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."
" 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...

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