friday musings on the literary 03.07.2008, 5:07 PM
posted by sebastian mary
Faber chief executive Stephen Page's article in yesterday's Guardian outlines some straightforward ways of taking advantage of social media, on-demand business models and so on in the interests of sustaining Faber into the 21st century. Push out content that brings people back to your core product; build communities; leverage print on demand. All fairly basic stuff.
But the comments are intriguing. Granted, Comment Is Free for some reason attracts exceptionally bellicose commenters; but even so the juxtaposition of Faber, a bastion of traditional highbrow literature, with its associations of TS Eliot and the 'aristocracy of culture', with the digital space, has prompted howls of derision entirely out of proportion to the relatively moderate statements in Page's piece.
The idea of using the Web - which, notwithstanding its roots in the military, has a strong bottom-up ideology - to further good old-fashioned 'high culture' is horrifying to one commenter: "Why must *YOU* be the one to create that additional content, when heretofore that content has been (relatively) independently produced? Because you need to control opinion and dictate what the reading public is told about?". To another, Page's attempts to harness the Web for old-fashioned publishing is doomed, because the internet's culture of sharing - via Project Gutenberg and elsewhere - will eventually mean that all books are free.
It seems as though the great commenting public wants it all ways. Faber is an intellectually-snobbish establishment and must give way before the bottom-up populism of digital content. Publishing should keep its grubby corporate hands off the purity of the internet's gift economy. Serious books are found only in independent booksellers. 'Serious writers' use the Web nowadays. The print book is doomed anyway. The print book will always exist. And so on.
What strikes me is that all these points are being muddled and thrown at the same article - often with little discernible reference to the thrust of the piece - because 'quality writing' is a cultural space where different kinds of internet use overlap. The Web is both a means of publishing content, and also a means of promoting content published in other media. But in the discourse of books and the internet the two are often talked about in the same breath, connected - or separated - by debates about quality, democracy and so on.
Page laments about the rise of the mass market, and the burying of 'serious' writing 'under a pile of celebrity biography, cookery and misery memoir'. But the ideology of 'the literary' - gestured at in Page's resolutely highbrow stance - is firmly connected to the tradition of print. Page does not envision a culture mediated solely through the Web, but rather a avision of 'global communities' finding niche interests and sourcing the books that nourish them, cheating the mass market of its final victory over 'serious' culture:
I am not an advocate of the life led online, but as broadband reaches all generations, genders and income brackets, so this will develop usefully. It won't be all of life but it must be a place where niche interests can develop, robbing the mass market of a portion of its control. Literature can thrive in these places.
So publishers must harness the great power of online networks through enriching reader experience. We must provide content that can be searched and browsed, and create extra materials - interviews, podcasts and the like. We mustn't be afraid of inviting readers to be involved. Beyond online retailing, publishers can now build powerful online places to showcase their books through their own and others' websites and build communities around their own areas of particular interest and do so with writers.
'Literature' here evokes a well-rooted (if not always clearly-defined) ideology. When I say 'literary' I mean things fitting a loose cluster of - sometimes self-contradictory - ideas including, but not limited to:
the importance of traceable authorship
the value of 'proper' language
the idea that some kinds of writing are better than others
that some kinds of publishing are better than others
that there is a hierarchy of literary quality
And so on. If examined too closely, these ideas tend to complicate and undermine one another, always just beyond the grasp. But they endure. And they remain close to the core of why many people write. Write, as an intransitive verb (Barthes), because another component of the ideology of 'literary' is that it's a broadcast-only model. If you don't believe me, check out any writers' community and see how much keener would-be Authors are to post their own work than to critique or review that of others. 'Literary' works talk to one another, across generations, but authors talk to readers and readers don't - or at least have never been expected - to talk back. (Feel free, by the way, to roll your own version of this nexus, or to disagree with mine. One of the reasons it's so pervasive as a set of ideas is because it's so damn slippery.)
Recently, in our Arts Council research, Chris and I have interviewed writers, magazines, publishers and proponents of countless other types of literary activity. And it's clear that the writerly world uses the Web in two distinct ways. Firstly, it is - as Page's article describes - an effective way of promoting or streamlining literary activity that is not intrinsically digital. A good example might be the way in which online zines function as a front-line filter for new writing - as it were the widest-mesh filter for literary quality - and for many is often the first taste of publishing.
People use the Web to share work, peer-review their writing, promote activities, sell books and find others with the same interests. But this activity happens almost always with reference to the ideology of the literary - in particular, to the aspirational associations of broadcast-only, hard-copy-printed, selected-and-paid-for-and-edited-by-someone-else-and-hopefully-bought-and-read-by-the-public publication. For those submitting to such magazines, the hope is that they will move up the literary food chain, get published in better known journals, and perhaps - the holy grail - finally after decades of grim and impecunious slogging, be anthologized by Faber.
But while the majority of 'literary' activity online is of this sort, defined always implicitly in relation to the painful journey towards selection for the ultimate validation of print publication, the vast majority of writing online is not. For starters, most of it doesn't self-identify as 'creative': it's informational, discursive, conversational and ephemeral. Then the Web encourages collaborative writing, interrogating the idea of individual voice. Fan fiction, with its lack of interest in 'originality', peer-to-peer social structures and cheerfully hedonic attitude interrogates the idea of 'originality'. Collaborative writing technologies interrogate the idea of authorship; 1337 interrogates 'proper' writing. I have yet to find a collaborative writing platform (try Protagonize, 1000000monkeys or ficlets if you like) that's produced a story I want to reread for its own sake. Ben has written recently on how 'boring' he finds hypertext. The skittish and innovation-hungry blogosphere, while increasingly a source of books is not in terms of the output most natural to it 'literary' in any sense that bears any relation to tradition of such. And when stories are told in a form that makes best use of the internet's boundless, unreliable, multi-platform qualities - think of an alternate reality game - this bears little resemblance to anything that could be assessed in such terms either.
I'm aware that all this could easily be read either as a dismissal of the cultural value of the Web, or else as a call to the world of literature to get back in its box. But I mean neither of those things. What I do want to suggest, though, is that it's not enough to murmur soothingly about how Web is a young form, and that it'll take a while for 'great writers' to emerge. Rather, it strikes me that the ideology of 'the literary' - including that of 'great writers' - is profoundly bound to the physical form of books, and to pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the Web.
Obviously plenty of print books have no literary value. But the ideology of 'literary' is inseparable from print. Authorship is necessary and value-laden at least partly because with no authorship there's no copyright, and no-one gets paid. The novel packs a massive cultural punch - but arguably 60,000 words just happens to make a book that is long enough to sell for a decent price but short enough to turn out reasonably cheaply. Challenge authorship, remove formal constraints - or create new ones: as O'Reilly's guides to creating appealing web content will tell you, your online readership is more likely to lose interest if asked to scroll below the fold. Will the forms stay the same? My money says they won't. And hence much of what's reified as 'literary', online, ceases to carry much weight.
So net-savvy proponents of 'literary' stuff aren't trying to use the Web as a delivery mechanism. Why would you, when there are so many other things it's useful for? Tom Chivers, live poetry promoter and organizer of the London Word Festival, estimates that he spends a third to half of his time as a promoter on online community-building activities. But the 'literary' stuff that he's organizing happens elsewhere; his online activity is vital to promoting his work, but is not the work itself. Similarly, I spent a fascinating hour or so this afternoon talking to Joe Dunthorne, who told me that he was spurred to complete his novel Submarine by the enthusiastic popular response that first drafts of the initial material generated on writers' community ABCTales - an intriguingly twenty-first century way to find the validation you need to push your writing career forward. Tom and Joe are both in their twenties, passionate about writing and confidently net-native. Both use the Web in a way that supports their literary interests. But neither sees the Web as a suitable format for 'final' publication.
This isn't to suggest that there's no room for 'the literary' online. Finding new writers; building a community to peer-review drafts; promoting work; pushing out content to draw people back to a publisher's site to buy books. All these make sense, and present huge opportunities for savvy players. But - and here I realise that this all may be just a (rather lengthy) footnote to Ben's recent piece on Hypertextopia - to attempt to transplant the ideology of the literary onto the Web will fail unless it is done with reference to the print culture that produced it. Otherwise the work will, by literary standards, be judged second-rate, while by geek standards it'll seem top-down, limited and static. Or just boring.
I'll be interested to see how Faber approaches online community-building. Done well, here's no reason why it shouldn't help shift books. But while it might help shift books, or be used to reproduce or share books, the Web is fundamentally other to the philosophy that produces books. Anyone serious about using the Web on its own terms as a delivery mechanism for artistic material needs to abandon print-determined criteria for evaluating quality - literary values - and investigate what the medium is really good for.
hyokon on March 8, 2008 2:07 PM:
Thanks for this great article. People have different views about the future of the book as we know. I think the core reason why people seem generally more careful in cheering the new age of book is that we fear deterioration in depth of the human mind. As someone who makes a living out of innovation, I usually speak for innovation: "Don't be stuck with the old model. Learn the future. Move forward." However, even I am sometimes concerned. Will we become shallow? Will people have the patience to read anything longer than 3 pages? (Or did the world change in a way that anything longer is unnecessary?) I believe and hope that there will be a place for deep thinking, but still I am worried.
Chris on March 9, 2008 7:28 PM:
I think this is about authority. As a literary elite fear losing the ability to control the canon, so there's a geek clique clinging to their codes, rules and rituals, alarmed by all these newcomers treating the web like it was theirs to do with what they please. And in the midst of this are people who want to read and respond to interesting stuff wherever it occurs, and who will make art using whatever tools they can find. Nobody tells them what it's appropriate or not to do online.
As more people start downloading novels to their Kindles/e-books/i-whatevers then the division between print and web culture will vanish in a trice, in the same way that cyberspace has now merged with... well, space.
The organisations funded by Arts Council England use the web already and will use it in future, I'm sure, in all kinds of ways that spring from their passion for exciting writing and deeply held belief in broadening access to literature.
sebastian mary on March 10, 2008 5:33 AM:
I'm not talking about 'a division between print and web culture'. We all use the Web, and the division doesn't really exist. I'm talking about the difference between using the Web as a promotional tool that refers elsewhere, and using the Web as a publishing medium in its own right. History may prove me wrong, but it seems to me that 'literary' works just fine, online and off, in the first case but not the second.
Perhaps I didn't make it clear enough that I love both literary and Web cultures, and am fascinated by both the points of intersection between the two and also by creative forms emerging online. It just looks as though these forms are emerging with little reference to notions of aesthetics that evolved offline. Thus it's less about 'a geek clique clinging to their codes' than - zOMFAxxorz!!!1one - a geek horde ignoring the codes and unexamined aesthetic assumptions of the pre-Web world.
Clive Warner on March 10, 2008 9:11 AM:
On the one hand, it appears to me, are the large publishers such as Random House and Faber & Faber who believe they are the only ones entitled to judge what's a "proper book" and what's not. Unfortunately they mainly produce an avalanche of celebrity rubbish and flavour-of-the-moment nonfiction, and actually pay the bookstores to display the product, which is even provided free. What kind of business model is that?
Then on the other - I note with horror Border's new venture with Lulu - there is the huge flood of books from ordinary people who appear to think that just because they can use MS Word they have something worth writing. And of course almost all of it is badly spelt rubbish.
Somewhere in the middle is the small press trying hard to stay alive while being shut out of the bookstores and drowned out by a chorus of "see my wonderful book about my nice cats"
What a bloody awful business publishing is. Maybe it's even worse than the music business!
Dominic Took on March 10, 2008 9:18 AM:
The really interesting thing is that if you ask the consumer 30+, they want a real book. But will the entire market always tip over so that everyone is buying digital media? Or of course will they just blend blogs and books into one? I've got to admit I've had the idea so many times, but I still don't have much of a name for myself, so there wouldn't be many people to read it. The point is there would be, even if its just 25%, a group of people looking at books.
Copyright is still an issue as well, even if I own it someone can still play around with the content.
As a self published author and one who published at eighteen, I'm certainly keeping a close eye on this. But I also don't underestimate 'fads' and/or anything that could be hyped beyond its worth. The article by Stephen Page was interesting, but the answers seemed very obvious, so I couldn't understand why he hadn't said them in the first place. Look at Amazon and look at Facebook, then look at any of the major blogging websites. Those three things are a book store, a brand identity and on-line network and a place where authors and writers can talk about their work and publish their work.
Yes Arts council England fund youwriteon.com and I'm sure they fund others too. It certainly won't be CLEAR cut and that's what annoys me. I run a company in the online game market and it is VERY volatile. In the past 5 years one massive franchise and several other smaller ones have emerged and cut off the blood supply to smaller companies. The PC games market is a mess; in simple terms. But online content is never fixed, its constantly changing, lest anyone forget.
Lee on March 11, 2008 2:18 PM:
An interesting and valuable piece, but I find it difficult to understand just why you believe that 'the ideology of "literary" is inseparable from print'. Rather, I would argue that this is a historical development and like all such developments subject to change. After all, print is for the most part the only means we've had till very recently. In my view, at least, you haven't established why the literary is inherently print-based. Authorship, for example, is not: witness oral traditions, drama etc. The single (copyright-protected) author is essentially a Romantic inheritance, and I'm even tempted to call the contemporary writer/editor relationship a form of collaborative authorship.
Though I myself use the web for essentially traditional literary purposes, it seems likely that a new medium will call forth new forms of creative endeavour. Depending upon your definition of the literary - and that too is not immutable - this work may be literary, or something none of us can yet envision.
bob stein on March 11, 2008 5:48 PM:
in trying to understand, indeed sympathize with your impulse to wall the literary off from native web-based forms i believe i've had an insight into the long-standing debate i've had with you and Ben over your contention that the codex is by definition the gold-standard form of literary text consumption and will be forever more. in essence, i think that when we talk about computer-based forms we are not talking about the same thing. when you and ben talk about the computer as a medium of expression (for text) you are talking about what might happen in a browser. since i started using computers nearly 15 years before i encountered the web, the intelligent screen is the medium, not the browser per se.
for me, the ever-evolving hardware and software combo that we nickname computers is defined by its plasticity, by its ability to shape-shift from music player to movie player to reading environment. we don't have the reading bit right yet, but we will. all this is NOT meant to argue with your basic point that new technologies will in the long run give birth to new forms of expression which are different from those that came before, rather only to suggest that i believe there will be a place for the literary on the machines of tomorrow. for that is how we will carry our culture with us -? not necessarily in the browser, but certainly in digital form.
sebastian mary on March 12, 2008 8:51 AM:
'Literary' as a set of ideas has its origin in the gradual separation of aesthetic criteria from the centers of power. Arguably, once upon a time the best artistic creations were whatever the current royal court said they were; but (in the UK certainly) this began to change with the spread of printing, the retreat of the court of Charles I into aesthetic isolationism, and shortly thereafter the Civil War.
It's no coincidence that the time shortly after the Glorious Revolution (the end of constitutional monarchy) also saw the birth of a 'literary' elite (the Augustans) claiming to be custodians of the highest artistic values. This, in turn, was enabled by the boom in printing in the early 18th century, which allowed authors to subsist independent of court patronage.
This is a gross oversimplification of an immensely complex interweaving of cultural, political and economic factors, but informs my understanding of the supposedly 'objective' and self-evident values underpinning 'literary' judgements of quality. And it's profoundly connected to the economics and forms of print.
None of this is to suggest that amazing cultural forms are unable to emerge online. Quite the opposite. My point is merely that by viewing creativity in the networked context according to an unexamined and unhistoricised set of aesthetic criteria risks blinding us to spaces where genuinely exciting and energetic cultural stuff is emerging - but which, to make sense as such, needs to be viewed on its own terms and not through a lens of aesthetic prejudices determined by a different medium.
@ Bob: I think that difference is indeed somewhere near the core of why Ben and I see digital stuff differently. But (though I can't speak for Ben) I'd add that an additional difference between us is a willingness on my part to explore the Web and its cultural impact whilst remaining open to the possibility that digital will not, in fact, be the form in which 'we carry our culture with us'. The pace of technological advancement and format obsolescence; the frightening reality of climate change and global instability; the endemic creep of link rot; these things are to the Web what bookworms are to libraries. I have no idea which one will prevail. But where you're committed to one future, I'm keeping my bets spread.
Lee on March 12, 2008 11:00 AM:
@sebastian mary: my point exactly! In sketching the historical connections you've in fact neatly demonstrated that the concept of the literary is not innate, objective, immutable, but altogether dependent on a cultural, political, and economic context, a context subject to change.
Though I'm not at all somebody to tout objective aesthetic criteria, there are, however, hardwired human propensities which probably could be claimed as a basis for a certain universality - things like curiosity, pattern recognition, the pleasure in tension/expectation/resolution (related perhaps to basic sexual urges) etc.
But I too am keeping my bets spread, and usually predictions about the future are grossly inaccurate anyway. How something arises is not necessarily a sufficient foundation for determining future developments, except in hindsight. Which black swan will appear next?
Lee on March 12, 2008 11:09 AM:
@ Bob, what a fascinating point about the intelligent screen! You've made something very clear to me, i.e. the need to distinguish between digital and the web, which are often conflated in all such discussions. I may need to get back to you about this, since I've been asked to write a series of pieces about web-based literature for an online journal - more or less literary criticism, but I have a certain leeway to expand in interesting directions.