The following review appeared 5 December 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Lawrence Howe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Chicago, IL 60605
With the help of Cyber Writing, by Joe Vitale (aka Mr. Fire), I learned how to write a snappy title for this review. It is short, to the point, and directly worded. OK, maybe I didn't "Write in kindness" (6) as Vitale suggests we should, but I'm not moved to sympathy when confronted with his sort of marketing ploy. To put it bluntly, this book has nothing to do with Mark Twain. Despite the high visibility of the name in Chapter 4--"How Would Mark Twain Handle E-Writing?"--the text does not exhibit enough substance to elevate such a gesture above namedropping.
Sure, Vitale claims to have studied Mark Twain's speeches, from which he has gleaned "six secrets" of successful online writing. However, the flimsiness of his Twain credentials shows up right away when he asserts that "Twain wasn't a born speaker. If anything, he was born to navigate boats" (65). Vitale should have read more than the speeches; a cursory reading of Life on the Mississippi would have informed him that Samuel Clemens wasn't born a riverboat pilot, he was made one--and not without considerable vexation and humiliation--at the hands of Horace Bixby. The true shamelessness of Vitale's strategy surfaces, though, when he explicates the "six secrets." Each of these begins with an account of a particular technique by which Twain developed his talent as a platform speaker. But when Vitale pivots with the refrain "How do you apply this to cyber writing?" the tendentiousness of the Twainian premise is exposed. Vitale's tips for "turbocharging" your cyber writing not only have little or nothing to do with his particular observations of Twain's technique, but also amount to no more than tried-and-true techniques of the pre-cyberspace writing course.
For example, in "Secret One: Rehearse," Vitale takes Twain's practice of memorizing his speeches and converts it to the tip: you should "always rewrite and perfect your e-writing before you ever post or send any message" (67). Similarly, he reduces Twain's use of graphical reminders on the podium to "Secret Two: Cheat," a suggestion about brainstorming and outlining, which have long been standard instruction in composition classrooms and have no relation to cheating at all. And perhaps the least persuasive is "Secret Six: Participate," in which Vitale equates Twain's fashioned persona to the habit of chipping in your two cents in chat rooms everywhere.
I'm not saying that Vitale doesn't have anything useful to convey in this book. None of his suggestions are bad ones. Most of them are simply conventional wisdom: get to the point, write in your own voice, use language that will engage your reader. I also have nothing against conventional wisdom. But to trick that out as "secrets of cyber writing" is, in my view, disingenuous. Of course, Vitale is savvy enough to know that the cyberworld is hot right now, and to couch his advice as a key to success in this mysterious environment makes some marketing sense. And he certainly hits the target when he points out that the glut of online information and the restlessness of the reader whose attention may elude your grasp with the flinch of a forefinger make the online writers task all the more daunting. But his (or his publisher's) submission of the book for review on the Mark Twain Forum contradicts one of his more sound pieces of advice: pitch your products or services only to people who are likely to want them. Now there may be some subscribers to the Mark Twain Forum who might be interested in online commerce, but I suspect that most subscribers click on because they are interested in Mark Twain and not in a book about how best to camouflage online salespitches to avoid being flamed--being harangued by online users who find any attempt to exploit the net for capital gain contemptible.
This mercantile masquerade is Vitale's real topic, as his book's subtitle makes plain. Ironically, had he glanced at some of Clemens's more vituperative correspondence, he might have begun to suspect that Mark Twain would have been inclined to flame the likes of "Mr. Fire." Moreover, had he acknowledged Clemens's entrepreneurial desire to control the means of disseminating information both as the owner of a publishing firm and as the major investor in what he perceived to be a revolutionary printing technology, Vitale might have derived some instructive inferences about how Mark Twain would have felt about the Internet in general. Clemens was interested in making money, lots of it, and he might have been lured by the goldmine hype that has hovered around the Internet in recent years, even though it has not yet shown itself capable of delivering on those predictions. But his interest in gaining centralized control over the production of print culture runs against the grain of the Internet's diffuse structure. Of course, in order to entertain such considerations, one must be genuinely interested in Mark Twain.
Still, we need not turn a torch on Vitale for having trifled with the Mark Twain Forum. After all, I doubt that it would do any good. "Mr. Fire" admits to having been flamed for earlier efforts of self-promotion, and being scorched before didn't prevent him from submitting his book to the Forum. Alas, his incendiary sobriquet should perhaps be replaced by the more apt "Mr. Asbestos."