NS Internet column
Written 13 August 1999 for the New Statesman
Spike Gillespie is a writer, like many American tough guys, who struts on the edge of farce: "I get through more relationships than some women get through tampons when they have a heavy period" is one of her more memorable lines. Her partial autobiography, "All the wrong men", has just been published in the States (the stress is on all); but what makes it remarkable is that it grew out of web journalism. She used to write a diary column for Prodigy an early online service that was caught and dissolved in the web.
The subject was her own life as a single parent who drank too much and suffered from "penis-related problems" — as tough guys tend to do — and parts of it are simply brilliant, shocking in the way that only careful and perceptive writing can be. There is on her web pagea very sharp account of cancer surgery, or what she thought would be cancer surgery, written in the form of three journal entries. The cyst they find on her after performing an abortion, which of course she also wrote about, she named "cupcake" but there is no warning, when you click on the link to pictures of cupcake, that this is what it will actually be. You are told instead that it will be adult pictures, but this is a phrase which usually refers to the naked flesh outside women, not the innards under a surgeon's knife.
This might sound like Mike Doonesbury's ghastly first wife giving birth on cable. But I don't think it is. What makes Gillespie's stuff compelling is two things: the blood is real and the surroundings are admirably artificial. There are plenty of people on the web who can write for effect, but most have nothing to say. Those who have lives to tell about usually can't write. But she can write so well that she had to spend much of her early career as a waitress or, in one delightful passage of her memoirs, as a "tutor", which means that college students hired her to write their essays. I'm surprised she could write badly enough to have them accepted as the real thing.
The joke in Bridget Jones is that all the angst is completely unnecessary. The nerve in Gillespie is how necessary it all is. This may be because she is a devoted mother, so her mistakes matter to someone all the time. Because her son is perfect or at least loves her perfectly, she is able to pursue a bewildering variety of men who fall short of this standard. Then she dumps them and describes the experience in forceful Texan language. "I been shit on" says one link form her front page, into a long account, written as a letter to the other woman, about a recent unsatisfactory boyfriend.
You'd have thought that the web would be full of writing of this sort. But almost all of it is barren. This partly because most writers lack both her talent and her discipline; and those who don't would normally rather be paid for their efforts than simply broadcast them. I'm not sure that this isn't a short-sighted decision. Without her web column and her free email newsletter it is unlikely that people would buy her book in any great numbers. Perhaps the wisest thing for a writer to do who can make pearls from the irritations of her life is to broadcast them to the largest possible number of swine and hope they acquire a taste for this. It worked for Netscape, after all. Perhaps the next step is for authors to launch themselves on the stock market, as Internet companies; this would mean they could live well without ever having to make a profit. Besides, when you publish stuff on a web site, you get to choose your own author photograph: hers, at www.spikeg.com, shows her face crudely photoshopped onto the body of a cartoon whip-wielding dominatrix.