Archive for the ‘writing’ Tag
“My parents, with admirable foresight, had their first child while they were on fellowships in the United States. My mother was in public health, and my father in a library-science program. Having an American baby was, my mother once said, like putting money in the bank.”
So begins Daniel Alarcón’s recently published short story “Second Lives,” whose narrator is a Latin American man with a potent longing for a First World life. His dream has eluded him; he realizes he is doomed to a “terminal condition” of Third World citizenship, despite that his older brother — the one lucky to be born on U.S. soil — had seized the opportunity to emigrate many years prior.
Alarcón is a writer I’ve long admired, in part for how he weaves complex cultural politics into quietly powerful narratives. (His luminous story collection War by Candlelight is a must-read.) “Second Lives” arrived with uncanny timing in this politically boiling August. At face value, its opening easily could be another rallying cry for the political far right, members of which have been stirring up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria from California to Texas to lower Manhattan.
Even by today’s standard of partisan politics, the hot wave of demagoguery hitting the country feels off the charts. Take the fear mongering of Louie Gohmert, the Texas congressman who has been flogging the “terror babies” conspiracy on national television: Shadowy foreigners are plotting to give birth in the U.S., only to take their tots overseas, train them as terrorists and send them back decades later, courtesy of the 14th Amendment, to wreak havoc inside the country.
That this theory is plainly ridiculous, and has been debunked by FBI and U.S. Customs officials, is beside the point. As Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote from Phoenix, this is political opportunism of a very scary kind.
You might say that Gohmert is just small potatoes. But what about more influential Republicans eager this election season to foment a crusade against Islam? The tactics aimed at the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” — which in name is pure invention — are no less craven. Newt Gingrich put a Hitlerian stamp on the proposed Muslim center in lower Manhattan: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said by way of egregious comparison on Fox News. No doubt Gingrich is pleased to be in lockstep with the cowardly Anti-Defamation League; he could scarcely do more to exploit fearful support from Jews than to evoke the Holocaust.
There seems to be not a shred of empathy or basic human decency in this dark political campaign. Oh, sure, some agitators will say that some of their best friends are Muslims — which should ring about as true and logical as pronouncements on CNN by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association: “I love Muslims, I am pro-Muslim. I am anti-Islam. I would say to a Muslim, ‘Look, your ideology is destructive, it’s deceptive, it’s dark.’” Or as Fischer also put it: “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of war, it is a religion of violence.”
In this war, Gingrich, Boehner and Cantor are the generals, the Fischers their captains on the ground. For them anything goes in the battle for congressional power this fall, the rising dangers of nativist provocation be damned.
Which returns me to Alarcón’s story. Against the multitude in the media recently (no shortage of fictions among them) it is an unwavering prick of light. It brims with the humanism that America’s darkly cartoonish politicos so palpably lack. As great fiction should, the story never directly grapples with the Big Political Issues, like immigration. Indeed, the politics here are personal, etched in the lives of characters coping with family struggle, romantic heartbreak and the daily challenges and amusements of assimilation. “Second Lives” is a portrait of a divided family gazing across the chasm between the Third and First Worlds — and it is a vivid reminder of what is really in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of America’s immigrant hopefuls.
“In school,” recalls Alarcón’s narrator, “my favorite subject was geography. Not just mine, it should be said.” He continues:
I doubt any generation of young people has ever looked at a world map with such a powerful mixture of longing and anxiety; we were like inmates being tempted with potential escape routes. Even our teacher must have felt it: when he took the map from the supply closet and tacked it to the blackboard, there was an audible sigh from the class. We were mesmerized by the possibilities; we assumed every country was more prosperous than ours, safer than ours, and at this scale they all seemed tantalizingly near. The atlas was passed around like pornography, and if you had the chance to sit alone with it for a few moments you counted yourself lucky. When confronted with a map of the United States, in my mind I placed dots across the continent, points to mark where my brother had lived and the various towns he’d passed through on his way to other places.
That dream of “other places,” of course, has everything to do with the greatness on which our immigrant-rich society has been built. The demagogues who have forgotten this truth, or who knowingly have traded it for the miasma of deranged politics, would do well to read and ponder Alarcón’s tale. It is so much taller, as it were, than any of theirs.
Inspired by a robust number of clicks from the first three installments, herewith is another bundle of microblogging, back by popular demand! I’ll return to lengthier writing in this space in the near future; for now I’m occupied with our preparations to expand MediaBugs into a national project (this fall), trying to scale something of a brick wall at Bloomberg, and working on a couple of other research & writing projects. Meanwhile, I think I’ve discovered a handy addendum to the maxim: The art of writing is rewriting, indeed, but the art of writing also is turning off your Internet access for a little while. Until next time… enjoy.
Is it “douchebag” or “douche bag”? @LoriFradkin has the answer! http://bit.ly/cafs3d about 1 hour ago
oh, lovely: child porn at the Pentagon, US intel agencies “at risk of blackmail, bribery, and threats” http://bit.ly/dxZDaB about 1 hour ago
you can bet the farm this crazed Calif. shooter watched Glenn Beck and/or Fox News. See quotes from his mom: http://bit.ly/cIKMf2 11:02 AM Jul 19th via web
Told ya so! re Oakland gunman likely inspired by Glenn Beck: http://bit.ly/axh2kL Wed Jul 21 14:01:48 2010
how to stop gorging on digital information: http://bit.ly/crZRZ4 Wed Jul 21 08:33:11 2010
once the heart of the Mayan empire, now a “rapidly deforesting mini-narco-state” http://nyti.ms/dD45S4 9:10 AM Jul 19th
some pretty f–@%*! funny Blagojevich ringtones: http://bit.ly/cOg4VW 11:46 AM Jul 16th
97-year-old stoner seriously bummed out by Vallejo authorities: http://bayc.it/p2P/ 10:24 AM Jul 15th
the Moro Islamic Liberation Front: a rebel group with a headline-grabbing name! http://bit.ly/bbFDtM 10:01 AM Jul 15th
Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd take it to the hole on Lebron and Jim Gray http://youtu.be/KtIaMr2hGeI 9:51 AM Jul 15th
Utah one-ups Arizona on anti-immigrant fear mongering http://nyti.ms/b30CfF 10:38 PM Jul 14th
but U.S. still in critical condition RT @nprpolitics Cheney Recuperating From Heart Surgery http://n.pr/dwbwVu 2:37 PM Jul 14th
CBS News: The Netherlands Win World Cup! (by a score of “SCORE to SCORE”) http://bit.ly/aon754 3:14 PM Jul 12th
apparently the mullet is ancient history: http://bit.ly/d4cs1p 9:19 AM Jul 12th
Lots more straight from the source, right here.
Loyal readers: Until I can return to writing in this space more frequently, here below is another microblogging fix to bridge the gap. (Complete with shamelessly SEO’d headline.) At the moment I’m immersed in the launch of MediaBugs, working on a magazine profile of comic actor Amy Poehler and continuing research for a long-term project on Haida Gwaii. And running around quite a bit with our very active Vizsla pup, Renzo. (Did I mention—yikes!—also planning a wedding?) Meantime, if you have an appetite for more links beyond the below, follow the daily feed here.
via St. Louis Post-Dispatch, revelations of J. Edgar Hoover’s media obsession http://bit.ly/b0hDBd about 23 hours ago
GOP prepping for war on Obama’s next Supreme Court nom? http://n.pr/dwdQP1 Of course they are—beware talk otherwise: http://wp.me/prtei-oG about 24 hours ago via web
it’s true, I’ve been wanting to say this for a while: Cool Brown Dwarf Found Lurking http://bit.ly/d37n6w 9:55 AM Apr 12th via web
#Treme off to a good start, music alone worth the price of admission. Fun to see Kermit Ruffins still going strong at Vaughn’s… 11:23 PM Apr 11th via web
sexual abuse scandal haunting the Pope reaches the Bay Area: http://bit.ly/cHFqGb 4:17 PM Apr 9th via web
Essential reading for media: @dangillmor on NYT getting in bed with Apple over iPad http://bit.ly/drT4eo 10:25 PM Apr 8th via TweetDeck
How John McCain is short-selling his soul! http://bit.ly/ciaTsy (watch the whole thing) 9:39 AM Apr 8th via web
Dear Loyal Readers:
You’ve probably noticed a slower pace in this space recently; I’ve been immersed in a couple of projects, including getting MediaBugs off the ground. But if you’re on Twitter, you know how easy it is these days to keep the conversation going, at least 140 characters at a time, and indeed I’ve found it to be the best channel for sharing thoughts and links of interest in the interim. (I plan to return to more active blogging again soon.) Several times daily (on most days) you can follow my finger on the digital pulse here.
If you’re a Twitter user you also know how easy it is to miss a million things in the collective news stream you’ve let flow; to try to take in everything would be like drinking from a fire hose all day long. You may not even realize your own effect on the flow, and it can be illuminating to take a look back over your collective contribution. The sum of the parts can almost start to take on a flarf-like quality. Here are some recent bits from my adventures in micro-blogging, with lots of links for your browsing delight and/or distraction…
well, there goes another “entire copy desk” at a major newspaper http://bit.ly/9wj5Sn about 3 hours ago
“The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” http://nyti.ms/boSnGB about 4 hours ago
Seder at the White House sounds pretty cool http://nyti.ms/aKnvmv about 5 hours ago
Jesus was way hungry http://nyti.ms/diC4Hq 12:23 PM Mar 29th
war gaming Iran. Conclusion? Not a great idea. http://nyti.ms/a2cqsq 11:33 AM Mar 29th
the dark side of nanotech? http://bit.ly/cHGvja 5:43 PM Mar 24th
global warming upshot: ocean swallows disputed island in Bay of Bengal http://bit.ly/chJyUr 4:21 PM Mar 24th
uh, not just anyone can hope to dodge home foreclosure with the help of PETA http://bit.ly/bhIXWU 4:13 PM Mar 24th
some say blogging is dead, respected bloggers included. @scottros says not so fast http://to.pbs.org/a94Cax 4:03 PM Mar 24th
you are watching your TV and surfing the Web at the same time, aren’t you. http://j.mp/aetKD7 11:09 AM Mar 22nd
finally got up the nerve to watch “The Cove” last night. Extraordinary film. Check it out, spread the word. http://www.takepart.com/thecove/ 10:02 AM Mar 22nd
7 years of war in Iraq today. Consider the names & faces of the dead: http://nyti.ms/c8p3tf 9:18 AM Mar 19th
Ailes to Fox staff unhappy w/insane Glenn Beck: “We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent” http://bit.ly/9pzCFR 11:22 AM Mar 18th
RIP Alex Chilton http://bit.ly/9s6SGe 12:42 AM Mar 18th
from the dystopian California files: more than 23,000 school teachers get pink slipped http://dlvr.it/DRdg 6:00 PM Mar 15th
think twice before doing crimes at your keyboard http://bit.ly/bdIRVe 12:55 PM Mar 15th
French bread was spiked with LSD in CIA experiment: http://bit.ly/akIZn6 8:48 AM Mar 12th
Congrats to Haida artist Robert Davidson for receiving the 2010 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts http://bit.ly/dgXJVv 1:43 PM Mar 11th
the ultimate crime deterrent: San Quentin reviewed on Yelp http://tcrn.ch/dgDp8N (Indeed, the food apparently is “horrible”) 1:49 PM Feb 23rd
how many Tweets per day now? Oh, about 50 million. That is, 600 *every second*… (via @robinsloan) http://is.gd/8X8NI 12:56 PM Feb 22nd
Go here to drink more from the fire hose!
A few years back when I was working on craft at USF, I found inspiration in the idea that writers work in perpetual dialogue with their fellow scribes — not just immediate peers, but also those across geography and time. The books whose authors spoke to you — the ones that you kept returning to and sat with and spoke back to — granted insight and spurred productivity as much as any workshopping of manuscripts ever did. That kind of literary communion was something David Foster Wallace knew well. The archive at UT has already put some of his on display, with this look inside some of DFW’s intricately annotated books. (Click on the images at the above link to zoom in.) Inside his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, for example, you can see his studied list of Cynthia Ozick’s diction, from “telluric” to “pullulating” to “fructuous.” Notes scrawled inside the cover of Don Delillo’s Players reveal traces of his thinking about The Pale King, a novel he had yet to complete at his death: “Guy hired as lawyer for IRS. Sent to Peoria, but no one ever complains or contests audits in Peoria.”
Even just visually, as his copy of “Borges: A Life” shows, it’s easy to see that DFW’s immersions went deep:
There’s also a poignancy to seeing these snatches of handwritten script, an intimate reminder of his tragic, early exit. May the scholars soon get to work at UT and take us even deeper into the mind and methods of one of the great writers of his generation.
UPDATE: Lots more on the contents of the DFW archive from the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.
Around the turn of the year, two friends and former colleagues of mine at Salon, Cary Tennis and King Kaufman, were hit with serious health emergencies. In November, Cary announced in his beloved advice column that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, sacral chordoma, and would have to undergo surgery, which took place on December 17th. Vividly and eloquently, he has been keeping friends and fans apprised of his situation on his Open Salon blog.
In early January, King was suddenly taken ill and hospitalized for a rare, devastating ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, the cause of which is essentially unknown. Fortunately, after three weeks in the hospital and a physical rehabilitation center, he is now back home with his wife and young kids, on his way to what his doctors say is likely to be a full recovery.
For most people nowadays, a serious health crisis inevitably brings with it some financial strain. Friends of Cary and King have rallied to put together a terrific auction on eBay, the proceeds of which will go toward supporting these two great guys through their difficult times. A throng of talented and accomplished Salon alumni have contributed: Dave Eggers, Zach Trenholm, Heather Havrilesky, Keith Knight, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Kate Moses, Larry Smith and Laura Miller, to name a few. The array of items up for bid include signed first editions of books, photographs, paintings and other original artwork. More details about the project on this Web site set up by the talented and generous Mignon Khargie.
The auction begins on Tuesday, February 9, and runs through the rest of the week; please check it out here and bid on any of this great stuff in support of Cary and King.
The dazzling play of tennis titan Roger Federer does not cease to amaze. Following his U.S. Open semifinal victory on Sunday against Novak Djokovic, Federer said in a TV interview that he had practiced the between-the-legs return many times, but that “it never worked.” In case you missed what he called “the greatest shot I ever hit in my life” — that’s a bit like Michael Jordan trying to point out his single greatest dunk — take a look:
It must be noted that Djokovic himself played rather phenomenally, and likely would’ve vanquished just about any other opponent in the hard-fought three sets.
But when Federer is on, he seems to reach a truly singular plane of performance. David Foster Wallace captured it artfully in his 2006 essay, “Federer as Religious Experience.” (Which I wrote about here recently.) After stating that a top athlete’s beauty is “impossible to describe directly” or “to evoke,” DFW did just that, in one of his most memorable pieces of nonfiction. With Federer on the cusp of his sixteenth career Grand Slam title, it’s worth (re)reading the essay in its entirety. One line that has always stuck with me: “Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip.” It’ll likely be on cracking display again in a couple of hours at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as he takes on 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the championship match.
UPDATE: Indeed, Federer hit no shortage of zingers in the five-set battle, but his serving fell short while the youthful (and towering, at 6-foot-6) del Potro dug deep to pull off one of the bigger upsets in U.S. Open history.
The esteemed journalist Mark Bowden is back with another thought-provoking article on the digital media revolution. It is at once deeply reported, crisply written — and strangely myopic in its conclusions.
In the October issue of the Atlantic, Bowden tracks the story of how a partisan blogger armed Fox News and the rest of the TV noise machine with the primary attacks used against Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Sonia Sotomayor. (As I wrote in May, an early riff suggesting that conservative Republicans would wisely refrain from attacking Sotomayor — another echo in the chamber — would prove plain silly.) Bowden shows how a blogger by the name of Morgen Richmond dug up and helped disseminate obscure video clips that would soon have every talking head focused on Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” and judicial “policy making” comments from the past.
Bowden asserts that the deployment of those comments was “the work not of journalists, but of political hit men.” Although he acknowledges that partisans supplying material for TV news broadcasts is nothing new, he sees a dark trend, one to be blamed squarely on the proliferation of blogging. “With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery.”
The problem here is twofold. First, Bowden levels blame at the wrong target. As blogging expert Scott Rosenberg writes, “Surely the failure here is on the part of the TV news organizations that turned it into a marquee soundbite without looking more deeply into it. Wasn’t that their job, their process, their vetting — the safeguard that ostensibly distinguishes them from the unwashed blogging masses? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to be after truth rather than scalps?”
That may be giving cable news a little too much credit, but as Rosenberg also points out, most bloggers don’t even purport to contribute journalism. And the failure to appreciate what blogs do contribute — especially collectively — is the other shortcoming in Bowden’s discussion. Morgen Richmond himself explains this clearly, in his response to Bowden’s piece:
[W]hile I wholeheartedly disagree with Bowden’s ultimate assessment that the Sotomayor “court is where policy is made” and “wise Latina” comments were non-controversial when taken in full context, the truth of the matter is that literally within hours (if not minutes) of posting both of these, there were an assortment of bloggers across the political spectrum dissecting and analyzing these finds. And not just the short clips which ultimately played on TV. I posted a link to the full Duke Law video almost immediately, and embedded as much of the “wise Latina” speech as I could in my initial post, so anyone who was interested had access to as much context as they wanted. Many highly-regarded blogs, such as the Volokh Conspiracy, concluded as Bowden did that these statements were not as controversial as they seemed on their face. And of course many others were not so willing to give Sotomayor the benefit of the doubt. The point is that this started taking place within hours on the internet, long before any of this made it’s way into the broader media. (Remember that I posted both of these statements before Sotomayor was even nominated.)
Bloggers often are lazy about providing useful context for readers — political agenda or no, it’s not easy to do well in the short space the genre typically requires. Yet, the linking that so often serves as a blogger’s shorthand points up the powerful information ecosystem of the Web. It is the information consumer’s charge, as much as ever, to dig deeper, to explore widely and to question orthodoxy. (Including his own.) The digital medium allows this far more readily than a television broadcast or print article does.
This isn’t the first time I’ve criticized Bowden for his media analysis — see my recent writing on his takedown of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, as well as Bowden’s response.
He’s one of the best and most respected in the business, and I couldn’t agree more with Richmond when he says the world needs more journalists like Bowden, not fewer. Surprisingly, though, Bowden’s own legwork on the role of blogging in the Sotomayor story didn’t help him to get past his seemingly jaundiced view of the digital medium and its democratizing power. I think he tips his hand when toward the end he says: “There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy.”
But that’s precisely his thrust. With no small whiff of nostalgia he reiterates that an old-school reporter, proceeding from curiosity over political conviction, is more likely to discover the unexpected and reap the rewards of “speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor.” Maybe so. Yet, Bowden could just as easily be describing bloggers when he concludes that reporters have “the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
I’m at work on a couple of freelance projects that will soon take me back to the great northwest. More bits here in a couple of days; in the meantime, I must recommend a visit to The Rumpus, a great online culture mag launched a few months back in San Francisco.
It’s got entertaining and informative and sexy stuff of all sorts. (Disclosure: A few of my posts have also been published there.) Editor Stephen Elliott recently interviewed Dave Eggers, who has a forthcoming nonfiction book, “Zeitoun,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as seen through the eyes of a Muslim-American family in New Orleans. I was struck by Eggers’ comments about his collaborative (and exhaustive) approach to the project:
With a book like this, I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time. They have to live with the book, of course, as much as I do, so I needed their approval. With What Is the What and with this book, I consider the book as much theirs as mine. So they were intimately involved in every step, as were their extended families. We had many months to get everyone’s approval over everything, to make sure it was accurate.
Eggers recommends an edition of the Quran to read, discusses why he’s optimistic about print in the digital age (“Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper”) and describes some intriguing plans for McSweeney’s to put out a newspaper.
Absolutely also check out Peter Orner’s new column, “The Lonely Voice.” His appreciative ruminations on the art of the short story are as engaging and illuminating as any literary writing you’ll find online. (Or in print, for that matter.) Not to be missed.
There is a peculiar quality to “A Journey Through Darkness,” Daphne Merkin’s memoir of chronic depression published this week in the Times Magazine. Her intimate account of lifelong struggle with the disease, centered on her latest stint in a Manhattan psychiatric facility in 2008, evokes the perspective of a highly intelligent, sensitive, deeply troubled soul. Even if the trappings are familiar from numerous other written explorations of the subject, her story seems to shed light on the dark terrain of mental illness by way of an intense personal account.
But an intriguing question sits at the margins: Who, exactly, is telling this story?
Merkin is a skilled writer with a clear command of technique. Memory has been and always will be a writer’s imperfect tool. But something about her in-depth reflection feels a little too… artful. It begins and ends with the bright imagery of ocean beaches, neatly bookending the tale of her latest debilitating episode. There is elevated language and metaphor all over the place. “Soggy as my brain is from being wrenched off a slew of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in the last 10 days, I reach for a Coleridgian suspension of disbelief, ignoring the roar of traffic and summoning up the sound of breaking waves,” she writes of an attempt at mental escape from the hospital grounds.
And: “Depression — the thick black paste of it, the muck of bleakness — was nothing new to me.”
And: “When I was awake (the few hours that I was), I felt a kind of lethal fatigue, as if I were swimming through tar.”
And: “I felt as if I were being wished bon voyage over and over again, perennially about to leave on a trip that never happened.”
And: “In truth there was more uncharted time than not, especially for the depressives — great swaths of white space that wrapped themselves around the day, creating an undertow of lassitude.”
As with that last flourish, there are other assertions of truth telling. Which is not to say her story is untruthful.
Merkin has in the past written publicly about her experience with depression, and to her credit here she points at a vexing problem of distinction — it’s almost as if she’s questioning her own reliability as narrator:
Whatever fantasies I once harbored about the haven-like possibilities of a psychiatric facility or the promise of a definitive, once-and-for-all cure were shattered by my last stay 15 years earlier. I had written about the experience, musing on the gap between the alternately idealized and diabolical image of mental hospitals versus the more banal bureaucratic reality. I discussed the continued stigma attached to going public with the experience of depression, but all this had been expressed by the writer in me rather than the patient, and it seemed to me that part of the appeal of the article was the impression it gave that my hospital days were behind me. It would be a betrayal of my literary persona, if nothing else, to go back into a psychiatric unit.
Certainly a writer aims to convey an experience as vividly as possible. Merkin’s work gives the sense she is deeply invested in sorting out her experience, both for herself and for her audience. (Having that audience, as she seems to know, could be a particularly complicating factor.) Yet as carefully constructed as it is, something about her story feels distinctly blurred.
Maybe it’s of a piece with a vexing question about the treatment of mental illness, one I’ve often puzzled over when concerned for people I know who are afflicted: Where, exactly, is the line between the physical and the psychological?
In that respect Merkin’s deliberate prose does little to help us out of the dark.
Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.
At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.
One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.
In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:
Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.
But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:
Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.
Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.
What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.
A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)
The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.
UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.
On Tuesday, Little, Brown and Company publishes a book version of “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” the celebrated commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The pocket-sized book breaks up the nearly 4,000-word speech into digestible pieces on the page, some as brief as a single phrase. It’s an intriguing approach: In one sense, practical to publishing the essay in book form while drawing out its epigrammatic layers. At the same time, it seems rather un-DFW — contrary to the hyper-digressive, cascading prose for which he is so well-known.
Whether Wallace would approve of the presentation we probably can’t know. But it highlights a radiant directness that was often in danger of obscuring beneath his towering intellect. (It’s worth noting that there are some subtle differences to be found in other versions of the commencement speech floating out there; I contacted the publisher seeking clarification on how the text was prepared, but a publicist responded that Wallace’s longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, was declining to be interviewed about the book.)
Wallace’s focus was on the far from easy task of living life consciously in the adult world. He begins with a “didactic little parable-ish story,” as he puts it, about young fish who are oblivious to the environs through which they swim. More than just challenging the conventions of the commencement genre, Wallace makes use of them with a fierce sincerity: “I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”
Segments like these carry an added poignancy in the wake of Wallace’s death by suicide last fall at the age of 46. Rather than a matter of morality or religion or the afterlife, he went on to tell the young graduates, “the capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”
More striking, though, is his evocative insight and humor. If the students really do learn how to think and pay attention in life, he tells them, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”
The pleasure of experiencing Wallace’s speech again underscored a realization I had when reading D.T. Max’s lengthy look back at Wallace’s life: The world deserves a published collection of David Foster Wallace’s correspondences, too. Various bits of it appearing in the recent New Yorker article — with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others — cast additional light on Wallace’s humanity and highly emotive lexicon.
While I’ve admired some of his fiction, I’ve always thought Wallace was at his best with essays and literary journalism; as I wrote about here recently, gems found in his private correspondences show how the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too.
The back cover of “This Is Water” asserts that the essay was Wallace’s answer to “the challenge of collecting all he believed about life and lasting fulfillment into a brief talk.” The inflated language of marketing copy, it would seem — Wallace’s prolific, restive consciousness probably could never be so perfectly distilled. A deeper look at his personal correspondences, meanwhile, could only add to the picture of a life and work tragically cut short and revered by so many.