To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous.
What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.
Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.
This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.
I’m at a Berkman lunch where Molly Crabapple [twitter:MollyCrabapple] is giving a talk titled “Art in the Age of the Ubiquitous Image.” Tim Maly introduces Molly as a “hustler,” in the good sense. After Occupy, she “hustled her way” into Gitmo. She and Tim were “Artists are the most lucky little foofoos in the world. We spent a century excusing every drpravity if with ‘But we’re an artist.’ …The best individual
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
She begins by telling us about the only two people who have ever gotten angry at her drawing their picture. First was a religious person in Morocco. She wanted to distinguish herself from the culturally arrogant tourists, so she’d sit on a sidewalk and draw. She made friends, except for one guy who looked at the drawing pad and tore it to pieces. The second was a NYC police officer. She was sitting in a court with Matt Taibbi and watching poor people being shaken down for offenses such as riding a bike on a bicycle. A court officer saw her drawing him and said that anyone looking at him is “asking for trouble.” “Drawing can mock power,” she says.
She says she’s an artist in the old sense: She puts paint on a surface until it looks cool. She also does illustrated journalism. She shows drawings from Zuccotti Park during Occupy. She used her sketchbook to show that people were not in fact “dirty hippies.” She went to Athens to show what life as like with the rise of fascism during the Eurozone crisis. At Guantanamo, she drew happy faces on the guards because you’re not allowed to draw their faces. If she’s censored, she wants to show the censorship.
When she was young, she longed for the days when artists dominated image-making. Before cameras, artists drew whatever needed reproduction. She shows a plate from Goya’s The Disasters of War to show how art can editorialize in a way that photos can’t. Drawings can show the truth of what happened.
Another example from the Paris Commune: a woman guarding a hotel. Otto Dix’s drawing of a veteran with skin grafts shows “only the essential, not the extraneous. Even fashion was the domain of artists before photo. E.g., Kenneth Black’s drawings.
But photography has an advantage in that we assume what we see is true. E.g., Goya’s execution painting never actually happened. But now everyone has camera phones, and every is being surveilled. There are more images now than ever before in human history. Where does that leave art?
There are two symbols of global rebellion: the Guy Fawkes masks and arms outstretched holding camera phones. When a kid got beaten up, a crowd of peers formed with their camera phones out. “You will become an Internet meme,” they were saying. Camera phones make people accountable. The Net takes every image that has resonance and spits it back out transformed. Officer Pike, who pepper-sprayed protesters at UC Davis, has become an Internet meme.
The flip side is that the government now can view us unceasingly. Soon the line between what we’re viewing and how they’re viewing us is blurred: the gov’t views us through our phones by which we view our world. Some of the coolest art plays with this. E.g., William Betts does paintings based on CCTV stills.
But as photography becomes ubiquitous, our faith in its truth is chipping away. E.g., Kerry used a photo of wrapped bodies to justify a strike on Syria, but it was taken in 2002 in Iraq. Photos are not the truth and they never were. And even when photos are indisputable, it’s not enough. Police still get away with murder. The videography is less important than the power structure.
We live in a world where everything is captured, so what’s the point of my drawing things? What possible significance can it be? “Or am I just picking scabs? It’s just my personal compulsion?”
Art has always absorbed new tech: Big canvases during the Renaissance, use of the camera obscura. She shows a drawing of the Golden Dawn fascists being confronted by local shop owners. For the drawing, she took many many photos, they looked online to find more posters, and you end up with a drawing that’s a collage. You never now have trouble figuring out what thnigs look like. “Even that is a gigantic change brought by the Internet.”
One of her projects last name was “Shell Game“: taking the Occupy protest and Arab Spring and retelling massive “alter pieces” for them, votives. But when she was drawing them, she wasn’t just drawing what was in her head. She was researching them the way journalists do. She interviewed people. E.g., a Tunisian blogging collective told her that the term “Jasmine REvolution” as “hideous Western branding” and please don’t use it.
She shows a Rembrandt drawing of Haksen the elephant. IT was the first time people had seen it. Now, the image of elephants has become ubiquitous.
Her friend Paul Mason when toOccupy Gezi. He took photos. She drew them, but only after crowdsourcing the translation of signs on Twitter.
Guantanamo is simultaneously the most private and the most surveilled. Every cell has a camera checked every 3 mins. Even the location of the cameras is secret; if she drew them, the sketch would be confiscated. She spent 2 wks there on 2 differenttrips. “What became important to me was to draw the censorship.” She wasn’t allowed to draw anyone’s faces, even though their identities are well known. So she had to scratch out the prisoner’s faces. [The face-blocked prisoner drawings are amazing.] She also isn’t allowed to draw anything that would give a sense of the layout of the camp. The Opsec briefing tells you the only three angles you’re allowed to draw from.
She shows a drawing from life of the Chelsea Manning verdict.
There are other reasons people might not want to be drawn. She shows a drawing of Syntagma protesters with prominent facial scars, so she drew him holding his logo over his face. She shows a drawing of Maxence Valade who had an eye shot out. He let her draw him.
There are places where there are just no cameras. She was jailed for 11 hours during Occupy. It was incredibly boring. She drew pictures in a styrofoam cup and tried to commit the cell to memory. When released, she drew it.
Joe Sacco has drawn images of Palestinians being interrogated. “Artists can take memories and make them real.”
Access can be taken from us. The Internet can be shut off. They can take your camera phone. But drawing cannot be stopped. E.g., David Choe was in solitary for a while. He had nothing to do but draw. He drew with soy sauce and his own urine.
“The art of drawing something sets it apart.” She shows the official Red Cross photo of Hisham Sliti in Gitmo and then her drawing. “I wanted to set him apart. I want you to remember who he is.”
“We need the chaos of multiplicity. We need raw data. We need everything. But we also need the singular. And that’s what artists do. We need people who can be stealthy and subtle, and can go where photographs cannot.” Visual art has no pretense of objectivity. “Images have power.” An illustrator in Syria had his hands broken. “Images get past fatigue. Images get past the raw edges of your heart.”
Q: You’re comparing image production before the flood of images and now. How about how crowds are pulling from the flood now?
A: Artists are always of their age. I use the Internet as an artist, but also to look for steak in the morning to eat. We dive into the multiplicity, pull out the singular, and then that’s pulled back into the crowd.
Q: The Guy Fawkes mask comes from V for Vendetta. The image is owned by Warner Bros.
A: And there’s also the real Guy Fawkes, a Catholic subversive whose politics none of us would find inspiring. Then there were the folk festivals. Then V for Vendetta, retaking the mask as a symbol of rebellion, but more as a carton symbol. Then you have 4chan and Anonymous bringing it back to its original meaning of rebellion.
Q: How do your images find a way through all of that. You talk about using the network as a repository of possible influence, as an expanded canon of images one might interact with. Once an image is produced, how does it find its life in the world?
When Occupy Wall St. hit, it had no images. I did a vampire squid. It showed up on protest signs. Schlocky t-shirts were selling it. The image had a life. She also did a free Pussy riot poster. A week alter there was an Al Jazeera news piece saying “Some people will make money on anything,” focusing on Russian t-shirt makers making unauthorized copies. Madonna tweeted it, and Time said she made it. Memes show up in burlesque shows. Many bad tattoos based on her art. (“That always hurts and artist.”) “The network eats all.”
Q: Do you get criticism from journalists for not being fact-check-able?
A: I work with fact-checkers when facts are involved. When I can’t take photos, I hew as closely to reality as I can. But there’s always an editorial slant to any photo or drawing. E.g., the photo of the Vietnamese police officer executing a suspect has an emotion.
Q: Who are you drawing your political art for?
A: One of my problems with political art is that it draws on the same canon: Soviet, black and red. Very cool. But people know immediately if it’s for them. I want to make art for people who don’t think political aesthetics is for them. Maybe they relate more to fairy tales, or…
Q: Has the nature of cooptation change? What’s the difference between an image being made commercial and an image becoming a meme?
A: In some ways I think it’s cooptation. If someone used my Pussy Riot illustration to advertise their t-shirt shop, with tags like “glam,” yeah, that’s cooptation. Political campaigns do this, as when musicians objected to their songs being used to introduce Sarah Palin. You should fight back against that, but it happens because the world is intensely interconnected.
Q: In the 19th century there was an exhibition of dioramas. The Beehive Collective is doing something similar. Do they understand the diorama? Can we revivify it?
A: The Beehive Collective does this incredibly detailed, gigantic pen and ink drawings of subjects like strip mining, environmental policy, etc. The topics are very complex. They go to the local areas and revise and revise their thing until the locals think it’s a truthful representation. They are telling very complicated stories without depending on language or literacy. It’s an intensely important thing to do.
Q: Do you do that consciously with some of your larger displays?
A: Yes. I always try to get beyond language. One of my first jobs was as house artist at a swanky club. That was my lockpick. Art is totally a lockpick.
Q: What’s been most jarring or unexpected for you?
A: Guantanamo is the most bizarre and jarring place I’ve ever been to. It’s a cheerful American town with a Macdonald’s and karaoke bar, next to a super-max prison dedicated to guarding 169 middle age guys most of whom have been cleared. There’s a pantomime of security there. Everything says that you’re about very dangerous people, but it’s a small American town.
Q: So it’s like North Korea.
Q: The network mainly displays images at 19″ maximum usually, but you draw much bigger than that.
A: I want to do art that’s really big. It affects you differently. It surrounds you. It’s a dominating relationship. But it doesn’t reproduce on line. Diego Rivera was much more known in his time, but now Frieda Kahlo is. That’s because you have to go to a Rivera to see it in real life, but Kahlo reproduces well on a smaller screen. So, how do you take really really big life and give it a digital life that’s somewhat as interesting as real life is.
Q: Panorama stitchers? Microsoft has one that lets you zoom in or out. E.g., the AIDS quilt. Cf. gigapans.
Q: What does the physicality of the drawing do for you.
A: There’s an egomaniacal bit of artists. When I make a large painting, I feel like I’m falling into them. My next project is going to be a show of large paintings about hackers. I want to do a 20-foot wide painting. It’d be bullshit to do something on the network and not have it be on the network.
There are things you can’t see online. I use zinc white, which is toxic, but it’s super transparent, warm white. It doesn’t reproduce in photos. There’s a lot of art you can’t get from photos or on the Internet. We forget that there are all sorts of things you have to be there to see.
Q: The way that experience gets remediated and ported back out to the Internet, it can underscore that they can’t be reproduced on a mobile device.
Q: There are places you can’t bring cameras onto. E.g., courtrooms.
A: I don’t know what they don’t allow cameras. It seems like a rule from wayback when camera flashes made smoke. I know that with the KSM courtroom, they didn’t want any of their cameras shown, or the doors, or the faces. It would have been impossible to get photos there. I think it’s misguided but I also sort of like it because it allows one place where my people can king.
Q: Do you ever encounter people who area trying to learn to draw so they can get around censorship and share emotions?
A: Prison art. I profiled a Gitmo prisoner who learned to draw for that reason.
A: Dr. Sketchy is my alternative drawing class done in a bar with drag queens and models, done in a subversive way. I want people to learn to look without asking for permission. Artists are the creepiest people around [laughter]. Drawing is a way that I was allowed to look, where looking wasn’t taken as an invitation but as something else.
Q: Susan Sontag says that people thought that showing violence would lead to peace, but that images of violence in fact can provoke more violence.
A: That happens when pictures of atrocities can spur revenge. But drawings can also get past people’s defenses. But maybe I’m just being hopeful.
[Great and very special presentation. Thanks, Molly!
The New Yorker has done it’s first major redesign since 2000, although it’s so far only been rolled out to the front of the magazine.
Personally, the return to a more highly stylized typeface is welcome. But I am disappointed that they’ve made the magazine look like more like everything else in the racks. It’s not a lack of originality that bothers me. Rather, it is the retreat from text.
There’s no less text and so far the writing style seems to be the same. Rather, the previous design presented a wall of text, broken up with occasional insets of text, with empty spots filled with text. For example, “Tables for Two” used to be a small, two-column insert into the Goings On section. The type size was the same as the directions on a tube of toothpaste. Now it’s a single column that takes up the entire right-hand three-fifths of a page, in a perfectly readable font, with a quarter-page color photograph at the top, as if to say, “Well look at us! We have so much room that we’re filling it up with a merely pleasant photo.”
There are at least two results in how we take that page. First, “Tables for Two” has turned from a lagniappe into a column. Second, the magazine doesn’t feel like it’s so bursting with things to write about that it had to shoulders goodies into whatever nooks it could find or force.
Sections now are headed by a graphical emblem (e.g., a Deco knife and fork on a plate for the Food & Drink section) that signals that the New Yorker thinks the section titles themselves are not enough for us. Really? What part of “Food & Drink” does The New Yorker think we don’t understand? Why does the New Yorker now believe that mere words are not up to the task?
The New Yorker used to be for people unafraid of climbing a sheer wall of text. It demanded we make judgments about what to read based solely on the text itself; this was even more the case before Tina Brown put the authors’ names at the beginning of the article instead of at the end. But now it’s pandering to the graphical-minded among us. The graphical folks have plenty of other magazines to thumb through lazily. The New Yorker was a text-based trek that had to earn our every footstep.
Don’t go soft on us, New Yorker! We’re not afraid of words. Bring ‘em on!
I greatly enjoyed last weeks’s Berkman Center event about some of the ways the Web is affecting the movie industry, which included a screening of an indie movie that has been released only on the Web.
First here was a panel discussion with Rob Burnett [twitter:robburnett1], Elaine McMillion, and me, moderated by Jonathan Zittrain. Rob is the executive producer of “The Late Show with David Letterman” and the director and co-creator of the new indie movie We Made This Movie. Elaine is a Berkman Fellow and is orchestrating a crowdsourced, interactive documentary called Hollow. Jonathan Zittrain is extremely Jonathan Zittrainy, which is a wonderful thing. We talked about what the Net is doing to movies, and you couldn’t ask for two more insightful commentators than Rob and Elaine, led by the Best Moderator in the Business.
Then we watched Rob’s movie, which I loved. [Disclosure: I did a little free consulting about the Web release.] The movie is hard to describe, which is a good thing, but it’s funny, engaging, touching, and deeply clever. In fact, it transcends its cleverness, but of this I can say no more. It’s also got an incredibly talented ensemble cast that made me think of Diner. Go to the movie’s site to find out how to see it online. (Hint: It’s on iTunes.)
So a couple of days ago Bieber’s album ‘Believe’ went platinum. Twitter blew up about it and millions of his followers were congratulating him – as they do….
But here is an interesting thought….
A platinum album is 1 millions sales….
Bieber has 25 million twitter followers….
So only 4% of his supposed fan base have bought the album.
If you look at his facebook fans, he has 45 millions, so thats only 2.2% of those that have actually bought it.
But why would he care….he is a youtube partner and has had over 2.7 billion views of his videos….paid at an average of $1.25 per 1000 views for youtube partners…. thats 3.3 mill from just youtube views.
Pre-Net, a lot more people would have said they liked an artist than would have bought the latest album. You would listen on the radio or watch when they came on TV. So it’s hard to know if much has changed, if only because as far as I know we don’t know how many people liked, say, Elton John, versus how many copies of his LPs sold.
Nevertheless, the current statistics are puzzling. Are fans getting their fill of The Biebs on YouTube? On Spotify et al.? I somehow doubt that 24M fans torrented the album. Is “Liking” Beieber more of a tribal identification thing? Compared to pre-Net, is the fan-performer relationship basically the same, radically different, or somewhere in between?
I dunno how to explain these Bieber stats. And I don’t know how to know.
TITLE: [berkman] Brad Abruzzi on authorship and publishing
Brad Abruzzi, author of the NJ Famous Turnpike Witch, a novel I really liked, is talking about the trajectory of authorship, at a Berkman lunch.
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
Brad says that he’s not a success story. If you want to know how to make millions, thousands, or even hundreds, you should write a book about how to write succcessful books. Or vampires, he says. Instead, he’s going to give us thoughts about authorship and publishing.
1. Feudal: pre-modern, from antiquity to production publishing. It relied upon patrons who offered a living wage, and could bring interest and favor to the works. In return, the author might offer a celebration of the patron in the work. Or, Virgil who established the lineage of Emperor Augustus all the way back to the gods. Or dedicate the work. Brad points to Sterne’s dedication in Tristram Shandy. But this arrangement produces resentment: the authors feel they are the creators, but the patrons take some of the glory. (He reads a scathing letter to Chesterfield from Samuel Johnson in response to a request for a dedication, who lived on the cusp of Phase 2.)
2. The industrialization of publishing. It put the means of reproduction (Marxist pun intended by Brad) into the hands of the publishers. Thus, authors were once again dependent. This is because there’s always a super-abundance of manuscripts trying to get into the market. This selection process has of course become highly professional. “The problem is that we didn’t choose these people to be the gatekeepers…Ultimately their responsibility is to their shareholders.” This works better than the Feudal system, but the criterion is what an editor thinks will sell. (Brad points out that his work was rejected by publishers.) “The superabundance problem persists.” There are now two barriers of entry to works of fiction: Works have to come from literary agent before publishers will consider them. “If you want to be a writer, you’ll probably be better off writing for yourself and buying scratch tickets, because you won’t be as frustrated when the scratch ticket tells you that you’ve lost.”
So, he asks, is there any hope for someone like him, who thinks his works are good but who cannot get a publisher to publish them? Yes, he says, digital publishing is the hope. “We can make our works directly available to readers. We don’t need publishers any more.”
But, readers rely on publishers to winnow away at the super-abundance of manuscripts. Without publishers, “we move the slush pile to around the ankles of readers.” “We can create a ground-based, critical reader culture” in which people can publish their own reviews, accrue authority, etc. “Amazon does this a bit of course…but we can be more substantive than that.” “Everyone has the means of reproduction. So, hooray.”
So, why did it take him 11 years to publish his own work? “I’ve got all sorts of excuses…but the truth is that traditional publishing offered a better prospect for me.” First, digital reading hasn’t been as appealing. That’s obviously beginning to change. Second, publishers put their chosen works on the fast track. If you can get two people to like your work — agent and publisher — you can cut to the front of the line. So, he tried for ten years to sell his books. His agent was very good at getting flattering rejection letters from publishers. His first novel, In Defense of Cactus Kelly in the late ’90s, didn’t get a publisher. He blogged the second book — NJFTPW — and added popup multimedia. But no one came.
Time passed. Self-publishing became a more promising prospects because of the emergence of digital marketplaces where people can find what they want to read. At certain point, he decided to just publish NJTPW. He uploaded it, pressed the buttons about royalty schemes, and it’s up on Amazon. “But then there’s the super-abundance problem.”
The book is currently at #164,296 at Amazon. A couple of days ago, it was over #300,000. “It doesn’t take much to bump up your book.” “If you can use social media to overthrow an Egyptian dictator, you can probably get people to buy my book,” Brad says, adding “These are probably at comparable levels of difficulty.” He has a handful of followers at Twitter. He’s posted some ads at Facebook, and has 421 Likes. “But Likes on FB don’t translate to sales and reading of your book. Maybe they translate at a 1% rate.” Brad isn’t willing to conclude anything about the effectiveness of social media, since he is “ham-handed” in its use.
He shows his sales from the last month on Kindle, which was his worst week: 4. But in the three days he had a promo offering it for free, he had 350 downloads. The promotions get you channeled into Kindle’s promotions. During the promo, he was in the top 20 for literary fiction, along with public domain classics. He thinks he did that well in part because he has all 5-star reviews [one of which is mine].
This gets him thinking about the reader-based review culture. People do write blog posts about books, some on book sites. “Even the reviewing culture suffers from the super-abundance problem. If you want a good book blogger to review you book, you have to pitch them.” The Kirkus Indie program wants $425 to review your book. “I stand here fairly clueless…but hopeful in a general sense that we’re on the cusp of creating a situation in which publishers are not the final answer….Readers need to believe that books that are not traditionally published can still be a good book. Readers need to look outside the walled garden.” “Writers need to trust that readers will do these things.” If so, those who own printing presses won’t get decide what we get to read.
Q: How did you pick Kindle, and not Nook, etc.?
A: It was my choice for an initial platform. You can participate in Amazon’s free promos if you commit to exclusivity to Kindle Select for 90 days. It also lets your books be lent for free to Kindle Prime program. You get paid pro rata for those loans. I am thinking about printing on demand.
Q: In the spiritual self-help area, a lot of people promote their books via their blogs. They refer to one another mutually.
Q: I appreciate your intersection of analysis and emotional experience. What you say about publishing is the same as in music. And Louis C.K. And Patton Oswald a couple of days ago gave a keynote called “A Letter to Gatekeepers,” saying that if they continue to think narrowly, they’ll kill their industry. Also, on FB you can pay to promote your post. Finally, people want to participate in things that other people are participating in. That can work for us or against us in the attention economy. Finally finally, a combination of all three of your phases: fan-funding, kickstarter.com, etc. This gets people in as patrons, and then they evangelize for you.
A: Publishers encourage you in their rejections not as a tactic to maintain hegemony, but because they’re being polite. BTW, my agent left the biz, and went back to school in anthropology.
Q: What about copyright? People can disseminate it without your knowledge. We’re looking at self-publishing because the royalties are better, but are you protected?
A: I’d take the trade in a minute. It’s not a coincidence that the first copyrights were given first to the publishers (“stationers privileges”). They wanted to avoid undercutting each other, and the Crown wanted to keep an eye on what was being published. The copyright concerns come first and foremost from publishers…
Q: Creative people are concerned also.
A: I won’t say categorically they’re not. But many of us would put it out for free, since I’m not depending on my books to make a living.
Q: [doc searls] Cluetrain is free online but still sells well. But, Brad, why not just make it freely available in an open format, and put out a tip jar? How comfortable to do you feel inside the silo that is Amazon?
A: I’m trying to understand how useful it is to have Amazon. It might be a deal with the devil.
Q: [me] How many of you here in the audience are going to buy the book? [About 5 hands go up.] Why not?
Answers: It’s not on Nook. …I’ve got too much to read…I don’t know enough about it…
Q: Publishers play an important curatorial function. I’d love to circumvent it because they look for a formula. But putting it on line isn’t enough. Where is the inter-connect?
Q: I edit an online literary magazine. Finding folks who are already reading at open mics, making a connection is great. We have gatekeepers of a sort, but they’re made up of writers and readers already in the community. Also, there are independent publishers who are not motivated by profit. Getting the novel excerpted in a journal like ours helps. Also: BestIndieLitNewEngland.org There’s something inbetween self-publishing as an individual and commercial success. There are communities.
A: Yes, my social media work was aimed at reating a community.
Q: Have you tried open mic readings? Or do you need to be a published author?
A: One of the reason I write is because I do it better than I speak. A judge once told me to find a job where I write things to people, rather than talking to them, I elected to take it as a compliment. I still see myself as someone who’ll put something out and broadcast it, stand behind it. T’hat’s not getting me to where I need to be. I thought maybe I’d get NJFTPW out of the way so I could write the next thing to submit to a conventional publisher. Now I’m not sure. I’m trying throwing our more content.
Q: Your expectations of traditional publishers are overstated. Publishers often do nothing but print. Also, digital publishing has taken us to a place as bad as traditional publishing. Charlie Stross (sf writer, former sw guy) has an excellent analysis of what Amazon is doing to the market. Single publisher, single format, own their own hardware.
A: Traditional publishing has worked wonderfully for us. People can make a living as a writer. The Amazon issue is a trade-off, which I re-examine all the time. People complain that there’s too much junk at Amazon., e.g. people re-selling Wikipedia content. Rather than putting in a spam button, let people write reviews.
Q: I’m writing a book for a publisher. Even with a publisher, it’s up to the author to build a market. I’m writing a memoir of my father, a queer poet, self-published before the digital age. It was all shoe leather: printing stuff up, going to bookstores, doing readings. It was about finding community, promoting writers like himself, and putting out ideas.
A: Copyright is an incentive for people to do something creative, but I don’t think it’s anything close to the whole ball of wax. E.g., I enjoy communicating to myself — re-reading something I wrote when younger. But, more important, I want to communicate something.
Q: My new startup is trying to enable readers as reviewers. Our tech helps lend credibility to reviews. Self-publishing has grown 400% since 2010, approaching a $4B market. Your 2001 article described the problem perfectly.
Q: I’m intrigued by the two sides of your personality: button-down and creative. This book is very readable. Could you get a celebrity do the reading?
A: I think a lot of this has to do with authority. People with broader authority can move copies.
Q: How long have you been writing fiction? What have you written before?
This is my second novel. I started the first in the summer after my college graduation. It was an effort to channel my postgraduate “what now?” angst into something constructive and interesting. I’d describe it as an anti-coming of age novel, framed as a typewritten manuscript sent to select media outlets by the notorious (and, as he explains, accidental) Rust Belt revolutionary fugitive title character, John “Cactus” Kelly. Cactus Kelly hopes to explain how he didn’t mean to start the Steeltown riots, that he has not endorsed the radicalized youth movement that has taken up his name, and that he was only trying to parry his father’s attempts, via armed “contractors,” to see him kicked out of the family home and flushed against his will into a productive life. And of course there’s a Gila monster that introduces all sorts of plot complications.
I burned through three literary agents with In Defense of Cactus Kelly, and though I got some very polite and encouraging rejections from editors, I never managed to place it. It probably didn’t help that “Cactus Kelly” was also the name of a prominent “foxy boxer” in Colorado. I had no idea there was such a thing as foxy boxing, or that anyone could be prominent in that trade.
Q: Do you have a particularly strong connection to the NJ Turnpike?
I do now. I actually grew up in Ohio. But I went to school in New Jersey, and I travel that road a heck of lot to visit in-laws in Virginia. As I look back, I’m not sure where all this came from, except that I’ve always thought it was awesome that New Jersey names its Turnpike Service Areas after its prominent native sons and daughters (no foxy boxers, as yet). I’m sure Walt Whitman and Alexander Hamilton would be thrilled to know that their names have been conscripted into service for the peddling of pizza-flavored Combos and Arizona Iced Tea. And for hosting those “drop the hook and win a prize” games that we know we can’t win, but for whatever reason we can’t resist taking a shot at them, when we’re on the road.
Q: Why didn’t you publish with a traditional publishing house?
Um, you’d have to ask them. Or you’d have to ask the agents, because I didn’t even clear that first barrier to publishing. I went the traditional publishing route with IDCK, and though I was ultimately unsuccessful with it, I had lots of interest, including the aforementioned three literary agents — so much so that when I started writing NJFTPW, I was (naively, presumptuously, wrongly, stupidly) thinking of it as a “second book,” such that I’d have more license to run wild with characters and plot. Turns out that was not the case, and it’s been a struggle even to get agents to read the manuscript. My third and last agent for IDCK left the business to study anthropology. He was my best (read, only) advocate with ties to the business, and I was pretty adrift when he told me he was quitting. He was looking at NJFTPW at the time, but he’d just had enough of the business. You’d have to ask him why he left, but it may have had something to do with the uphill battle he was having selling writers he liked.
I’ve been advised by professionals that the problems I’ve had selling NJFTPW is that it doesn’t fit easily into any particular fiction bucket. I don’t know if that means it’s just too whacked out, that it’s not susceptible to the genre labels (satire? humor? literary? po-mo?), or that it’s just not about vampires, Templar Knights, and/or the young woman trying to find love in the Big City. But in retrospect, I think I understand why. The truth is, I’d started this book in my first year of law school, and as best I can figure it, I was grappling with the meaning and consequences of having made the first practical decision — concession? — of my life. So I reserved a pocket of my life to be decidedly impractical, and at the same time I was studying Torts and Contracts, I sat down and wrote Chapter 1, about my disillusioned diva performance artist in traffic. And so now I’m paying for that impractical decision. And that’s fine, because I’m happy with this book.
Q: How has the reaction been?
Well, you know. There’s not exactly a marketing machine behind the book right now. And The Witch isn’t positioned at eye level on any bookstore’s New Fiction shelf. As someone who had a go at blogging and was able to use Google Analytics to track and identify the entirety of his readership in real time (“Hey: that’s my high school friend in Texas.” “Wait: who’s reading this in Florida? Oh, right, Mike’s on vacation.”), I didn’t carry into this the highest expectations of “going viral.” And writing and sending “buy my book” spam isn’t something I do well — I can write a query letter or blurb, fer shurr, but it’s not my strong suit. So I’ve tried to have fun with it. The Witch has a Facebook account, a Twitter account, and now and again she’ll surface to say a word or two about national affairs or pick a fight with her Creator. We have a lively back-and-forth, she and I, and it does absolutely nothing to improve my sales figures.
But I’ve got a couple strong reviews on Amazon, and I have your very flattering and thoughtful words, so onward and upward, little by little, I guess.
I do have this from my wife, who recently broke her pledge not to introduce complications in her marriage by reading my books: “You should go back to writing poetry.” I’m finding ways to take that as a compliment.
Forum d’Avignon is an annual get-together in France to talk about culture, by which most of the attendees (and especially President Sarkozy who came to give a speech) mean how they can squash the Internet and retain their stranglehold on culture. A little harsh? Maybe, but not entirely unfair. I went last year, and both Jamie Boyle and I felt so oppressed by the relentless Internet Fear exhibited by the other presenters that we felt obliged to say, “You know, there are some good things about the Internet also.” We also both found a cadre of fellow travelers among the attendees and a handful of the other presenters, including many of the conference organizers. (Here’s a set of my posts from the Forum.)
The Forum today invited a set of people to respond to four questions. The first question is: “1. Does culture / creative imagination give you a reason to hope?” With the above as context, here is my response:
Of course! If not culture, then what would give us reason to hope?
There are a few elements coming together that make this an especially hopeful time…and a few elements that I take as cold water being thrown in the face of hope.
The elements of hope include: (a) the scale of content, (b) the intense inter-linking of that content, (c) the growing open access to that linked content, and (d) the new forms of collaborative sociality that are emerging that (e) value difference and disagreement.
(a) The scale means that we now have works that can matter to us in any way we can imagine, rather than relying upon centralized authorities to decide what counts. Of course, from those centralized sources we have gotten great works of art, but we have gotten far more gross, coarsening, commercial crap. (b) The fact that these elements are linked means that we can now explore ideas all the way to the ends of our curiosity. It also means we can continuously derive new meaning from this interlacing of ideas. (c) Open access – the growth of outlets that may or may not be peer-reviewed and edited, accessible to the world for free – means that our best ideas are not locked up where only the privileged can view them. (d) The availability of these works on the very same medium that enables us to form social networks around them – the fact that the Net is equally good as a means of distributing content and as a social medium is unprecedented – has spurred innovative new ways of working and being together. Some of these new social forms have tremendous power, and are tremendously engaging; we can do things together that we never before thought possible. (E) Finally, the Internet only has value insofar as it contains and embraces differences and disagreements. A culture that does so is far more robust and far less oppressive than a culture homogenized by a timid sameness – the sort of lack of adventure characteristic of mainstream media.
Against this we have old industries that benefited from the scarcity of works and the difficulty of distributing them. They view culture as the set of cultural objects, and believe that they are entitled to continue to restrict and control access to them. They say they are doing this in order to support the artists, but they in fact are pocketing most of the artists’ wages in the name of services we no longer need these industries to provide. Culture flourishes when it is open, abundant, connected, engaged, and diverse. Such a culture supports artists of every sort. The culture of hope is just such a culture.
Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, has become a lonely voice trying to protect the Net’s most basic values. At a cultural ministers’ meeting held in Avignon last month, she had the temerity to suggest that the copyright system is not working to protect the rights of creators or to spread culture. Now she is suggesting that the Net can actually help the forces of freedom and democracy around the world. This new speech not only makes the case, it seems to have paid attention to the debate over previous claims that the Net is overall a positive political force, not merely a neutral technology, and not primarily a tool of oppression.
Neelie gave her full speech in Avignon in a closed door meeting, but she presented a version of it the next day at the Forum d’Avignon, which I was at and live-blogged. At the time, it struck me as certainly better than the copyright totalitarianism espoused by President Sarkozy, the values of which were mirrored by most of the participants in the Forum. But I thought Neelie was proposing nothing more interesting than adjusting copyright law so that more money went into the hands of more artists, rather than addressing the imbalance between the rights of creators and of the public. But I’ve been convinced by European friends, particularly Juan Carlos de Martin that I’m failing to hear her remarks in the right European context.