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May 21, 2009

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A Conservative Vision

I love Dave Eggers’ style and spirit, but…

Nothing has changed! The written word — the love of it and the power of the written word — it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down. I actually have established an e-mail address, — if you want to take it down — if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper — we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.

…this is demonstrably untrue, and far worse — if you consider what an idea factory McSweeney’s and 826 National have been — it’s uncreative. “Don’t get down” is 100% the wrong advice.

OK, so here’s my pitch for the right advice — just a simple rewrite:

Everything is changing! The written word — the love of it and the power of the written word — is still as powerful as ever, but it’s undergoing a seismic shift. If we care about the deep, durable stuff, then we need to get moving and get learning. Don’t simply have faith that things will work out; work them out. It’s time to get down to it. I actually have established an e-mail address, — if invention seizes you by the scalp, if you see that publishing is changing and print is morphing and books are evolving and newspapers are rebooting and you want to be part of it (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be an E-Ink prototype — we’re going to do something with the medium you’ve never seen before). If you have any ideas, e-mail me, and I will help you make them real.
Posted May 21, 2009 at 11:50 | Comments (11) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Post everything here! I don't want to miss a suggestion, comment, link, idea, review, or a nudge. Loved it.

I don't think I really have anything to add other than: yes, I agree. I had the same reaction to this - Eggers' impulse is entirely understandable, but it felt wrong, off, misguided.

I guess it reminds me of a few months back, when I was sitting reading poetry in a coffee shop (shut up, it was for an exam), and how suddenly odd it felt that I couldn't look up a reference, cut and paste bits into my notes etc. More than the usual convenience of the screen though, it was also a lot more difficult to recombine lines, spin them off in new ways, arrangements etc. Paper stifled my creativity or whatever, which was weird and surprising to me.

Anyway, I'm rambling, but your reformulation is very well put.

In context, the Eggers speech reads a little differently. This is from the section quoted just before:

To any of you who are feeling down, and saying, “Oh, no one’s reading anymore”: Walk into 826 on any afternoon. There are no screens there, it’s all paper, it’s all students working shoulder to shoulder invested in their work, writing down something, thinking their work might get published. They put it all on the page, and they think, “Well, if this person who works next to me cares so much about what I’m writing, and they’re going to publish it in their next anthology or newspaper or whatever, then I’m going to invest so much more in it.” And then meanwhile, they’re reading more than I did at their age. …

Generationally, KIDS are still excited about reading, and about seeing their words set in type in the physical world. And print is really an afterthought -- they key terms are reading, writing, words.

So how can both this paragraph and Robin's alternate paragraph -- which is clearly better -- be true?

I think the answer is that the transformation is not generational, but structural. To see it in the logic of generations, which is the logic of inevitability, of Oedipal conflict, of an always-deferred future, is a mistake.

It is industrial and experiential, in both cases a restructuration or part of a continued restructuration in the processes of print, publication, dissemination, and in the experiences of writing, reading, and sociability. And it is the exact opposite of a turning point, or finality. Writing in print is not going away, just as writing in manuscript has not gone away. Its meaning has changed -- just as their twin meaning changed with the invention of the woodblock, movable type, or newsprint.

Nothing has changed because it always has been changing. We are experiencing a late stage in a process that has always been late.

(P.S., yeah, I didn't like Eggers' graf above -- the one you quoted -- b/c it felt like a straw man. I don't think anyone's arguing that "no one's reading anymore" at all. The argument is all about what they're reading, and on what kind of page, screen, or bleep-bloop-feed-bot. Oh -- and how much they pay for it! So, yes, kids love to read. They don't love buying newspapers. What's to lament? All aboard, this train is moving!)

(P.P.S. "Nothing has changed because it has always been changing" -- well put.)

It's totally a straw man, but it's an oft-repeated, rhetorically useful straw man. I remember Steve Jobs saying just a year ago that (wait for it) "people don't read anymore."

It's a particularly useful straw man when you can put the whole logic of decline off on kids: "Sure, I still subscribe to six magazines and buy two dozen hardcovers a year, but my daughter, she can't even spell!" I call bullshit.

I was astonished this fall by how attached my students were to pencil and paper. They even turned in handwritten drafts of assignments, like they were me in 1997. These were kids who all owned university-issued MacBook Pros. Not only were they more comfortable writing things out by hand, they LOVED it. Print and manuscript have totally gotten their aura back for these kids.

But again, that's a restructuration in itself. Print and manuscript become MORE important exactly BECAUSE they're no longer useful for everyday, throwaway reading and writing. To set something in print today -- even if it's laser-jet print -- is the equivalent of publishing a limited-edition fine-press book on vellum in 1900.

So, yeah -- right diagnosis, wrong prescription.

Writing doesn't happen on paper or on computer screens or even on Kindle. Writing happens in the head. The paper or screen merely carries the words, like seeds. They need the soil of a brain and individual experience to grow.
Those who have panicked -- and I've been among them -- need to remember this. How many said, when the Iliad and Odyssey were gathered together and written down for the first time, "Poetry is dead"?

Posted by: Bill Marvel on May 31, 2009 at 06:13 AM

The poet/critic/diarist Paul Valéry had a story about the painter Edgar Degas and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Degas complained that he'd been trying to write poetry, but hadn't had any success, even though he had plenty of ideas. "My dear Degas," Mallarmé said, "poetry is not written with ideas. It is made with words."

So I don't think that "the paper or screen merely carries the words," or the ideas, like seeds. Nor are the ideas the seeds and writing the soil.

It's more like DNA - the synthesis of ideas, language, and support (plus audience, context, timing, the body, etc.) bond together make a complex mechanism that carries and codes for information AND reproduces itself all at once.

One guy who DID panic a little bit at the Iliad and Odyssey (and Socrates and Sophocles) written down was Plato. And I don't think he was totally wrong. Poetry as the Greeks knew it DID die, even as it was remade as something else. (Cf. Eric Havelock's The Muse Learns To Write, many others.

I agree w/ Tim. I think about the way I write, and it's entirely dependent on the tool. It changes accordingly. Writing on paper, scribbling in a notebook, results in *a different kind of writing* than writing on the computer, where I can drag paragraphs around, set text off to the side to return to it, hit command-Z ten times to get back to something, etc.

I like the Mallarme quote, too.

We can trust Plato on the subject of poetry, of course. He was the man who wanted to ban poets from his Republic.

Posted by: Bill Marvel on May 31, 2009 at 04:02 PM

But he didn't want to ban Homer! And to be fair, Plato felt this way about ALL writing, not just poetry. A more telling critique would be to note that Plato himself was a writer, that he transformed Socrates's speech and the practice of philosophy into text.

It would be preposterous to say that philosophy ended with Plato's pen (although many smart people have said exactly that). But something ended, and something changed.

For Havelock (as well as Innis, McLuhan, Ong, etc.) The vitality of classical Greek culture comes from this collision of a rich and established oral tradition with the new technology of writing. That's what helps to create all of these new forms, whether of literature, politics, society, technology, art. It's exciting to be at the seam. Much more so than at either the end or the unchanging nothing. We should be neither victims nor executioners of the book, print, or their hypostases, or digital whatever either for that matter.

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