Friday, June 19, 2009


My post today is proving almost impossible for me to write, because the thinking behind it is so incoherent. I’m trying to frame up some thoughts about publishing and the forces of our electronic media and what it means for writers. Partly I’m bouncing off a TED speech by Clay Shirky called “What is Twitter?” that Barrus posted. So I Googled this guy. His original degree was from Yale. Uh-oh. It was in ART! What??? He thinks about Internet stuff. Just what I need. (I am not being sarcastic!) The least helpful reaction to technology would be closing it out. The most helpful reaction -- IMHO -- is theory, plunging in, difficult as that is.

Shirky has a diagram in which he lists the four main advances in communication in the past. When I did English curricula for the Blackfeet schools, I always started with four aspects: listening and speaking, reading and writing. I could never get people to see what I meant about listening and speaking, which they thought they already knew all about about since they'd been doing it since age two. But my fancy education at Northwestern in the School of Speech (now the School of Communication) emphasized how bad people are at listening with real understanding and defining speaking in discussions as being as crucial as formal addresses. Our society simply refuses to get this, so our schools don’t either.

Shirky’s diagram of four was not like mine. He showed the invention of the movable type printing press, the telegraph/telephone, movies, and then radio/TV broadcasting. He analyzed them this way: one-on-one (print) and physical; one on one (code and voice) non-physical over long distances; one to large numbers who are present together, escaping print and going to image; and then one to large numbers who are NOT together. NOW, he suggests, with the Internet, we are going one to one to many to many (I'm not stuttering) all without being present together. These are the kinds of changes that totally change communication.

Since I began this blog, I’ve collected a little cadre of baffled writers who are still back there with Gutenberg in terms of technology -- using their computers to produce stories in movable type and looking for distributors. They ask for advice. But the business models that would support this activity are fizzling out. It’s not that people are not reading, so much as they are reading differently -- maybe not in print. The paper and ink folks now have access to the used books of the world. UPS is thriving on them and on the Netflix one-on-one of “used movies.” When movies can dependably move electronically (which they can in short format), UPS will lose that income, and everyone who doesn’t have a computer will lose that access.

So many people want to “be” writers, even those who really can’t write and those whom nobody wants to read. WHY? I think the answer is back with Gutenberg, the same as the impulse of everyone to be a movie star or a pop singer rest on the tech industries that provide sound and image (DVD & iPod).

Gutenberg provided relatively inexpensive access to the Bible and other crucial documents like political pamphlets at a time -- or possibly as a cause -- of the rise of the middle class everyone believes is the motor of democratic stability and prosperity. But it keyed into an imitation of class society. Educated people (education was a hallmark of upper classes) could read books. It was a mark of their superiority, even if they didn’t accomplish very much.

America accepted this marker from the beginning. Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott (I mean Bronson, not Louisa May) and a host of others we now revere and honor, didn’t accomplish much but they amount to American aristocracy because they wrote books. To have a book published, even now, means to educated people that one is oneself educated and therefore a little higher class than others. Unless, of course, one is writing genre for the masses, which is identified with cheap paperbacks, lurid morals and WWII’s leveling effects. (I mean dissolving class among the people, not knocking down the buildings.)

To people who ignore English upperclass markers and just go for power and money, books mean nothing. Now the new marker of power and money is technology which requires mostly experience and peer-to-peer communication, since the whole picture changes so much that a class can barely be organized before it’s obsolete. Even Barrus’ Cinematheque boys off the streets savvey iPhones and music vids. Even the ones who can’t read print. At the same time, the highly educated boys also get it.

It’s the smug middle classes who don’t get it and mourn over the loss of books. Actually, most of them don’t have better than high school educations and only read genre fiction. The women read it by the binful. Men would rather go hang in a bar and josh around. Around here, using a computer is considered “playing” because they are used only for gaming or shopping. Well, maybe the stock market.

Here’s where I get hung up, I think because it’s where my emotions get into the picture. What is a aspiring writer to do? Most writers are not good at being their own agents. Most agents deal only in the status quo. Most writers are solitary and not very tech-minded, but they believe in the “honor,” the “magic,” of writing, at least I did until now. In our nearly subconscious way, we feel that our lives will be justified if we become recognized writers. It is a terrible jolt when it turns out the neighbors only sneer. The publishers, of course, once they decide to publish you, will soothe your ego and ask you to invest more money in yourself. Not money THEY provide, of course.

Okay, so what’s the tech answer? You’re lookin’ at it. Blogging. And tweeting. Short. Personal. Interpolating images and music. Produced by one source for unlimited numbers who are scattered everywhere and pass material among themselves. Such a swarm, as Shirky points out, that dictators can’t control this stuff except by shutting down the entire systems. China has been busy trying to keep us out, but they didn’t expect their own people to breach the wall with a million piercings from cell phones. The Middle East has been trying to keep us out but under their chadors the women are carrying cell phones and iPods.

Now consider the converse. The US has assumed we would be the providers, the inventors, the instigators, the only way to go. But that’s over. Now we must learn from the rest of the world. And all that is left for writers is to understand how to fit into that. The beginning might be writers contacting each other, quite apart from the middle-class “festivals” and gatekeepers at foundations. It’s that thing about speaking and listening. Discussion skills. Thinking.

One no longer leaves a calling card as in Jane Austen. Now one has a web location, like, or a blog like this one. Until the next invention. Since that changes all the time, concentrate on a good tight grip on what you want to say, which stays put.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

I used to walk into a library when I was in grade school and look for books no one had checked out for a long time. You used to be able to do that by pulling out the little card; you could even see who else had read that book. It sounds weird, but...I would feel guilty if no one had read that book for many years and I'd check it out. Most of the time I'd try and read at least some of it, but sometimes I'd just check it out.

I liked books as a little kid and thought I might be a writer someday. I had a couple sitting on my shelf that almost acted as talismans, making me feel good seeing them there. Keeping me company.

Later when the town had a used bookstore, I'd look at all the books there. I'd think of all the people who spent years of their lives, represented by each book, hundreds, thousands of books. And each author poured their guts and souls into books...that no one wanted anymore. Rotting books, sitting on a shelf. Like so many stacked tombstones.

I have boxes and boxes of books that are in storage, piled in my house. I cannot bear to part with them.

I think we write because of a lot of things. Thinking that's the way to leave something of us on earth after we die. To be validated by others, and seek others who think like us, at least a little, and so we don't feel as alone. Sure, making a living would be great, and getting rich even better. But that isn't realistic is it.

Maybe we just gotta write the way we live. We write, we don't know where the ripples go, if there are any at all. We live, seeking meaning however we find it, in the moment, in kids, in a good party, in how much money we make or business we build. Of course, 99 percent of the time, whatever we do disappears in our lifetime or soon after. That goes for our writing too, whether it disappears in a blog archive or a used bookstore.

But you don't just stop breathing, and you don't just stop writing, if that's how you are made.