Blake Butler and What Happens When a Novelist Lives on the Internet

blake butler atticsm Blake Butler and What Happens When a Novelist Lives on the Internet“I am going to see how fast I can write a novel,” Blake Butler wrote on his blog, gillesdeleuzecommitted – suicideandsowilldrphil dot com, on April 14, 2008. “I am going to write nonstop on it until I am done. I started today at 12:30 p.m. and now have 4,500 words at 8:18. I hope to have a draft of a 30,000-word novel in 10-15 days. I am going to try to blog about it while doing it as a form of motivation. I am going to minimize my eating and only drink coffee/water. Tonight I am going to watch INLAND EMPIRE again if I stop writing long enough.” 

That night Mr. Butler re-watched David Lynch’s scriptless, surrealist epic (he saw it four times in one week) until the scene when Laura Dern goes through a window in Los Angeles and ends up in Poland. He did not sleep for several hours after that, though it was very late. Eight days later, still writing, Mr. Butler–a chronic insomniac–found time to move apartments and watch both Funny Games and Crumb, the documentary. He had written 34,689 words. That day, an email arrived in his in-box from Gene Morgan in Houston with the subject line “Project.”

It read: “I know you’re into a lot of different projects in the immediate future, so this may be more of a burden than a question, but I’ve got an idea for a site that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I wanted to run it by you.” The email explained that on the Internet literature suffers from lack of exposure and a concern over its legitimacy.

“I think the best way to combat that is through being professional as fuck, and classing-up what we do,” Mr. Morgan wrote. “I think if it’s fleshed-out correctly, it could serve as a hub for the community. Here is the url I’ve got on hold: http//htmlgiant.com.”

The next day at 9:30 p.m., 40,000 words later, six pounds lighter and exhausted from lack of sleep, Mr. Butler finished the first draft of his novel. He’d get to the email later.

“The day Gene asked me to take part, it was like we’d both been thinking with the same brain apart and then suddenly bumped them back together,” said Mr. Butler, whose then untitled first draft is now called There Is No Year and will be published by HarperPerennial in April. “I was trying to push my own stuff rather than get an agent to do it, and there was kind of a scene developing online where all these people were doing the same thing in their own town, blogging about it, starting their own little magazines. Gene and I were thinking the exact same thing: We need to get some of these people who are doing it in their bedrooms to all talk in the same place.”

HTML Giant has become the blog for writers by writers. It was something new when it came out, less an aggregator of book chat or reviews of small presses–like Bookslut or The Millions–than a kind of round-table discussion among writers about fiction in the comments section. It has spawned a slew of imitators, such as Big Other, We Who Are About to Die and Trick with a Knife. A few weeks ago it reached its peak traffic: 40,000 unique visitors over the span of a couple hours.

“What books have actually gotten you wet or given you an erection?” asked Mr. Butler in a one-line post titled “Hornbook.” The answers ranged from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch to Nicholson Baker’s Vox to the first Sweet Valley High book. “Who is the horniest writer?” he asked in another. Mary Gaitskill, Michel Houellebecq, Philip Roth and Michael Crichton were all mentioned, as was Helen Keller.

Longer posts can take on the quality of manifestos or rants, as when Mr. Butler enumerated dozens of items under the heading “Shit I Don’t Like About Writers & Writing”: “Stories,” read one point, “involving relationships, sex, dialogue, magical animals, magic at all really that presents itself as magic, metaphor that presents itself as metaphor, metaphor at all really, party scenes, band scenes, scenes that connect the dots, scenes that pretend like they aren’t connecting the dots, exposition I could have figured out on my own, stories about illness that are actually about the illness and don’t have shit in them, dick jokes that don’t involve the dick being slathered or crushed.”

Mr. Butler calls the site a “ball of energy” and his novel a “connective field.” It opens with an image of an “ageless eye of light” suffusing the air above the Earth. That the rhetoric Mr. Butler uses to describe his life online is so similar to There Is No Year is no coincidence. The book’s structure recalls the stacking of information and ephemera of a Web site. The novel is a series of images stemming out of the book’s opening sentence: “The father and the mother sat close together without touching.” To say the book is “about” something would be as futile as a plot summary of Inland Empire. Like that movie, there is no script, so to speak. The novel lacks dialogue. Characters have no names nor are they developed in any conventional sense of facing a problem, overcoming that problem or failing to, and then coming out changed for better or worse. There Is No Year is a rickety sculpture of images piled atop one another, all centered on a family in a house that resembles the setting from another of Mr. Lynch’s films–Lost Highway. A lot of ink is spent on characters walking down dark hallways, falling into giant anthills beneath boards in the floor, discovering their bodies to be entombed in piles of hair.