First the Novel, Then The Essay, Now The Link

The web has turned every writer into a modernist poet.

Take the strange little masterpiece that is Tom Scocca’s essay on the martyrdom of Gilbert Arenas. Scocca’s idea — Arenas was banished from the NBA not for his guns but his jokes about guns — is good enough, and his writing is fine, but what makes the piece a joy to read is its dozens of snarky, cunning references: the essay includes 31 links to stories about people defecating in one another’s shoes, urinating on each other’s legs, firing guns at topless bars, hypocritically hyping athletes accused of doping, and all sorts of other glorious scuttlebutt. Scocca’s little catch-me-if-you-can crytpogram has more random cultural references and score-settling inside jokes than a T.S. Eliot poem.

Links are now an essential part of any creative effort, and any casual web reader can’t help but notice — and appreciate — their proliferation. Like Frank Rich of the New York Times — who routinely embeds more than 20 links in each of his columns, often to rumors that the Times itself would never deign to substantiate — Scocca’s links aren’t merely a facility for connecting one web page to another, but a way to incorporate dozens of arguments, jokes, ironies, anecdotes, tangents, historical footnotes, attacks, sometimes doubts that the writer barely has time to make. You aren’t even supposed to click all the links; they are simply a license for someone like Scocca to issue one intriguing statement after another. Every essay is now an iceberg, mostly submerged beneath the surface.KindlePoe

The result is so different that it is almost a new form — like the dramatic monologue invented by Browning, the essay itself invented by Montaigne or the novel by Apuleis — one invented by everyone writing link-happy posts. What was once a simple exposition of an idea is now a wholly intact world-view, a roller-coaster ride through the farthest corners of someone else’s trivia-stuffed brain, a David Foster Wallace essay that doesn’t wear you out. I find it exhilarating, mostly for its sheer speed: you don’t have to explain that Michael Jordan may have retired from basketball the first time around so as to avoid a gambling inquiry; you merely have to make a cryptic reference to stars with out-of-control gambling habits. Who can resist following that rabbit down its hole?

This is a better way to tell a story, and it’s an example of how technology isn’t just changing the communication of information, but the information itself: how we write and how we think. In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, the great Michael Kinsley complained that newspaper articles need to dispense with the laborious context and extensive citations that make an article about health-care reform such heavy-sledding — let’s do away, he says, with all the verbiage about “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system” or the clumsy references to ”Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee” — and just get to the point.

But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Kinsley that we don’t have to remove the context, we just have to link to it. Journalism shouldn’t always be diminished by the Internet; once we move to an all-digital format, it can actually be improved.

Of course, the issue is broader than just journalism. Am I the only who wonders how the hyper-link will affect longer works of art, such as novels and histories? When people talk about the Kindle, they invariably focus on the reading experience: what will happen to the book’s musty pages, rolled up paper-backs, fragrant glue? But I’ve wondered how the writing experience will change if book authors too begin to publish exclusively electronically, in a format that favor links and constant updates. For some silly reason I often find myself wondering how Shakespeare, or the Apostle Paul for that matter, would have written differently if he could have used HTML.

My fear is that writing will become more provisional, more “this-is-what-I-have-so-far” if the finished product isn’t type-set and committed to paper a million times over. What I need more than anything else from a writer is a commitment, to make up her mind about what she really means. In writing as in life, only an impending sense of finality can ever bring out our best effort.

This is true not just of mere mortals, but of the greatest writers of our time. One of Saul Bellow’s editors — did you know that Bellow did five-minute yoga head-stands while editors pored through his work? — complained that it was only in the proofs that Bellow really began honing his craft: “Just read that,” an editor who never liked him is reported to have said about one of Bellow’s late-breaking revisions. “Read it! He took a perfect sentence, the bastard, and he made it even better.” Not something we’re likely to do here!