On Not Being Seen

Suvodeb Banerjee
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Suvodeb Banerjee

Lonely Bush, Dover by Suvodeb Banerjee

What is the opposite of celebrity? Will it be possible to remain unknown in the future web? Think back to the dawn of the blogging era, to LiveJournal and even Geocities: spaces that were public but untrafficked, like a quiet residential cul-de-sac. The kind of place you would safely let your 12-year-old wander around, relying on the (perhaps illusory, but still palpable) sense of security through obscurity.

Today, those structures no longer exist. The infrastructure of the web itself is changing, with platforms replacing sites and automated linking systems tracking our profiles and activities across hundreds of different URLs. Site addresses have evolved from human-readable strings that reflected their own hierarchies (e.g. a New York Times article organized by domain, date, section of the newspaper, and article title) to unique machine-friendly codes (e.g. the addresses of articles on Medium). As Anne Helmond argues in a Computational Culture article, the proliferation of URL shorteners and link APIs have transformed the hyperlink into a meta-structure for the web, turning the “blind” pointer of the web address into an interactive monitoring device for tracking attention.

These systems transform the architecture of reading online, networking the simple act of sharing or even following a link. But what about writing? The expansion of universal logins (again predominantly through Facebook and Twitter) connects our public personae together, hooking one-distinct online spaces into a persistent tapestry of public presence (often hijacking our credentials to promote a product or inform our friends about our most recent “achievement”). It is now not only possible but surprisingly easy to have almost every online activity sourced to a single identity, from reading on Goodreads to exercise on RunKeeper to civic engagement through WhiteHouse.gov.

It is still possible to write anonymously online through pseudonyms and privacy-oriented platforms like PiratePad. But this is not the same thing as riding your bike around a quiet cul-de-sac. This is donning your mask and actively obscuring your real identity. This kind of conscious obfuscation takes on its own stakes and political positions, like the Guy Fawkes masks that bled out from V for Vendetta (2005) into Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous. This is the contemporary equivalent of Thomas Pynchon fleeing a news photographer in the 1950s and pleading with CNN not to out his image on air.

But that is quite different from being unknown. The efficiency of search engines and the social web make that kind of informal, quiet anonymity much more difficult to maintain. When it does occur, it happens in the walled gardens of platforms like Facebook, where data is relatively protected from the search spiders. But that same data is eagerly offered up to advertisers, and that is probably the worst kind of celebrity, the kind of indelible tracking that is both invisible to us as individuals and highly visible to data aggregators.

So outside of those gardens (which are maybe more like pastures, where we are the cows), the romance of the unknown is almost entirely illusory. Everything we write is tracked by someone, or multiple entities, and linked indelibly and rapidly back to us through the simple trace of a Google search or a targeted email. We are all the stars of our own little social media galaxies, and our works are burnished brightly as our automated updates can make them. Simply using the Internet over a period of years is enough to accrue hundreds of followers and detailed digital histories.

This presents a quandary about authenticity. Is it possible to “discover” a new voice, a new artist anymore? Is there an MFA student or young creative artist left who does not already have multiple broadcast channels installed on social media? The answer seems inevitable because the pressure of discovery continues to grow with every micro-celebrity who joins the blogosphere: presumably artists now need to have a following before they even begin their real careers, simply to stand out from the background noise. The creative universe suffers from a kind of light pollution, the background glow of a billion algorithmic publicists pumping out every networked dog, cat and human’s personal narrative. I suppose this makes all of those neighborhoods a little more brightly lit for the kids to play in, but it also makes them all look the same.

In Defense of Literary Celebrity

Barnes & Noble in Manhattan
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“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)

I’m concerned about the kinds of conversations we’re able to have with each other about books now, in an increasingly fragmented literary landscape. In what ways can we talk about books with one another when even avid readers haven’t read any of the same books?  Like Yeats (and Joan Didion, who invoked this same passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)), I’m worried about dispersion.

Even with my most literate friends, I find myself mostly pitching books, talking mostly about plot. After all, it’s almost impossible to talk about style, craft, and the subtle nuances of ideology with people who haven’t read the book. I read a lot of literary fiction, and I admit that my particular form of anxiety might be specific to that genre. How do I really talk about the greatness of a Jennifer Egan or Jeffrey Eugenides when I’m stuck explaining the plot? In other words, do I have to enroll in an MFA program to have these conversations about texture and form?

It’s this concern with the analytical quality and specificity of our conversations about books that leads me to literary celebrity as a construct. I find celebrity promising as a construct because it is a cultural machine for generating common points of reference. But I’m increasingly certain that for most of the literary landscape, it’s doesn’t really exist. I might think that Margaret Atwood (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Booker Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship) or E.L. Doctorow (winner of the National Humanities Medal, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Library of Congress Prize) are bona fide consensus figures: living legends. But my most literate friends and my colleagues at Arizona State University frequently know little about them and their work. At the same time, they’re equally scandalized about my lack of familiarity with Jonathan Lethem or Thomas Pynchon.

In the chair next to me, Lee Konstantinou is writing about One Book and Big Read projects that unite an entire community around a single text. Two seats down from Lee, Dan Gillmor is writing about how authors create small niches of readers who hold them in particularly high regard. Digital platforms like Goodreads and in-person social formations like book clubs (not to mention university programs at the undergraduate and graduate level) represent ways of confronting this problem. And maybe it’s not a problem after all. Some readers/consumers prefer dispersion to an arbitrary and exclusionary canon, especially since most of our canons unquestioningly support and reproduce the privilege of wealthy straight people, white people, and men.

But I still worry that there’s something impoverished about a literary marketplace without (deserving) celebrities. Even in its most easily-despisable Hollywood form, celebrity enables diverse groups of people to participate in conversations at a significant level of detail. Celebrity can be a conduit for incredibly broad and inclusive conversations about values, ethics, politics, and the mechanics of identity and selfhood. Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Lindsay Lohan and their ilk give us a rich grammar to talk about who we are and who we want (and don’t want) to be. I believe that books are even more powerful devices for generating productive and challenging conversations, but without literary celebrity to diffuse shared referents throughout large swaths of the public, reading becomes a solitary activity instead of a starting point for interaction, interpretation, and thoughtful debate.

Maybe Goodreads and LibraryThing solve this problem for some of us. I hope that people respond to this piece by suggesting tools for having these kinds of in-depth, deliberative conversations.

It’s worth noting that digital platforms like Goodreads chain together reading and writing. If you want to use one of them to have a conversation about a book, you have to commit to some intellectual labor. So for those of us who consider ourselves ardent readers but not always enthusiastic writers, Goodreads can feel like another chore. And for a white collar professional / knowledge worker like me, Goodreads and book clubs sometimes too closely resemble things like web management and staff meetings—they can look and feel a little bit too much like work.

Perhaps this is an arena where booksellers can act as curators, or where other cultural authorities (like Lee Konstantinou’s Book DJ) can catalyze and manage conversations. By performing the cultural work of igniting and managing conversations in a highly visible way, maybe they can make the rest of us feel like we’re just having fun, enriching our minds, and freeloading on their sweat.

In their defense, authors and publishers are doing everything they can on the celebrity front—from Twitter and Facebook to low-yield book tours and TV appearances, where they can pick them up. Is literary celebrity even possible anymore? The only place I see it these days is in the red-hot young adult market; J.K. Rowling, like Stephen King before her, even failed in a subterfuge to escape her global fame. Maybe it’s just not possible for authors like my beloved Egan and Eugenides to “tip” in a broader media landscape where films, TV, and increasingly video games dominate our attention economy.

Perhaps the shift to “lifelong learning” that we’ve continued to hear about throughout the 1990s and 2000s will mean that classroom-style interpretive exercises—either in-person or virtual—will become a more consistent part of people’s adult lives. But “lifelong learning,” at least so far, hasn’t been a conversation about humanities education. I do believe that structure and obligation and community membership—soft forms of force—might be necessary if we want literary discourse to be a vibrant part of the broader culture. This will also require a critical understanding of the concept of a “canon” as something to be questioned, revised, critiqued, and examined closely, instead of an unassailable stamp of cultural primacy.

To close with one last quandary: if we’re not having these conversations about literature, has the conversation moved to another cultural site? Are video games, or apps, or movies, or sports, the place to look for robust, inclusive, analytical conversations that are “about” more than they seem to be about? If we can agree that it’s valuable to come together and talk about something we all have in common, what is that thing today? What should it be in the future?

 

Photo courtesy of Monica Arellano-Ongpin, used under a Creative Commons license

For Nonfiction Writers, New Connections with Readers

by AJ Cann, via Flickr: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/
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Once, we manufactured books. The process—writing to editing to design to production to printing to shipping to selling—followed an Industrial Age model: create, manufacture, distribute.

That system is breaking down in the 21st Century. We still create, though increasingly we do it in a collaborative way. More important is what we do with what we create: We put it online; other people come and get it; and we all talk about it. The new model: create, make available, discuss.

by AJ Cann, via Flickr: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/

by AJ Cann, via Flickr: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/

For authors of all kinds, the new system offers incredible new opportunities and challenges. For readers, there’s so much more to choose from, and sometimes a deeper connection to the authors.

I’m convinced, based on my own work, that the opportunities for nonfiction writers vastly outweigh the challenges. The keys are conversation and reputation.

When I was working on my  first book, We the Media (2004), I’d already learned from blogging that conversation with my audience—I was a newspaper columnist at the time—was improving my work. So I published the outline and chapter drafts on my blog. The feedback was amazing, and the result was a much better book.

A decade ago this summer, the book became available, into bookstores and on the Internet. We published it under a Creative Commons license that allowed anyone to download, read and share it for free. I opted for Creative Commons in large part to make a statement: that while I strongly believed (and still do) in copyright, I also felt strongly (and still do) that the American copyright system was broken—and that it was more important to me that people be able to read what I’d written than to attempt to wring every last penny out of the process.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that I was exploring some new boundaries of conversation with my audience, enhancing my own reputation, and ultimately ensuring that the book would make money. By ensuring that anyone who wanted to read the book could do so, I was marketing my ideas, not just a book. Inevitably, or at least to the extent that my ideas were credible, that boosted my reputation in my relatively small literary niche: the collision of media and technology. It definitely led to more speaking invitations, some of which were for pay. (Not coincidentally, I’m still getting royalty checks for that book, because it’s been free to download since the day it went into bookstores.)

Nonfiction authors no longer have to rely on publishers’ publicity departments, not that publicists have ever been all that effective in the first place. Marketing has always been part of the author’s job, even if that’s an uncomfortable role.

Since most authors don’t have mega-bucks marketing budgets, we market our work in mini ways, and hope that everything we do adds up to creating attention. Attention spurs conversation (and vice versa) and, assuming high-quality ideas and writing, boosts reputation, which feeds back into attention. All are related to sales of books and speaking gigs, of course, but also to other kinds of benefits that accrue from reputation, including (as in my own case) offers of other kinds of paid jobs.

Where should we have these conversations? I’m tempted to answer, “Everywhere we can create good ones”—but that feels wrong given the bad behavior of some of the companies that host these conversations, Facebook in particular. I realize I’m costing myself significant contact with my own audience by abstaining from that service, but I can’t abide its corporate policies, many of which have been designed to reduce people’s privacy in a world where we need more and more control over our data, not less. Moreover, we don’t really control what we post on Facebook (and Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram et al.) because they are platforms owned by third parties that have the right to remove our work at their discretion. Yes, participate in social networks. But I tell my students they should register their own domain names, and create blogs. Every author—every author—should do this, too, and create an online home base where they can define themselves, and which they own.

Over the years I’ve developed a few rules for my conversations. Here are a few:

  • Always answer email about your work. Even if someone is writing to tell you you’re an idiot, and explains why, you can make a fan out of a critic by paying attention. I learn more from people who think I’m wrong than from people who agree with me, after all. (And when you discover you’re wrong, say so.The only exception is pure abuse.
  • Use the social networks not just to promote, but also to engage. I don’t respond to every Twitter post with my @dangillmor username in it, but I do this enough to keep learning new things.
  • I like getting paid speaking gigs, but I often do them just for expenses if I have the time and the location and audience will be new. Kevin Kelly, a wonderful technology writer, does speaking gigs for people who’ll agree to buy copies of his books for the audience.
  • Join other people’s conversations. You don’t have to post everything you say only on your own site or in your own social media feed. Sometimes I reply to people with blog posts, but it’s a signal of respect to comment on other people’s work where they wrote it in the first place.
  • Above all, don’t do all the talking. The first rule of having a good conversation is to listen.

The Need for Literary McNuggets

stack of books
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The publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash once described the true function of the Oprah Book Club in this way: “Books help Oprah more than Oprah helps books.” When Oprah got someone to read a book with her, she did so in order to capture “mind share during the other 23 hours of the day” when that member of her audience was not watching her show (Spavlik 2011). The point of reading Toni Morrison or William Faulkner with Oprah was not to appreciate Toni Morrison or William Faulkner. The point was to appreciate Oprah. Nash called this the “Oprah Effect.”

This description makes the Oprah Book Club sound like a diabolical scheme, devised in some dystopian near future, meant to hack our brains. And it may well have been just that. But Nash did not mean to condemn but to praise Oprah’s methods of mental colonization. He hoped that publishers might learn from Oprah, emulate her, better capture the attention of audiences, monetize that captured attention in new and exciting ways.

I’d like to turn Nash’s argument around. Whatever we think of the so-called Oprah Effect, Oprah’s Book Club was never only just a form of audience management. It also served an important purpose for her viewers. Indeed, Oprah’s Book Club served much the same function as ordinary book clubs. That is, it organized attention, formed communities, and visualized specific realizable goals for individual readers. Oprah’s Book Club exposed nothing other than the individual reader’s hunger to participate in collective life.

If there’s something nefarious about the Oprah Effect, it’s the way that our hunger for collectivity seems to have been hijacked by a corporate agenda. We might prefer our collective reading projects to be something other than forms of celebrity brand management.

Fortunately, there are alternate models.

I was fortunate to help organize one such alternate model during the summer of 2012 for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I had been asked to review William Gaddis’s J R (1975), a massive 700+ page novel that had just been reissued by Dalkey Archive Press. It was a daunting assignment, and I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to read the book over the course of my summer while attending to my other obligations. I suggested to the editors that we not just review the book but organize an online book club, which would read ten pages of Gaddis’s dense novel per day.

Participants could Tweet about the book using the hashtag #OccupyGaddis and LARB would publish occasional blog posts by various authors leading up to a formal review of the book at the end of the summer. #OccupyGaddis was partly modeled on Infinite Summer, which read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) over the summer of 2009. There have been a variety of similar online exercises, group reads of Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), and other big books.

#OccupyGaddis was a tremendous success. It drew far more people than I expected. The group reading took on a life of its own, and spawned an non-LARB-affiliated follow-up called #AutumnalCity, a collective reading of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) conducted by many of the same people who participated in #OccupyGaddis.

All of which has led me to arrive at a few conclusions about public book clubs. First, the so-called decline of serious reading has been overstated. Our reading culture, though under assault, is not declining as quickly as some fear. There are still large communities of readers—and not just university-bound readers—who are excited to read challenging books together, and looking for opportunities to meet like-minded readers.

Second, collective reading need not only be a vehicle for celebrity brand management. Group-reading projects, in fact, express a powerful desire for a cultural commons. This desire may be channeled into various forms of consumer manipulation, but it need not be.

A better use of the desire for a literary commons would be to create durable institutions that would cultivate and spread public cultures of reading. Some communities have already attempted this, trying to get entire cities (“One City One Book”) or universities to read the same book at the same time. The effort to find books appropriate for the whole community has led to controversy in the selection of particular books (which is always also a political choice). But controversy shouldn’t be regarded as a danger to be avoided but a feature of such efforts to forge consensus and mutual understanding. Literary culture is, after all, unavoidably also political culture.

Others dislike the very idea of exercises in mass reading. “I don’t like these mass reading bees,” the literary critic Harold Bloom told the New York Times in 2002. “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once” (Kirkpatrick 2002). Of course, the problem with Chicken McNuggets isn’t that we eat them all at once. It’s that they’re manufactured by a large, impersonal corporation that doesn’t have much incentive in caring about our health or gustatory wellbeing.

What we need to do is find ways of producing, distributing, and consuming more delicious, nutritious, satisfying literary Chicken McNuggets. This is a central task for any exercise in imagining the future of reading.