07 January 2007

The Shifting Literary Landscape

In reference to Lance and Davis's posts, Yeah, the nature of lit has changed a lot. Just look at what gets written about as if it were literary: the museum without walls as it used to be called in the visual arts where, after Duchamp’s urinal, anything could be an art object. Seems like the same thing has been going on in literature, though not necessarily in a liberating, or genre-expanding way as was the case with Duchamp’s FOUNTAIN, given that one is as likely to see critics expend their energy in analysis of Survivor, The Sopranos or Grand Theft Auto as contemporary lit (which raises a point Joe Amato makes elsewhere: when are critics going to start considering the ramifications of the choices they make in selecting the objects they do for analysis?). That Steven Johnson book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter seems to be a popularization of an idea that has dominated literary studies/American culture for some time now.

But I digress. More specifically, when I think of the number of things all of us do now in comparison to say 20 years ago, I think it’s not hard to conclude that there’s been a seismic shift in what literature is, what is considered literary. It wasn’t that long ago that a monthly calendar of readings was alien. Readings were a thing that poets did in a bar. The reading fee was a free beer. Now in Chicago, to use a typical city, any month’s calendar is made up of authors of financial-advice books, cookbooks, history, etc. etc. That is, there seems to have been a real rise in the author as celebrity, or at least a rise in the importance of face time in literature. (It’s also odd how readings have come to dominate the hiring of faculty authors: as part of the hiring process, a visiting candidate’s reading is the one thing everyone in the dept. attends, and they vote on the basis of the reading, not the written work.) As someone who writes for the page, i.e, uses the page as a visual element that is part of the story, this emphasis on performance has caused me to make pieces that can be used in these performance venues—it’s shifted what I do as an author, and I only mention my own case as an example of how widespread this phenomena is, slam poetry aside. Then there are all the other things all of us do—creating pieces for the web, contributing to blogs, etc. and all the other kinds of creation that aren’t necessary writing or reading in the traditional sense.

Hand in glove with all of this is the market as coauthor. It’s been true for some time now that the movie that doesn’t play at the mall doesn’t play, the same is true in lit. As Trevor and Ted note elsewhere, poetry, experimental writing and other kinds of writing that don’t have mass market demographics are invisible to the commercial newspapers of record, and all of this has helped to redefine what counts as literature (or a movie, or anything ‘mass’ for that matter). This too has had a trickle down effect in terms of determining what is and isn’t part of the literary conversation: you can’t buy, teach, read a book you don’t know exists, and the narrow-view of lit taken by the mainstream reviewers/papers has certainly shaped what is read, or taught in schools, written about by critics (see above). (Not coincidentally this dynamic makes the few publications that have a broader view of what lit is and can be all that much more important, e.g. RCF, ABR, Rain Taxi).

But finally, and I guess this is what Davis is actually talking about, the word-image hybrids that dominate e-writing are certainly a different animal in every way from traditional print: the assumptions behind what is considered "literature," what is considered “writing” and what goes on during “reading” are certainly different. All writing is writing under constraint, be it the constraints of realism or OuLiPo, and electronic writing certainly has its own particular constraints: the reluctance of readers to go through dense prose on-line, for example; pressure there is for e-writers to basically think in terms of screens, chunks, or blocks of text that would fit on a notecard. The genre expectations that we bring to e-lit demand that it do something other than print-lit, have a sound track, move around. If nothing is happening, don’t we start clicking the mouse? These differing constraints and assumptions, not to mention the marketplace as co-author, allow a different kind of literature to emerge, one that is stunning for its ability to be multimodal, as the English call it. Check out Heavy Industries’s DAKOTA [http://www.yhchang.com/DAKOTA.html]. Check out the great anthology of e-lit just put out by ELO (Hayles, Montfort, Rettberg, Stickland eds.), Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. One [ http://collection.eliterature.org/1/]

(Anyone who still doubts how clueless/apathetic commercial newspapers are about the wider world of aesthetically-driven literature need only note how invisible e-lit is to their reviewers. Speaking of which, does anyone know where e-lit is reviewed in a meaningful way? Seems like I only hear about works I should read/look at by word of mouth or by stumbling across them, and there’s so much junk online I never want to spend the effort wading through it find the pearl. The great thing about the web is that it has no editor/the bad thing is that it has no editor.)

I don’t know if any of this is good, bad or neutral. There seems to be a diminishment in the appreciation of poetics. There certainly seems to a bleed over from one sphere to the other; as someone who also teaches lit, for example, I’ve noticed that students no longer come into a classroom understanding that poem or novel might have to be read more than once to be understood. Or as Silverblatt once said on Bookworm (to Gilbert Sorrentino, I think), not as many people can APPRECIATE ‘difficult’ books today (think Faulkner) because not as many people can READ ‘difficult’ books (think of NY Times ‘critic’ James Atlas who once wrote that Proust, along with Joyce, etc. bore him--this from someone who writes for the paper of record, not someone who lives under a rock). That seems to be the downside. The upside is that no one know what literature is anymore, and that seems exciting. This shifting literary landscape reminds me of an essay by Morton Feldman on the art scene at the dawn of abstract expressionism: “What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment—maybe, say, six weeks—nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened. Because for a short while, these people [the artists] were left alone. Six weeks is all it takes to get started. But there’s no place now where you can hide out for six weeks….” Or as Dylan Thomas might have put it, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?