Tuesday, January 12, 2010

WHERE DO THE HEARTSONGS GO?

My mailbox today was sagging under an avalanche of links from Tim Barrus who, being in Paris, had been up for hours before I got up the second time. The following is a link to an hour and a half panel discussion that I watched in my nightgown, too hypnotized to do more than take on coffee and offload liquid. Crackers sat in my lap and watched, too. (I had not realized she was so interested in books.)

Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus; Storage and Transmission ...
Mar 27, 2009 ... Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus; Storage and Transmission....
mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/.../media-transition-6-stone-and-papyrus-storage-and-transmission


The storm of searching that was clearly underway for Tim and which sent a tsunami of indispensable ideas to me also included a speech Feb 17, 2009 ... Full Text of Jason Epstein's TOC 2009 Keynote Speech given by Jason Epstein at the 2009 O'Reilly Tools Of Change for Publishing ...
toc.oreilly.com/2009/02/full-text-of-jason-epsteins-to.html -


This speech included the following sentence: “My own strong belief however is that distinguished fiction and non fiction -- what the heirs of Faulkner, Nabokov and Mailer create -- will continue to be written by highly specialized individuals struggling at their desks in deep seclusion and not by linked communities of interest.”

Tim protests that no one writing now or who has written in the last fifty years has produced anything distinguished at all, but how would we know? Publishing is not looking for that. It just wants sales.

Selfishly, I reflected that I originally moved to Valier at some sacrifice in order to BE that “specialized individual struggling at my desk in deep seclusion.” I wanted to be cloistered (it is my temperament) and hoped the result would be worth it, if only in the increase of my skills. On the physical level this has been a great success. People here don’t really understand what I’m writing most of the time (so they tell me) but they DO understand that I write and that means being left alone.

There were two things that interfered with my “romance of the book,” as a panel member called it. One was the collapse of the publishing industry which has meant that there’s no money, no publicity, no reviews -- the writer is a tree falling unheard in a forest. I’m obsessed enough that I keep on anyway.

The other thing is a resulting schism that’s not between Tim and I but rather in each of us, and a deep and troubling one at that -- as well as paradoxically a warming and inspiring one, but always a shared one beyond surface differences. On the one hand we each write out of our heartsongs, a deep belief in work that requires seclusion and concentration.

On the other hand is the joy of sharing with a community, and the necessity of understanding what is going on in the nature and economy of books and “writing” of all sorts. This takes a lot of time and interferes with work as much as it supports it (and I do mean financially). I find myself being pressed into being an agent for both Tim and I in a world where agents have been left about twenty years back as well as struggling to master a lot of techie stuff that keeps requiring expensive upgrades I never expected and wouldn’t need if I weren’t doing this agent-stuff.

Not only are the agents operating in a commercial Manhattan-centered world that is going the way of the World Trade Towers, but also their culture is part of the reversion to propriety and docility that was the backlash -- partly fueled by AIDS, a slo-mo disaster much larger than the WTT -- to the freedom and exploration of the Seventies. Publishers are happy to follow the tech stuff but VERY unwilling to explore the edges of culture or to think through what quality might really mean. This throws Tim into rage and me into contempt.

When my bio of Bob Scriver went out to publishers, I was brought up short to realize that this long-ago-promised heartsong of mine was being judged on the basis of how much money it could make, whether it improved the reputation of the people in charge, and whether it fit in with every other cowboy sculptor book. Thank God for Brian Dippie, a key scholar of Western art, who was able to see what the book meant to be. It was his evaluation that finally made the difference. Not money, but at least confirmation of value.

And again I was shocked when the impact of the book was slight because it didn’t suit the wheeler-dealers on several levels (Western art, museum directing, branded Montana lit) because they demand an homage I didn’t provide. They want to control me, and this time I’m thrown into Tim-like rage.

Thus I am in sympathy with Tim, quite apart from the quality of his writing, but “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” is still the kernel tie between us. It would remain with me even if the two of us were to part ways, including our co-writing. It is what it is and the value to me is very high. In fact, it is SO high that it interrupts my celibate, solitary, silent seclusion. Once again I’m faced with the “female choice” between responding to others and guarding my own goals. I do not know how to resolve it. It is a constant challenge to my effort to maintain boundaries. And it's in Tim, too, so it must not just be female.

This panel was very interested in the idea that a writer should NOT write in seclusion, that the new media means that all authors should be accessible to their readers. Some have devised systems where the writer is read AS THE WRITING PROCEEDS with the readers supplying opinions about what should happen, whether the style is holding up, etc. Others are proposing that an original book should allow “fanfiction” writers creating their own chapters, as happens now with “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” Some authors already use a blended method of book and gaming. Tim's "up" for this stuff.

Books cannot possibly be documents as art forms if they are in a state of flux. Can they? One panel member pointed out that the most interesting part of Wikipedia is often not the final copy that is presented as fact -- which is all most readers probably care about -- but the back-story of how it developed over time. (You have to use the tabs. Then you see the people who disagree and the corrections or why they are suppressed.)

So, okay. I’m not a gatekeeper in this mode. Go ahead and comment.

7 comments:

Art Durkee said...

Here os am interesting article that takes the point of view that collectivism is actually the problem not the solution. It's by Jaron Lanier, one of the early pioneers of the Internet and of virtual reality.

Lanier writes something that I think applies directly to publishing these days:

The "open" paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain's work—your music, writing, computer code and so on—and earn kudos instead of money. You are then supposedly compensated because your occasional dollop of online recognition will help you get some kind of less cerebral work that can earn money. For instance, maybe you can sell custom branded T-shirts.

We're well over a decade into this utopia of demonetized sharing and almost everyone who does the kind of work that has been collectivized online is getting poorer. There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia, for instance. Almost everyone else is becoming more like a peasant every day.

And it's going to get worse. Before too long—in 10 years, I'd guess—cheap home robots will be able to make custom T-shirts from free designs off the Internet. When that day comes, then a T-shirt's design will be no more valuable than recorded music is today.

The T-shirt-making robot is only one example of a general principle. As technology gets better and better, more and more jobs will essentially become threatened, just like today's jobs for reporters or recording musicians.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Sometimes I think maybe that's really where I should take the two projects I have been struggling with, through exposure of the writing process itself. The one on Montana archaeology and the one on the weird miner and the Unabomber. I started doing that with the archaeology book already. But the problem is getting enough readers of the blog, plus they need to be the type to make suggestions and care enough to become involved (which is why fan fiction works for that model, fandom being a built-in market and fans being fanatics by definition). I don't think many of us could sustain that kind of effort and readership.

I agree with Art that we would all like the money as well as kudos. Sadly though, there is just SO MUCH CONTENT out there that is free. It's like the difference between dating in a rural town vs in a big city. Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?

Art Durkee said...

Lance is right that there's so much content out there for free. I've contributed to that myself, and openly admit it. What interests me about Lanier's comments are that we all started with that utopian idea about collectivism only to see it become a kind of wasteland.

It's true that good content often gets drowned out. I have no idea how many people read my own blog, or care about it; not that I claim to have made good content. It's not the reason I do it, or at least not the main reason. Everyone would like to get noticed, myself included, but I had no expectations of fame and fortune.

What interests me about this is once again how far behind the curve of awareness those in publishing are who said some of those things at that forum. It seems remarkably naive on their parts.

Full disclosure: I used to work in book and magazine publishing, mostly as a designer and artist for hire. I got paid to do that, didn't have to "give it away"—but now it seems like everyone expects me to give it away, now, for free. What people often don't understand is that what they're really paying you for is your skills and experience: sure, their cousin could do it for free, but not as efficiently and not as well as a pro who knows what they're doing. It's the economics of skill as well as content that is in play here, I think.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Nothing distinguished for the last 50 years though? I was born in 1960, fifty years ago. So I wondered what some have considered to be distinguished works published within the last 50 years: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow), Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), Play It as It Lays (1970) by Joan Didion, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1975), Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller, Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison, The Painted Bird (1965) by Jerzy Kosinski, Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) by Ken Kesey, Portnoy's Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth, Midnight's Children (1981) and Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie, Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson.

In general, most works of literature only gain recognition as important over many decades and even longer. For example Dickens' work was mainly for the pop-culture of his time.

Lance Michael Foster said...

It would be really tough to turn all this around, Mary, Art, and Tim. It's a monster in every sense.

Besides the cultural shifts in publishing and free content via the Internet, there are some other issues. None of us can consider our work as pure work, but within the context of particular cultural milieux. That goes for Rushdie, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, or anyone else. A good story is always a good story (Beowulf) but the themes, styles, settings, subtleties that make a story our own are shaped by our own minds which are shaped by our times and culture (context).

First, unless they had the fortune of being born in the right family and class, writers were originally just trying to make a living in their craft. Twain was a journalist as were many others. Most of these craftsmen gradually came to the public's attention through many years of work and dawning recognition of their talents.

Today, it seems like the main thing writers want, the main yardstick, is fame and celebrity. With enough fame and celebrity comes the money. That's the model people pursue now. And the faster you can get to the fame part, the faster you can get to the money part. Look at Palin, who doesn't even apparently read at all, who is now a bestselling author making millions (of course it was ghost-written) based on nothing more than fame.

Popular culture is centered on celebrity worship as never before. And the Internet is perceived as a straight line from anonymity to fame and naturally then to the big bucks. Not that that hasn't happened for some, but it can't happen for all the people who want it to happen for themselves. It's really a crapshoot. Or more accurately, like the Lotto (worse odds than a crapshoot).

So how do we get paid enough to live on? Serious journalists are even finding their jobs disappear with newspapers going down the drain because in part of the Internet. The easy answer to making money as a writer? Find a politician, actor, or other celebrity du jour and become a ghost writer. (Sarcastic but true.)

We writers and storytellers just gotta keep on doing what we do, because we DO what we ARE. We have no choice in the matter, really.

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm struck by the ironies in the phrase, "Highly specialized individuals struggling at their desks in deep seclusion and not by linked communities of interest." No links to communities of interest, eh? That's certainly a romantic image, but good luck with any project produced in such a vacuum. I think that this scenario has always been the fallacy attached to the public image of the writer. Being a writer certainly requires productivity in solitude, but it has always required community as well: it's called an audience. Writers are actually performers -- sometimes in a collective with editors, graphic designers, publicity flaks, etc. -- sometimes solo, to very small groups (boho salons, church basements, etc). I suspect the romantic fantasy of a lone and lonely artist who lives in a little cottage and writes pages that everyone wants to read was given a shot of steroids by Thoreau. But when he wrote Walden his cabin was a short walk away from his mother's house, which he made daily. And much of his writing took place as visitors dropped by, sat down to tea, then overstayed their welcome. He might have had some profoundly mixed feelings about his situation, but I'd definitely call it a community.

As the writing/reading/publishing scene gets increasingly fragmented, the reliance on and nurturing of community will be increasingly necessary.

Art Durkee said...

It's absurd to think that anything written in the past fifty years isn't any good as literature. It can take a century or more, and a forgetting and a revival, before we know. Books get forgotten and rediscovered all the time. Only time can really tell what's going to endure, and what was chaff. So we won't know what's going to endure, because we'll be gone before that verdict is in. Anyone who opines that nothing distinguished has been written in our lifetimes is stating an unfounded opinion, possibly a cynical one, with no history to back it up.

Maybe I'm cynical because I did work in publishing, and it does seem to me that the businesses founded on promoting and presenting and distributing the arts have always been about what money can be earned from the creativity of others—a form of parasitism at worst, and at best a healthy symbiosis. I'm all for the symbiotic form of mutual lifting-up, in which everybody wins.

The problem with publishing is that, like all the arts industries, it functions on a model of scarcity, a model of gatekeeping and a model of fear of lost profits. Yeah, it's money-based, but money isn't evil per se; it's how people get overcome by greed and fear of not having any that turns people that way. When I was in publishing and marketing, I saw some small presses who were really in it for the art, and functioned essentially as non-profits rather than profitable corporations. I also saw some bigger publishers who wanted to care about their stable of authors, but when the company was in trouble started to come part because of self-interest. A whole range of self-defeating decisions were made on the basis of fear.

So in one sense what publishing is really afraid of these days is their loss of control, their loss of the pieces of the pie that they owned for a long time. I have mixed feelings about all that, obviously. The problem with gatekeepers is that they can often miss the boat on what's really worth knowing about; but they also do serve a function of weeding out lots of the chaff. I wish it was more fair and objective, but that's not what the real world is about.