The New York Times carried an article in last Sunday's "Critics Corner" by Loren Stein, a piece that challenges the interpenetration of technology into the world of writers and readers. The takeaway is clearly that our ability to produce and to absorb excellent writing is under siege.
In "Words Unwired," Stein oddly conflates the means by which we create with the media we use to consume it. The article begins as a meditation on the continuing value of literary journals (especially that darling of the literati, the Paris Review), but in execution becomes a rather disjointed whine about technology.
Newsflash, dear NYT, et al, tilters-at-windmills: literature, poetry, and electronic reading devices are not mutually exclusive. If I want to curl up with a volume of Stanley Kunitz or Denise Levertov, I can do so just as readily with a paper book off my shelf or an e-version on my Kindle. Whatever my particular psyche requires to deeply engage with the poems will be the same, regardless of the means by which the words passed through my eyes and lodged in my soul.
"We spend more time than ever on our devices, but it seems fair to say we like them less, especially when it comes to reading."
Who is this "we" of which you speak, and how is it you presume to speak for "us"? In a technologically rich environment that offers ever-greater means of communicating and consuming whatever content makes us happy, each of us has to sort through our options and get comfortable with what works for us. My sweet spot may look different than yours.
“[Instead of writing short stories,] the savviest M.F.A. students were pouring their energies into fat historical novels — and their Facebook pages."
This is just silly. I have a fairly recent MFA (2012), and most of the people I graduated with are writing LOTS of short stories. Same is it ever was, they’re submitting work to journals, winning contests and prizes, and even landing publishing deals for collections. BTW, most of them probably have or will at some time submit to the Paris Review. Maybe if prestigious quarterlies and lit-mags were a tad more open to new and un-agented work, they'd discover that a great many serious short fiction writers are still very much out there, seeking publication in the hallowed pages. Gatekeeping may be a necessary process, but you can't narrow your input to a pinprick trickle of contributors and then kvetch that no one is writing short stories. Hogwash.
Oh, and that part about "pouring energy into their Facebook pages" is truly insulting. ALL authors today—even the darlings and hot properties of legacy publishing houses—are expected to be out there flogging themselves around on social media. Having an established platform is now a common part of the conversation around the acquisitions table. Pretending otherwise pushes one deeply into the territory of pretentious and disingenuous.
"For all these reasons, writing fiction is pretty much the opposite of writing a good tweet, or curating an Instagram feed."
Is this supposed to be a mic drop? Is there actually a writer out there who believes they are the same thing?
"To write a story also requires public solitude. You can’t be worrying how you sound. You can’t wonder whether you or your characters are likable or smart or interesting. You have to be inside the scene — the tactile world of tables and chairs and sunlight — attending to your characters, people who exist for you in nonvirtual reality."
Yes, immersion in the fictive world I'm creating requires my full engagement. That works best for me if I disengage from the Internet and work in an environment with fewer distractions. How other writers work is highly individual to them. Funny thing, though: the virtual world hasn't yet figured out how to disrupt my writing without my specific permission. Until my phone or tablet learn to walk into my office and kick me on the shin to get my attention, I’m good.
“By writing offline, literally and metaphorically, this new generation of writers gives us the intimacy, the assurance of their solitude. They let us read the word “I” and feel that it’s not attached to a product. They let us read an essay, or a stanza, and feel the silence around it — the actual, physical stillness of a body when it’s deep in thought.”
First, what does metaphorical "writing offline" even mean? Is internet research allowed, or must one haunt the carrels of an old and esteemed reference library to be writing properly? How on earth do authors "[assure] us of their solitude"? I'll admit that Stein's description is terribly evocative: the solitary writer locked in a Thoreauvian mountaintop redoubt, producing writing with only the sound of the wind in the pines for company. I could do with a little of that idyll. But in reality, her picture is little more than a nod to the mystique of the lone wordsmith perpetrated for centuries on unsuspecting wannabe writers and starry-eyed readers.
I won't argue for a moment that time unplugged doesn't have a refreshing and quieting effect. In fact, I would argue that most of us would benefit from a moderation of our virtual habits. But to fault current technology with an imagined degradation of the literary milieu is simplistic.
Every writer is a unique artist who brings word to page in her or his own way. Please--let’s not pretend we can literally see through the page to the means by which the author brought the work into being. Even the most arresting literary fiction or poetry may well have been written in a coffee shop, on a train, or in a back bedroom with a noisy family or raucous neighborhood bustling around on the other side of the door. Even if first penned in a cabin deep in the bosky dell, the deathless prose or poesy likely came rough and awkward to the page, squalling to be hacked and slashed, revised and muscled into shape. Reader-ready writing that looks effortless and ineffable never is. The art of the written word comes AFTER the sweat equity involved in craft. Why perpetuate such a dewy notion of creation? Unless, of course, one has a mystique to defend.
What a fantastic time to be a reader and a writer! I have a massive library of paper books and a love affair with my local bookstores and library; I also have several portable devices filled with books, audiobooks, podcasts, and videos. It's an embarrassment of riches. I'm OLD. I grew up in a world without the information highway, limited to whatever was deemed worthy of shelf space by the curating powers-that-were. Now, my options as a voracious reader are nearly limitless, and as a writer the possibilities for publication are wide open--it's a damned miracle.
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