For obvious reasons, this is a topic of some import here at Overland, as well as everywhere else around the world. The recent Ted Genoways article in Mother Jones has generated considerable discussion; now, the book blog at the LA Times has weighed in. I’ve just come back from an Australia Council meeting about literary journals, where there was a clear consensus that the issue could no longer be avoided: everyone had to produce some kind of strategy about online and digital content.
A few thoughts, then. It’s an inherently difficult debate but it becomes more so because it’s often framed so as to confuse a number of different, though related, issues. The Genoways piece – or, more exactly, the most common readings of the Genoways piece – is a good example. Though it’s mostly been received as another screed about the evils of teh intertubes, that’s not what it’s about at all. In fact, the article barely mentions the internet. Genoways’ argument is a different, though perhaps related, one about the decline of the status of literature. He writes, for instance:
After more than a century of founding and subsidizing literary magazines as a vital part of their educational missions, colleges and universities have begun off-loading their publications, citing overburdened budgets and dwindling readership. Despite the potentially disastrous consequences to the landscape of literature and ideas, it’s increasingly hard to argue against. Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining subscriber bases since their heyday a half-century ago—and an even greater dent in their cultural relevance.
Consider this: When Wilbur Cross was elected governor of Connecticut in 1930, an unlikely Democratic victor in an overwhelmingly Republican state, his principal qualification was his nearly 20 years as editor of Yale Review.
You can’t blame computers for the fact that editing small literary journals no longer qualifies you for public office. The anecdote illustrates, rather, the obvious and unavoidable fact that capital L literature no longer exerts the same cultural heft as in the first half of the twentieth century. Genoways notes that, all through his governorship, Cross continued to work on Yale Review and, in that time, published writers of the stature as Maxim Gorky, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley and so on.
One simply could not do that today, partly because today a serious interest in literature seems much more akin to a hobby (rather than the almost spiritual mission it once presented to young arts graduates) and so a governor mucking around with a journal would be treated like a politician devoting too much time to, say, stamp collecting: a pursuit that would be seen as an unwarranted distraction from public life even as it lost votes. Statesmen find time to appear at football games they palpably hate (cf Rudd, Kevin); they do not make a point of ostentatiously pulling open books of poetry.
But there’s another reason why there’s no-one simultaneously governing and publishing Maxim Gorky. It’s because there’s no Maxim Gorky to publish. Which is, I suppose, merely the point made above, looked at from a different angle. Gorky was both a major writer and a cultural phenomenon of international import, whose attitude to the revolution and relationship first with Lenin and later with Stalin was of the utmost importance to Russian history. Come the Australian revolution, will the insurgent forces be asking themselves: gosh, what does Tim Winton think of us?
One suspects not.
Genoways makes a similar point:
In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.
All of which has left too many university presidents, already in search of cuts for short-term gain, eyeing their presses and literary magazines and wondering who will miss them if they’re gone.
Genoways touches on two other points worth drawing out. One is about literature’s (and literary journals’) relationship with the university; the other is about the need for poets and novelists to find something to say, to ‘wear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers’.
On both issues, however, it’s easy to be glib. It would seem to me that the increasing reliance of literary writers upon the academy is a symptom rather than a cause of the underlying malaise and so one can’t simply march the tenured novelists out into the streets to shouts of the 68 slogan, ‘Professors, you are old!’ Likewise, as has often been noted, the tendency to navel gazing surely stems at least in part from a realisation that the world doesn’t really care what they say about the war in Afghanistan. If literature seems a marginal form, well, the question ‘why write?’ becomes more and more difficult, which explains a lot about the inwardness of contemporary writing.
In other words, the decline in literature’s status stems from some fundamental and deep-rooted changes in the nature of contemporary capitalism, changes that also affect the university and participation in political life. Not all of them are necessarily bad: the achievement of something like mass education, for instance, necessarily impacts upon reading and writing, and it’s often forgotten that, when Mr Cross was corresponding with his pals Mann and Huxley, large numbers of kids never went to school at all.
More importantly, though, we live lives now more dominated by market forces than ever in human history, and this way of organising our world generates a social atomisation that’s no longer so compatible with the literary project. It’s not just that we’re time poor and overworked; it’s that the reified consciousness that results from hyper-marketisation conflicts with the deep immersion in art which high literature depends upon.
(OK, I just accused the Genoways’ argument of glibness and then followed that up with a sweeping and largely unsubstantiated assessment of the entire world. Hey, it’s a blog. Sue me.)
That’s why the specific challenges producd by the internet are, again, symptoms rather than causes. The online environment is, it seems to me, a very difficult one for literary writing, precisely because the internet reflects so well the sensibility of the late twenty-first century. The web’s become ubiquitous not just because it’s a technical wonder but because its particular form of wondrousness suits a society of atomised, restless and rootless individuals. The early modernists often contemplated the experience of the lonely man (and it usually was a man) buffeted by a huge, surging crowd, a paradoxical experience which involved an interaction with a huge number of people but not in any collective sense. Aimlessly following hyperlinks seems a pretty good analogy: yes, it’s social but in a very different sense of how we traditionally understand that term.
The digital environment is, then, a massive boon to some forms of writing — but literature, well, not so much. An iPhone application works fantastically for, say, skimming newspaper. The Guardian ap, for instance, presents a pretty good overview of the day’s news on your phone’s tiny screen. Since I’ve downloaded it, it’s become almost invaluable, something I check daily.
That being said, the way I read news through that ap is quite different to how I read it online, which is, again, an utterly different experience from spreading out the old print version I used to get. You check a newspaper phone ap when you are waiting for a tram or in a queue or in a coffee break. Most of the time, you don’t finish the articles, for you are interrupted either by an incoming email or by some imposition from the world around you (like your tram arriving).
That’s why I don’t believe that literary fiction (or indeed a literary magazine) can simply transfer itself to a smart phone, and then claim to have solved the digital dilemma.
OK, am out of time now. I’ll come back in the next day or so, with a few things that I think follow from the argument above.