July 26, 2005
doomed to repeat

Last night AZ and I attended what I hope will be a repeating event, an Authors Roundtable sponsored by Gapers Block. Though the table wasn't round, the four participants (four local authors and one imported critic) took on the issue of how blogs (and tangentially the online medium in general) have changed the way readers approach books, how books are created, and how they are published. Andrew Huff moderated (and fought the equipment problems of our underfunded local library branch) ably and with humor.

It was an interesting discussion, with a lot of personal evidence provided. Each of the speakers has insights that I enjoyed agreeing or disagreeing with.

However (and you knew there would be a however!), I came away with a bit of a nagging sense that when looking at literature and the online world through the lens we did for the discussion, we risk a twist on the popular santayanaism, in which forgetting our history dooms us to believe that we are inventing it.

For example, Kevin Smokler, who has spent a fair bit of time thinking about the book and where it sits in the changing literary culture (and has enough dramatic pronouncements to allow him to earn his last sobriquet of mischief maker), posited that the book publishers benefit from blogs because in those cases the authors have branded themselves (marketability), but the large book publishers (with the exception of the HarperCollins imprint Regan Books, posited Kevin Guilfoile). To which my response is that the small press, rather than the large press, has always been the home of good branding, not just now in the internet age. For a few examples, look to North Point press, or Black Sparrow through the 70s/80s, or ReSearch in the 80s and early 90s. Or go back further to Olympia Press in the 1950s. All these provided a strong brand identity for themselves and for their authors, albeit a brand perhaps slower moving than a jpg zipping down the wire, and certainly less well funded than the BigCo and large Academic publishers who appear to be Kevin Smokler's thinking focus.

Kevin Guilfoile also wandered toward this error, I fear, when he looked to blogs as a way to historically understand how readers are reacting to books without the noise of the critics. Setting aside "Dark Age Effects" I would argue that technology has only made it easier, but not unique, to uncover this. To use Kevin's initial example, Joyce and Ulysses, we have the letters and journals of many of those who first read the work as it was serialized in the Little Review. Yes, they are disparate, and yes it takes a scholar to uncover and gather them for us, but they are available. I relish, as does Kevin, the idea that at some point in the future Amazoogle will allow me to look inside a copy of his 3rd novel and find those reader's blogs that commented upon it. But that's an exaggeration of current and past technology (letters and journals), not a creation of new technology.

I'm not casting stones here, I think. I've made the same mistake when looking at technology I've worked on and proselytized myself. And each time I think it's warranted to step back and look for patterns from the past (as I am now with Licklider, Nelson and Engelbart) that can show us how the future unfolds, not how the future breaks. We owe it to the cultural heritage that literature embodies and invents to give it as much reflection as possible, on the works and on the forms themselves.

Oh, and for the unlikely reader who isn't in the 12 that knows me... I'm the guy that mouthed off about Amazon and allconsuming as disconnected social networks...

Posted by esinclai at July 26, 2005 06:55 AM |

"But that's an exaggeration of current and past technology (letters and journals), not a creation of new technology."

Exactly so. Is it hubris that drives the tendency to think one is being revolutionary?

Posted by: Chris Dent on July 26, 2005 11:45 AM

Here's a list of blogs that wrote about the roundtable:
My Sore (wished they talked more specifically about how to get a book deal).
Loosetooth (awesome graphic interpretation of the talk)
Fiftyfivehundred (argues that books aren't challenging enough).
Chicagoist (trends of bloggers getting books and links to flickr photos of the event).
Spudart (comments and thoughts on some of the points).

Posted by: spudart on August 2, 2005 02:43 PM
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