You must take the F train

Back when we started Enterzone, a “hyper web text media zine art” project, the goal was not just to produce a kind of ‘zine without paper or distribution costs but also to take advantage of the new internetworked medium to publish writing and art that simply couldn’t be represented fairly or at all on paper. To some extent we succeeded at that, and one of my longterm projects is still to drag out and highlight some of the more memorable works from the archive while reconceiving ezone in a more episodic, less magazinelike vein.
At the time I was involved in a correspondence with writer and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who was publishing one of the earliest online diaries. He responded to Enterzone as if it were on great coherent hyperlinked work of art. In a sense he got what we were shooting for even when I felt that we hadn’t fully accomplished those goals.
In time, the burden of publishing a flat-file magazine out of handcoded HTML grew exceedingly tedious, and we petered out of active production somewhere in the middle of episode 16. Since then I’ve kept Enterzone online so that it is still well indexed and pageranked (our contributors sometimes complain or find it amusing that ego-searches on their own names generally find their Enterzone contributions at the top of the results), and occasionally posted new material in branches of the domain, such as photo essays, an arts-news blog, and yet another literary experiment. A revamped home page for Enterzone could point to such new postings and cool offline stuff and voila! we’d be back in business with version 2.0.
Sometime last year or maybe a little earlier, though, I stumbled on an incredible one-man (mainly) literary project called Ftrain, written and coded by Paul Ford. Reading through some of the rationales for the site, I realized that he had singlehandedly anticipated and then executed on many of the same ideas I’d been toying with now for almost a decade. Most specifically, he is creating a new literary form, a series of stories and other generally short-form writings that are hyperlinked and structured both chronologically and hierarchically, working toward a kind of neural net of exposed thoughts and storytellings not unlike the way we create our own conscious selves out of constantly retold memories in the forms of stories of our lives.
I was stunned, impressed, envious, flattened. It is almost too easy to lose yourself in Ftrain, reading from node to node. This must have been what Hunter experienced at Enterzone but at an entirely higher level of coherence. I was alsways proud that Ezone was a collaborative project, but herding the cats was one of the elements that made it grind to a h alt of its own inertia and friction, and with the advent of blogging it appears that self-directed single-responsibility independent-content websites are orders of magnitude easier to maintain and cultivate than collaborative media project (notwithstanding the noteworthy successes of sites such as Slashdot, kuro5hin, and Metafilter, among others).
Ford has earned his large audience by steady diligence and by the sparkling, poignant prose he spins out day after day. I believe he is one of the great writers of his generation. We may still live in a time where he will have to write a novel and have it pressed between flattened tree-matter, or gain a gig winking at the talk of town, to garner the full recogniztion he so amply deserves, but maybe not. Maybe this is just the time for a new literature to come into its own and be recognized for what it is: a daring and in many ways more accurate rendering of the fragmented but nonetheless rich experiences of life in a multilevel culture of bombardment and introspection.
And while I realize that there is something a bit silly about relatively underpaid and underrecognized writer-geeks pushing small amounts of money around among themselves, an economy of patronage for the arts has to start somewhere, so a month or so ago, I used PayPal to send Ford a token of my esteem for his impressive work. It was a pittance in the larger scheme of things: more than the price of a hardcover book, less than the royalties earned on the short print-run of a typical book of poetry.
Somehow I felt that putting a little money where my mouth was might be a stronger way of introducing myself than the usual “longtime reader, first time e-mailer” fan mail I am sometimes wont to dash off, and I stroked my own ego knowing that Ford acknowledges his sponsors with a link back to their own work. In that sense I was like any advertiser, renting the eyeballs of Ford’s cultivated audience (not terribly unlike the way someone might have bid on eBay for a link from Tony Pierce ‘s busblog).
Last week Ford listed me as a sponsor for one of his pieces and included a very generous plug for my experimental writing space (A Supposedly Staggering Infinite Work of Heartbreaking Illumination I’ll Never Read – or just Infinite Work, or A.S.S. if your prefer, for short), linking directly to one of my entries there and praising my opening line, an above-and-beyond reward from a writer I truly respect. This made me immediately scramble to improve the site’s design over its at-the-time generic out-of-the-box MT look and feel. It’s not much better now, but at least it’s not as boring. Ironically, it looks a tad like Ftrain. Total coincidence, I assure you.
I also added a new entry so that readers would find something fresh to read. To do so, I grabbed a note file off my desktop called “new short short story,” read it, remembered the incident it was about and dashed it off. A reader kindly pointed out that I published it chockful of typos. Considering the fact that Ftrain sent over 100 readers to my site that day and nearly as many the next few days, I wonder how many read my semiliterate screed before I polished it up a bit?
My bottom line here is that one good link deserved another, and anyone who reads this post (either at its source or when it’s mirrored at RFB) who has never seen Ftrain (or hasn’t been by recently) should head straight over there and take a deep drink from the well.