I must set them straight pronto!
One of the more trenchant cartoons of the Internet era features a stick-figure man typing furiously at his keyboard. From somewhere beyond the panel floats the irritated voice of his wife.
“Are you coming to bed?”
“I can’t,” he replies. “This is important.”
“Someone is wrong on the Internet.”
If you can’t recognize this impulse, then you’ve probably never kept a blog, frequented a message board or engaged in an e-mail round robin over some obscure controversy. The Internet multiplies arguments as swiftly as it multiplies pornographic images, to a similarly addictive effect. And it multiplies cautionary tales as well — feuds better left unfeuded, and rabbit holes that have swallowed writers whole.
Tellingly, it’s often older scriveners, unaccustomed to having their sallies met by waves of insta-disputation, who flail their way into embarrassment. Think of the sportswriter Buzz Bissinger, who’s probably better known to younger fans — thanks to YouTube’s unkind ministrations — for a spittle-flecked rant against blogging, delivered on Bob Costas’s HBO roundtable last spring, than he is for writing “Friday Night Lights.” Think of Lee Siegel, the scourge of literary cant, who was so overwhelmed by Internet hostility that he resorted to “sock puppetry,” creating an online alter ego who hotly defended the “brave” and “brilliant” Siegel (that is, himself) in The New Republic’s online comments section.
The novelist Mark Helprin is the latest distinguished writer to come undone this way. In 2007, he published an essay in the Op-Ed section of this newspaper arguing for the continuing extension of copyright, so that the rights to a novel or poem could be passed down not only to the author’s children, but to his children’s children’s children as well. Since a more latitudinarian copyright regime is a cause célèbre for a certain class of Internetista, his argument ignited a storm of criticism, and the comments appended to the online version of the article ran into the hundreds of thousands. And since this was, after all, the Internet, most of them were stupid.
Helprin could have ignored the barrage; he could have sifted it for arguments worth replying to. Instead, he decided to write a furious treatise against the comment-happy horde. The resulting book, “Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto,” is a vindication of the aphorism about the perils of wrestling with a pig. (You get dirty; the pig likes it.) Helprin can be a wonderful wordsmith, and there are many admirable passages and strong arguments in this book. But the thread that binds the work together is hectoring, pompous and enormously tedious.