TECHNOFILE 4

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The Independent Culture
Nelke married to a man she hardly knew, and he went off to fight the Nazis in Europe. She stayed at home, looking at the ocean; gradually, she slipped from under the hawkish gaze of her Aunt Trudy and into the warmth of a friendship with a woman who

loved her own soldier husband, but declined to observe local proprieties. Nelke is 50 years past, not 15 years in the future; she doesn't wear body armour or date a cyborg. So what's a nice girl like her doing on the Net?

She is there as part of a suite of stories by Xander Mellish, a 28-year- old New York financial journalist who claims Salinger and Thurber as stylistic points of reference. Most of Nelke's fellow characters are contemporary, it's true, with American

metropolitan sensibilities. But Mellish's site (http://www.interport.net/xmel) flies the flag for economical prose, measured to hold intimacy back from drifting off into solipsism. And it's appreciated by the Net public. "Thank you for not writing about Prozac," remarks a reader. Mellish should post that text up in Greenwich Village, not just on her site.

As she observes, however, the days of creative flyposting in bohemian New York are long gone, thanks to Mayor Giuliani's desire for a tidy Big Apple. Mellish started out by pasting the first pages of her stories to lamp posts, with a contact number for those who wanted to read the rest. She then spied on passers by, as they practised street lit-crit by stopping to read or walking on. And people called the number. She had fans, and a direct line to them.

A Web site was the obvious way to go from the Village to the globe, bypassing the publishing industry. The Web permits "a real shift of power from establishment to artist," she says. "It's like punk rock for writers." There's nothing punk about the tone of the site itself, though, with its Thurberesque cartoons and methodical layout. You can download the stories in the same way as software, hear them being read out loud, or choose translations, courtesy of the fans, into French, German, Danish and Japanese.

The key feature of the site's organisation, however, is a simple device. The stories are divided into pages, which allows Mellish to keep an eye on how far readers get. Tales whose pages don't get turned are liable to be rewritten, their characters' names and even their endings changed. It seems a remarkably obliging attitude to a mostly anonymous audience, but perhaps the heady directness of a Net writer's relationship with her readers makes for a less defensive posture than is typical of authors.

It's certainly an effective approach, according to her statistics, which claim an estimated 50,000 visitors since the site was launched in September last year. They aren't paying for the privilege, but with her material needs taken care of by her day job at Dow Jones, Mellish professes no interest in earning money from fiction. Admiration, and audience figures that printed literary magazines could only dream about, are their own reward. So are messages of appreciation like that from Robert Olen Butler, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Mellish also gets a plethora of critical insights in an electronic mailbag that spans the entire range of contemporary literacy skills. "In each of your stories I've read so far, the ethopoeia is either very good or excellent," observes one correspondent. "Do you like the Cartoons with vilence," inquires a fifth-grader. "Well I do I especially like Beavis And Butthead if I could be one of them Iwould be Butthead because he is smarter Than Beavis." There speaks the fiction reader of the

next century.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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