How is our sense of creativity changing as the object called the book changes? How do we “practice” differently as writers in a world where distribution of literary art increasingly relies on our own efforts, where the audience that makes up Consumers of Language-Based Entertainment has more options? I’m writing, by the way, in a roomful of other people writing: people from the book industry, from academia, entrepreneurs—in general, they are people who are mostly interested in knowledge (how it’s transmitted, how it’s stored—). I am mostly interested in literary art, though I also think knowledge occurs there, lives there, too.
Michael Simeone, the director of ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research Nexus Lab: Digital Humanities and Transdisciplinary Informatics, asked initially: what does creativity even look like if the identity of the consumer is more important than the identity of the producer? I am wondering if that is the key shift as the book moves forward. At first I thought that such a shift would convert the writer to a Draper: Mad Men, Madison Avenue, a target marketer aiming at a segment, utilitarian maybe above all else (that is certainly a model that would be espoused, for example, by the university presidents who want to charge more for useless things like humanities courses).… Though that utilitarian conception of the writer begs a question about what it means (meant?) for the producer’s identity to “matter more.” Because an oversimplification of the question lets us think that the writer for whom the consumer’s identity does not come first is not concerned with other people. She’s that navel-gazer writer rebuked by the head of the Nobel Committee a few years ago when he felt the need to explain why American fiction was not interesting to the prize committee. (Too insular.) But I want to slow down with the question of identity here: of whose identity matters to a writer, and how the book itself, or the means by which books make their way into reader’s heads, may affect that question.
For literary writers, the relationship to an audience, the possibility of believing one even has an audience, has ranged widely from person to person and era to era. The defining pressure of our time is consumption: clicks and hits and sales. The mainstream publishing industry, joined often enough by small press publishers, wants authors using social media regularly and then intensely to have a presence, to create a buzz. The time writers must spend cultivating this presence, this promotional avatar of literary aliveness, probably depletes the time they can spend immersed in the work they are meant to be promoting. Many writers find transitioning from one territory to the other difficult, and the seductions of social media interactions (additionally justified as pleasing to one’s publicist) have to be actively opposed if one is to fall into creative literary work. How does that change such creative work? And does the cultivation of that online personality sometimes suffice for people who might have been creators of literary content in the past?
I think that’s often the criticism of writers who use social media, that there’s a whorish self-promotional thing going on, and many of us probably know writers whose social media presence has made them less attractive—or more attractive—than whatever we thought of them just as persons or just as authors (depending on whether we know them in the flesh or only on the page).
This is a sprint: and I want to return to that question of the author/producer’s identity and whether or not we think of ourselves or the consumer first—or whom we’re thinking of, if we aren’t in marketing mode. The novelist T. M. McNally defines the novelist’s responsibility as to the people on the page. The post-structuralists would likely chuckle, right?—or at least, in their wake, we think it’s quaint to owe anything to fictional lives, to self-conceive as in service to something imaginary that might somehow be taken as universal or (more modestly) representative….
But the way text is encountered now is (at least initially) online, and we probably meet the “author” before we meet her characters—before, I mean, we meet her art. Does she make it differently, do we look at it differently, because we know the blog, the interview, the Next Big Thing, the feed?
Creativity: writing has probably always been something one had to fight distraction to do, and as the varieties of distraction have multiplied, maybe now it’s more difficult to do it, even as it’s easier to “get it out there.” Certainly the world we now inhabit does not encourage contemplation, lostness in one’s imagination, etc. If you are lost in thought, Reader, you are not shopping. In The Matter of Capital (2012) Chris Nealon describes what he calls the Post-Language poetry of late-late capitalism, which, he says, can most potently be recognized by its stance. Which is waiting. To be waiting, to be aware that noticing obsolescence is obsolete, to know (in keeping with Michael’s posts of DOOM) that we already ought to be done here, having already more or less ruined everything, or commodified it (that’s probably not a difference but a definition—). And so at best, Nealon observes, we feel this “rueful astonishment” that we’re still here, sometimes perfectly happily. That’s where writing now begins: either in the universe of distraction and segue and association and accumulation, or in the lull between distractions. Schools, I think, are formed around whether one believes such lulls can exist at all, or if instead one thinks any notion of escape from gluts and heaps and links and ads, this constant ravenous simultaneity, is delusional, naïve.
The questions about identity (whose matters more, the consumer’s or the producer’s?) lead to other questions about attention (paying it, or seeking it—). The measure of which identity has more power can probably be seen in the parceling of attention. If the future of the book will also be defined by its stance, then we find ourselves considering point of view, which we create in poetry and in fiction by how we pay attention. When the writer is required to, or elects to, solicit attention, that probably gets entwined with (or into conflict with?) the attention she needs to turn so unflinchingly toward her subject.