Actor-turned-web filmmaker Ethan Hawke was recently quoted as saying, "The James Joyces have not yet begun to work on film because they're not the guys who want to sit around and work with executives." Hawke is presuming there's a wealth of James Joyce-caliber talent ready to burst forth, in visual images, once granted access to the isolation of working solo on an iMac. Joyce as a two-minute sound bite with graphics is an interesting idea. Meanwhile, a number of contemporary writers are working more closely in the experimental, language-based tradition of Joyce, and at times claiming an obscure corner in the wide open terrain of online publishing.
Kassten Alonso, a Portland-based writer, is one of many to bypass major publishing houses and post a novel. Alonso's work, Core: The Maiden, is available through Fatbrain.com (search "e-matter" for "kassten"), the site known for drawing readers with publicized work by name-brand writer Arthur C. Clarke, and beckoning writers through ads in The New York Times. At just over a hundred pages, Core would be considered a novella in print, setting it apart from more commercial works in a publishing industry that looks for a minimum of 200 or so pages the way Hollywood consistently aims for the two-hour movie formula. But the main element that sets Core apart from more "high concept" and easily marketable works is the author's dense, evocative, and impressionistic use of language.
Core is a juxtaposition of tormented stream of consciousness, acute sensory detail, and the occasional, very clearly contemporary reference brought in through the voice of secondary characters. In this language, a high school kegger in a field becomes an intense, unstable collage of lust and sensual response: "She leaned against him her cheek upon his shoulder. He watched the foam dwindle in his cup. Too simple to say anything. All simple took was belly and thigh and sweat of daffodil. All simple took was her foot pressed on his foot. Her breath on his throat. All simple took was. He raised the cup to his mouth." Alonso has created "...a Northern Gothic tale of obsession and betrayal, an agricultural murder mystery fusing Joycean lyricism with Faulknerian grotesquerie...."
It's writing that deserves to be noticed, to find an audience. But an audience, paradoxically, may be the hardest thing to find for a novel lost in the loud, visual party of the World Wide Web.
My own novel recently caught an editor's eye and came close to selling to Dutton, a traditional publishing house. The plan, I was told, faltered at the level of the "marketing board." Blake Nelson, author of Girl and Exile and general New York-publishing-world-insider, tells me that any time a novel hits a glitch, the glitch is always blamed on the mysterious ways of an anonymous marketing board.
The beauty of online publication is that there is no marketing board, just as there is no big-name publishing house. Publishing online is the cyber-equivalent of the right to post a story on a telephone pole or read alone to an empty room. Authors are left only with the glaring question of how to market. It's public, and it's free speech, but who's paying attention?
I asked Alonso if he felt the satisfaction of publication after posting his work with Fatbrain. The answer seemed to be no, not yet -- not until more readers are ready. "Most people," Alonso says, "when I tell them about the website, still think they're going to go to the site and order a book that they'll get in the mail. I have to explain that the entire work is online."
There's a lot of talk about online publishing, but when it comes to novels, talk still revolves around trying to figure out how to make money off the phenomena whenever the wave finally hits -- and, unlike the music industry, the trick with making money off novels involves not only how to control supply and demand, but how to create demand in the first place. In a strangely God-like statement, Stephen King, known for masterminding nightmares, envisioned following his online novel Riding the Bullet with a serialized work: "...whether they wanted it to or not, it would force a lot of people to read online." As though there's a population who can't live without his words.
For now, there's clearly money being made via the Levi-Strauss strategy: selling equipment to dreamers -- digital camcorders, multi-media software, midi interfaces, and computers -- with promises of quick fame, uncommissioned fortune, and a bounty of unedited, unadulterated, unconditional love.