line might well skew the whole; but the cursor moves as quickly --- and as erratically --- as a particle in the quantum leap. The cursor has also given us the ability to pick up a whole complex of ideas, and move them about hither-and-yon, or, if we desire, delete them forever, to send them (as computer users say) "off into hyperspace."

The mobility of the cursor has not only affected the way we read, but also the way we think about words. At the same time it simplifies and compounds the writers' dilemma which is how to best communicate the most potent of all non-substantive entities, that being the electronic unit called "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 thought-breaker. There is no indentation at all, just as with this letter (it has become a habit with us).

In addition, there can be 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 Medieval. We get to do all design, layout, and color (background, foreground) ourselves. We get to place the pictures hither and yon, and, if we don't like where they end up, we can change their placement. This means that the editing process of our magazine can go on forever. (Sometimes we look back at a page we did three years ago, and, not liking it, dive into the HTML and change it.)

In addition, in some reviews, when we can't find appropriate pictures, we put large decorative letters at the beginning of each section of text. And the monitor screen --- in contrast to the movie screen (or the page of a book) --- is back-lighted, giving us


§     §     §

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.") Who knows where they come from and why. Who can explain why out of almost 600 or 700 reviews we've put up in the last four 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 anorectics;
  • "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 probably the only business that the greater the consumption, the greater the absolute expense. When our hits soar above 50,000 a month, the bill from our local 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:

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