Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Part 2 of Wired & literature

I won't continue going through the list point by point but there are a few to bring up.

Number 8 is odd for claiming that the long tail "balkanizes audiences" while disrupting canon-building and fragmenting reputation. Odd because the long tail isn't a change and isn't really technological - it's a description of a retail environment that explains the success of some Internet businesses but also decades of brick-and-mortar or even mail-order ones. (I do realize that some specifics of the long tail idea have been challenged but don't see how the basic idea is wrong.) Specialty vendors have always found success in their part of the tail, whether that's selling only punk rock or embroidery thread or hot sauces (to pull some businesses that actually exist). I worked in a pre-Internet bookstore that built a large business by deliberately stocking as much of the tail as possible.

But again I'm not really sure where Sterling gets the idea that the long tail has these negative effects. The only way it can balkanize audiences is if they aren't all forced to buy the same limited choices and then we all saw the same movies, read the same books and heard the same music because we had no choice. Never actually true of course - there have always been people who read only science fiction or mysteries or romances or poetry or Civil War history while ignoring bestsellers.

And how does this disrupt canon building? Think of just living American authors that might be considered major importance and a key to future canons: Pynchon, Roth, Morrison (Toni not Jim), Oates, Ashbery, McCarthy, DeLillo, Mamet, possibly William Gibson. I probably don't know anybody who's read more than one of these (except you Kevin) and you probably don't either. In fact I haven't even read three (Morrison, Oates, Roth). My point is that canons have always been further down in the tail not the bestsellers so if anything the Web-driven access to more might help build canons rather than fragment them.

The only thing I'll say about point 9's "digital public-domain" (why is "public domain" hyphenated?) is the laugh it brings at the end about transforming your "relationship to belle-lettres." If anything it might make belles-lettres more accessible but I have trouble imagining anybody seriously dealing with Swinburne or Henry James or Montaigne this way.

Point 15 is pretty cryptic: "Scholars steeped within the disciplines becoming cross-linked jack-of-all-trades virtual intelligentsia." My suspicion is that Sterling just liked all the buzzwords but if I had to pin it down I might go with the idea that he's claiming people raised or tending towards interdisciplinary approaches are less prone to stay in a home subject turf and to also be more visible on the Net. Which isn't really true as anybody who works in a university or even reads the Chronicle of Higher Education could tell you. Maybe by scholars he means people outside academia but that makes the argument even iffier. The decline of the public intellectual is well documented and most of the ones left tend to be fairly narrowly focused (even Sterling himself).

Point 10 that "contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency" is another one that I wish had examples though again it's probably more Sterling's wishful thinking. He seems to be confusing literature with journalist activism - you don't have to go with art-for-art's-sake or poetry-is-news-that-stays-news to realize what a fundamental misunderstanding this is. Or maybe I've misunderstood Sterling. To see what matters of general urgency literature isn't addressing I decided to look at the most recent finalists for the National Book Award and found them addressing violence, family and the environment (Matthiessen's Shadow Country), Cuba and political involvement in other countries (Kushner's Telex from Cuba), faith, ethnicity and community (Scibona's The End), violence, race and European history (Hemon's The Lazarus Project). Robinson's Home is described as dealing with "nature of goodness and the limits of understanding" so I'm guessing that's not generally urgent.

Sure these aren't necessarily chart-topping bestsellers (though I think most of them did pretty well) but as far as "literature" that doesn't matter. Sterling points out that current bestsellers are in "former niche genres" but so what? Does he really expect to find a lot of serious literature among the bestsellers? Just look at the 1940s bestsellers and see how much had any lasting literary value. Actually just see if you recognize more than a handful of titles and I bet most of those are due to movies that people still watch. (And it's interesting that it's reasonable to expect that many of us have seen these movies without having read any of the books though it's not worth going far enough to claim this is due to the decline of reading - I'd much rather put up with 135 minutes of The Robe (which I have) than the hours it would take for the 500-page novel.)