Monday, October 25, 2010

Collaborators with Reality

It's been a curious sort of October. On the second I quietly turned forty. It wasn't meant to be that quiet - Emily had planned a secret party for me - but I fell ill with a nasty case of strep throat and spent two weeks in bed, hardly able to swallow or speak, watching the first two seasons of The Rockford Files, reading nothing, writing less, teaching not at all. Now I'm recovered and back at work, thinner, taking a look about me, taking stock of various projects.

More and more I'm aware of, without quite succumbing to, the crisis of confidence in literature which has been rumbling under the surface of the culture since at least the NEA's infamous 2004 "Reading at Risk" report, now in full-blown panic mode with the advent of e-books and the rapid decline of models of literary distribution based upon copyright. This past weekend the British magazine Prospect published a think piece by Tom Chatfield, "Do Writers Need Paper?" It's an elegant bit of hand-wringing, notable for how archaic the laments of nominally successful writers quoted in it are; one Lionel Shriver is quoted saying she has "a conventional authorial life: I get advances sufficient to support me financially; I release my books through traditional publishing houses and write for established newspapers and magazines." She worries that should "electronic publishing takes off in a destructive manner… the kind of fruitful professional life I lead could be consigned to the past." Am I crazy for thinking that sort of "professional life" is already in the past? How many literary writers--heck, how many writers of thrillers and potboilers--make a comfortable living from writing alone? The notion of literary writing as a "profession" seems positively quaint, worlds away from the idea of vocation (with its accompanying whiff of monklike devotion to chastity [originality], obedience [aesthetics], and poverty [poverty]) that functions for me as the necessary veil between writing and the grim progressive specialization that alienates every function of life from every other function.

I digress. As many have observed, the old model of authorship is crumbling, and success is no longer measured in sales but in the size and vibrancy of the networks writers and readers are building together, connections counted in terms of page views, Facebook friends, and the size of one's Google (to use the awkward, vaguely phallic noun-phrase adapted by Keith Gessen in his appropriately titled novel All the Sad Young Literary Men). And as Chatfield observes, the waning of literature as we've known it has hardly meant an end to narrative and storytelling; it's just authorship as we've known it that is dying: "Today, in an age of collaborative media, most of our grandest, most popular narratives are the products of team efforts: from sprawling television dramas like The Sopranos to the latest Hollywood movies or hit videogames." Increasingly, according to Chatfield, the long labor of single authors is being supplanted by collaboration. The writer's garret has been supplanted by the more sociable writer's room familiar from TV shows like 30 Rock, not to mention the writer's workshop (though that may, ironically, be where the myth of the lone genius author makes its very last stand).

It is increasingly fashionable to say that even those of us who are not primarily collaborators - the writers of poems, stories, novels, essays - do not work alone. I am reading David Shields' manifesto Reality Hunger, a compilation of quotes that makes the implicit argument that to remain relevant, writers must seize the means of appropriation and bring larger and less digested chunks of "reality" into their work, shunning the tired artifices of fiction, whose reality-effects are all worn out. Shields lists an interesting constellation of artworks that suggests the porous boundaries of the new genre or anti-genre that he sees forming (the term he seems happiest with is the "lyric essay" associated with John D'Agata, whose statements are cited liberally throughout Shields' book):
Jeff Crouse's plug-in Delete City. The quasi-home movie Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank's radio show In the Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shelton's unscripted film Humpday ("All the writing takes place in the editing room")..... Curb Your Enthusiasm, which--characteristic of this genre, this ungenre, this antigenre--relies on viewer awareness of the creator's self-consciousness, wobbly manipulation of the gap between person and persona.
You get the idea: these are fundamentally fictions that trespass on the real, that rely for their aesthetic effect on the viewer's consciousness of manipulation (and yet that really was Steve Carrell's chest hair getting ripped out, yowch!). Of course you've noticed that all of Shields' examples thus far come from non-literary media. He gets on shakier ground, in my opinion, when late in this section of the book he finally starts talking about the written equivalent of this sort of reality-performance:
The appeal of Billy Collins is that compared with the frequently hieroglyphic obscurantism of his colleagues, his poems sound like they were tossed off in a couple of hours while he drank scotch and listened to jazz late at night (they weren't; this is an illusion). A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was full of the same self-conscious apparatus that had bored everyone silly until it got tethered to what felt like someone's "real life" (even if the author constantly reminded us how fictionalized that life was). At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are "moments": staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized. I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can't abide the network news--the sound of human voices waking before they drown.
Billy Collins? Really? Is that the best example available of a poet who satisfies the new craving for "reality"? It seems to me a long, long distance between Collins' easy-listening poetic and the highfalutin' T.S. Eliot allusion that Shields ends this passage with. And yet Collins is one of the few genuinely popular poets out there, and Shields' manifesto craves and ratifies, more than reality, what is popular. (He could easily have swapped titles with Steven Johnson, whose book is called Everything Bad Is Good For You.) Collins comes off as only slightly more educated Joe Sixpack in his poems; there's just enough erudition and self-consciousness in there to make his readers feel smart, while at the same time the slapdash quality that makes this reader wince is a pleasing mark of the poet's "authenticity." Shields' attack on fiction (notice the snide implicit assault on the postmodern "self-conscious apparatus" of writing that is untethered to "real life") can sound uncomfortably close to an assault on imagination itself.

Yet the man is on to something. What he calls "reality," to take a cue from Wallace Stevens, is really just another level of imagination, except that what's crucial to this antigenre is its arousal of and dependence on the reader's imaginary participation in the work. It's a kind of bait-and-switch: the overt, self-conscious presence of the meta in these works creates the illusion of something incontrovertible and real that the meta qualities of the work floats intangibly above, as metaphysics presumes physics. These shows and texts pull open, to a greater or lesser degree, the suture between authenticity and artifice and invite their audiences to fill the gap, to take pleasure in a sort of sublime. I say "sublime" because the reality effect Shields is after depends on the indeterminacy of the suture: pure documentary with its adherence to verifiable fact is incapable of arousing this emotion, which as Kant tells us depends on the defeat of the understanding and what he calls "vibration": "a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same object" (Critique of Judgment, Section 27). We feel reality's presence in the work, but that presence is unquantifiable (if quantified and found wanting the resulting disappointment is titanic; c.f. James Frey, who comes up for frequent discussion later in Shields' book).

There is then a connection to be drawn between the devolution of literature as we once understood it, a semi-autonomous realm of authors whose ownership of their work was sufficient guarantee of its authenticity (and look how much aura clings to authorial names like Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett), and the rise of the paraliterary antigenre that Shields celebrates. Though his celebration strikes many readers as a capitulation, we must take seriously the nexus that Shields' book unfolds between the transformation of literature on the genre level and the transformation of the field of the literary as such into one more facet of an increasingly level media landscape in which the lines between producer and consumer become ever more blurry. The question for writers now, it seems, is whether to join Shields at the barricades of the lyric essay and memoir; to fight a residual action, harkening back to the heroic artifice of authenticity that bears the name of modernism; to write genre fiction (more popular than ever); or to surf the wave, captured by no single authorial identity, finding opportunity in crisis without yielding too quickly to cynicism, curmudgeonliness, or the reality bandwagon.

My intuition suggests, however, whatever paths open or close to individual writers in the next twenty years, that collaboration - in myriad forms - is here to stay, and will be at the center of art's vitality going forward. For artists themselves now assume the role of the "pieces of reality" that compose what continues to be the most compelling and versatile legacy of the twentieth century: the collage.

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