For the past three years, I have worked in the Hopwood Program, a University of Michigan library and program that hosts visiting writers and writing contests for undergraduates and MFA students at the University.
Recently, the program has made strides to leave the past of physical cataloguing and enter the digital age. For the first year, the submission process for contests was held online, and the program has made further strides to accommodate the changing space of the literary world by bringing in writers who have utilized the tools of digital disruption to create new exciting and creative works.
This project seeks to explore the changing landscape of literary discourse as a product of digital innovation and the individuals who have worked within this changing landscape.
I recently had a chance to speak with Cathy Park Hong, Guggenheim Fellow, acclaimed poet, and poetry editor at New Republic.
Hong talked about her essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” recently published in the journal Lana Turner. Hong writes:
The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history. The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.
Instead, the Avant Garde must accommodate new voices. Many of these new voices have arisen through online social-justice movements. Poets of color, comfortable interacting through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, have translated the discourse surrounding their artistic work to the same digital space, which fosters the exchange of ideas and is leading to the next generation of American poets. A question that arises from this change is how to productively interact in this digital space? The physical space of the salon is gone, giving way to digital modes of conversation.
Hong also warned about the dangers of artistic discourse being centered in social media, as it has contributed to a violent “Call-out culture.” In a digital age, how do we balance discussions to address bias and exclusion in order to advance American poetry without silencing more voices? Hong notes that often, poets take offense too easily, and should try to stick to writing their own instead of responding to others. Oftentimes, a few loud voices of condemnation can sound like many, and it becomes difficult to gauge the true popularity of an idea and whether a claim truly serves a productive purpose. This is the trending effect.
To transition from the academic and literary to the popular, check out this Buzzfeed headline (a trending one) condemning E.L. James’ new spinoff of the 50 Shades series, Grey.
Because of the clickbait tone of headlines such as this that simply seek to create web traffic, claims become outlandish and dismissive and exaggerated in “criticism”. I place “criticism” in quotation marks because it is hard to call a Buzzfeed response to any form of literature criticism. Proof and justification of an argument is not valued, and the creator of such claims does not require any credentials. I don’t want to knock Scott Bryan or give any credit to anything written by E.L. James, but most analysis is going to boil down to speculation and popularly appealing condemnation.
The digital era has allowed literature to take on new forms that were previously impossible. For example, Madeleine is Sleeping (2004) by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, who spoke in the Hopwood Room, originally employed hypertext as a way to capture the dreamscape of a sleeping French girl. The novel centers on a single hub, while hypertext links lead to different spaces of dreams, creating a web of narratives. The form also imbues the novel with an interesting alinear quality.
There are some purists who will argue against media such as the hypertext novel, arguing for some style from the past that seems to capture “real art” or something, but these claims are just as vague as they sound. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) was a pioneering work that was at the forefront of establishing the novel. But Sterne himself played with the physical form of the book, most notably with the famous “black page” that marked the protagonist’s death.
By using ink and paper not simply as a medium with no value in itself unless ideas are marked by it, he makes the physicality of the medium itself an artistic opportunity. Readers should avoid the trap of believing in a holy form of the novel.
The question (which I will leave unanswered due to not wanting to write a whole book) becomes how to approach a work produced through a medium that has not yet developed a set of aesthetic guidelines.
When considering the changes in literature as it applies to the general public of readers, those reading for entertainment, the most important technological advancement has been the eBook and the eReader. The eRreader era was seen by publishers as a possible savior of the publishing industry as sales have been declining for years. The Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook provided readers with greater convenience and portability, and access to more material. Currently, eBooks make up $3.37 billion in the American publishing industry. The eBook alters the reading experience when we consider features such as word lookup, which bridges possible knowledge gaps. When reading a novel such as Ulysses or Infinite Jest, massive works that feature even more massive vocabularies, where not understanding things is integral to the work itself, the experience of the novel is altered. Whether this is better or worse is up for debate.
But even as we were still learning how to think about the eReader, we are already entering the post-eReader era. With the proliferation of tablets and bigger phones, we are experiencing a period technological cohesion. But while this may be more convenient for the consumer, it spells disaster for reading and publishers:
“The death of the standalone e-reader might be good news for consumers, who will have one fewer gadget to buy and lug around. But it’s bad news for the book industry. Reading on an original Kindle or a Nook is an immersive experience. There are no push notifications from other apps to distract you from your novel, no calendar reminders or texts popping up to demand your immediate attention.” (Kevin Roose, New York Magazine)
While all innovations and changes in the industry previously discussed have had pros and cons, the novel or poem or essay being placed in the same product as text messages and app alerts is fundamentally detrimental to literature. The integrity of the work is degraded by no longer standing alone, and it ceases to have the capacity for its intention: to arrest or attention, to hold our focus, to move a reader from the world of the mundane to a space of artistic imagination.
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