Hills Like White Lit Blogs

R.I.P. HTMLGiant Unicorn 2008–2010

You might know Ryan Call from his role as guest curator of the “Watching Ice Melt” edition of the More Interesting Than a Lit Blog Fight? series on We Who Are About to Die. “Watching Ice Melt” rapidly surpassed such critics’ darlings as “Grass Growing” and “Leaky Faucet” to achieve cult status in the annals of indie lit blog history. As managing editor of HTMLGIANT, Ryan knows his way around an internet tussle.

Ryan and I, Melissa Broder — editor emeritus of We Who Are About to Die (WWAATD) — recently explored lit blog culture and lit blog comment culture through the dual lenses of obsession and revulsion. Knowing that our dialogue would end up on a lit blog somewhere (we wanted it to) (in spite of ourselves), we edited it no less than 30 times.

Here is what remains.

Melissa Broder: So. Are HTMLGIANT bloggers getting more booty than ever before?

Ryan Call: According to Google Analytics, no.

MB: What happened to the former mascot — the unicorn?

RC: When Gene Morgan redesigned the site, he asked Jimmy Chen to design a new 404 Page Not Found image. He sent back this really cute picture of a stuffed animal. A sloth or something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I hope it makes everyone really happy. It’s just kidding about their mothers.

MB: I miss the unicorn. But I’m slowly warming to the sloth. It has soulful eyes. Soulful plastic eyes. Perhaps you are trying to lure a younger readership?

RC: We will do whatever it takes to get to the younger readers before the other lit blogs get to them.

MB: What advice would you give to children looking to get involved in the lit blog biz?

RC: I would tell them to listen to the venerable Mister Rogers, who once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that’s mentionable can be more manageable. When we lit blog about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”

MB: Ah, yes. That is a pearl. I also like what Pee Wee Herman said in regards to lit blogs, which was, “The mind plays tricks on you. You play tricks back! It’s like you’re unraveling a big lit blog that someone keeps blogging and blogging and blogging and blogging and blogging and blogging…” As managing editor of HTMLGIANT, perhaps you relate to that. Can you define your managerial duties for us?

RC: It’s definitely a position that constantly makes me feel overwhelmed. There’s always something to do that could hopefully improve the site. I do my best to run down advertising, handle review requests, and shuffle around queries from other writers who’d like to send us an article to publish. Sometimes I do a good job and other times I fall behind and the emails stack up. Oh, I check the PO box too. I try to help Blake format our posts so they look nicer. I also help read submissions for our Sunday Service feature, which is how I first came to read a poem by you.

MB: I love Sunday service. That was a real sermon on the mount moment for me. Ryan, how many times a week, roughly, would you guess I dream about HTMLGIANT?

RC: I don’t know? I guess maybe two times a week?

MB: Close. Let’s just say my shrink knows what Boobs Friday is. But, more importantly, how many times a week do you dream about HTMLGIANT?

RC: Honestly, I have not dreamt about HTMLGIANT in particular. But I have dreamt about lit blogging before. I’ve dreamt about lit blogging several times, actually. Usually my lit blogging dreams involve my having written and published a post that is somehow inappropriate or ‘not cool’ in the eyes of the indie lit community. My wife has told me that I’ve woken her up by yelling in my sleep, but that’s because I also dream a lot about ghosts and/or bad people invading our home and trying to kill us.

MB: Now that is interesting. I think that is interesting because — I think some people are intimidated by HTMLGIANT and perceive it as this collective entity. They might not think about the fact that an individual HTMLGIANT blogger gets nervous about his or her post.

RC: I can understand the intimidation. To someone unfamiliar with HTMLGIANT, I think navigating to the url and reading all these posts about new books, and witnessing all the group lit blogging activity can cause those feelings of anxiety. I’ve felt similar anxiety before when I first commented on WWAATD. I think usually when you move towards interacting with another group of people, there is a certain amount of anxiety to deal with.

MB: Right, it’s like a middle school dance. It looks like everyone else knows what they’re doing, and that they’re all doing it together.

RC: I think that anxiety has led to some of the biggest misconceptions about HTMLGIANT: that all HTMLGIANT contributors agree on a narrow way of thinking/talking about literature and that all HTMLGIANT contributors think their posts represent the final word on an issue. I think, in general, people should treat HTMLGIANT contributors as they would stinging insects: we’re just as scared of you as you are of us.

The shift to Managing Editor for me was a relief in some ways because I could remove some of my anxiety from lit blogging and instead try to be helpful to people. I like trying to help commenters, publishers, editors, our contributors, and anyone else who wants to participate sincerely. I can’t always help everyone, and I’m pretty slow to respond, but I do look at everything. And I still cause my fair share of trouble too, and I also miss having the time to write posts, but I like what I’m doing now.

MB: That makes sense. It’s fulfilling to be of service. I am imagining a moment now, one I never imagined before, in which an HTMLGIANT blogger posts and then waits to see if he or she got any comments. I feel like comments are such a big part of HTMLGIANT. So if you don’t get any comments, it might make you feel sad or less than. When someone comments at HTMLGIANT does it make you feel happy that they have stopped by to say hi or does it make you wonder what’s wrong with them?

RC: I’m not sure what all of our contributors would say in response to that, but I can speak from experience. I think once you publish a post on a lit blog, you should tend to it for a little. In a way, you’ve put yourself out there to start a discussion or share something neat, so it’s sort of important that you try to be there should anyone feel the need to respond to you. Is it an anxious sort of waiting? Maybe. I don’t know. Sometimes, yes, especially if what you’ve written is something that still freaks out even yourself.

I often have a hard time understanding most comments on lit blogs. I’m happy people come by and say hi, but I’m also often confused by them. I don’t think comment threads necessarily create a community by themselves. I don’t visit other lit blogs to read the comment threads. When I think about my favorite lit blogs, I don’t think ‘man, their comment threads are so good.’ In fact, I can only think of a few instances when a comment thread mattered to me. I often wonder if the emphasis on comment threads is perhaps too much.

MB: I’ve wondered about this as well, but more in the context of, like, do less comments render a lit blog inferior? The professionals in the WWAATD IT department have informed me that WWAATD gets about 1/5th the amount of unique views per month as HTMLGIANT. But we prob get 1/500th the comments (though comments on HTMLGIANT seem to have declined some, now that people have to sign in, so maybe 1/300th).

RC: I don’t think less comments render a lit blog inferior. I think a lit blog should not be judged by the quality of its comment section alone.

MB: Nor the quantity?

RC: Nor the quantity. Every lit blog creates about it a specific group of readers who feel like it’s important or fun to have their say, but I don’t think that a comments section should determine the character of a lit blog. Some readers, I think, get hung up on the comments sections, and if they let that drive them away from a blog, whether through disgust or boredom, then they miss the main content, such as the posts or potentially fruitful discussions in the other comment threads.

MB: That’s true. But honestly, I think the middle school dancer in me does value comments from a quantitative sense. It’s like, dance with me! Of course, I wouldn’t feel right about publicly asking people to comment, because it would sort of feel like asking someone to flirt with me. But alas, when I see 0s and 1s in the comments section at WWAATD, I feel, well, eh. I’ll leave it at eh.

RC: But when you see one hundred and ninety-three comments at HTMLGIANT, how often do you think as you read it, ‘wow, I’m really glad I scrolled through that.’ How many worthless comments do you see in those huge comment threads? I’m not saying there aren’t good discussions in comment threads, because there have been plenty at HTMLGIANT, but there’s also a lot of nonsense as well.

MB: Yes. And oft times it’s the same person commenting.

RC: So then to assign value to the number of comments seems unreliable when the number of comments doesn’t make a great indicator of interest. One person commenting twenty times in a row doesn’t represent the twenty readers who don’t comment at all.

MB: Especially when I would never want to have tea with that person. Or at least, with that person’s online persona.

RC: The online persona is another thing I like thinking about. I have met a few of our regular commenters in person, and to see them in person and speak to them in person feels much different. It was a relief in many ways.

MB: They have pimples and freckles. And soft places.

RC: Yes, exactly, and that is important. I think, recently, okay, recently, I have begun trying to be aware more of how I think of commenters in lit blog world. For me, anyhow, it has been really important to remind myself that text in a comment thread all comes from some person sitting at a computer. It is important to remind myself that the context of an online comment thread discussion lacks a lot of things that would otherwise help me understand how to react to and participate in a discussion at a table.

MB: Well for one thing, there aren’t any non-verbal cues. You don’t know if a commenter is smiling or holding a gun. I think it is nice to take a step back and realize that a comment is not the work of some ultimate arbiter. That the universe may be a benevolent place in spite of an evil comment. Also, as we know, much of what’s said in lit blog comments would not be said in the flesh. There is a distancing that comes into play. And there is even more distancing if the commenter uses a pseudonym or is anonymous.

RC: And it’s up to, I think, a reader to understand this different context they’ve entered: the genre of the comment thread or something. I mean, that doesn’t excuse behaviors, but it does help us know how to react. So, if someone says something generally rotten or useless, a reader can choose to pass over it. Or a moderator can delete it, I suppose.

MB: Do you think there are blog readers out there who actually pass over negative comments?

RC: I do, yes, but maybe that is a bit of a naive thought on my part. I still think that we should be aware in some way of how different the space is, and how that difference colors the way people interact and respond to each other. You said earlier that in lit blog comment threads, words appear that would never be said in the flesh, so I think the extension of that statement, for me anyhow, is to consider, then, how my own words online blink on the screen to another real person. In terms of responding to something that would never have been said in the flesh, why bother? Why take it so seriously?

MB: That is an interesting point. It’s definitely a different space. In waking life, we’re smushy, but an online persona is pixelated. Even if an online persona is sad and dark, the sadness and darkness have been manipulated on the way to the internet. I, as human, might get mad at someone else’s online persona, because she seems to have it so together. Her sadness is “sadder” than my sadness. Her darkness is “darker.” She’s basically Brian Jones and I’m sitting here eating cheese.

RC: I wouldn’t call it a manipulation, which to me carries with it a negative sort of tone, but rather, like, an adjustment. An adjustment in order to speak/type within the limited realm of internet discussion. So, to me, it’s just another way of being a real person comfortably and in a way that will help me interact with other people, just like how I adjust the way I act around my in-laws and around my co-workers and so on. I consider all of those ways of interacting parts of who I am. Because I think of it that way, I think I usually am good about initially trying to sincerely interact with another person online. In the past, I wasn’t so good at this and I said stupid things, but I think I’ve gotten better. Now, when I approach it this way, I feel a little more comfortable if an interaction fails because I can understand why it might have failed.

MB: I’m glad you’re getting better at it. I think you did great when you started hanging out at More Interesting Than a Lit Blog Fight. Very natural. And I’ll take “adjustment” over “manipulation” too. We’ve been “adjusting” this convo quite a bit before it goes live. On my end, it’s because I haven’t quite defined my persona yet in the convo. I want her to appear funny, yet also warm. Intelligent, but soulful.

RC: Maybe I’m putting too much into this, but what strikes me about how you describe trying to define your persona is that the descriptions set the desired characteristics against each other. You want your persona to be ‘funny’ yet ‘warm’ and ‘intelligent’ but ‘soulful’; however, I think it can be all of those things, just like I think lit blogs can be all of those things too, and hopefully everyone can adjust to the context of each persona and each post.

MB: I think I use the word “yet” rather than “and” — not because I believe that humor and warmth are mutually exclusive, or that intelligence is void of soul — but because I fear that I will lean too far in one direction in this venue, or that I will be perceived as leaning to far in one direction. As a poet, it’s my job to hone words; to create textual multivalence — a weave between dark and light. But when I write poetry it’s a different experience than when I write these words right here. When I write poetry, ideally, I open myself up to channel something else. I don’t feel that it’s me trying to represent me, or pin down me. It’s freeing. Whereas here, well, it makes me nervous that I’m representing me. So I might over-compensate to try to make you like me and miss the weave.

RC: I like that clarification; I had not thought of the shading that ‘yet’ creates in those instances. That distinction reminds me, actually, of a problem I meant to bring up relating to how sometimes my adjustment to each situation online causes me confusion, confusion at all my weaving. If, for example, I’m interacting with the same person but in different contexts, I often get really anxious because I cannot remember how I treated that person in a previous interaction. Like, was I rude to them in a comment thread? Did I send them a form rejection once? How do I then graciously accept payment for an advertisement they’d like to buy on HTMLGIANT? That’s why when I first messaged with you on Twitter, and you said that I had checked you into AWP in Denver last year when I was working on staff then, I was so nervous because I was hoping that I had been polite to you that day. So often I find that while I’m trying to be the right person for every context, I sometimes forget past interactions. I’ve sort of resigned myself to this anxiety, but I also console myself with the idea that those in similar interactions either a) don’t analyze it nearly as much as I do or b) think of it as I do and are comfortable with how dynamic it is. Maybe I just worry too much about it.

MB: I can feel like too much of one thing in one context, and too much of the complete opposite in another. The context changes, as does the object of my discomfort, but the discomfort remains static. When you checked me in at AWP I was worried you could tell that the “Spring 2010” registration sticker on my student i.d. was fake. I had printed it off the internet and glued it on, because I was too lazy to go to the City College registrar’s office. Chances are, if you’re interacting with other writers, they are too busy worrying about themselves to take your inventory.

It’s kind of sweet to imagine us all as these inward looking creatures softly bumping into one another. Also, I wonder if those of us who are drawn to lit blogs, and online communities in general, have more social anxiety than the average bear.

RC: The criticism that my wife often bumps me with is that I’ve developed so much of an anxiety about this, about treating everyone well and so on, that my interactions with people beyond my little world of writers have become painful for her to watch. Today I left the most awkward voicemail for a man who we would like to train our dog to stop jumping on the counters, and she had to get up and leave the room.

MB: I don’t know what I find more anxiety-inducing: lit blog life or life offline. I think I turn to the land of lit blog for relief from life offline. I don’t often find it. But I have a built-in forgetter that keeps propelling me back here with a renewed feeling of hope.

RC: Life offline, for me, means having emotions that connect with a physical sensation. This is really important to me. In life offline, I’ve found that I have a hard time interacting with people I’m unfamiliar with due to my social nervousness. But I’ve come to accept that anxiety, I think, because it’s another emotion to appreciate; many of my physically emotional experiences stand out strongest in my memory because of that added dimension. Life online lacks that physical sensation, or drastically minimizes it, so it feels less intense, I guess; the anxiety is different. Because of that, I often feel completely lost or out of sorts when wandering the internet. I don’t have a good way of grabbing hold to anything. This might explain, actually, why I have many good friends online, whom I relentlessly chat: they are my grabbing points, and as grabbing points, they’ve actually become wonderful parts of my life. Still, lit blogs sometimes make me feel, like, desperate, in a way that I don’t feel when I am in real world life. I often imagine myself opening lots of lit blogs in tabs on my browser and then maniacally clicking on each of them without understanding what is happening and then I fall out of the trance to discover that somehow I’m looking at videos of animals eating each other on YouTube.

MB: Yes, the trance! Sometimes I’m reading a lit blog and think: “I wish I was reading a lit blog right now.” Then I remember that I am reading a lit blog. Then I get depressed. Also, there are times when I’ve gone on a “lit blog diet” after a particularly bad lit blog bender; when I’ve hit a wall with that feeling of desperation you are talking about. At first I feel shaky without my lit blogs, lost. But then a new feeling of wholesomeness settles in, and the lit blogs feel silly and 1000 miles away. Inevitably, though, I always return to the mothership.

RC: I like posts like More Interesting Than a Lit Blog Fight? and posts like it because they playfully poke fun at some of the parts of the mothership that probably deserve a sarcastic nudge every now and then. But I also like those same parts that deserve to be made fun of. I like to be able to read/write excited lit blog posts about a new book, and I also like to make fun of being excited about it. I don’t see any problem with that mix, which is why I think I disagreed with the WWAATD post about ‘fart-smelling’ lit bloggers, which seemed to amount to a call for internet literature types to cut the shit and instead pursue a “Genuine Exchange of Ideas by Public Intellectuals.” I know I’m being terribly reductive here — the essay had some interesting points — but I don’t think the post was all that helpful, namely because plenty of lit blogs already engage in that sort of exchange in some form or another. The ambition is there, I think.

MB: I agree that a review, which genuinely celebrates, attempts to understand, or challenges a piece of art is a noble endeavour. More Interesting Than a Lit Blog Fight? pokes fun at what happens when personalities eclipse the art. Like, first we have the art. Then we have the print or blog review that dissects the art. Then we have the blog post that dissects the review that dissects the art. Then we have the comments that dissect the blog post (and/or the blogger) that dissects the review that dissects the art. Then we have the commenters dissecting each other. And it’s like: dude, what happened to the art? In that case, my impulse is to play the jester.

RC: Then we have the interview dissecting the dissection published on another lit blog. Okay, but, so I have a question for you, and it implies an argument that I don’t necessarily support: by playing jester don’t you risk adding another layer to that dissection, further eclipsing the art? I’m not saying I don’t like to see jester’s comments, especially yours, in the threads or as posts, because I love that part of lit blogging.

MB: Probably. But I also see the jest as an art in and of itself. Like, a way of bringing it all back around to pleasure via laughter.

RC: lol

MB: Do you think this convo is going to get a lot of comments?

–Melissa Broder is the author of the poetry collection When You Say One Thing but Mean Your Mother (Ampersand Books).

–Ryan Call’s first collection of short stories is forthcoming from Caketrain in 2011. He lives in Houston with his wife and dog.

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