Category Archives: paper airplanes

Note on Streaming

So I was reading various think-pieces about the latest Apple press event when I ran across this article at The New Republic:

In these companies’ push to be the fabled Everything, interoperability is waning. Weeks after Facebook announced its acquisition of Instagram, Twitter cut off access to a feature allowing users to discover people on Instagram based on their Twitter “following” list. Months later, Instagram disabled Twitter Cards integration for Instagram content. Streaming music services, as is, are unfortunately siloed — one cannot, for instance, make a universal playlist that supports Rdio, Spotify, and Apple Music. It’s a situation without an analog equivalent: mixtapes work on any brand of cassette player.

But this “situation without an analog equivalent” is not in fact true. Greg Milner in his book Perfecting Sound Forever details the early years of the phonograph industry, which used to be “siloed” in just this way. Certain records would only play on their corresponding players. The technology progressed toward a world where playback devices played any kind of music.

(I don’t have the Milner in front of me; I lent it to a friend and without going over there midday and breaking and entering, I can’t give you an exact quotation. But I can feel it, man, that Milner details this somewhere in the first couple of chapters.)

So you can see today’s deliberate in-operability of current music streaming services as either a return to recorded music’s primordial warfare of formats or as another unfortunate but seemingly necessary evolutionary step of technological change, but you can’t say that it’s unprecedented. Instead, you could say that ever since music became a recorded artifact, we’ve wrestled with the format that record takes and how it gets controlled. The only escape from the headache of format would be a pure and total return to live music.

Rhetorical Question

Is the “new” Harper Lee “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird a chilling metaphor for the book industry, wherein a publisher is presented with a manuscript that’s a surprise extension of a beloved cultural franchise, a predestined goldmine, written by an author years ago but conveniently “discovered” at a time when the author, though still living, seems to lack all authority with which to speak about the book, except via legally designated intermediaries, and who seems unable or unwilling to edit the book, and wherein said publisher readily admits it also won’t edit said book, but merely package it for sale, so that one’s ultimate impression is that it no longer even matters what the book itself ultimately says only that it exists to be purchased?

Isn’t Go Set a Watchman in a way the Perfect Book? (A blockbuster with blank pages.)

And doesn’t this weird willful marshalling of coincidental forces represent some kind of apotheosis of book publication culture as it’s been known in the postwar U.S. of A.?

No, you’re right, you’re right. Probably not.

Strangers in the night: A note on agents

A couple of months ago, Stephen Akey wrote an amusing riff for the New Republic’s website about literary agents and the weird control they exert over what gets published now. The premise is that Akey has been shopping around a collection of linked essays about poetry and having absolutely no success at it. As someone who sometimes accidentally forgets to procrastinate and actually writes short stories, as well as the occasional literary essay, I was extremely sympathetic to his plight. And as my little rantlet on behalf of J.C. Hallman’s latest book shows, I tend to enjoy books whose location on the shelves of your typical airport bookstore aren’t immediately apparent. We should have shelves and shelves of books we don’t know where to shelve.

Akey says the sad truth seems to be that unless a book has the broadest appeal possible or comes attached to one’s already-cemented, celebrity-level reputation, most agents are not interested. Now I haven’t had many interactions with agents, but even my scant anecdotal data bears this out. Anyone who’s sat in the audience for one of those agent panel presentations — where they talk about how they charmingly wandered into their current gig, how much they love literature, etc. — knows just how quick the whole talk can turn grim. In my limited experience, it seems like what most agents want are, to borrow a quip from Lorrie Moore, abbreviated film plots — a book that is easily summarizable, with well-delineated genre signposts (literary or no), and above all an easy sense of taxonomy. What they want is a novel that has the easy conceptual grip of a piece of nonfiction, something that can not only be discussed as a marketable entity but in a way comes predigested, pre-understood, pre-sellable because already sold. 

A synecdoche of this phenomenon is the activity of pitching your novel to an agent, something I have only done a couple of times and an activity at which I am (admittedly) atrocious. What’s interesting in the lit agent woo-o-sphere is how each interstitial bit of copy is its own genre, with its requisite learning curve. Pitching a novel is exceedingly different from writing a novel. (Personal aside: I still find it hard to pitch something I’ve written without feeling like I have also simultaneously turned into a gigantic human booger.) After another failing attempting at pitching my novel, it’s difficult not to craft pitches for various canonical works of literature:

Absalom, Absalom! is a riveting story of a boy, confused about his station in life, who returns to have a heart-to-heart with his old man, an old lady, and a room full of dust motes. A searing portrait of a family, a region — a world! Also, there’s an unexplained Canadian roommate. Sequel potential!

If a pitch sounds like jacket copy, then all the better because what it is (again: I’m guessing!) is pre-written jacket copy. How would I sell this, the agent wants to know, not entirely unreasonably. How will this be packaged? 

Of course, as a civilian reader, I never read the jacket copy, that distracting, wet mound of verbiage second only to blurbs in its manipulative uselessness. In my dream world of book publishing (eerily like France), there would be no jacket copy at all, no blurbs, no marketing, frankly. Just the author’s name, the title, and no more than three words of taxonomic information. I liked it when books just included a nice fat representative paragraph on the back cover. If this little glop of words rings your bell, then you might like this book, which you can also open and peruse even further right here in the store — still after all this time the best way to ascertain if you’re going to like a book. But all of this other marketing copy is just word noise. The single greatest benefit to buying hardback editions of books is unpeeling that noisy cover off and lining the recycling bin with it. Yes, yes, I realize that we are paradoxically in an era of unprecedented book cover mastery (Mendelsund, Kidd, et al.) But still, nothing speaks better than the mute opaque dignity of a clothbound book. 

Of course the larger problem here is that I’m thinking of this endeavor as an English major, and in some ways a major in English is the worst thing one can get if you want to write contemporary novels. I’m including the MFA degree in this as well, though I don’t want to rehash the whole To MFA or Not To MFA debate — surely the Coke v. Pepsi of the literary world. What I mean is that what you end up studying in your English lit class/creative writing workshop is not the most representative American novel from the 1930s, but the most exceptional novel from the 1930s. That’s what the canon is: a litany of exceptions, a library of shaky notions that for some reason sing to the culture. In fact you could argue that many of our greatest novels work despite the fact that in many ways they are hot steaming messes, in terms of being immediately comprehensible narrative devices. You don’t have to reach all the way back to Melville to see the inverse ratio between novelistic and/or historical greatness and total commercial nightmare, as far as a publisher is concerned. And so after several years of studying the exceptions to the rule — despite the fact that Faulkner or Melville or Munro or whomever would get totally murdered in workshop — you as a writer want to write something that is also exceptional. Nicholson Baker said it well. What you are trying to do, as a writer, is be as completely different from everyone else as humanly possible. But this is precisely what literary agents are not interested in. This to them is commercial suicide (and they’re right!), and they don’t want to assist you. Because of the way agenting works, there is no path to success except to acquire clients along a conservative aesthetic trajectory.

What does this mean? In terms of fiction, this means they are interested in big chunky novels that can be labeled “literary thrillers.” They are not interested in metafiction, short stories, essays, poetry, fiction that eschews plot, anything that tries to address the history of the novel, etc. (Though Hallman’s book found a good home, so I very well might be totally bats.)

Which again, all of this would be fine as wine except for the fact that all of the major publishing houses are inaccessible unless you already have an agent representing your work. They simply won’t accept unagented submissions. And so what happens is that literary agents become subeditors before the great gods of the publishing houses. I’ve heard of writers whose agents go through multiple revisions of a manuscript before sending it out, all of which is fine, good lord one wants to be edited, one needs the help, but what is interesting is that these agents are acting as editors without access to a publication. If your story is edited by an editor at a literary magazine, it makes sense. You are both collaboratively working on the manuscript to make it better for eventual publication in that editor’s periodical. Same thing with an editor at a house. But the agent is an editor without an outlet and no real control over whether or not any house will publish it, so he or she is editing it not to any kind of house’s vision of excellence (or even marketability or commercial viability) but to their imagined chimera of commercial viability . . . somewhere. It’s a weird declension of the editorial function.

But the disintermediation first of manuscript acquisition and then of initial editing from the publishing house to the agents seems like an unfortunate historical accident. Amidst all of the Harper Lee brouhaha over her “sequel” recently, there was a nice long investigative piece about the book, and it showed the editorial records of how To Kill A Mockinbird went through several versions and how the editors at Lippincott helped her revise the book. I was amazed at the level of energy they expended on Lee’s as-yet-unrealized novel. All of this happens now at the agent level, though to be honest I have no idea if it still happens at this kind of back-to-the-studs renovational depth. 

Another consequence: I’ve known writers who have done the agent revisions dance and had the novel submitted only to have it rejected by the houses, after which the agent shrugs and asks when he will have an entirely new book manuscript ready to go. That is, the manuscript goes off to agented-but-unaccepted limbo, like all the babies who died before being baptized. The only person who has lost here is the author, who’s spent four years writing the book, then another two revising it, then another one waiting for people to respond. And that’s a sad situation. It’s a situation that could easily waste someone’s life. The only solution then is to remove the book from the agenting universe and send it yourself to the markets that the agents aren’t interested in — the university presses, the small presses — to try to give your book a life. The agent isn’t interested in these markets because the money’s not big enough. Suddenly the prospect of selling your book is like working with a trial lawyer. Unless he can get a large sum of punitive damages, your case is not worth it to him.

Akey is not against agents. He says they serve a crucial gatekeeping function and that there’s a lot of hokum out there to sift through. (This blog post is probably a prime example.) I see his point; my historical query is why the houses outsourced this gatekeeping function to agents. It seems like the logical next step would be for agents to start publishing writers themselves. If they do indeed already do the heavy editorial lifting and if they do indeed have the keys to the marketing kingdom, then why don’t they call up a printer? They would seem to have more leverage than the behemoth publishing houses. 

But then again, in terms of the business transaction, the agent doesn’t put forth any risk, at least relatively speaking. The agent didn’t take the time to write the book and the agent isn’t going to put $40,000 down to market it, and the agent isn’t going to make the trains run on time to have it in stores on the designated day. The agent is merely the conduit for two insecure and bewildered parties who for some unforeseen reason can’t find each other on their own in this contemporary cultural megalopolis. The agent is a pimp. 

It seems as if publishing houses could acquire new books and their authors more cheaply without agents, since using them drives up the price, though I’m sure there’s a PowerPoint presentation somewhere showing how in the long run it’s cheaper to do it this way. Why else would the publishers do it? But despite this numerical advantage, it distracts from the unseen cost of eroding the publishing house’s editorial authority, which in the end is the only authority it has.

Once, at another entirely different panel discussion, I heard an older, more successful writer quip that agents need writers more than writers need agents; it just doesn’t feel that way. And really that’s about the most intelligent statement I’ve ever heard regarding the agent situation. I wonder if it would make Faulkner feel any better.

$3 cover charge

Recently, I finished up an essay and sent it out into the world — that is, launched it into the galaxy of literary magazines that might hopefully publish it one day. It had been a while since I’d submitted something, but not that long, and I was surprised by how expensive it’s now become to submit.

Here in wonderful 2015, most literary magazines use Submittable, an online submission manager. It’s basically a great big Google docs folder in the sky where you upload your story or poem or essay. There are a couple of different incarnations of these managers, but it seems like in the past couple of years Submittable (which was formerly called by the marble-garble name Submishmash) has cornered the market in this little pass through filter of the lit mag-o-sphere. All of which, from a technical aspect, is fine and dandy. I am old enough to remember collating all of the various ingredients in a hard copy submission, making sure that the SASE had an actual stamp on it, and had one’s return address, and perhaps some indication of which literary magazine was responding with their form rejection. Back then, submission day was an event. You needed an assembly line mentality to get everything ship shape and out the door. Now, as with with most modern web-based conveniences, you can basically do it anywhere you have a wi-fi connection, in any state of professional togetherness, or lack thereof. Which is, again, great. Submittable has a built-in tracker so you can see where you submitted and when they rejected you. It makes everything easier.

The bummer angle is that some magazines, at first just a few, were charging people to submit via Submittable, typically about $3. This was to “defray costs,” which I think means a) the cost of implementing the service itself and b) whatever printing of submissions the magazine conducts. When it was just a few mags, fine. They were easy to avoid. But in the not that many months since the last time I went through my little lit mag submission square dance, it seems like almost everyone is now charging. And this will just not do, for a variety of reasons.

First off, let me say that I am sympathetic to literary magazines: every day they push the boulder uphill and it never gets any easier. The people who run literary magazines — these people are basically saints. Because while the agents are taking lunches and thinking about whether or not zombies are still a thing, these people are out there finding actual literature and giving it a home, over and over and over again, for almost no reward and in the face of near constant societal indifference.

What’s more, I get that in general literary magazines are simply inundated with submissions, a prospect which is only made worse by the convenience of moving the process online. And I get that the economic prospects of all journals would be much better if just 25% of all submitters subscribed to the magazines that they sent their stuff to.

Defensive digression: I have and do subscribe to several lit mags. Never as many as I should, but there’s always next year. And I try to follow the general rule of submitting to places I actually read and enjoy, not just hitting on any warm body crossing the dance floor.

And I get that under some economic lights, charging for submissions makes sense. It helps raise much needed money, on the one hand, and it helps discourage submissions on the other. It acts as an impulse-checker, a seriousness threshold. And I should admit that some of the lit mags that charge for online submissions still allow old-fashioned print submissions for “free.”

I put “free” in scare-quotes because one of the arguments pro-fee is that in the olden days, when you mailed in your submission, you were still paying for it. It’s just that the fee went for postage and for the costs of printing out and putting the submission in an envelope. That is, the fee went toward intermediary logistical forces. However, I still think charging for submissions is skeezy, and wrong, and will be the end of “independent,” “literary” “magazines.” (Let’s thumb-wrestle over these terms another day, shall we?)

First, my most trivial objection: using these fees to print out submissions. The lit mags should not be printing out these online submissions. Yes, I realize reading on paper heightens concentration, but if you’re dealing with a large volume of manuscripts, the majority of which will not be read all the way through because they are not remotely appropriate for a given publication, and you’re receiving those manuscripts in a digital format, why on earth would you then print those manuscripts out? In this day and age of ereaders and tablets and Dropboxes? In this environment, it seems like you would print out only those stories that you, as editors, were emphatically serious about.

Second, to defray the costs of using the service. Just how much does it cost to subscribe to Submittable? Is it that much? (Update: see blow.) If it was that onerous, it seems like one could bootstrap a version with a little Gmail, some incoming message rules, shareable Google docs, and a well-maintained spreadsheet. I realize these places receive thousands upon thousands of submissions, but the technology component isn’t that difficult. What’s difficult is the unrelenting labor of staying on top of it.

In terms of throttling the amount of submissions, it seems like a better way would simply be to close submissions when the fridge gets too full or to have clearly delineated open/closed seasons for submissions. (But please not the tax-code level difficulty of Glimmer Train, which necessitates a writer building her own software just to track what door is open when.)

There’s a meaningful distinction to be made between a place like Glimmer Train, or The Missouri Review, or Subtropics, whose issues are composed mostly (I assume) of material submitted blindly by writers versus magazines like n+1 which are written by contributing editors or a cadre of pseudo staff-writers. There’s even a good distinction to make between “little magazines” more collectively and their reliance on content written almost entirely on spec versus the New Yorker or other glossier publications that subsist on queries. Much of this editorial/authorial headache comes down to writing on spec versus writing on query, which is to say writing that’s “art” (or aspires to be) versus writing that is journalism (or aspires to be). Of course these teams overlap, but it’s these conceptual premises that are important. You can pitch the New Yorker nonfiction, but you have to submit an entire piece of short fiction, and that’s because most journalism is conceptually driven or angle driven and can be course corrected (to an extent) along the way, while fiction (to an extent) is a cake that only exists after it’s fully baked. You can do the icing and trim the fondant together but it doesn’t make sense as a cake until it’s already in existence as a cake. And because all of this material has to be written on spec, it takes much longer to evaluate it.

Furthermore, I realize that literary magazines need money, but this little corner of American literature is already rank with contests and their “prizes” and their entry fees, which of course go toward a subscription to the magazine and toward the prize money itself. Once a year, more or less, mags solicit an esteemed author to be a judge and charge everyone $20 to enter. Meanwhile, at least in the past, you could submit “regularly” to the magazine for free. These contests always felt like a scam and an admittedly shameful method of generating money. You could quickly go broke submitting your dinky little story to magazine contests. (The book contests conducted by university presses are only a slightly less problematic, yet more interesting, sibling to this problem.)

But fine, one could avoid the contests and vow not to enter them. But now the fees have trickled down to regular submissions. I realize that $3 is not a lot of money to submit an essay to a literary magazine, but it’s the principle. It’s like paying the bar for the privilege of playing music there on Saturday night. I realize that the magazine needs more paying readers but that in part is what a magazine is about — what a magazine is for. As a magazine, you are the magnetic force that attracts readers to your collated, curated, bundled goodness. That’s why we, blind writers, come to you — not just for your editorial wisdom, your “acceptance,” but also because you’ve got the readers! You’re where the party’s at! But by charging the writers to submit, by saying, “You must support us economically,” magazines seem to be forfeiting that obligation. I am not speaking of one lit mag in particular. I am trying to generalize from my ether-stream feelings. If in the past, the writer and the lit mag worked collaboratively in the spirit of the gift to create not just literature but a context for literature, that gift exchange has been converted into a market exchange where the lit mag is now selling access, is selling its attention, selling the reader the statistically slim opportunity of publication.

How can this turn out well for either writers or lit mags? How, especially in this day of free online distribution of one’s digitized words to friends and family, can lit mags survive this exploitation of their oldest collaborator? And how can the world of lit mags not turn even further inward, turning basically into a closed respirator of work by graduate students, for graduate students, and for their nominally sponsoring institutions? It makes the whole endeavor feel like writing for the high school newspaper. It doesn’t purport to reach an audience or a public. It only seeks to perpetuate itself in a pseudo-imitation of literary scholarship, which is by design only intended to be read by a handful of professional specialists. In this world, literature ceases to be an oblique strategy of communication and becomes merely a credentialing gesture, a cheesy certificate of accomplishment. Publication becomes not also but only an avenue of professional distinction, not an instantiation of anything someone off-campus would actually read. No wonder Medium is so tempting.

Update: I heard from an editor friend, and she said that depending on the number of submissions a magazine receives per month and the number of accounts one needs for various editors, the cost is not inconsiderable. Perhaps I’ve been so thoroughly wooed by my free Gmail that I assume all shiny computer applications are free — obv not the case.

Update II: Regarding the “why even bother” question percolating underneath the surface of this note, I was reminded of another note I wrote earlier, “Mechanisms of Prestige.”

The New York Review of Notebooks

I like reading a sneer article as much as the next person but it stings when the article sneers at something you actually enjoy. So I read this article by Caroline O’Donovan at the Baffler about Field Notes, the brand of tiny pocket notebooks that are styled like props from some as-yet-unmade Wes Anderson film, with increasing levels of wincing.

Here is the crux of O’Donovan’s argument:

Obviously, people may record their thoughts on whatever brand of bound paper they want, and pay whatever sum and wait whatever length of time for that bound paper to arrive that they wish. That some paper goods inspired by labor ephemera have come to stand in, not just for a personal aesthetic, but for a bygone way of life, seems inevitable.

But the transmogrification-by-design of cultural history into brand into profit that’s being perpetrated by Field Notes and celebrated by AdWeek as a victory for capitalism is perturbing. And the seeming interchangeability of “design,” “brand,” and “lifestyle” — as though there was no difference between the object a company is selling, the illusion surrounding that object, and the human being they’re selling it to — is simply baffling.

And she does have a point. The notebooks are absurdly, pretentiously detailed with a certain amount of baked-in nostalgia for a time most users would only know about via nostalgia. The notebooks are a stylistic spoof off of the “vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books.” But what O’Donovan doesn’t allow in her analysis is any kind of humor on the part of Aaron Draplin and Jim Coudal, the two people who came up with and make Field Notes. O’Donovan assiduously interprets the Field Notes marketing copy and the related AdWeek article without ever admitting that this is marketing copy, i.e., a shtick, and a shtick that I would argue is firmly articulated with tongue in cheek. It’s shtick-in-cheek!

Though both have roots in advertising, Draplin and Coudal are neither rubes nor slick manipulators. I’ve seen Draplin talk in person and I’ve watched Coudal talk in an online lecture, and as people, as entrepreneurs, they seem extremely interesting. Yes, there’s a lot of intentional Americana in the Field Notes marketing, but if you see Draplin give a presentation you see that he is genuinely enthused by American vernacular graphic design. And so while his project in part is an expression of nostalgia, it’s also a gesture of preservation, of highlighting and promoting what were good cultural expressions and products in the past, and redeploying them today. He’s just trying to keep the goodness going.

Also, given the fact that both Draplin and Coudal have worked for ad agencies in the past (or in Coudal’s case, run an ad agency), it’s not like these people wouldn’t bring a grain of self-awareness to the product, or that their customers wouldn’t bring it as well. O’Donovan writes as if both parties — notebook producer and buyer — are corrupt consumerist fools who thirst for a false past they’ve never actually experienced. Well, maybe a little. But also at the same time I’d argue that they thirst for a ridiculously well-made notebook, a notebook with a Stanley Kubrickian level of excellence.

I, of course, don’t know Draplin or Coudal’s intentions. I do think that Coudal Partners, Jim Coudal’s eponymous company, is quite interesting in how it functions essentially as an ad agency without any clients. (Coudal makes this quip in that presentation I watched.) That is, they went from creating marketing materials on behalf of some other client’s products to making products themselves. They began creating products that they themselves needed, which came from their own necessity and conformed to their own aesthetic. And this is what makes them so interesting, qua products. Though I am buying a product (a notebook), the effect is not only of buying a product that is being sold to me, but buying a product that was made for some other unknown person who has extremely good taste, and getting the benefit of both.

Besides, they are good notebooks. They fit just right in almost any back pocket (whereas the Moleskine notebooks of similar size are a hair too long). They are well built, standing up to whatever level of ass sweat I submerge them in. They are easy to use, easier to use right now than even the phone, which has to be retrieved, unlocked, notifications dismissed, app located, opened, loaded, etc. Plus you can get barbecue sauce on it without triggering a budgetary and/or hygienic crisis. They strike just the right balance between being completely ephemeral and being potentially archivable, which is just what one wants in a small, pocket-sized notebook. It’s not too precious. It’s just precious enough.

Perhaps all of this is just me rationalizing my own use of these notebooks. For the most part, I use the standard small notebook offerings. I haven’t fallen off into the more esoteric editions, such as the subscription colors series or the one with a cherry wood cover or the new gilt-edged one. I readily admit that these are ridiculous, but I would say that they are knowingly, intentionally ridiculous. What you have, I think, with Draplin/Coudal is a duo that’s on the avant-garde of notebook production, just the way that McSweeney’s for a time was on the avant-garde of literary magazine production. The line of notebooks exemplify the Platonic ideal of a notebook while at the same time pushing the outer limits of what a notebook can look and act like. If we were talking about chairs, we could say that some editions are Stickley-level notebooks, while others are Saarinen-level notebooks. And this intentionally ridiculous exploration of notebook possibility is good for human culture, frankly. It’s true we’re all now leashed to a screened device that tracks our GPS location at all moments, and that on these devices one could, as O’Donovan describes, make lists or notes of almost infinite length. But if paper books are going to remain in use, if magazines, if newspapers, if notebooks are going to remain in use in any appreciable numbers in light of the (also rampantly consumerist but not tainted with some nostalgist impulse only the impulse toward a technocratic progressive utopianism) encroaching computerification of everything, then these media will need to explore what they can do that the new technology can’t. And so paper books will need to discover what only paper books can do. Books, magazine, and notebooks will by necessity become more iconoclastically themselves to earn their place on the coffee table or the back pocket. And that’s what Coudal is up to.

Of course what this article highlights, I mean aside from the fact that O’Donovan obviously hates me, is just how ridiculous it is to make a really excellent version of anything. It is inherently stupid to make a really great notebook, guitar, car, ham sandwich, novel, computer application. The act is by definition pretentious and ripe for ridicule because it betrays an aesthetic on the part of the person making it. And yet while we all can’t have the perfect guitar, notebook, ham sandwich all the time every time, it still feels good to know that there are people out there trying to make them.

Cross-posted here.

Kitsch Revelation, Pt. 1

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on kitsch. (Hopefully.)

The man and woman appear on stage like a couple cast out of time. She wears a dress — call it a prairie dress — with cowboy boots, a look so incongruous it must be deliberate. The man wears a grey suit without tie. The top and bottoms match but they look well rumpled, thoroughly slept in. They carry guitar cases and set them down at the rear of the stage. There’s a table on which they place a small, narrow case. It looks like a little suitcase, except tall, like it might contain a dollhouse or a couple bottles of wine. It has rounded corners and a handle on top. They unlatch the front of the case, which swings open door-like, and inside are four shelves. It’s a miniature cabinet of curiosities. From my position in the crowd I can’t see what’s in those little shelves though I’m terribly curious. These two people have walked out on stage and promptly turned their backs to us, to tune up and explore their tiny wardrobe.

For early May in Alabama, it’s strangely cold. No one is properly dressed for this festival. It’s only in the 40s, but we’re all in flip-flops and jeans, T-shirts and mini-skirts. The shivering crowd is ready for some serious entertainment.

Eventually they turn around and make preliminary sidelong glances to one another. She plays a big-bellied sunburst Gibson acoustic. He plays a much smaller archtop, a nameless, historically vague instrument, like something retrieved from a junk store. These festivals always occur in May, just before the pestilence of summer. But today it might as well be February. We add to their strumming the percussion of our chattering teeth.

I don’t remember the first song they play. Let’s say it’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” the mid-tempo, drunk-a-loping ballad from their (at that point) latest album Time (the Revelator). The song begins, “I was thinking that night about Elvis, the day that he died . . .” and the singer’s voice — her name is Gillian Welch — breaks like it’s sliding off key, but as she gets the motor of the song running and reaches the lines “he shook it like a chorus girl, he shook it like a Harlem queen,” her companion — his name is David Rawlings — slides under her with his sympathetic harmony, and the song hits this weirdly soothing glassine lilt. I am unprepared. I’ve stopped paying attention to my girlfriend, to whom I’ve promised a sweatshirt. I’ve forgotten even that I’m cold.


I had first heard about them from my girlfriend, who in her first year out of college had become a sponge for new music. It was a fortuitous situation because my acquisition of new music had completely atrophied. I had made it to Aimee Mann, I had made it to Radiohead, but then I had surrendered. My tastes had been set, like an aesthetic Jello mold. But my girlfriend was then like a miniature A&R person. That year she was in a valley of roots music — mandolins and crooning backwoods harmony, delicate finger picking and strange, moonshiny lyrics. Bands she brought in included Welch, Hem, Alison Krauss, Nanci Griffith, Nickel Creek, Wilco (whom she hated), Emmylou Harris. . . She was a bit evangelical as well, buying CDs for everyone for Christmas. I remember when she gave the Welch CD to her parents and her mother called it mournful, which I thought was accurate. The music seemed bleak and scrabbled, dustbowl sad and not, you know, sad in a deep way. Like Radiohead was.

But seeing them in concert was entirely different. There was something in the simplicity of Welch and Rawlings standing alone singing and playing, the utter starkness of it, the utter lack of equipment and gear that was pleasant and challenging. As the son of a musician, a drummer no less, I’ve always been obsessed with how much material stuff it takes to create the simplest pop songs, not just in the studio but also when replicated live. And here were two people with no more gear than what many people have in their closets. They had an intentional primitivism that excited me.

But I had been down this road before. I had seen many a show where the act was interesting live, invigorating, and then I bought their CD — this was, yes, during a time when one still bought CDs — and over the next week or two was slowly educated about my misspent enthusiasm. What happened under the veil of performative darkness was all well and good, transfixing in its seeming excellence, but in the cold harsh light of the morning’s car stereo, the songs didn’t sound nearly as alluring.

But what happened was that when I went back to Time (the Revelator), it only got better. Perhaps it’s because the record is so close to their live performance — still just two guitars and two voices. But this still doesn’t make total sense since an audience always overcompensates. So many concerts can reach lift off merely from the cushion of an audience’s sympathy. But this record rewarded obsessive re-listenings. Like Radiohead did.

I was living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, fifty miles away from Birmingham, and I would commute over to see my girlfriend several times a week. I don’t think at any other point in my life had I spent as much time alone in the car. I would listen again and again to Time. And Time incidentally stopped time in that car, turned it into a moving box of air that Welch and Rawlings strummed. And yet listening to the record was like going back in time. I wasn’t sure what the lyrics referred to but it was odd, non-pop song territory: Oakies and Casey Jones and John Henry.


In the decade-plus since then, the album has only gotten better, historically deeper. It’s one of those albums that comes with hidden hooks that tug at you at least once a year, reeling you back to deal with it again. And I realized that Time came out at the end of July 2001, just before 9/11 happened, and in one of those historical shiverings of coincidence and premonition, the album now seems to be a comment upon 9/11.

First, the album seems obsessed with American myths: in the course of its songs Welch mentions Elvis, the Titanic, the Lincoln assassination, rock and roll, the “road” as mythic and existential stage, etc. The repeated allusions to various American disasters makes one think that the album in particular, and American history more broadly, is just one long string of intermittent catastrophe, a graph of history plotted along points of public violence. So that even though the album of course couldn’t possibly “mention” 9/11, the almost simultaneous occurrence of the two events makes room for the album to be about 9/11 without ever saying it. 9/11 is just another dark dot on the slowly escalating graph of national carnage and despair.

At the same time, the album is soaked in Americana. Though it came out just before 9/11, the record received its primary promotional push from the Coen brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou. Welch was one of the neo-Appalachian singers who contributed to its soundtrack, and it was the popularity of the soundtrack as much as the movie that helped spread the word about Welch. The old master of American folk music on the soundtrack is Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass singer, who sings an a cappella version of “O Death,” and Stanley is himself like the grim reaper. Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Welch sing “I’ll Fly Away” together like country music’s new muses. They will resurrect the tradition.

But Welch and Rawlings also benefited from a more general resurgence of the traditional white male, both in music and in culture, which occurred in the wake of 9/11. President George W. Bush’s west Texas disposition, the mustachioed firefighters of NYC, New York Governor Rudy Giuliani, the phrase and sentiment behind “let’s roll,” the general post-catastrophe grip of fear and paranoia that often manifested itself in an old-fashioned jingoist racism — all of this was the historical context for the renaissance of rootsy American music, which is, it must be said, the music of old white people, a pre-rock and roll, which means a kind of music prior to the mass cultural miscegenation represented by rock and roll. It’s a more purely innocent, more purely rural type of music. I’m not saying that Welch and Rawlings in any way tried to co-opt this sentiment, merely that this was the sentiment in the air when they hit public consciousness in a larger way. This brief stretch of “roots music” could possibly be seen as the last truly popular efflorescence of white Americana, a ballad with which to end the Empire.

Which is, of course, a lot to lay on an acoustic duo. I’m also not saying that I thought all of this at the time, while I was shivering out in the darkness watching them work their magic. It’s only in hindsight, with the accumulated grime of time, that this group and this album in particular seem so emblematic.


About two thirds of the way through their set, they acknowledge the cold. They blow on their hands in between songs and grin at one another. Rawlings cinches his coat tighter and Welch buttons up a jean jacket. They apologize for not playing more ballads, say they’re trying to stick to the fast ones to keep the blood going.

At one point, they return to their strange little suitcase. They open the drawers and rustle around inside. I still can’t see what the drawers contain. Then they return to the microphones, Welch holding a harmonica and one of those head-gear like contraptions that allows you to play the harmonica while still playing the guitar. So, it’s their small bag of tricks, their minimal haul of accoutrements. They suddenly seem to me like traveling salesmen, but like time-traveling salesmen, a musical American Gothic, salesmen who come back through time not to sell you goods, or even their music, but to sell you time itself, to sell you an idea of time, to reveal an idea of the past, which isn’t a true duplication of a past time but its bent reflection, a warped convex mirror version of the past, bent by their own two hands, own two voices.

Time of your life

Why “minutes to read” is wrong

I originally wrote this over on Medium a while back, but for reasons too boring and idiosyncratic to go into, I wanted to post it here as well.

So I downloaded iOS7 a few days ago, and I noticed that the icon on the home screen for the clock actually tells time. That is, you can see the excited red second hand busily crop-circling its way around the clock. I don’t think this icon has ever moved like this before, though I could be mistaken. I remember when I discovered that the calendar app actually indicated the day you were currently living through, I thought it was a remarkably useful mirroring of the “real world,” as it’s commonly referred to.

But that also got me thinking about reading and timing and how many of the current “reading platforms,” for lack of a better phrase, indicate the amount of time it will take to read a piece of writing. So far I think this happens here on Medium (hullo, you strange publication-platform centaur!), the new “Netflix-for-books” app Oyster, and Readability. Time to read has also become a sorting feature for the latest update to Instapaper, though I’m not sure if it gives you an actual minute estimate. My point is that “minutes to read,” as a functionality, seems to be slowly growing as a standard, and I think this is wrong.

Why? First, there is my admittedly liberal arts-y objection to timing reading: that’s not what reading is supposed to be about. Reading is about escaping the clock or stopping time, not racing to beat some spectral average. And while I admit that this is a bit of a rarefied concern — one could simply ignore the “minutes to read” information — I do think it puts the emphasis on the wrong metric. Reading should be about the pleasure of reading. It’s not a baking recipe. If you are enamored or perplexed by a certain paragraph, then you should take a long as you need to stare at that paragraph. It’s like when I was in high school and was delighted to see that I was only supposed to read three poems for homework that night. Done in six minutes. Of course, 20 years later I still haven’t figured out what those poems were about; their sedimentary knowledge has outlasted the changeable weather of my attention.

This points to a larger concern with how reading is often discussed: as a way to learn empathy, as a preventative against the flood of age-related mental deterioration, as the best way to be informed about the world, etc. Reading, of course, can be all those things but what gets lost is how the act of reading itself is what is primarily pleasurable. Sure, there are all these sub-benefits, but the primary joy lies in decoding these strings of letters and sometimes feeling the sound of the voice behind them. So often reading, as a human activity, suffers from the nutritional grid we place upon it — subdivisions of one’s daily allowance of information.

I admit that part of my opposition comes from my own slowness as a reader. I am horribly slow; I think my average is about 30 pages of prose an hour. I haven’t timed myself in a long while (and god forbid I actually do so again just to provide data for this little essay) and I’m wary of sharing this information in public. I have friends who can read circles around me, chewing through books like self-powered lawn mowers; all they have to do is hold on. I wish I could say that my pace was part of a deliberate Slow Food-like campaign to savor what’s really worth enjoying in life, but the truth is that I am merely slow. Think fast! The ball’s already hit me in the chest. So when I see “minutes to read” near my little “read later” article, I feel like an intellectual jock is glaring at me, laughing.

However, despite my own read-speed insecurities, and despite the fact that as a reading duration metric, it’s simply inaccurate, I do realize that the “minutes” issue is a tangible attempt to deal with a usability problem. (Whenever I hear the word “usability,” I can’t help but think of drug paraphernalia.) As our reading moves device-ward, as column inches and finger-feel fall away as the constant way to gauge how much one has left in a book or magazine, we need a different method to measure the length of a piece of writing. I will be the first to admit that I’m not smart enough to figure this solution out. Part of me likes how the scrolling bar in some browsers shrinks proportionally to indicate how much scrolling one has left, but this also becomes quickly meaningless if it’s a seriously long document.

I feel as if there is some icon out there waiting to be developed that will solve this problem. Relatedly, who thought up the “hamburger icon” and does she or he get to retire now and receive regular royalties for making our lives infinitesimally but still perceptibly easier? Can she, or whomever, collectively or individually, solve this abstract sizing problem, graphically render it in a condensed form that both makes thinking easier by making it almost unnecessary?

My favorite solution to this problem thus far is the Kindle for iPhone app, which shows both a horizontal “completion bar” (I’m sure this has some technical name) as well as a percentage number for how much you’ve read. Now I actually like the percentage number. It turns your reading activity into data, to be sure, but it’s more useful, more applicable. It shows how much of the word pie you’ve eaten, not how late you are to the party that is the next article in your list of homework. Of course, even this number is usually inaccurate,since the end-of-book information, like an index, is included in this percentage, but that part of the book doesn’t count as the “finish line” to my hyperventilating mind. Let me know when I can truly, honestly stop reading.

And perhaps that’s the key to this reading anxiety. I wish I could say, when considering my own reading habits, that I am never concerned with how long it takes to read something. But in fact I am obsessed with the length of what I’m reading. I’ll often skip ahead in a magazine just to see how much longer I have to endure this round of pleasure. What I need then is a way to soothe the reading-time anxiety in a way that makes me feel better about the anxiety’s existence and doesn’t actively stoke it.

Surely, that’s not too much to ask?

‘Underworld’ on the iPhone

Underworld is a novel by Don DeLillo that is 827 pages long. I have a very nice remaindered first edition that I purchased several years ago. On a whim last winter, I decided to read it. I felt — this will probably tell you more about me than I want you to know — that I was finally “ready” to read Underworld, that I had read enough other DeLillo to be able to absorb it. And so I dove in, but I quickly decided to download an electronic copy so that I wouldn’t have to tote around the two-hander hardback. I downloaded a Kindle version, which conveniently appeared on my phone and on my Kindle. I thought being able to have the novel with me at all times would increase my odds of finishing it. And then, out of a fit of perversity more than anything, I decided to see if I could read the entire beast just on my phone.

And I did it, though I should immediately confess that I cheated a little. I read most of the first novella-length chapter and a couple of bits in the middle third from the hardback. And I read the last 20 percent of the book on the Kindle, as I was on a trip and didn’t want to use up my phone’s battery, about whose level of fullness I am in a constant state of anxiety. So, 827 “pages,” three versions, three sets of marginalia — a half-adventuresome, half-grumpy sack-race into the future.

After reading several hundred thumb-flips on my iPhone, the palatial spread of the actual hard copy was resplendent. The book made more sense as a structured object when I read the hardback. I also had a better sense of where I was in the book and how much terrain I still had left to cover. Perhaps this point is obvious. I am normally highly concerned with the amount of pages left when I read a story or a novel. I am not sure how to account for this anxiety. One almost begins to question whether or not I like reading at all if I’m always concerned with how much of it I have left. But this anxiety was amplified by reading the novel on my phone, and it’s not because the phone doesn’t tell you where you are in the text. In fact, it has multiple, frequent, and nefarious expressions of your progress, which might explain my disposition.

When you first open your book on the iPhone, stuck still somewhere in the middle, the information that appears at the bottom of the screen for a brief moment is the 697 of 827 pages left, or sometimes, the percentage read, as well as the “position,” which reads something like “Loc 2729 of 12607.” This position is important but confusing, the non-page-number-like page number that the Kindle software uses to determine location in the absence of real page numbers. As we move inexorably toward more e-books, or e-books as the first step in publishing book-length bodies of text, it becomes increasingly important to have some other locator aside from page number. It all depends on what edition comes first and if there is some concrete analog referent out there in the world.1 In fact, as formats proliferate, one could see the need for some standard type of locator data. I realize that you can search words within the book, but it would be nice to be able to pinpoint the — well — position you’re at.

Also, the phone displays a progress bar that shows where you are in the book. But after this brief blip of locative information, the only remaining pieces of logistical info are the page number information on the bottom left and the percentage info on the bottom right. At some point in the many moons it took me to finish Underworld, that bit of page number info changed into time info.2 For instance, “9 hrs and 8 mins left in book,” which on the one hand is nice info to have, I can almost plan my weekend around it, but the problem I soon found was that it seemed to be terribly inaccurate, and no matter how fast or slow I read, I couldn’t seem to affect my personal reading-speed prediction. Occasionally it would chip away at the time, but I couldn’t tell if it was improving because I had a particularly successful reading lunch hour or because I hadn’t touched the book in a week. And also, it just made me more self-conscious about how slow I read, and I kept trying to impress the little machine with an improved flip-rate. As is perhaps obvious, this is a ridiculously stupid way to go about reading a book.

This same “time left in book” trope appeared on my Kindle when I began reading the final section on the airplane. But being as I was trapped aboard a modern aircraft and was relieved of the constant pressure to read email, send email, read tweets, read articles that are found within tweets, destructively compare my daily activities to my “friends” on Facebook, or otherwise look up stupid crap, I read on the Kindle with increasing pleasure. I read on a second generation Kindle Paperwhite. This is my second Kindle, and what I like about reading on these devices is just how incredibly stupid they are. All you can do is read, and if you drop it, 9 times out of 10, the device is fine, and on that 10th time, you can replace it cheaply and all of your stuff appears back on it.3 I have to say I prefer my old button-keyboarded Kindle to the newer, fancier touch screens, mainly because highlighting and note taking are now more difficult. As I have read more on the Kindle, I have slowly given up typing notes unless I am extremely provoked. It is just too clumsy. Likewise the highlighting feature is such crap that I often just highlight the general area of interest rather than the exact words I want. I would lament this more, but these note-taking gestures are really just ways to commemorate my own enthusiasm more than anything else. Though I do, I must narcissistically admit, enjoy going back to old paper books and seeing what I was provoked to highlight. I haven’t used the Kindle enough to see if I will ever go back to enjoy my digital traces.

Strangely, as a pure reading/highlighting/note taking experience, the Kindle app on the iPhone is much better. Perhaps I am just more used to typing with my thumbs on this device. Of course, after a while one grows tired of constantly flicking to a new page on the phone. The screen is just too small, the paragraphs too scrunched. One begins to daydream of the palatial white beaches of your everyday trade paperback. (I realize I could solve this problem by buying one of Apple’s new little kneeboards, but I have my own personal planned obsolescence geared around when I drop my phone, and I’m still waiting for that to happen again.)

Whenever emphatically pro–e-book people crow about carrying around a library in their pocket, I think about Tom Petty, who owns some unknown multitude of beautiful vintage guitars. He was showing off his glory room in some television segment, and he said, self-mockingly, “Of course, you can only play one of them at a time.” You can carry around a library in your device, but why would you? I mean, after about 10 or so titles, what’s the point? A book is not a mixed tape. And if you want to read lightly curated brief sections of text, why wouldn’t you just go online, where that is the default mode?

All of my middle-aged griping aside, it was awfully nice to be able to switch devices as mood or circumstance arose. And I surprised myself by not really having any trouble switching between the three versions. The syncing to the “last place read” between the electronic devices worked well, and except for that evil little timer I could easily jump ahead to a given page number if I’d snuck off for some old-fashioned hard copy action.

But didn’t the meaning of the book change? This is the question I’ve been chewing over. What I comprehended and didn’t comprehend reading Underworld is mostly not tied to which device I read it on. At least, I don’t think so. My misunderstandings are for the most part due to the slowness and fracturedness of my reading — infrequent sections split over months. I did have trouble remembering some characters’ names, and whereas if I was only reading it on paper, I would just flip to an earlier section of the book to check myself, here I just plowed ahead and eventually figured it out. This doesn’t really make sense, because you can jump easily between sections or just search for a name, but this slight speed bump, this just barely foreign process, kept me from doing it. I would have understood more if I hadn’t been so lazy, but this goes for more than simply reading a fat novel on a thin computer. Turns out I need to practice reading on an electronic device.

But all these devices did confirm just how nice it is to read a paper book. Perhaps this is the part of the post where I will just become old fashioned and sentimental. Aside from the nice physical properties, a book’s self-sustaining independence is comforting in and of itself, and marches in opposition to the networked world. Heck, a good book marches in opposition to the physical world, too. Do not disturb is the caption under every person absorbed with a book. (I supposed the caption for person absorbed with their device would be, Hold, please.) Despite the appearance of some real life historical figures, the world of Underworld is its own phantasm. It’s an analogous existence. And the virtual reality of any fictional world is complemented by the disconnected nature of the physical book. The physical restriction blossoms into an epistemological freedom. You can’t look up the definitions of the words in the online dictionary, not because the physical book is disconnected from the network, but because the book is its own network; any good work of fiction provides its own definitions. To go outside of it, you necessarily break the spell. Just by opening the cover of a book, you shut the door on so much else.

And here’s the part of the post where I grow increasingly prescriptive: If the novel is to remain relevant, or to function as its own distinct narrative species in our new networked reading life, it has to become the island, blissful in its own self-sustaining ecosystem, within the rising sea-level of text.

1. And does anyone think that we’re not moving inexorably in this direction? When our short texts have moved toward HTML and the web, it surely well feels like it’s just a matter of time before our longer chunks of text, the organization of text formerly known as books, move toward an e-form of distribution. This doesn’t mean that some books won’t always be print books first or more themselves as print books, and this doesn’t mean that some books won’t evolve into print books. Print still seems the natural and certainly the most stable archival mechanism. And even that’s getting easier: I’m now capable of designing and printing a paper book that will last 1,000 years (if I put it on a shelf and don’t eat lunch over it), and I can barely design a business card. But in saying this (that e-books might become the primary distribution mechanism for books), I don’t think the Kindle is the end-all of electronic book distribution. It is simply the first instance of mass success. I think — and here I am predicting, which I am horrible at doing — that the e-reader, as a distinct device (can we please come up with a more elegant name for this?), will continue only as a niche product, and our main reading devices will be some small portable computer formerly known as your cell phone, and I think that other platforms will develop to distribute e-books, be they free or charged, or some combination thereof. Some books will strive for the prestige of print because that particular audience (poetry, for example) craves print and feels that print and print alone substantiates its existence. But it seems that the human population as a mass moves toward lower fidelity and increased efficiency, and it seems foolish to ignore the gigantic convenience of e-books. This all might be screamingly obvious, but I find it useful to write it down, if just for myself.

2. My guess is this was a software update. I have previously written about the “minutes to read” phenomenon here.

3. I’ll save addressing Amazon as the publishing world’s chief innovator/bully for a future post.

Notes on ‘The Free and the Antifree’

I almost always enjoy n+1’s The Intellectual Situation, which usually appears at the beginning of each issue. The typical format is a kind of flaneur-diary, where the editors collectively embark on some errand and interpolate essays on contemporary matters along the way. It’s a peculiar form with an old-fashioned feel, and I am not sure of its historical precedent, and being as this is a dashed-off-devil-may-care blog post, I’m not going to research this. What I’m going to do instead is annotate the first half of this issue’s Intellectual Situation, the essay “The Free and the Antifree.”

Lately, online, depending on what sites you read, the topic of what writers should or shouldn’t be paid has become contentious. I’ve been thinking about writing this topic for a while but n+1 has helpfully done it for me, thus preserving my cherished blog torpor. The Intellectual Situation, as a genre, often does this: coalesces the vapors swirling around contemporary discussion and forms a (usually) coherent discussion.

Though it’s perhaps not immediately obvious, all of the following half-thoughts contribute to the simmering stew of a question that’s been bothering me for the past year or so: what is the point of the literary magazine now? Or, more specifically, what is the point in submitting (on spec) to (small but prestigious) literary magazines in hopes of getting published (in print, but with no hope of any real pay)?

These writers and copy editors were among the many who, faced with limited resources and their own cultural omnivorousness, came home each night eager to download MP3s, PDFs, and other digital copies of artworks and research they would otherwise be unable to access. Around the reality of these thefts a powerful ideological movement emerged, taking as its inspiration not just facts on the ground but also the libertarian, antigovernment, “hacker” spirit of the earliest personal computing and internet communities. The apostles of the Free Culture movement, as it came to be called, argued that stealing digital content was a progressive politics and should be brought into the open. Some of these apostles were hucksters and profiteers, others were merely hypocrites (who preached the virtues of free from their perches as well-paid magazine editors or college or law school professors), but still others, like the freeware hacker Aaron Swartz, were true believers. Congress had allowed copyright protections to be rewritten by huge corporations (most notably Disney) to become a parody of a law. If what was being illegally downloaded was some of the best that had been thought or said by human beings, and the downloaders were people who couldn’t afford the purchase price of the books or movies (some of which were expensive) — wasn’t that a good thing?

This too swiftly equates all participation in internet culture as a type of thievery, which is detrimentally simplistic. It ignores the more obvious point that the net is based on frictionless sharing of data files (as in, that is how it literally works) and that much of what was “stolen” in this regard was freely provided. See, e.g., the newspaper industry. (Whether or not that was ultimately a good decision on the part of the newspaper industry is another discussion.) The editors (the piece, per usual, is unsigned and its mode is ex cathedra) seem to be lamenting the disappearance of somewhat writing-related, somewhat available hack work rather than the actual artwork this was originally meant to support. This feels to me like a misplaced nostalgia — Blues for Editorial Assistant.

Out of this necessity, conventional magazine journalism came to be marketed as an endangered art form. Nowhere was this more evident than in talk about the influential online aggregators Longreads and Longform. As nearly every article about Longreads’ founders said, they were “passionate about longform storytelling”—in other words, commercial journalism had become a passion project. Its producers, mostly old-fashioned magazines like GQ, eagerly took to this as well, tweeting their #longform and #longreads, and on every front advancing the idea that their writers were artists, in need of public support. Of course, there was a catch: in order to be selected as a “longread,” the work had to be available online for free. Eventually, Longreads launched a $3 monthly membership, which would not go to editors and writers but “contribute to our editorial budget, which goes toward finding and sharing outstanding storytelling from around the world.”

This is a good point, and one can see at the same time a valorization of the magazine profile writer as not just a sharp journalist but as a true artist. Cultural reportage became the new novel. A good example here would be the extremely vigorous lauding of John Jeremiah Sullivan a couple of years ago when he published his very good collection of reportage Pulphead, and which was greeted, in a kind of collective grasp for excitement by the publishing industry, as a proto-DFW level achievement. (It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, but the excitement had a strange, willed, meta-quality.) It’s useful to remember here that on college campuses journalism has traditionally been a separate school from the English department/creative writing program. The creative writing program is a child of the English department in administrative, budgetary, and philosophical terms, while the journalism school has always conceived of itself as a trade school. Its closest departmental sibling would probably be the business school. In other words, the creative writing program has always been ideologically aligned with art over money/utility. But now, with the utter tanking of the newspaper industry over the past decade and the somewhat slower tanking but in all respects still fraught magazine industry, journalism has been turned into art, aka that which we want to keep around but which is no longer visibly useful or profitable. But we’d like to keep it around just in case. It will be interesting to see how journalism tackles the issue of contest entry fees.

For little magazines (like ours), these conversations were painful, for the critics had homed in on a particular problem. The little magazine always originates as an image of utopia that it then betrays. It starts with love but very little money, and because it is edited for free (mostly), it gets writing for free (mostly) in a nonexploitative way, since no one is extracting any surplus value. This is the utopian stage, where writing as a competitive enterprise, as a sphere rife with greed and envy, disappears. It is replaced by a pure and purely unnecessary (in the sense of not being directly useful to the reproduction of biological life and material needs) contemplation of essential, fundamental problems — that is to say, it becomes art. But then, almost immediately, the little magazine becomes a way to “graduate” to the world of hackery — for its editors and writers to become journalists, novelists, overpaid business school speakers — and in this way can serve more as an instrument than an opponent of the hack world.

And so, strangely enough, it was smaller publications that seemed most vulnerable to the shaming critique produced by Who Pays Writers. Not only the publications but the writers, too, had to be shamed, as full-time freelancer Yasmin Nair did, when in a controversial blog post she called academics and others with steady jobs who wrote for small fees “scabs.” Both the people who gave and the people who accepted unpaid internships at these publications, further perpetuating their existence, would have to be shamed as well. As someone wrote to n+1 about its (unpaid) internship program, “It’s typical that you would advertise an unpaid internship. You should be aware that this is no longer done.”

The key phrase here is “But then, almost immediately,” which indicates that actually there is no distinct transition of phases in literary magazine production between the art-drunk utopia and the grubby world of hackery; these circles overlap simultaneously and always. The editors are trying to turn a complex phenomenon into a binary. The divisions between writing that’s hackery and art are provisional and fluid, like game lines on a soccer field that have to be re-drawn each week.

The argument between free and antifree may be framed in many ways; one would be as an argument between the American scholar Lewis Hyde and the French Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his great book The Gift (1983), Hyde tried to explain, against an American intellectual background of economic rationalism, why people would do something like write poetry. Bourdieu, whose work was beginning to be translated into English around this same time, had already prepared an answer to this question: people make art for the same reason people do everything — because they want to gain capital. In the case of art this capital was often symbolic rather than financial, but it was still capital. For Hyde, art-making looked more like the premodern gift economies described by anthropologists like Mauss and Lévi-Strauss — the creation of something without obvious utility that could be presented to the world as a gift. (Bourdieu had also written about gift economies; for him they were, like art, a winnable game with rules and strategies.) For Hyde, the secret of art was that there was no secret — art-making was what made us human. It was what we did for free.

As it happens, Hyde’s book is often cited as an argument against payment for writing — “Art is a gift,” these people say, as they pick up their paychecks from Princeton or Iowa or Columbia. Antifree responds with some variant of Bourdieu’s old unmasking: Nothing exists outside the realm of exchange. If a writer is not paid in money, she is paid in “cultural capital” that translates into improved standing and, eventually, cash. So why (asks antifree) should the writer be forced to wait? Why shouldn’t she be paid right now?

Again, what I disagree with here is the apparent editorial certainty. The problem I have with Bourdieu (whom I have not read except in n+1–style summaries) is that he sounds as grimly dismal as conventional economists, nothing done or left undone outside the cold light of capital and rational self-interest. And just because Hyde’s book (which I have read and am a huge fan of) has been misused in this way, it doesn’t mean that’s the correct way to read him. As someone who himself attempts to make art, I side with Hyde, if for no other reason than Hyde makes me feel better about trying to make art. Bourdieu strikes me like many other French literary theorists — provocative and challenging but ultimately rather empty. I am speaking in terms of my personal artistic ambition. French theory guts my motivation, because if the market doesn’t value your art in monetary terms, theory devalues it in intellectual terms. Though Bourdieu’s notion of “distinction” is fascinating, it’s also a kind of harsh economics of the spirit. One doesn’t want to be a dreamy romantic all the time, but being woozy from the vapors of your own self-importance turns out to be a better condition for making art, at least in my limited experience. It keeps the fires burning, when otherwise art-making seems like a ridiculous game, a kind of meaningless middle school politics.

But as usual we have some qualms. Sometimes antifree can feel like it has invested too much of its energy and passion in the fight for an extra $50. Which is not to scoff at $50. It’s a way station to making a living. But for the moment it’s just $50. The conversation shouldn’t stop there. On the money side, perhaps the next step for antifree is to create and strengthen a union — one that can demand standards for contracts, reprimand institutions for reneging on terms or norms of conduct, and otherwise represent the interests of culture workers before the ultimate bearers of responsibility for the diminishing of salaries and security: media conglomerates, corporate boards, and shareholders. And what about tax reform? In Ireland, artists are exempt from taxes on the first 40,000 euros they earn from their work — whereas artists and freelancers here are faced, among many other obstacles, with onerous self-employment taxes that punish anyone who tries to stay clear of the corporate system. We could do better.

Of the two ideas, I think amending the self-employment tax is more practical. I think trying to create a union is doomed. If we can’t sustain viable unions for auto workers and teachers, there’s no way we’re going to establish a union for writers, especially since the designation of “writer” has become so diffuse as to be almost meaningless. You would have to professionalize everyone.

The Intellectual Situation as a genre is always willingly provocative and a bit simplistic. This is just a necessary rhetorical trade-off. However, I will admit that lately these essays feel less charged and more often simply vague. I’ve been a big, subscribing fan of n+1 since its first issue. Though of course I don’t always agree with everything in the magazine, it’s a welcome regular presence in my intellectual life, a kind of seasonal astringent, a somewhat demanding houseguest. Much of this stringency comes from the magazine’s deft deployment of various binaries. But now almost 10 years into this magazine’s run, everything seems to me more complicated and muddled than these provocative, brief essays allow. Previously The Intellectual Situation felt as if the editors capitalized on a current discussion and pushed it forward, and by their eloquence and force of vision they became the touchstone for all future discussion of a given topic. But lately The Intellectual Situation essays now feel more like wan summaries of missives I’ve already read online. Perhaps I’m just ten years older and saddled with my own increased poundage. As my margins have increased so has an appetite for admixture.

Notes on ‘Bluets’

1. I haven’t read Leslie Jamison’s new book of essays The Empathy Exams, but even if the slew of reviews are only half right, it’s an amazing book. This past weekend, Jamison had an essay in the Guardian talking about confessional writing and how it was not in fact a primary venue for narcissism but an arena for so much more. Even though I haven’t read her book, it struck me as an odd argument to make; we seem indisputably awash in personal confessional writing. This is not to disparage it. Confessional writing, like writing of the nonconfessional sort, can be both excellent and not. It all depends. As a mode of writing it seems currently in very little need of defense. The essay struck me almost as an attempted high-art rescue of confessional writing, a gentrification of an allegedly seedy neighborhood.

2. I read this in light of recent mental chewing of a different, much-praised essay book, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, which I finished still wanting to like much more than I actually did.*

3. Maggie Nelson, according to her jacket bio, is most often classified as a poet. The book is divided into 240 numbered sections, most of which are less than a page in length. These sections total 95 pages.

4. I should say that I am not against numbered brief sections nor am I against essays that read like poems or vice versa.

5. Here’s how the book begins:

1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.

6. This beginning is indicative: the conversational tone that surges to stylization and heightened poeticism, the performance of her thinking as though it were a confession, information she is pretending to confess.

7. Nelson really likes the color blue, finds basically a religious soothing in its myriad appearances in her life. This might seem odd but hardly amounts to a confession. It might be rather a slightly askew preoccupation with religious or spiritual undertones, or at least undertones of the meaningful, but those undertones are not audible here. She tries to dress up a relatively banal personal preoccupation as hidden, private wisdom expressed at great psychic expense. But it’s just her riffing on the color blue.

8. Perhaps what I’m really trying to say is that I wish the book took itself less seriously.

9. The effect of the short numbered sections is an agglomeration of riffs. Some topics covered include: a friend who has been paralyzed by an accident, never described; memories of a recently departed lover; scholarly snippets from previous writers on the color blue; her accumulation of blue objects and moments in a lifetime of being consistently moved by the color blue.

10. I wish I could say this added up to something or that it satisfactorily didn’t add up to something. I wish I could say it was provocatively fractured.

11. What this quickly leads to is a kind of faux confession, confession as performance and rhetorical mode, rather than any information actually being confessed. And faux confession is basically a form of bragging, a type of willfully glamorous information offered strictly to impress the reader.

12. The two main relationships in the book — the paralyzed friend and the departed lover — feel opaque. For example, the sections about her friend feel like bids for seriousness, but the contrast between her friend’s paralysis and her own preoccupation with the color blue undermines her color enthusiasm. It makes Nelson seem trivial, and it makes her friend seem like she was used as a rhetorical device, as a ballast for our narrator’s serious whimsy. Here’s an example:

119. My friend was a genius before her accident, and she remains a genius now. The difference is that these days it is nearly impossible to discount her pronouncements. Something about her condition has bestowed upon her the quality of an oracle, perhaps because now she generally stays in one place, and one must go unto her. Eventually you will have to give up this love, she told me one night while I made us dinner. It has a morbid heart.

The high lyricism of “go unto her” on first reading seems deft and complex, but on a second reading seems enormously callous — as if the friend is being mocked for the sake of a poetic conceit.

13. Likewise, the central relationship with the unnamed man that provides the closest thing to a through-line in the book. It’s here where the book is interestingly confessional and interestingly contemporary in its confessionalism. Nelson is frank about the sexual satisfaction she experiences with her lover. She revels in the sex between them, and on the one hand it is bracing to read a woman narrator disclose her pleasure like this under no veil of shame, under no societally constructed architecture of landing Mr. Right by the end of the movie, etc. There is simply the self-renewing mystery of her own desire. But as the confessions increase without any compensatory revelations about her or him or the texture or context of the relationship as a whole, aside from the sporadic but great sex, the confessions take on a different light. Again, it all starts to sound like a kind of bragging. Here is an example:

116. One of the last times you came to see me, you were wearing a pale blue button-down shirt, short-sleeved. I wore this for you, you said. We fucked for six hours straight that afternoon, which does not seem precisely possible but that is what the clock said. We killed the time. You were on your way to a seaside town, a town of much blue, where you would be spending a week with the other woman you were in love with, the woman you are with now. I’m in love with you both in completely different ways, you said. It seemed unwise to contemplate this statement any further.

14. By mentioning this aspect of the book, I do not mean to judge Nelson in some kind of moralistic, nanny-pants way. What I am interested in is the cumulative rhetorical effect. What’s more, if this we’re a piece of fiction we might interpret this one-sided portrait of a relationship as interestingly flawed; that is, we might be tempted to judge the narrator for thinking of the character in this way or to interpret her myopia. But since it’s purportedly an essay, it seems like Nelson is simply being willfully obtuse. That either Nelson shares this seemingly shallow appreciation of other people (doubtful) or that the presentation of herself has gotten out of her authorial control.

15. Theory: it seems that confessional writing only really works when the author is fully willing to exploit herself and her friends and neighbors. Any kind authorial reticence, out of politeness or fear, cripples the memoir, turns it into a narcissist’s cave where we’re watching wall projections. To make it a really riveting piece of writing, you still have to go outside the self; you have to transgress against all the other people to make them characters.

16. Phillip Lopate wrote in an essay a few years ago about how his students were basically turning their personal nonfiction pieces into a type of short story where they let versions of themselves pretend to be stupid in order to make the stories more “dramatic.” That is, they dumbed down their own intelligence to turn their essays into a kind of fiction, while still calling them essays. Essays, if they are to mean anything, are the full-flowing tide of one’s intellect, not strategically dammed for dramatic effect. The very premise of an essay, or a piece of personal nonfiction, is that one is not unnecessarily dramatizing what happened, but dealing with what actually happened, as close as possible, and when what actually happened is obscured for some reason, such as the identity of a lover, that the hiddenness be dealt with as frankly as possible.

17. A counterargument: All of this is on purpose. That is, Nelson is deliberately constructing this authorial persona for Bluets. A few months ago, Will Wilkinson wrote a really wonderful post** about the “implied author” in fiction and how this relates to an author’s persona in nonfiction as well, how nonfiction authors inevitably construct slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, and that we, as readers, should be totally familiar with this move; comedians do it all the time. Seinfeld in Seinfeld is not really Seinfeld. So I’m not trying to be a rube in misunderstanding Nelson’s moves. But in that case, I can’t figure out why Nelson would portray herself this way — why she would, in effect, make herself appear shallow. I realize that hand-in-hand with adopting a persona, nonfiction narrators often degrade themselves — becoming more obtuse, more curmudgeonly, more daft, more neurotic, etc. — as a way to humble themselves before the reader. And again: that’s fine. It reminds me in a way of Jonathan Franzen’s nonfiction; he often portrays himself as a smarty-pants jerk and then ironizes that depiction in a way that seemingly attempts to absolve himself of being a smarty-pants jerk or to make us see that he understands this about himself, but the whole procedure turns into a failure of irony and a failure of authorial control. Jerk will out. It’s akin to listening to a humorless person tell you joke after joke.

18. Re: the Jamison editorial: The tendency in confessional writing to turn into a kind of arms race of trauma. I think this is why we get fake Holocaust memoirs. It’s the ultimate trauma — world history’s transgressions made personal or “relatable.”

19. Whereas in fiction the reader is encouraged to empathize with the character in spite of their differences, in this kind of confessional nonfiction the trauma becomes a solder between author and reader, so that the exchange of readerly trust becomes a form of identity politics: I get you because I am like you. You “represent” me and my troubles. This is empathy as demography.

20. Can you empathize with confessional nonfiction writing if you can’t “relate” to the trauma? Does it all come down to how well everything is depicted in language? That is, to good writing? But tell me again what exactly is the definition of good writing?

21. I’m going to stop writing now before I am tempted to make a definitive point or discuss reality television, whichever may come first.

*I would also simultaneously like to recognize a counter-feeling of not really caring much what my own opinion is re: a book I read. In short, I’ve grown tired of liking books or disliking books. Or, if you prefer, “liking” them. My own opinions feel stale, not to be trusted.

**Seriously. Just go read it. It’s wonderfully well articulated and clarifying and much better than this paragraph-bingo.