Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More Questions for Professor VJ

Every now and then I get questions, oftentimes from students, asking me to elaborate on a post or two here at Professor VJ. Although I write these posts in wild blogstyle (i.e. sort of off-the-cuff and with more unedited typos and/or screwy syntax than I would care to admit), they usually do represent my thinking at the time of writing, and responding to the incoming Qs gives me a chance to keep improvising on a particular riff. So here goes...

A reader writes in a comment in response to my entry on the New York Times recent article that tries to locate "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."

Cat asks:
Why can't fiction be great on its own without "innovation" as you explain...hypertext, ebooks, etc. It should be the quality of the work not just how it looks on the page (or web page). Do you feel that if fiction is printed by these "multi national media companies" that it discounts the possibility of greatness? That it somehow just contributes to the evil publishers? How is it an elistist conformist exercise when it is an opinion submitted by that of a journalist? It is the opinion of those at the NY Times, just as you could make your own list of the top 25. And what do you mean by there is only not-fiction and no longer fiction? Are you discounting all of us writers out here who identify ourselves as fiction writers, and that we must now commit to hypertext in order to "prove" our work to you? And even if someone can get a book and put it on the ipod, how is it not fiction at all?
Thanks for your questions.To start off, check out "Scan This Book!," the New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Kevin Kelly, where he says:
This is a very big library. But because of digital technology, you'll be able to reach inside it from almost any device that sports a screen. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have "published" at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow's technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet — if it doesn't plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what's taking so long. (Could we get it up and running by next week? They have a history project due.)
Having this much data at our fingertips will probably change the way we read and what we read. In fact, it will be less about reading and contemplating, and more about scanning, sampling, and manipulating that data for our own writerly uses (and as I have said in the past, this means that more and more we will be getting away from this outmoded model of always having to "be inspired").

But back to the questions. There is no question that the NYTimes has the right to their own opinion. But I find it rather elitist-conformist that the books listed in their Top 25 all come from the corporate-driven Publishing Industry and that these books are from writers whose reputations were built during a time when books of fiction and other forms of literature per se still had considerable value in the culture business. My feeling is that this is no longer the case and that the Cinderella-myth that so many young writers buy into, that is, the one that suggests there is a Great American Novelist hiding behind the scenes writing their fictional masterpiece so that the mainstream book world can anoint them the next literary star, is a total fiction fueled by hype and what the old garde used to call "false consciousness." Of course, there are still valiant attempts by many writers to keep the spirit of fiction alive, even as it butts heads with what comic-writer Stephen Colbert has called an all-pervsaive environment of "Truthiness." Take, for example, the most illuminating narrative our day, the one that is being written in the tradition of George Orwell's supposed fiction "1984" - that is to say, the story of Big Brother. In this most contemporary of narratives, the President of the United States, who in an earlier chapter, went on record saying that any wiretapping requires a court order, is now authorizing, indeed paying (via secret government contracts) a few corporate phone companies to invade our privacy as citizens of the USA by collecting information on every phone call we make, and in so doing is flagrantly breaking the law, and yet no one seems to be in any position to call him on it. He says he has every right to do what he is doing. He believes this is a fact. Others may say he is deluded, making up fictions. Well, is it fact or fiction? Not-fiction? Truthiness? The same questions came up with the so-called memoirs of James Frey. And what about Henry Miller? When I read his book The Tropic of Cancer, I assume I am reading the pseudo-autobiography of a writer who is convinced that what he is writing is anything but fiction, although how can the lyrical poetry that infests his descriptions of Paris be contextualized as being written in a memoir style?

My point is: fiction itself is an unstable signifier. For example, what if you were to take "fiction" as your starting point, that is, you are born a blob of nothingness waiting to write yourself into being, which you then construct over the course of your life. In this case, the writer becomes an instrument that creates their own pseudo-autobiographical narrative through the writing process itself. It's pseudo-autobiographical because you make it up as you go along. This is the only way to tap into your unconscious (readiness) potential as you turn to your instincts to perform the narrative momentum you are creating for yourself. In this regard, writing becomes no less than surviving. But even if you get to the point where you are able to succcessfully write your story into being so that you can then simultaneously become what you are writing, who is to say that you yourself are the author? Is it really You? Or is it the "not-you"? My research suspects that it is the "not-you," that is, the Unconscious Player inside you who you have no control over and who you must become in order to write your story. If you are having difficulties tapping into or processing this "not-you" when you write, then you may be having difficulties locating your readiness-potential as an instinctive artist-medium trying to survive as a writer.

But then, if as I suggest above, "you are born a blob of nothingness waiting to write yourself into being," how do you differentiate between fiction and not-fiction, or is it all a big blur? In my experience, it's all about training yourself to play with your unconscious power to create, that is, to locate a space of creative action where you can live up to your potential as an artist-medium capable of using the writing instrument itself to prophesize your future tense.

Celine said the same thing but from a totally different angle. His phrase was "[l]ife itself is a fiction, and biography is something we invent afterwards." I actually think that what he is talking about here is "not-fiction" which is different from non-fiction. You may want to consider "not-fiction" a particular style of fiction if you can't let go of the term (at times I have trouble doing that too). In this taxonomy, the "not-fiction" variety of fiction is one that improvises a Life Style Practice out of the writing process itself, one that prophesizes a future tense experience that prioritizes the invention of knowledge as opposed to the reproduction of knowledge (which is what bores me about 95% of the so-called "fiction" I read).

Since we are in a transitional period, this can happen in new media formats just as well as in books, and for now, the most interesting developments in publishing involve hybrid projects that, for the moment, show writerly movement from hypertext-blog space to book space and back to (though they never really left) hypertext-blog space. In Kelly's article, he goes so far as to call blogs "the ephemeral literature of our time." My guess is that the print book space will eventually be less important, but that the writing instrument itself will stay alive and well and manifest itself in what we call hypertext-blog space, video blog space, ebooks, and podcasting (but that really just means multi-media writerly performance and some of these trendy terms will no doubt disappear). It's just that if you want be relevant in the future tense, then you will need to be able to laterally transfer your talents across media platforms, that is, to write and read in and with new media.

Having said all of that, and because you are writing to me as a student who is looking to bring this dialogue into their classroom, a couple of final thoughts: first, I think that having a background in literature per se, rhetoric, performance, as well as an openmindedness to experimenting with the formal structure of what we still call "fiction," can be totally valuable for you. I remember when I was an undergraduate that this kind of liberal arts background was considered ideal for a future in Law (where your job then becomes to create a "not-fiction" that convinces the jury to believe your side of the story - talk about "truthiness"!) . That is still the case today, but now this kind of liberal arts background, coupled with coursework in the digital humanities, can be a great foundation for you if and when you decide to take your talents into the networked media space, especially if you can get to that point in your multi-media writerly performance where your Unconscious Player is totally "clicking" and what you write somehow comes true.

Metadata: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home