Stupid Net Books
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
May 1996

1996 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




Fiction, serious fiction, is clinically dead, or so Gore Vidal recently eulogized in the New York Review of Books. "Few people read fiction of any kind," he moans, "other than what those chains of book shops in the bright malls of America feel that the mallsters are capable of grasping." That's a gloomy prognosis, even from Gore Vidal.

As a lover of dense, industrial-strength fiction, I decided to find out what may be replacing my favorite art form in the minds and wallets of the American public. People, after all, are still buying books - $9.5 billion worth in the U.S. in 1994 alone. The book "superstore" has become a ubiquitous part of the retailing landscape. There are four, count `em, four Barnes & Noble stores within a mile radius of my apartment in New York. Not long ago, I surveyed them to see what, if America has indeed forsaken fiction, it is selecting in its stead.

It seems as if a good portion of the country is buying books about the Net. For an industry that brags of its bits and bytes, the computer business, specifically that segment devoted to the Internet and the World Wide Web, seems to be churning out its fair share of ink-on-paper. The bookstore shelves are groaning with volumes on everything from simply navigating the Internet and the various online services to setting up your own web server.

Many of them are workmanlike and well-designed. But how, I wondered, do they stack up as literature? Can Spinning the Web compete with Charlotte's Web? Is Moby Dick just so much tunafish when compared to Internet for Cats? In my overview of the Net-enthusiasts publishing category, I found a few odd books, and I do not use that word in the numerical sense, that made me want to run home, crawl into bed and pull the bookcovers up over my head.

Not surprisingly, Internet dating and Internet sex seem to be topics of some electricity. Here, authors appear to like their sex books like they like their interfaces - graphical. Love Online, Love Bytes and Throbbing Modems progressively outdo each other in the rush to titular titillation. And in this year of the Primary Colors phenomenon, the computer category has its own "Anonymous." "Rexxxxxx," an author who literarily parades around in nothing more his handle, has published the steamy Modem Love: Your Step By Step Guide to Sex on the Information Superhighway. The text of the book is primarily nothing more than the raw, and I mean raw, transcripts of Rexxxxxx's online sex-chat sessions. Rexxxxxx seems to climax, narratively speaking, a wee bit prematurely, for on page one he and one of his cyberpartners are already heavily engaged in some sibilant ribaldry:

REXXXXXX: I move with you now, matching your every thrust ...

Well, that sort of dialogue certainly gives Moby Dick a run for the money, unless one considers "Call me Ishmael" a pick-up line.

The "Dummies" series of books is this close to wearing out its welcome. You've seen a hundred of them - Personal Finance for Dummies, Auto Repair for Dummies, Wine for Dummies - even (oh Lord, here too?) Sex for Dummies, although I must confess I'm somewhat curious about what sort of remedial instructions this topic invites. The Internet and online services category has not escaped the publisher's recursive iterations - we have Netscape for Dummies, Unix for Dummies, TCP/IP for Dummies etc. But I ask you, doesn't the title Prodigy for Dummies seem somewhat redundant?

Only one topic outranks sex in the libidinal hard drives of Net-book authors - money. Fortune hunters line the shoulders of the Information Superhighway, each of them waving a quick-buck book at the passing traffic - Marketing on the Internet, Making Money on the Internet, Doing More Business on the Internet. All of these are pikers compared to the emphatic How to Make a FORTUNE on the Information Superhighway by the Niccolo; and Niccolina Machiavelli of the Internet, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel. These two Arizona attorneys once flooded a few thousand newsgroups with their commercial message, resulting in 25,000 customer inquiries and a number of death threats from some Net citizens who were outraged by their cheek.

Are they repentant and contrite? Not on your mouse pad. They're out to show everybody else how they, too, can spam their way to success. "The only ethics you should adopt as you pursue wealth on the I-way," they write, "are those dictated by the religious faith you have chosen to follow and your own good conscience." They use the words "geek" and "nerd" pejoratively, and offer advice which comes from the Domain of Duh, such as "typing is the most important skill needed to work with a computer."

Just as writing, Larry and Martha, is the most important skill needed to produce a book.