Stealing Glances: Women('s) Writing on the World Wide Web

Greg Dyer

Exactly what constitutes women's writing on the World Wide Web is a problematic question. Almost any web page constructed by/for/about women might be labeled as "women's writing." Since writing on the web also means publishing on the web, the line we often observe between editing or compiling on one hand, and writing on the other, is just a little blurrier. Also a little blurrier are the various classifications by which texts are often defined.

Web pages that simply provide links to an individual's favorite web sites--even if they don't contain original fiction, poetry, autobiography, or another traditional genre-- nevertheless perform as a text speaking for and about that individual. My fascination as a reader lies in trying to place whatever textual elements are present into a context that allows me to arrive at some understanding of the author's online identity. (This concept of online identity clouds the definition of women's writing even further due to the ease with which alternate personas and genders may be constructed on the web, therefore bringing into question not only issues of gender, but issues of classification, such as journal entry vs. fiction.) It is this sort of opportunity to read not only the writing of individuals on the web, but to read some small part of the individuals themselves, that drew me to the Internet and the World Wide Web in the first place. While I've come to recognize how rarely such connections occur, I've also managed to find enough of them to prevent total despair in the project. It is within this context of ambiguity that I set out through the web in an effort to find not only women's writing, but women writing.

The most immediately accessible pieces of women's writing are those in the public domain reproduced through efforts such as Project Gutenberg. (See A Celebration of Women Writers for a similar effort dedicated to women's writing.) In my experience, most of the directory sites containing references to women's writing tend to weave back and forth between a number of these digital archives. These archival sites do contain a good deal of women's writing that I'm not familiar with, and therefore seem to be preserving texts that might otherwise have gone largely unread, but these archives provide little help in finding women writing and sharing their experiences and selves on the web. Even after scavenging through these digital archives, had it not been for some fortuitous interactions with friends and acquaintances on the net, I would have never found much of the women's writing described in this essay.

The pleasure which I received when I did run across women writing and authoring their own web pages stemmed largely from an imagined sense of familiarity with the writer. I found myself reading these web sites much as I would read someone's scrapbook-- glancing through, returning, trying to place all of the clippings, the pictures, the awards into context. Generally speaking, enjoyment of these sites didn't stem from stylistic features, innovative approaches, or any of the other common characteristics that we might look for. What most of it does have, and again, in ways sometimes very different from printed texts, is the ability to establish some degree of connection between reader and author. When reading a printed text, the artifact of the book is a reminder of the separation between reader and writer. When reading on the web, however, one gets a sense, though often a false one, that the separation between reader and writer has been lessened. The trappings of the publishing companies, and all of the publication decisions they are responsible for, are now in the hands of the writer.

One web site where this sense of connection came across most strongly was Amy Janota's, which contains a variety of information that more deeply engages me in this process of investigation, of piecing the items in the scrapbook into a broader sense of the writer's identity than most web sites allow. Janota's web site includes not only some original writing--a couple of short shorts, a poem, and a couple of journal entries--but also tidbits focusing on her parents, sisters, friends, and daughter, and extensive examples of her own photography. While the original writing would hold little interest in another medium, when presented on the web, along with the other kitsch of autobiography, a bizarre familiarity is bred. It is of course a false, or at least incomplete, familiarity, but I found the illusion captivating. While such web pages are essentially published, in that they are presented in a public space that a great number of people may potentially access, I found that a sense of voyeurism remained in my reading. This was particularly true when finding a web site meant a good deal of time and bumbling around in search of something of interest. There was still the sense that I had persevered, and found the latch to the secret door. There was the sense that what I was reading was still somehow rather private, in spite of its obvious dissemination into the public space of the web.

Other web sites developed this sense of familiarity to lesser degrees. Most of them certainly contained interesting material, but the portraits that I was able to construct from the artifacts left in these other scrapbooks were narrower, more specialized. A number of the sites that I encountered can best be summed up as the web's equivalent of weekday afternoon talk shows. Due to the content and hyperbole, most folks will probably wish that there was no need or desire for sites such as All Men Must Die and Heartless Bitches International. However, I can't deny that these sites give voice to real concerns over relationships between men and women, and often display a satisfying dose of humor towards the subject matter, and towards their own posturing. I left All Men Must Die both chuckling at the verbal acrobatics of a number of respondents to the site, and also saddened by the level of discussion that commonly surrounds any controversial publication. Certainly there are graphics and language at All Men Must Die that many will find offensive, but a selection of complaint letters recently received by the creator and the service provider of the site left me truly frustrated, if not terribly surprised, at the superficiality of the debate.

Innersoul is a web site that focuses on experimentation with writing skills. One segment of the site posts exercises from a writing text, and invites the readers to participate in the challenge as well by sending in their work for an exercise. Their work is then presented alongside that of other readers and of the site's author. Another segment of the site contains an experimental, collaborative narrative for which readers can fill out a form and send in an installment to be placed somewhere within the narrative. Although interesting as an experiment, the story was not particularly captivating, more of a multi-narrative than a hypertext.

Most uses of hypertext on the web seem to fall incredibly short of their promise, in that hypertext is most often used as an organizational tool rather than a mode of writing. In essence, one has simply installed an automatic page turner, but failed to make any provocative use of the associative patterns of thought and experience which hypertext can uniquely explore. A more truly hypertextual work can be found in Vera Rabyd's Notes of an Old Woman. Basically, this thematically organized journal uses the hypertextuality of the web to assist in reaching entries, but hypertext links also appear within the entries, providing some interesting connections among some brutally candid observations on such themes as food, love, and sex.

Apart from a handful of sites experimenting with hypertext and collaborative authoring, the vast majority of writing on the web differs little, in terms of technique, stylistic concerns, even content, from writing that might be found elsewhere. The difference lies in the web's ability to create the perception of real people publishing their own writing, their own lives, in a manner that allows others to glimpse briefly into their world. If this sense of connection is to continue, to become more common, then the immediate concern seems to be answering the question, "How do I find this stuff?" How can we find ways to locate and explore the potentially worthwhile, certainly intriguing, writing that is sitting out there quietly collecting cyberdust? Of course, my own difficulty in locating such writing may stem from a lack of writers publishing their own work on the web. If the web is to thrive as a source of writing, then I think it will do so because of the sense of connection that it can generate. I hold out hope, perhaps foolishly, that the writing that continues to appear on the web will be more truly populist, in that the connections between readers and writers, the potential for feedback, for identification, will be the attributes most valued as we all continue to explore what might be done on the web.

In specific regard to women writing, a couple of sites seem to be starting the job of mapping out the terrain of the web. Femina bills itself as the first web directory for issues concerning women and girls, and if its catalogue of women writing on the web develops from what is currently more of a "women's writing" list, then it could greatly assist in making the kinds of connections listed above. Another item of interest, and associated with Femina, is Webgrrls, which serves as a networking organization where women interested in the new media of the web get together for face- to-face meetings in local chapters across the United States. My own concern for these sorts of "directory" sites surrounds the possibility of losing exactly the types of connections that are unique to the web. As is true with most aspects of the Internet, the tension between the hope for a more truly democratic means of expression and debate and the reality of any bureaucracy that attempts to make such democracy effective is a real concern. Hopefully sites like Femina and Webgrrls will find a way to increase the ease with which women writing on the web can be located, and will be able to do so in a manner that doesn't simply reconstruct the exclusionary aspects of print publication or weaken the sense of connection through installing a less tangible (than the printed book), but still more obvious, sign of distance between reader and online identity. Their success might make it easier for those of us who are fighting off the last conquering wave of cynicism as we secretly hope that the Internet and the web might serve a more productive role than communal graffiti wall.

Greg Dyer is an instructor in writing at Kansas State University.


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