Monday, July 6, 2009

Wired believes it's thinking about literature

The oh-so-hip folk at Wired recently published Eighteen Challenges in Contemporary Literature. All well and good I suppose except it's hard to take seriously even though it's probably meant to be. Bruce Sterling is an official Smart Guy and a founder of Cyberpunk. So how did he produce something this, uh, dumb?

Start with the start: "Literature is language-based and national"? Well saying literature is language-based is like saying music is sound-based or painting is visual - it's purely descriptive and in this instance irrelevant. The national part is odd; Sterling really should know better. Despite being taught as "British lit" or "American lit" literature is pretty non-national and writers about as border-crashing as you can get (except maybe musicians). There are countless examples: Shakespeare wrote in an Italian form, based plays on Latin & Spanish originals (Plautus & Cervantes), borrowed from European sources. Jonson and Marlowe were even more open. Johnson imitated Persian, Hugo's most famous play is from Italian history as was some of Shelley's work, Rimbaud & Baudelaire translated Poe. The history of poetry is a history of culture/nation hopping. James, Wharton and after them the high modernists were multinational - Pound and Joyce practically invented their own languages from dozens of others. Many Latin American writers have been huge Faulkner fans and have their own tradition of actual country-hopping (Cortazar, Paz, Bolano). To claim that literature is national is simply pure ignorance.

But Sterling finishes the first statement with "contemporary society is globalizing and polyglot" which is mainly wishful thinking since globalizing is nothing new and our society may be less polyglot than many prior ones. Think back to the intensely global cultures of the 15th and 16th century such as Elizabethan England and Renaissance Italy. Or for that matter much of the Roman Empire which actively encouraged input from provincials such as Herodotus. The late 19th century saw broad chunks of literature (ancient Egyptian & Sanskrit, medieval Persian) hitting Europe. And as for polyglot it's a very safe bet that a larger percentage of people in those times spoke or read more languages than most people today (or even safer, than most Wired readers).

Number 2 about "vernacular means of everyday communication" going where printed text can't follow is a "So what?" statement. Same has been true of phones, radio and movies for decades not to mention the oral tradition for centuries. How any of this challenges literature isn't even remotely clear.

3 about "intellectual property systems failing" overstates the case and as for 4 that the book business is "destablized" is yet another that's simply wrong. I work in that business and the main impact of new technology so far has been Internet shopping and print-on-demand books. It's all falling a familiar retail model, just with the actual players shifting. And not even shifting that much since despite a large number of bookstore closings brick-and-mortars are still doing well (or at least as well as anything right now). Again now either numbers 3 or 4 are challenges to literature isn't clear - pirated books were vastly more significant in the 18th century than today, in fact that was one of the drives to create a copyright law.

Next is the claim that physical book production is an "outmoded, toxic industry" but Sterling is again looking at small portions. Is the production of computers and Kindles really any less toxic? Does maintaining servers and computers use less energy? Are changing file formats more durable than paper? I have no idea but there's a common assumption that ebooks must be better because there's no physical product at the endpoint. And of course how much of the world can afford the ebook world? It might easily be true that this outmoded industry is better environmentally, socially and politically than our brave new cyberworld.