Archive | May, 2013

The Quickly Changing World of Publishing

20 May

dog-and-book-e1361628196632

The following is an abridged version of a series with the same title as this post on my other blog http://www.emergenthermit.com.

Naysayers of the indie ebook world have been hard pressed to find cons to match the pros involved in the whole business. Independent publishing has yielded rewards both globally and individually.

For one, ebooks save paper.

I often hear people say, ‘I like the feel of a real book.’

I am one among many people who happen to read just as much from an e-reader as I do from physical books.

Not only do people buy both, but I believe they’ll continue to buy both.

Proposition 1: Printed books will always exist.

There is too much love for them, despite the fluctuation in demand. Physical books will never become true antiques because there is just too much information in them to ignore. Even if we stopped printing books altogether, people of the future would have to read all of the old books lying around just to get an idea why there aren’t books still being printed. As a result, they would probably start getting printed again.

Ebooks are eternal. For me, the prediction is quite simple. With all books digitized, they will, through varying means, always be available to print.

With the indie ebook boom, there’s one complaint I’ve heard often: Most indie-ebooks are written badly.

This is unfortunately true. I’ve waded through many sample pages of indie authors looking for something that had the minimal grammatical readability I require to take something seriously and found missedspellsings, bad, punctuation or a complete lack of punctuation

The books that made it past stage 1 reached stage 2: books made up entirely of sentences sputtering with clichés and over-used ideas, yet, grammatically correct for the most part.

Now and then, an inide book passes stages 1 and 2 and ends up in the land of bookdom. But bookdom is only an acceptable book, not an exceptional book.

Most paperback bestsellers achieve bookdom, both through practice and with the help of an editor. Most traditionally published books achieve mere bookdom, but it doesn’t make them great books.

I think we can all agree, without getting into it too much, that a ‘great’ book has something to do with its unrepeatability. Every book inescapably belongs to one or more genres which is fine, but a ‘great’ book evades a tired formula one sees reoccurring even within genre.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that a great book may not appear from the indie ebook world. The quantity of bad writing is not what concerns me here.

What concerns me is a statement I’ve heard (read) authors and publishers making lately: ‘If a book is good enough, it’ll earn a traditional publication.’

This is only true if we approximate this vague value, ‘good enough,’ to the value of the individual publisher. If we take ‘good enough,’ in a sense of the wider common usage, the statement is historically false. It is false for the simple reason that far too many examples of books that are considered ‘great’ went through their initial printings as independently published works.

Proposition 2: Publishers are not mediators of the canonical process.

Traditional publishing invests in a presupposition of the book’s ‘marketability’ and guides the author toward an ideal performance of the value system innately coded in that very presupposition of marketability.

How many authors have been told, ‘We really liked your manuscript but we just can’t sell it’?

An author may be in the fortunate position of finding a publisher whose vision matches hers, but if not, it may be better for her to consider publishing independently. This has nothing to do with the merit of the final product.

It is becoming more and more evident as time goes on that if traditional publishing houses wish to survive, they will have to compromise.

The vital question used to be one that was put to the writer by the publishing house: ‘What do you have to offer that is both interesting and marketable?’

The vital question is quickly becoming one that the writer puts to the publishing house: ‘What can you do for my book better than what I could do on my own and how will that benefit my vision in the long run?’

This last question is not at all sneering or sarcastic but a very legitimate one I think both writers and publishers would benefit from considering.

If it was up to me, I would like to see traditional publishing exist alongside indie-publishing peacefully.

I view traditional publishing this way. The communicability of all forms of art is culturally contingent. Text has a lineage that predates its existence as a commodity. Stories have a lineage that predates text.

The canonical process is a long and complicated one that may immortalize a book for any number of reasons. The hypostasis of certain images, values and themes which are easily communicable across generations and cultures, filter into art and render a particular work ‘timeless.’

Proposition 3: The literary-canonical process is not inaugurative but reflective.

There is no committee for what makes it into the canon.

Traditional publishers would do better to recognize themselves as commercial mediators rather than canonical mediators.

If people would stop browbeating aspiring and unpublished writers about whether or not their work is ‘worthy’ of traditional publishing, and view traditional publishing rather as a contingent mode of collaborative and commercial interest, then I believe that both independent publishing and traditional publishing may coexist peacefully. This is not to say that a financially ‘equal’ situation would result, but I believe it is a far friendlier vision, absent of false pretenses as to what it means to be published.

Proposition 4: The existence of good art is not harmed by bad art.

One could argue against this point by saying that bad art, mistaken for good art, harms the artists putting hard work into their creations because it turns ‘bad art’ into a standard of production.

This could very well be true, but my argument is closer to what I’ve been saying all along about the canonical process. I’m not worried that ‘bad art’ will be considered good. This happens all the time and doesn’t really harm anything per se.

This would be just as silly as worrying whether or not some great work will slip out of the canon, which is not possible because there is never a point at which we can say about a work which has entered the canon that it ‘never belonged to the canon.’

While good art may be, for a time, harmed by bad art in a number of commercial contexts, the easy production of bad art will not swallow up great art.

In fact, it may have a wonderful result. Perhaps the gap between good art and bad art will become even bigger, while the gap between independent publishing and traditional publishing will become smaller and smaller.

Check the full post out at the link below

http://emergenthermit.com/emergenthermit/2013/5/15/the-quickly-changing-world-of-publishing-part-1-digitize-everything

and http://www.emergenthermit.com for more.

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Wallace’s War Against Irony

14 May

cartoon Bret Easton Ellis

Last year’s most famous literary tweet was a harsh criticism of the late David Foster Wallace by Bret Easton Ellis (A twitticism? A critweeque?).

Articles spilled onto the internet that day showing the rest of the world the tweets that Ellis’s 300,000 odd followers already saw.

Prompted by his reading of, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, a Wallace biography, Ellis referred to Wallace as a ‘failure’ and a ‘fraud.’ He extended the criticism to Wallace’s fans, stating that anyone who considered Wallace a literary genius ‘has got to be included in the Douce-bag Fools Pantheon.’ (Ellis’s spelling of ‘douche.’)

Immediately, people started replaying some of the tired comparisons between Ellis and Wallace that have little to do with either’s actual writing. Both have three-pronged names. Both were around the same age and got published around the same time. Both struggled with and overcame substance abuse. Both were men. Both were white. Both had hair.

Both of them published several books but were recognized primarily for one. Ellis’s famous book was American Psycho. Wallace’s was Infinite Jest. American Psycho was famous because it was controversial. Infinite Jest was famous because it was incomprehensible (apparently). This is not to say that the controversy of the one and the incomprehensibility of the other didn’t attract readers. Both were best sellers.

Ellis picked up the daring readers; the lovers of satire, black humor and subversive, social scrutiny, along with the expected number of whackos and genuine psychopaths.

Wallace picked up the obstinate intellectuals; the lovers of big ambitious books that attempt to say everything in lots of different ways, along with the expected number of pretentious twits and genuine charlatans.

At least this is the binary distinction you’re supposed to accept, as if a reader of one wouldn’t or couldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy the other … And who exactly is responsible for this split?

In an interview from the early 90s that Larry McCaffery did with Wallace, Wallace criticized American Psycho. When McCaffery tried to defend the book, Wallace pulled no punches. ‘You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing,’ he told McCaffery. In other words, whoever liked American Psycho was scattered among the tares.

Wallace went on to say, ‘If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything.’ The grammar of his criticism implies that Ellis pandered to a presupposed audience looking specifically for immoral art. It seems that ‘bad writing,’ In Wallace-ese, is immoral writing.

Finally, Wallace said, ‘You can defend [American Psycho] as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.’

The circumstances of Ellis’s harsh attack on Wallace almost twenty years after Wallace’s initial attack on him raises questions. Why would a writer of great success wait a decade after the other committed suicide before he made his retaliation? Why didn’t he do it when Wallace was still alive?

Contained within the shrillness of Ellis’s vitriolic remarks, I believe we come close to our answer. While this attack may seem like obvious jealousy for an accepted ‘genius,’ and while that may well play into it, I can’t help but think that the attack is concerned more with the current air around the subject of Wallace. Wallace attacked Ellis when Ellis had already had years of success while Wallace still had little. Ellis attacked Wallace when he’d reached his greatest level of influence.

Wallace is revered as a saint of sincerity. One of the unfortunate effects of talented artists reaching unprecedented popularity is that a number of followers will praise the popular artist for little outside of his achievement of singular visions which are not always in keeping with the integrity of tested modes of discourse. In Wallace’s case, he mistakenly believed that sincerity was diametrically opposed to irony.

Because Wallace sought sincerity, Wallace hated irony. When Wallace spoke of irony, one always got the sense that irony didn’t even exist until the last half of the twentieth century. He ignores that the ancient Greeks were ironic. It seems that ‘irony,’ in Wallace’s vocabulary, is synonymous with ‘sarcasm.’

It is no wonder then that one of Wallace’s highest praises of Kafka lies in the fact that, in Kafka’s humor, there is nothing to ‘get.’ Though Kafka is a highly ironic writer in many subtle ways (something that Wallace completely overlooked), one can’t help but think that the interpretation that Wallace gives indicates what he prizes most highly—That which is stripped of all ornamentation, metaphor, all reversals and double-binds, is of greatest value.

The unfortunate thing (for him but maybe not for us) is that Wallace’s prose, in its attempt to say nothing ironic, ends up ironic in its totality.

His works are full of self-conscious characters trying to transcend the selfishness and restrictions of their own egos. In his short story, ‘The Depressed Person,’ you have a character who is obsessed, not only with her own disposition, but how that disposition will translate to the people who sympathize with her.

One would be wrong to think this mechanism of circular contemplation ended with his fiction. In interviews Wallace communicated, it seemed, according to a similar mechanism of self-consciousness. He would often make light of the fact that what he was saying would seem too much like an attempt to sound smart, and that his saying so would further sound like an attempt to be shrewd about himself, which was then an attempt to gain any number of other unsightly effects which he was all too aware of but still willing to express which would then lead one to think he was expressing them for some effect, which he was also willing to recognize which etcetera, etcetera, etcetera …

One recalls an interview Wallace did with Michael Silverblatt on the radio show Bookworm in which Silverblatt laughs in horror as Wallace beats his head against the wall to punish himself for saying something that sounded too self-congratulating.

I’m hard pressed to think of another artist who berated himself just as harshly and for the same exact reasons as those berating him. His career and public life had the same hyper-attentive circularity to it that his writing did. Because of this, both his career and his writing ended up ironic in a way that he’d never intended. The communicative aspects of his character, and therefore, of his writing, were obsessed with a will to convey a level of self-awareness that was also awareness of self-awareness and awareness of awareness of self-awareness, as if there was some point at which he felt he could finally exit himself before he was allowed to speak. In these attempts to escape himself, he was constantly on display as a mind moving in a circle. Since he was both the traveler through and the gatekeeper guarding his own aesthetic, he was never able to leave.

It is my firm conviction that those artists who do not use irony are, inevitably, used by irony.

Given this hatred of irony, it is no surprise that David Foster Wallace would reserve such incredible, pious venom for someone like Bret Easton Ellis, who used irony unflinchingly, not simply as a mechanism of American Psycho, but as the foundation on which we can always rest easily when we get too close too thinking that this is some pervert’s fantasy.

Aside from topicalities, there really are more similarities between Ellis and Wallace than there would first appear to be. Patrick Bateman of Ellis’s American Psycho, despite routinely killing women, tries hard to be normal and fails. Don Gately of Infinite Jest tries hard to be sober and fails.

On one merely speculative note, one might point out that one of the final differences between the two writer’s separate levels of irony is that, in American Psycho, we’re aware that the irony is taking place in the midst of it, as Patrick Bateman waxes aesthetic about famous pop albums of the 80s. Bateman’s ability to do so in the midst of his own sadism causes the reader to believe that Bateman will not become a radically different person by the end of the book.

Don Gately, however, in Infinite Jest, gives us every indication that he is going to stay the course in hard times, and finally, doesn’t. Gately, having fallen off the wagon and having woken up on the beach at the end of the novel is ultimately what makes Wallace an ironic writer whether he intended to be or not. Patrick Bateman may be an ‘unreliable narrator’ in the classic sense, but whoever is narrating the life of Gately (Infinite Jest often feels like several different third-person narrators) is unreliable in a much more nuanced way; make no mistake.

This is not a fault of Wallace’s, but one of his greatest strengths. Rather than duping the reader with his irony—as he accused his own hated heroes of doing in the ‘postmodern’ literature of the last half of the twentieth century—he uses it in a powerful way to say something very real about solidarity and about suffering.

Wallace’s hatred of irony prevented him from admitting that he was implementing it to its greatest effect.

Another unfortunate thing is that the ambition of his work was so apocalyptic that he thought he had nothing to lose in criticizing anything he thought was a ‘lesser’ work. In creating a complicated narrative like Infinite Jest, he was wrapped up in the young writer’s fever which causes him to believe that his work is the last of something and the beginning of something else. In Wallace’s vision of art, along with his vision of morality—which in his case were symbiotic—there was no room for moral mistakes. There is only good art and sin.

For Wallace, a book could not merely satirize a situation but had to work as a piece of utility. It would have been too hard for Wallace—as it is with most young writers with an equal dose of moral and artistic ambition—to get his points across in a novel as slim as The Great Gatsby or The Crying of Lot 49. For Wallace, to devote one work to zaniness and fun and another to high morality must have felt insincere and compartmentalized. He had to accomplish all of his zaniness and high morality in one book so as to let the high justify the low.

One always creates these apocalyptic tomes with the drive to say everything at once and in the inability to believe that anyone will provide a further elaboration. Surely this drive was responsible for the major works of the twentieth century including Infinite Jest—at which point I must also mention the other great apocalyptic novels of the twentieth century: Finnegans Wake, The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, Beckett’s trilogy, Elliot’s Wasteland.

But it is sometimes this same apocalyptic vision of literature, the incredibly lofty goals of the big book, which causes the writer to forget all too easily that literature is capable of many different things. Some books can have political causes, artistic causes, religious causes, causes that are religious but end up political in the sweep of history, political causes which end up being artistic with the contingency of culture, and some can be a mix of any number of causes, only a few causes of which are highlighted at different times for different reasons. If each book is not the last of something, it is part of a mosaic, and if it is part of a mosaic, it can be whatever it wants to be.

Wallace was a major writer but he left little room for any other vision, as it happens, sadly, with most other writers who demand some something so incredibly lofty from art.

It is pleasing to see art inspiring others for any number of reasons.

But whenever every groove and contour of a great artist’s taste is praised simply because of its mere proximity to that artist’s accomplishments, I would say it’s time to take a closer look. There are few causes more futile than the war against irony. Irony catches up with us no matter how far we try to outrun it.

Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty

4 May

Achieving Our Country

What is it, exactly, that makes Richard Rorty a fairly easy read? I would equate it, not only to the conciseness of his prose, but to his uncanny ability to draw up perfectly lucid dichotomies. ‘Dichotomy’ has become something of a bad word in contemporary philosophy. The word is often associated with a sense of anti-gradation, usually into an idea which has become ‘over-determined’ and thus, worth ‘deconstructing.’

Rorty draws dichotomies, not to essentialize some thought-system, but to communicate to his reader. In his work, he expresses a sort of counter-distrust to people who too readily preach a message synonymous with saying that no good philosophy can be available to the masses. It is by this means of communication that Rorty, so often accused throughout his career of taking flippant attitudes toward ‘truth,’ actually turns out to take a quite political stance with his philosophy, and that serves this context to say, a moral stance as well.

It is by the same flippancy he was often accused of that Rorty was able to quickly raise the visions of Dewey and Whitman to the level of high praise reserved for Marx and Hegel in their respective circles. In Rorty’s mind, the sins of America should not wipe out our hope that she can still be better and that there is some way to put into action the dream for her that the founding fathers had.

I must say, Rorty’s writing has proved to be quite refreshing. In a time when the Anglo-analytical word-magicians have gained academic currency, placing their priorities in the world of grammar, it is nice to see a very serious form of ‘flippancy’ rendered with such passion, imagination and—the magic word again—hope. So what if at times Rorty’s writing appears to be a philosophy a la carte? So what if he pulls the best out and lets the worst drop away?

In his famous work, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty allows room for those who seek only their own salvation with no hope for the outside world in the form of ‘the ironist’, while also giving room to the separate but not incompatible project of ‘social hope.’ The flippancy for which he has often been accused can best be fit into the impulse from which his idea of personal autonomy in the mind of the ironist arose.

In Achieving Our Country, Rorty lays down some more localized ideas concerning his own country. When looked at closely, Rorty’s theory of the ironist paired with social hope is ultimately a democratic theory. It allows room for the individual while acting to diminish the highest amount of unnecessary suffering.

While it certainly helps to be somewhat familiar with the terms of dichotomy that Rorty plays with here, he is good at summary. Even if one doesn’t particularly trust his summaries as exhaustive, the various pairings are rendered in such a way that the curious reader can easily spring through Rorty’s interpretation and still gain some idea about the writers he references.

Imaginative, cross-textual relationships rule Rorty’s ideas. The most romantic ideas are not dismissed for not being Foucauldian enough. Nobody in Rorty’s book is too unfashionable to draw from. He puts just as much importance on the poets as he does the great thinkers, because Rorty is one of the few to realize that some politics need a sense of vision that philosophy, in its many fashionable permutations, is not always equipped to give it.