25 September 2006
Trevor: My grandfather was a truck driver in Twin Falls, and when I was about 10 years old, I spent a summer with him on the road. He ran a route through San Francisco down to Los Angeles, then back up the coast all the way up to Portland before he hit Interstate 84 and cruised back home. My hometown barely held 20,000 people, so the memories of those port cities are still indelibly burned into me, and I realized fairly early in my teens that I'd need to breathe the more humid air here. I know that sounds way too much like the country mouse visiting the city in those Warner Bros cartoons, but that's a pretty close comparison. I was able to visit Portland several times before finally moving here in 2001, and on each successive trip I was more and more seduced by the overall sleepiness of the area; there are always exciting things happening here, but no one seems to get too wrapped up in any one thing. Except for crystal meth, of course. We can't get enough of it.
Lance: You serve as co-editor of Chiasmus's Northwest Edge anthology series. How did you become involved in the alternative-publishing world in general, and Chiasmus in particular?
Trevor: It all started amidst a round of drinks at Ringlers back in 2002. Lidia Yuknavitch and I had kept a sporadic email correspondence going for a few years, and it just happened that she and her partner Andy Mingo came out for dinner one night. At that time, two girls review was on permanent hiatus, and Lidia was itching to start up something similar to the Deviant Fictions anthology she and L.N. Pearson edited a couple of years prior. Before the evening was over, the three of us vowed to do something together in the near future, but I didn't think too much of it at the time because I didn't know Lidia well enough then to realize that she is one thousand percent committed to backing up every word she says with her art and actions, and Andy is incredibly calculating and business-minded when it comes to pulling things together. As a team, the two of them are a true force of nature, and I quickly (and very gladly) found myself swept into the anthology project that became Fictions of Mass Destruction. It's a couple years later now, but we just followed that book up with the third installment, The End of Reality, which is both an anthology and DVD compilation of the most interesting writing and short films we could lay our grubby hands on, and we're really happy with the end result. So I tend to think of my ongoing association with Chiasmus as one of those rare instances where tavern talk actually ended up walking the walk.
Lance: Kathy Acker strikes me as one of the most important influences on your fiction and thinking. Would you talk a little about your relationship with her and her texts, and what other influences—literary, theoretical, and extra-literary—you feel are essential to contextualizing your larger project?
Trevor: Kathy was first and foremost a teacher to me, and it's hard to believe she's been gone for almost 10 years now. What she taught me was the importance of community in art, and of supporting one another's work inside whatever community that might be. I was very fortunate to work with her on a web project for a couple of years before she passed away, and I am still taken aback today by her generosity. When I started going to conferences fresh out of graduate school and began meeting other people who had been touched in similar ways, I quickly found this was simply the way she was. There's a lot of angel and devil talk out there about Kathy; you don't have to dig too far to find people who describe their relationships with her as both charmed and strained. Perhaps I didn't know her well or long enough, but my experiences were nothing but positive. But then again, I adored her completely.
I'd also say that her insistence upon writing as an act of making reverberates strongly with me. Her writing process is very similar to that of an assemblage or collage artist who uses a wide variety of materials to solve a problem. Of course, her materials are other texts, so reading and considering the work of others is absolutely critical to her process. The ability to inhabit the mouths of other writers, to use their experiences, situations and characters in different contexts, takes a true appreciation for the primary works from which she is rifting. That first section of In Memoriam to Identity where Acker puppets Arthur Rimbaud is probably the most beautiful and stirring piece of writing I've ever read, and I think it comes from her having channeled Rimbaud's agony line by line from A Season in Hell. Like Burroughs before her, Kathy understood that language isn't an indifferent conduit for human experience; it is alive and writhing, sure, but it also has a memory and it has a voice of its own. Acker's consistent claims to have no unique or deliberate "voice" in her writing comes from this understanding that could only be accessed by reading and using other texts.
Lance: In many ways, I think of the fictions in your new collection, Everyone I Know Lives on Roads, as (troubled though the term might be) Avant-Pop explorations. That is, they seem profoundly aware of and shot through by a deeply conflicted pop-cultural sensibility, while at the same time deeply committed to the avant-garde's politico-aesthetic goal of destabilization. Does that sound about right to you? If so, how does a writer so greatly invested in the popular moment resist becoming implicated in the very thing he/she seeks to critique and undermine?
Trevor: First, writers have to realize that becoming implicated or subsumed by this pop-cultural "thing" you're talking about isn't the end of all ends, because being co-opted is actually a tremendous opportunity to corrupt the entity that is doing the co-opting. You mentioned Built to Spill earlier, whose modus operandi is to maximize the benefits of being on a major recording label while making a very deliberate attempt to minimalize all the things that suck about it. This of course takes the ability to discern the advantages from the pitfalls in the first place, and to run the very great risk that your work won't reach millions of people. That is, if you care about your work reaching millions of people. Because if that's your goal as a writer, you need to think very seriously about your choice of artistic medium, especially if you're among those of us in the dead-tree-editions crowd.
So that brings me to my obviously fuzzy answer to your question. Pop culture is curbed only by its own pervasiveness, and everyone who is still reading me ramble here already knows that popular culture in the U.S. is tolerant of text-based art forms, but not at all supportive of them in sustainable or meaningful ways. In other words, few people read books on a daily basis, yadda yadda yadda (and here starts the handwringing over "What's wrong with us?" and "Blame videogames!", blah blah blah). I spent a lot of time worrying about this kind of stuff in college, and can regurgitate a lot of it using the fancy language and theory I was taught in grad school, but ultimately I really do think things are going to be fine in the long run. Ben Marcus came within a whisper of running the Iowa Writers' Workshop, folks. Relax already.
That doesn't mean, of course, that we don't push back, especially given the flattening of virtually every form of discourse in our culture over the last five years. We desperately need to break through the ridiculous either/or-isms that have squelched important conversations in this country about politics, religion, and civil liberties. We need to think primarily in problematics, and secondarily in problem-solving. Nuance. Layers. Militant possibility.
Lance: If you could give two or three bits of advice to young writers seeking to move away from predictable writing and publishing moves, what would they be?
Trevor: If you're not already running a litmag or doing a zine of some kind, start one, especially if you have no idea what one is or where to find one. You will learn infinitely more about your own sensibilities—and thus your own writing—in a few months of wading through a slushpile of cold manuscripts solicited from a post on craigslist than you ever would taking classes at some awful college. Save your money. You're going to need it.
But spend at least a little bit of that tuition fund on a bitchen laptop, one that will simultaneously allow you to download what's going on right now so you can eventually hack the future. Infiltrate places like WordPress, MySpace, YouTube, and Wikipedia and retool them to serve your personal media empire. The future will not be televised, but it sure as hell will be syndicated.
22 September 2006
16 September 2006
Last month I emceed a northwest edge 3 reading at Powells Bookstore in Portland, featuring five contributors from the anthology/DVD compilation. If you didn't or couldn't make it, lucky for you that Karl Lind was on hand to film these little gems:
All files are in QuickTime (.MOV) format. Enjoy.
From left to right: Rob Johnson, Philip Walsh, Oliver Harris, Jorge Cuevas Cid, Davis Schneiderman, Jeffrey Miller, Katherine Streip, Allen Hibbard (photo courtesy of Oliver Harris).
You’re probably all dying to know about the week-long symposium “Quién Es?: William S. Burroughs Revisited,” held from Sept. 4-8 at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City.
Well, wonder no more.
UNAM undergraduate (now grad student) Jorge Cuevas Cid put the entire thing together with little monetary support, no real interest in Burroughs among the faculty, and no direct contacts with any of the eventual participants. Amazingly, he managed to get an all-star roster of Burroughs scholars on board for a week of fascinating intellectual exchange and (sometimes drink-) inspired conversation.
Philip Walsh, of York University, co-editor, with me, of Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization (Pluto Press, 2004), presented on the sociological manifestations of the Burroughs’ work in terms of self-identity, provocatively linking Burroughs and theorist Julian Jaynes, whose idea of the bicameral mind—where earlier human brains literally heard the voice of god commanding their actions—provided a fantastic entry point into connections between Burroughs and consumer identity.
Rob Johnson, of University of Texas—Pan-American, working on both La Frontera and the Beats, rehearsed the excellent argument of his new book, The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: The South Texas Beatss. The text argues for the significance of the Valley (an area of South Texas) to the Burroughs canon. In many ways, this was a sociological study as well—connecting Burroughs with the “wetbacks” he employed as a farmer in Pharr, Texas, and more broadly, to his later experiences in Mexico City. Also, a highpoint was a great video interview with Ted Marak, one of the Texas “beats,” who was present on September 6, 1951 in Mexico City at a very significant moment in literary history (more below).
Oliver Harris, of Keele University, perhaps the most important Burroughs scholar of the last decades, continued his keen attention to manuscript history, arguing that Burroughs’ first three novels (in terms of writing, not publication), Junky, Queer, and The Yage Letters, actually focused more heavily on Mexico City than previously realized. Harris uses archival research to justify his argument, and proposes, that if the economics and publishing history of Burroughs’ early writing years (1949-1953) had been different, the as-now-understated Mexico connections would completely change our sense of this period in Burroughs’ work.
Katherine Streip, of Concordia University in Montreal, offered a very cool paper on the Burroughs and cut-up inspired music, art, and other DJ-culture overlaps. Her connections, particularly, with avant-garde transactions of the last 50 years, helped reinforce Burroughs’ pop-culture credentials without retreading his over-analyzed mainstream collaborations.
I discussed Burroughs’ cut-ups as not only a harbinger of later media experiments, but as tied to earlier tradition of user-intervention in book consumption. Specifically, I traced the work of Newberry Library benefactor John M. Wing in his practice of extra-illustration—the insertion of images, book pages, pulp-materials, and portraiture into separate books, expanding those books into multiple re-plated volumes. This links up with Burroughs’ use of a specific newspaper page, The New York Times front from Sept. 17, 1899, and the spread of selected phrases through his small-magazine cut-up production of the mid-1960s.
Allen Hibbard, of Middle Tennessee State University, spoke on Burroughs as literary and cultural saboteur, with evocative discussion of many theoretical couplings, including that of the Isma’ili renegade, Hassan I Sabbah, a twelfth-century figure of great importance for Burroughs and his collaborator Brion Gysin. Sabbah perfected the art of political assassination, and for Burroughs, became a representation of an alternative society set against the stultifying norms of the mainstream.
Jeffrey Miller, of Cadmus Editions, discussed the brouhaha over his publication of Tom Clark’s The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980) an attack on Chogyam Trungpa and the Naropa Institute, and his contract with Burroughs to shortly after publish a collection of the latter’s work called Early Routines. In a complex and thrilling narrative about the book business, the influence of Allen Ginsberg, and Burroughs’s own commitment, ultimately but not easily, to free speech, Miller—one damn fine storyteller—held the house in thrall.
And that’s not all—the Mexican audience at UNAM was fantastically responsive, responding to the papers in way that justified Jorge Cuevas Cid’s sense that Burroughs should be brought back, once again, to Mexico.
The conference, as I noted above, took place 55 years after an important literary event—Burroughs’ accidental shooting of his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in the Colonial Roma neighborhood of Mexico City on September 6, 1951. The stories of her death are multifarious, and what was apparently a William Tell gag gone horribly wrong, hung, like a spectre, over the entire wonderful week.
One of Harris’ next projects is Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs (forthcoming from Ohio University Press in 2007), and the title alludes to the fact that Burroughs came to Mexico on the run from the US law, with problems, no doubt, but with his family intact, and with some measure of hope for living a life free from control. After Joan’s death, the situation seemed much different.
Want to hear more? The group will look to publish the conference proceedings in English and Spanish.
Jeffrey Miller on one of the stone benches mentioned in Burroughs' novel Queer.
Oliver Harris at the door of the apartment building where Joan Vollmer was shot.
11 September 2006
The seemingly endless chase to be the bought and sold novel—that inherited product—the form dictated it seems now exclusively by economy and some weird
literary . . . “show.”
I still believe art may function to challenge the state, and not act in the service of it.
It is a choice.
To liberate art, over and over again.
To speak a body.
What may be the worth of women writers, were they to choose it.
To speak a body untethered from the so-called aims of narrative and economy.
Narratives authenticated and legitimized by consumerism—its shapes not mine.
It’s plot, trajectories ever thrusting forward, not mine.
Its leaving unsaid unwritten unseen the story of humanity and ordinary corporeal experience in favor of the story of the privileged; its entertainment value. Its wholesale price. Its distribution.
It’s inability to account for space, interval, gesture, touch, sound, retinal flash.
To speak a body.
To speak the true saga of desire—not the action driven capture of an object one—rather, the relentless and perpetual story of all creativity and being. Timeless and dark and spatial and repetitive as waves.
The what if story were repetition.
The what if story were fragments strung together as a life.
With all the chaos housed there.
Resisting narrative cohesion.
With all the disintegrations and dissolutions.
Resisting narrative telos.
Without a hero, but fully bodied, nonetheless.
The silence before.
Corporeal text enunciation.
Open your mouth.
Close your eyes.
Keep your hands loose and open and pointed palm side up.
The what if of a story dipping in and out of myth, epic, identity, spatiality.
The what if story were a series of gestures, or color, or light.
Why let the novel stick in this static and dead-end shiny product.
Consumer culture’s throw-away lover.
No one needs to fight or resist or do anything but buy and watch and go to sleep well satiated with bon bons.
Why do this to language, to bodies, to stories.
I understand, we get tired. Our lives are fundamentally driven by speed and doing.
If we are writers, we want to be legitimized, even by illegitimate sources.
If we are publishers, we want our “businesses” to “profit” – isn’t that good for writers?
If we are teachers, we want to be either loved or revered.
But could we not forgive ourselves?
Imagine different things to do with our money?
Our desire, our psychic want?
Remember a body and its lifeline to matter?
I put my palm on the bark of a redwood tree outside of my ordinary house and I close my eyes and breath and the amplification of my own heartbeat and my imagination’s half archeological half geological drive down into the ground where earthen rootedness overtakes television buzz and freeway hum remembers me.
It is ludicrously simple, a gesture like this.
Or this: I am in a bath, just a woman taking a bath, and suddenly my cunt is more than the object of a culture’s obsession, my aging is wisdom rather than depreciation, I am not a property losing value, I am no longer a voice moving toward the silence of not being published, I am a delicious gathering of mounds and tits and caves and corporeal reality, gushing and pulsing and without edges. My blood and my piss and my cum and my tears all remembering me. My imagination let loose again, back to her breathable blue past.
Why is that?
Why is it a woman in a bath can shoot herself to her origins, and a woman in the world is a slave? Yes the forms have changed, but still we chase inherited forms: wife, mother, writer.
Why do we take that?
Where’s the story which will liberate us from ourselves?
What moves us makes us.
It bothers me less and less that I cannot achieve legitimacy from illegitimate sources.
I want to read a story which remakes me away from this death of a life.
I want to face-off with a painting—its colors and composition and textures and gestures--more passionately than any lovers I’ve had.
I want my head to lose its thinking—spinning wheel—inside the language of music—its patterns and rhythms and dissonances and improvizations.
I want to be undone by art, remade in its image, for my world and its articulations, beautiful as they have been, have left me as yet unnamed.
I want to turn away from my so-called legitimized meaning-making forms: medicine, law, religion, government, philosophy, economy—and turn toward making itself, which is my own body—a metaphor for all of experience.
Where are the Whitmans? The Steins?
What has happened that we are blind and deaf and dumb, only able to score the fancy jobs or out-publish our sisters or eat dinner out in place of cooking and cleaning or shout at the television or stand in the street with some impotent hand-painted sign, our babies in expensive contraptions securing them to our chests, or in high-powered rugged-wheeled mountain bike strollers the price of a month’s rent?
What is it that drives us to purchase shoes and drink lattes and worry about the years writing their story across the flesh of our bodies, so much so we join health clubs or buy exercise videos and compliment one another when we see the pounds of flesh leaving? Why do we let go of the power of that story—skin story—heartbeat—what we think in deeper spaces—what we feel without telling—how we love in spite of its stolen and rotten definitions?
I know a woman artist in Lithuania who fed her children on dirt and roots and potatoes and weeds and the milk from a cow and rain water for four years.
Still they grew.
There is no story of this woman.
There is no “news.”
History writes itself on the small backs of children.
The woman is a painter. All of her canvasses carry images of children, women, men needing care.
They do not “sell” on the art market, so to speak. But we—those who have chanced to know her—buy them. Tell everyone we know. Visit her. Bring her the domestic things that make a home generative. Write stories which carry her.
They keep her alive.
She keeps me alive.
This is my prayer for women’s writing, that it untethers itself and surrenders to the free-floating possibility of making. Timeless. Repetitive. Corporeal.
I do not mean to sound “womanly.” Or feminist. Lately these categories have been co-opted, quite slyly and sadly. I mean only to insist on the body as a metaphor for experience, generative of new forms, for everyone, but perhaps most urgently accessed by women writers, were they to choose it.
Generative of a new economy—one in the service of living and loving and making.
Wanted: Women writers using language, subject matter, and narrative form in new and exciting ways. Editors for an anthology featuring experimental women writers writing in the 21st century seek submissions of previously unpublished prose up to 15 pages. We are looking for serious work that attempts to reveal new truths and/or impressions about the world we live in. Submissions must be sent as WORD attachments to email@example.com. Deadline: November 15.
Brooklyn College Women's Center
10 September 2006
The magazine's first print annual is now available, too--available for just the price of postage ($1.50) mailed to Temenos, English Department, CMU, Mount Pleasant, MI 48859. In it: Hal Jaffe, Lance Olsen, Cris Mazza, and many other most excellent writers.
Please also submit fiction, creative non, poetry, artwork, photography--whatever you'd like.
A related topic:
I pushed the students to produce a print annual of Temenos in part because it carries more weight with the powers-that-be. Said powers will be the ones making decisions about whether we can turn our MA into an MFA.
There's the topic, the MFA.
Part of me feels uncomfortable wanting to add to the world another terminal degree program in the humanities. Enough grad students now go wanting for successful careers. But part of me wants all the advantages for students and faculty such a program can bring to our school: the career opportunities an MFA at least makes possible, time (at least) for students to write--whatever the outcome, an energetic program, more interesting classes to take and teach, etc.
I'd love to know where other folks weigh in on (new) MFA programs.
09 September 2006
Usually the metaphor of architecture is applied to fiction in order to italicize craft in its creation. Or occasionally one mentions the use of architecture in fiction—in, say, some of Borges's short stories.
But I'm interested in asking how it is illuminating and stimulating to conceptualize fiction's structures and discourses as spaces one lives in and moves through as one might, for instance, a Bauhaus building, a tenement, a cathedral.
06 September 2006
Mad Hatters' Review Poetry Prose & Anything Goes Reading Series
September 15, 7-9pm
KGB Bar85 East 4th StreetNew York, NY
Readers: Ron Silliman, Debra Di Blasi, and Samuel R Delany http://www.madhattersreview.comContact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ron Silliman has written and edited 26 books to date, most recently Under Albany. In 2007, the University of California Press will issue the complete version of The Age of Huts. Between 1979 & 2004, Silliman wrote a single poem, entitled "The Alphabet". In addition to Woundwood, a part of VOG, volumes published thus far from that project have included ABC, Demo to Ink, Jones, Lit, Manifest, N/O, Paradise, (R), Toner, What and Xing. He has now begun writing a new poem entitled "Universe". Silliman was a 2003 Literary fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council as well as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 1998. Visitors to his weblog are quickly approaching the three-quarters of one million mark. He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania , with his wife and two sons, and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.
Debra Di Blasi (http://www.debradiblasi.com) received the 2003 James C. McCormick Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. Her books include The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions (forthcoming from FC2 Books in 2007), Prayers of an Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press), and Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions), winner of the 1998 Thorpe Menn Award. Her fiction has been adapted to film, radio, theatre, and audio CD in the U.S. and abroad. She is president of Jaded Ibis Productions, Inc., a transmedia corporation producing most notably, The Jirí Chronicles, a mélange of fictive audio interviews and music, videos, print, web and visual art. She is former art columnist at Pitch and taught experimental writing forums at Kansas CityArt Institute.
Samuel R Delany "is one of the two or three top living sci-fi writers. His work with porn, critical writing & comics all puts him into edgy spaces." (says Ron Silliman). He's never tame. His fictions include Dhalgren (1975), Atlantis: Three Tales (1995), Hogg (1995), and Phallos (2004). His most recent book, from Wesleyan University Press, is About Writing (2006). Samuel (aka Chip) teaches English and creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia and at the Naropa Summer Writing Program in Boulder, Colorado.
Seeking Guest Editor, Mad Hatters' Review
If any of you "alternative" writers think you might be interested in editing or co-editing Issue 7 (due to emerge 2/07) or Issue 8 (due to emerge 7/07), please email me at email@example.com with the subject line: query: guest editor. We have art editors and our own composers on board. The editorial decisions are generally made by groups of our editors (poetry and/or fiction/whatnot editors). This guest edited issue would be entirely yours, with some input & assistance as needed from me and our 3 associate editors. A small percentage of what we publish is solicited. Most pieces are decided from submissions sent during our 2 - 3 week reading periods.
Thanks! -- Carol
05 September 2006
And we do live in at least two cities, don’t we? I’d like to pick up a thread that runs through a number of the posts regarding literature, the market, and how one shapes the other, and the viability for a diverse/vigorous literature in a climate dominated by bottom-line publishing. (Put elsewhere as ‘What’s this blog for?’) But mainly in terms of larger sea change in culture that we seem to be living through. Joe cites John Updike’s complaining about Amazon cutting into his royalties (ease of buying used books translates into smaller print runs of new books & lower royalties for authors) and believes this phenomena signals hard times for all writers: if it’s getting harder and harder for a mainstream author to earn a living from writing, authors who write conceptually-driven fiction or poetry don’t have a chance? By extension, literature itself is in for a rough ride.
But I’d also like to bring up the flip side of this: A colleague of mine who teaches experimental/ avant-garde poetry takes it for granted that this is a golden age for said work precisely because of the availability Updike bemoans. That is, according to her, there’s never been a better time for (let’s call it) avant-garde poetry because sites like Amazon, or UbuWeb, or PENNsound make accessible work that used to only be available in bars, in the (now extinct) indie bookstore, underground. Anyone who wants to read conceptual/ avant-garde writing can get it now, and get it easily, while authors on this two-way street have accessibility to audiences that they couldn’t even dream about 20 years ago.
As Joe says, writing like this has never made money (though, yeah, it would be great if a poet didn’t have to work for Hallmark to make a living wage from his or her writing). Nor will it ever, I believe, so in a sense Updike’s sense of loss does signal an ever further financial marginalization for writing that by nature takes place in the shadow of mass culture.
A couple of statistics from Trevor Dodge’s web site seem to map out the terrain the experimental writer is up against: “78% of the titles published [in 2000] come from the small/self-publishers” (think poetry titles here) while “80% of the book sales were controlled by five conglomerates: Bertlesman, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, Time Warner, Disney and Viacom/CBS.” (Think Updike’s books here.) As Chris Anderson points out in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (more on this in a sec.), the standard model for most mass media (e.g. CDs) is that 20% of a business’s products, e.g. songs, account for 80% of its sales. For novels, I believe, the numbers are even more skewed with a single author or two, or even a handful of titles, accounting for most of the profit from fiction by a publisher in a given year. If you put these numbers together, what emerges is a bell curve with very steep slopes: a profile similar to the silhouette you’d get if you stacked the Eiffel tower on top of the Seattle Space Needle. The shape of this graph explains why the 5 conglomerates mentioned (basically all of commercial publishing) put such an emphasis on best sellers: each title published is a lottery ticket purchased against the hope that at least one of them will have the kind of blockbuster sales needed to float the whole operation. The rest are off the map, i.e, of no consequence to the company (and, if we believe commercial review vehicles like The New York Times Book Review, of no consequence to literature. Why don’t they feature a list of ‘Best Books’ instead of a list of ‘Best Sellers’?). So, why publish a book of poetry or experimental (or even literary) fiction whose sales are sure to not rival those of Jackie Collins?
At least this used to be the standard line. But in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Anderson makes the case that the Internet is changing this. (He has an essay in last month’s Wired, “The Rise and Fall of the Hit,” but it’s whittled down to that superficial Wired perspective so fourth-graders can understand it—an example of what a writer has to do to play to the bulge in the bell curve, I guess. A more interesting synopsis is at NPR. He argues that companies like Amazon, or YouTube, are shifting the distribution channels of culture and therefore are facilitating a change in culture itself. One of his examples is E-Cast, a jukebox system that instead of stocking CDs contains a harddrive and a modem that links to a whole on-line library of songs. Instead of the 80/20 formula cited above, 98% of the songs in the on-line catalog contribute to E-Cast’s sales—i.e., instead of a few blockbuster hits, E-Cast gets its income from lots of songs that are played (comparatively) few times. This is the long tail referred to in his title: a marginal song or book that never has the spike in sales of a hit or blockbuster, but sells at a lower level for a much longer time. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons probably fits the definition, especially if it was written today. I imagine Amazon has a number of books in its catalog that follow this same model: never a best seller, never a household name, but sells steadily in small numbers maybe for years instead of the 90 day window a book on the shelf at B&N has to prove itself by selling 1/3 of its order. (Wasn’t the rule of thumb for poetry, which depended on word of mouth instead of ad campaigns for sales, something like 6 years to break-even/sell its first print run?).
So, okay, what does this do for Joe’s concern (& Updike’s, for that matter)? Probably not much, for the authors/composers in these cases are still getting squat in the way of royalties. The people making the money are those who pool these books and songs with long tails into a catalog, e.g., Amazon, e.g., E-Cast. Even more so, how about YouTube, where the videos shown are provided free by makers, sometimes at huge expense to the maker? This seems to be the model for a lot of culture (esp. web culture): give away the music, the video, the journalism, i.e. the content, and try to make money by selling ads.
I’m not sure what this means for lit or authors. On one hand it seems to confirm that authors have two choices: either try to work within the constraints of the commercial market, and there are lots of examples where authors have done interesting, complex work within the constraints of commercial culture (Paul Auster comes to mind). But what about novels like Berry’s FRANK to use our ongoing example, and dozens of other books (Levine’s Francis Johnson, Ourednik’s Europeana; Schneiderman’s Multifesto; Amato’s Under Virga, Fleisher’s Accidental Species, Olsen's Nietzsche's Kisses, Bernstein's Girly Man, Block’s A Gesture Through Time come to mind mainly because those are a few I’ve recently read) that would never see the light of day under the constraints of commercial publishing/blockbuster thinking? Give away the content, like the contributors to YouTube, and be content with whatever forms of non-monetary payment that might fall out of the tree: prestige, like the guitar guy who lives at home with his mom but who has 8+ million views of the home video he made of himself wailing away on his axe in his bedroom? This seems to be the model poets and experimental writers have been operating under: publish a cool, or at least respected if un-massmarketable book, i.e., give away the content, and hope it wins you a prize, or lands you a teaching gig (or maybe settle for one), or just opt out completely and get a non-lit day job (the mode for most British poets), live off your trust fund or marry well--whatever will allow you to continue to write more conceptual fiction.
Those who opt for the work within the system option need read no further. Just do it! (If we had any sense we’d all be code-switching. And blessed are the authors, like Auster, who have it both ways not out of any calculation, but just because they are lucky enough to find their work in the zone where the two spheres overlap; surely none of these categories are mutually exclusive).
For the others, the question ‘What is this blog for?’ comes in. Rather than promoting individual songs, its seems like some effort could go into getting behind the jukebox: finding a way to pool resources to direct readers to the distribution system. FC2 seems to be one press that tries to function as a literary version of E-Cast. This seems to be a model that could be expanded in some fashion. I think Anderson goes too far in his claim that the age of the blockbuster is over. It may be true that TV audiences have been fragmented by cable, the Internet, etc. (Side Note 1: no one ever mentions reading as one of the contributing factors. Side Note 2, again from Dodge’s list: 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.) But the “diminished” blockbusters that still exist in this age of the fragmented market are still huge enough to fuel multimillion-dollar industries, obviously, and thus the market constraints that gave us Jewel’s book of poetry, A Night without Amor [sic] (HarperCollins), will still be the elephant in the house of culture. Still, there does seem to be a sea change underway in culture that is changing both the landscape and the nature of music, film, and literature. What counts as literature is being refashioned, as it always has been, by changes in production and distribution. Maybe postmodernism is only just beginning.