Friday, February 03, 2012

A Not-Heavy-At-All Conversation About the Value of Literature in the Information Age

[NB: The following post started out as a response to a long, amazing email chain between friends. I debated whether to post this here or not, but figured doing so saved my friends from feeling forced to read it, while allowing faceless others to help themselves to it. It still feels weird, like that person at the bar having a private conversation loud enough for everyone in the joint to hear, and before you know it they're doing karaoke alone on stage, weeping. Anyway, the subject of the conversation was self-publishing versus big p publishing, but my response (as you'll see) veered a bit too far off the road to stay put on the email chain.]

I seem to be having this battle a lot nowadays, where I'll think of a line or joke or funny made-up word and I'll have this 10sec debate with myself about whether to type it onto this Word doc of mine full of "lines for later use," OR to just blast that shit out on Twitter, get the immediate feedback, the [insert uncreated German word for rush one feels when something has been retweeted or "liked"], the Gesplonktenplotz...?

I think on a micro level this dilemma engages with the question of publishing work yourself that costs $0 or publishing work that costs something, of opting for exposure first or payday later: Twitter or MS Word doc. But maybe it can be both without feeling like you're cheating either platform? Why can't we put our shit out for free and also, in slightly different form, for not-free.

It brings up all these questions of value that, while totally subjective w/in our cloistered elite literary world are actually becoming the focus of studies outside our discipline. That is, the very act of reading an actual book, no matter if it's by Lahiri or Lish, encourages a kind of cognitive work that the Internet is just not capable in its current state of providing. Literature and books have real physical value for all sentient human beings. I think we risk becoming more like computers than people when we start valuing what we do on the same level as a Kardashian tweet or a compressed hip-hop mixtape. But then again, this kind of autistic computer aesthetic has started becoming something like an avant garde thing for a number of young writers.

We're at a low morale point for writing and books, where everyone including us seems to undervalue the kind of Luddite, antiquated work we do. But call me crazy: I think there's gonna be a backlash against that value system. People are slowly coming to understand the adverse cognitive effects of a life lived treating all words equally as information. Reading a book is not an act of information gathering. If it is, it's a kind of deep info, one that plumbs vital cognitive rooms you NEVER access when futzing around the web -- where your main mode of thought is "decision-based" and not "analytical." The work we do is ideally supposed to stimulate the kind of deep focus that is intimately linked (I think) with the book as object itself and with (dare I say it) the healthy development of our species. This is its scientific value. Maybe what we'll see is creative writing departments get moved (along with the rest of the humanities) to the school of medicine and our craft becomes a kind of neuro-healthcare for the species. And, like healthcare, it will hopefully in the near future be readily available to the ill and needy for free, and given at a higher price tag to the hale and interested. And I foresee its practitioners, present email company included, will be afforded the same perks of occupation, the same Central Park West condos, as our hard medicine brothers and sisters.

I think it's kind of a greedy urge to want to hoard a good line, but I also think it's a more disciplined urge, one whose fruits might take longer to bear. B/c even tho that one-off line I decide to tweet might be a pretty little disembodied brushstroke, it might have more power as part of a larger thing, a story or chapter or something. I think that's kind of the double-edged sword of how the internet has changed me -- brain-wise -- as a writer and reader. The instant approval feeling is so inebriating that I think it starts warping you into a kind of addict. It's narcotic, and in a certain way posting a good line on Twitter can ultimately feel (to me) even more greedy and approval-hungry than saving it for later use in a story or poem or novel. Now that I think about it...there's something somehow slightly more noble about coveting the word count of your novel (which is still dumb) than the number of followers you have on Twitter.

For me, at this point in my life, why should I be afraid of saying I don't necessarily write to foster a community of readers? What if I'm just writing for one person reading quietly in a room -- one reader at a time? What if the responsiveness which is required of a writer who lives on the internet is actually HARMING what I love best about my work and turning me basically into a follower-coveting, RT-fishing robot?

Is it greedy to hoard material for later use? Or should I tweet my darlings? And what if you're a acclaimed short story writer like George Saunders, who just sold his new story collection to Random House, and all the stories you've published in the years that have passed since your last book are all available for free online at the New Yorker?


Chris said...


I wrote a whole long response to this, but instead of posting it on your blog or responding to the email chain I've decided to save it for my poem.

Which will be published one couplet at a time on Twitter. Or maybe, no, because of discipline. What I'll do is have Eric Darby do a slam reading of it, record that ish with some nice fade-outs, and post it on World Star. Yyyyyesirr!

But wait, there is the position of you-know-who to consider. My views on the publishing side of the literary game shall be rendered in good clean prose and then slipped meta-bootleg-style into a jpg album-art file for the upcoming Missy Elliot album on Megaupload. (Missy where you been girl?!?)

Let's pretend I'm inking you an epistle right now, for the end, for decorum, for ludditity.

Yours, from the Crooked Letter,

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