The Rise and Fall of Fictional University

Coming home from the city on Amtrak last week, nodding off on the 4:40 out of Penn Station, I had an idea for a Web project: a site for a non-existent school called Fictional University (or FU for short, as Emily pointed out later when I was telling her about this idea).

I was imagining fictionaluniversity.org, but I’m not that surprised to discover that fictionaluniversity.com already exists.

Fictional University, as described on the Web site (featuring many photographs of the beautiful, verdant, illusory campus), would be a school where the only thing taught was the art and craft of fiction writing. There would be many departments—Science Fiction, Crime, Romance, Literary Fiction, Alternate History Steampunk Young Adult (an interdisciplinary major), and so on.

At first, I just imagined a few pages of this thing—a Potemkin Web site?—with a link to a CafePress page featuring T-shirts and sweatshirts from Fictional University, plus an image of the school’s mascot, the novel. Go Novels!

But then I thought, what if this was more like a Tlön Web site—a Wiki Tlön? although the idea of a Wiki is contained within “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” I suppose—a Web site that had multiple contributors who all worked to construct the full depth and breadth of Fictional University.

But who would contribute to such a project? Fiction writers who also know HTML, who know how to build Web sites. And who might think this was an interesting idea. The dream team that springs to mind would be Paul La Farge, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Colson Whitehead, my wife, and Michael Chabon. (Remember when Chabon kept a WordPress blog? It was a beautiful thing.)

But then, the usual conclusion to such a dream; the refrain, as Cindy put it, that stays the same: Time! Time! I already have one infrequently updated Web site; I already have an invitation to join a group blog which I’ve regretfully had to decline; I already have fiction I’m not writing.

I read a book last year called The Luck Factor, which argued, among other things, that lucky people are more likely to be outgoing, to pay attention to their surroundings, to listen.

So instead of dreaming up an impossible virtual joke, maybe the luckier way to spend my train ride would have been to talk about playing golf in New Haven? The gentleman sitting next to me looked at the logo on my baseball cap and asked if I’d gone to Yale. No, I said, my wife is on the faculty. Did I play golf? he asked. No, I said. Yale has a beautiful golf course, he said.

“The only beautifully designed thing on the whole campus—except for a couple of Kahn buildings—and they just piss it away,” he said.

“The next time we’re all there, we’ll have to take a look,” I said. He grunted; that was it for our conversation.

Perhaps I should have followed up with this: But let me tell you about an idea I have for a Web site!

“strangely likable American oddities”

Now live: the site I made for Scott Snyder. It’s not dissimilar to the site I made for Colson Whitehead, in the way that I set up Movable Type so that Scott can post news about readings, reviews, etc. I borrowed all the design elements from the design of Scott’s book, Voodoo Heart, which is damn cool looking. (The code itself is a weird hodgepodge of HTML and CSS, but the site still seems to work, and look good, on different platforms. Sometimes it feels like trying to build a whole house out of Tinkertoys, with no blueprints, while wearing sunglasses. You look at the thing you made and think, is that really standing up?)

Scott has the most amazing Stephen King blurb an author of a first book, a collection of stories, could possibly hope for (among many other fantastic blurbs, and a starred and signed PW review from Francine Prose). (People pay more attention to Stephen King’s enthusiasm than they do to, say, Michiko Kakutani’s dismay, right? I hope so.)

Getting the Word Out

Some of you reading this might know one or the other of these things already, but I’ve been continuing to act as a vector, if that’s the right word, for Movable Type:

1) I made a blog for Soft Skull, here. (It’s not perfect—figuring out how to perfectly integrate it with the rest of the site is beyond what I’m capable of doing—but it works.) In theory it’s a team blog, although Richard’s the only one who’s posted so far. And even though there have only been a few posts to date, one got mentioned by Maud, which led to a mention by Cory Doctorow over at BoingBoing.

2) I helped Miriam Datskovsky a little bit with setting up her Movable Type-based author site, here, which went live just in time for the publication of Amy Sohn’s sex columnist roundtable for New York magazine, “The Vagina Dialogues.”

Author Web Site

Now live: the site I designed for Colson Whitehead. It uses Movable Type as a content management system, but is it a blog? Assuming the term means a vehicle for frequently updated, self-published content—or content for its own sake—I don’t think you could call it that, no. (Even using that definition, some balk at the word; note David Byrne’s comments in re. his online journal.) Rather, this is a way of exploiting the technology to have occasionally updated news about readings, events, and the like for fans, without having to deal with either HTML, or any kind of intermediary. It’s an author site, elegant and spare—and with an RSS feed. And I think it looks pretty damn good.

In related news, I’m so psyched to read Apex Hides the Hurt.