Twenty years ago, in 1994, the internet was very different from today. This was long before blogging, before the idea of social media (Mark Zuckerberg was only ten years old), and two years before Sergey Brin and Larry Page started the project that would end up becoming Google. It was the year that Lycos and Yahoo! (then known as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”) were founded, that someone registered www.sex.com, and the White House, then occupied by Bill Clinton, moved online at www.whitehouse.gov. It was also the year that Levi Asher founded a website called Literary Kicks at http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn.1 It was one of only 2,738 websites occupying a rather uncluttered and unorganized internet, and it survives today as one of the longest running websites around.
Prior to Litkicks, most literary discussion on the internet took place in Usenet and Listserv groups. As with almost anything else, from Bob Dylan to Barney the Dinosaur, the literary side of the internet in 1994 was as unfriendly as it is today, and flame wars brought many a creative group to an end. The internet looked like it would stay non-commercial, but spam soon began to flow freely, and times, as Dylan said, were a’-changin’. Over the coming years, fortunes would be made and the world would be fundamentally altered based upon the decisions of the men and women who realized the potential of this shifting landscape. As such, the key to Litkicks’ success was the tech-savvy man at the helm, Levi Asher.
Asher, whose real name is Marc Stein, was a young computer programmer and writer, eager to take advantage of new developments in the internet, with a view to its advancement helping his writing career. He wasn’t a particularly big fan of the Beat Generation, but in 1992 he had encountered the work of Jack Kerouac, who was very much out of fashion among readers at the time, and found a shared interest in his Buddhist leanings. One day when he was in the supermarket, Asher came up with the name for his site, and the rest fell into place.
On July 23rd, 1994, Asher added the first pages to a site that has grown over the past twenty years into one of the web’s true treasures. Originally, Litkicks was founded as a sort of online encyclopedia of the Beats, but over time it has morphed into so many different incarnations that it is more of a general literature and philosophy website. It has gained a large following, spawned a publishing house, a movie, poetry message boards and live readings, and continues to be one of the finest literary websites on the internet.
Next month it will turn twenty years old, putting it into a very elite category. The internet has made everything faster. Its history has been a short one, and one filled with sudden changes, dramatic and unpredictable rises and falls, and has taken Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame maxim and condensed it into a two minute YouTube video. For a website to stay active for twenty years in this environment is nothing short of extraordinary.
When we see a house that has stood for centuries, we often say, “If only these walls could talk…” In digital terms, Litkicks is more like a fortress in the Middle East that has stood against the elements for millennia. Fortunately, however, these walls can talk, and were a pleasure to talk to…
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Levi, in July your website, Litkicks, turns 20 years old, making it one of the oldest continually running literary websites. Last month my own site, Beatdom, turned 7, and every May I breathe a massive sigh of relief that we’ve not joined the ranks of the defunct. How does it feel?
I know all about that sigh of relief. I don’t think many people understand how much stress and self-doubt we webmasters constantly struggle with!
It feels great to hit this 20th birthday, and to realize that simply by plodding along year after year — another blog post, another cool link to share, another poet who died and needs to be memorialized — it has added up to something special. How does it suddenly become 20 years? It amazes me myself.
Let’s go back to the beginning… In your “in-progress” memoir of life in the computer and literary worlds of the 1990s, you describe the genesis of Litkicks. You connect it to the recent death of Kurt Cobain, the genocide in Rwanda, and reading Ann Charters’ biography of Jack Kerouac – events that shaped your own life. There’s also this idea that you were sort of bored but also curious, eager to be riding the wave of the coming internet industry.
I was very affected by Kurt’s suicide and by the shocking reports from Rwanda — it’s a random circumstance of history that the two events occurred at the same time, and I remember feeling a heightened sense at that time of the need for commitment to a purpose. As De La Soul said, “stakes is high.” That’s how 1994 felt to me. For me, stakes were high at that time for another reason. I spent the late 1980s and early 1990s in an incredibly frustrating, slow, and ultimately painful attempt to have my first novel sold by a top literary agent who really did try her best to get it published. At the time, my entire self-identity was as a future novelist, about to “break.” I had made good connections in New York City, and I had a very good manuscript to sell. But Random House and Simon and Schuster and Penguin all said no, and it was a crushing, excruciating experience for me. The worst moment, which I’ll never forget, is when my agent and I were both excited about a publisher who had held on to the manuscript for a long time. Then it turned out that the publisher had actually sent it back, but the manuscript had been lost in the mail. This process went on for years, and I think it definitely explains why I became so incredibly excited when I got my first glimpse of the internet and realized that I could publish my own writings and reach many readers without intermediaries. Of course, it also meant I wouldn’t get professionally edited, I’d have little chance of getting paid, and I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of “being published.” I decided that none of these limitations bothered me, and I threw myself into the new medium. The fact that I wouldn’t have to deal with cover letters and endless phone calls and manuscripts getting lost in the mail made it worth it.
So, yeah, I was somewhat bored and curious when I started the website. But I was also tremendously pissed off that I had just spent years trying to get a novel published and getting jerked around in every possible way. So I jumped onto this internet thing like it was the last lifeboat in a vast empty ocean…
There is also the inference is that the early internet – at least in literary or musical forums – was just as mindlessly vicious as it is today, with a hundred rude comments for every valid point. Spam had just been invented, and people were realizing that the anonymity that came with life online freed them from the consequences of their words. So why exactly did a website about the Beat Generation – as Litkicks initially existed – seem like a good idea?
Well, hasn’t the internet been a fascinating social experiment? We have learned so much about human nature since Tim Berners-Lee invented the web. Unfortunately, of course, what we learn is that people often act like jerks. I went through some epic flame wars in the early years of Litkicks and on an associated LISTSERV mailing list called BEAT-L where a battle between Jack Kerouac biographer Jerry Nicosia and various proxies of the Sampas family that owns the Kerouac estate really got out of control. In the social laboratory of the internet, this was like observing the explosion of a new kind of bomb. I tried to take it all with a good sense of humor, and avoided getting involved in partisanship on all sides, but in the end we learned that an internet community simply cannot survive a total-war battle like this. The BEAT-L broke up, though it’s still fondly remembered by many. It was a great literary forum while it lasted.
Several people in the mid-90s were bringing the legacy of Jack Kerouac onto the internet. I was part of a small crowd. Kerouac was at the time a marginally forgotten writer, but for people like me who were thinking wistfully about the type of indie publishing community that the Beat Generation created, there was an obvious great potential in this new internet: a scrollable, free, uncontrollable, spontaneous growing organism. It was clear to us all that we were bringing Kerouac on to the internet because he was relevant there and needed there — not just Kerouac but also Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Larry Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Ed Sanders.
How difficult has it been keeping the site functioning for so long?
Not very difficult, probably because I am a web developer by profession, and I am typically operating at least five websites around the world at any moment. I’ve been able to use Litkicks as a testbed for new technologies — it’s a place where I can practice new Drupal and jQuery and Facebook OpenGraph tricks. So the time I spend on Litkicks is really time well spent.
With that said, it is a sad fact that it’s because of Litkicks that I really have no hobbies. I sometimes wonder what I would be doing to keep myself amused if I didn’t run a blog. I don’t think I’d play golf, but maybe I’d play softball or pool. I would probably be a Civil War reenactor if I didn’t run a blog.
How did you maintain order and focus?
Constant change! Heraclitus is my guiding light for this style. Also David Bowie. Every couple of years, Literary Kicks becomes a different place. First it was a sort of encyclopedia about the Beat Generation. Then I made a movie, and spent a few years running poetry readings in New York City under the Litkicks umbrella. Then it was a message board community and poetry sharing board. Then I shut that whole thing down and did a political debate thing called “October Earth,” and then I turned Litkicks into a blog. I love to change things up! Screw order and focus … that would get boring.
I especially like it when I can take my loyal readers by surprise by totally changing the site’s format, but then I see that they stick around. I have made many friends on Litkicks who have been participating on the site for the entire twenty years we’ve been around. They really are a part of the site as much as I am.
How did you keep yourself motivated to continue updating the site for so long?
Well, I am a writer, and it means everything to me to be able to write, to be read, to be responded to. In this way, the blog simply satisfies an urge that I have. I guess I also have an urge to share my enthusiasm for books or movies or songs or ideas that I love, and also to share the writings of other contributors whose work I think my readers will enjoy.
This has been the motivation. If I didn’t have readers, I’d hang it up. What keeps me going is that I know the work I do is appreciated out there, and that feels great.
Going back to the people who’ve helped you with the site – the readers and contributors and supporters of all kinds – did you ever hit a sort of critical mass with Litkicks? Was there a point where, if you wanted, you could’ve pretty much stepped back and watched it continue by itself because of the work you’d already put in?
I never felt that I could have ever stepped away. I would like it to reach that point. At one time I actually put together a Litkicks editorial team consisting of me, my wife Caryn, and a wonderful person named Jamelah Earle who was the one person I met via Litkicks who I think totally got the point of the site and could have run it without me if I got hit by that proverbial bus that always hits webmasters. But would she want to? Would anyone want to? I’m not sure why anyone would.
When I type “litkicks” into Google, what I get is the impression that this is still a Beat Generation website. But recently, as you mentioned above, while it may have started as such the site has taken different paths and crisscrossed the literary world. In fact, in 2014 it has seemed predominantly concerned with philosophy, touching upon literature for the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the 100th anniversary of William S. Burroughs’ birth. What’s the inspiration for the changing directions?
Isn’t that a funny thing, that Google and Bing both still list Litkicks as a Beat Generation website? I think this proves that the web really never forgets. I think this reflects a technological limitation. Google and Bing have great machine intelligence, but they are not equipped to comprehend the fact that a website might change its basic identity over time.
When I first launched Litkicks in 1994, I did call it “the Beat Generation website.” My original plan was just to launch the site and move on and launch a few others, and I really wanted to do a site about Herman Melville and James Joyce and Franz Kafka. I still wish I had time to build that second literary website.
For about three years, until 1997, I continued to focus Litkicks on the Beat Generation. After that, I really personally overdosed on the Beat scene, and I definitely started to feel confined by the expectation that I would continue to cover the same group of mostly dead writers (two of them, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, actually died in 1997) to the exclusion of many other good writers. I started to publish material on Russian classics, Thoreau and Emerson, the French Symbolists, and (my favorite new topic) “hippie writers” of the 1960s. Later, I started getting more drawn into current postmodern and experimental and popular fiction, and started covering contemporary writers. I also started running a mostly humorous column devoted to the New York Times Book Review every weekend. With all these new activities, you’d think Google would stop listing me as a Beat Generation website! But, well, it’s an honor to be associated with Kerouac and Ginsberg’s scene, so I’ll take it as a compliment.
Tell me about the decision to start publishing books in 2010. (That was the same year, coincidentally, that Beatdom evolved into Beatdom Books and started publishing, too.)
First, David, you’re doing an amazing job with Beatdom Books, and I’m really inspired by what you’re doing, and how productive you’ve been. I really don’t know how you keep it up, how you manage to keep doing one good book after another. As you mention, I’ve published a few books, and I find the process absolutely exhausting. The editing, the formatting, the layouts, the multiple formats, the metadata, the marketing, the publicity. I’d rather build a new Drupal website any day of the week!
But yes, just around the same time that you were catching your first whiff of e-book fever, I caught it too over at Litkicks, and I published four books. One of the three, a short philosophy pamphlet called “Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why it Matters)” was actually a hit! I sold over 3000 copies. It was reviewed, discussed, argued about on many forums. The Amazon page was very lively with pro-Rand and anti-Rand voices. I also made friends with Ayn Rand enthusiasts around the world by conducting vigorous email debates with them. I loved the whole experience of publishing this book. It was one of the best things I ever did.
But the other three books I did felt stillborn to me, mainly because I did the Ayn Rand book first, and by the time I was publishing my second book, a book about Texas Hold’ Em Poker (okay, I lied about hobbies before, I do have one hobby — poker) I realized that I didn’t want to publish this second book — rather, I wanted to follow up on the first book, the Ayn Rand book. I got ahead of myself. A real amateur’s mistake. I set my quota too high and ran my business into the ground. After four books I announced that Literary Kicks Publications is taking a break, and I’m happy to announce that I’ll be publishing new books soon, and I’m pretty excited about this.
As a guy who knows a lot about both literature and the internet, what do you think of modern literature’s attempts at hybridization? I mean, we’ve been living in an internet age for some years now, and it’s seemed to me that a very select few writers have been able to adequately reflect that fact – to capture and present the internet in literature – and on the other side we have the internet itself becoming literature. The lines are blurring.
Great question. In the very early days of the Internet, “hypertext fiction” was going to be next big thing. A few writers were already into it: Robert Coover, Michael Joyce, Mark Amerika. But it wasn’t really clear what “hypertext fiction” was supposed to be. New voices like David Foster Wallace, Douglas Coupland, Maggie Estep, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Paul Auster, Nicholson Baker, Kathy Acker all seemed to be vaguely “hypertext-y”, but there was really more hype than substance to this much-anticipated trend that never happened. In the end, I bet about 400 MFA term papers got written in the late 1990s and early 2000s about the potential of hypertext fiction. I hope a few of them got rejected.
Though I’m sarcastic about this now, I was very much into the idea of hypertext fiction (and internet-based fiction) in the 1990s. Along with a friend named Christian Crumlish, who ran a zine called Enterzone and shared my interest in hypertext style, I put some effort into curating early web fiction. But it was a sparse scene at the time. I don’t think the literary internet really found its voice until the age of blogs began in the early 2000s. Folks like Maud Newton and Mark Sarvas and Lizzie Skurnick and Ed Champion were able to actually get something going that, it turned out, Michael Joyce and Robert Coover and Levi Asher and Christian Crumlish couldn’t.
You also bring up a different question: the role of the internet in literature — say, as a plot device, or a means of expression. I’m happy to know that this trend is exploding all around us. Exciting times to be a writer and a reader!
It’s funny you mention Douglas Coupland, because when I think about literature and the internet, I think about two names: Douglas Coupland and Tao Lin. Coupland’s Microserfs (which first appeared the same year as Litkicks) was the book that got me into literature. The way he took the language and culture of computers and didn’t just explain it, but made it part of the prose, impressed me then and now. Now we have the likes of Tao Lin and other Alt Lit writers using Gmail Chats as literary devices, and generally capturing the high-tech world of the 2000s and 2010s far better than other writers. Maybe it became more difficult because I didn’t really think Jpod was as successful at capturing what Microserfs had. Whenever I see Lin being interviewed about his influences, people always ask him if he was influenced by Coupland, and he claims to have never read him. Yet they seem very similar to me, but maybe that’s just coincidence.
I have mixed feelings about Douglas Coupland. When Microserfs hit, I appreciated that novel a lot because I felt that tech culture needed more literary expression, and he positioned himself at the intersection between tech and literary culture. But later I started to feel like maybe I liked the idea of Douglas Coupland better than the novels of Douglas Coupland. It’s like: I always wanted tech culture to be a real revolution, to represent real change. I didn’t think Douglas Coupland (or Chuck Palahniuk, or Bret Easton Ellis, or Maggie Estep) had what it took to push literature over the edge. I wanted a big literary revolution. In the end, I felt like that literary generation was a dead end. Though it left behind a few good books.
I feel more enthusiasm for the current Alt Lit writers. Tao Lin really is something special. Unlike Douglas Coupland, he touches the heart. I am also interested in other very net-savvy writers like Blake Butler, Justin Taylor, Garth Risk Hallberg, Porochista Khakpour, Vanesssa Veselka. If you’re a writer today, I believe, you’ve got to be strongly grounded in a counterculture. Or a few. That was the lesson the Beat Generation reminded us of — a lesson that’s extremely relevant in the tech age today.
You’ve said in a blog post that you don’t intend to celebrate this landmark as you have in the past with other anniversaries. But with most literary websites (including my own) proudly claiming to have been around for a couple of years, your one almost goes back to the beginning. In fact, if you Google “oldest websites,” one of the first results is a Wikipedia page of sites that actually existed before 1995! This is the sort of scenario, I think, that calls for a digital version of the Queen’s telegram.
Well, I’d be happy to get a note from the Queen. And who knows, maybe I’ll think of something to do to celebrate the 20th anniversary. I dropped a hint before that I’m planning to revise my book publishing arm, and I wish I could have a book to promote in time for July 23. Alas, it ain’t happening. I hope to at least arrange a night of bad karaoke with some friends, and maybe have a bottle of absinthe.
1 This later became www.litkicks.com. As Asher explains: “In the early years of the public Internet, .com was not necessarily a sign of credibility. Many of the best sites originated at universities, and tended to have long URLs without .coms. For instance, when it first became popular, Yahoo was not yahoo.com. It was akebono.stanford.edu. This was actually a “thing” — like, if somebody asked a question, you’d say “look it up on akebono.stanford.edu”. Later they became Yahoo.com. For the first few years, Litkicks was http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn, which was a perfectly cool hipster URL back in 1994. Charm.net was a public ISP based in Baltimore that I picked because I liked the name.”