31 July 2006

Can you Blurb my Blog?

“NOW WHAT explodes the blogosphere like a runaway comet attacking the dinosaurs at the dawn of mammal time. It’s an otherworldly rocket ride through the terrain of innovative publishing—a spinal tap for the dull consumerist spinal cord—an all-encompassing Whitman-esque embrace, that, like the godfather of American poetry—takes everything in and leaves nothing to chance. NOW WHAT is the heir to H.L. Mencken, Martin Luther, and Soupy Sales. Slip on a hand puppet, nail your complaints to the door, and enjoy this endlessly delightful show.”


I was struck by a recent discussion in the most recent American Book Review (27.5) between Joe Tabbi and R.M. Berry, regarding Tabbi’s review of Berry’s great novel Frank. There is much to the exchange between the two authors, but one point involves Tabbi’s worry that innovative authors and publishers sometimes claim a secret knowledge of the world, beyond the perception of the average reader; one implication is that such claims may be a type of marketing hyperbole.

I wonder if those on this blog, contributors and readers, have any thoughts about book blurbs. You know, those little parcels of often-outrageous praise we solicit and write for the back covers of new books.

Do blurbs tells us anything useful about a text or a writer—or, like many letters of recommendation in higher education—are there only differing degrees of extreme plaudits? Do any of you have evidence that authors have not read books to which they contribute blurbs? What are you blurbing habits? [BONUS: Can you write the best possible NOW WHAT blurb?] There's an entire publicity system at work that we have yet to discuss.

Of course, feel free to respond anonymously. And it is rare, if not unheard of, to be asked to blurb anonymously.


25 July 2006

Kathy Acker's Life & Work

This isn’t the review of a small-press book that Ted has challenged us to post (which I hope to be doing soon), but a recommendation pf a book on Kathy Acker that I've recently had the pleasure of reading. Lust for Life: On the Writing of Kathy Acker, ed. Amy Scholder, Carla Harryman, and Avital Ronell (Verso: London, 2006), collects eight papers that were presented in November, 2002 at a symposium on Acker at Fales Library at NYU. Will Kathy Acker’s work live on after her death? In About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, Samuel R. Delany notes that the making & perpetuation of a literary reputation entails numerous factors, which are indexed by what he calls “markers.” Among these markers, the development of a body of literary criticism of the writer’s work ranks high. Obviously, when a wide spectrum of scholars and critics pay serious attention to a writer, other scholars and critics, previously unfamiliar with the work, will be drawn to write about it, too. But perhaps less obviously, criticism of writers who are considered “difficult” or “alternative” serves an even more important function, that of making the work intelligible to those who would otherwise dismiss it as unreadable or meaningless, of stretching the limits of mainstream literary discourse to accommodate work that was previously marginal.

Accordingly, in her preface to Lust for Life, Amy Scholder writes:
The sophistication, prescience, and innovation of Acker’s work make it prime material for scholarly interpretation and academic study. My hope is that with this collection of essays, we set the stage for further inquiry into Acker’s project, and that general readers, students, and scholars take note of the myriad ways to penetrate and interact with this vibrant work.(viii)

The eight essays complement one another. The first, “Kathy Acker,” by Peter Wollen, provides an intellectual biography of Acker’s writing life. He notes that although most people assume that Burroughs was the greatest influence on Acker’s work, the context in which she first “read Burroughs had already been set by the cultural formation that she had received in San Diego”—where she followed Herbert Marcuse from Brandeis & came to know David Antin (who told her “Don’t be afraid to copy it out”), Eleanor Antin (who “provided a role model for Acker as a female performer and avant-gardist”), and Jerome Rothenberg.
In this context, she found in Burroughs a prose writer who “was dealing with how politics and language came together…Burroughs was the only prose writer I could find who was a conceptualist, oh he’s very much of a conceptualist.” Burroughs’s cut-up technique provided Acker not only with a methodology but also an example of how a literary technique could be given a political twist as a mode of resistance, envisaged as a way of subverting the control system inherent in verbal discourse, expanding the possibilities of writing, ceaselessly creating the new out of the old.(4)

Wollen cites Sarah Crane’s observation (in The Transformation of the Avant-Garde) that
because novels sell at a much lower price than paintings or other artworks, the market for literature is therefore much greater and commercial success comes from volume of sales. For visual artists, on the other hand, it comes from selling, for a high unit price, to an elite of collectors and museums who are guided in their opinions and tastes by currents they pick up from within the art world itself. As a result, rich and successful artists are often militantly avant-garde, whereas best-selling writers tend to write “in the tradition of the realistic novel” and avant-garde writers cannot realistically hope for much commercial success.”(7)

This observation resonates with the more personal account Avital Ronell offers in the next essay, “Kathy Goes to Hell: On the Irresolvable Stupidity of Acker’s Death,” which Ronell characterizes as a eulogy that attempts to “scan the resistant complexities of an unreadable friendship” (15). Ronell not only talks about Acker’s work, but also about their friendship (including Ronell’s wish for her to be friends with another close friend, Jacques Derrida) and her continuing bereavement five years after Acker’s death. Ronell is the first of the essayists to give us some idea of what it would have been like to have had a friendship with Acker. In doing so, she elaborates on what, for her, a “good friendship” is or is not:
It is imperative that good friendship be unbound from the yoke of understanding—who would be so deluded as to claim to understand the friend? Who would demean the beloved friend by finding her transparent or readily intelligible? Good friendship demands a strong measure of rupture in reciprocity or equality, as well as the interruption of all fusion or confusion between you and me. Born of disproportion, it is evidenced, claims Nietzsche, when you respect the other more than yourself… The good friendship, borne [sic] of disidentification, enables you to see your friend.(28)

The most painful, irreducible fact for Ronell is the “stupidity” of Acker’s death:
She remained unsheltered, teaching more or less as an adjunct [at UC-Santa Barbara], bereft of the benefits that would have pulled her out of her medical crisis. I will never get over the fact that Acker had to suffer the refusal of medical benefits. Like many Americans, she was uninsured. No one or no institution should get away with the degradation that was visited upon her, determining her fate.”(15)

Carla Harryman’s essay, “Acker Un-formed,” was, for me, the most illuminating piece in the book. She warns of “the traps Acker’s novels lay for anyone who tries to write about them” that chiefly arise from they way in which Acker’s characters function in her fiction.
The reader of an Acker work suspends her own interpretive coherence; self-identity in reading multiplies, expands, pixelates, contracts, is undone: the reader becomes to herself a multisensory/sensibility of the text, a further anarchic layer of the text and/or obstruction. Reading further crowds the text. “I” am interference.(36)

Harryman focuses particularly on what she calls the “architecture, or anti-architecture” of Acker’s later novels, noting: “The overlays of edifice and openness are related in her later works to childhood as both an institution and as unformed states of being that allow the text/world to be revealed and learned rather than known.” (38) And she points out that Acker’s novels recite stories the way children do.
Power of choice, power to do adult things, to give birth, to destroy things, to chatter about death and love without repression, and to find love outside the family are part of the dialogues and narratives that children make up when they play house and play with dolls…Refined diction along with words and phrases learned from fairy tales and movies are mixed with unsophisticated phrases. This is the language of the child’s mingled knowledge and wishes.”(42)

Robert Gluck’s “The Greatness of Kathy Acker” relates the anguish he feels when reading Acker’s fiction, “in which a marauding narrative continually shifts the ground of authority, subverting faith in the ‘suspension of disbelief’ or guided daydream that describes most fiction.” (47) In the end, he says, “judgment itself is worn down and falls away in favor of a kind of astonishment.”(49) Gluck places Acker’s work in a larger context of literary aesthetics, then concludes, “Kathy Acker had the highest ambitions: to reorient literature in a true relation to the present and to crack that moment wide open.”

Barrett Watten zooms out, to place Acker’s work in a larger, historical context. He begins by regretting that although Foucault was a devotee of avant-garde texts early in his career and made use of what he calls their “negativity,” he apparently ceased to read such texts in the early 1970s. Watten asks: What if Foucault had read Kathy Acker’s novels? If he had, Watten hypothesizes,
its genealogy would in his view not originate with the propriety of Pamela’s virtue but descend from the criminality and sexuality of Moll Flanders. Triangulating Acker’s work between Moll Flanders and Pierre Riviere allows one to disclose her formal motives, which are to undo and reinvent the novel as an inversion of the historical crisis of its negative, excessive origins.(58-59)

Fleshing out this delightful flight of speculative fancy, Watten offers a fascinating reading of Acker’s early work against a “chronology of the rise and destruction of the Symbionese Liberation Army,” which, he says, “provides a ready-to-hand index to the period, easily discernible in both the form and content of Acker’s writing.”(67)

The sixth essay, Laurence A. Rickels’ “Devil Father Mine,” interested me the least, probably because its style is heavily allusive. “The writing Acker summons demonologically must be reclaimed from projection. The secondariness or reactivity of projection in the wake or place of first contact…turns around in this process into new writing—original screen text—along lines long associated with the Devil.”(78-79)

Nayland Blake’s “Kathy Acker:‘Because I Want to Live Forever in Wonder’” tells the story of the author’s early infatuation with Acker’s work, his disappointment when Acker wrote an essay for the catalog of the author’s gallery show in 1990, his subsequent friendship with Acker, & his rereading the essay after Acker’s death & seeing that Acker had indeed “captured much of what I have become as an artist.” As for Acker’s work, he offers this distillation:
What marks Acker as an artist of her generation is the way she combined formal editing strategies that had previously been used to produce and effect of intellectual distance with content of overwhelming intimacy.(104)

Leslie Dick concludes the volume with “Seventeen Paragraphs on Kathy Acker,” which resonates with most of the previous seven essays. She notes that “Acker rewrote her texts eight times: once for sound, once for meaning, once for ‘beauty,’ once for structure, once in the mirror for performativity, etc…” She says, “Kathy’s generosity to unpublished writers was legendary. In the end we feel out. It was inevitable. Nevertheless, I won’t forget her generosity to me.”(113) & she, too, tries to get at the heart of Acker’s writing:
The relation of words and things, writing and life, is a relation that never quite matches—its asymptotic, as Lacan says, the je and the moi (asymptotic always sounds to me like asymptomatic, like chlamydia, but anyway)—and it is in that gap between words and things, in that rupture, that desire lies. Put bluntly, need is a material reality, like hunger or love, and demand the speech act that repeats that need in words. In the difference between them, a difference that can never be evaded, given the infinitely incommensurable mismatch of things and words, bodies and ideas, in the difference between need and demand, in that impossible subtraction, desire cmes into being. Kathy Acker’s work is located there.

Kathy got at that space partly by refusing the distinction between art and life, words and things, by mixing it up to the point where every text undoes the proper and proprietary boundaries between the author and her very own text. This presumed author, singular in its authority, dissolves in Kathy’s writing, vanishing into a rapid sequence of possible others…Kathy shoved it all together… In the collision, in this mix, the space between words and things starts to open up, to come apart, to break down into something else: into a text of desire, always marked by the shadow of the lost object.(113-114)

As such books should do, it made me want to read the novels by Acker I haven’t yet read & reread the ones that are marked indelibly in my memory. & that, of course, is its point.

August Challenge

One of the things that prompted Lance and I to begin this blog a couple months ago was the paucity of reviews of new small press fiction titles. But, to date, there have been very few of these, aside from short mentions of and allusions to titles/authors.

Let's see what we can do about changing this. A challenge:

During August, let's have everyone on this list do at least one review of a recent-ish small press fiction title, preferably by an author who is not a good friend of the blogger (this world being so small oftentimes, it may be impossible to avoid any acquaintance whatever; nevertheless, it seems to me that this project's success will be predicated on reviewers feeling that they are free, if they desire, to do a less-than-enthusiastic review, if such is called for).

Let me also say this, as a small press publisher myself: anyone desiring review copies of Starcherone books should feel free to get in touch with me to request such. But then I will expect you to WRITE THE REVIEW (and reserve the right to call you out if you don't). Email me at ted@starcherone.com.

19 July 2006


Who are bloggers?

According to the results of a survey of nearly 5000 internet users released today by the PEW Internet & American Life Project, there aren't all that many surprises in answer to the question. But there are a few.

In an effort to continue our thinking about the digital beyond—and specifically the possibilities for alternative prose writers and publishers there—here are some of the highlights from the report:

  • 8% of internet users, or about 12 million American adults, keep a blog; 39% of internet users, or about 57 million American adults, read blogs.
  • 37% of bloggers cite "my life and experiences" as a primary topic of their blog; in other words, we may have something like a digital analogy for the unthinking and narcissistic narrativity of most pedestrian and parochial memoirs here—only without even an attempt at editing.
  • 11% of bloggers cite politics and government as the main subject of their blog. Entertainment-related topics were the next most popular blog-type, with 7% of bloggers, followed by sports (6%), general news and current events (5%—isn't that extraordinary?), business (5%), technology (4%), religion, spirituality or faith (2%), a specific hobby or a health problem or illness (each comprising 1% of bloggers—among which irrational numbers, somewhere between underwater basket weaving and leprosy, I'm afraid, Now What would find a place).
  • The most distinguishing characteristic of bloggers is their youth. More than half (54%) of bloggers are under the age of 30.
  • Like the internet population in general, bloggers are evenly divided between men and women, and more than half live in the suburbs.
  • Bloggers are less likely to be white than the general internet population. 60% percent of bloggers are, while 11% are African American, 19% are English-speaking Hispanic and 10% identify as some other race. By contrast, 74% of internet users are white, 9% are African American, 11% are English-speaking Hispanic and 6% identify as some other race.
  • Despite the public nature of creating a blog, most bloggers view it as a personal pursuit. 52% of bloggers say they blog mostly for themselves, not for an audience—but then why, I wonder, don't they simply keep diaries?
  • One in ten bloggers spends ten or more hours per week on his or her blog; most spend about two hours.
  • 52% of bloggers say they do so mainly to "express themselves creatively."
  • Only 34% believe the blog is a form of journalism, and only 56% of bloggers attempt to verify "facts" they include in their posts. Duck and cover: thought and argument have given way to bloviation and bluster.

16 July 2006

current projects

While one of the few constraints we Now What contributors work under is the Law of No Self-Aggrandizement, I thought every now and then it might be both fun and illuminating to hear what we're up to in our aesthetic lives, and so:

What publishing or writing project are you engaged in right now that holds your greatest interest and attention?

14 July 2006

PP/FF in Brooklyn

Hey, cool cats one & all,

Join us Wednesday, July 26, 7pm, at Night & Day, for our Brooklyn PP/FF Anthology Party! If you haven't heard about PP/FF, it's the newly released Starcherone Books anthology featuring 61 of today's leading practitioners in the in-between prose-poetry/flash-fiction form that editor Peter Conners has named "PP/FF." See http://www.starcherone.com/ppff.htm for more info on this first-of-its-kind book, ideal for creative writing classes and for just hanging around in the park reading and looking cool with in these summer dog days...

Readers: Kazim Ali, Brian Clements, Peter Conners, Geoffrey Gatza, Christine Boyka Kluge, Ted Pelton, Anthony Tognazzini, Jessica Treat, & Mark Tursi.

Location: Night & Day, 230 5th Ave (cross street: Presidents St.), 7pm

Reader Bios:

Kazim Ali is the author of a novel, Quinn’s Passage, and a book of poems, The Far Mosque. He is the publisher of Nightboat Books and assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University.

Brian Clements is the author of several collections of poetry in print and online, including Essays Against Ruin, Burn Whatever Will Burn, and Flesh and Wood. He is the editor of Firewheel Editions and of Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, and he coordinates the MFA in Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.

Peter Conners is founding co-editor of the online literary journal, Double Room: A Journal of Prose Poetry & Flash Fiction, as well as editor of PP/FF: An Anthology. His third poetry collection, Of Whiskey
and Winter, will be published by White Pine Press in fall 2007. Conners works as Marketing Director/Associate Editor for the poetry publisher BOA Editions. He lives with his wife and two sons in Rochester, NY.

Geoffrey Gatza has dedicated himself to protecting the downtrodden of his city from a continuing series of deadly poetic schemes by the insidious School of Quietude. He is editor and publisher of BlazeVOX
Books. His web site is Geoffreygatza.com.

Christine Boyka Kluge is the author of Teaching Bones to Fly, a poetry collection from Bitter Oleander Press, and Domestic Weather, which won the 2003 Uccelli Press Chapbook Contest. Her prose poetry and
flash fiction collection, Stirring the Mirror, is due out from Bitter Oleander Press in 2007.

Ted Pelton is the author of three books, most recently the novel, Malcolm & Jack (and Other Famous American Criminals) (Spuyten Duyvil, 2006). Recipient of an NEA Fellowship for Fiction, he is an Associate Professor at Medaille College of Buffalo, NY, and Executive Director of Starcherone Books.

Anthony Tognazzini has published work in Swink, The Hat, Sentence, Quarterly West, Salt Hill, La Petite Zine, The Mississippi Review, Quick Fiction, Ducky, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other journals, and
in Sudden Stories: A Mammoth Anthology of Miniscule Fiction. He has received a Pushcart nomination and an award from the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Jessica Treat is the author of two story collections, Not a Chance (FC2, 2000) and A Robber in the House (Coffee House Press, 1993), and is completing a third. Her stories and prose poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of a Connecticut Commission on the Arts Award.

Mark Tursi is one of the founders and editors of the literary journal Double Room, and he is an Assistant Professor at College Misericordia in Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Denver and his MFA from Colorado State University.

Hope to see you all there! It's not too late to book a flight!

12 July 2006

Who owns this blog anyway?

Catching up with this blog is some task, let me tell you, which is why I propose, in light of the recent “digerati and literati” thread, that we find a publisher, and bind all of this web-babble into a book for easier reading. Then, we get corporate support with enough cash to splash a two-page in the Sunday Times, and watch our IRAs get phat, fat, phat….ahem. Sorry about that….but actually, who owns these words anyway?

I noticed something while printing out the above-mentioned thread to read on a bus back to Chicago from St. Louis--something more than the odd homology between my reading, in hard copy, about an (in-part) web-critique located on a blog.

I’m struck by Joe Amato’s comment: “the sense that the (digital) work itself might “automatically” incorporate criticism within it” (in relation to Bolter and Landow), and Lance Olsen’s response that perhaps this integration of criticism into the narrative flow might in some ways serve as a jumping off point for the innovative. Strangely, this all brings me back to where I almost always go: William S. Burroughs.

For the last six months or so, I’ve been involved in a close examination of Burroughs’s cut-up work, particularly in terms of a collaborative manifesto (with Brion Gysin) called The Third Mind (1978, English edition). The text is about as polyvocal as they come—merging tracts about how to do cut-ups, with significant pieces that demonstrate the theory of the practice within the practice itself. This is the pattern of Burroughs “Nova/Cut-Up” trilogy novels, The Soft Machine (1961, 1966, 1968), The Ticket that Exploded (1962, 1967), and Nova Express (1964), with exposition on process followed by rearrangement and interpolation of this exposition.

For those unfamiliar with cut-ups, or Burroughs (although I’m sure most Now What’ers are familiar), the cut-up ethos is multiform. A few important vectors: 1) to do something, now, in what Burroughs called the “pre-sent” time, mirroring populist poetic slogans “Cut-ups are for everyone.” 2) to rearrange words through the random factor (scissors, folding, tearing), redefines “quality”: “Rimbaud announces himself with some excruciatingly bad poetry, Cut Rimbaud’s words and you are assured of good poetry at least if not personal appearance.” 3) to cut-up is, most importantly, to explicitly plagiarize and in many cases infringe on copyright.

This last part is what I am particularly interested in just now (and what I will discuss at the upcoming conference, ¿Quién es?: William S. Burroughs revisited), in that the plagiarism of the cut-ups offers collaboration as explicit (when Burroughs and Gysin and others work on a cut-up piece together), or implicit (when a “single” writer uses other texts in her work). While I do not mean to trivialize the difference between the two modes, I do see an important correlation between the commonality of cut-ups as in some way “collaborative,” in their most effective form also serving as an auto-critique, and the manner by which traditional print media, in two dimensions, generally hides the collaborative stain.

When Picasso sticks a postage stamp on a canvas, we can see multimedia at work (and, if “he” did not “create” the stamp, we might call this the second type of collaboration). Yet, when writing is produced collaboratively, often through a mode of plagiarism, the page does not necessarily reveal its hidden multidimensionality.

And so I am obsessively tracing textual markers of collaboration in Burroughs’ work, looking at bibliographic codes (fonts, copyright notices, repetitions, etc.) that reveal the material hand of plagiaristic collaboration (following some excellent textual work by Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris, most recently in an essay called “Not Burroughs' Final Fix: Materializing The Yage Letters” at Postmodern Culture—but what I am getting at for this space is the supposition that our much-discussed theories on electronic art/writing might profit from (re)visiting the matrix of collaboration/plagiarism/copyright/authorship/ownership/ originality/genius/ad nauseum.

We know where people like Federman stand on this question in terms of print, and I can imagine his electronic thoughts are the same—and Steve Tomasula, both in VAS and The Book of Portraiture, offers very cool takes on same. From the latter text, aping painter Diego Velázquez, and so echoing the work of countless writers and scholars antagonistic to the legal fictions of a singular copyright regime: “Truly, the imagination, which may seem to bear much individual fruit, is root’d in a compost of forgotten books.”

So, while I am no doubt conflating a number of different problems here, I’d be interested to know if others see the mark of the “many” on the electronic “one,” and how, if so, an electronic praxis of plagiarism might evolve in this topsy-turvy, auto-critiquing, consumer-as-producer space-of-no-space non-space?

Burroughs, William S. "The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin" in Re/Search: William S. Burroughs and Throbbing Gristle. San Francisco: RE/Search, 1982: 35-36.
Tomasula, Steve. The Book of Portraiture. Normal/Tallahassee: FC2, 2006: 71.

11 July 2006

Literary Capital

Seems like a good time for us all to have a look at this review essay by Louis Menand, which appeared in The New Yorker at the end of last year.


Literature’s global economy.
Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02
Posted 2005-12-19

In 1987, “Paco’s Story,” by Larry Heinemann, won the National Book Award for Fiction. The acclaim that greeted this selection was less than universal, and the reason—no fault of Heinemann’s—is that 1987 was also the year of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Morrison’s novel was a finalist for the award, and it had been widely regarded as the favorite. We can assume that she was disappointed, and we know that her friends were, because, after “Beloved” also failed to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (which went to Philip Roth’s “The Counterlife”), forty-eight of them published a statement in the Times Book Review. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison,” they complained, “she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned blackcritics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmfulwhimsy. The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied.” A few months later, “Beloved” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Five years after that, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize.

James English has a lot to say about this episode in “The Economy of Prestige” (Harvard; $29.95), his ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes and awards. He thinks that Morrison’s champions crossed a tacitly accepted and well-established line when they printed their protest in the Times. The transgression was not the complaint that the award had been given to the wrong writer. That criticism is as old as literary prizes themselves. When the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to Sully Prudhomme, in 1901, the choice was regarded as a scandal, since Leo Tolstoy happened to be alive. The Swedish Academy was so unnerved by the public criticism it received that its members made a point of passing over Tolstoy for the rest of his life—just to show, apparently, that they knew what they were doing the first time around—honoring instead such immortals as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, Rudolf Eucken, and Selma Lagerlöf. When you have prizes for art, you will always have people complaining that prizes are just politics, or that they reward in-group popularity or commercial success, or that they are pointless and offensive because art is not a competition. English believes that contempt for prizes is not harmful to the prize system; that, on the contrary, contempt for prizes is what the system is all about. “This threat of scandal,” as he puts it, “is constitutive of the cultural prize.” His theory is that when people make these objections to the nature of prizes they are helping to sustain a collective belief that true art has nothing to do with things like politics, money, in-group tastes, and beating out the other guy. As long as we want to believe that creative achievement is special, that a work of art is not just one more commodity seeking to aggrandize itself in the marketplace at the expense of other works of art, we need prizes so that we can complain about how stupid they are. In this respect, it is at least as important that the prize go to the wrong person as that it go to the right one. No one thinks that Tolstoy was less than a great writer because he failed to win the Nobel. The failure to win the Nobel has become, in the end, a mark of his greatness.

The Nobel Prize in Literature was the first of the major modern cultural prizes. It was soon followed by the Prix Goncourt (first awarded in 1903) and the Pulitzer Prizes (conceived in 1904, first awarded in 1917). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started handing out its prizes in 1929; the Emmys began in 1949, the Grammys in 1959. Since the nineteen-seventies, English says, there has been an explosion of new cultural prizes and awards. There are now more movie awards given out every year—about nine thousand—than there are new movies, and the number of literary prizes is climbing much faster than the number of books published. When a prominent figure in the cultural world—a benefactor or a distinguished critic or professor—dies, the friends and family often establish a memorial prize in his or her name. (As English points out, the friends and family often have no conception of how much even a minor award costs to administer. The price of administration, in fact, usually far outstrips the value of the prize itself. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition costs more than three million dollars a year to run; the winners receive twenty thousand dollars.) This doesn’t mean that everyone gets a ribbon. In the awards economy, the rich tend to get richer. Michael Jackson has been given more than two hundred and forty awards in his career. Steven Spielberg has ninety. “The Return of the King,” the third movie in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, won seventy-nine prizes. English estimates that among poets John Ashbery is the leader, with at least forty-five prizes and awards. John Updike sets the pace for novelists, with thirty-nine.

English interprets the rise of the prize as part of the “struggle for power to produce value, which means power to confer value on that which does not intrinsically possess it.” In an information, or “symbolic,” economy, in other words, the goods themselves are physically worthless: they are mere print on a page or code on a disk. What makes them valuable is the recognition that they are valuable. This recognition is not automatic and intuitive; it has to be constructed. A work of art has to circulate through a sub-economy of exchange operated by a large and growing class of middlemen: publishers, curators, producers, publicists, philanthropists, foundation officers, critics, professors, and so on. The prize system, with its own cadre of career administrators and judges, is one of the ways in which value gets “added on” to a work. Of course, we like to think that the recognition of artistic excellence is intuitive. We don’t like to think of cultural value as something that requires middlemen—people who are not artists themselves—in order to emerge. We prefer to believe that truly good literature or music or film announces itself. Which is another reason that we need prizes: so that we can insist that we don’t really need them.

In English’s view, therefore, Morrison’s friends and admirers violated the protocols of prize-bashing not because they publicly criticized the choice of the National Book Award judges but because they acknowledged that the award really matters, that it is (in their words) a “keystone honor” that helps to validate a book and establish its author. Their statement pointed out, in the frankest terms, that there is a literary marketplace, and that power and authority—“cultural capital,” to use the term that English borrows from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu—accrue to those who succeed in it. Art does not receive its reward in Heaven; it is one of the things that belong to Caesar.

English speculates that this willingness to speak without embarrassment about the significance of prizes and awards, and about the whole economy of cultural production and consumption, may, paradoxically, signal the demise of the prize system. “As we lose our ability or our willingness to see the prize as a fundamentally scandalous institution”—scandalous because art ought to have nothing to do with winning and losing—“there is bound to be a period of painful contraction in the awards industry,” he says. “Faced with the withdrawal of what has been by far their richest and most reliable source of publicity, prizes may after so many years of uncontainable expansion at last show some signs of fatigue.”

Another indication that the prize system may not be working as it once did, English suggests, is that it is no longer cool to refuse an award. Once, Jean-Paul Sartre could turn down the Nobel Prize (which he did in 1964) and see a nice jump in the price of his stock as a result. Marlon Brando and Woody Allen enhanced their reputations as artists by their disrespect for the Oscars. (Of course, they had to win the thing first for the disrespect to have any value.) Today, the principled refusal of an award looks not just ungracious; it looks phony. Hollywood movies are a business—no kidding. If you’re not above accepting money for acting in them, how can you pretend to be above participating in the awards ceremonies that the industry uses to sell them? According to English’s theory, though, someone has to refuse to participate—someone has to insist that moviemaking is its own reward, that it is not about competition or material gain—for movies to retain their value in the symbolic economy.

One of the richest of the stories that English tells about the circulation of cultural goods is the saga of “The Bone People.” The book was published in New Zealand in February, 1984, by Spiral Collective, a nonprofit feminist press run by three women in Wellington. Its author, Keri Hulme, had published poems and short stories, but “The Bone People” was her first novel. It had been rejected by every major publishing house to which it was submitted; English describes it as “a long and somewhat perverse mixture of genres, styles, and languages, sloppily edited and riddled with typographic errors—by no means an obvious winner in the marketplace.” Still, two print runs of two thousand copies both sold out. Then, in the summer of 1984, “The Bone People” won two awards. The first was the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction, a leading book prize in New Zealand but of little note internationally. The jury, English says, was impressed by the novel’s “fusion of Anglo (‘Pakeha’) and indigenous (Maori) elements within a dreamlike narrative of trauma and recovery as a kind of national allegory.” Though Hulme herself is only one-eighth Maori, and was reared and educated in Anglophone society, “The Bone People” was consequently branded as “Maori fiction.” And it was under this description that it won its second prize of 1984, the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature.

The Pegasus is an instrument of ExxonMobil. It was founded, in 1977, in order to promote international awareness of marginalized literary cultures, and it circulates among countries in which ExxonMobil has subsidiaries—a neat example, as English says, of “glocalization,” the official respect for (or colonization of) local cultural ecologies that is one of the contemporary features of international business. In 1984, New Zealand was the lucky host of the Pegasus, and “The Bone People” was the beneficiary. On cue, the choice was attacked on the ground that Hulme was not a real Maori. This was exactly the scandal needed to get the book onto the international stage, and, in 1985, after it was published in Britain, by Hodder & Stoughton, it won the most prestigious literary prize in England, the Booker. It was thus elevated to the canon of what is now called world literature. It is the “Maori novel,” and, English says,

"it is taught as such in contemporary world literature and postcolonial survey classes; it is discussed by journalists and scholars of world literature in articles and at conferences (one bibliography lists more than a hundred articles); most tellingly, perhaps, it remains in print in the United States and the United Kingdom some twenty years after its original publication, while other novels from the same period, including virtually all of the others that won the New Zealand Book Award, have long since disappeared from the international marketplace. It is not as a New Zealand novel that 'The Bone People' has become a classic, but, as declared on or inside the cover of every paperback edition since the late 1980s, as a world-certified, globally consecrated Maori novel."

English’s point is not that “The Bone People” is inauthentic. In his scheme, after all, accusations of inauthenticity are crucial to the successful functioning of the cultural economy: they shore up our faith that there is such a thing as authenticity. When people complained that “The Bone People” was not a genuine Maori novel, they were saying, in effect, that there is, or could be, a genuine Maori novel, and that they, and not functionaries in some multinational corporation’s public-relations apparat, were the ones in the proper position to recognize it as such. What the story of “The Bone People” reveals is that, whether or not a work of “indigenous” literature is the product of pure indigenes, if it is to achieve international recognition as world literature it must carry certain markers. For one thing, it cannot be identified as national literature. A book by a New Zealand writer would be unlikely to make it into the world-literature canon. The Pegasus Prize was for a work of Maori literature. Once, nationality was something that an ambitious writer hoped to transcend. A novelist aspired to recognition not as a New Zealand writer or a Nigerian writer but as, simply, a writer. Now nationality is transcended downward. Recognition comes from having one’s work identified with a marginalized or “endangered” community within the larger national or global polity—with Ibo culture (rather than Nigerian), or Maori (rather than New Zealand).

Although there are some minor differences, English’s discussion of this development parallels Pascale Casanova’s in her rather brilliant book “The World Republic of Letters” (translated from the French by M. B. DeBevoise; Harvard; $35). Casanova is also writing about the system in which books circulate in the competition for recognition. The standard practice is to understand works of literature as products of a national tradition, as examples of French literature or American literature; Casanova’s argument is that, on the contrary, the system has always been global. As she puts it, literatures are “not a pure emanation of national identity; they are constructed through literary rivalries, which are always denied, and struggles, which are always international.”

Casanova thinks that every ambitious writer aspires to be recognized for meeting the standards of the metropole. In her book, the metropole is Paris, the eternal center of the literary universe (she is, after all, French); but it might be London or New York as well. “Paris” is the place where art and literature are always truly modern and up to date, and the rest of the world measures its lateness by that meridian. For centuries, meeting the standard of Paris meant escaping the provincialism of one’s own culture—the constraints imposed by the Church, or the state, or the Party, which all want literature to serve their interests—and making art for the sake of art. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright, Milan Kundera and Danilo Ki‰ all went to Paris in order to escape the fate of being national writers. They assimilated, not to Frenchness (as Casanova points out, Joyce and Beckett, although they lived in Paris for much of their lives, had no interest in French literary life) but to the universal modern idea of the artist. Now, she thinks, the strategy for acceptance has shifted from assimilation to differentiation, and differentiation means not being modern.

The challenge now is to combine elements of non-metropolitan indigenousness with elements that metropolitan readers recognize as “literary.” A subnational novel, such as “The Bone People,” must be what English calls “world-readable.” The judges of the Booker Prize probably didn’t know the difference between Maoris and Mallomars, but they knew, instinctively, how a work of “Maori fiction” should look. It should be a hybrid of postmodernist heteroglossia (multiple and high-low discursive registers, mixed genres, stories within stories) and pre-modernist narrative (conventional morality, the simulation of an oral story-telling tradition). Between them, English and Casanova list the features of the world-literature prototype: a trauma-and-recovery story, with magic-realist elements, involving abuse and family dysfunction, that arrives at resolution by the invocation of spiritual or holistic verities. If you add in a high level of technical and intellectual sophistication, this is a pretty accurate generic description of a novel by Toni Morrison.

“The Economy of Prestige” and “The World Republic of Letters” are not debunking exercises. They are simply efforts to understand literature sociologically. “Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings,” says the Martian, about books, in Craig Raine’s famous poem, “and some are treasured for their markings.” The Martian doesn’t know why the markings between the covers labelled “Beloved” are more treasured, or represent more cultural capital, than the markings inside the covers labelled “Paco’s Story.” The Martian sees only that human beings attach high value to some of these otherwise identical and interchangeable objects and low value to others, and he/she attempts, by analyzing the system in which the objects are produced, circulated, and consumed, to figure out how this happens. From the Martian point of view, it certainly looks like a competition, because the value of “Beloved” is determined by all the things that make it different from “Paco’s Story.” It’s a relational system: the value of a cultural good is relative to the value of every other cultural good. That most of us on planet Earth deny that competition has anything to do with the esteem that we, as individuals, confer on a particular book or painting or song or movie does not mean that the Martian is wrong. Our denial is just one more thing that needs to be explained. The Martian is experiencing literature from the other side of the looking glass.

Of course, as English and Casanova would agree, books are read on this side of the looking glass. We are ourselves products of the culture whose products we consume, and we can’t help taking it, for the most part, on its own terms. Still, their very strong books belong to a general challenge to the usual practices of literary pedagogy. Literature departments are almost always organized by language and country, but Casanova’s book gives us many reasons to doubt whether this captures the way literature really works. She has an excellent account, for example, of the international influence of Faulkner—once his novels had been translated into French. He was, as she describes him, the first of the glocal writers, an acknowledged model for the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the Algerian Rachid Boudjedra, and the Spaniard Juan Benet, not to mention the African-American Toni Morrison. Faulkner was the novelist of the American South who demonstrated to novelists of the global South how to represent a marginal community in an advanced literary style, a style that could gain the respect of “Paris.” English’s and Casanova’s books also challenge the conventional “shock of recognition” idea of influence, which imagines literary history as one soul speaking to another across time and space. The soul may speak, but the international context is the reason it is heard. The appeal that Faulkner had for García Márquez had everything to do with the place that Faulkner occupied in the global literary system, and with the place that García Márquez occupied as well.

Literature is conventionally taught as a person-to-person aesthetic experience: the writer (or the poem) addressing the reader. Teachers cut out English’s middlemen, the people who got the poem from the writer to us, apparently confirming his point that we have to deny the economics of cultural value in order to preserve the aesthetics. But, once we’re outside the classroom, how rigidly are these conventions adhered to? How many people today really imagine “art” as a privileged category, exempt from the machinations of the marketplace? The literary marketplace has always been a theme of literature: “Tristram Shandy” reflects on its own status as a cultural good; Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” is a satire on literary competition. Since the nineteen-sixties, the constructed nature of the art experience has been one of advanced art’s principal preoccupations. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s-soup-can paintings are all about art as commodity. The frenzy of prize-creation in the nineteen-seventies and eighties that English describes may have been a panicky middlebrow reaction against the demystification of culture that was already well under way, or it may have been a symptom and agent of that demystification. It is difficult to see it as a reinforcement of the ideal of autonomous art. That ideal disappeared a long time ago. The Martians have already landed.

10 July 2006

Lightness & Dark: The Beacon of the Online Journal

A while back, Lance and others addressed "dark signs for adventurous prose." Yes, many an indie bookstore has fallen in the violent wake of corporate hurricanes, and of course the big (commericial) publishing companies are generally looking for NOVELS that mimic mainstream television taste (sitcoms, crimes, domestic horror shows, idiotic urban romances, suburban nymphomania, celebrity divorces, coming of age tales, etc. etc.): easy watching, easy listening, easy drive-by thinking for people without time time time in a culture that doesn't put a premium on the nurturation/maturation of the creative imagination and the beauty of language and thoughtfulness (see eg: Memory of the Writing - July 7th entry in Daniel Green's blog).

And naturally, surprise of surprises -- established publications bearing the weight of authority (eg New Yorker & NYT) hardly promote what most if not all of us would call "outstream" writers. If the prose (correction – STORY) doesn't have an obvious plot and doesn't make people cry or laugh out loud, or at least want to commit suicide or join AA or come to a totally awesomely inspired realization about free will and/or a god or the redeeming power of LOVE and/or FAMILY, it won't grab people's attention and it won't sell. Period. Unless you happen to be famous and can therefore get away with anything -- well, almost.

So, what's the poor, giddily adventuresome writer to do, aside from submitting her/his crazies to the many wonderful, burgeoning innovative small presses, hoping to get a few reviews and features at readings? How does the outstream writer get ATTENTION? (see ATTENTION)
MOMMY!!! MOMMY!!! LOOK NO PLOT!!! What did the little lady in blue say? An agent? You must be joking!

Yes, agreed that litblogs & related creatures have a great poetential to bring writers of offbeat prose together to commiserate, promulgate, vitiate, eviscerate, promote, exuberate, excoriate and even DEMONSTRATE by means of posting writings, including ongoing solo "experimental" works and (I'd love to see more of this) dynamic collaborative/interactive projects, accompanied ideally by visual and audio delights (eg FLYING PUPPET -- the Europeans seem to be beating the Americans in the Experimental Multimedia Cup). Yes, we here and in our own blogs can post reviews and event announcements. We can increase the girth of our literary ellipses beyond our immediate environments, academic and otherwise. We can and do make connections, find new friends, build communities. The Internets [sick] are [sic] the vehicle (oh dear, this sentence a mess is) for boundless multimedia creative projects and limitless gleeful and cantankerous artful interactions, and endless discussions about who's who and who's doing what and the what is and isn't the state of contemporary and "postmodern" literature and post-postmodern literature and neo-con literature and its impact or not on our culture and vice versa, and maybe an occasional non-writer will pop by, and it's all fascinating and elucidating and of course educational, BUT BUT…

Oh yes… there's the e-book as well. I can't tell you what I think of where it's going to go. Will it come with audio and visuals of superior quality? If not, what's the big fuss? Oh yes, accessibility. Hard to argue with that. Democracy, as long as the monopolies aren't allowed to charge us for every click. So forget Democracy if the corporate shit hits the fans -- if you don't know about Save the Internet, get thee to GBay. But do I personally speaking moi-meme really want my gorgeous words accessible solely in "book" form, without "gorgeous" visuals (maybe animations) with creative audio maneuvers? Not multimedia-oriented I! Horreurs! I want the Internets to give me and my readers and listeners what the Internets can offer, no holds barred. Otherwise, maybe someday I can coerce someone into producing a visually gorgeous print version of my works with an accompanying DVD, a book I can display on my coffee table and carry about to readings. I want animations, music and recited recordings --- everything we haven't had all these centuries.

Now here comes this, something obvious. I am happy to announce (in case anyone's been sleepwalking) the creeping ascension of the Internet literary-multimedia zine in the history of this ravaged planet. YOOWHO! (and Yahoo). There are THOUSANDS of them things, no doubt at least one born a day. Now anyone can be published – not in the big prestigious print mags, of course (sigh), and not in la crème de la crème (hideous expression) of the online zines, like maybe "Narrative." But in cyberspace, there's a mag for everyone, all over the globe, and the published author is read by people all over the globe, which is kinda cool. Is easy publication a good thing or a bad thing? I'll leave that to another discussion, if anyone wants to address the issue. I mean, it's kinda like the music business where every other kid becomes a hip hop star in his or her own head and sometimes in a few other heads. And that can make the kid either extremely hiphappy leading to ego-strength, or ridden with ultimately self-destructive delusions of grandeur and destined for a crash.

My point is that online literary journals are obvious vehicles for spreading the gospel of exploratory prose, which encompasses exploratory thinking. (For me, it's a given that such prose mirror, in some recognizable though fresh shape or form, the frightening ugliness of the culture from which we and our writing spring.) Yes, there are thousands of onliners, but most of the well known ones, like the vast majority of print mags, are not open to exploratory prose, unless the author has a name. It's difficult for fledgings of an innovative and rebellious nature to figure out who's going to "get" what s/he's doing. Like persistently relative newbie me. In a fit of lunacy (induced by cheap vodka), I once submitted a prosetry trilogy to one of biggies. Here's the letter I got: "Thanks for sending your work to the …. .Interesting stuff, but a little avant-garde for our taste. Good luck with it."

Hmm. Have you ever noticed that while quite a few of the magazines (mostly those affiliated in with academic institutions) say they want "innovative" work, they don't actually publish it, unless it's by a well-known author or otherwise maybe a relative or lover of one of the editors, not to mention by one of the students? Okay, I'm speculating.

So… Here's my premise. Quality online magazines are going to rise in prominence and gain the respect that quality print magazines have. Selby's List contains well, a list of most mags (online and off) that consider themselves open to "experimental" literature. But many of these mags only publish poetry (you know, poems with stanzas, whether they're language poems or not), and many others are mixed breeds searching for identities. Mags like Black Ice and Exquisite Corpse seem to be in perpetual comas. 3rd Bed went under. Other outstreamy net journals come and go, often arriving as soon as the editor or editors have emerged from offbeat MFA programs (eg Naropa), proudly bearing great youthful hopes of creating the most significant avant-garde mag in cyber space. Quite a few mags are borne on the shoulders of prominent, or at least frequently published writers whose names entice other prominent writers to submit (like hey dude, our editor used to edit [fill in name of big name print mag] & we got all this big GUYS subbing & all the right people are reading us). But are they big OUTSTREAMY guys?

Here's my proposition. Maybe it's going to sound like self-promotion, but I hope you grasp that what I'm saying is beyond that. It's about what we can do with the language (whether it be so-called "innovative" or "non-linear" or "post postmodern" or not, via Internet journals, and what we can do via cyberspace, in terms of experimenting with audios and visuals to our hearts' and minds' content. E.g., see Davis Schneiderman's writings, with audio and video, in the current issue of my multimedia/lit mag Mad Hatters' Review. See also Canadian Professor Don Bergland's wonderful multimedia project, accessible to all readers with a sense of humor: Bergland. In our next issue, you'll be treated to a lovely piece by Debra Di Blasi , accompanied by our visuals and her own unique and of course very appropriate audio treatment (voice and more).

What I'm saying bottom line is that the independent, alternative presses (like those listed here) are absolutely essential and fabulous, but so are journals, particularly online journals capable of providing audios and visuals to readers and listeners who can't afford subscriptions to more than a handful of print magazines, with or without visuals and cds/dvds (eg, Rattapallax). What we should be looking at is ACCESSIBILITY. What we should be doing is supporting and promoting online journals with vision. So yes, I want everyone here to submit to my magazine and/or others with vision. Go ahead and spread yourselves all over the world, via cyberspace, like Better than Butter but Better.

Do I think that most people are going to read these journals and that sociopolitical transformation will occur as a result of our efforts (yes, I do believe that progressive literary journals must address the unheeded, desperate needs of human beings, and yes, everything is "political" because we're all products of our "environment," in all senses of that word)? No. But let's do what we can do, with passionate commitment.

And good night, little redheads.

04 July 2006

digerati & literati

I recently came across a slightly snarky column by Alex Beam in the Boston Globe that won't simplify the conversations we've been having lately about podcasts, audiobooks, and John Updike's clearly provocative (if belligerently ignorant) lament of the continuing McDonaldization of the book world and critique of many things digital.

The article, entitled "The Brave New Book," mentions the Updike essay that we touched on here and discusses the (second) coming of the electronic book. Rather than summarizing Beam, I thought it might be fruitful to quote a few of his most salient paragraphs, and then raise a few questions of my own about them in particular and the possibilities inherent in the cyber-beyond (especially for innovative and/or alternative prose) in general:

Who can forget the hype attending "electronic readers" like the $600 SoftBook and the $1,500 EB Dedicated Reader, which were going to make paper-and-paste books obsolete? The chief executive of SoftBook called his product a "booklike experience," perhaps one of the great euphemisms of the digital age.

Now the e-book may have a second shot. Sony has shown geeks its forthcoming Reader, which looks a lot like the old SoftBook but supposedly uses improved, Reader-friendly "e-ink," developed by Cambridge's E Ink Corp. In a grandiose public relations flourish, e-book e-vangelists Project Gutenberg and World eBook Fair plan to "publish," or make available for download, 300,000 free e-books starting July 4.

The new hype differs from the old hype. Everyone acknowledges that the boxy readers like SoftBook bombed. Now the e-bookies insist the Game Boy generation wants to read books on their tiny iPod or cellphone screens. "You wouldn't believe how many people read books on their PDAs [personal digital assistants]," says Gutenberg founder Michael Hart. OK, how many? He has no idea.

. . .

As it happens, the e-book is the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Check out my Personalized Literacy Unit, a 2003 release from the Bantam Dell labs. It's an $8 paperback called Persuader by Lee Child, and it weighs the same as my stripped-down cellphone and less than my Palm Pilot. (A friend's reaction upon learning that I carry a Pilot: "How 1997!") I've used my PLU on an airplane, in the car, and in a few other places where you wouldn't take electronic equipment.

I am giving the last word on this subject to Cambridge's director of libraries, Susan Flannery. Instead of theorizing about libraries and the future of the book, Flannery and her board are building a new, $60 million main branch to provide state-of-the-art library services for the next 20 years. Barely a mile from Flannery's office, Google is scanning the books in Harvard's libraries for eventual inclusion in Kevin Kelly's "liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas."

. . .

Flannery calls herself "a big fan of the printed book" who now does more "reading" of audio books on her iPod than between hard covers. "I am part of a transitional generation," she says. What about digital books? "I would think the reference collections would be target number one for being replaced by electronic sources. We are prepared to reduce their shelf space accordingly."

But some publishing trends favor print, she notes. "Graphic novels are a whole new publishing area that is purely print. They're very popular, and the category seems to be growing. I don't think electronics will replace children's books—their visual beauty won't translate to the screen, and parents want the kids sitting on their lap."

I find myself left, not with answers, but with questions—including several perhaps painfully obvious ones, like who in the world still considers graphic novels "a whole new publishing area" or conceives of the act of listening to an audiobook as "reading"?:

1. The book has been and done various things at various times in various places in various ways. Five thousand years ago, for instance, baked clay tablets in Mesopotamia recorded deeds to land and other business records. Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans used the inner bark of the papyrus plant to fashion their books, pasting sheets together in strips sometimes 144 feet long. The codex, made up of several sheets of vellum, existed for centuries after its appearance in 300 AD. Is the movement toward the e-book (if not now, then in the not-too-distant future), given certain economic and environmental necessities, simply an inevitable change in what an information package looks like, and, if so, what's the big deal? Or is it is something else altogether—a loss, a supplement?

2. E-books and audiobooks (especially iPod-friendly ones) will, at least theoretically, make fiction, innovative and otherwise, more accessible—much like the World Wide Web has allegedly done. But if anyone can, and anyone does, "publish" via podcasts and the Web, if "publish" is indeed the word I’m looking for here, where will the quality of publication go—whatever we may mean by quality? Or, to put it another way, as I did in an earlier comment: does anyone really want to know what everyone thinks about anything?

3. What will become, in other words, of the idea of literary value—however we might define such a dicey term? How will we discover it among the sea of linguistic dross, should we wish to? And, should we not, what precisely are we reading for in the first place?

4. Ten years ago, writers like John Perry Barlow used the energetic metaphor of the wild west for what was going on on the Web, where all fences were down, and one road as good as another. Now, though, a more apt metaphor seems to be the Mall of America, and, quite possibly, the advent of the Web has signaled little more than the beginning of a new technocracy that ultimately discriminates between computer-haves and computer-havenots, techophiles and technophobes. What possibilities still exist there for innovative fiction?

5. What aesthetic forms, innovative and otherwise, lend themselves to digital space?

6. What zones of resistance and refusal continue to exist in digital media like the Web, and can we imagine a way to keep them from becoming coopted in, say, another five years? In another ten?

7. Is the Web in fact the new worldwide café that early media hype proclaimed it to be, a new global meeting ground for, among others, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the alternativized—aesthetically, socially, politically? Or is it merely the commodified simulation of community populated by isolated aliases uncomfortable about interfacing one-to-one in what some geeks refer to as The Big Television—namely, the real world? Where, that is, is the body going? Where has it gone?

8. What are we to think of RAND Corporation senior computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg’s assertion that “the contents of most digital media evaporate long before words written on high-quality paper. And they often become unusably obsolete even sooner, as media are superseded by new, incompatible formats . . .”? How will the longevity of the digitized book, digitized space, affect how we think about enduring art and the cultural cliché of the "timeless masterpiece"?

9. Back, for a moment, to pedagogy: will education become more interactive, I wonder, and hence more captivating for students, bringing them back to the acts of reading and writing with renewed vigor through the advent of, say, email’s and text messaging's immediacy and the dynamic experience of hypertextual interconnectivity offered by the meta-book called the Web? Or will education become increasingly a simulation of itself through distance learning programs that make good economic sense only by extracting genuine human connection and genuine Socratic inquiry from the learning experience? Will education become, in other words, simply one more version of commodified television with its MTV-ized rhythms, surfaces, and shine—more and more fiscally justified form, and less and less reflective, historically situated, and humanely interactive content?

10. Please don't get me wrong. I apologize in advance if these questions seem too deliberately and predictably shrill by half. But I think their tone, which houses something like urgency in my mind, simply underscores how interested I am in what's going on in the digital realm, how much of what I see vexes me, what the possibilities are for tribes like ours. I've collaborated on the hypermedia version of my novel 10:01, teamed up with Ted Pelton to form this blog, urged us to explore the potential of the podcast, and headbangingly adore a number of electronic texts from Michael Joyce's still glorious afternoon: a story and Shelley Jackson's brilliant My Body (another wonderful unwriting of the Frankenstein myth, by the way), to Stuart Moulthrop's Reagan Library and ongoing experiments at The Iowa Review Web. But I'm also impressed, given how long said realm has been around, and given how many people have been involved in its workings, how few really fascinating pieces of writing it has produced and how so much of it functions as little more than another site for teaching us to desire more things we don't have and don't want. Why?

02 July 2006

Guidelines and 2007 titles

Hello all, just a brief announcement for the authors...

* * *

Raw Dog Screaming Press is pleased to announce a new imprint dedicated to nonfiction: Guide Dog Books. Our newly appointed Nonfiction Editor is Stanley Ashenbach. All nonfiction queries should be directed to stanleyashenbach@yahoo.com.

We are looking for innovative nonfiction in all its manifestations…creative nonfiction, academic works, experimental forms, critical works, letters from the opposition, etc. All subject matter will be considered, although we are most interested in work that examines popular culture. Queries should include a 500 word abstract, author biography, and a sample chapter. Please do not send entire manuscripts by email.

* * *

Just announced! These titles will be released by Raw Dog Screaming Press in 2007:

Dr. Identity by D. Harlan Wilson (hardcover)
Fish, Soap, and Bonds by Larry Fondation (trade paperback)
Health Agent by Jeffrey Thomas (special edition and hardcover)
The Million-Year Centipede; or, Liquid Structures by Eckhard Gerdes (trade paperback)

For more info, please visit RawDogScreaming.com.

01 July 2006


Like any interesting novel, R.M. Berry’s FRANK is a multilayered work; but there’s one reading of it that I thought people on this list would really relate to. In case you haven’t read it yet, FRANK is a re(un)writing of Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN. Berry stays faithful to Shelly’s plot though it’s all transposed to the present-day America, and the monster FRANK (Victor’s doppelganger in Berry’s book) is (and here you’ll see where I’m going)—HA!—an experimental novel. In this regard, the novel is an embodiment of a number of the worries, rants, pissing and moaning, that run through a lot of the NOW WHAT posts: a writer being unable to be less savvy about language than he or she is in order to write a book that is “pretty,” that the general public would find “attractive”; a novel creating the novelist as surely as the novelist creates the novel (or at least the work determining what kind of novelist/thinker/person its maker is); a novelist trying to run from his creation.

That is, once Victor’s created his monstrous collage of language, and the NY establishment, i.e., commercial houses, reviewers etc. see it for what it is—that most odious of creations (save possibly poetry), the novel with miniscule sales, Victor does his damnedest to distance himself from his creature. It follows him wherever he goes, though, insisting that he create a bride, a sequel, which Victor realizes would be the death of any chance he would ever have of being recognized as a “real” author by most of civilized society’s standards: appearances on Oprah, NYTBR ads, etc. Like I say, this is only one slice through a very funny and philosophical novel that takes up ideas of realist authors killing family members by turning them into characters in their thinly veiled memoir-novels; how a text can take on a life of its own once its brought into the world; how fictions have real-world consequences; author as artist vs. author as blacksmith of commercial product; an artists/author’s responsibility; an author-artists being responsible for what they write. This last point seems most apt given Joe Amato’s earlier points about critics not taking any responsibility for the ramifications of valorizing crap by making it the subject of their studies (a subject I’d love to see someone—Joe?—explore/develop). Lastly, did I mention how FUNNY this novel is?—especially if you get the “inside” experimental/Wittgenstein/Cavell jokes….