You will find collectives of writers everywhere. What makes the people over at The Velvet more interesting than others is their drive to push things forwards. I have only ever been a sporadic participant in Velvet-world, but I know enough about how it works to find the success of their recent anthology, “Warmed and Bound,” less surprising than a skeptic might think.
Because I haven’t yet finished “Warmed and Bound,” I won’t comment on individual stories. Instead, I want to draw attention to the conspicuous parallels between online writing communities and the early 20th century “amateur journalism” movement. The forming of alliances between writers is nothing new, and was nothing new even before the Great War, when future (if still contested) important figures like HP Lovecraft were exchanging texts with each other and publishing all kinds of small-scale magazines without the endorsement of “legitimate” literary publishers. Amateur journalism was an alternative to the always-suffocating, less forgiving world of big name authors, editors, and so on. An amateur journalist could write on his favorite topics and see his work in print without needing to conform to standards set by nameless (or nameless-enough) entities more likely to reject than accept a manuscript. For the most part, of course, this led to a lot of poor publications; but that’s not the point. The point is, rather, that there was another way of doing things, a kinder system for people who loved to write but for whatever reason couldn’t or wouldn’t land their stuff on the shelves of bookstores.
The internet isn’t very different in that respect, but it is bigger, more intimidating, more anonymous, and even less patrolled than the amateur journalism circles of a century ago. The poverty of the average internet user’s writing (or “typing”) is not a dirty secret; it’s the accepted norm. YouTube comments read like parodies of impossible worlds, and make us cringe when we realize they aren’t meant to be parodic. Everyone pretends to be someone they’re not, and everyone is right. There is little room, even in the infinite online world, for literacy and culture.
Or so the argument goes. An impatient glance at YouTube and Facebook could seem to confirm the truth of it, too; but that is when something like “Warmed and Bound” pops up, and the critics shut up. It’s a very comfortable position to take, but being convinced that the “democratization of the internet” will only lead to imbecility is, to put it in terms familiar to the internet dweller, an EPIC FAIL. The internet has Myspace for the narcissist, Wikipedia for the lazy, gossip blogs for the soulless, and porn for the depraved, fine, but it also has The Velvet, a little society for people who want to show that what they’re doing is worth reading, what they’re reading is worth discussing, and what they’re dreaming about is not just a way out of this world. The Velvet collected some of their finest stories, raised money, and revived interest in a genre all too easily dismissed as unliterary — and they proved they could make it good.
“Warmed and Bound” is selling so well that, even in terms of the market, it has legitimized itself. By virtue of its uncompromizing “underground” roots it has broken into the mainstream, and people like it. That should tell us something.