Materiality: Rectangles, Accordions


In the science fiction part of our conversations here, we’ve inched toward imagining books once they stop looking like books, or like rectangles. What will it be like when we “read” via a chip in our parietal lobes? I just reread (the old-fashioned way) Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012) and that novel’s deliberate banalities and its querying of how fiction interacts with reality, or with autobiography—and with beauty, how it stakes a claim for genius in part by being ugly!—remind me of Conceptual Poetry. Heti’s book is both a story we may or may not fall into and an argument with storytelling, with novels; in that way it’s quite similar to Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry, his printing out the Internet, or Joseph K(aplan)’s making his own name by listing the names of, and arbitrarily (or not?) identifying the socio-economic status of, other poets in a long “poem” (Note: Kaplan’s Kill List was published online in 2013 by an independent press, Cars Are Real. The Poetry Foundation’s blog about the book helped facilitate explosions of condemnation and defense).

Goldsmith says in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports…and without ever having to read these things, you understand them” (2011). I imagine the paperless book will often have additional ambitions, but I think our embrace of conceptual lit, our genial welcome of high jinks and provocation and contentlessness (or content overload, or content disingenuousness) to the conversation (Goldsmith is featured on the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites, the grand dames of contemporary American poetics, both of which over the last fifteen years have become increasingly open to experiment and avants of various kinds) signals something about how ready we are to consider books in new ways.

Two areas of book-change stand out to me: first, the relationship of the book to whatever paratextual material accrues around it. As writers reconstrue (for better or worse) the way they allocate time and energy between making novels or poems and making a context for those novels and poems to find readers via, usually, social media, they either generate such paratextual material, or permit it to be generated via interviews, audio recordings, etc., and as they also help disseminate it, the book is increasingly likely to be encountered inside the nest of all this other stuff. As, for example, book trailers grow more beautiful, or more funny, or more engaging in any of a range of ways, or as other kinds of video are linked to books, as the ruminations of writers about their work or the work of others are easier to find and read before, during, after reading the referenced literary work…has that started to create a new conglomerate book, the sum of these many parts? Already some books seem to want to house more and more within their covers or their e-carnations of whatever kind.

And here is one example, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ visual poem based on Victoria Redel’s Woman Without Umbrella (2012), of why that’s potentially so appealing:

Second, there are a plethora of wonders now being produced for large audiences: Anne Carson’s Nox (2010), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010), the new collection of Dickinson’s envelope poems, Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb (2011), Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006) (thanks to the poet Erika Meitner, (Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (2011), Ideal Cities (2010)), for helping me think of some of these; she also mentioned Daphne Gottlieb (a performance poet) who used to give out little eight-page chapbooks of new poems to people she met and liked, chapbooks hand-bound with ribbon—a smaller instance of tenderness toward the book’s richness as an art object…). Some of this may derive from the nostalgia Amaranth Borsuk is writing about. In any case, as we perceive the traditional book to be threatened, we seem to become wistful about its physicality, its capacity to be both a container of consciousness and a joy forever…. When Richard Nash started Cursor and Red Lemonade, part of the idea was to make books widely available as e-books and also beautifully available in limited editions, the best of both worlds. So as books grow increasingly ephemeral, we’ve embraced their materiality anew.

Conceptualism may facilitate the deletion of materiality from our list of expectations of “literature,” from even the book itself. If you don’t have to read it, you don’t need to hold it in your hands! Your experience may be enhanced—or muted, mitigated, alloyed—by reading while also (or instead?!) consuming the paratextual stuff. And then, too, the opportunity to unfold the accordion of Carson’s paintings and notes and collagings and to read her poems and translations surrounded by that colorful, unwieldy, gorgeous origami text—even if that’s driven by future-of-the-book anxiety of some kind, it’s pretty glorious to do.

Sustainability/Ephemerality: What Thy Mind Cannot Contain You Can Commit to These Waste Blanks


Once upon a time, it was a commonplace to think one lived on after death either by having children or by creating art. Art was permanent: Lascaux and Stonehenge achieved a kind of mega level of permanence (who made them? imagine lasting so long!) and Sonnet 17, the Canterbury Tales, the Pièta—these gave (are still giving) centuries of life to the names of their makers. Also, destroyers of civilizations have long known that to incinerate the art, or the library, is to eliminate culture, to wipe the slate clean for one’s own use: Alexandria, Sarajevo.

As we’ve spent today talking about the future of the book, I have this gnawing (Luddite?) question about what other than digitization plays a role in that future? Every answer circles back to at least the effects and implications of technology. One thing I have noticed among writers is that if they still believe their writing promises some type of immortality, they don’t let on. We are resigned to the ephemeral (even as we love and hate the Internet because whatever we put out there is there FOREVER). But ephemerality has won, or it’s the less terrifying name we’ve given to what is really a matter of flood and surge. No one is going to read us or notice us because the life cycle of a book is less than a year, the influx of new books drowns the already-old ones within shorter and shorter periods of time. Web publications too, zoom, on to the next thing. Who will ever find the previous tables of contents, except for someone who knows to look? Ephemerality has advantages: it encourages experiment; it makes us feel brave.

If my book is an object made of acid-free paper, or if it’s a letter-press throwback, lovingly made by hand in Tucson or Manhattan, it can take a lot of wear and tear. Maybe there are 1000 (or 100) of them in the world (75 percent in the publisher’s garage, okay). They have a scent; there may be pretty endpapers with a shiver of flaxen texture. If it’s a download, there could be infinitely many, but…one knows better. One knows that particular infinity is easily all promise and no count.

We might worry that the sprawl of the internet, or, say, the pffst of whatever server houses one’s work (the squirrel who fried New England…) we might worry that together these possibilities, as well as questions about data storage, built-in obsolescence, etc., make the future of the electronic book comparatively delicate. And as we now know, you can’t sneak things around on the Internet (not in America), and books have a long clandestine history. So there are good reasons to recognize that what seem to be advances have a downside.

I’m thinking of Robert Pinsky’s poem “Book,” in First Things to Hand (2006). It’s a poem that, at first, seems nostalgic, luxuriating in the language of bookmaking and stories of books worth dying for, almost, and even the mouthsounds bk, bch of the very word in English, in German. The poem is full of the voluptuary pleasure of holding books and the mental voyages books enable. And then:

…the passion to make a book—passion of the writer

Smelling glue and ink, sensuous. The writer’s dread of making
Another tombstone, my marker orderly in its place in the stacks.

Or to infiltrate and inhabit another soul, as a splinter of spirit
Pressed between pages like a wildflower, odorless, brittle.

The stacks themselves a cemetery.



Authorship: Conceptions of Creativity / Creative Systems


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.