Monday, November 8

So about writing: What is the point of this exercise? I don't mean just this writing, but I'm also not asking about the basic utility of literacy itself. John Zerzan I ain't. For simplicity's sake, I'll limit the inquiry to writing that isn't purely conversational or basically utilitarian — writing undertaken, if not to address a general audience, then at least with a view to an audience of sorts. And my question is, well, why bother?

There's a real tendency (or maybe I should say temptation) to view this as a post-literary age, if not a post-literate one. It's been the era of television now for about as long as my parents have been alive. The developed world lives in the shadow of funny cat pictures and YouTube. Homeless guys watch porn on the public computers at the library while book collections slowly wither in the face of shrinking budgets and confused administrations. Newspapers and magazines are dying. The businesses of publishing, journalism, and full-time authorship are all from a certain angle looking about as shaky as the livery stable business must have been a century ago.

None of this is irrelevant, exactly, but I think it helps a lot of people to the wrong conclusions. The technology and the culture of writing are in the middle of a comprehensive upheaval, sure. But without doing the slightest amount of research, I'm going to hazard a guess that more text has probably been written since the introduction of the personal computer than during the entire duration of recorded history before then.1

To borrow a phrase, the volume of writing today is enormous. There's no easy place to divide that continuum between the "merely" conversational and the public/published/professional — every Facebook message between former or future lovers is a kind of performance, after all, and I've come to suspect that most writing with a mass audience has more personal targets than collective ones — but it has to be admitted that there's a vast, staggering, literally incomprehensible amount of writing intended to be read by thee and me. Or at least by people like us, for reasons that might be ours.

Everywhere you look, a sea of the stuff. Articles, columns, journals, blogs, comments, forums. Opinion, criticism, analysis, reporting, narrative, interviews, Q&As, reviews, sketches, essays, memetic horseplay2, flamewars, HOWTOs, encyclopedic broadsides and encyclopedia edit wars. Listserv discourse, e-mail forward chains. etc. ad infinitum/nauseum.

Part of this is simple: The Internet took over the world, and now the entire world is the September That Never Ended, in all its horror and occasional glory. But this is itself a symptom of something more fundamental. There are more of h. sapiens right now than there have ever been. We're part of a civilization that supports hundreds of millions with time to kill and lives full of electronics. There's a pretty good Mamet line about people who can tell stories being given dispensation from hauling wood and carrying water. The present reality is more that a bunch of people were given that dispensation a while ago so that they could work sitting down in buildings and watch a lot of television, and then some technology came along that would let them spray prose all over the place if they felt like bothering. Inevitably some of them did.

And while I maintain that Sturgeon was an optimist, this is not exactly a dismal state of affairs. A certain fraction of this stuff — and whether it's one percent or one part-per-billion, it is still more than you will ever even have time to skim — is really good. There are novelists and poets and essayists and reporters working today who are probably just about as good as anyone who has ever lived.

So the crux of it is this: What exactly can you possibly hope to accomplish by adding to the global slushpile?

I don't mean what can you hope to accomplish by writing a letter about the weather to your grandma, or a manual for the engine you just designed, or a hundred pages of heartfelt joy/desolation/boredom/whatever in the journal you keep by your bed. The utility of all this is apparent to me.3 It's more that it feels pretty hard to defend the idea that anyone Out There needs your novel, your collection of poems, your essay on the Rolling Stones, your detailed breakdown of just what is wrong with the the Democratic Party these days. There might be a Shakespeare or a Li Po in this generation, but you aren't him. If what you say is good or true or interesting, someone else still said it better yesterday and another someone is likely going to say it better tomorrow. Almost no one will ever read your work, and of the handful who do, most will only be looking for a place to hang some screed in response. It's one thing to quietly sketch these things for yourself, or work them out with a friend, but another altogether to project them, in their near-certain inanity, into all the noise and numbing profusion of the present discourse-cum-screaming-match.

On the other hand, Leonard Cohen:

If an unpublished poet discovers one of his own images in the work of another writer it gives him no comfort, for his allegiance is not to the image or its progress in the public domain, his allegiance is to the notion that he is not bound to the world as given, that he can escape from the arrangement of things as they are.

Beautiful Losers

Trying to publicly write out a sense of futility about writing in public is a good exercise in remembering why you do it in the first place. Or maybe not exactly in the first place. (When I started doing this I was a kid in high school with a bunch of short-shelf-life obsessions, we all thought the Internet was the Revolution, and I can no longer quite remember why I did anything.) But let's say why I've kept it up for 12 or 13 years.

You can understand writing a lot of ways. Importantly, as a way to reason and feel your way to some new state. A way to transmit this or that idea. A way to preserve the data of experience. But what subsumes and contains all that, I think, is that writing is an act: a motion, an undertaking, an assault on the arrangement of things. An assertion of the ego and an unbinding, however temporary, imperfect, or ultimately illusory, from the given world.

All of that can happen in various degrees of privacy. A lot of it is better left where it won't be so humiliating in the morning. But I've come to feel that the real work is more often than not the work that you attempt with and for (and often enough in opposition to) other people. Good musicians, by and large, play a lot with other musicians. The best play for a crowd, for and to an audience. In almost every field there are levels you will never reach unless you're already struggling to meet demands that are presently beyond you, approaching problems you're unequipped for. In technical circles, around people who make things generally, there is always the implicit question: Well, what have you done?

I'm not sure I have a good answer yet, but I'm starting to have an idea of what it looks like to work on one.

1 All right, I don't know how you'd even begin to quantify this, but someone must have ideas. Douglas Engelbart demoed the computer mouse and collaborative text editing, among other things, in 1968. Let's round up from there to 1970, the year of the Unix epoch, and use that as our dividing line. It's earlier than "personal computers" were available to the masses, but if you wanted to locate the historical moment when computer environments began to shape the literary world, you could probably do worse.

Ok, so is it terrifically far-fetched to think that the last 40 years have produced a greater volume of text than the 5000 or so before that? Maybe. Maybe even probably. I would welcome any pointers to relevant sources.

2 Substitute "horseshit" as-needed.

3 In order: In a given lifetime, there's a fair chance you should write to your grandmother(s) at least 3 times as often as you do, and if you can't write about the weather, you've already lost. Civilization hangs by the thin thread of a small residuum of usable documentation. If you put it in your journal, there's some hope you'll spare the rest of us hearing about it.