Researchers and technology hounds call the Internet the greatest thing since the wheel. But ask two of Washington’s best-known fiction writers and they’ll give you a skeptical view of the Web. Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Wellpinit Indian reservation and graduated from Washington State University, said he uses the Web primarily for e-mail and for checking basketball scores. But he worries that the Web promotes human duplicity, a thought already captured in the expression, “On the Net, no one knows you’re a dog.”
The Web, in Alexie’s view, makes it easy for people to avoid honesty.
“We human beings already put on many masks when we talk directly. The Internet gives people many more opportunities for wearing masks,” said Alexie, a Seattle resident.
He experienced that during a book tour a year ago. A woman came up to him at a book signing and began talking warmly about their “friendship,” developed apparently over several months on the social network site Facebook.
“I said to her, ‘Do I know you? When did we ever meet?’ ” he explained.
The woman insisted she’d developed a close relationship with him online. Alexie realized there was someone on Facebook who impersonated him reasonably well. Laughing about it now, Alexie said it took months to persuade Facebook to remove the fake page.
Spokane-based Jess Walter, winner of several awards for fiction and a graduate of Eastern Washington University, regards the Web like TV – addictive but not a critical tool for what he does.
He finds the Web generally helpful, but he distrusts the information there because errors ricochet without anyone tracking down mistakes.
He used the Web once to find a quote by Thomas Jefferson. One link seemed to have the quote he wanted. But it turned out to be bogus.
“I found 20 citations of that quote and I realized 19 were Web sites quoting the first one,” said Walter.
The way the Web echo-chamber repeats online mistakes has taught him to focus his research on old-school methods: visiting libraries, finding newspaper archives or tracking down original sources.
His next novel, expected out in 2009, is set partly in Italy. For research, Walter has traveled to Italy and gathered impressions of the region he’s using.
The Web doesn’t give him much help, except for general translations of sentences from English to Italian, said Walter. And that’s minimal help; if he wants to translate dialogue or slang into accurate Italian, Web translation services are of limited value, he said.
Both writers realize the Web is an ideal medium to reach readers. Alexie said he’s learned that most writers in the young adult genre use Web sites to develop strong bonds to their readers.
“In that world there’s a lot of interactivity between author and readers,” said Alexie. “I will have to be more involved in that way, online, than I am right now.”
Walter said getting e-mail from readers is an immense pleasure. After his novel “Citizen Vince” was published, a reader about to be released from prison told him the book persuaded him to go out and vote for the first time, Walter said.
“But there’s a tyranny that comes with (e-mail),” he said. “There are so many more e-mails to answer. So it’s a fine line between it being cool and it taking me away from writing.”
Many other novelists seem to have that same debate – the uncertainty about the way the Web is designed for quick and shallow reading, while the writer is asking for a longer commitment.
“That’s what terrifies writers,” added Walter. “The irony is we finally have a medium that allows access to 12 million documents, but we never read more than half a screen at a time.
“The Web could provide such incredible depth. Yet all it’s done is make us a more surface culture,” he said.