Tuesday, February 09, 2016


Writing is opportunistic, compensatory, advisory and voyeuristic.  It exists as the culture exists, entwined with it.  When the culture presents an opportunity, writing flows into the opening and fills it.  Sometimes it is the writing that changes the culture (culture is always changing) and that in itself is a writing opportunity.  Sometimes culture throttles writing.  Iconoclasm is always fun.

Examples.  The country is full of new immigrants, some of whom will be trying to bring their previous life along with them with as little change as possible (opportunity) while at the same time trying to present a positive front where they are trying to work and learn (opportunity) and their children are trying to develop a new life in this different place (opportunity).  They want to know about clothes, cooking and manners.

Emily Post says don't slurp.

In the heyday of soap operas, women worked at home with family.  Radio stories went with them all day, proposing strategy for relationship networks and as voyeurism.  Now the same stories are on tablets and iPods, but the content is the same.  The delivery system is able to keep the same women in daily contact with each other, making soap opera of their real lives.  The dynamics are the same advisory story telling as used to happen in kitchens or even doing laundry at a stream side.  

Suddenly there is a huge market for romances, esp those that provide a lot of information about how to establish a family or how to survive on the job or a combination of both.  The consumers listen on earphones or read on iPods while they commute.  Some of it is psychological management and some of it is how to become alluring.  For immigrants, housewives and line workers, clerks and commuters, the stream is both self-improvement how-to and consolation, mending after damage and defeat. 

"I love your hairdo, Shamus."

You already knew all this.  You know why you hunger for fiction and you know why you hunger for intimate views of other lives.  Once I was serving a congregation with a minister’s office that had been the stage in the building’s previous incarnation.  They simply put a wall where the curtain had been.  But one woman told me that she sat in the audience imagining that the wall were drawn like a curtain because she intensely wanted to see what I was doing in that office.  The door had no lock, so I installed one, which upset everyone.  What nasty thing was I doing in there that I would need a lock?  (Actually I was trying to protect my electric typewriter which I often found children pounding on.)  What secrets of my status were hidden there? 

Where do people get this sense of entitlement about access to the lives of ministers and writers?  They think such people are parents and they believe children are entitled to the lives and profits of parents.  This is cultural.  They are obsessed with the question of what one’s sexuality is.  That’s commercial.

Now we are finally getting around to taking a look behind the scenes of writing, the machinery of delivery, since we all have stories to tell (we’re told that all the time) and because the means of delivery have returned to the oral and even the ocular, which is wonderful for voyeurs, like people who watch travel documentaries and National Geographic cameras hidden in nests and burrows.  The drone of the narrator can be turned way down, but it’s necessary to support the idea that this is legitimate education.

And some people are realizing two things:  how much writing is controlled and distorted by the delivering businesses and how fantasy (a vital characteristic of writing) has provided those opportunistic businesses with an ocean of writing from people so grateful to be put into fugitive print pixels that they don’t need to be paid.  Merely having their names mentioned makes them walk tall.  

The trouble is having to sort a lot of narcissistic trash to find the worthy stuff.  And the problem with that is that the business is based on 19th century assumptions which are WEIRD —Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.  They are also urban and hope to stay college-aged forever.  And they are hopelessly bourgeois.  Wikipedia:  bourgeoisie”:  a social class oriented to economic materialism and hedonism, and to upholding the extreme political and economic interests of the capitalist ruling class.”

Writers are all over the map economically, educationally, aspirationally — but those who control publication are inevitably as described above.  Many writers have nothing but contempt for them, which they must disguise in order to make a living.  Others think that pleasing these controllers is a confirmation that they are special, deserving, no longer merely bourgeois, and if their writing sells well enough to make money for the producers, the producers will assure them they’re right.  They’re like starlets in Hollywood, sleeping with producers and believing that makes them excellent actresses.

Gordon Lish

Alexander Nazaryan ’s article in Newsweek offers Gordon Lish as an example of the interstitial editor who buffers the publishing poseurs from the writers still entranced by their own potential. He edited the undisciplined into "brilliance" and sold his opinion of the result to the checkbook keepers.  Lish has replaced Maxwell Perkins in the mythology of the fairy godfather who can spin straw into gold.  (Female editors who try to do this will be called castrating bitches.)

Gordon Lish is a traveler from a country no longer extant, a country where editors were princes and writers kings. A country where the publishing fiefdoms of Manhattan were proud castles in the sky, where the desperate flailings of The Real Housewives of Pittsburgh never made the gossip pages, but the seating arrangements at Elaine’s always did.”  http://www.newsweek.com/2014/06/27/angry-flash-gordon-255491.html

A contrasting phenomenon of the now tech-dominated publishing is the idea of “cloud editing.”  That is, one posts one’s writing publicly, complete or not, and all the readers out there are welcome to advise, edit, and inevitably "improve" the work.  It’s the MFA seminar gone global.  What could go wrong?
First of all, no one who writes cares about what other writers are writing.  Second of all, there is such a huge crowd of wanna-be writers than any attempt to read a fraction of it is soon overwhelmed.  Let’s look at Medium, a platform of this sort.  Their answer to the first problem was to salt the gold mine with work by professional writers, which meant paying them.  No one paid the wannabes, who all innocently assumed they were on their way up and soon would earn money.

Their answer to the second problem was to subdivide the territory into types run by sub-editors who might actually act as the Lish/Perkins who created geniuses, a fantasy almost as potent as being writers.  Of course, they could publish their own work, too.  Actually, this worked rather well until the same two problems cropped up: the only writers who cared about other writers were the ones who had a focus in common, and there was just too much stuff.  Now as cyber code instead of ink on paper.

From the faraway safety of small-town prairie, I see this as part of the shift from individualism back to group.  The Post-War Fifties glamorization of the lone creative genius is fading. (Thoreau is their saint, though he never really was what they imagine.  But then, no one is.)  Consider that JFK’s son died with his wife and friend, flying alone in fog.  Suddenly the Truman/Eisenhower years of conformity and infrastructure seem a lot wiser.  No need to rehearse the Bush/Cheney paranoia.  It is still upon us.

So now we’ve got to figure out a cloud/fog that is actually a popularity contest like the ones that controlled high school.  Comments are no longer insightful analysis, but only the sums of cutsey thumbs and hearts.  I don’t care but the producers realize that numbers are economic.  The tech strategy is always to create a gimmicky startup, get a lot of people involved, then sell out to those producers who have the real venture capital — except that it’s turning out that the capital is not real at all --  it’s debt and stock options.  So Esquire “made” Gordon Lish and Gordon Lish “made” Raymond Carver.  That’s no reason to write "Walmart minimalism", as Nazaryan nails it.  Unless it's all you know.

I only put my stuff online because I compose on a keyboard and once the stuff is composed, it’s easy to post.  What happens then is fate.  And culture.  My part is done.

No comments: