Category Archives: theory

do bloggers dream of electrifying text?

I left Oxford four years ago, as a fresh-faced English graduate, clutching my First and ready to take the world by storm. The first things that happened were
1) I got fired several times in quick succession for being more interested in writing than business
2) I wrote the usual abortive Bildungsroman-type first attempt at a novel, and then realised it was rubbish
3) I wrote another one, close but no cigar
4) I stopped trying to ‘be a writer’, and suddenly discovered myself writing more than ever.
But I’ve stopped wanting to write books. Perhaps, in the light of Ben’s post on Vidal and the role of authors, I should explain why.
Part of the problem is that between events 1) and 4) above, I discovered the Internet. I found myself co-editing a collaboratively-written email newsletter that covered the kinds of grass-roots creative and political stuff I wanted to be involved in. I thrashed out swathes of cultural theory in a wiki. I blogged for a while in sonnet form. As a side-effect, I nearly started an art collective in France. I found exciting projects and got involved in them. I’m now working on a startup based on (real and virtual) discussions I had with people I met this way. These days, my writing goes into emails, proposals, and the blogosphere. If I get the yen to write fiction, I do so, in collaboration with friends, on the vintage typewriter in my sitting room.
You could say that I just don’t have time to write a whole book. But it’s not just about time. In the process of learning all these new reasons for writing, I stopped aspiring to be an Author.
To backtrack a bit. In the process of frogmarching me through most of the English literary canon from 10AD to the twentieth century, my tutors put a lot of effort into making me consider the relationship between literary theories and their sociopolitical contexts. So I learned how, in Elizabethan England, the writer’s job was to improve politics by providing aspirational images of political leaders. These days, it looks like sycophancy, but back then they (at least say they) believed that the addressee would be moved by poems describing their ideal self to try and become that self, and that this was a valid contribution to the social good.
Fast-forward a hundred or so years. Print technology is taking off in a big way, and in post-Civil War England, aristocratic patronage is declining, and rhetoric is deeply suspect. So writers such as Pope retroengineered the writings of Shakespeare (and, by implication, their own) to represent an ‘eternal’ canon of ‘great’ writing supposedly immune to the ravages of time. This enabled them to distinguish ‘great’ writing from ‘hack’ writing independent of the political situation, thus conveniently providing themselves with a job description (‘great writer’) that didn’t depend on sucking up to a rich patron under the guise of laus et vituperatio but instead sold directly to the public through the burgeoning print industry.
That, then (if you’ll forgive the egregious over-simplification), is the model of what and who an ‘author’ is. We’ve been stuck with it pretty much since then. It depends on the immutable, printed page, requires authors to turn themselves into a brand in order to make a living by marketing their branded ‘great’ prose to the great unwashed for – of course – the improvement not of the authors but of said unwashed, and supports a whole industry in the production and sale of books.
And then came the Internet. All of a sudden, writing is infinitely reproducible. Anyone who wants to write can self-publish. There are tools for real-time collaborative writing. And yet the popular conception of who or what an Author is still very much alive, in the popular mind at least. The publishing industry, meanwhile, has responded to the threat posed by the Net by consolidating, automating, and producing only books guaranteed to sell millions.
So I found myself, a few years out of university, considering the highly-industrialised modern print industry, in the context of the literary theories and social contexts that have created it. And comparing it to the seemingly boundless possibilities – and attendant threats to intellectual property as an economic model – offered by the Internet. And once I’d thought it through, I stopped wanting to author books.
I’m 27. I write well. I have plenty to say. I ought to be the ‘future of the book’. But I want to introduce myself on if:book by proposing that perhaps the future of the book is not a future of books. Or at least it’s not one of authorship, but of writing. Now, please don’t get me wrong: I don’t think print publishing has nothing to offer. I’m an English graduate. I like the physicality of books, the way you can annotate them, the way they start conversations or act as a currency among friends. But I feel deeply that the print industry is out of step with the contemporary cultural landscape, and will not produce the principal agents in the future of that landscape. And I’m not sure that ebooks will, either. My hunch is that things are going two ways: writers as orchestrators of mass creativity, or writers as wielders of a new rhetoric.
Collaborative writing experiments such as Charles Leadbeater’s We-Think venture begin to explore some of the potential open to writers willing to share authorship with an open-sided group, and able to handle the tools that facilitate that kind of work.
Perhaps less obviously, the Elizabethans knew that telling stories changed the cultural landscape, and used that for political purposes. But we live – at least ostensibly – with the Enlightenment notion that storytelling is not political, and that the only proper medium for political discussion is reasoned argument. And yet, the literary theories of Sidney are the direct ancestors of the modern PR and marketing landscape. Today’s court poets work in PR.
What, then, happens when writers choose to operate outside the strictures of the print industry (or the PR copywriting serfdom that claims many of them at the moment) and become instead court poets for the cultural, social, political interest groups of their choice? What happens when we reclaim rhetoric from the language of ‘rationality’ and ‘detachment’? Can we do that honestly, and in the service of humanity?
I find myself involved in both kinds: writing as orchestration/quality control, and writing as activist tool. But in both cases, I remain unsatisfied by the print industry’s feedback loop of three to five years from conception to publication. So instead, I co-write screenplays, proposals, updates. I write emails to my collaborators; I blog about what I’m up to; I tell stories designed to reproduce virally via the ‘Forward’ button. Perhaps foolishly, I still dream of changing the world by writing. And I want to be around when it happens.

ebr is back

ebr is back after a several month hiatus during which time it was overhauled. The site, published by AltX was among the first places where the “technorati meets the literati” and I always found it attractive for its emphasis on sustained analysis of digital artifacts and the occasional pop culture reference. The latest project, first person series, seems to answer a lot of what bob finds attractive in the blogs of juan cole and others. And although I’ve heard ebr called “too linear” (as compared to Vectors, USC’s e-journal) the interface goes a long way toward solving the problem of the scrolling feature of many sites/blogs which privilege what’s new. The interweaving threads with search capabilities seem quite hearty.