Responding to Sterling's "18 Challenges" (Part 1/3)
If you want to write fiction and get paid for it, you can't sit back in a velvet armchair anymore and wait for the world to catch up with your genius. If you seriously believe in the transformative power of fiction and believe that people who tell compelling and beautiful stories ought to be compensated for what they do, then you are going to have to get out there and fight for it.

That's how you can tell the real writers from the amateurs these days. The real writers are mad, blithering, and armed. The amateurs are forlorn, wistful, and think somebody is coming to their rescue.

This is a new global world with real threats to expression, and unless writers start fighting the real fights instead of the pretend ones, fiction writers are going to disappear down fashion's navel, becoming as irrelevant and useless to society as opera composers or rice-grain miniaturists.

But what are the new threats? What are the real fights?

Frozen fascists are not waiting in German bunkers to finally burn the world's "controversial" books, and there are no government subcommittees clacking their Masonic rings together as they fold their hands and contemplate the pornographic implications of modernism.

On the internet, you can watch people fuck each other with their own shit, cook human flesh that has been legally willed to them, and wear bear suits while eating Crisco right out of the jar, lathering their genitalia preparatory to intense, jowl-shaking masturbation sessions (complete with authentic bear noises).

"Controversy" in fiction is dead. When was the last time the public cared when a fiction writer said anything controversial? The 1960s? Ballard? The outing of Dumbledore?

Fiction writers! Fear the reality of obsolescence, not last century's unhelpful paranoia!

Publishing companies aren't going to fight for you. They are middle management. They are the people who squirt you with water, call you "champ," and cut your swollen eyebone. They are useful and necessary, but they aren't in the ring and never have been. You are on your own, and you need to know what that means.

Science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling has laid out "18 Challenges Facing Contemporary Literature" over at his blog "Beyond the Beyond." They are all good points and they deserve clash.

1. Literature is language-based and national; contemporary society is globalizing and polyglot.

Literature requires an intense and focused mastery of one specific language, whereas globalization seems to contort works into their simplest form (movies, comics, commercials). However, there are many notable examples of writers who are more successful writing in an acquired language rather than their native tongue, such as Beckett and Nabokov. Additionally, Joyce is proof that learning as many languages as possible will increase the linguistic weapons at your disposal if you like tricks and flourishes. These exceptions, however, prove the rule that a lifetime learning the hidden channels of power within a single language is no longer a sexy road to becoming one of the global elite.

The very nature of a piece of literature written in a specific, difficult language is a hostile gesture in a world where greater emphasis is placed on accepting other nationalities and cultures at face value than on history.

Yet, we pick new languages to learn because we want to see how they operate at their most subtle. Who learns Russian without wanting to read Dostoevsky? Who learns French without curiosity about Baudelaire? The difficult treasures at the bottom of these languages are what pull people into them, and mere "communication" is not what keeps a language alive. Lack of artistic compost within a language kills the garden where readers grow.

Literature does not have to change to become more global and polyglot. But the translation nexus does. Fiction writers should seek to learn at least one other language as well as they know their own, and these authors must then do their time at translation, translating books that they particularly like back and forth between languages to satisfy a worldwide base of thoughtful, polyglot fiction enthusiasts.

Complete dedication to this project is no longer necessary to achieve sufficient ends. Translation of classic 'belles lettres' using an open source wiki model could be an efficient method for opening up world literature. Both amateurs and professional writers could dip into their favorite "public domain" works as hobbies, editing now and then, making suggestions when it suits them.

Over time, perfection could be achieved in these translated works, giving people a reason to continue to create powerful new narratives in their own exclusive languages that will compel others toward more ambitious translation initiatives.

If publishers put new work out in embedded flash drive sculptures instead of as paper books, they will be able to include original versions in original languages alongside every translation, also offering new translations as they are completed inside this "seed." With access to more books in other languages, people will find it easier to practice reading new tongues and publishers will have an incentive to cater to this market for fresh new books from exciting foreign lands.

Literature is exclusive; contemporary society is inclusive. But technology is good at both breaking down doors and at building new rooms. The aims of technology and literature are one and the same: keeping the human animal curious enough to continue striving for the many frontiers of being.

2. Vernacular means of everyday communication â€" cellphones, social networks, streaming video â€" are moving into areas where printed text cannot follow.

This is temporary. The printed word is still the most efficient means of communication between two people and will be until we develop ESP. Reading is much faster than listening and words are nothing but crystallized images. Just look at Chinese characters.

"What's writing?" asks the young gelfling male in the "Dark Crystal."

"Words that stay," answers the young gelfling female.

Additionally, the fruits of literacy are so powerful there will always be hegemony for those who partake. Functional literacy makes you strange, creative, powerful, logical, and empathetic. Writing is thought; writing is thinking.

These "vernacular means of everyday communication" are simply trial balloons. Printed text will be the last to arrive in these "vernacular" quadrants, because when it finally shows up, it will be the big, bold, immovable beast that redefines everything. These vernacular forms of discourse have simply been guinea pigs, tests to see if these new technologies can handle the load of literature, the highest human art.

Brave illiterates have always been the first pioneers. If they survive the hard winters and plagues, civilization follows. Digital readers are already the hot new tech commodity these days, signifying that printed text will always eventually arrive in a gilded carriage wherever "vernacular media" may toil and sweat.

3. Intellectual property systems failing.

Good riddance. Writers and publishers need a new product, and "ebooks" aren't good enough. See "Wunderkammer Seeds: A Fantasia" for a possible solution.

Writers may no longer be able to protect their work from piracy, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways to add value to writing once again by adopting publishing methods that actively resist duplication.

4. Means of book promotion, distribution and retail destabilized.

Destabilized, like a wall between earth and heaven, ready to topple, letting the angels out and the good people in. See "With the Espresso Book Machine, Suddenly You Are an 'Electronic Publishing Company' or You Are Nothing" for further analysis.

5. Ink-on-paper manufacturing is an outmoded, toxic industry with steeply rising costs.

There are better uses for wood than books. When books don't sell, the publishers burn them. The process is called "remaindering." More books get burned by publishers every year than by any fascist superstate. Adopting widespread print-on-demand technologies in bookstores will ensure that every book printed is a book someone wants. The very idea of "remaindering" disgusts me and breaks my heart, like how starving people must have felt watching farmers burn oranges during the Great Depression.

6. Core demographic for printed media is aging faster than the general population. Failure of print and newspapers is disenfranchising young apprentice writers.

No argument here. Fiction writers have no place to train these days, and very few ways to make money while writing the experimental novels and short stories that help them find their voices.

However, this may be a natural correction. The grim writing economy makes writers have to take jobs in the service and manufacturing sectors, which gives them direct access to the people for whom they should be writing in the first place. By learning how to write for people who think literature is not for them, writers may spark a forgotten underclass with a new-found love of stories and writing.

The failure of newspapers and magazines is a bigger problem. However, these institutions weren't saying anything interesting in the first place and, in many ways, they deserve to die.

Can blogging be monetized? Probably not. Getting members of my generation to pay for anything on the internet than can be acquired for free will be impossible. If there is no money in writing, there will be no fame in it. If there is no money or fame, then who will want to do it?

The right people, I say. The people who love it. The people who have no choice. With less static, real storytellers will have an easier time getting heard. If real storytellers get heard, people will start loving fiction again. Money will show up. The cycle will begin again.

Forward to part two, challenges 7-12....

Posted by miracle on Thu, 06 Aug 2009 12:42:08 -0400 -- permanent link

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