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OK, hopefully this will help.

I found this snippet on a book panel re: SXSW that I thought was illuminating in regards to some of the attendant issues of authorship and culture that I’ve danced around in previous posts:

# An author is no longer an individual working in a room alone, but the leader of an online “tribe” of followers –- the people who comprise the author’s audience. Several example kept coming up, wine guy Gary Vaynerchuck, author of Crush It!, business guru Seth Godin; and Kroszer’s favorite example, The Pioneer Woman, who “could organize a tour on her own without the help of a publisher.” The consensus, from another panel –- “Scoring a Tech Book Deal” was that a potential author needed a minimum of 5,000 Twitter followers. [this social calculus is pretty funny --ed.]
# For non celebrities, social media is the way most authors will get this tribe. This can be difficult for some traditional authors. [emphasis mine]

This goes far beyond paper book vs. digital book. This is a fundamental change in the way text (to use the broadest sense of term) is constructed. We are indeed entering a true post-Romantic era, with many attendant positives and negatives that come with any seismic change. And these changes will absolutely change the content of fiction, as well as other disciplines. This is, in itself, nothing that revelatory. Probably thousands of others have said this is happening, or will happen, over the last 15 years or so.

The problem is that the tribe isn’t always right. God knows I love engaging with readers and other writers, but what, exactly, are the parameters of these pseudo-nano-states? I don’t want to take this metaphor too literally (obviously, unless we are in the real of interpersonal writerly experiments, most writers are still going to be “individuals working in a room alone.”). We are not in a troubadour era of oral culture. This interdependence for the written culture of reading silently (and in relative spatial isolation) is a drastic change.

And yet, to move it into the realm of fiction, and partic. speculative fiction (of all stripes) what does this entail for the content of stories? The subject matter? (Looking at the matter as a living, tactile thing?)

In other words, can the thoroughly modernist concerns of our fiction be served by this new world of tribalism?

Because, like it or not, the structures and “information embedding” of the stories themselves are still thoroughly Modernist. Ideally, the stories and novels that are brought forth as “the best and the brightest” in our field pay at least lip service to concerns such as, but not limited to: characterization, emotional resonance, the elicitation of surprise, immersion, perhaps even a sense of the secular numinous. This is where the Romantic bleeds into the Modern (using Poe as the pivot): the crucible of our fictions that have beginnings, middles, and ends.

And yet, the delivery of these stories is increasingly brought about by a play of surfaces: social media juice, buzz, and linkage; for a purely mundane example, I think about the open calls by people to nominate their story or novel on their blogs, tweets, etc. This is purely on the realm of horse trading, which has always existed-but it’s existing, perhaps for the first year ever in the SF/F field, in a completely different way than ever before in 2010, and the reason why this is the case is perhaps illuminated by the quote from the beginning of this post.

Perhaps it’s just a lagging indicator, and our storytelling forms will, in time, embrace different ways to deliver prose that matters in different ways than we thought possible. Perhaps. And this would indeed be a recalibration of the field that somehow manages to find the sweet spot between narrative depth and structural uncertainty. But until then, it’s “old wine in new barrels.” And the writer’s relationship to his or her materials-i.e., the space of a social media-is one of crucial importance. But as of now, in this time of transition, it’s really the “worst of both worlds”-the two worsts being:

1. the 1930s-1940s Golden Age notion of being a “pro”, which entails churning out quantitative work at all costs, cultivating status of being a “pro”, being ruthless toward aesthetic indeterminism.

2. the early 21st century branding of “self” in the hyper-public sphere of cyberspace (which very might look and feel like a real Self!), inculcating oneself with favors through the social network, embracing conglomerations and alliances of various tribes together to affect short-term gains in the field.

Finally, it has to be asked-what is the ultimate goal of the self-described digerati with literature in the first place, as a class? What is their use with literature? I honestly don’t know, and perhaps it is my bewilderment, or my own density of this issue, that drives me to explore this.

Maybe I’m writing this because I have deep misgivings which are my own and mine alone. I see, along the edges of sight, this ruthlessness creep up and pounce. I see takedowns and pettiness and it isn’t pretty. There have even been occasions when throughout the years I haven’t been on my best behavior myself. Writing isn’t necessarily a field in which to “feel justice” or equanimity. I do, however, think that this aforementioned tribalism gives a sense of false equanimity, false democracy. Which isn’t the same as community or truth. Where I do feel the need for truth is in my own voice-and that is certainly my “early Renaissance humanism” at work. (It took me many years to realize that I’m not a postmodernist. Imagine that.)

And I want other writers, especially ones just starting out, to realize that there are other ways to go about becoming a good writer besides getting 5,000 Twitter followers (okay, this is a metaphor…mostly), or getting one’s tribe up and running before going deep inside oneself and finding out what you need to say-what you really need to say, with gnarled persistence, and, yes, plenty of alone time.

Mon, March 22 2010 » Fiction, Life Studies

3 Responses

  1. Maureen McHugh March 22 2010 @ 11:51 pm

    One of the things that digital media, transmedia, whatever you want to call it, is proving, is that ‘story isn’t broken’ to quote Sean Stewart. The medium will change the shape of the story, for sure, but efforts to crowdsource fiction have been pretty spectacular failures. The brave new world really doesn’t mean literature by consensus.

    It does mean, alas, that for awhile at least while things are figured out, it’s going to get even harder to get paid.

  2. David Moles March 23 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    There are other ways to go about becoming a good writer than building a career as a sketchy self-help guru and then wrapping a handful of pop-psychology bullet points in a threadbare pseudo-adventure pseudo-narrative that would shame Dan Brown and publishing it yourself, but that didn’t stop the guy who wrote The Celestine Prophecy.

    Mr. Nawotka is putting the horseless carriage before the buggywhip. There’s always been people who wanted to be microcelebrities but didn’t have anything to say; the difference is that once (Upon A Time at any rate) you could become a microcelebrity by writing a book, and now — because there are so many more microcelebrities and so many more ways to become one — a book is something (one of the things a book can be, is something) a microcelebrity (“wine guy,” “business guru”) writes, an accessory, a tie-in, to extend their microcelebrity brand. (You — as a fan — don’t have to read it, just buy it and tweet to other fans that you bought it. And maybe the author tweets back!) It’s got fuck-all to do with prose that matters.

    (There’s always been people that didn’t want to draw but wanted to sit on the steps of the art school in black turtlenecks smoking Gitanes, too. It’s not the same thing — or is it? But it hasn’t got a whole lot to do with prose that matters either.)

    I wonder, really, about this prose that matters business. I wonder increasingly if prose as culture (high culture, pop culture) wasn’t essentially a nineteenth-century phenomenon, born with the industrial press, dead with the Saturday Evening Post. Maybe we’re fucked this century, stumbling around in the ruins of all that, and prose as a medium will have to wait a few generations for somebody raised on socially-networked massively-multiplayer location-aware cross-media participatory Culture 2.0 to rediscover it as outsider art.

  3. Alan March 28 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Maureen: I definitely agree with you. I also think that the advantages of “static fiction” are based on its alphabetic nature: easily transferable, cheap to make, able to be duplicated in a variety of forms. Really old values, I guess. But those in themselves, I think, create a kind of political (lowercase p) stance.

    Dave: “prose that matters” can have a lot of concentricity-on a variety of levels, personal and political. And yeah, I know that the nonfiction titles brought up in the excerpt aren’t exactly transferable to our little fictive world. I worry, I guess, that the assumed expectations to please those on the art school steps somehow bleed into the conditions that allow that slippery “prose that matters” find its audience. Or whether people in the future will even have the tools to recognize it when they see it (to see depth instead of surface play). Stories have their built-in toolboxes to teach readers how to read them, but…what is the baseline of basic skills?

    Or is this a moot point-or a prophecy already fulfilled? People already aren’t reading much. But in the community that supposedly is supposed to CARE about these things, at least nominally, it seems that there can be precious little about the work itself. “Show your work” (as your blog puts it) should involve some actual work.

    Perhaps this is needless worry. Perhaps these things will work themselves out, like they always seem to do.

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