On HTMLGIANT and Networking in the Literary Scene: An Interview With Blake Butler
Feel like I’ve sort of come to think of ‘networking’ among those in the literary scene as a very specific protocol, complete with literature-scene-specific conventions, standard displays of behavior, common language use.
See the status updates of my Facebook news feed: “Just finished second draft of recent non-fiction essay. Now time for grading papers and beer,” “The fantastic [name of writer] was kind enough to interview me for [internet 'journal']. Many thanks!,” “Spending the morning with coffee and my contributor copy of [print journal]. A fine day ahead of me,” etc.
Associated comments typically look something like “Kudos!,” “A round of congrats to all involved. Beautiful piece, [name of author],” and “That interview hit me where it hurts. Cheers!”
But Facebook literary networking only seems to be spillover from one of the real internet literary battlegrounds: “the internet literature magazine blog of the future,” HTMLGIANT. Here, hungry literati are provided with forums in which to make names for themselves. Contributors act as the group’s scouts, with bands of HTMLmales following, yeaing or naying on the merits of a poem. Comments sections of posts are veritable dating scenes, where fellow intellectuals flirt, play courting games, form alliances, and make enemies. Personas are made and broken here, new authors vie for status, and there are always rounds of kudos for those that agree on the definition of real art. Group think and mob behavior are common, and it isn’t unusual for one who commits heresy against the literary dogma to be exiled from the community.
Blake Butler is the editor of HTMLGIANT. He’s also the author of Ever (Calamari Press, 2009) and Scorch Atlas (Featherproof Books, 2010). In Spring 2011, Harper Perennial will publish his novel, There Is No Year.
Having met Blake before his first book had been published and before HTMLGIANT had been created, I thought it would be interesting to see what he thought about HTMLGIANT and the direction networking in the literary scene may or may not have taken, if he thought anything at all.
TC: I think you are very good at networking in the literary scene. Do you consciously network, or do you simply perceive yourself doing it naturally? Or do you even perceive yourself networking?
BB: I think mainly I just talk to people, where talking is typing. I don’t like to talk with my mouth so I talk with computers. If this thing you say as networking were among people in bodies everyday I’d be in a bad way. I can put on happy face pretend man in person but I am a moody shit. Computers are good for hiding. I spend about 8 hours a day in front of the computer. These days I don’t have an hourly job where that time is also connected to sharing time, so time I spend clicking on shit is mainly because I want to, because I am not sure what else to stare at. I don’t think of it as networking I don’t think. I don’t tend to Like things on Facebook for instance of people just to make a connection to them. But the fact that I Like anything means I guess that I am trying to show the person there that I saw what they said or did and wouldn’t mind be touched by it semantically, so in a way that is a form of commoditization of the interaction. At the same time, many of these people have become what I consider true friends, so clicking on the Like, or say, commenting on their shit elsewhere or linking things through blogs or whatever, that is more now a concrete upkeep of people I like and do not see outside of the machine very often. This is different than in the beginning. In the beginning I commented on blogs of people I liked what they were saying but did not know, both because I liked what they were saying and therefore wanted to come into their contact or what have you. I guess it began as marking places with my presence as a dual function both of having been cataloged there, and because I cared. This is maybe a big difference from the way I see a lot of people who are clearly Networking in the way you say, as I think it is really easy to tell when someone is sticking their name or head out in full intention of it being seen, and those who are sticking it out maybe for that too, but more so also because they care. Caring and doing versus I am me and doing. Perhaps it is like being a tagger and only tagging buildings or locations or objects that you think are nice, and not in the manner of defacement or simple image awareness. I wish more people were more aware of themselves electronically, and more human electronically, but a lot of people have problems with that in their body also and so where tone is removed it’s even grosser.
TC: Do you have a strategy for networking in the literary scene?
BB: No, I have a problem with compulsive behavior, or at least habit. In this instance, the compulsive behavior is more beneficial to me than it is detrimental (though it has affected human relationships in some instances and ways), as it pertains to writing and reading rather than to like snorting glue or eating dirt. So, all that syntactical behavior of spreading and interacting with things online is mainly a function of my wanting to devour more. I had this same problem collecting comics and baseball card crap when I was a kid, I got everything I could touch. A lot of the time I think about the whole writing process, both in networking as you say and in the act of creation itself, as the biggest video game ever made, most customized to my seeking nature of acquiring unique objects and building up experience stats and like strength and wizard points or whatever. I always wanted a role playing game that never ended and let me keep growing my shit out and customizing and finding things that did not exist in this world, and that is what writing does for me. So, back to your question again, I have no strategy except to seek out what I like and talk about it and make noise and keep pressing buttons.
TC: I feel that there has been a shift over the past three years. I have the feeling that what was once referred to as the ‘Internet Literary Scene’ has simply become integrated into the ‘American Literary Scene.’
Maybe it’s because during the past three years a lot of writers doing substantial things in the Internet Literary Scene became published for the first time or started presses and got reviews by sort-of-famous people in the American Literary Scene (examples: Shane Jones, Matthew Simmons, You, Tao Lin, Ken Baumann, Chris Killen, Zachary German, Chelsea Martin, others).
HTMLGIANT came along, which I think greatly integrated the two scenes: the mass of HTML gained a lot of momentum at one point, and I think eventually garnered the attention of places like the LA Times, The New Yorker, and authors that seemed for the most part unaffiliated with any ‘Internet Literary Scene.’
How do you feel about my analysis? Do you feel that the two scenes were always one scene? Or do you feel that I have correctly perceived a greater integration of two distinct entities? Do you think about these kinds of things sometimes?
BB: Yeah I think you are right that things are kind of folding persona-wise, seeing bodies crossing over into larger venues or whatever. I don’t know that this is the product of any particular function of an action. I don’t like associations. I don’t like scenes. I like again doing things that I like, which is the function of hyper-liking. So, however really excited I am to see people doing more things and more attention being trickled into things that were smaller and getting larger, I am into it, but I think it is more a function of time, of people getting better, and of the old being phased out. I don’t think it is because of a direct initiative but more that people like George Saunders probably still Google themselves. I like seeing my friends put out books because they are my friends but that doesn’t necessarily link me to them aesthetically or even operationally. I think everyone is doing their thing and certain things gain prowess in weird ways like incidental web traffic and mass action, e.g. obsessive blogging, obsessive publishing, fracas, making trouble online, etc., and they continue to build and by that more open air the internet allows they have to be allowed into some section of the bigger thing, because they are there. This was true before the internet, with small houses and outside writers becoming more well known because they were (a) good, or at least interesting to a certain kind of person, and (b) were lucky. You have to set yourself up to be found, most of the time, though sometimes this setting up happens by you not doing anything at all, if that’s who you are. More often though you have to do more and do it better and by doing it more you often begin to do it better, which in my case, I wrote at least 5 novels on my computers in my room talking to myself before I even published a single short story. Maybe it’s too easy now to make noise and maybe there’s too much of a certain kind of banging. I get sick sometimes of seeing the word ‘congratulations’ plastered all over everything on Facebook. What does congratulations mean anymore. I think I could count on both hands the number of my physical oldschool friends in airlife who said congratulations to me about anything writing related, whereas anytime you post a new blog post or write a review of someone’s stuff and it goes somewhere, everyone online is ready with the champagne. It’s kind of messed up in one light and nice at once but makes it mean less like saying I love you does cause Kevin Bacon says it.
TC: What is the highest number of hits that your blog has received in one day? What is the highest number of hits that HTMLGIANT has received in one day? Do you think about how many hits your blog/HTMLGIANT gets in a day?
BB: I kind of hate statistics. I think I like to think a lot more people are seeing something than they actually are. By not knowing how many people are actually seeing something you get the idea that everybody must be seeing it, and thereby you start writing as if everyone is seeing it, and that has an interesting effect on what comes out. If anything, blogging has taught me how to say things a certain way in public forums. I notice a big difference in the way I type when I am typing into a blog platform publisher than when I am writing into a word doc. I really can’t write blog posts outside of the browser, it comes out wrong and like strained. Likewise, I can’t write other writing, words that end up in books or magazines or whatever, except in word docs, unless there is a specific constraint or reason for doing so. Trying to write a story outside of a new word doc file makes me feel insane and like I am writing shitty. I can’t even write by hand, or on a typewriter. The words look shitty or sound stupid. Maybe they are coming out differently, or maybe this is a function of the nice typographic shape that letters make when a machine makes them, and the white space around it, and the ability to go back and toggle them and insert and scramble around and such. Usually after I post a blog post I go back and reread it over and over in bits and find the errors or places I want to insert again and fix them while the thing is live or whatever, while it’s been published and people are reading it, and somehow that knowing that people are looking makes me say things again even differently, and puts a manic edge to the final finishings.
So yeah, all that said, I still oddly obsess over stats, or used to. What I obsess over now has changed. I used to check Statcounter on my blog several times a day. It seems like the most hits I remember getting in a day was something like 1500, back when I used to blog at my personal blog constantly. Once I started doing HTMLGIANT I kind of moved away from that, I actually find it hard to blog on my personal blog anymore, and I think people that used to read it or read now when I post realize that, so the traffic has gone down to like 250-350 hits a day from what used to be a pretty steady flow of 600-700 hits a day, but there is still a lot of traffic that comes in through people looking for naked boy scouts and erections and white vaginal discharge. If you look up my site in Google I have affixed meta tags so that it looks like a porn site, and I did that back when I was obsessed with stats and wanted more even if it had nothing to do with me or my writing. Stats don’t really mean anything I think, but it’s nice to have a feeling of flow. This feeling of flow can be more healthily maintained I think if you progress in the not thinking about it but doing as much as you can that you want to do. Things move to the centers when you are just being genuine and are funny or scary or in some other way compelling I think.
HTMLGIANT I think gets about 3000-5000 unique visits a day on average. The highest I think was when the Atlantic linked us at we got something like 22,000 uniques. That is one way the crossover between large venues and small is made apparent. I don’t know who reads the Atlantic blog, or the New Yorker website, that seems like reading the Reader’s Digest of the web, but somebody, a lot of somebodies, does.
TC: Do you ever respond to or write emails in a happy or positive tone when you do not feel happy or positive?
At this point I respond to emails as quickly as possible. I write most often in a weird shorthand that is designed to me just processing the email and its business as quickly as possible, even if its personal. I used to love checking my email, would obsess about it, would go home from social events to check it, obsessing over like getting work published or other weird forms of spreading myself, but now it’s become kind of a monstrosity to me. I still obsess about it, I check it every day first thing when I wake up and last thing before I go to bed, and am in front of it like I said 6-8 hours of the day while doing my work, it is always open, but usually now each time I get an email it means I have something else I need to do. It is still stuff I like to do, things like this interview or other writing related correspondence, I like the email coming in, but the feeling has shifted from some new horizon or whatever and more into the current upkeep of a job I don’t really get paid for, or if I get paid it is probably close to like $.50 an hour, if that. I write all of my emails mostly in the same informal but efficient-as-possible tone. In certain situations, like when dealing with someone I don’t normally deal with who I want to make sure knows I’m nice or whatever, I will do a little extra to make myself sound nice, like signing the email Yours,, which I way prefer to Best,, I hate when people write Best,, but I think I still feel like a kid jamming buttons down on a machine and being retarded a lot more than I am being professional, even in the low-stakes professional arena that is writing.
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Try something today. Count how many times someone brings up some sort of mental illness in normal conversation. Add that number up and tell me it doesn’t strike you as kind of weird how many normal people walk around with the belief that there is something wrong with them.
She assumed it was jewelry. Every year he gets her a charm for her gold chain or a pair of dangly earrings.
Fall if you will, but rise you must.
You may lose what would have been the joy of the experience had you not been so focused on some fabricated idea or unrealistic expectation you had of how it was going to turn out.