This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. This post is a response to Josh’s post from yesterday.
“The artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist”—this is undoubtedly true, and it complicates the argument I was trying to advance with my perhaps somewhat pat examples, but I’m not sure that my entire line of thinking is negated by the admission that the relationship between the user and what he uses is one of reciprocal modification. I don’t share your sense that the computer has an ineluctable aura of “business” about it. Growing up, there was almost always a computer in my house. I can say with something like complete confidence that I was the first of my childhood friends to ever go online—onto Compuserve, via a 14400 baud modem that we hooked into the house’s only phone line. I also played a lot of video games as a kid, mostly on consoles, because we only had one computer—it lived in the family room—and my father was very wary of any activity that might damage it (keyboards don’t stand up to punishment quite the same way Nintendo controllers do). Later, when I got my own computer in my very own room, the feeling was not unlike getting my first stereo, or, for that matter, my first little writing desk. What I mean is that it didn’t feel limiting, it felt freeing.
Here was something that was all mine that I could use however and for whatever I wanted to without asking permission, waiting my turn, or having someone look over my shoulder while I did it. The computer was an extension of the bedroom itself—another space, this one virtual, over which I had exclusive dominion, could personalize after my own taste, and which expanded the range of work and play activities available to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite gotten over that feeling. I know so many writers who say that they can’t work at home, so they go to coffee shops, libraries, even pay to rent office space—this is a problem I’ve never had. When Amanda and I got this apartment back in February it came with a home office. This is probably the first time in my writing life that there hasn’t been a direct sightline to my workspace from my bed. A good thing, to be sure, but it’s taken a while to get used to.
None of which is to say that I’m unambivalent about the computer, only my ambivalence locates itself elsewhere than where yours seems to. My last year of high school I spent a lot of time online—in part because I was feeling very done with my hometown and in part because better technology made more things possible and I was interested in seeing what they were. I IM’ed with people I could have just as easily been on the phone with, I hung around Grateful Dead message boards looking for people to trade tapes with (cassette tapes!—sent through the U.S. mail). I downloaded lots of dirty pictures, and I played a massive-multiplayer online role playing game, where you had to team up with strangers you met in the virtual fantasy world and fight an unending battle against whatever was around. This, to me, is an example of “the tool making the user”—I felt it and could acknowledge it even as it was taking place—but I’ve switched my “user” back in for your “artist” because I’m not sure whether the re-making effect ever extended to my art. If I were writing a memoir, I might speculate at length about the effect of the computer on various aspects of my life (sexual, social, etc.) but suffice here to say that once I got to college, re-situated in a place and with a group of people I liked, whose artistic and political interests I either shared or adopted, I stopped doing most of the aforementioned online activities, because the point of all that shit had been to assuage loneliness and/or pass time, and now I had places to go and people to see.
All of which, I guess, is to say, that the computer has never seemed to me to have a developmental role in the way I make or think about my art. Rather, art is—among many other things—the arena in which I can process/analyze/interrogate the role the computer plays in the other areas of my life. Which brings us around to your book. Two of the stories in Four New Messages are explicitly concerned with the impact of the way the virtual and meatspace worlds inform each other. In “Emission,” the main character, a drug dealer, does something sleazy at a house party, which gets converted into salacious web gossip, gunks up his Google-ability, and basically ruins his life. Which is truly saying something since his life was something of a ruin to start with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Richard Monomian’s original transgression is in any sense redeemed or excused, but as the story progresses there is a sense that the punishment has outmatched the original crime. Though of course “the punishment” itself doesn’t seem to be purposefully delivered—it’s an unplanned side-effect of the reporting party’s use of the web as reporting medium. In “Sent” there’s a kind of reciprocal feedback between the virtual and the physical. That novella opens with what might be my favorite episode from this collection, and one of my favorite pieces of yours in general: the history of a bed from the time it was a tree in a forest, hundreds of years ago in Russia, taken through its chopping and carving and generations of ownership until it finally ends up as the “stage” for a cheap amateur (or “amateur-style”) porno that gets posted on the internet, where it’s viewed by an American manboy of our own era, who becomes so obsessed with the “starlet” he watches on the virtual screen that he decides to try and track her down in real life. Continue reading
This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. In this post, Justin responds to Josh’s initial thoughts.
Okay. You’ve thrown a lot of questions at me here, so let me describe what I’m seeing and then let’s see where we are. (I almost wrote “hearing,” because when I read your words I hear your voice in my head, but if I were having the screws put to me by the fact-checker I’d have to admit that what I hear right now is the desk fan in my office, my own keys clacking on the keyboard of my MacBook, and Nathan Salsburg’s wonderful instrumental acoustic guitar record, “Affirmed,” which I switched to just a minute ago from Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, because that was too noisy to “hear” myself think over, despite having only a minute before that having posted on my Facebook page that I intended to listen to Hendrix for “most of the afternoon.” He’s lucky if he got forty-five minutes. (So much for the honest presentation of a public self).
Like you, I compose my fictions by hand and type them up later, editing as I go, then printing out again for another read-through (often aloud) and hand-written edit. This process is repeated as many times as a given piece demands. But it doesn’t bother me that I use the same computer to type my fictions as I do to write you a note about where to lunch on Sunday, anymore than it would if I were to use the same pen I was first-drafting with to dash off your address on a postcard I was sending you. I don’t see the materials themselves as inherently sacred or profane. The computer is a nexus-point for so many different parts of our lives (public, private, interpersonal, professional, political, artistic, cultural-consumptive, &c.) that historically were experienced or pursued separately and without reference to one another—as in, when you were doing thing A, you were necessarily not doing things B and/or C and/or D.
It’s up to the individual, therefore, to decide what degree of simultaneity is appropriate at a given time. Just because you have the ability to watch a dirty movie clip in one browser window while leaving a birthday message on your grandmother’s Facebook page in another browser window doesn’t mean that you should. Similarly, just because you have the ability to make lunch plans or trade gossip or read “status updates” using the same device you use to edit your magnum opus does not mean that trading gossip and reading status updates is a good use of your designated Valuable Writing Time. So the problem—if there is a problem—in my view is not with the tool but with the user.
Do I think that non-writers struggle to find the right tone—the thing that will make them sound like the people they wish to project themselves as or perhaps even actually are? Sure. I think everyone’s always working to become or at any rate maintain their status as their best self. If anything, the writer (more generally, the artist) has an easier time of it, because we spend so much time practicing on these microcosmic people we create just to fuck with; we have (or ought to have) a more refined sense of how these things work.
You should be very honest about your attitude toward publicity. I’d be curious to hear you articulate it, perhaps in the form of a guiding policy or principle if you have one. I’ll give you mine, which is to mostly say “Yes” to things, unless there’s a compelling reason not to—time or dignity being the main ones. The work of writing has literally nothing to do with the work of publicizing that writing after it’s finished. I’ve never sought “fame” or a spotlight for their own sakes (and God knows haven’t found them) but when I make the decision to publish my work, I’m saying that I want it to have an existence beyond my own desktop, a public life, and if it’s going to have one I want it to have the biggest, best one possible. I don’t think there’s anything unseemly about that. They’re two different skill-sets, two entirely different and in certain crucial ways irreconcilable frames of mind. There are ways to have fun with it and ways to get through it when it’s not fun, but more than anything else, choosing to participate affords you the best possible chance of message control. Anything you’re willing to say “Yes” to and actually do, you can be responsible for. The more hands-off you are the more you’re at the mercy of somebody else’s press releases, tag lines, and surmises, or at risk of simply being ignored.
I hope I haven’t gotten too far off track here. I worry too that my instinct to be contrary, when applied to your deep ambivalence, causes me to play the wide-eyed Happy Guy. There are a lot of things about “publicity” that I hate—particularly the way young writers are taught to crave it above all other things—such as craft, discipline, and integrity. And of course I notice that the one question I shirked was the one I was most interested in—the question having to do with voice in fiction, this notion of convincing similarity versus convincing difference. Maybe you can expand a bit on your concept, or clarify how you see this question of aesthetics/mimetics relating to these notions of the public/private self, writerly or non?