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The history of When Falls the Coliseum is a personal history, too.

The idea came to me in 1997-98. I had recently earned my MFA degree and was living on the lower east side of Manhattan and working at a soul-sucking job (in marketing and public relations for a not-for-profit) — or so the job seemed to me at the time. I know now (and understood then) that there were far worse jobs to have and my life wasn’t so bad. But it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I was supposed to be writing.

A couple of years earlier I had been living on the upper east side, working at a worse soul-sucking job (in advertising) while working on my MA at night. Once a week or so I’d get together with my older cousin who lived seven blocks away in an apartment just as crappy as mine, but which had the advantage of being in a building with an elevator. We’d drink a lot of alcohol, to prepare for the night on the town that was sure not to follow. Because what happened nearly every time was we got caught up in arguing — about politics and political philosophy and philosophy and foreign policy and current events and social policies and issues — and drank more and more, and the next thing we knew, it was 2:00 in the morning and no one was in any condition to be heading out to a bar. My cousin was and is what some people would call a right-wing nut. (I wouldn’t call him that, but I’ve always been polite.) I don’t know what I was at the time. Confused, I guess. And not sober. I had another friend who was going to law school whose politics were pretty liberal, though I never thought of him as a left-wing nut. Sometimes he would join me and my cousin and we would all three of us argue and drink beer and laugh and solve the world’s problems, as drunk men often do, and then maybe even go out to a bar (if you’re arguing with friends about politics but not also laughing, you’re doing it wrong). Ah, to be young.

Back to 1997-98. I had this MFA degree I’d just completed and a novel I was trying to place with a publisher and a need to write and experience in advertising and more energy than was safe to have and a job I didn’t want. I searched for an outlet for this bursting energy and something to think about besides the job I didn’t want. I remembered those late-night arguments from a couple of years earlier and thought it might be fun to put together a magazine or newsletter featuring me and my cousin and my friends arguing and writing and laughing about pretty much everything, not only politics and big issues, but movies and books and relationships and everyday annoyances. I designed some rough layouts using a program like Microsoft Publisher and came up with a great title from the body of a Lord Byron poem: When Falls the Coliseum. I tacked on a subtitle to convey the publication’s subject and attitude: “a journal of American culture (or lack thereof).”

Nothing happened. Starting a print publication is expensive and demanding and I didn’t have any money. So I dropped it. Quite a few months later, in early 1999, I moved to Pennsylvania. For a woman, my future wife. Life kept me busy, but the idea of When Falls the Coliseum wouldn’t go away. By now the Internet was becoming more and more important. A few online magazines existed. It was nothing like today — there were no blogs as such, many people were barely online, and of those who were, most were using dial-up connections. AOL was considered cutting edge. It was the dark ages. Although I had this old-fashioned, romantic notion of creating a print publication, something you could hold in your hand, a real magazine, I decided to make it an online magazine instead. There was only one problem — I didn’t know the first thing about html or coding of any kind. Fortunately, my new friend (my wife’s friend’s husband) was a graphic designer who got all of my jokes (even the ones I didn’t intend) and was excited about putting together a site for me.

By now I was working in a really, seriously soul-sucking job in Philadelphia (editor of research grant proposals), which had one excellent benefit — other writers worked there, and they were as bored to death as I was by the monotony of the writing and editing we did at work. I recruited three writers there (one of whom assisted with editing pieces for the site for a time), and my cousin, and my brother and sister and brother-in-law and a couple of old college friends, and we were off. We launched a few weeks before my wedding in 1999. I remember sneaking from my wife to the hotel’s computer in Maui on my honeymoon to see if our designer had gotten the site update posted. (He had.)

Soon enough, I had taken over administration of the site, running the whole thing through FrontPage since I didn’t know coding, uploading graphics through a dial-up connection. I’d sit there for hours waiting for pages to load to the server. We had a strange submissions policy — all writers had to send was an entertaining bio. If we liked it, they were in. We added writers quickly from around the country and soon had 26 contributors and a site that posted new content every week and often more than once a week. We had theme issues and regular features and all of it looked a bit like a blog. We even included reader comments on the dedicated page of each article, beneath the article, just like blogs do now. I don’t know if other publications did this, but I didn’t know of any. I believe that those readers who knew about us thought When Falls the Coliseum was pretty cool. All of the articles and all of the comments were placed by hand — I would copy and paste from e-mails and then position them on the appropriate page. Nothing was automatic. There were no stylesheets. We had archives pages by category, like blogs have now, but they were all constructed individually. It took hours and hours. Some of our writers were excellent. Some were not really writers. I had to do a lot of editing and even re-writing. It was all too much work for no pay.

Along the way we were written up in local New York papers like the Queens Courier and the Bayside Times. We were profiled by New York magazine’s surf report, which said “no matter what your personal politics, WFtheColiseum will spark a thought or two … hip, sardonic … quirky.” We had thousands of readers. Lots of really funny and provocative material appeared on the site. In 2000, I started a small publishing company and published my first novel. For our second project, we made an anthology of the pieces from When Falls the Coliseum. Remarkably, only a few of the pieces now seem a bit dated. Most of them hold up and it’s still a fun read. We got the book into some local Barnes & Noble and Borders stores and did a group reading in Philadelphia and Forest Hills, New York. It was great meeting some of our writers whom I only knew through e-mail.

The timing of the book’s publication was not ideal, however. A month after we released it, terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Of course, there were far bigger, more important things to worry about than our little book project. My brother worked near the World Trade Center and for several hours no one in my family could reach him. It was a scary time for everyone. Still, maybe enough years have passed that I can note, without appearing to be too insensitive or selfish, that the terrible events of that day made it more difficult to promote the book. Maybe not. Either way, no one in the press was interested in a book containing arguments about anything but war and terror. The site When Falls the Coliseum covered the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan, and the debates got more heated on the site than ever before. It was pretty nasty at times and personal and not always that much fun. The stakes seemed higher. Maybe they were. But we managed to keep from becoming a one-subject magazine, and soon had satire and non-9/11 content appearing on the site again.

I was still editing and uploading every article and reader comment manually, cutting and pasting. And my wife was pregnant. And we were looking to buy a house. And by now I was out of the seriously soul-sucking job. I was teaching at Drexel University and had a career to build. And there was no way I would ever be able to write a novel again if I spent hours and hours every week running a site like When Falls the Coliseum, not with a child on the way and a job I actually cared about. And writing novels was more important to me than arguing all day with strangers online. So that was it. In 2002 or 2003 or so I called it quits and shut it down.

I did write that second novel, I am pleased to say, and it’s good. I started blogging a couple of years ago, and that’s been fun. For a long while it didn’t occur to me that I might one day start up When Falls the Coliseum again. But little things started to plant the seed. Like, one day, while googling myself to see if my blog was getting any links, I discovered that a piece that appeared on When Falls the Coliseum was quoted extensively in a scholarly journal (the Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics discussed my essay “Literally Decimated, Figuratively Speaking.” They disagreed with me, though I don’t think they got how much of what I wrote was hyperbole for humor’s sake). They had treated When Falls the Coliseum like a representation of what the Web was doing, and I didn’t find out about it until a few years after the fact, when the site was already down for a long time. I don’t want to overstate our popularity or impact as trailblazers as an online magazine. We weren’t Slate or salon.com. But I think we were doing something — our own thing — that a lot of people liked, even if most people never heard of us.

So why start up When Falls the Coliseum again?

Blogs have exploded in the last few years, and I couldn’t help but wonder here and there what might have been had I stuck with it. Blog technology has made the development and running of a site like ours much, much easier. I know more experienced, polished writers than I did the first time around. I won’t have to be an editor like I was, rewriting essays. Blogs don’t call for that.

Maybe that’s why.

I guess I’ve got editing and promoting in my DNA — I like a project. I think When Falls the Coliseum could have tens of thousands of readers.

Maybe that’s why.

When I bumped into a poet I had never met before in person a few weeks ago at a literary event I run, I asked him, “Didn’t I once publish a poem of yours in When Falls the Coliseum, eight years ago?”

Recognition lit his eyes and he nodded. “What a great name that is.”

Maybe that’s why.

When I contacted one of our original contributors, Preacher, a couple of weeks ago, to see if he’d like to write for the new incarnation of When Falls the Coliseum, he told me that recently he was online trying to buy a magazine for a certain gun and the guy selling it saw that his screen name was “Preacher” and asked him if he’d ever done any writing. It turns out that the guy has the When Falls the Coliseum book and was a huge fan. He was happy to give away the gun magazine for free if Preacher would autograph his copy.

Maybe that’s why.

Maybe it’s about writing and reaching out to readers. That’s probably it.

But who the hell knows?


Scott Stein

May 2008