The Way We Write Now
Stoddard Martin goes with the flow
The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters. O/R Books, 14 GBP. http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/the-digital-critic/
A decade ago Jeff Bezos remarked that at 500 years old, the printed book had had one of the most spectacular runs of any technology ever. From stone to papyrus, etching tools to illuminating brushes, pen to typewriter, we have moved. Hot metal to digital… Those who are over, say, fifty will remember the ugly crusts of Tipp-Ex, sole means by which to rethink and correct a final version. All now consigned to the trash of time. We ponder how best to save emails, modern equivalent to posted letters – burned disc? memory stick? printing out? Yet even email is going the way of old foolscap. What does one do with telegraphic missives on Messenger, let alone WhatsApp? Whose child at college answers the equivalent of Dad’s old-style weekly epistle? Whither the best of Byron, his correspondence, in the gone-tomorrow media of this new age?
Gutenberg is not wholly dead – books still proliferate in print – yet old tech is surely drifting from its pre-eminence. Who under thirty pays for ‘content’? And what is the value of ‘paywalls’ if they restrict research to an (un)happy few with access to academic accounts? So Lauren Elkin inquires in her wise contribution to this anthology. The economics of publishing has encountered what devastated the music ‘biz’ via Napster some time ago. Reaching an audience requires making content available as widely as possible. If you want to be read, get your words online, the quicker the better. Once there, consider boiling them down to the mot juste designed to produce those smiling, wow-ing or angry emojis. The snap reaction. Donald Trump’s Twitter farts. Whither fine criticism, let alone true literature, amid all this sound and fury signifying little?
Consider this. While writing these words, I am listening to a medieval motet on Radio 3. Medieval: not even anything so recent as Beethoven, or Bob Dylan. Thus, the ancient continues cheek-by-jowl with the new – positive, surely. Digital tech does not exclude longer considered creation: with links, it may enable easier access to it. Before sitting down to paper with pencil, I wandered an hour on Facebook reading a 1200 word, online review in piquant prose about a new book on old fashions, as well as two articles in Corriere della Sera about Italian politics, clicking the translation button as needed. This shouldered aside a lot of diurnal bumpf on Parliamentary sex scandal, bilious rage at Trump – the usual. I could roam free, no longer restricted by former ‘gatekeepers’. I got an up-to-date aperçu on China from a Vietnam vet who still lives in southeast Asia. I travelled with another far-away colleague back to the Berlin of Marlene Dietrich.
A female friend who had great success in the fiction and film world of the Nineties and Noughties got up at the Royal Society of Literature a few years ago and stated, ‘Amazon is destroying our culture’. A cry of ‘hear, hear’ went up among what she would privately (and cruelly) refer to as the ‘coffin-dodgers’ filling the auditorium at Somerset House. No one dared challenge a charge so univocally lauded as ‘sound’, but the unregenerate Californian in me (‘You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave…’) was heard to murmur, ‘Not so, mon amie’. We are living through a veritable renaissance. You can publish a book in London and have it in the hands of a reader in Wyoming or Warsaw in a day. Gone is the spectacle of John Calder dragging a suitcase full of Beckett around the bookshops of Paris or the U.S. And how can any lover of the Word truly object to this opening-out? Weren’t Gutenberg and Caxton themselves facilitating such a process? What was print but a way to make the Word available beyond the kings and prelates who could afford splendid single volumes monks spent a lifetime scripting by hand?
The Digital Critic assays the splendeurs et misères of this new age. It can be dipped into at leisure or read whole in an afternoon. I did the latter, being an oldie intent on skrying the future his sons must inhabit. There are of course downsides. Louis Bury lists ‘proliferation of vacuous think pieces’, ‘immediacy of response’, ‘endless patter of Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads’, ‘indignant witchhunts’, ‘nutritionless listicles’ and not least ‘topical criticism’ – i.e., ‘news that [fails to] stay news’ to paraphrase Ezra Pound (as he does). Joanna Walsh adds a tendency to evade the serious matter in a text in favour of what sort of croissant an author prefers – a foible enhanced rather than created by the digital age: Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion made careers depicting culture via what shoes surfers scoffed at on Windansea Beach or what leathers Huey Newton wore instead of what he was saying about the Black Panthers. Luke Niema points out that the free-for-all of the net is growing less free via rearguard actions from old media – The New York Times, Paris Review, The Guardian – which aspire to be ‘aggregators’ of others’ blogs, posts or tweets. This morphs into Robert Barry’s query as to whether the net was ever truly free of gatekeepers, given its invisible gods: the service providers, web hosts, domain registrars, search engines, recommendation algorithms and so on. Laura Waddell extends this into discussion of how data-harvesting turns every internet user into a ‘digital currency’.
Despite all this, huge upsides remain. Bury extols quick and vast access to genealogies of ideas. Ellen Jones cites equivalent access to ‘malleabilities’ of translation. Restoration of isolation for imaginative writers is envisaged by Will Self, solitude in front of the screen dispelling a stultifying group-think purveyed by creative writing schools. Seminar-style conversation has been a recent ‘enemy of promise’, he believes, causing the writer’s most precious thoughts to dissipate into hot air. Scott Esposito concurs from a related perspective: the phenomenon of online conversation creates a ‘whole new class of critic’ that could not have emerged in a Cyril Connolly era of literary cocktail parties and clubs, where small talk and other non-virtual intercourse sealed lucrative, privileged networks. Elsewhere among learned offerings in this book, Kasia Boddy points out that the principles of good criticism mooted by Tobias Smollett in the 18th century have not been altered fundamentally by the net. Anna Kiernan agrees, though her points of reference are John Crowe Ransom in 1937 and the contemporary film critic Mark Kermode.
Such snippets indicate the tour d’horizon this book offers: where we are, where we have been and where we are going in ‘literary culture online’. It is worth reading and referring back to, thus having on a shelf in print. Buy it, but remember: you would not have heard of it were it not for a few considered paragraphs provided free and unencumbered behind a restrictive paywall from a distinctive, ancient and nowadays exclusively online cultural journal. As Sara Veale tells us, there are digital publishers who ‘do it for the love’ as well as big-name, well-funded entities which have taken a tip from the proliferation of words online and no longer pay authors, suggesting that they should be happy to work simply for the boost they may get to their ‘credibility in the mainstream media’. The internet has created pioneering outlets and selfless facilitators for others. It has not eliminated exploiters or rogues. Revolutions come; human nature is hard to change.
Dr STODDARD MARTIN is an author and publisher