Materiality: Rectangles, Accordions

c.o. niznoz

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.

The Body of the Text: When Materiality is No Longer Marginal


Given that, as I mentioned in my last piece, and as Sally Ball touches on in her second missive, some writers fear new media and digital publishing, concerned both about the sustainability of Kindle, iPad, and Nook platforms and over whether an e-book will “respect” their line breaks and, by extension, authorial intent, where is the real innovation happening in digital writing and publishing? Which experiments look promising for the potentials of digital storytelling?

Publishers have embraced the enhanced e-book as the future, embedding additional materials around a text (like bonus features on a Laserdisc or DVD). These materials can certainly deepen the reading experience, but they are predicated on our interest in interviews, videos, typescripts, and manuscript editions of a given work (I do, actually, want this material when reading Shakespeare or watching a Merce Cunningham dance). But such material remains paratextual, it is extra, rather than being integral.

Some of the most interesting experiments in the book and bookishness are those in which form and content interlink—as they do in the artist’s book—treating the object as an interface we do not simply look through or beyond (Michael Simeone informs me that when we read, in fact, our eyes are literally focused on a point just beyond the surface of the page). These projects embrace the affordances (and work with the constraints) of digital platforms to create “books” that engage the act of reading as a physical, embodied experience, even when mediated through a screen. I am interested in reading experiences that embrace embodied (or haptic) reading via touch, gesture, and sound (especially interactive binaural audio). These projects are not “the future” of the book, but they are forays into the present moment, and experiments at the edge of possibility—immersive experiences that do not pretend reading is a disembodied experience, either on the part of the reader or the text itself (which, of course, has a body of its own).

I’m especially excited about Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro’s forthcoming Pry, a novel for iPad about a soldier dealing with PTSD whose memories and imagination are layered vividly upon one another in a narrative that is itself a palimpsest of video, text, and sound. Pry takes advantage of the potential of the iPad to facilitate alternative approaches to storytelling. Not a “book,” “game,” or “film,” the project encompasses aspects of all three, creating an immersive (not to mention beautifully-designed) reading experience. Perhaps more importantly to me, Pry makes the medium through which readers encounter it part of the text. Nothing is paratextual, all is integral to the work. By prying open the text with her fingertips, the reader goes deeper into the protagonist’s subconscious, learning more about why James has hidden certain memories away and masked others with imagined experience. Elsewhere, one can force him to open his eyes and confront the external world, which he can only do in bursts due to an injury about which we learn as the story unfolds (or as we unfold it).

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Erik Loyer’s Opertoon has put out some of the most sophisticated app-based reading experiences I have seen, including “Strange Rain,” in which the reader can control the first-person speaker’s meditative state through touch as he watches the sky during a downpour. Opertoon recently ventured into gesture-based reading with Breathing Room, a project for Leap Motion that allows the reader to navigate a landscape with a wave of the hand. Unlike visions of heads-up augmented reality interfaces that act like invisible screens (drag items from one place to another with your hands, double click with your fingertips), this work uses gesture as a metaphor for the act of reading itself (or this is how I read the interface): when you wave your hand, a gust of wind tosses the trees onscreen, clouds drift and shift depending on the speed of your movement, and the sound of a breath suggests the landscape itself is breathing, the reader providing the oxygen that activates the text. Loyer describes the work as a graphic novel, in part because the images and text onscreen appear in panels that suggest time’s passage through juxtaposition. One can reverse time, however, dialing back the clock by spiraling one’s finger in space, a beautiful and rewarding experience in which the role of the reader in traversing a text becomes tactile and present.

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Even as publishers experiment with enhanced e-books that include a range of bells and whistles built around the text, these creators are integrating them into the narrative and aesthetic experience. These innovations are not driven by market concerns, but by the desire to tell specific kinds of stories using the material at hand, whether that be a beautiful accordion fold-out book like Anne Carson’s Nox, which Sally Ball has described, or in a short story we navigate through spatialized binaural sound. I admire the way the interface is integral to the work in both of the cases described above, and I am reminded of Johanna Drucker’s claim that the book is better thought of as a “call” to a storage mechanism that can take many different forms (2013). Or, as Craig Dworkin puts it in No Medium (2013):

As much acts of interpretation as material things, as much processes as objects, media are not merely storage mechanisms somehow independent of the acts of reading or recognizing the signs they record.

It’s not that the medium is the message, but that the message is aware of its medium and its reader, working with and against the technical supports that underlie it. Creative practices can be invigorated by these constraints, particularly if they avoid the trap of thinking of reading, in any form, as immaterial.

My trajectory in these essays/posts/parries has been from the immaterial to the material, from the way cut and paste scraping facilitates the printing of unpublishable texts to app-based books that integrate their interface into their narratives. Or is it the other way around? Those first books take part in the tradition of the artist’s book as democratic multiple, they give material form to work that could have remained purely conceptual. Perhaps immateriality does not exist at all, even in the sort of “asocial” reading Dennis Tenen describes, where it feels as though the world beyond the text has disappeared. The body of the reader and the body of the book may be taken for granted, but they never disappear, leaving print and digital reading intertwined by material threads.

The Future of Creativity and the Book in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 3: In the Wake of the Google Book

arma2 2012-07-03 23-10-42-36

Eventually we will run out of stuff. It’s simpler to grow paper than it is to grow tin or aluminum, or fresh water, or viable ocean, or MRSA-resistant cells. This kind of despair is boring. There must be something that comes after.

So where are we? On the one hand, we face remarkable possibility: future books and publishing platforms, among many things, could offer an increasingly networked experience among items, as well as an increasingly rich visual and simulative experience. On the other, we face a likely scenario where, at best, resources necessary for production and survival will become increasingly constrained (at worst, well, we shall not belabor the point).

If we do not exterminate one another over food and water or perish from incurable disease, in future decades we may consider all of Google’s services to have been a single book, a single knowledge system. Google is, on the broad view, a creative system, comprised of individual creators whose skills range from programming to poetry. It has a systemic creativity. However, Google is not the only possibility. Other systems could emerge.

The point of considering systemic creativity and display resolution together is to highlight the increasing richness of links between objects and objects, as well as content and persons. There are other ways that content is getting denser and more interconnected (next-generation broadband networks, cheap and small RFID transmitters, augmented reality programming, etc.), but considering social networks and displays together helps us see the balancing act of knowledge systems that deliver systemic and personal, experiential richness.

But what does this have to do with thinking about Google as a book? There is a positive correlation between the elision of individual works as they are networked together with the increased richness of information offered by software services and hardware. Google offers personal experience just as it offers readers millions of books in an anonymous heap. Both the former and the latter enrich a “user experience,” where the user is always assumed to have more to do than read. There are no more readers. There are only users.

And in a world of users instead of readers, software services like search, mapping, communication, social networking, and electronic publishing are all part of a knowledge system. It is both analogous to a book as well as an aggregation of other books. But this also means that software services and apps are a form of creative output that is not just a use of human creativity, but a part of a systemic publication of a broader work.

And so the future of creativity is both very old and very new. Creating individually will never stop, but there is more room for also creating things that are not writing human language at all. Services, apps, and systems have creativity of their own even if it surpasses human design. Publication and creativity in the context of users instead of readers is about creativity that is agnostic to individual people.

But it will fail.

As John Law (2011) reminds us, complex systems do not degrade; they collapse. It is easy to imagine this kind of creative environment over the next 30 years. It is impossible to imagine it over the next 200. The Internet will not seem like an unlimited knowledge frontier if we have to run computing devices on solar power or biodiesel, or if we no longer have the fresh water or rare earth minerals to support their manufacture. What we discover in the short term through this exciting revolution in creative potential and publishing may well be passed on, but the system itself probably will not.

I don’t imagine that this will translate into a return to books as if the Internet had never happened. But it does mean that in addition to individual and systemic creativity, there will arise a need for a kind of translational creativity. How do we invent a new form that can capture what we’ve done as the resources to support it cease to exist? There will be creativity in facilitating a graceful decay. Authorship could be considered a kind of ligature between digital and non-digital, or sustainable and non-sustainable.

Humanity will probably survive. Enlightenment sensibilities of creativity will not. In the ruins of informational and creative riches, there will be new knowledge systems cobbled together from the past, just as all knowledge systems have been. But this present will be defined by what we can salvage from it, not by what it passes on to subsequent generations as part of an overall march toward limitless progress.

The Book (and E-Lit) as Nostalgic Object


Not only does digital fluidity facilitate the creation of printed media that have no right to exist physically (that should stay digital and not “waste” paper—the using up of these resources clearly pushes our buttons because of both concern over conservation and over cultural capital—that gets to be a book?), expanding (or shrinking, depending upon your perspective) authorship, it also raises questions of access—how do we ensure these texts remain available as platforms change? As Michael Simeone notes, digital books are far more brittle than their physical counterparts and decay in a far different fashion. Sally Ball has addressed the way this ephemerality impacts conceptions of authorship—knowing that our works are likely to become dated within a short span of time prevents many writers from experimenting with new media and alternative or app-based publishing forms (many poets won’t even reference the contemporary moment in their work, lest a temporal reference prevent its resonance for subsequent generations). I myself collaborated on a book of augmented reality poems whose content can change at the drop of a hat—since the text does not appear on the pages, but only comes to life when those pages are presented to a webcam, emerging from barcode-like markers on the page’s surface (in fact, the reader herself can now change what appears on-screen, thanks to a web-based tool my collaborator Brad Bouse developed). That very terror, though, of dating oneself, can alternately be seen as liberatory—if we fail, we can erase the evidence, and we can even adapt or update our work to meet a new audience. If Michael Simeone’s doomsday predictions are accurate, then what me worry? about whether my book is accessible a year or two from now? Poets are always accused of fiddling while Rome burns, so to worry about who’s listening only expands our image of writerly narcissism.

To be serious, though, this state serves as a reminder that a book is an event, a performance between reader and page. Artists have known far longer than writers that the best way to save the ephemeral (happenings, performance, some land art) is through documentation.

Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a Philadelphia purveyor of fascinating goods and spirits.

Though I may be willing to give up on work that can no longer be supported, scholars like Lori EmersonDene Grigar, and Stuart Moulthrop are doing wonderful work to build archives of new media writing (from magic lantern slides—which once upon a time, of course, told highly immersive phantasmagoric stories—to hypercard works and Flash-based texts). In addition to this scholarly interest, what about the resurgence in pop culture of “antiquated,” outdated, even obsolete aesthetics? It’s no coincidence that I picked up letterpress printing in graduate school while studying electronic literature, or that my students are fascinated when I bring a typewriter into the classroom, or that we are so inundated by nostalgic-looking image filters that we need a #nofilter hashtag to assure us what we are seeing accurately reflects “reality.” Perhaps the electronic literature projects being made today, even those that seem glossy, interactive, and lovely in the best ways (like Aaron Koblin’s interactive music videos, and mass collaborative artworks created for Google) will indeed look wonky and wiley and willful to future readers (perhaps they may be utterly inaccessible), but it is also possible that, like the resurgence of interest in glitch and animated GIFs, their very stylistic issues will make us treasure them more.

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

computers and books

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.



The Future of Creativity and Books in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 2: The Resolution Race: None of This Is Sustainable. But That Is Why It Is Interesting



This kind of conversation is possible because we’re not currently thinking about how there are millions of people today who will use more than a gallon of fresh water to dispose of a mere cup of their own urine. Or how it will be impossible to feed the world without honeybees (who are all dying, but you know that already). We are, in so many ways, plummeting at maximum velocity toward impact. The idea of a digital platform for books should seem laughable if you’ve ever seen the burning e-waste trash pits of Lagos, or the island of plastic floating in the Pacific. Do we honestly expect that the age of digital books will last even a quarter of the time of the print book? Surely we will choke on our own garbage before we perfect the art.

But that is what makes this arresting. We are making things possible now at the expense of the future. We are nearly maxed out on credit.

The rapid advancement of display technology really is an incredible thing. You already know very much that “technology grows rapidly,” but it is easy to take for granted what our eyes expect. In 2004, the display on a mobile phone was about the size of a Fig Newton, and graphics looked as if they were constructed from Legos. That is, if they were even in color. In 2014, it is possible to procure a portable full color HD display that fits in pants pockets for less than the cost of a mediocre wool area rug. Screens are now the size of a reporter’s notebook and we can debate the merits of various pixel arrangements and color reproductions on pocket-sized displays rather than that they are in color at all. And displays are only getting bigger! Their resolutions are increasing as well. HD has gained widespread diffusion as a standard for graphics, only to see 4K emerge. Blu-ray barely had any time beating out HD DVD.

This is not to be facile and lament that things are changing too quickly, or that this growth is somehow manufacturing interest where there is no need. We are already doomed, so why not look for the good in things? Instead, let’s take a moment to appreciate the quality and detail of images that are becoming more and more accessible. A 75 dollar phone purchased at the grocery store can outperform a television from the 1990s. High resolution digital images are not everywhere, but they certainly are in more places than ever. This breakneck acceleration in display quality has a deep history that stretches back to the 1960s and 1970s. As shown by the career of pioneers like Sutherland and Fuchs, the history of computer graphics is intertwined with the search for optimal display solutions. What we see today is not different. To say that the world is visual is a cliché, but the impulse to increase resolution and quality of images holds such generative potential when we think about the future of books and knowledge systems.

For instance, very high-resolution images and videos allow for more visual detail in digital platforms. And detail is a transformative feature of image reproduction. For instance, the University of Illinois’ Medici allows users to zoom and inspect the image in a way that simulates the changing perspectives brought on by increasing the number of pixels used to represent an object. To understand this image as a collection of specimens is a standard definition perspective. To see that each specimen is visually distinct and interesting is a high-definition perspective. To appreciate every hair on the legs of each insect as part of an impossibly intricate collection, as a miraculous panoply of specialized components (such as we see when fully zoomed in), we require a format beyond HD.

And so there will be more visual information in knowledge systems. Not explicitly in the sense of increased numbers of charts, videos, and pictures, but in a very non-referential way, that of visual richness. As they increase in resolution, images could simulate more than represent. Or even represent more than they currently represent. In textbooks and fiction alike, there is a difference between demonstrating an example and calling that example into presence. Presented by better and better displays, future knowledge systems could be aggregations of simulations, narratives, and representations in a far more graceful and viable way than print or current mobile tech will allow.

This assumes that displays will always be pocketable or handheld. Perhaps they will not. Perhaps they will be part of our eyes one day. Perhaps we will run out of resources for batteries and there will be far less mobile technology in the next 20 years. Or both.



Beyond the Book?


The premise of this gathering is that the book is not simply a changing technology, but one that is disappearing, evaporating, disintegrating before our eyes. Yet even as new technologies have facilitated the digitization of books, and the creation of apps, immersive audio experiences, game-like interactive narratives, and other ephemeral books and book-like artifacts, they have also facilitated the rise of small press publishing and provided increased opportunity for the generation and distribution of texts. Writers, after all, do not, as Ulises Carrión (1985) reminds us, write books, but texts.

In fact, it seems we are not moving beyond the book, but in fact entering a moment in which everything is a book. A natural evolution, perhaps, from poststructuralism’s assertion that everything is a text? If everything is legible, then anything is fodder for publication and distribution, we might say, whether by a robot that crawls the web for content to be packaged into Kindle books, or by the blogger who wants to see a year’s worth of witticisms packaged between covers.

As my co-conspirators Michael Simeone and Sally Ball have pointed out, the “creative systems” through which contemporary writing circulates reconfigure authorship, placing increased emphasis on the reader as co-constitutor of the text, and on the book as a performance that alters each time it is accessed.

Text’s ubiquity and seeming immateriality has given rise to a situation like the one Walter Benjamin imagined in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in which every reader can at any moment transform into an author. Think of all the blogs-turned books (including this project), the rise of Blurb and other platforms for creating art books from digital images, the increased presence of print-on-demand opportunities not only online, but in physical bookstores like Harvard Book Shop in Cambridge and McNally Jackson in New York. It continues to be ever easier to make something into an object recognizable to others as a “book.”

The ease with which text can be poured from one container into another (extending Beatrice Warde’s (1956) notion of typography as a “crystal goblet” in a slightly disingenuous way here—I side with Kate Hayles (2002) and other theorists of media-specificity that the book is in fact not transparent, but in fact structures our interactions with it at every turn) has given rise to some fascinating publications that should, it seems, not be books. An immaterial situation that embraces our ability to print books affordably and to make all that was once air solid again. Whether we are thinking of spambots that troll the web for free content to be sold as e-books or authors like Kenneth Goldsmith and other members of the conceptual avant-garde whose writing practice resembles remix, remediation, appropriation, or, in Goldsmith’s formulation, “uncreativity” (2011).

These books are fascinating artistic artifacts, like Nick Thurston’s Of the Subcontract (2013), a collection of poems crowdsourced through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, with its shiny metallic cover and minimalist design.

Like Thurston’s mirror-faced paperback, many of these appropriations draw our attention to  reader as much as author, repositioning the writer him or herself as a reader/curator. For those interested in the aesthetics of such projects, Paul Soulellis maintains an online repository, Library of the Printed Web, and related projects can be found at Gauss PDF (whose recent works include a series of lovely close-up photographs of Emmalea Russo’s re-typing of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, with stitching obscuring nearly all of the text save the recurrent word “they”—a project that clearly plays with re-enactment and remediation, particularly since it includes recto and verso of every page) and Trollthread (among whose many “unprintable” books you’ll find the antithesis of Thurston’s shiny surface:  Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, whose 734 pages are entirely black onscreen, but devolve gradually during the printing process as your printer’s toner depletes) two PDF publishers specializing in books that push on the boundaries of book-ness and authorship.

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.

The Future of Creativity and Books in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 1: Creative Systems



I believe, with at least 75 percent conviction, that we are all doomed. The environment of our planet is badly damaged. Not beyond recovery, but whatever recovery may come will probably take too long to matter. Disease and overpopulation are also threatening, as is a massive global crisis in fresh water supplies. All of this is to say that whatever time period we have defined as a “future” for the future of books to live in will be relatively short. Terrifyingly short, even.

But in the time leading up to a total collapse of civilization as we know it, there have been some fascinating developments in publishing, in writing, and in general knowledge systems that could (if they were not curtailed by a global apocalypse) genuinely transform how we think about expression, knowledge, and identity. It’s a pity they will not happen.

Just for fun, though, let’s think about what could have been.

Let’s think about what it’s still possible to make, and what we might make soon before we cannot any more.

Authorship and the Stream

Social media platforms (I could list them but you know them) have re-centralized how readers can come to knowledge (you also already know this, but there needs to be some establishing part of this conversation. But I won’t waste too much time because we’re already running out of it). Right now, individual written objects like articles and books and blog posts serve as the anchors to which researchers and writers attach their social media streams. It is possible to, by Twitter alone, brush up on world news, discover current research in your field, and find out about new books and poems to read. Streams are fast becoming channels for knowledge types. No, they are not complete, and no, it’s not the same as a library. It is a social knowledge system that circulates a lot of analog-format objects that are, for now, the accepted end products of creative effort. It could also indicate what creative effort could look like in a few years.

The strengths of social media—powerful mechanisms for circulation, accommodation of heterogeneous items, fun and addictive delivery systems—help us think about what social publication might look like, or about a product aggregated by associations rather than an editorial impulse. Books may be replaced by feeds. The connection of resources alongside the creation of resources may be a new dimension to individual creative efforts. At the same time, the ability to draw relationships among items is why it may be possible to have both individual and collective creativity. We could think of creativity as a graphical problem, where new combinations of ideas and people are curtailed by social, physical, and disciplinary limitations. Being a creative agent as a writer or owner of a feed seems to be one path for authors in a time of social media, but assessing and bridging synapses in associations, knowledge, or resources would be the purview of a creative system. Systemic creativity is different from individual creativity. Creative systems optimize contact among human and nonhuman resources, infer or suggest new linkages, and show us the topography of our own intellectual production. One person may have written an experimental narrative about growing up in New England when there were still elm trees. Another may be studying invasive insect species. There is creative potential between them, whether or not they decide to or are allowed to pursue it. Creative potential, one of the objects of creative systems, exists as a structural feature of a social network. Examining co-authorship networks or citation networks in academic publications only scratches the surface of this domain. Individual creativity is an artifact of books. What happens after books will force us to explore further the nuances of creative systems, and by extension the concept of a system-author.

Or it would if we had enough drinking water to sustain a democracy and academic freedom in the year 2050.

Response: Creative Writing, Creative Editing


As a freelance editor, I have had the honor of working with writers of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry…and bits like college application essays, resumes, grant proposals, and graffiti.

Loan to me the words you want to use, writers, please! Let me be a witness to your creativity with the power of word. For some reason, I am able to find a little love in each letter. The word “correct” begins with “co” and that bit sounds like a conversation to me:



Corrections are best in collaboration – writer and editor together.

Perhaps the work of an editor is really the work of a Word Witness whose exterior vision of eye matches well with an inner vision of the spirit?