Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is the club down the street?

Garden is not doing that great this year. A lot of cucumbers, not much else.

Today I encountered this quote, in Harper’s:
“The 750-word weekly film review is a form of journalism. Gathered together, short pieces written over a period of months and years become a chronicle of an individual sensibility.… Read as a book, [a collection of reviews] documents the writer’s attempt to puzzle out the ongoing flux of movies amid the ongoing flux of events.”
It's from an article that analyzes the collected columns of two critics, Manny Farber and James Agee. The article continues by saying if their work “is literature, it’s literature of a particular kind—filled with political asides, topical jokes, and references to fleeting sensations: a cultural stream of consciousness.”

I thought to myself—hey, that’s what I’m doing. Except for the film review part. Although sometimes I do that, too. For those who do what I do, write in the public sphere of the digital age, there always arises a larger question. What exactly am I doing here? What’s the point? It’s the nature of the genre.

It’s nice to know that I have ancestors, and knowing what their role was in the early twentieth century is illustrative. Agee and Farber were writing columns for a weekly magazine, columns that tracked not only the path of American culture, but also their individual thought. Back in the olden days, when everyone read words on paper. That old-fashioned stuff? They make it from trees? Anyway.

Every so often journalism and literature have massive revolutions. The invention of paper was one, the invention of the book another. The burning of the Alexandria library was probably another, when all of the monks hid themselves away to protect books from forces seeking to destroy them. Then there was Gutenberg and his printing press, when the whole thing blew wide open.

Our era is similar to seventeenth-century Europe, when not just books but also disposable magazines and newspapers began to be printed. That’s when pamphleteers—crazy, reckless souls--took it upon themselves to write their ideas down and publish them all by themselves. Dan Bricklin describes them as “booklets consisting of a few printer's sheets, folded in various ways so as to make various sizes and numbers of pages, and sold--the pages stitched together loosely, unbound and uncovered--usually for a shilling or two.”

At each stage of that evolution, it must have felt like words had lost all of their value. When movable type was invented, the amount of pages a person could produce a day multiplied by 1000 times. By some accounts, thousands of pamphleteers were published in London during the heyday of what gave newspapers the nickname “rags.” Pamphlets were little but ‘zines from the eighties. Copied and sold on street corners.

What happened to all the rags? They distinguished themselves. They calcified into the institutions we know today as the Times of London, the Guardian, the New York Post. It’s exactly the same thing that’s happening now. All of us are writing little newspapers on our own, with no division between our computers and our audience.

In some ways, it’s perfect. I can read about whatever I want. If the kind of news I care about is how to raise chickens in Alabama, I can read about that. If I care about buying and cooking squash blossoms in Brooklyn, I can read about that. If I care about what Lindsay Lohan is wearing in jail, I can read about that. But we no longer have any arbiters for our news. We are our own arbiters.

We can argue all day about whether it’s good or bad to have information fed to us by people in control. We can talk, more significantly, about how any of the new writers are going to make a living. But at some point, the blogosphere will also calcify, will become its own institution. The new arbiters will reveal themselves.

My only point is that I’m doing exactly the same thing as Agee and Farber. I’m writing a chronicle not only of my culture but also of my individual sensibility. If I’m lucky, and brave, then what I write could also end up as literature of a particular kind. A cultural stream of consciousness as literature. And I’m okay with that.

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