Media Circus

A map to the online homes of the literary stars.

Published May 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when Alex485 -- his e-mail moniker, not his real name -- decided to set up a Web site devoted to his all-time favorite novel, Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," he found that he had one potential bummer on his hands: He couldn't find any photographs of the diminutive Mississippi-born writer. Alex didn't let this problem ruin his day. "Since I'm having trouble finding Donna-images," he confesses on his The Secret History Fansite, "I'm using jpegs of (actress) Moira Kelly instead. I look at it this way: if there's ever a biopic or something of the sort, I think Moira Kelly should play the part."

Welcome to the cheeky world of author-worshipping Web sites. There are hundreds of electronic shrines like Alex's out there, beaming out information about -- and sending squiggly love rays toward -- writers from Samuel Johnson to Danielle Steel. A few of these sites, like Steel's and Sue Grafton's, are commercial endeavors set up by publishing houses. A few others, like Margaret Atwood's impressive site, are established by the authors themselves. (Atwood uses her Web site as an extension of her office: She reprints the comic poem she sends when declining invitations to provide blurbs, and an essay called The Road to Publication that provides advice to would-be writers.)

Most of these sites, though, are more like Alex's. They're tossed onto the Web by fans, zealous grad students and low-level academics, and they combine serious scholarship (bibliographies, concordances, links to interviews and unpublished work) with a heaping side-order of giddy ephemera, copyright issues be damned. Want to see a photograph of Martin Amis shooting pool in Chicago? Try the Amis site set up by an English professor at Michigan's Albion College. How about a shirtless Hunter S. Thompson tossing a football, Y.A. Tittle-style, with what looks like a blood-sucking leech over his right nipple? Try this Thompson site, among several. Or maybe you'd like to see Harry Crews looking like he's just downed a bad batch of Slim Jims. Try the Crews site set up by a Florida native with the unlikely name of Damon Sauve.

Pets are popular on these sites, too. Where else are you going to find a photo of Umberto Eco pointing out some bird droppings to his sister's dog, Best? Or an image of Danielle Steel's potbellied pig, Coco?

I recently spent a few days on Yahoo, surfing around these stray writerly sites to see what I'd pull up. The results surprised -- and often delighted -- me. The best of these sites are so comprehensive that, before long, they'll easily reach a level of scholarly utility that will rival that of some small college libraries. Even better, because these Web sites are so wildly idiosyncratic, they're almost always fun to poke around in.

Take the Joyce Carol Oates home page, Celestial Timepiece. You've got to boogie to keep up with the hyper-prolific Oates, and this site is up to the task. (This site's "recent additions" page alone has nearly 100 links.) Celestial Timepiece prints the first chapters, and the jacket copy, from nearly all of Oates' books, as well as information on everything from the film adaptations of her work to lists of the awards she's won. Full text is provided for many of her short stories and essays. My favorite part of this site, though, is the page of book jacket portraits that spans Oates' career. You can watch her metamorphose from a young Audrey Hepburn-like gamin into ... well, Joyce Carol Oates, a woman who resembles the MTV cartoon character Daria's much older sister.

Sites for Don DeLillo and Crews are almost as comprehensive, and offer different kinds of goodies -- including a selection of the blurbs these two have given other writer's books. Some of these are odder than others. "This novel hangs in the memory like a fishhook," reads one of Crews' blurbs, for Barry Hannah's 1980 novel "Ray." (Ouch.) The DeLillo blurb page features the reclusive novelist describing Frank Lentricchia's 1996 book "Johnny Critelli and the Knifemen" as resembling "a series of frescoes embellished with body juices and food stains." (Ick.) In the spirit of free exchange, the DeLillo site also offers a sampling of opinion from the author's detractors, including George Will's review of "Libra," in which he scorns the book as nothing less than "an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship."

Some of my other favorite sites, each of which contains mountains of scholarly detail, are those for Amis, Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon. On The Cormac McCarthy Home Page, "the official Web site of the Cormac McCarthy Society," you can browse through an ongoing scholarly debate among a testy group called The Fighting Cormackians or add your own two cents in a discussion area called Cormac Chat! Feel like joining the McCarthy Society? According to a note on the application page, if you mail your $35 check right now, you "will receive (while supplies last) a free commemorative edition (published for the first McCarthy Conference) of John Sepich's "Notes on Blood Meridian." Sign me up!

On the San Narciso Community College Thomas Pynchon Home Page, there's a tidy summary of the known facts about the author's life, and a fairly groovy Pynchon Discography of LPs that have "received the nod" in Pynchon's work. On The Martin Amis Page, the great links include one to Amis' scalding review, from the Times of London, of Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent book, "It Takes a Village."

While you're clicking your way through even the most professional of these sites, you're always aware that it's not Alfred Kazin who is guiding you along. In fact, there's a real poignancy to some of these sites, because the person (or persons) behind them can't resist popping out from behind the curtain to say, "Here I am!" A visitor to The Philip Roth Research Homepage, for example, will find a serious archive of information about the writer's career. But that visitor will also find a link to a personal page maintained by the page's creator, a grad student at Purdue named Derek Royal. On Derek Royal's Home Page you'll find links to photos such as Derek and his wife on their first picnic and Derek with his favorite Christmas gift, something he calls a "Yard o' Beef." Never mind the link he provides to the Captain James T. Kirk Sing-a-Long Page.

On The Centaurian, a John Updike page maintained by James Yerkes, a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Pennsylvania's Moravian College, a recent update included a bulletin about Yerkes' own personal tragedy. "SLOW POKE! BROKEN FINGER TO RIGHT HAND!" Yerkes exclaims. "This week I was defending my Dalmatian from an attack by a Pit Bulldog on the beach in Provincetown, and fractured my finger quite badly. Surgery tomorrow, so there will be delays in entries for a few days. Hunt and peck by the left hand goes slowly, of course. But the page will go on! Keep writing, yes!"

Some sites are even more confessional. Melinda Jackson, a University of Texas grad student, maintains a site called Alice Walker -- Womanist Writer on which she intones that Walker "inspired me as I struggled to become a vegetarian; she helped me define my sexuality and womanism." And a computer software expert named John Walkenbach, the man behind the Nicholson Baker Fan Page, implies that he erected his site because he felt sorry for Baker. "I checked the major ... search engines and did not find a Web site devoted to his work," Walkenbach writes. "So I created this one -- an admittedly modest effort, but it's better than nothing." (At another point Walkenbach confesses: "I don't know much about Nicholson Baker. In fact, my primary source of information comes from book jackets.") Give Walkenbach some credit, though. He digs up a few genuine oddities, including a link to a screed that's purported to be one of Baker's postings to a newsgroup about the mutilation of library books, and a link to a Suzanne Vega message board that discusses the mention of a Vega song in Baker's last novel, "The Fermata."

Does every writer get the Web site he or she deserves? Not exactly. But a better question might be: Is having a half-assed Web site devoted to your work better than none at all? You'll have to ask Norman Mailer, A.S. Byatt, John McPhee, Gloria Steinem, Jackie Collins, Graham Greene, Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jay McInerney, Terry McMillan, Iris Murdoch, Paul Theroux, Lorrie Moore, Jayne Anne Phillips, Erica Jong, Harold Robbins, A.M. Homes and E. Annie Proulx -- just a few of the writers whose names (in my searches, anyway) turned up nothing at all.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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Thomas Pynchon