Sunday, November 5, 2006

In Defense of a New Literature (p. 15)

In Defense of a New Literature

Lately I’ve been considering the connection between publishing and puberty. Each can only be traced as far back as the Latin (publicus and puber, respectively), but I don’t find it entirely out of line to suggest that that “pub” root comes from some concept of public space. Shared space. Community space. Publishing being the initiation of a literary work into the public intellectual space, just as puberty is the initiation of a person into the public sexual space.

At the risk of sounding overly clever or smug, I’m willing to compare the present state of publishing with some sort of hyper-organized institutional prostitution. Not to belittle prostitution—the oldest profession must clearly serve a necessary social function. This is not the point. The point is that prostitution is not the sexual norm and I’m willing to again put myself out there and say that this is probably a good thing. The point is that the visible publishing world—like prostitution—is more concerned with money than with human connection.

And this is fine.

Just as prostitution fills a needed social role, so does commercial literature with mass appeal. It will always be there. It’s fine. The problem is that there is this prevailing social understanding that commercial publication is the only option. While this understanding is easily disproved (small-scale self-publishing companies, independent literary magazines, or even just the internet offer considerable opportunity), it will continue to prevail until frustrated writers are willing to organize to a level of public visibility. The bad news, writers of the world, is that this will require not only time and energy, but money.

I cannot honestly see the internet as a viable option for subverting the system that currently exists. If people are not presented with a product that they can consume, then it will never be real enough to draw the public eye. Magazines are better, but they still seem somewhat expendable. What a new literary movement will need to be successful is writers who are willing to invest (or literary-minded people who are willing to invest) in their work. Small publishers will print your work if they are paid. The bigger problem is distribution.

This is another point where I do not see the internet as an effective option. Though online sale is probably the easiest and most direct result, it is not enough. If a new literature is to succeed, it needs a community of writers and like-minded individuals who are willing to back it up. It needs a network of people who will put faith in one another’s work and push that work onto other people. The option to buy directly from an author means nothing in the stale isolation of internet world. If it is not understood that there is a person behind the sale, an open sense of discourse between reader and writer, then they might as well be buying from any other giant, impersonal conglomerate.

The real issue is money and it is, regrettably, not an issue that will go away any time soon. It has perverted the public intellectual space by taking it over and leaving the social need for human connection through personal intellectual discourse unfulfilled. A new literature may be the only way to grasp a decent share of this public space. At its best, this could revitalize the present state of intellectual thought, revolutionize education, initiate social reforms, etc. etc. In the very least, it can prove to be an interesting failure—which, really, may be more than could be said for most.

-February 15, 2006

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