Did Somebody Offer a Challenge?

Bruce Sterling over at Wired.com posted eighteen of them for Contemporary Literature. It’s a skeletal overview: a list of statements without background or exploration of any.

I’d like to offer a few brief thoughts on the list, just for my own brainstorming sake. Who knows; there may be eighteen papers in here somewhere.

1. Literature is language-based and national; contemporary society is globalizing and polyglot.

“Contemporary society” is a pretty big blanket, there, Bruce. I think you might mean “contemporary digitally literate culture” – after all, it’s only in the Westernized world that we are beginning to share our language and culture through global media such as Facebook and mobile phones. This also assumes a very strict definition of literature: that which is published in print form, presumably a book.

2. Vernacular means of everyday communication — cellphones, social networks, streaming video — are moving into areas where printed text cannot follow.

I would agree with this to a certain extent; you certainly can’t translate a YouTube commentary or video collage to the printed page. But again we’re back to that standard definition of literature, that which only exists on a printed page. It hasn’t existed only on the printed page in, well, forever. Plays are literature. Oral storytelling is literature. Film is literature. Think of ‘literature’ as the collective knowledge and stories of our world, and it most certainly exists outside of Gutenberg’s arena. We didn’t give up telling stories around campfires when the Greeks put them on stage, nor when the printing press churned them out in bulk. We’ll have NEW genre formats based in these new technologies, but that doesn’t mean words on paper will die any more than that campfire story of the scary guy with a hook for an arm.

3. Intellectual property systems failing.

Interesting choice of word: ‘failing.’ The concept of “this idea is mine, I’ll sue your ass off if you use it in any way” is a capitalist concept. Hasn’t been around all that long. It used to be that stories belonged to the people, and were passed down the same way we pass down our great-grandmother’s wedding ring. They were valued as the history and culture of a people, not as monetary widgets intended to turn a profit for the intellectual property owner.

I’d say intellectual property rights are reverting, not failing.

4. Means of book promotion, distribution and retail destabilized.

Frankly, that’s their own fracking fault, just as the bank failures are a fault of the bankers, and the current state of the car industry is a fault of the automotive industry clinging to fossil fuel vehicles like their mamas’ tits. We could just as easily have said the same thing about the film industry when all these new media technology came around: oh, everyone will be playing online games, surfing the internet, so no one will go to the movies ever again. Those guys didn’t sit on their asses, though. The movie people said “cool. Let’s add more stuff. Let’s go online. Let’s co-market films and games. Let’s add game tech to our DVDs. Let’s do this thing.” And sure, games make more money than the film industry. But film isn’t dying, and no one believes it will. The book industry flagging is a result of its archaic system and head-in-the-sand attitude.

5. Ink-on-paper manufacturing is an outmoded, toxic industry with steeply rising costs.

Again, their own fracking fault. We’ve had digital technology for decades. DVDs hit so hard and so fast you can’t even find a VCR anymore. So why has the book industry only come out with a digital platform that’s feasible, even if only partially, in the past couple of years? Had they gotten with the program sooner (or, let’s face it, if Steve Jobs hadn’t poo-poohed the idea of digital books), e-readers could be on the same wavelength now as the iPhone – the be-all end-all of entertainment platforms. Instead, they’re in fledgling mode still.

6. Core demographic for printed media is aging faster than the general population. Failure of print and newspapers is disenfranching young apprentice writers.

I agree with this one. I don’t necessarily agree that this is a bad thing. The world changes with each generation. That’s just how it is. Sure, the print industry is an old dinosaur, but there are new shiny mammals that offer plenty of opportunities for those poor disenfranchized writers. Ahem.

7. Media conglomerates have poor business model; economically rationalized “culture industry” is actively hostile to vital aspects of humane culture.

Yes to the first. I won’t repeat myself, so see above. This is a point I’d like to have seen Sterling expand upon – the idea of “culture industry” (does he mean the creative industries, those in the business of telling our stories, modern-day versions of the old woman in the village who remembers when?), and what the vital aspects of humane culture are. And how these two aren’t meeting. Have they ever really met? Maybe. I don’t know.

8. Long tail balkanizes audiences, disrupts means of canon-building and fragments literary reputation.

This may be just my impression, but the giant-head bestsellers aren’t what springs to mind when it comes to ‘canon’. Anyone see The DaVinci Code being labeled as a literary classic? I’d like to see more data here, but it seems literary canon is long tail to begin with.

9. Digital public-domain transforms traditional literary heritage into a huge, cost-free, portable, searchable database, radically transforming the reader’s relationship to belle-lettres.

Yes. Yes it does. I don’t see the problem here. I think they said the same thing when the printing press was invented, when priests started delivering masses not in Latin. I dig it.

10. Contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency; dominant best-sellers are in former niche genres such as fantasies, romances and teen books.

Again, this issue of bestseller vs. literature, coupled with a genre question. If you took our ‘literature canon’, I’d say a good many of them would be in so-called former niche genres: 1984, Pride and Prejudice, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies to name just a few. As for the non-confrontation of issues of general urgency…matter of opinion, depends on the text. We’re writing and publishing more than ever – it’s not all sparkly vampires, I can assure you.

11. Barriers to publication entry have crashed, enabling huge torrent of subliterary and/or nonliterary textual expression.

But only what’s good rises to the top. Just look at the blogosphere – anyone can blog, but only the best ones are circulated, read, passed on, and paid attention to.

12. Algorithms and social media replacing work of editors and publishing houses; network socially-generated texts replacing individually-authored texts.

I think the word “replacing” here is where I have the problem. It’s representative of the idea that digital media is somehow going to replace print media. Did the novel replace the theatre? Did film replace either? Not so far. As human beings, we seem to have as much room for forms of entertainment and story as my dog has enthusiasm for taking walks. Chill out with the fear-mongering, guys.

13. “Convergence culture” obliterating former distinctions between media; books becoming one minor aspect of huge tweet/ blog/ comics/ games / soundtrack/ television / cinema / ancillary-merchandise pro-fan franchises.

I don’t think this is far off the mark, but I don’t think it’s a particular fault of digital media. Let’s face it, it’s not like the world was motoring along un-branded until now.

14. Unstable computer and cellphone interfaces becoming world’s primary means of cultural access. Compositor systems remake media in their own hybrid creole image.

So far, this has remained true. Technology is moving too fast to be stable at this point. But it’s not that we aren’t exploring stable methods of cultural archiving; it’s a big funding generator in the EU now. The tech won’t keep hurtling along like this forever. It will slow, it will stabilize. I also try to remind myself, as a digital author, that my medium is only somewhat more fleeting than print tech; even that doesn’t last forever. Just ask the guys shelved in Alexandria.

15. Scholars steeped within the disciplines becoming cross-linked jack-of-all-trades virtual intelligentsia.

I love these words thrown out here, by the way. Fancy. Anyway, yes, interdisciplinarity is getting bigger. At one time, this cross-linked virtual intelligence was considered rad: the Renaissance. I recall that was quite a cultural boom, an explosion in art and knowledge.

16. Academic education system suffering severe bubble-inflation.

As an academic, I dislike this concept because it means it’s harder to get a job! I wonder, though, how academic bubble-inflation compares to other industries. Where are the shortfalls, and where are the overflows? Is this a societal trend, or is it actually linked to our new media?

17. Polarizing civil cold war is harmful to intellectual honesty.


18. The Gothic fate of poor slain Poetry is the specter at this dwindling feast.

Poets are always “woe is us”. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have anything to write about. Guys, you’re the oldest, longest-lived form of literature, save oral storytelling. You’ve stuck around for a reason: because you strike into the deepest elements of humanity, of culture, and because the form is so adaptable. Don’t be melodramatic. Well, outside the poetry anyway.

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