USERLANDS

Dan Tarnowski

I bought Userlands (New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground) off a used rack to see what the literary blogging scene was like in 2007. I wanted to see how writing that was blogged would fare in a published collection, and how writing from the internet holds up over time.

From the back cover:

“This anthology intends to bring to light some of the new fiction writers who are using the internet’s labyrinthine array of blogs and personal web pages to expose, test, and develop their work.”
—Dennis Cooper, editor

Although the authors are bloggers, the characters in these stories aren’t the pensive sort to watch the world from afar or to look for love online. These characters are already ensconced in relationships, getting up-close-and-personal with their friends or lovers, or wrestling with their families or neighbors. Some are trying to shed those people, some are merely tolerating those people, and some are in unrequited love with those people.

The characters in these stories tend to be uninhibited, but bored. This combination leads the characters on some strange, possibly pointless adventures, and it leads them to hurt one another, but I think these characters are ultimately more accepting about hurting and being hurt than they are bitter.

Many of the stories take place during high school or college, and I find them to accurately capture what goes on in those places. One thing I like about these writers is they say surprising things that I believe to be true. You know when, in a social situation, someone says something that is clearly on everyone’s mind but no one wants to say, and for an instant everyone is embarrassed but once it’s out in the open, everyone is ultimately thankful? That’s the feeling I get from much of this writing.

Someone on Goodreads discredited this quality as “shock value.” In that case, I guess I appreciate being shocked when I’m reading, if the sentiments are honest.

I recognize I’m lumping the stories together and speaking about them as if they were by one author. I think this is valid because the feeling, tone, and even voice are quite similar among the stories, although there are inevitable variations in voice and style. I imagine these similarities have to do with these writers knowing each other, reading each other’s blogs, as well as being around the same age. I’m not bothered by the similarities among the writers; the transparency in their writing makes me feel like I’m reading real experiences, not fictions. In a way, the simple style of this writing reflects the lack of ego and the open-mindedness of the authors.

I recognize some of the writers because they’ve published books in the past 1 or 2 years, such as Justin Taylor and Zachary German. There are probably more, but I’m out of the loop.

One complaint is the collection is very male-centric, having over 40 stories with only <5 written by women. However I like that the stories are very short, each only being a few pages long. As I make my way through this collection, I have the feeling of meeting many people and hearing many different perspectives.

This writing, to me, seems more modest and old-fashioned than some of the stuff on the internet now. Current stuff seems more aggressively stylized and more mixed with entertainment, but possibly more honed. I think the writers in this collection were standing on shaky, uncertain ground, like, “will people accept this as real literature?” while the writers of now are a bit more self-assured because certain precedents have been set.

I recommend this book for people in their twenties, to be used as a sampler to find contemporary authors that they like who they can follow, check out their blog, etc. I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for this collection, as one might feel more satisfied with a collection published this year, but I think it is still useful and it gave me plenty to think about.

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