Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An Interview with Chris Meade from if:Book London

Earlier this year while I was in London I had a chance to catch up with the UK Director of if:Book, Chris Meade. After our chat not only did I write up this interview (which was published last month in the Emerging Writers Festival Reader) I also put together a research project examining what will happen to bookshops as readers make the transition to e-readers and downloadable texts. Happily, my project was selected for funding as part of the Endeavour Award which means that come May 2011 I'll be heading to London to work with Chris. Since we're coming to the end of the year, and since the interview has been in print for a few weeks, it seems like a good time to make it digital and spread the word...

In the 80s, before Chris Meade took up his current role as the Co-Director of The Institute for the Future of the Book (if:Book), he pioneered a program to reinvigorate public interest in libraries, promoting them as imagination services. Today, Chris spends most of his time imagining how we might engage with books in the not-too-distant-future. Having met Chris at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, I wanted to ask him if he felt the iPad might not be this century’s hovercraft? Would we really teleport into the world of Pride and Prejudice? Would compliant robots dust our empty bookshelves while we played the first-person shooter of The Satanic Verses? Despite these burning questions, it seemed more politic to sit down and talk about what we mean when we talk about books, and whether or not that will really change over the next few years.

Chris Meade: Have you noticed how things have turned inside out? An organisation used to be a building with a website serving as a sort of leaflet, but now the website is what the organisation is, and the building is just a way of promoting it.

Caroline Hamilton: I have. But I wonder how much optimism there is about what we can do with that digital space for writing and literature?

CM: Well, one example is that a writers’ festival will have a bigger audience via podcasts than actual people sitting there.

CH: But it’s not only tweeting at festivals or downloading podcasts, is it? Technology can lead us to find value in new forms, or rediscover old forms. There’s a lot of hope, for instance that the iPhone will lead to a reinvigoration of the short story.

CM: Yes, it’s true that forms can fit a new platform unexpectedly. I’ve just discovered how nice album covers now look, for instance, on my iPad. It’s nice to know that there’re new ways of appreciating old forms. And it’s important to note that we’re stubborn about the forms that we like. I was involved a few years ago with the Book Trust’s Save the Short Story campaign, and they did some research which showed that if people wanted to read a book they wanted to read a really big book. They weren’t interested in the short story, they wanted to get deeply involved. That surprised some people, there was an expectation that technology would lead us towards short stories, but people were saying they wanted to read a big story, even on an e-reader as much as anything else. Sometimes we have low expectations of ourselves and our children… we do know what we want and what we like.

CH: Which makes me wonder about the current panic about the end of the printed book. Do you think this fear is over-generalised?

CM: We have to wait and see a bit, how much of the anxiety about the loss of the object is transient and how much is real and significant and lasting. But we do want ways of signifying books – we are starting to realise that, starting to experiment with ways to satisfy our desire to read books and to signify reading and having read books.

CH: Yes, as handy as an e-reader might be I do feel like part of the pleasure of a big book is that the object itself has some literal as well as figurative heft to it. We think of them as weighty for a reason.

CM: We do want ways of signifying books and now is a time for experimentation and people who aren’t too profit-driven are doing that: they want to play and try out a few things; play with the souvenirs of reading experience.

CH: A great phrase! The physical book as a souvenir of reading experience.

CM: Well, once you’ve read it, that’s all there is. The book is this attractive thing to put on your wall to show that you’ve read War and Peace, or whatever.

CH: And the word souvenir hints at the way books, when we’re not reading them, are largely useless. Like the snowglobe you lug home from Toronto or wherever. It sits on the shelf, it’s an aide-mémoire – a trigger.

CM: Yes, mostly it serves to remind you of what it was like to read a particular book, and you’re telling others too. A bookshelf is a store of knowledge in a way. It matters to a lot to people, but quite a lot of that is snobbery… you could just as easily have a badge that says I’ve read such-and-such, you don’t need the book on your shelf to do that.

CH: That’s true. Though I don’t know that the concept of a badge will take off. People are very attached to the idea of papery books, most of all writers. They might not be so interested in writing if their work is literally reduced to some status-seeking badge. Then again, maybe all this change that is happening – and that is about to happen – in publishing, will help to free up a lot of writers.

CM: I think it’s important for us to encourage writers to take advantage of this moment, to say: let’s not worry too much about the publisher’s problems. Focus on ourselves, as writers and readers, focus on what it is we want in terms of our experience and then look at the potential of technology to help us get what we want. What can be done in terms of publishing and distribution and multimedia literature and the rest? And, of course, be aware of what could be the real losses as well.

What if, as a writer, you don’t always want to fix down your work, what if you want to keep testing it, working with the readers of your blog, or whatever? Publishers can’t always own everything. Sure you can do some things which are stable and fixed, publish those, gain reputation in a conventional way, but you can still go back, keep blogging and publishing yourself. Build an audience and a reputation in a different way. I think the real challenge now is to not get hooked on the past, particularly in publishing, not to simply think that being in a certain magazine is crucial and everything else is irrelevant. Remembering that there is more than one kind of audience, more than one kind of writing, more than one type of publishing.

It’s becoming much more natural for people who are used to digital means to put their thoughts out in the digital sphere. I think of a blog as a cross between a notebook and a novel: you can jot down a few ideas and share them with a few people and then mould that into something for a much wider readership. I think that’s becoming much more natural for many writers and thinkers, but for others it doesn’t come naturally or easily at all. There’s a certain fatalism surrounding technology: Oh well, now we’re going to have to do it another way… But it’s really important to reserve the right not to. Quite a senior figure in publishing here in London was saying just the other day that lots of English people have a problem with dignity; and the blogosphere is quite undignified, suddenly we’re all showing each other pictures of our summer holidays and our first jottings and sketchy outlines. The finished book represents some immaculate perfectly finalised version of how you want to present yourself. At the end of the process you can throw away all your notes if you like, no one will know how feeble the early drafts might have been. In contrast to that model of perfection the blogosphere is quite threatening but, if you’re prepared to show your working and test things out and pop back and change them, then it’s a hugely liberating way of working.

CH: It sounds to me like there’s considerable potential here for independent writers to be in a strong position, in terms of the future of publishing and the future of the book. You’re talking about not adhering to the old model simply because that’s the way it’s been done, that this model doesn’t have the longevity we once assumed.

CM: Independent writers are in a strong position, yes, if they can clear away their own hang-ups. So many writers feel that they are failing to earn money and that there’s some magical world where other successful writers are rolling in it. You know, if only they were published everything would be alright. Of course, many published writers feel that way too. If only they were published with X instead of Y, or if only they could get a spot on a festival panel. When we talk about writers we’re usually talking about a very small segment of people who are very successful writers.

CH: So that’s a hang up we need to get past then? We need to get over it? Get on with doing whatever we like doing rather than holding onto an old model?

CM: That’s it. And we already know how it works, how to do that. Lots of writers, poets especially, have operated for generations in a very weblike way. They make more money from being sorts of brands, from running workshops and giving readings and selling books themselves. Most of the books are sold on recommendation rather than bookshops, it’s not formal, it’s word of mouth. And the opportunity we have now, independent writers of all stripes, it’s a great chance to build on that and see how you might have more control over your destiny.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Social (Literary) Network

I've been reading around a few different issues over the last couple of days - in particular the recent debates about the future of fiction and the death of literary journals. You can read all the debates from the beginning, starting with Ted Genoways in Mother Jones and get the Australian spin via Harvest's editorial and several responses posted on Overland (start here). From my perspective, it was interesting to see the way the debate went from worrying about the continued existence of the literary journal to a broader complaint about the standard of writing and the institutionalisation of creative work in the University. The Australian context is considerably different to the situation in the USA. Let's say that first up. But I think there are some interesting ideas to be teased out here, particularly with regard to the way the existence of the literary journal is assumed to be predicated promoting "new and challenging" fiction. As far as some in this discussion are concerned, fiction isn't new and challenging enough, particularly when it comes to tackling the big issues and taking a stand when it comes to politically and socially engaged fiction.

This particular debate has a tendency to only result in people digging in and taking sides but it did get me thinking about the role of the literary journal today (and in the past). Currently, several strands of cultural change are having an effect on writing and publishing. There's technology of course... institutions that fund literary journals are looking at the bottom line and perceive online publication as a way to cut costs (cf. Meanjin's current situation). There's changes in higher education... more students, more qualifications, more often, mean more people looking to get published. And there are bigger changes in culture that have accelerated with technology and with education (amongst other things): the breakdown of all kinds of cultural hierarchies (for example, expectations about who calls themselves a writer and/or a publisher).

So, while I was considering these ideas and wondering how all this sniping about fiction and literary publishing fitted into my project on indie publishers in Melbourne, I came across this review by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books for the film The Social Network. Perhaps this will seem left-field but to me it really resonated and drew together the ideas above with my research interests. Genoways had complained about young writers being "precious snowflakes" - a diagnosis that Davina Bell in Harvest was (almost) happy to accept. When Zadie Smith provides an analysis of Mark Zuckerberg to accompany her review, her description provided a more thoughful description of this "generation of snowflakes."
"...you can’t help feel a little swell of pride in this 2.0 generation. They’ve spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics. Turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They’ve been making a world."
Of course, Zuckerberg is no novellist. That's precisely the point. The generation of snowflakes have been directing their energy elsewhere, creating online worlds. I could extrapolate on the idea of how, or whether, making online worlds (like Facebook) can be understood as a different kind of "politics," but I doubt those sympathetic to Genoways' call for politically engaged fiction would buy it... Instead, let me turn to Smith's follow-up point, which (since I'm researching indie publishers) really grabbed my attention:
"World makers, social network makers, ask one question first: How can I do it?"
It doesn't matter what the "it" is, what matters is the "I". This is do-it-yourself-ism for the 2.0 Generation. To me, the impulse to look around and see what is happening and ask, "how can I do it?" is not limited to digital entrepreneurs. It seems to me that this same drive operates amongst the current crop of small publishers interested in preserving and innovating on the literary journal tradition in Australia. The entrepreneurial drive in young publishing ventures in Australia fascinates me and at times it's hard to know how to explain it. Certainly the push for community is there, but I think this idea is a little old and hackneyed now. Some people are publishing for the passion of it all, no doubt. But I also think people are interested in the entrepreneurial challenge. It's about making a world of one's own - furnished by friends and facilitated by networks. This doesn't seem to be about "community" in the old-skool sense (read Jeff Sparrow's analysis of the role of community in the survival of literary journals here). I wonder if the community that Jeff calls for, while an appealing idea that might help drive subscriptions to support a project, still exists in an uncomplicated way. If friendship, relationships, collegiality, and so on, have been re-shaped by social networks and online communications, surely our literary communities have been similarly effected?

This inkling that community operates differently now brings me back to Zadie Smith and her review of The Social Network. Zuckerberg, according to her analysis, is good when it comes to how to do it. Less so when it comes to why.
"He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important."
I'm not trying to suggest for a moment that the same can be said of small scale publishers and emerging writers - but a couple of points deserve to be made:

Sometimes the word "community" gets thrown around in literary circles in a manner akin to the way Smith notes Zuckerberg uses "connect" - that is, with blind faith. I think we need to more rigourously address what a literary community is and what purpose it currently serves. In the past literary communities or coteries were used to help writers and artists get ahead and provide valuable support and safety nets. Is this still the same kind of community that congregates around something like the Meanjin or the Overland blogs?

Of course, I'm not sure that connecting and community are AT ALL the same thing; and that's Smith's point too... Her analysis of Zuckerberg suggests that "connecting" isn't always enough. Networks aren't communities, and the relationships are all too weak: it's all about hit count, friend numbers, airing your thoughts on a particular matter and moving on to the next issue (You can read Malcolm Gladwell on this idea over at the New Yorker).


I'm only about half-way through fleshing out this idea and am trying to approach it from both perspectives. Over the next few days I want to try to mount a case for the enduring success of the literary journals in facilitating important social and political communities. More to come...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Vintage Ethic: Mad Men and the Mid-Century Consumer Craze

Here's a copy of a paper I just presented in Sydney at the 'On Mad Men' conference at Sydney University. While it seems only tangentially related to this project at present I'm keen to work many of these ideas about vintage to a larger project examining the reuse of vintage books, in particular. So, for that reason I'm posting it here. Also, lots of people like Mad Men, right? Forigve the absence of footnotes or full citations, should anyone be really that interested I'm only too happy to oblige, but for now, you just get my working copy...

Something old, something new: “Mixing period and style gives you the best of all possible worlds and lets you create an individual look,” says Mark Conway, whose quirky collection of vintage and enamelled wares are available in his shop in Paddington, Sydney. “A key antique piece can set a tone of quality and craftsmanship. New things add life and sparkle. The blending comes naturally when well-designed and charming objects from any period compete for attention.” In contrast to the contemporary streamlined and all white look, a vintage-style bathroom holds tremendous nostalgic appeal. It’s an easy style, allowing for idiosyncratic touches and pieces of sentimental value.

Vogue Living, Aug/Sept 2002

Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Would I complete myself without the things I like around?

Animal Collective, “Taste”

This paper is my attempt to work through a couple of interests of mine that have been conceptually linked in my head for a little while now: those being Mad Men and vintage shopping. It’s been especially pressing on my mind in the last few weeks because I’ve just moved into a new apartment and have had lots of time to reflect on the strange significance of objects in our lives while I stood unwrapping yet another ceramic bowl or glass vase or kitschy animal portrait. In between this, I’ve also been reading a book of essays about the hipster culture of the 21st century, and this too has also had an influence on my thinking about the ideas I’m putting out here today. But, I flag this just to give you a sense of where I’m coming from – let’s see where we end up…

In the past 12 months, I’ve noticed that Mad Men, while being the latest example of ‘zeitgeist TV’, was regarded differently to other popular cable shows like The Wire and The Sopranos. “Ohmigod Ilovethatshow!” someone would say, when I mentioned Mad Men, and then they’d tell me all about a favourite dress worn by Joanie, or the triptych of cats that sits off to the left of the lounge in Trudi and Pete Campbell’s apartment. They weren’t the only ones, on fan sites and comment threads viewers left little love notes to these tiny details:

“I get totally absorbed by the blonde furniture, the wardrobes, hair styles, thick plastic-lensed glasses, and make-up”

“what also makes the show brilliant is the art direction, even the sound. Those typewriters, those cigarette lighters, the clicking of the heels”

“that’s one of the pleasures of the show – the tiny details that are just so perfect”

Mad Men solicits you to watch harder, like a striptease. And like a striptease, when it’s over you’re left wanting more; not just more of the story, but more of the stuff. And AMC know it: on the Men Men website you can find a ‘fashion file’, a cocktail guide and an entire page with instructions on how to ‘Madmen yourself’. If that’s not enough, you might want to buy Man Men-themed nail polish, or a Banana Republic Don Draper suit Now, correct me if you have evidence to the contrary, but I’ve never chatted to anyone who expressed a deep desire to kit themselves out in Carmella Soprano’s leisure wear or ‘Wire-ise themselves’…

It’s the drive to reanimate the 60s, to bring Mad Men into our homes and our lives, that interests me. Certainly it explains part of my appreciation for the show. I ‘like to watch’ it in the same way that, when I was 10, I loved old TV reruns from the 60s – Bewitched, in particular. –Appropriate, given it’s also concerned with the life of an ad man.

I loved those reruns for their colour saturation, their lounge settings, their lawns and their lamps and myriad details of the 60s mise en scene. This material world was as much ‘the show’ to me as the dramas that took place over the course of their 23 minutes. And, in many respects, Mad Men is no different. It isn’t, for example, just that Don Draper has bryll-creamed hair and that this makes his character seem ‘authentic’ and ‘old-timey.’ It’s that his bryll-creamed hair looks shiny and grooved, like old 45s. Which is to say, his hair doesn’t connote ‘authentic period drama’ alone, it also connotes ‘period object’ in all its glossy glory. It’s often said that Mad Men’s sets and props are the show’s real actors, but I also think the reverse is equally true: its actors are like objects – dolls on film. I’m influenced in my thinking here by the work of academics like Pam Cooke, Sue Hopkins and Stella Bruzzi, who’ve given excellent readings of costumes and props in melodramas, noting how they offer an alternative narrative to the main action. As Bruzzi says, “when costumes are looked at rather than through, the element conventionally prioritised is their eroticism.” Hence, my description of Mad Men as a striptease. It asks us to ‘look at’ not just through.

It interests me that it’s this feature which has come in for the most criticism in Mad Men. Writing for the London Review of Books, Mark Greif (who also happens to be the editor of that collection on hipsters I mentioned) objects to the show’s over-investment in its sets, suggesting that “the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks, and geometric ceiling tiles” are shiny decoys distracting us from the plot’s inadequacies. At the excellent online Slate TV Club for Mad Men the critics are similarly worried that despite the pleasures the show affords, it’s more like a glossy advertisement than a real period drama. It doesn’t so much make you feel, as it makes you feel like going shopping.

Given the show’s global popularity you can find the raw material to ‘Mad Men yourself’ quite easily at the local mall, but the real pleasure – as the show demonstrates – is to be found in the collection and curatorship of originals… And that means circumventing the mall in favour of urban boutiques and furniture stores, outer suburban op shops and trash n treasure stores, and of course, online sites like eBay and Etsy. It means going vintage shopping.

The rise of Mad Men occurs in tandem with the mainstreaming of vintage shopping as a new middle-class lifestyle habit. And, as Ann Deslandes, writing for New Matilda early this year, noted, Mad Men is “the exemplary current pop culture platform for the vintage aesthetic.” More recently, Lorin Clarke, in an article in the November Big Issue, asked,

“Sure the clothes, the coffee tables and the cigarette holders [in Mad Men] are gorgeous details, but what makes them penetrate the part of your brain that drives you to visit op shops?”

Over the last ten years vintage consumption has been appropriated into middle-class culture in a way that was unimaginable perhaps even twenty years ago when second-hand goods were still largely tainted by ideas about poverty and life on the fringes. There is now even an entire magazine devoted to the vintage aesthetic and vintage cultureFrankie (which, incidentally, is the only Australian magazine to boast growing circulation figures in spite of the current publishing crisis). “Vintaging” can now be said to be akin to “antiquing” as a cultural habit; and I think it’s time for a discussion regarding the meaning of this cultural practice. ‘Vintage’ confers status on old and also on its many youthful practitioners. Because of its associations with the charity shop, second-hand retail, recycling, and preservation, vintage is all too easily linked in popular discourse with other words of the moment like ‘fair,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘local,’ ‘creative,’ ‘hip,’ and ‘honest’.

Thus, vintage is celebrated as demonstration of a ludic attitude towards consumerism and as a stand ‘against’ the evils of globalisation, and the destruction of the environment, and ‘for’ good ideas like fair labour and feminism. If it were possible, vintage goods would come with the label ‘organic’. This is what I’m calling the ‘Vintage Ethic’: a position that allows an individual to substantively distance oneself from the problematic aspects of consumerism in favour of a stance that appears ethical, or at least, less ethically compromised. I think, however, that a greater interrogation of this discourse is warranted. One need only look at the disapprobation that surrounds the figure of the Hipster (who is popular culture’s current apolitical poseur par excellence but also one of the most exacting and rigorous vintage practitioners) to see that vintage is not ipso facto a politically engaged habit. It is, however, all about habitus. By seizing on overlooked aspects of an older culture (things like music, fashion, design, furniture, cuisine, and pastimes) and re-introducing them in the present, vintage consumers participate in a global conversation about themselves, and their relationship to other kinds of consumer practices, both present and past.

Most obviously, vintage consumption takes the anxiety and liberal guilt normally associated with consumerism and replaces it with discourses of pleasure, creativity and self-congratulation. But, this doesn’t always accord with reality… Vintage culture involves a set of increasingly standardised styles and trends and an ever proliferating, globalised ‘upcycling economy.’ The best example of which, that I know of, involves buying vintage clothes cheaply overseas and having them tailored and customised in Vietnam and Thailand to bring to market in major cosmopolitan centres). Far from the naively benevolent images of vintage life you see in Frankie magazine this practice seems to me to be positively neo-liberal. Despite the cheerful, harmlessly self-approving ethos involved in the vintage ‘recycle, revamp, repurpose’ aesthetic it’s useful to ask oneself what else is being ‘bought’ when you buy someone else’s stuff. In that same New Matilda article, Deslandes notes,

“That we in 2010 have acquired a passion for things that in another context or time marked the curtailing of women’s lives, the treatment of economic hardship as moral deficiency and the cheerful endorsement of non-white people’s inferiority bears thinking carefully about as we wander craft markets and vintage frock shops.”

Returning to Mad Men, what strikes me is that aspects of the critique of vintage shopping accord with critiques of Mad Men and its reliance on a species of self-congratulating nostalgia to win audiences. Greif calls it “now we know better” storytelling. It’s the fictional place where all those smoking mothers, closeted homosexuals, hard-drinking drivers, black lift-operators, Jewish merchants and frustrated housewives live. It’s Mad Men. But, is there another way to address these criticisms? Is there more to Mad Men? Is there more to “vintaging,” than just an exercise in back-patting reassurance of liberal ethical standards with little engagement with the political past or present?

Nostalgia is, by definition, premised on the experience of a past to which one hopes to return. We hear, for example, Don Draper give this definition when he pitches to Kodak in the final episode of season one. But, it is possible, I’d suggest, to get access to the past not through experience but via representations of that past. That is what gives vintage stuff its appeal. And it’s what Mad Men is all about. During that pitch Don shows his audience (and us) a ‘past’ made up from representations (family photos) of life in the Draper home. That New Year’s Eve looks happier than any moment I’ve ever seen Don and Betty ever share in the ‘real life’ of the show…

Mad Men’s audiences don’t revisit the 60s but are given representations of it. Memories are just another kind of mantelpiece, a mental one; where we put out what we like to see. And it’s here that that quote from Animal Collective seems especially appropriate:

“Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Would I complete myself without the things I like around?”

All the items that sell prodigiously at vintage stores: old magazines, photos, books, clothes, and furniture expose the textuality of the past, its construction from bits and pieces, history as bric-a-brac.

I want to turn now, very briefly, to an essay by Martin Hipsky called “Anglophil(M)ia: Why Does America Watch Merchant-Ivory Movies?“ which examines the popularity of British costume dramas of the 80s and 90s and which, I think, helpfully articulates the practice of consuming representations of the past. Hipsky describes the appeal of Merchant-Ivory in terms of their “circumambience” – this is not an escape from the present into a nostalgic past but an access point into a self-created space of ‘affordable luxury’ particular to the present moment. Merchant-Ivory films are signifiers of elite, but easily accessible cultural capital; what he calls “a specifically middle class habitus.” Hipsky defines this audience with pinpoint specificity: those with a liberal arts education. Twenty years on from Hipsky, and the once fashionable Merchant-Ivory films,I’d propose that a similar thing is happening with Mad Men. Says Hipsky,

“[these texts] appeal to people who want their increasingly expensive college educations to pay some cultural dividends. It is no accident that the films exert this… at a time when the traditional ends of an expensive college education – guaranteed upward mobility or the reproduction of one’s comfortable class privilege are fading out of the American Dream like a lingering after-image of the mid-twentieth century.”

Today “the lingering after-image of the mid-twentieth century” is the very object of our analytical affection and the cohort of individuals that possess a liberal arts education and a deep knowledge of taste regimes is ever larger. Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, endorses this expertise and obsession himself, advising audiences,

“When I spend three seconds showing you a prop, that is for your delight. I am not telling you that the Relaxacizor is going to be used to murder someone. I am telling you, ‘Look at this strange underwear that she’s going to put on!”

Look at it, he advises, not through it.

Set as it is in the world of advertising, Mad Men makes a case for consumption as a meaningful, if ambiguous, act. Despite discussion of Don Draper’s archetypal mid-century ennui, he is in many respects a man of this moment: a compromised ‘creative’ in the capitalist society. Second to stealing another man’s identity on the battlefield, there is probably nothing worse than a liberal arts education to make you sense your own twinned poverty and privilege. It makes one hyperconsciously aware of the opportunities available because of social and cultural status and yet, equally despairing, because access to this capital demands capitulation to the system. What else can you do in this situation but pay attention to ladies’ underwear?

I wonder whether the critical resistance to the significance of décor in Mad Men is part of our own self-hating impulse with regard to our investment in consumer practices. We’re veteran consumers, but hate ourselves for it. There is, as Peter Brooks notes in his essay on melodrama, “a drama of morality” attached to objects. We trade them for emotions, for freedom from guilt, for self-esteem, for a sense of identity. Weiner knows this and uses this tension to create the moral landscape of his show.

To finish, I just want to offer one very quick example. Episode 3 in season 3 sees Betty Draper make a big decision that seems intended as a larger message to the how’s critics. The antique fainting couch that catches Betty’s eye looks like frustrated female sexuality in couch form. It also seems to be Weiner’s way of saying that far from being superficial, his props matter.

Discussing the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Thomas Elsaesser notes how the objects in Sirk’s films “become more real than the human relations or emotions they were intended to symbolize.” The objects offer emotional articulations inaccessible to the characters themselves but available to audiences. And so it is with Betty… That enormous pink monstrosity is the elephant in the newly re-decorated living room. Here is an example of the mix-n-match ‘vintage ethic’ advocated by Vogue Living gone horribly wrong: “A key antique piece” they say, “can set a tone of quality and craftsmanship” but in the Draper house it seems pretty clear nothing “comes naturally.”

“We discussed this for months and we decided antiques were ‘expected,’” says the decorator. Betty’s error, according to the expert, is that she’s made a conformist choice. Yet, this couch is obviously a rebellion. By the time we see it again in season 4 it has better blended into Betty’s surrounds and her new life with Henry. So, in the end, what Betty wants, Betty gets. But, the ‘morality’ of that couch, the possibility of her ‘bad judgement,’ will always hover over it.

I think it’s a mistake to see Mad Men as some large exercise in empty Jamesonian nostalgia. It seems to me that, despite criticisms like Greif’s, Mad Men attempts to make objects, sets, and (particularly with regard to race) colours ‘speak’ the morality and ethics of past and present for characters and the culture. This is a more nuanced and subtle ‘visual elocution’ than the sometimes shrill “now we know better”-isms that Greif identifies. The problem is that, when it comes to the economy that Mad Men inspires –– the world of modern vintage consumption practices –– it is not enough for objects to speak while their owners stay silent. Our own lives may be like melodramas, our histories like our living rooms, but we don’t have an audience. I see our modern vintage shoppers, so cosily celebrated in magazines like Frankie, or Vogue Living, like Betty Draper: acting on impulse and enamoured to an aesthetic which contains unresolvable ambiguities. The question then is always left hanging: A good buy? Or just bad taste?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

About thoughts on paper...

Here's a great little story from The Millions to complement some of my recent musings on paper books and everyday reading habits...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Hypothesis of a Book

I discovered this little story about a soon to be published book drawn from the writings of Roland Barthes after the death of his mother. What does this have to do with printed matters, precisely? Well, it’s more of an impression than an idea, but these words from the story really resonated with me and this project:

“The reader is presented not with a book completed by its author,” the volume’s annotator, Nathalie Léger, writes, “but the hypothesis of a book desired by him.”

The hypothesis of a book is a great phrase, and for me it’s evocative of the kinds of work that is going to be done over the next few years as we work out what it is we want most from printed books, and what we want from digital publishing. What are the elements of the book that we need to keep? What might we relinquish? The article talks about Barthes having jotted down his thoughts about his mother on little slips of paper, a free floating diary… It’s interesting to think about this in light of what we call a book, and our assumption that books must involve bound pages between covers. Barthes book about his mother’s death began life as individual pieces of paper, perhaps in part this was a by-product of the project itself. Memory and grief and emotion don’t run in long narrative streams, they’re bite sized and unpredictable. The hypothesis of a book suggests that there’s no sure way for the publisher/translator/annotator to know for sure how something experimental (and intensely personal) was supposed to wind up. Instead they look at the form, at the content, at the function and make an educated, empathetic guess. This seems like a sound way to describe what is happening around us with the range of small publishers producing journals and books.

There’s another element to this hypothesis of a book idea too. It has to do with the work done by if:book and other similar think tanks that spend serious time speculating and experimenting with the way books work in a digital society. Happily, I’ll get to do some more musing on this when I take up a 4 month fellowship in London next year (just announced today!) to research the future of the bookshop. I wonder what the hypothesis of a bookshop desired by Barthes (or anyone else, for that matter) might involve?

Monday, October 25, 2010

On the ‘thing-i-ness’ of books...

One question rarely posed to commentators predicting the imminent demise of the book is, what about the tactile appeals of print-on-paper? I don’t mean to suggest that the love of dead trees is going to counteract a tide of digital information, but I do think that there is something very particular about our attachment to ‘papery-objects’. That phrase is one I owe to Dave Eggers, a man with a bonafide passion for paper. Recently he’s taken to making affirming pronouncements on the continuation of print publishing, and the continuing possibilities for print newspapers, but it’s something he said a little earlier on in his career that I find most interesting about the possibilities for publishing now. In an early issue of his journal McSweeney’s he explained to readers his reasons for starting up his own publishing house, saying,

“we are talking about smaller and leaner operations that use the available resources and speed and flexibility of the market […] to enable us to make not cheaper and cruder (print-on-demand) books or icky, cold, robotic (electronic) books, but better books, perfect and permanent hardcover books, to do so in a fiscally sound way, and to do so not just for old time’s sake, but because it make sense and gives us, us people with fingers and eyes, what we want and what we’ve always wanted: beautiful things, beautiful things in our hands – to be surrounded by little heavy papery beautiful things”.

Things, things, things! You can practically taste the whimsy, but Eggers’s incantation, as I read it, reminds us that books are lovely in large part because of their thing-i-ness. A book’s value is caught up in how we relate to it as an object. That might mean the emotional associations we have with a particular title (it might’ve been a gift, a beloved bed-time story, and so on). But it might just as easily mean how we relate to the feel of the paper, the look of the typeface, the touch of thick paper. To me it’s this quality that goes some way to explaining the continued (and growing) popularity of independent publishers, journals, and zines in Australia. It also suggests that there is space for print to thrive. I’m not talking about vast forests of printed material here, more like well-tended veggie gardens.

Like veggie gardens, this model of print publishing is about sustainability, and the satisfaction of a DIY project. It’s also a useful antidote to the sense of futility and frustration that current discussions about the future of publishing can induce. “We’re tired of all the END OF PAPER, the END OF PUBLISHING AS WE KNOW IT stories”, read a blog post by the Baltimore independent book shop Atomic Books. “We’ve been hearing and reading about it ever since we’ve been open (which is going on almost 20 years now)”. Which is where the Revenge of Print project comes in. It’s a challenge organised by Atomic and a collective of likeminded print and paper advocates to encourage anyone “who’s ever made/self-published a zine, a comic or mini-comic before to dust off the ol’ photocopier and make at least one more new issue in 2011”.

This idea is already gathering enthusiasm from zine makers past and present, and it looks likely to encourage those who have an abiding belief in the pleasures of DIY and print-on-paper to get themselves back into the habit. It’s certainly true that, despite predictions, print and paper are still an important part of our lives. Remember discussions in the 90s about the inevitability (and wonder) of a paperless office? Well, email may have trumped the fax machine but there’s still plenty of paper floating around the laser printer in most workplaces. It’s true that email has changed our work habits, just as e-books will change our reading habits, but that doesn’t make papery-things obsolete. In fact digital communications technology makes paper all the more valued and valuable. Eggers is pretty careful, for instance, to make it clear that he doesn’t love paper because he’s devoted to tradition and the idea of ‘old time’s sake’. He wants to invigorate print because print is a beautiful way to read. Books feel good between your fingers and are easy on the eye (particularly those published by McSweeney’s). Eggers has realised that the key to success is making a product that is irreplaceable and indispensable, and more small publishers are catching on.

When commentators talk about the end of publishing as we know it what they most often actually mean is the end of publishing according to a very specific corporate model that proved popular (and lucrative) over the last fifty years. That model (think: the conglomerate-owned publisher, the celebrity autobiography, the movie-tie in) is on the way out. But that doesn’t guarantee some utopian world for authors. As John Birmingham pointed out last week in the Australian, big corporations like Apple and Amazon and Borders are trying hard and fast to capitalise on the possibilities of money-making through digital publishing, with little interest in aesthetic considerations, be they the development of literary talent, or the look of books. Perhaps there’s hope for print precisely because it’s starting to lose its appeal to corporate publishers and corporate book stores. If books are heavy and costly and slow they can make the most of this, reminding readers of their their tactility, weight, and shape – their printy-ness, if you will.

‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’, said Dorothy Parker, but it isn’t cold-blooded emotional detachment that motivates the revenging zinesters, ‘big-time’ indie publishers like Eggers, or the multitude of local small presses and literary enterprises around our towns, it’s a passion for print and paper and a feeling for (the feel of) books.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is blogging self-exploitation?

It’s surprising that, in spite of all the current talk about the rise of e-readers, shrinking attention spans, and the critical inadequacies of the blogosphere there is very little consideration of the actual work circumstances of the people engaged with this hybrid culture of digital/print production where readers and writers are very often the same. It sometimes seems to me as if there's all this 'culture' out there happening, but no one is really prepared to think about the people doing the work behind it. I'm not sure why this is given that the literary industry is usually pretty good at celebrating the professional personalities that have shaped the culture.

One reason this might be the case is because when it comes to a print/digital hybrid culture it is a lot more difficult for anyone to know who is in control and who is doing what. There is so much going on out there and so much of it is very specifically targeted. While this essay from the New Yorker about Nick Denton, the creator of Gawker (and its affiliate websites), isn't exactly what I have in mind when I talk about considering what it means to do writing work in the digital era I do think it offers some interesting insights about the nature of digital work culture. For instance, Denton paid the first Gawker blogger, Elizabeth Spiers, two thousand dollars a month, on the assumption that posting twelve short items a day in response to things she’d read in the Times or gleaned from other media sources was a part-time commitment. Yep, 'part time work'. Spiers eventually complained and the model was changed, when Gawker took on more staff Denton instituted a system which offered writers a bonus for high page views in addition to a flat $12 per post.

As exploitative at this sounds, poor Spiers had it better than most bloggers who try to make a living. Of particular interest to me are those writers providing content for Australian blogs, and similar, without ever taking into account that there is more to a career in writing than networks, exposure and doing work for free for the sake of experience. The sociologist Andrew Ross has done some excellent research on “the Political Economy of Amateurism” in the creative industries. Ross looks at the unrecognised exploitation that often happens in new formats such as reality television and blogs, where non-professionals are primary content creators but are given none of the rights and benefits of their more traditional counterparts.

While it’s no secret that the Arts sector often calls upon the goodwill and enthusiasm of “emerging” creative types (often young people) to help pick up the slack when it comes to things like ushering, driving, organization and production work it is increasingly common for writers, artists and film makers to complete many unpaid “internships” in the hope that it will lead to something that offers some financial compensation and professional opportunity. When the ABC’s Radio National Book Show announced that it was offering a number of unpaid spots as official bloggers for the program, a few writers kicked up a ruckus about the lack of respect accorded to young writers. If you listen to the podcast from the Book Show during the week that their blog launched you'll hear Romona Koval make some glaring generalisations about blogs and some patronising remarks about bloggers and their audiences (thankfully, this is rescued somewhat by the presence of Sophie Cunningham from Meanjin and Max Magee of the Millions). This is especially unfortunate given that the Book Show blog offers no payment to its writers, and indeed, framed the blog writing gig as a 'competition' which the writers were no doubt 'lucky' to have won. No discussion of their talents, abilities and qualifications were cited. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I'm not the only one. At the time a few writers kicked up a ruckus about the lack of respect accorded to young writers who are using blogs as a way to hone their craft. You can read more about that here and here.

I'll be presenting some ideas and research at a conference in Byron Bay in December this year on this subject; hoping to more thoroughly explore why it is that (young) writers are (too) willing to give away their work and engage in self-exploitation.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

This is Not Art: This is not a pay cheque?

A week away in Newcastle for fieldwork and presentations at National Young Writers Festival as part of TiNA. From my 'researcher's perspective' the most interesting session from the perspective of the current project on freelancers working in the arts (Giving it Away) was a round table discussion entitled ‘What Are You Worth?’ dealing with how to make a living from freelance life. As you might expect, no shortage of horror stories about exploitative work in the arts: people underpaid, and sometimes, not paid at all. But also some very interesting and animated discussion about the problem of self-exploitation: which, in a nutshell, involves undervaluing your work, either deliberately or through lack of confidence. By doing creative activities for free or next to nothing, freelancers do themselves a disservice they not only exploit themselves but their whole field. If you offer to do a job for 20% less than your colleagues, then you’ll wind up deflating the value of your work in the market. A clichéd phrase comes to mind here: “why buy the cow if you get the milk for free…” Most of the time we hear that phrase used in conjunction with self-respect and cautionary advice about chastity. I suppose this was a comparison that I’d already made (perhaps inadvertently) when I entitled my project ‘Giving it Away.’ It captures that sense of insecurity (or in industry speak – precarity) that often affects creative workers who feel that they can’t challenge the expectations of the workforce, either by asking for higher wages or better rights at work. It’s also important to consider how easy it can be for creative workers to do work for free because it is (at least in some respects) pleasurable work. This can mean that it is all too easy to do ‘extra’ work, to under charge, or, in some cases, not take stock of the fact that some everyday creative tasks can, in some contexts, also constitute work and ought to be factored into the rates that creative workers charge (for instance, blog posts like this are part of my daily work, but not everyone would think to consider their commentary on blogs, forums, etc as an important aspect creative work online).

This question about valuing creative work and representation as an industry is of growing importance. Just this year, for instance, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ruled that freelancers can unite to seek better rates and conditions. In the last few days I’ve uncovered research similar to my own being carried out by OzCo and Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (you can do the freelancers survey here). Hopefully there will be some chance for cross-pollination of our ideas resulting in advice for arts organisations which represent the interests of creative workers (especially young people and those just starting out) wondering how to put a price on the work they love.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

When does print matter?

Picking up where I left off… though not with Nicholas Carr (at least, not immediately).

At the Wheeler Centre’s weekly lunch-time soapbox event Anna Krien addressed the question of whether newspapers still matter in the digital era. Krien’s central argument was that print newspapers needed to recognise and mobilise the features that make them unique and play to their strengths, rather than playing catch up with their online competition. Print newspapers can make a virtue of their relative slowness; can devote resources to research; can provide in-depth analysis and long-form reportage; can deliver a product that is worth the paper it is printed on (i.e. is worth its cover price and is worth whatever effort it takes to carry it from breakfast table to briefcase to beachside). In so doing, newspapers can leave the speedy work of ‘news coverage’ to the web. Printed papers, with their research, analysis and critique, can be the roughage in our media diet, giving us something to chew on: slow-to-digest information that complements the news snacks we get online.

It’s just possible that the same idea could be used in considering how to respond to talk of the demise of the novel in the digital era. That is to say, what if we proposed that it was the slowness of print books that provides a pleasure that online forms don’t deliver? In an essay in The Millions, Garth Hallberg notes that “the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.” Just like Krien’s proposal that the newspaper should seize its potential for (time-consuming) considered investigation, many novels make a virtue of their ‘bigness’ and ‘slowness’; make a virtue of being substantial food-for-thought.

Without proposing that there’s anything new about the popularity of big books Hallberg offers a couple of interesting ideas about the relationship between print and digital media when it comes to big books:

 “The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles””

A big novel can be valued because it is time consuming, it demands attention, it might hurt a little. Along with all that focus and time the reader must devote, Hallberg notes that the big novel requires a certain kind of solitude, a little bit of pleasurable alienation:

“The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically.”

These comments are an interesting rebuttle to the thesis of Nicholas Carr who sees readers as having been near-irrevocably ruined by the internet. But the internet isn’t to blame. Literary novels and reading habits were already on a downward trend before the internet became ubiquitous. Carr proposes that we once enjoyed a more focused and more cerebral phase in our history when we did all our learning from books. Now, with the internet, with its solicitation to click, click, click our way through the ceaseless flow of  information presented to us, we’re developing the worst kind of shallow thinking. But it all depends what it is you’re clicking, and what you’re reading. A critic of Carr’s rightly asked,

“What if [it’s] Mein Kampf? What if it’s Jefferey Archer? Or Barbara Cartland? Am I not better off playing a well-constructed online game, or reading Aristotle’s poetics online? I really don’t see why books should particularly promote worthwhile though, unless they’re worthwhile books. And the same applies to what’s on the internet.” [Professor Andrew Burn qtd in John Harris, ‘Online and Altered,’ Guardian Weekly 17.9.10, 25-27]

For Carr the biggest worry is that we’re very poor at regulating our impulse to stop clicking and start focussing. We need an information diet. Yet, the talk of Big Novels and Kindle-proof books that resist digitisation suggest that there are readers out there very well aware of what their media do, and their own habits with relation to them; readers who are comfortable with the unique qualities that print and online publishing each offer. Readers who know how to enjoy a balanced diet of focused, fibrous material that takes some time to digest alongside byte-sized morsels of digital content.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

(Why) Does Print Matter?

Almost every time I tell someone about the project I’m working on they tell me they’re uncomfortable with the idea of books disappearing from our everyday lives. “I can’t imagine not holding an actual book in my hands!” they say. “I like having something that’s not my phone to hold onto when I’m on the tram.” It’s true that second perhaps only to mobile phones books are probably one of our best hand-holding devices. By which I mean, somewhat cornily, you’re not alone if you’ve got a book. But it is true, look around an airport or a crowded bus and you’ll see what I mean. And, while you can certainly read a great book on an iPhone these days the comments from my pop-quiz respondents suggest that there is something else about holding books in our hands that a digital device just can’t satisfy.

There is something about the existence (or the disappearance) of the book that affects us profoundly. A world without actual books seems somehow diminished; perhaps it’s the shades of Farenheit 451 or 1984 that the idea conjures: a dystopian, tyrannical world where individual consciousness is erased; maybe we don’t all always want to be part of the “hive mind” of the digital world. Books (as we know them – cloth bound, mass produced) are associated in our cultural history with the radical individualist, with dangerous ideas, the Romantic, self-discovery, the quest for truth. None of those things are impossible with a digital text, we just haven’t yet developed an association between digital material and slow, introspective connection. A seemingly trivial, but revealing, example of this: what we talk about when we talk about the digital: speed. Fast equals good, slow equals bad. It might be helpful to start thinking about the possibility for fast (technical) connections (e.g. broadband-width) while also holding onto a more human-paced engagement that we’re familiar with from reading, writing and other time-heavy (slow) pursuits. I’m still sceptical about the technological determinism that creeps into discussions of the benefits of books vs. the net, but I am curious to see what gets said this evening at the Wheeler Centre by Nicholas Carr.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

First Impressions

If you were to believe everything you read about the future of Australia’s literary culture in the mainstream press you’d be forgiven for imagining an environment in which skinny-jeaned bloggers and tweeters were glued to their iPads, busily breaking down the traditions of printed culture into some trendy remix ready to be uploaded to YouTube. And yet, over the last two decades (over the same time span, incidentally, that we’ve gone from plain-old-vanilla-web to “web 2.0”) there’s also been a steady growth in creative activities related to print publishing, like the production of small-scale book imprints, magazines and literary journals. The question is, why is this happening? Far from impediments to traditional publishing technologies, it seems like new media are facilitating the production of quality cultural publications...

Printed Matters is a three-year research project designed to interrogate this idea. One aim of the project is to offer a more balanced and considered take on issues related to the continuation of print culture and the development of a digital literary culture. Another major objective is to examine the practical experiences of those engaged with printed and digital publishing formats; the intention being that this information can be used by organizations and individuals who want to ensure the interests of those engaged in creative work which bridges the gap between print and digital culture are fairly and accurately represented. After all, many small-scale publishers have come of age in an era where technology and online media are ubiquitous tools for professional development, forming networks, collaboration and creative practice. Their work isn’t a case of ‘either/or’ when it comes to print and digital culture.

To make things more manageable, the project focuses on enterprises mostly based in or associated with Melbourne’s independent publishing community (and, given that Melbourne was recently designated a UNESCO City of Literature, there’s no better time and no better place for this research to begin). Here on this blog information about the project will be charted out, ideas discussed and comments and suggestions welcomed. From time to time the site will also serve as a first point for the collection of research data. It all sounds much more formal than it really is; in the first instance, blogs are a great way to start thinking out loud, even when you spend most of your time working quietly on your own, like I do.