Along with lots of junk, online writing has produced some captivating material.
By Ben Yagoda | In its heady early days, the World Wide Web promised to offer a wide world of style choices. A thousand fonts, illustration of all varieties, any imaginable conception of a page’s appearance were at an author’s fingertips—and all of those things, one imagined, would have a massive impact on the feel, the sound, the style of a piece of text. A decade or more later, even more bells and whistles are available (the actual sound of bells and whistles, for instance), but they’re acknowledged to be part of a separate discipline, having less to do with writing than with design. Online writing has, instead, followed the example of e-mail. It will likely be presented in a font, a type size, and a column width, and against a background color, that experience has found to be visually pleasing. Maybe there’ll be a photo in one margin. But generally the presentation is plain vanilla. The style is in the words.
Anyone who gets and receives e-mail—that is, pretty much anyone—knows this is a genre with plenty of style, comparatively little of it typographic. Sure, there are those smiley-face emoticons, and the practice of writing U R 2instead of You are, too, and the people who write in all lowercase, which has always struck me as similar to wearing pajamas in public (seriously strange when you’re meeting a friend, seriously unhinged when you’re conducting business). The striking thing, however, is how much personality comes through even when the capitalization and typography are strictly standard. This is because e-mail has worked a legitimately new variation on the relationship between writing and speech. All styles negotiate a compromise between these two forms of discourse. In the middle style, the style we don’t notice, they’re carefully balanced. E-mail is firmly on the side of speech. So thumbs up to slang, brevity, and contractions; thumbs down to long words, sentences, paragraphs, and texts.
This is not an unalloyed good. In some of its manifestations, all spawned by the e-mail culture, online writing takes the worst qualities of speech—the ad hoc, extemporaneous nature of it—and gives them a permanent home in cyberspace. So the Web—the bulletin boards, the blogs, the home pages, and so forth—is home not only to U R 2 but to truly extraordinary sloppiness, misinformation, disinformation, exclusionary inside jokes and inside references, barbarous abbreviations, ad hominem attacks, and rants that make Hunter Thompson look like Miss Manners.
The good stuff, though, is truly good, and in unfamiliar and sometimes exciting ways. Most of us have had the experience: Starting to e-mail back and forth with a friend and discovering that he or she is a really good writer, somehow able to replicate or conjure up in the written word the sound of their conversation, the sense of themselves. Michael Kinsley, a former host of CNN’s Crossfire and founding editor of the online magazine Slate,points out that letter-writing gets talked up a lot, but it had more or less been killed by the telephone long before e-mail came into the picture. In fact e-mail has revivedwritten communication—funny, cutting, above all personal, with rhetorical notes that can be played not only in the text but also in the subject line, the salutation, or an attached link. In its receptiveness to quirky individuality and typography, and its brevity, e-mail sometimes resembles lyric poetry.
The best writing that’s posted on the Web for all the world to see has a bit of this quality, and some others besides. One of the most evident is an almost palpable freedom. For something to be published in a newspaper or magazine or as a book, all kinds of people have to make all kinds of decisions: Is it acceptable and appropriate for the publication, will it be confusing or offensive, does it need to be edited, and if so, how much? Although Web magazines like Slate and Salon operate on something resembling the traditional model, most Web writers publish what they want when they want, simply because they find it interesting. It’s significant that it’s free in the other sense as well: no charge. Web writers don’t ask a quarter and don’t give a quarter, and you can feel this in their style; it lacks what we’re used to in print, an implied obligation to justify and explain. As noted, this leads to more top-of-the-head blustering and bloviating and self-indulgent navel-gazing than anyone should be exposed to. But it also produces some captivating material.
Since 1997, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Lileks has been chronicling, every weekday, his opinions, his comings and goings, the toddler he now spends his days with, his affection for the computer game SimCity, in a Web site he calls The Bleat (www.lileks.com). By my informal count, he writes about three times as many words for The Bleat as he does for his newspaper column. It is audacious for him to expect anyone to care that much about his actions and reactions; perhaps because of that, we do. In the Julie/Julia Project, accessible as I write at http://blogs .salon.com/0001399/, Julie Powell described in great and somehow beguiling detail her attempt to prepare every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell wrote about this from December 2002 to December 2003, with a final appearance in August 2004 to mark Child’s death. There would be no room for this “deranged assignment” (Powell’s term) in the world of print, a fact that reflects poorly not on the deranged assignment but on the world of print. Room is the one thing the Web has plenty of; a function of its Borgesian capaciousness is that one comes upon unexpected subjects approached in unexpected ways.
Nancy Nall writes a column for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel and also a five-times-a-week posting to her website, www.nancy nall.com. In 2002, columnist Bob Greene was forced to resign after news came out about a sexual indiscretion. Nall wrote a blistering post for the site that named the:
three things everyone [in the newspaper business] tells you about Bob Greene. Number one: he’s a hack. Number two: he’s a horndog … Did I say three things? I was wrong. The third thing you learn with your own eyes: This man wears the second-most preposterous toupee in the history of hairpieces, bowing only to Jim Traficant’s [a Democratic Congressman from Ohio convicted of bribery and racketeering in 2002]. They all tie together, in my mind. The horndog requires the hairpiece, which is sort of a metaphor for [Greene’s] hack-ness, his false, treacly, icky prose that only fools the willfully blind.
This would never have found a home in a mainstream printed medium. It hit a guy when he was down and seemed to take some glee in the blow; it had rantlike qualities; it was … unseemly. Yet at the same time, it was good. The emotion, the conviction, the verve, and, yes, the word horndog all are not found enough in print. After Jim Romenesko included a link to the post on his very widely read media news website, Nall received a flattering e-mail from a Chicago Tribune editor who asked to see some of her columns. A few days later the editor e-mailed her: “I’m disappointed. There’s nothing here that matches the tone or voice of your Web page.” Nall had to acknowledge, as she wrote in an essay some months later, that the editor was right: “In print, I’m more likely to pull punches, equivocate, wring hands. But on the Web, I use stronger language. I run rings around the big ship in my inflatable rubber Zodiac boat.”
In an e-mail to me, she observed:
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the voice of the web is a matter of audience. The attitude on the web is, “Don’t like my page? Go start your own.” Because anyone can do it, because the technology is now so advanced that you really don’t need any more skills than those involved in web-surfing, it’s that easy. That sort of anarchic screw-you frees writers.
The Web has not and will not either doom or redeem writing. But it has been a medium for some fresh and intriguing styles and voices; as new technology arrives and writers adapt to it, there will be more. It should be a good show. Stay tuned.
Ben Yagoda G’91 is the author, most recently, of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, from which this essay is excerpted with permission of the publisher, HarperCollins. It will be published in paperback this June.