Ana Marie Cox on Emily Gould (and me on the future of writing?)

Ever since Matthew Battles left this comment – in which he suggests (beautifully) that magazine writing often displays “a tran­scen­den­tal melan­choly that feels not so much inap­pro­pri­ate as unearned” – I’ve wondered about the future of prose style.

Because we’ve talked a lot about the future of knowledge and the future of print – but not so much style. So for months now, I’ve had a post kicking around in my head with a title that would be something like “Style, sous rature: The Future of Prose”.

And the silly idea at the core of this imaginary post is that the leaders of at least one shift in prose style are, well, women writers like Emily Gould or Moe Tkacik (and in Toronto, Kate Carraway and Chandler Levack) who engage in a kind of confessional, self-concerned writing in order to engage ideas and the world.

I think this has something to do with my emerging shtick about the thing after postmodernism and the need to actually posit stable statements without returning to a kind of thinking that relies of unquestioned assumptions like truth, objectivity, presence etc. Writing in the first-person that attempts to speak about external reality through acknowledging its own subjectivity seems to be a way of doing this – though, given the style of A Room of One’s Own, it isn’t a new phenomenon, just perhaps a concentrated or slightly changed one.

So, that’s why I found Ana Marie Cox’s review of Emily Gould’s new book interesting. In it, Cox asserts that Gould offers little in the way of insight, instead offering a kind of raw, open ‘confessionality’ as a substitute:

Gould is special, she is talented, but there is something hugely interesting, as well as disturbing, about the generation she represents and its ability to narrate its experiences without understanding them.

Candor is not the problem, but to reveal something—cheating on your boyfriend, your feelings about bums—is not the same thing as a revelation. Gould has, in fact, piled up experiences as though in the pages of a novel; she’s just left the main character incomplete. Maybe she doesn’t allow herself to stand before the reader as either of fully formed or of fully compromised character because she prizes the ability to insulate herself from that sort of risk or exposure.

Yet, when you read Emily’s beautifully written blog, you get the sense that she is altogether too aware of the implications of her narrations, as in this smart, poignant piece.

What I guess I’m wondering is this: is our interpretive context so overdetermined that non-fiction prose has to become like its fiction counterpart, full of spaces so that insight has room to breathe?

P.S. Yes, that picture of Cox up there is gratuitous. I’m only human.

Why We Should All Write For Free (Sometimes)

First, a minor digression: in all the hubbub over the Gawker clusterfuck and that NYT piece, it was easy to forget just how damn well Emily Gould can put a sentence together. I mean, like, really, intimidatingly well. The same goes for Moe Tkacik. But writer-crushes are a conversation for another time. Probably while I’m lying backwards on a leather couch talking about my mother. Anyway.

In this lovely piece, Gould talks about why she writes for free, largely in response to this n+1 piece on online literacy and culture. It was an article we all bookmarked and really wanted to find a reason to agree with, but couldn’t because it  simply articulated the same formal and structural problems with the web we already knew. Thanks a lot. We need more pessimism these days.

But what Gould cleverly points out in this piece is:

  • ‘The Internet’ is not simply one thing. It is no more ludicrous to say ‘the culture of the internet’ than it is to say ‘the culture of the world’.
  • the internet is not a text. Gould argues that this is because you find what you`re looking for. I`d add that I think all texts ultimately act this way, but what’s different about the web is that it’s a network of texts and databases and cannot be understood solely through the view of textuality. You will find what you’re looking for long before you actually start looking,  because the web is not a passive medium.
  • writing for free sustains the really cool smart work you find on places like The Awl or, well, nplusonemagazine.
  • Writing for free and getting paid for it are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive ideas. Accept it. This is the new world.

To this, all I want to add is ideology. (Hear that sound? That’s the clicking sound of the Marxist brain implant they force you to get when you get into grad school.) There is a relationship between economic networks of distribution and the reception of ideas. No-one will pay you to say things that people don’t think they want to hear (but might after actually hearing them) or to say things that only a tiny number of people care about. Writing for free – coupled with: a) the web’s low barriers to entry; b) the difficulty in controlling flows of information on non-linear, asynchronous networks; –  allows you to say things that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Of course, we all have bills to pay. I’m unabashed about the fact that this blog is partly meant to kickstart a writing career (and, in fact, is already responsible for starting it). But it isn’t just about creating a brand of oneself: it’s about writing for its own reward; of writing against the grain; and writing things and one’s self into being.

Is Oversharing The New Art?

Why yes, I am injecting myself into this debate again…

Over at Geekcentric, blogger Michael Duff has about the most interesting take I’ve seen so far [via] on both Rex Sorgatz’s Microfame thing (which I wrote about here) and the idea of ‘oversharing’ in general. Duff’s post is marvellously ambiguous. He picks up Sorgatz’s analogy between the novel and blogging and, at one point, argues that it is editing and framing that distinguish literary writing and blogging. At another point, he argues this: “I think the people who complain about oversharing are snobs. They want their art filtered, processed, sanitized and read-only. They don’t object to emotion per se, they just want it managed and packaged for them.” But most interesting of all is the structure of the thing.

Look at the way the argument progresses. First, it establishes a relationship between oversharing, emotion and a connection with the person or artist who expresses something, suggesting that the relationship between reader and novelist is akin to that between reader and blogger. So that odd feeling you get while sitting alone reading a moving piece of literature and ‘feeling connected’ to something also works in the connection between bloggers and their audience (and I did feel something like that upon reading this). By doing so, Duff makes a kind of equivalence between blogger and artist – not so much that they are one and the same, but that they perform a similar cultural function. Finally, there is an implicit comparison made between the space of art and the internet.

Put in a slightly more theoretical way, the equivalence here is between the aesthetic and the space for the aestheticisation of the self. Right? Duff is essentially arguing that the world of art, the projective space of the aesthetic and its effect on humans is similar/analagous/maybe even the same as the blogosphere, or what you could also call the projective space for the aesthetic self. Or why make the comparison in the first place?

To which I say: fucking fascinating. Seriously. There’s so much there and it’s so indicative of so much, it’s insane. What’s particularly great about it is the writer’s ambivalence, his attempt to defend something that he doesn’t agree with. But I’m especially drawn to it because that ‘conflation’ of the aesthetic and the blogosphere speaks exactly to what I’ve been arguing recently – namely, that the internet and the new public space it engenders (or is) provides a place for identities to become something aesthetic, to be turned into ‘texts’.

But, like post-whatever theory, you are left with a person who is themselves an amalgam of texts – of markers of identities like race, sex, class etc. and histories (i.e. histoires or stories) – producing a text of identity online that is divorced from the body, from the very thing that pins it down as a singular entity: the body. So you only have multiple texts – of bodies and online personas – existing in a sort of weird parallax relationship to each other, particularly because the online persona is constantly modified in relation to other online personas, bodies and texts, while at the same time the identity located at the body is being morphed in relation to the projection(s) that exists in the new public space. I think I’d be about to have a theory-gasm if I weren’t concerned about getting my keyboard sticky.

So, is oversharing the new art? I dunno’. I can see arguments for both yes and no. Whaddya’ think?

Theorizing Twitter Pt. 2: Emily Gould and Making Texts of Identity

For reasons I have yet to pin down, I have been struggling to theorise Twitter. While I am an avid user and an unabashed proponent of the service, I’ve found myself at a loss to explain why Twitter is so compelling or what some of its cultural implications are beyond the usual accusations of narcissism. In my previous attempt, I tried to think of Twitter in terms of a space for producing a personal narrative and I still think there’s something useful there to work with. But I remain perplexed.

Funnily enough, it was the recent Emily Gould brouhaha that got me thinking about this again in similar but slightly changed terms. Most reactions to the NYT Mag piece have generally fallen into two camps: Andew Keen-esque rants that declare that it is meaningless and narcissistic; or pieces discussing the importance of the revelations about the underbelly of Gawker, blogging and the NY media scene.

But one of the things Gould grapples with in the article – and this is where I believe the importance of both the piece and its reaction lie – is the manner in which identities are produced, ‘textualised’ and branded online. And I would argue that this occurs through the linking of selves to ‘presences’ on the Web. By presences, I mean persistent ‘texts of identity’ that exist ‘out there’ and are not simply expressions of ourselves – i.e. taking what is inside and telling it to the outside – but are, rather, places to almost literally ‘put ourselves’. To that end, this is what Gould says of blogging:

“I think most people who maintain blogs are doing it for some of the same reasons I do: they like the idea that there’s a place where a record of their existence is kept — a house with an always-open door where people who are looking for you can check on you, compare notes with you and tell you what they think of you.”

The two previous paragraphs essentially say the same thing and I’ve just been too stupid to recognise it before. And I think this sense of ‘putting yourself somewhere’ is what makes Twitter work as a microblogging tool, a record of identity and a place to create a story about yourself – and indeed, to deliberately be a bit exaggerative, ‘create yourself’.

But identities have always been ‘texts’, if by text one means ‘something that can be read’. When I wear a certain piece of clothing, hold my body in a particular way, use certain slang and so on, you use a code in order to interpret or read those actions. Sure, the frame of reference is always shifting – a trucker cap meant one thing in the 50s, another in the 00’s – but the mechanism stays the same. I perform something in a particular way in relation to a number of cultural reference points and, in some fashion, it is interpreted.

The internet, in things like Twitter, changes this in a few important ways. First, it locates these performances of identity outside of the body and in doing so, breaks the connection between performing identity and time and place. Rather than having to enact a particular facet of myself at a moment in time – wearing a particular thing, behaving a particular way – I can place a part of myself at a given ‘location’ online and then orient myself in relation to it. Unlike the dependence upon a body, Twitter, blogging and other digital modes of expression become spaces to project not only who I am but who I want you to think I am, in a way that isn’t necessarily bound by place and time in the same linear sense. There is instead a non-linear back and forth and a weird simultaneity in which I exist both ‘here’ and ‘there’. Furthermore, I am in effect making a text of my identity for you to read ‘out there’ and in doing so, am also recreating myself and re-imagining myself ‘in here’, in relation to the me that I am constantly writing online.

Secondly, this text exists in a persistent but constantly shifting public space. Unlike expressing oneself in a book or in a song, in Twitter I quite literally inject my thought into a public timeline, a public space that does not exist in space at all. By ‘tweeting’, I put my thoughts into the ‘flow of ideas’ and the ‘stream of culture’, and indeed, when this sense of the stream is temporarily gone (in one of Twitter’s many downtimes), it is as if Twitter loses all its appeal.

These two things combined – the projection of identity into a virtual space and its reception into and persistent presence in the public sphere – are what I’ll argue form some of the reasons that Twitter is not only addictive, but important. But while I’ve so far spoekn in rather flattering terms, I think the Gould saga also points to the manner in which this ‘projective saying‘ involved in both Twittering and blogging is also potentially dangerous. There is, after all, a push to look after the brand that is oneself, whether that it is a brutal sort of honesty in one’s writing or a need to push the next story at all costs. But more to the point (as these problems are not unique to digital forms), is that the digital space still runs by and through economic models. While Gould wrote before Denton switched to the ‘pay-per-pageview’ model, the push for her to write such honest pieces came from two major places: a blogging culture that valued hits; and a blogging audience that linked an online persona to a real identity. As such, the production of this text of identity – this projection and movment of part of oneself online – is always prey to being subsumed by economic concerns that treat texts as commodities, the same mentality that lumps all forms, whether music, literature, film etc. into the term ‘content’. While this absolutely economically necessary – indeed, is the mechanism by which the digital economy works – that does not therefore make it good for individuals.

So there are obviously upsides and downsides to all this. The positives are that Twitter and similar services have created an entirely new sphere in which to to inscribe our identities; the negative is that this space is not our own and will not simply do what we want it to because we want it to. There is obviously more to be thought about in regards to Twitter specifically and online identities in general. For now though, if you’d like to add or challenge something, comments are (as always) welcome and appreciated.