My blog is better than your blog: literature and evaluation on the net

Sebastian Mary over at if:book has a new post that takes up some more about the problematics of trying to “do literature” on the web. Among many other things, Mary says the following:

‘Literature’ here evokes a well-rooted (if not always clearly-defined) ideology. When I say ‘literary’ I mean things fitting a loose cluster of – sometimes self-contradictory – ideas including, but not limited to:

the importance of traceable authorship
the value of ‘proper’ language
the idea that some kinds of writing are better than others
that some kinds of publishing are better than others
that there is a hierarchy of literary quality

And so on. If examined too closely, these ideas tend to complicate and undermine one another, always just beyond the grasp. But they endure. And they remain close to the core of why many people write. Write, as an intransitive verb (Barthes), because another component of the ideology of ‘literary’ is that it’s a broadcast-only model. If you don’t believe me, check out any writers’ community and see how much keener would-be Authors are to post their own work than to critique or review that of others. ‘Literary’ works talk to one another, across generations, but authors talk to readers and readers don’t – or at least have never been expected – to talk back. (Feel free, by the way, to roll your own version of this nexus, or to disagree with mine. One of the reasons it’s so pervasive as a set of ideas is because it’s so damn slippery.)

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Obviously plenty of print books have no literary value. But the ideology of ‘literary’ is inseparable from print. Authorship is necessary and value-laden at least partly because with no authorship there’s no copyright, and no-one gets paid. The novel packs a massive cultural punch – but arguably 60,000 words just happens to make a book that is long enough to sell for a decent price but short enough to turn out reasonably cheaply. Challenge authorship, remove formal constraints – or create new ones: as O’Reilly’s guides to creating appealing web content will tell you, your online readership is more likely to lose interest if asked to scroll below the fold. Will the forms stay the same? My money says they won’t. And hence much of what’s reified as ‘literary’, online, ceases to carry much weight.

I like a lot of what Mary is groping after here, but I would offer a few caveats. The notion of the “literary” is not coextensive with the creation of books, but came in to being much later than books came in to being. You could trace the notion of the literary to the development of Gutenberg’s press, but even that would be a bit anachronistic. Our current use of the term “literary” doesn’t really fully develop until late in the eighteenth, early in the nineteenth century, and only becomes a full-blow ideology in the middle and late nineteenth century. Cf Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature.

This suggests that simply doing away with our sense of the literary might not do away with our sense of the need to categorize and create hierarchies. Criticism is as inevitable as breathing, said T.S. Eliot, and he’s right. Even as you read this blog you are evaluating and criticizing, if only to say that this blog is or is not worth the reading time. Cf Barbara herrnstein Smith in Contingencies of Value. To be sure, the methods and means by which we come to determine what is worth doing is very different on the web than it was in Eliot’sSamuel Johnson London, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Indeed, literary criticism as we know it began with Samuel Johnson and others who were trying to figure out, among other things, what was worth their time to read.

One response to this, typical on the web, is to say “Well, I can read anything I damn well please. And who are you to think differently?” But this kind of attitude doesn’t hold up for very long. Of course, anyone CAN read anything they want to read, just as people CAN sit in their barcaloungers and drink beer all day. But we constantly evaluate and imagine human activities in terms of what kinds of social worlds they make possible. To admit this isn’t to be an elitist. To do otherwise is to imagine a world where I could care less if Bob down the street never bothers to learn to read a book more difficult than “See Dick Run” since, after all, its his personal preference or part of his culture. That’s fine, but if his kids and grandkids imitate him, we’ve got not a personal preference but a social problem. At least in any society that we are currently living in.

All of this is merely an aside to say criticism happens. And it is and will continue to happen on the web. For instance, this week’s New York Review of Books contains an excellent article, a review of John Broughton’s Wikipedia, The Missing Manual. The review suggests that Wikipedia is entering a mature middle age. One sign of that middle age is a developing set of rules and hierarchies. NicholsonThe Missing manual Baker writes of the chaotic creative destruction–and destructive creativity–that characterized wikipedia in the early days, before going on:

At least, that’s how it used to be. Now there’s a quicker path to proficiency: John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, part of the Missing Manual series, overseen by The New York Times‘s cheery electronics expert, David Pogue. “This Missing Manual helps you avoid beginners’ blunders and gets you sounding like a pro from your first edit,” the book says on the back. In his introduction, Broughton, who has himself made more than 15,000 Wikipedia edits, putting him in the elite top 1,200 of all editors—promises “the information you absolutely need to avoid running afoul of the rules.” And it’s true: this manual is enlightening, well organized, and full of good sense. Its arrival may mark a new, middle-aged phase in Wikipedia’s history; some who read it will probably have wistful longings for the crazy do-it-yourself days when the whole proj-ect was just getting going. In October 2001, the first Wikipedian rule appeared. It was:

Ignore all rules: If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business.

The “ignore all rules” rule was written by co-founder Larry Sanger and signed by co-founder Jimbo Wales, along with WojPob, AyeSpy, OprgaG, Invictus, Koyaanis Qatsi, Pinkunicorn, sjc, mike dill, Taw, GWO, and Enchanter. There were two dissenters listed, tbc and AxelBoldt.

Nowadays there are rules and policy banners at every turn—there are strongly urged warnings and required tasks and normal procedures and notability guidelines and complex criteria for various decisions—a symptom of something called instruction creep: defined in Wikipedia as something that happens “when instructions increase in number and size over time until they are unmanageable.” John Broughton’s book, at a mere 477 pages, cuts through the creep. He’s got a whole chapter on how to make better articles (“Don’t Suppress or Separate Controversy”) and one on “Handling Incivility and Personal Attacks.”

To be sure, these rules and hierarchies function differently than they did elsewhere, but they function nonetheless. Among the consequences of these rules and hierarchies is that some things that are written endure in ways that some other things do not. If not forever, then at least for a while.

I think, then, that we might say that we just haven’t developed our understanding yet of what might be possible with the net, and so we haven’t developed aesthetic categories appropriate to writing literature on the net.

The other thing to say here is that Sebastian Mary seems to assume that the inherent and necessary character of the net is the interactive elements of Web 2.0. I’m not sure why we need to make this leap. It is like saying that because something can be done, then doing that thing is the only appropriate thing to do. I kind of buy Mary’s assertion that the literary is about the completed object. But it’s not clear why we can’t imagine the web as a space that has both completed objects and never completed interactive spaces.

Indeed, blogs function in some respects as aspects of both, and I’m intrigued by how this could be a clue to a literature of the future. A blog post is, in some respects a completed object. Admittedly, i go back and rewrite and change things here and there, but at somepoint that kind of revision comes to an end. And in some ways it’s no different than the kind of endless revision that Whitman did, but eventually stopped doing on leaves of grass.

Commentary, however, doesn’t have to come to an end. I’m still getting responses to some of the first blog posts I wrote. Theoretically, these posts could remain objects for commentary for…well…forever. I’m not so vain as to believe that these posts are worth that, but it’s possible to imagine creating a literature that would be more or less permanent and fixed that is accompanied by a commentary that is endless. In this sense, the text would be both fixed and endlessly changing to the degree that people would read not only my fantasized literary post, but also the months, years, decades, centuries…who knows…of commentary that would accompany it.

Thus, I think I disagree with mary’s assumption that the web is inherently interactive and thus opposed to the literary for a variety of reasons, even while I agree that we haven’t quite figured out how to bridge the gap between what’s been in place related to that term, and what may be coming in to being.

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One thought on “My blog is better than your blog: literature and evaluation on the net

  1. Bob posted something perhaps related to this in the comments to my article. He suggests that because he was involved with digital writing and publishing for a number of years before the Web became its main vehicle, he has no trouble seeing the digital space as a vehicle for relatively ‘static’ publishing, where this is much less intuitive to me. It’s interesting to historicise one’s own perspective in that way – but I think it’s probably accurate.

    I’ve been pulled up before by programmer friends for conflating the Web – ie a system of interlinked documents accessible via the internet – with the internet. So perhaps I should clarify here by saying that everything I write is relevant specifically to the Web, not to the internet in general. And I think much of what’s exciting about the Web is its evolution in recent years towards a read/write form that’s often perceived as an evolution of the read-only quality of print but which I’ve contended in a few places is in many ways qualitatively different. My article was written in this context.

    I’ve spent much of my adult life, since graduating from a fairly old-fashioned and canonical English literature degree, working out how and where my fascination with the Web interacts with this lengthy tradition of writing and thinking. If I take a fairly provocative position, suggesting that ‘the literary’ (in its common form as a set of fairly unexamined received ideas about what’s important in writing) doesn’t jive with the Web, it’s because I’m excited by the social and cultural possibilities of this medium and would hate to see people blinded to its creative potential by a set of prejudices largely determined by a different medium. Bur I’m also happy to be proved wrong.

    As a side note, if I didn’t include in my piece an acknowledgement that the ecology of publishing, writing and criticism emerges more with Grub St than Caxton, it was because the article was already pretty long. There’s much more to say here about the complex interactions circa Johnson between emerging economies of publishing, the decline of aristocratic patronage as an arbiter of taste, and the rise of a critical class instrumental in the coalescence of ‘literary’ as a cluster of ideas. But – like Tristram Shandy – one has to stop writing somewhere…

    Anyway, thank you for a great response.
    SM

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