wordstockOne of the main reasons why I moved to Portland is because it is a book-loving city, a literate city. The library is beautiful. Powell’s is a major tourist attraction.  And, beyond that, Wordstock exists. Two weekends ago marked the first of what will hopefully be many times that I attended this giant book convention/festival in Portland, frequented by authors, small presses, bookstores, editors, magazines, and book lovers from all over the Pacific Northwest. It’s an entire weekend of everything book and print-media related, which makes it a simultaneously overwhelming and glorious experience for an aspiring writer like myself.

But books and writing, like any other act or object, change with the times. With the flourishing of the net, blogs, and other writing technologies, I think it’s important to consider the role print and digital media play in our society. Going to Wordstock brought up so many questions about art, elitism, and literacy that it’s taken me an entire week to craft this, admittedly, rather wordy post. So here I am, striving, in five short-ish acts, to address some rather interesting questions about books in our culture.


I. The Digital Age

My dad, the pragmatist, often reminds me that despite my voracious love of books (my friend and I once coined the term “litgasm” in a fit of reading Milton during our Introduction to  English Literature course), we live in a digital age, and many despair over the future of print media. He reminded me of this again when I decided, just before renouncing biology and “coming out” as an English major , to take a hands-on course on the history and process of the book production.

Of course, if my dad were to mention these concerns to someone less understanding than his loving daughter, he’d find himself surrounded by a passionate, furious crowd of literarians. Book lovers, myself included, can go on at length about the pleasures of feeling the weight of a book in their hands, the acrid scent of glue and paper. The less poetic will spend equally as long complaining about the pain of staring at a computer screen at length. In any case, my dad’s opinion is not only unpopular but openly despised in the circles I run in. There’s a kind of distrust amongst us wordy folk towards those who would digitize our words (though many of us do prefer typing on computers, let it be said.).

This antagonism even found a home in Wordstock’s promotional materials, which feature a series of pins with witty sayings on them including, “Here before blogs.” Admittedly, as a new blogger, the comment stung a bit (I always thought I was on “their side,” as far as I have a side), but I thought little of it. I didn’t think that going to Wordstock was going to get me thinking about the difficult question we all have in the back of our minds: Will technology defeat our beloved books and magazines?

On Sunday I attended a panel called “The Book Review Crisis,” which featured critic Ellen Heltzel, author Steward O’Nan, and author/blogging critic Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation. The discussion centered on the shrinking book review sections of newspapers and magazines, the movement of reviews to the web, and how this was going to change which books people read, which books get published, and who gets exposure. While the topic is fascinating and raises several scary questions about who controls our media (aka- Publishers who make decisions about what’s going to sell / what kind of demographic each book is promoted to), the panel left me rather underwhelmed. In fact, the most surprising thing I learned was that aside from Sarvas, these writers were incredibly out of touch when it came to the world of the internet.

This disturbed me because, like it or not, the internet is changing the way we read and publish. Playing ostrich isn’t going to change this. Complaining isn’t going to change this. Instead, we have to think critically about what’s going on, observe history and the present, and see how we can use technology as a means of enhancing our book-reading experience.

II. On the Internet, You Can Hear Everyone Scream

One of the fears brought up was the idea that Amazon.com reviews constituted the future of book reviewing (I agree; it is a terrible thought), despite the fact that no one in the audience would admit to taking customer reviews on Amazon seriously. To my astonishment, the panelists could not come up with a reason why this might be the case. While I understand that this probably shows generational differences more than anything else, I cannot imagine how anyone who intends to make a living from books could justify not being familiar with the types of reviews on Amazon.com. I agree that going to Powell’s or Kepler’s or whatever your favorite local independent bookstore is not only nobler but better for your health and well-being (or, at least, in my world it is), but understanding how your book is presented on Amazon falls under the heading of information that is useful to know if you’re involved in the book world. In any case, the panelists suggested that perhaps people only looked at customer reviews to prove an already-existing opinion instead of to help them decide whether to buy a book. This is true enough, but I think that one of the real reasons why no one pays attention to Amazon.com reviews can be summed up with this disturbing 1-star review of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

Basically, the whole book is about an 18th century girl whining about her upper middle class life. Of course, at the end, she gets exactly what she wants and everyone lives happily ever after. There is credit to be given to Jane Austen, since she wrote the book in an American household in the early 1800s, with no support from any of her family. She had to hide her writing under knitting or sewing whenever someone approached. She then had a friend publish the books she wrote, without telling her husband.

Oddly enough, the panelists seemed more concerned that friends of the author might give the book glowing reviews, skewing the book’s overall rating. I’m afraid the mass amounts of people from varying walks of life do that enough already.

Amazon is a perfect example of the internet’s primary weakness, and one of the main reasons why people are afraid that it may take over print media: there is no quality control. If you expect to get anything out of internet content, you have to constantly ask yourself, “Who is this person, and why are they writing this?” Amazon.com reviews are far too short to glean this kind of information from,  and therefore, for the most part, we only take them so seriously. But this is a genuinely serious problem throughout the internet, the bane of teachers and professors.

However, I think it’s important to realize that these questions we’re now forced to ask about reliability of our sources are by no means new questions. A lot of people don’t necessarily realize that even mainstream news sources–yes, I’m including those that aren’t Fox News–don’t report from an objective perspective. What newspapers and news stations report and how they phrase their news stories largely depends on what they think will draw the largest audience. Nothing is neutral, no matter how much we’d like it to be. My favorite example of this is Margaret Thatcher. If you look at the kinds of media that came out in Britain during her time as Prime Minister, from the hilarious sketches on “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” to the dark foreboding future of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, it’s pretty clear that liberal Brits saw her as being the equivilent of an intelligent George W. Bush. When I mentioned this to liberal American adults old enough to remember the Thatcher era, they were surprised, knowing more about her from an economic as opposed to a social perspective. I have to wonder if the American media portrayal of her had to do with her clear Capitalist loyalties during the Cold War. We were clearly getting a biased picture of her. Many people have suggested that it’s the fear of spun stories like this that drives the turn to internet sources–we want to get as close to the truth as we can get.

The internet takes fears we should have had all along and magnifies them. While we can easily guess what biases might drive The New York Times or The Washington Post, we don’t necessarily know what drives people on the internet. But I do think this can be used to our advantage if we use it as a reminder to ask the all important questions of “Who?” and “Why?”. It is a reminder to us that we need to and have always needed to be responsible readers, and, if we repeat what we hear, responsible writers. Who wrote this? Why did they write it? We can use these questions to find the melody in the cacophony of words on the internet.

III. The Death of Literature?

More so than worrying about the death of book reviews, the members of the panel were terrified that so-called “literary fiction” is on the way out. “Literature Lite,” they snarked, was taking over thanks to book groups designed to make people feel unduly smart. The New York Times was reviewing Stephen King novels, wasting precious space that could be used to promote a novel that didn’t already have a built-in audience. Book reviews are essential publicity for new authors, and the deserving ones, they feared, weren’t getting it.

They declared as their dreaded culprit a culture in which attention spans have shortened to those of goldfish. We live in a culture in which, to quote one of the panelists, people wanted “American Idol instead of American Pastoral.” In short, they blamed my generation (and my younger brother’s generation, for that matter.) This excuse has always bothered me because it’s such a simple and convenient explanation that it smacks of laziness. I’m not denying that our culture seems to have lost its attention span in some cases (too long didn’t read or tl;dr is a common complaint in internet communities), but it does paint a rather incomplete picture (after all, knitting somehow managed to become trendy again. So is crafting and designing. We apparently can have patience if we put our minds to it.). I think a more productive way of deciding whether there is any truth at all to the “death of literature” problem is looking at the assumptions we make when we declare something to be literature.

First and foremost, it’s  important to realize that who gets to don the golden title of literature doesn’t come from a magical, objective, infallible source. I was actually discussing this on the phone with my dear friend Saira the other day. She was talking about some of her favorite Pakistani and Indian writers, and mentioned that when one of them had been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, the panel realized that they could not even consider her because she had never been translated. Why not? Considering that her name got brought up at all means that she is obviously a very good writer.

Unfortunately for this writer, the decision of which works get translated has a lot to do with marketing. Who will have an audience if we bring them overseas? The incredibly popular contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami is a perfect example of marketing at work. For one thing, the Western pop culture fascination with Japan gives him an automatic market overseas. But what perhaps is more telling is that the Japanese consider him to have a distinctly western flavor in his writing. Though he is a genuinely talented writer, part of his acclaim stems from him being lucky enough to write in a way that is marketable to an international audience. He is at once exotic and familiar.

But American and British authors also have to face the audience problem as well. The old adage “write what you know” actually puts women and minorities at a distinct disadvantage. Though I don’t understand why, we tend to assume that only women want to read about the lives of women, or that only black people will care about the struggles of blacks. Only Jews (and students forced to in their high school English and history classes) want to read about the Holocaust. Nevertheless, I am supposed to believe that writing about a road trip across the United States (a road trip that is only possible because of certain financial privileges) and having copious amounts of sex with personality-less women has universal appeal (with no offense intended to Kerouac; his prose is quite good.). For whatever reason, we believe that writing about straight white cis-men is the only subject that does not automatically limit your audience.

Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk

Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk

I think my heroine Virginia Woolf said it best in A Room of One’s Own:

“And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing–room. A scene in a battle–field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”

Men complaining about war is important. Minorities writing about their difficult lot in life brings up issues we don’t want to hear because they make us uncomfortable. Women writing about relationships fall in danger of being considered chick lit (This alone, makes the prospect of writing fiction a little intimidating to me; what if no one takes me seriously?). In short, the writers we consider to be writing literature, that we consider to be important, have every bit as much to do with culture and marketing as with good writing. Considering this, the question of whether literature is dying or not becomes far more complicated.

Furthermore, it’s important to look at what literature is in the perspective of history. Charles Dickens was pop culture back in Victorian England. We use six poets to define the entire Romantic era of writing out of the hundreds of others writing back then.  Moby Dick, considered by many critics to be the greatest novel in the English language, gained more and more acclaim as years went on, aging as a fine wine. No one knew what was going to last, what would move people. If we think that readers were more literate back then, that writers were more skillful, we can’t forget that literacy rates were far lower, meaning that less people were writing, and out of those who were, we only remember a handful of those. Who knows who of the gazillions writing today will last? And why should we try to predict? We should read what moves us, what touches us. I’m not saying, of course, that what is marketed as “literary fiction,” is, by its very nature, not literary. I do love a lot of it and call a lot of it literature. But will history agree with the publisher and me? Who knows?! (The ?! is my favorite ungrammatical punctuation construction. So useful.)

On a final note, It seems to me that a lot of so-called literary fiction these days is defined more by a style than any surity (which I’m not sure is possible) of artistic merit. I see this in book reviews, but really, no where is this clearer to me than in creative writing classes. In a writing workshop, the students who have literary dreams write of the dysfunction and loneliness in contemporary life, either in sparse Hemingway-esque prose or in fractured, Post-Modern, meta-narratives. The style and subject matter alone will not and cannot make these literature. In fact, with few exceptions, I feel like these students are trying too hard. I cannot claim to be anything more than their peer, but I do know that the writers in my classes who have stood out to me, the ones whom I envied, were the ones who just wrote how they felt best told the story. They wrote what they wanted how they wanted to. I have to think that this alone gives them a better chance of accidentally writing “literature” than anyone who thinks they can achieve that through pretty packaging.

So, to bring this section of my overly-long post to a close, I have to say that claiming “literature is dying” is a bit of a cop-out fear. We don’t even really know what literature is, and the definition will shift as our culture shifts, just as it has shifted for centuries. It may be silly to suggest that anti-intellectualism is an illusion or that low culture doesn’t exist, but I don’t think we can know how history will read our culture, and what history will deem worth remembering. Literacy is no longer for the elite, and that means literature now can be read by anyone. Sometimes I wonder if the panic has more to do with this than anything else. So relax and read what you love.

IV. These are My Hipster Boots

A major part of creating our public identities is accessorizing, and belts and shoes only play a small part of it. Everything we touch, from what we eat to what computer we use (Are you a Mac or PC person? Or Linux) helps create an image of what kind of person we are. Books, as unfortunate as it may be, are not immune to this lifestyle marketing.

It may seem odd to think of books as objects in this way, but historically it’s nothing new. Medieval Manuscripts, bound lovingly in codex form, were originally the holders of sacred documents and whatever other stories monks deemed worthy. As literacy expanded, books became luxury items for the elite. Inked on hand-scraped vellum (calfskin), elaborately gilded and illustrated, these treasures were emblems of prestige more so than holders of stories. As writing moved to the masses, content became more important than packaging. These days the object itself matters little–we may mark it up, lend it out, give it away, or watch it fall apart with ease–the point is what’s inside: the words. The thesis of my book history class has been that innovations in book production have tended towards ease and cheapness of production. I would amend this to say that it has followed the flow of education in Western culture from the religious elite, to the political elite, and finally to the masses.

Knowledge in our culture no longer lies in the hands of a monarchy, nor, really, in the hands of a democracy. Some would argue that knowledge is now socialist. I’d actually say that it belongs to specialists. We live in an age of specialization, not Renaissance people. The internet may allow anyone to speak, but who listens to us depends (mostly) on who agrees with us. Books are sold in the same way; dividing bookstores up into sections is only the beginning of it. Books marketed as literature have beautiful, artsy covers and are rather expensive–$14.95 for a paperback. A newer edition of Jane Eyre has sketchy, gothy illustrations by artist Dame Darcy that are designed to catch the eye of an alternative, hipster-goth audience. Graphic novels with literary pretensions usually come printed in a size closer to that of a “normal” novel than that of a comic book. Every choice in the printing of a book has the book’s potential audience in mind. Specialization, of course, does have its advantages: it makes it very easy to find media related to our interests. However, it makes it near impossible to discover the new topics that may become our interests.

Go to the magazine rack of any bookstore and look at the huge variety of different sections.  If I were to buy Bitch Magazine from Border’s Books (I don’t), I would have to go to the gay and lesbian interest section of the magazine rack. Bitch, however, is a magazine for feminists of all sexualities, and, for that matter, genders. Though I don’t have this problem buying direct from them or finding it at Powell’s (though they do keep a few for sale in the Women’s Studies section), I would hazard that more people shop at Border’s than Powell’s. This means that only people who felt that the gay and lesbian interest section caters to their interests will stumble upon Bitch Magazine. This perpetuates stereotypes of who can be a feminist and what kinds of people can read the magazine. It prevents the important ideas the magazine authors from reaching and educating a mass audience.

However, I respectfully disagree with the panelists who seemed to believe that the internet alone caused this specialization. Newspapers, too, come in sections, and I’d hazard that people tend to ignore the sections that don’t pertain to their interests. The net may not ameliorate the problem, but the problem comes from a cultural trend (that may, I admit, partially have been spurred by the net.). Not being Super Woman, or Magic Psychic Problem Solver Chick™, I don’t have a good answer to this. It does, however, stress to me the importance of a liberal arts education and the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to the world. I think supporting liberal arts approaches has the potential to bring renaissance men and women back in vogue.

V. But,  Steph, You Just Made Everything More Complicated

I’m afraid that like Dr. Samuel Johnson (who perhaps is my least favorite writers), I’m going to have to end with a “conclusion in which nothing is concluded.” I love books, especially beautiful editions of books. Nevertheless, I also love education and believe that everyone should have the opportunity to read whatever they want. I thinking blogging can be a powerful tool, and a fantastic chance to hear voices of wisdom we may not hear, but I also know the internet to be a rather useless place full of trolling, misinformation, anger, useless content and downright stupidity. I don’t want books to go the way of the scroll and hand-stretched parchment, but I also don’t want them to become, once more, a symbol of elitism. Elitism is not the friend of the educated; it alienates us, feeds our egos instead of our peers.

I do think that perhaps we worry too much. Everything changes and has been changing for years. This does not stop me from hating chat speak and net abbreviations or bristling when I see advertisements for TV shows such as “The Girls Next Door.” Nevertheless, if the popularity of such events as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and Wordstock, and the fact that English is still an incredibly common major are any indication, there are still plenty of people who love reading and books in our culture.

Finally, I’d just like to note that many authors are using the web in creative ways to support reading. One of

Goodbye Madame Butterfly is beautifully printed.

Goodbye Madame Butterfly is beautifully printed.

the books I’m currently reading, Goodbye Madame Butterfly (it’s fantastic, btw), has a website that includes samples of the essays in the book, and information on the creative process that went into designing it.  I think there are plans to eventually add a discussion board to the site for readers to address the complex issues raised in the book. Jasper Fford, author of the incredibly entertaining Thursday Next books, has an amusing website for his heroine which pretends to be an artifact from the zany alternate world of the books. Mark Z. Danielewski, author of the cult hit House of Leaves, began his complex novel on the net itself. It’s a small beginning, but it makes me realize that the world wide web and the more tangible realm of paper and ink don’t have to fight if they don’t want to. Creativity and resourcefulness are the keys to turning what seems like a threat into opportunity.

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