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Words Unwired

12 January 2016

From The New York Times:

What’s the point of a literary magazine today? That’s a question I heard a lot five years ago, when my colleagues and I decided to relaunch The Paris Review.

At the time print quarterlies didn’t exactly look like a going concern. The journals we’d grown up on had folded or seemed to be on life support. Every month brought word that another bookstore had closed. Social media was held up as the new literary community, and the Kindle was king. Print, we heard again and again, was dead.

Worse, if you talked to editors, writers and teachers off the record, you encountered a consensus — or at least a prevalent view — that American literature itself was in decline. Short stories especially: Nobody actually wanted to read them. Nobody was learning how to write them. The savviest M.F.A. students were pouring their energies into fat historical novels — and their Facebook pages.

. . . .

 Five years later I won’t say all that has changed. But things look slightly different. We spend more time than ever on our devices, but it seems fair to say we like them less, especially when it comes to reading.

. . . .

Turning off your phone has become a prized luxury. Over these last few years all of us, readers and writers alike, have developed a growing appreciation for what the Internet wants to take away: our time alone with the written word.

As the poet Nick Laird recently observed, “the Internet — with its endless choice, its banner ads, its I.M.s and GIFs and Vines — is a disastrous locale” for most poetry. “Does anything less than the immediately shocking or charming get attention? . . . Trying to hear the tonally complex voice of a complicated poem is like trying to hear a moth in a hurricane — and all the time the hurricane is screaming that there are a billion other things you could be doing.”

. . . .

 Method actors like to talk about something called “public solitude” — that is, the ability to seem alone onstage. Really, to be alone, without wondering how you look to the audience. They will tell you this is the basis of naturalistic acting: to forget about the audience. Only then can you build a character, pay attention to others onstage and act out a scene.

To write a story also requires public solitude. You can’t be worrying how you sound. You can’t wonder whether you or your characters are likable or smart or interesting. You have to be inside the scene — the tactile world of tables and chairs and sunlight — attending to your characters, people who exist for you in nonvirtual reality. This takes weird brain chemistry. (A surprising number of novelists hear voice, and not metaphorically. They hear voice in their heads.) It also takes years of reading — solitary reading.

For all these reasons, writing fiction is pretty much the opposite of writing a good tweet, or curating an Instagram feed.

. . . .

 By writing offline, literally and metaphorically, this new generation of writers gives us the intimacy, the assurance of their solitude.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

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22 Comments to “Words Unwired”

  1. Rampant Pretentious Snootyism.

    • Oh, c’mon. I’m sure each issue is lovingly prepared on a linotype machine. And bound by hand in leather.

      • But, but… What about the poor monastery scribes and their hand-lettered illuminated manuscripts on parchment? 🙁

  2. Oh give me a break.

    There are more ways to write than there are writers. And I can read anywhere. I have this amazing ability to tune out the unwanted and focus my attention.

    I have friends that write on their phones when they’re on the go. Two writers I know that co-write do it on Google Docs because they can apparently see what each is writing in real time. Which I think is kind of magic considering one is in the UK and the other one here in FL.

    • No, this is ‘The New York Times’ speaking. there is only one way — just ask them. They know only one way so it must be the true path. All other paths are false trails …

  3. Critics wine and moan
    That the Internet kills art
    While everyone laughs

  4. Because the daily back breaking labor our ancestors faced did allow them the time to appreciate poetry?

    I swear, every time I read romanticized versions of a past that never was it drives me nuts. At least it isn’t one of those posts about how no one had casual sex or teenage pregnancy didn’t exist in the past. I break out the STD rates of WW1 when that stupidity comes up.

    • @ Wayne

      “I break out the STD rates of WW1 when that stupidity comes up.”

      It was called “VD” back then.

      Probably had to change it to “STD” because Latin is no longer taught in high school.

      (BTW, I had 2 years of Latin in HS.)

      • Yeah, and most of the references I link do use the term VD not STD even if they were compiled years after. I especially like all the US artwork on avoiding prostitutes or ‘easy’ British women. A lot of work went into them.

        • VE-Day. VD-Day. I’m always confusing those two.

        • I saw some of those ads. They looked just like movie posters, and they’d always feature a woman who looked like a femme fatale, with a soldier standing off to the side giving her an appraising eye. They would would have captions with variants of “She’s beautiful but she’s dangerous” or some such. It answered the question of why movie characters from that era always had to get blood tests before getting a marriage license.

          It’s definitely good to live in a post-vaccine, post-antibiotic age 🙂

          • An age where STDs are even more rampant, because nobody thinks they can get sick, and where people rarely are taught about what unpleasant things they can catch and pass on.

    • Wayne : “Because the daily back breaking labor our ancestors faced did allow them the time to appreciate poetry?”

      I would answer : yes.

      Ever heard of Homer ? Of the story tellers of the Middle Ages who had to make their story in verses in order for people to appreciate ? Of the story tellers in China, almost up to now, who have always included verses in their prose stories ?

      In our family village, there is an old peasant still living who told my mother once, that he was forever thankful to free mandatory public schooling — he went to school up to age 11 just before WW2 — because it allowed him to read poetry in his free time. It was the only thing that allowed him to let his mind roam and escape his “back breaking labor”.

      I am not saying that his case is typical, but…

      European peasantry had more free time available than workers of the Industrial Revolution (of course, not every day of the year). Those who could read (sure, they were few) did sometimes read poetry. In China, where literacy rates among the poor were somewhat higher than in Europe, everybody who could read, read poetry. The others had poetry read to them.

      You do not need a lot of time on your hands to read poetry. Much less than for fiction. A sonnet can be read in what ? Less than one minute ? If it’s good it will then stay with you forever.

      Let me transform your question :
      “Because the daily back breaking labor our ancestors faced did allow them the time to appreciate Shakespeare?”
      You can find the answer yourself, I guess.

      • Oh I’m not saying poetry is useless or anything dismissive like that. The same with oral storytelling. But despite the anecdotal stories I suspect far more people went to a bar/ pub/ tavern after work than read poetry. I’d point to the historical number of bars vs opera/playhouses/etc. in each city. Not long after the turn of the century there were movie houses competing for entertainment also.

        It might be different in Europe but outside of some artificial towns here in North America the number of bars outstrips poetry recital spots. It might seem I’m comparing apples to oranges but I see a ton more of my acquaintances drinking than reading poetry. And no, I don’t drink myself so I don’t even spend time with a bar crowd.

  5. A surprising number of novelists hear voice in their heads? Really? I thought we all did, though I’d change that to “voices”.

    • Surprisingly few people experience imagination aurally, but there seem to be a higher percentage of novelists who do. Of course, many people have aural imagination of characters and never write it down. The same thing is true of people with strong visual imagination.

      But the most common pattern seems to be people who do not formally pre-imagine characters and situations at all, but simply create them as part of the writing process.

      The large differences in neurological style between individual writers are part of why some writing classes are so unhelpful.

  6. By writing offline, literally and metaphorically, this new generation of writers gives us the intimacy, the assurance of their solitude.

    I was going to say this statement makes no sense, until I checked their site and saw that they do NOT accept e-mailed submissions, but do provide an address to mail your paper masterpieces to. Does this really mean someone in their office has to re-type everything? Though I’m still not seeing the “literally” bit with regard to how an author chooses to write.

  7. “To write a story also requires public solitude. You can’t be worrying how you sound. You can’t wonder whether you or your characters are likable or smart or interesting. You have to be inside the scene — the tactile world of tables and chairs and sunlight — attending to your characters, people who exist for you in nonvirtual reality.”
    Yes, immersion in the fictive world I’m creating requires my full engagement. That works best for me if I disengage from the Internet and work in an environment with fewer distractions. How other writers work is highly individual to them. Funny thing, though: the virtual world hasn’t yet figured out how to disrupt my writing without my specific permission. Until my phone or tablet learn to walk into my office and kick me on the shin to get my attention, I’m good.

    What started as a quick comment here quickly became a blog post. Apparently, I had a lot more to say about Loren Stein’s article. 🙂

  8. The savviest M.F.A. students were pouring their energies into fat historical novels — and their Facebook pages.

    The savviest? Now that is a real threat to the culture.

  9. When the Paris Review talks about writers, they’re not talking about indie authors building up a fanbase and self-publishing quality books. Stein’s talking about the tiny class of lit-fic authors with NY establishment seal of approval MFA degrees.

  10. be apprised, as contributing editor for now, oh, 28 years for a long standing book review, MOST of the ‘lit fic’ authors’ books languish on the shelves, unreviewed. And the lit-crit books layered with dust have NO takers for review.

    Long ago, before most of you were born, the PReview offered that they published poetry. Back then, it was a small cadre of friends publishing friends. Dont know if that’s changed. But and too, back then, the cutting edge of poetry and poets was not to be found in P.Review. It was found in the scrappy journals that were far less like a mannered minuet as was P.Review, and far more like a West End brawl of words flying fresh and bloody.

    But then too, Nat’l Poetry whatever and Poetry mag and several of the ‘lit’ reviews log roll. I’d rather read the bowry poets and the old farmer poets who wrote with grit in one of a kind voices. They gave no ‘instructions’ for how to write. Just did. And beautifully.

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