By Kate Jenkins, a writer, editor, and publisher. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Refinery 29, Innovations Journal, and others. She’s also the founder/editor-in-chief of The Intentional Quarterly, a print literary magazine dedicated to emerging creatives and to the exploration of identity and purpose.
As if you didn’t see that coming. Of course I don’t imagine myself to be the first person to explore this issue, so I’ll spare us all some time (I see you, casual browsers) by paraphrasing here those points that we as a literary Internet have collectively established:
#1 The Internet has changed everything, forever.
#2 The Internet is the great democratizer. Everybody with a Facebook account imagines herself to be a writer. Is this good for art? Probably not.
#3 The average attention span is approximately as long as it takes the little loading bar thingy on Gmail to finish refreshing, so you can forget about getting people to read Internet fiction—with the exception of fan fiction and maybe a little flash fiction, if you’re lucky.
#4 Internet readers love these things: heavy-handed irony, sarcasm, high school drama, name-calling, conflict of any kind, acronyms, tabloid headlines, ALL CAPS, and, of course, memes that effectively communicate complex concepts in four words or less.
#5 The Internet is an inherently social place, and the act of writing for the Internet is likewise highly social. Whereas novel writing may only be accomplished in remote cottages or in 1920s-era Paris, those who write for the Internet do it very much with their readers’ reactions in mind. This ruins everything.
While these facts together paint a condemning picture of online writing, I’m inclined to let the Internet do its thing, so long as the novel is alive and well. Which, miraculously, it is. For all the hand wringing about modern attention spans and the death of the brick-and-mortar bookstore, steady book sales ensure us that people are still reading them—whether it’s on a page or on a screen. And a recent resurgence of indie literary magazines might give us hope that even the essay and the short story will survive, in the end.
But the mere assurance that these sacred forms of literature aren’t going anywhere is by no means sufficient to bring about an end to the conversation. The more complex follow-up question is whether the Internet has some contaminating effect on literary tradition, what that effect might be, and if it is inherently evil.
In my last District Letters post, I argued that e-mail, text, and g-chat are underused literary devices. But while I appreciate the creative use of modern tech-based communications within traditional literary forms, I also worry about the eventual impact that the lazy, disingenuous tones that dominate the Internet might have on literature.
The Internet is a place that allows (and almost demands) everyone to become a character of themselves; I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that no one was ever a quiet success on the Internet. Online, we get noticed if we are vitriolic, reactionary, and polarizing. But what’s lost when we ingest a steady diet of this sort of junk? For starters, our ability to appreciate and understand subtlety, nuance, and complexity—in other words, the art of writing.
BUT THE INTERNET DEMANDS THAT WE GET TO THE POINT. SO I GUESS I’D BETTER DO THAT, ALREADY.
We’ve observed how Hollywood has exerted its influence over the publishing world. These days publishers, much like producers, are keen on vampires, sex scenes, and pretty much anything that is on fire. They know what will sell, because they know what consumers are demanding. When I think about the next generation—who will not remember a time before Internet speak—I worry that the demand for thoughtful character development, artful symbolism, well-handled irony, and subtlety will disappear. Tomorrow’s readers may, on average, find anything other than straightforward, action-packed exposition to be insufferably dull or—in the worst-case scenario—totally incomprehensible.
With that said, I won’t argue that the Internet hasn’t marked an important moment for tongue-in-cheekiness. And maybe if I were more open-minded, I’d be able to consider that the possible lasting impacts of Internet speak on literature—vulgar, savvy, world weary, casual, conversational language—might turn out to be a legacy of our generation that will be studied and appreciated decades from now.
You think that over. And it the meantime… here, have this:
If you like literary things, consider coming out to Barrelhouse Presents The Intentional at the Petworth Citizen this Wednesday. Kate will read her work, along with Intentional contributors Andrew Bucket and C.R. Russo, and there will be happy hour specials! Hooray DC lit.