Monday, July 04, 2005

Kevin Smokler: Bookmark Now

Bookmark Now turns out to be a considerable disappointment. But that is not so much a criticism of the book as a reflection of the fact that I expected it to be something rather different from what it is.

Edited by Kevin Smokler, Bookmark Now is a collection of essays. The subtitle is 'Writing in unreaderly times'; and somehow or other, perhaps through not reading the publicity carefully enough, I got the impression that this would be a body of work about taking advantage of the new technology. I thought there would be quite a lot about writing for the internet, the impact of new book-printing techniques, new approaches to copyright, and so forth.

What we have, in fact, is a collection of essays by people who are mostly not so much new technologists as old-time literary types (even if they are young-ish). They edit literary magazines; they have written critically acclaimed novels (which means that no one bought them); they have won obscure literary prizes; and, yes, they teach creative writing. In short, they are the usual suspects; the kind of people whom I hold responsible for many of the foolish nonsenses which are mistaken for established facts in the world of serious literary criticism. Little wonder, then, that I find myself out of sympathy with most of what they have to say.

If there is anyone among the lot of them who writes anything which might be called down-market commercial fiction (or even non-fiction), then that person escaped my notice, for which I apologise. There doesn't seem to be anyone from crime or romance, for example.

True, there are a few contributors who write about the internet and the new media, notably Douglas Rushkoff, Elizabeth Spiers, and Neil Pollack. But the bulk of the essayists are not the kind of writers whose ideas and opinions I was hoping to read about.

Thus far, of course, this is all the result of my own misapprehension. So what of the book?

It begins with an introduction by the editor, in which he comments on the absence of fresh thinking among both authors and publishers, and expresses the hope that the essays that he has collected will be seen as an invitation to think big. Smokler's publisher describes him, by the way, as 'one of the country's [USA's] leading thinkers on the future of contemporary literature, publishing, and the arts at large.' That being so, perhaps it's a pity that he didn't write a whole book of his own.

The essays are grouped into four sections: Beginnings; The writing life; The now; and The future.

The first essay struck me as being a poor start, and it did not encourage me to read further; but I did. The second is a slight improvement, but my notes say, Where's the beef? And finally, in the fourth essay, by Howard Hunt, we have a good solid piece on the technique of interviewing rock stars; should you ever wish to do so.

You may be wondering, by the way, whether this is the same Howard Hunt who was involved in the Watergate burglary and subsequently wrote (or gave his name to?) some pretty good espionage novels. The answer is no. Unfortunately. The essay would have been a damn sight more interesting if it was.

I'm afraid that it was with the last essay in this first section, Michelle Richmond's 'raw takes on the MFA', that I really began to lose patience.

Degree courses in 'creative writing' are more widespread in the USA than in the UK, though modern UK universities are doing their best to remedy the situation -- for which read 'take full advantage of the gullibility of a seemingly endless supply of mugs'. And once upon a time, potential students could be forgiven for assuming that such a degree course was a worthwhile investment of time and money.

But not, surely, any longer. Anyone who troubles to use Google can find a vast amount of data demonstrating that MFA courses are not a good investment in terms of financial return. Neither could such courses be mistaken, by anyone who knows anything about universities, as a broad-based form of liberal education. They are, in short, an almost complete waste of time and money.

Michelle Richmond tells us that when she embarked on her own MFA course -- a four-year marathon, God help us all -- she began to question her own sanity. As well she might.

The students on Michelle's course, by her own account, seem to have spent much of their time fucking each other's brains out. But, if such is your taste, you don't actually need to go on an expensive degree course. As for the 'workshop' technique -- which is what the MFA colleges use to eliminate the need to actually teach anything -- no one in their right mind could possibly imagine that it will lead anywhere much. Why should you care what a bunch of self-obsessed, over-ambitious, fuzzy-thinking weirdos think about what you have written? An experienced agent might very well have something valuable to tell you. But a fellow student? I really don't think so.

So, asks Michelle in conclusion, 'do you need to go to school to become a writer? Probably not.' And what does Michelle Richmond do for a living now? She teaches writing in San Francisco.

The second group of essays are linked by the heading 'The Writing life'. Several of them struck me, I'm sorry to say, as self-indulgent and of little value. On the whole it seems to me that the authors of these pieces spend too much time talking and writing about writing fiction and not enough time actually doing it. (A failing to which I am not altogether immune myself, of course.)

Neal Pollack is interesting on fan fiction, and he tells some stories about writing online which should give serious pause to anyone contemplating doing the same.

For me, part three of the book, 'The now', contained nothing of note or of value. Which leaves only part four, 'The future'.

Here, at last, are a couple of pieces more or less along the lines of what I had been hoping for. Elizabeth Spiers writes about blogging and traditional print, but she elicited from me not a single pencil note in the margin. That is a considerable disappointment in itself, because the lady has a formidable background.

Douglas Rushkoff proves to be more interesting about the recent past and the present than he is about the future. He tells a story about how the title of one of his books was changed at the last minute, by the publisher, who forgot to inform the trade, or anyone else. The result was that no bookseller or library could ever find it, even if they wanted to order a copy. Oops, as Douglas says. He also discusses the value of distributing free copies of a book, as digital files, over the internet; but that is a topic which has been touched on often elsewhere.

All in all then, as I said at the beginning, this collection of essays is a disappointment. I have the distinct impression that, when Smokler asked them to contribute, the writers represented here readily agreed. Then, as the deadline approached, and passed, they thought to themselves, Dearie me, I really must dash something off for that lovely Kevin or the dear boy will be frightfully upset. And so they did. But I can't really suggest that the result is something that you should buy with your own money. You can find better stuff online for free; and some of it, oddly enough, is written by the very same contributors.


Anonymous said...

I purchased "Bookmark Now" several weeks ago. You made it much farther in it than I did. I had the same feeling -- essays written on deadline.

Changing the subject, Happy Birthday from America!

Anonymous said...

Since I have not read Mr Smokler’s collection, I have no opinion of it. I will comment, rather, on the matter of ‘literary’ fiction generally.

In the nineteenth century there was a great appetite for sex, scandal and sensation, and there were writers who fed that appetite with books which would have today’s tabloids blushing. But at the top level, the likes of Dickens and George Eliot were writing novels accessible to all. In other words, there was no sense that the ‘best’ writing should be difficult. This was the twentieth century’s bad idea, and, if you want to know, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf had a lot to do with it.

As it happens, very few novels today are really inaccessible. It is in short fiction and poetry that the rot has set in.

Worst of all, however, is academic literary criticism, for the perpetrators of which a special corner of hell has been reserved. (I know, because God has told me.) This genre did not exist in the nineteenth century, because the universities had not yet invented the academic gravy train as we know it.

Forgive me, but I cannot resist quoting in full the abstract of Tomislav Brlek’s
Polyphiloprogenitive: T.S. Eliot’s Notion of Culture. (And if he wants to sue me for breach of copyright, he can fuck off.)
In his various writings on the subject, T.S. Eliot develops the notion of culture as a comprehensive and highly complex system of meaning production, wherein social, political and other contexts are constitutive of experience formation, while the experiences thus formed are what the cultural system consist of. The multiform dialectical interaction that is culture crucially involves the notion of community and postulates ongoing interpretation as the lifeline of all cultural activity, predicated as it is on the ceaseless semiotic feedback between the heterogeneous codes that comprise it and the communicative exchange with the "outside" through which its "inside" is actually brought about. Such considerations closely link Eliot's understanding of culture with Lotman's concept of the semiosphere.

Now, Your Grumpiness, could you match that? Here’s a challenge. Give us just one entry in the style to which academic lit crit has become accustomed, and you will have attained some real intellectual credibility.

Anonymous said...

When His Grumpiness turns it loose and lets it flow, as he did in this essay, he is at his greatest. Delightful.

And I thank the gentleman in the post above for sharing the excerpt from Briek--quite frightening indeed. I shall practice saying "Polyphiloprogenitive" until I get it right. I will pray, however, that our GOB never uses such gibberish.

sanfranciscogirl said...

I should point out one thing about MFA programs that I think most folks outside of the MFA circuit don't know. Many of them--in fact MOST of the older, established programs--don't charge a dime. I attended two MFA programs, both of which were free to me. In the first, I taught 2 comp classes and in return received tuition remission and a small stipend, which was enough to live on in the small town where I was teaching.

The second university (where I transferred, because I realized 4 years was indeed way too long), required me only to teach a creative writing class. Again, I paid no tuition, and I received a stipend (significantly more generous than the first).

The reason many folks go into an MFA program has far less to do with "studying fiction" than it does with simply having time to write and put a book together--in which case an MFA may server somone very well. I always encourage students to first look for non-paying programs, where the competition for getting in is generally much stiffer, but where one need not worry about going into debt.

Yes, I teach, and I really enjoy it. But I always make sure my students know that an MFA is no fast track--indeed probably no track at all--to fortune and fame.

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