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November 24, 2008


I'm so glad someone's not cynical. (you). Sometimes I think, well, there will be a time, probably a terrorist attack, which will render all of this cyberstuff mute. And we'll be forced to read literature and appreciate the wonder of hard copy. Great post.

While I enjoy the internet, I cannot understand how anyone could truly imagine it as a substitute or replacement for reading, writing, or thinking. With the internet, something visceral is lost for me, especially with the reading of history or a novel. My ritual of laying down with a book, a pillow, and a blanket is not at all threatened by this too-warm machine on my lap. My pretty journals and pencils have not been replaced by my word processor. On top of it all, I find that I do not think my best thoughts until this silly machine is switched off.

Writers, even ones like me who write only for their own amusement, communicate. Communication requires recognition of one type or another, but I hardly think one who is compelled to write is striving for recognition alone.

I think Velveteen Rabbi's recent post on blogging as a manifestation of the gift economy was much closer to the mark. Kirsch is not the first critic to advance this line of thinking, of course - remember that "anxiety of influence" bullshit that Harold Bloom came up with? I find it deplorable that one can still get an education in the humanities and not come into contact with modern anthropology, which has more to teach us about the motivations and values of human beings than any other discipline.

Thanks, therapydoc - it's great to see you commenting here! And no, I try not to be cynical, it poisons everything.

Kaycie - actually I've gotten really used to reading on the internet and do sometimes take the laptop to bed! We're all different, and I wish people would stop getting so worked up about where people read stuff, and focus on the quality of what's being written. There are lousy books being published all the time as well as good ones, just like there is excellent writing on the internet alongside a huge amount of forgettable stuff.

Excellent points, Dave. Apparently one can get a top-drawer education and move on to Wall Street without knowing a great deal about how to think, write, or analyze an argument - let alone knowing about human behavior and motivation in an anthropological sense -- as we are seeing. Though I suppose "Who, Me?" is still a typical response.

There are a couple of reasons Kirsch's entry interests me... none of them are exactly what he talks about.

First, I am interested in the phenomenon I've observed that practically none of the contemporary authors of fiction I really admire spend any significant time blogging or even taking part in more shallow social networks consistently. I see more good poets blogging, but practically none of them are writing the kind of poetry I like, which is mainstreamish and sometimes winning awards right now rather than in the future when their genius is realized. Out of curiosity, I wonder why that is. Is it really just the staid nature of academia? I don't think so-- and the evidence appears to bear me out. Out of practicality, I'd love to know that it can be done. I'd like a model that someone can be a productive, participatory web citizen and a great writer of fiction or poetry. Or is there really something fundamentally at odds between that kind of writing and writing significantly in the blogosphere or participating in social networks?

Second, as a fairly firm singularitarian, I am strongly interested in what we call art and what it will mean when we do see serious steps towards collectives, affinity groups, and intertwining of or biological senses and information, data, and publication. I think it promises something new, but then we've had a lot of methods for creating new art at our disposal for a few decades now and sadly little has come of it. I look at poetry, the essay and short fiction-- the areas that I expect(ed) to change most and most quickly, or produce new related forms most easily-- and I see almost nothing of consequence. Horribly amateurish multimedia, primitive hypertext fiction, assemblage and collage poetry that was being done, and usually better, 40 years before.

When I consider these points together it makes me wonder if Kirsch's bleak vision isn't sometimes right, but for the wrong reasons. Maybe artists who aspire to great power or to change the world *should* avoid the web. Maybe the future of all these new affordances isn't new art at all, but the loss of artistic production the mode that I am talking about (great art, the art that changes some part of the world).

Chris, welcome and thanks a lot for coming over and commenting here. I liked (obviously!) your thoughtful response to Kirsch's essay, and your elaboration here brings up a number of important points which I hope others will consider too.

Down the road, discussions like we're having right here may be moot. How many print publications will even be publishing serious essays? The traditional market simply shrinks and shrinks, with publication decisions driven by economics rather than artistic quality. How do we really know if the "best" authors are actually working today in print?

I agree that what you say about the division (and lack of crossover) between people working in academia and print, and those working online is important. I'd suggest that it's a choice that people make, based both on time and on goals. If someone is writing a book, they simply may not have much time or inclination for social networking, either real or online. I don't watch TV either; it's a question of time, choices, and focus.

Some people have sought (and perhaps received) the recognition that print publication affords and so they keep at it, or they may be in a situation such as academia where only certain types of publication carry prestige. I believe that will gradually change. A few (less and less) make a living writing for print.

But if we’re talking about the motivation to make a difference and have a positive impact on the world, then I think that’s a different subject entirely. Just as Barack Obama has the power to change people by making a speech, certain – very few – writers have the possibility of making a large impact through the publication of a book. That number is shrinking as the forums themselves disappear, and fewer people read books and print magazines and journals. But that’s talking about major impact: words or art that touch literally millions of people.

Speaking strictly about myself, I'm (I guess) a pretty good essayist. I've been at it a long time, and though I was much more ego- and recognition-centered when I was young, my motivation now is much more to try to make a difference and help others than to see my name in print. I've also come to question whether the traditional route actually has more impact than working steadily on a smaller, more local scale. I wrote a book that did some good, and have gotten essays and op-eds published in print, but my conscious decision has been to work mostly online.

This blog is read daily by 200-300 people. Not small, not enormous, but plenty big enough for me -- I care about the readers a lot, and it’s a conversation base that affects me and affects those who come here, hopefully in a positive way.

Qarrtsiluni, the online literary journal I co-manage with Dave Bonta, has a rigorous editing standard and has published hundreds of people’s excellent essays, poetry, stories, and visual art – nearly all of which would never have been submitted to academic literary journals, award contests, or mainstream print magazines. It provides publication, recognition, and peer-commentary and encouragement to a number of very fine writers and artists whose work deserves to be seen and read, including a number who publish in print and have reputations there. Critics may quibble with the editors over matters of taste, but I don’t think there is anything to apologize for in terms of actual quality. Helping to build a publication like that feels worthwhile and meaningful to me – and frankly, today it could only happen online.

I also try to work locally, and all writers can and should. Right now I’m acting as editor and publisher of a quarterly newsletter for the Anglican cathedral community in Montreal, with a circulation of about 400. The current issue has a focus on homelessness in our city with three articles on the subject, one written by me. The goal there is action, and every person who is motivated to get involved and do something, no matter how small, will actually be helping another human being in a concrete way. Should I write a book on homelessness, or do this? I don’t think it’s a question of either/or, but of jumping in, putting one’s ego aside, and trying to hone and use the skills each of us possess to change things, move someone, or to help others be all that they can be. I think well-written words always have that potential, no matter how big or small their audience. Do you agree?

In short: I do agree. But it's very complicated and there's much to think about and respond to here. I wrote another post this morning musing on recognition and attention. The complexity comes from the fact that recognition and attention are needed if difference is to be made. They don't have to exist at high in volume, but they remain an intrinsic part of making a difference.

And there's also the personal aspect to all of this. I've published online and edited one of the earliest online literary magazines. We published some very good authors-- my partner continues the enterprise to this day. But of the already small group of authors I think are really, really good-- contemporary greats, to the extent we can try to judge such things-- an insignificant number blog or take part in this whole vital realm. Which, on a personal level, makes me wonder if it can be done. I don't care about becoming famous... but I want to write something (hopefully a few somethings) GREAT at some point. "Great" in this context meaning that I'll look upon it/them and feel a real sense of contribution. I have no models showing me that it's possible to remain engaged as a blogger, and as a participatory web activist, and write something of that sort. I'd like to believe it can be done, but as more time passes I become less and less convinced. Perhaps it's as simple as dilution of time and energy. But I'm not sure. Perhaps there is something a bit deeper, an aspect of that dilution that is more insidious and at odds with that kind of creativity as I believe watching television is. It's not just about time, but about an aspect of the activity that I think in some ways clouds or shrinks our creative mental landscape.

I don't know the answer, which is why I like to talk and ask about it!

But I do agree with pretty much everything you say here. And I want to be really clear that I'm not denigrating people who publish online or blog. Greatness is rare-- any of us should be so lucky-- and in the meantime there is a lot that can be done and so much yet to be realized that in many ways it doesn't matter at all. But it still itches at me sometimes...

Thanks for all of this, Chris. I look forward to reading more of your writing and I'm glad that the original link pointed me toward your blog, and the possibility of having this exchange!

Interesting discussion. Provoking is the best I can say about Adam Kirsch's piece that you linked to. So many threads of interest here, but just wanting to share my first thought:

I'm always amazed and hugely cheered, in our age of instant gratification and notoriously short attention spans, by the sheer number of dedicated, assiduous writers out there. So many in print (whatever one thinks about the dominant criteria for printed publication, there sure are a lot), but so many more, unnumbered, never to be commercially published. On they go, putting in millions of words, immensely long hours of effort. What these immensely long hours of solitary effort (in this age when solitariness too is so widely despised and avoided), most often with no external reward, tell me is that it's not motivated by a lust for recognition.

Unless the main recognition involved here is perhaps self-recognition, a fundamental need to hear our own voices, to tell ourselves that we exist, that we can take facts and feelings and experience and make satisfying patterns with them.

That so many people keep writing, published or unpublished, online or in a notebook for their own eyes only, is, I think, something enormous, unfathomable, irreducible. It's the main thing that makes me feel less lonely and displaced in a society where so much emphasis is on the extravert, the externalised, the loud, the fast - writing is none of these, and yet there's so much of it still going on.

Jean, thanks so much for this extremely thoughtful comment. You make me cheered today too; I really had never thought of it like this and I think you're right; thank you for expressing it so well and also for being a steady writing friend for me for so long.

Jean wrote: Unless the main recognition involved here is perhaps self-recognition, a fundamental need to hear our own voices, to tell ourselves that we exist, that we can take facts and feelings and experience and make satisfying patterns with them.

Yes. I'm not a writer, per se, but yes. Foremost for me in any 'creative act', and in my case these acts are modest, there is the simple exigency of needing something to do with my time.

I am truly enjoying this discussion. The written word evolved from the spoken word. Since then words have been written on stone, leaves, sheepskin, paper and are now digitally delivered. There have always been discussions of the words and their meanings. The Talmud is one example of commentaries on commentaries on commentaries on the written word. Today we have abstactions of abstractions of abstractions on the written word. And bringing up questions of motivation! Greed, hope and fear! Great sport! Bring it on!

Having read the post I was making my way down the comments increasingly clear as to what I wanted to say until I came to Jean's comment. Which said what I was going to say, but a lot more elegantly than this tired, frayed mind would have managed tonight. So - what Jean said is my contribution!


I just tried to add a comment an old post of yours, "Why Write," and was
told: "We're sorry. We cannot accept this data."

Here's the comment. Feel free to post it or not. I just thought you might
like to know.

I was excited to find this blog today (through LH) and then stumble across
an old post about Kirsch (I've been reading his collected essays on
contemporary poetry). I assume you won't mind if I disagree with what you've

Kirsch is a brilliant critic who comes on so strong with his opinions that
he's almost inviting you to declare yourself unconvinced (the idea of
literature as a power struggle obviously suits him). It is, of course, a lot
harder to then express an opinion you do believe which is also more
persuasive than Kirsch's. For example: "How about those of us who still
think that writing sharpens our intellect, that words matter, even when
shared between a small group, and that writing can actually make a
difference in the world?" C'mon. Words matter? Vacuous. Writing can change
the world? You might be able to convince me of that, but since I'm not
stoned right now, I'm not willing to take it on spec either. The bit about
writing as mental push-ups is the only point that stands without further
elaboration, and for the work you've given it, it can't stand alone.

Jean does better in the thread. She injects some hard-headed scientific
language ("take facts and feelings and experiences and make satisfying
patterns with them") into the familiar, appealing vein of humanistic
yearning ("a fundamental need to hear our own voices, to tell ourselves that
we exist"), and her opinion comes out sounding double-strong. Still, this is
more convincing to me: "It is because writing is a communication of one's
mind and experience‹one's being‹that it promises to gratify the original
desire of spirit: to have one's being confirmed by having it acknowledged by
others." In these terms the idea of literature itself as a power struggle
isn't so far-fetched. What do we mean, after all, when we say that we've
given ourselves over to a book, if not the self-abnegating admission that
another's vision of life, or at least some part of it, is more compelling
that our own? Is that not ceding a great deal of power? And if that's what
we're talking about, isn't some sort of struggle inevitable?

Kirsch goes on to make his point seem more crude than it actually is,
mucking it up with the language of economics ("scarcity" and whatnot); he
also writes a silly, irrelevant paragraph about art being sin, and then
directly contradicts himself saying that writing is purely aesthetic (after
calling it "a communication of one's mind and experience -- one's being") --
it's not a perfect essay. It's better than you give it credit for, though.
And it answers the question of "Why write?" better than anything I've seen

(Looking over my comment just now, I realize my tone is a little extra
combative. I don't mean it to be. I should be working on a short story right
now. Maybe my frustration manifested. Sorry.)


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