Responding to Sterling's "18 Challenges" (Part 2/3)
Continued from part one, challenges 1-7...

7.Media conglomerates have poor business model; economically rationalized "culture industry" is actively hostile to vital aspects of humane culture.

Yes, but two points:

(1) When was this not the case, and what is it specifically about the modern culture industry relative to the pre-modern culture industry that makes it so bad? Or, put another way, is it worse to have a company spend thirty million dollars filming and publicizing a reality TV show about people competing to become the most effective vampires, or to have the government put you in jail for importing and reading a copy of Tropic of Cancer? Would you rather be beaten up by a bully or would you rather have a bully ignore everything you say to him? It only makes sense to choose the former if your only possible audience is the bully. Literature today has a much, much smaller audience, but it has an audience.

(2) Before everybody woke up and rubbed their eyes sometime around the late 1800s, humane culture was viewed as the most efficient and desirable route to lead a good life. In the modern period, humane culture is the enemy of efficiency, and humane literature became a literature of opposition. This is a problem, but it's an existential problem at this point â€" it's no more specifically a problem facing contemporary literature than the fact that people need to take food into their bodies to survive is a problem facing contemporary literature. Literature has a new role, within which it can flourish and has flourished.

8.Long tail balkanizes audiences, disrupts means of canon-building and fragments literary reputation.

Yes, but how is it a problem to have a balkanized literature? Any canon that exists is assembled by somebody, or some group, who (at best) has certain tastes and wants to promote those tastes, or who (at worst) has a certain political or social agenda and wants to suppress by omission any books (or book covers) that don't fit into that agenda. There are people who do not want to be a part of a mainstream, wealthy, predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly heterosexual, predominantly Manhattan and Brooklyn-based literary world. These people want to talk to the people who share their concerns, or who take an interest in their concerns. People who worry about the balkanization of literature remind me of people who are wistful about high school: it was so great! We were all together in the same class, just chilling, dreaming about the future! We're in the future now; we've gone our separate ways. Sometimes we call one another when we miss each other, and that's the only viable canon I can think ofâ€"everything else is an attempt to make something "efficient", some system of control.

Two great themes: War and Peace. Everybody is affected more or less equally by war, so war novels tend to get canonized. But we no longer have, nor do we want, a peacetime literature that addresses itself to certain values that we all have in common: we don't have those values in common, nor do we want them. We want to use books to talk to people who value our conversation, not who worry about how it fragments the canon.

Granted, you can take this to extremesâ€"but really, how do you decide what books to buy? I personally go by (1) cool cover art/book design + good first page, (2) recommendations from friends/family, or (3) recommendations/declarations of influence by writers who I really love. There's no challenge facing thisâ€"I already have more books to read than I could ever read, ever, and more books that I'll want to read and which will come to me via one of these three means are printed every year. How would a less-balkanized canon help this process?

9.Digital public-domain transforms traditional literary heritage into a huge, cost-free, portable, searchable database, radically transforming the reader's relationship to belle-lettres.

To take this seriously as a challenge means assuming that readers are just plowing through works of literature looking for citations and quotes, and that now that this is a more efficient process â€" thanks to huge, cost-free, portable, searchable databases â€" people will no longer have the same relationship to belle-lettres. Bogus. People read books from start to finish because they want to see a world unfolding in front of them; they want to move through that world with the author. It doesn't matter if they're moving through that world via a stack of paperbacks bought one by one or via a huge, cost-free, portable, searchable database, as long as the reader is enjoying the book in the same way.

10.Contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency; dominant best-sellers are in former niche genres such as fantasies, romances and teen books.

(1) What are the issues of general urgency? Globalization? Worldwide slavery and sweatshop labor? Out-of-control American leadership and exceptionalism? Imminent environmental collapse? It seems like contemporary literature is dealing with all of these issues. The issue is that people aren't reading them because they have bad diner jobs and want to forget about them by hanging out with Rand al'Thor or something.

(2) Have you ever read Don Quixote? Pride and Prejudice? Franny and Zooey? Everyone loves escapist literature and everyone loves emotional porn. Niche has become mainstream, mainstream has become niche. I don't see a problem in this except the problem of it being harder to make a living as a writer these days. But people who love to write and have their work read are going to write and have their work readâ€"by someone, by friends and family alone if need be.

11.Barriers to publication entry have crashed, enabling huge torrent of subliterary and/or nonliterary textual expression.

Sure, this is true. But only some of that torrent is going to last.

I've been involved in the webcomics world either as a reader or as a participant since it really started to get going around 1998-2000. At their high point, there were probably something like 10,000 unique webcomics onlineâ€"a ridiculous amount of output, considering how long it takes to produce comics relative to how long it takes to produce a piece of writing, page by page. And webcomics still have a terrible reputation due to this huge amount of output, balanced against the fact that there are maybe twenty consistently good comics in the lot. But every one of those comics is produced by someone with talent, with a particular point of view, and with passion. And now, in 2009, the webcomic boom is over, and it's those comics that have survived and that have started to affect print comics in turn.

And literally all of those comics were produced by people with little formal training, with crazy ideas about how comics should look and read, and by people who had crushing day jobs that they wanted to escape. Do you know how hard it is to get anyone with money to care about your creative work? This work has endured; people pass on links to this work among their friends; this work makes people's lives better. This work wouldn't exist if it hadn't been produced in a medium with zero barrier to publication.

Granted: it's easier for people to read a comic strip idly at work on a Tuesday than it is to read a novel idly at work on a Tuesday. But if you can disseminate it, and if it is as good as you think it isâ€"if it is good enough to change lives, not just "good enough to get published in Ploughshares" or somethingâ€"then I don't see why we should be upset about the Internet causing barriers to publication to collapse.

12.Algorithms and social media replacing work of editors and publishing houses; network socially-generated texts replacing individually-authored texts.

Does anyone seriously worry about this? Do you join your good friends at a bar on Friday night and tell them "So, instead of you telling me about your day in a funny and individual way, I'd like all of you to tell one big story about a day using bits and pieces of each of your days." Everybody is excited by the idea of "network socially-generated texts" because it reminds them of Blade Runner or something. It seems scary and hostile and dystopian. But because we are not Replicants, no one you have ever met, ever, is more interested in reading a novel edited by Twitter than one edited by someone who is trying to communicate a specific story to you. Do you ever haunt used bookstores looking for filled-in Mad Libs paperbacks so that you can learn something about the world?


In general, here's my critique of challenges 7-12: they're not about writing. They're about access to a culture that is increasingly not interested in literature.

And okay, fine: but the culture isn't going to change unless our entire way of life changes first. When we want books to start telling us the things they tell us again â€" we're wrong; we're ridiculous; we don't fit in with our ideas of ourselves; we'll keep moving anyway whether we win or not â€" when we're willing to make the time to hear that, and when we're willing to make the time to hear that in the context of a bunch of really good jokes and descriptions of dirty urban bedrooms, then The World at Large will be into literature again. Until then, why can't we just reform publishing to the point where we're selling books to people who want to read books, instead of this weird, uniquely-American dream of Affecting the Culture?

Writers are not going to get everything on their Christmas list. They will sometimes do work that is excellent without receiving the same reward as, say, a twenty-year-old guitarist who does work that is less excellent. This doesn't affect the core of what writing is: you make up stories to make yourself laugh or cry and show them to people who will read them and who will laugh or cry. If you have that you have everything essential. Everything beyond that gets into the question of More or How Much, and those are painful questions, but really, how are you going to compete with Rupert Murdoch? Give people what they want that Rupert Murdoch isn't giving them; give them everything you have; it'll sort itself out. I personally can't get too interested in broad social or technical critiques of the writing/publishing world beyond that.

This whole set of challenges makes me ask: why do we have this temptation to view books as some kind of gateway to power? Why can't books be books rather than some kind of fantastic instant karma? Why do we have this insane notion that they should be something other than books? Why can't we have everything we want, right now, and all the time?

Fahrenheit 451:

"Now, let's get on upstream," said Granger. "And hold onto one thought: You're not important. You're not anything. Someday the load we're carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn't use what we got out of them. . . . We're going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next year. And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run. . . . Come on now, we're going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them."

Forward to part three, challenges 13-18...

Posted by future on Sat, 08 Aug 2009 17:42:55 -0400 -- permanent link

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