Electric Literature: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Contrary to popular belief, the normal execution of the law of primogeniture is not a given! It is not merely enough to be born the first son of a king or queen to ascend to the throne and ensure a continuity between one regime and the next. You have to first learn the ways and means of royalty. You must first make sure that you are the kind of king that the court already expects you to be. Otherwise, it does not matter how blue your blood is. You are disinherited, outside the body politic. You must start from scratch, deal with the people directly. This is a frightening option, to some.


The first I heard about Electric Literature was from a friend of mine who saw their recent live performance, as filmed by L Magazine. He said: "These guys do what you guys do, only it's not as interesting, and there were a thousand people there."

I can think of three immediate objections:

(1) Do these guys do what we do?
(2) Is it not as interesting?
(3) Were 1,000 people there?

Tackling none of these directly, I think a point can be made about how organizations, enterprises, and societies rise and fall on the bones of existing organizations.

Here is a short story. A man walks into an office.

"Give me $10,000, so I may start a magazine," he crows.

The occupant of the office, stirs. He is a young man wearing a rose-colored blazer with gigantic shoulder pads and cardboard 3-D glasses. His hair is chartreuse, towering, like Jack Nance's when he was young, so young and beautiful.

"Why should I," he asks, with a smile, not wanting to seem un-hip.

"Because I want to reinvent the short story and electronic publishing," says the young man, on a mission. "I ask for $10,000. I ask for nothing for myself."

"I'd like to help you," says Jack Nance. "But I'm going to need a better reason."

The young man thinks. He bites his lip. His forehead becomes cornrows.

"Viral marketing," he asserts.

Jack Nance begins to quiver, jelly-like, he quivers.

"No no oh god, I mean, not viral marketing. I mean no. I mean â€""

And he stops. And he thinks. And he smiles.

"I can give you â€" Michael Cunningham," he says. "He made the Hours. I mean, the story that became the Hours."

Jack Nance looks up. He glows. The camera tracks high, tracks into heaven. In heaven, everything is fine.

Electric Literature pays its writers $1000 a story. Awesome — except that if you're borrowing that kind of money, you must have a plan to pay back the people from whom you borrow it. You must succeed at selling your stories to enough people to make back that money. Otherwise, you are doomed.

As best as I can tell, their plan is to convince investors that their money is safe because (1) they're using cost-effective print-on-demand technology (I don't even want to get into how fucked up that is), and (2) they're publishing "name" writers, ones who are guaranteed to get attention — and who, from the looks of things, did get attention. Thus the 1,000 people at their big inaugural you-are-ripping-off-the-Fiction-Circus-apparently-but-that's-cool-we-like-what-we-do-and-more-people-should-do-it-really event.

So they get investment money to publish a dangerous literary magazine, to make people read short stories again.

In exchange for that money, they publish new work by Michael Cunningham.

I agree that it's cool that they're also publishing T Cooper. But look: they're publishing Michael Cunningham as an example of dangerous literary fiction.

They're publishing Michael Cunningham as an example of dangerous literary fiction.

Which is more likely: that fiction is "dying" because people have not seen enough sassy advertising telling them that "fiction is DANGEROUS"? Or that fiction is "dying" because it's all written in this high-academic, "lush", ready-for-my-closeup I want to be a writer so bad I can't even tell you style? Because there is no danger in it, and readers can sense that, and they stay away because as far as bland entertainments go, there are more efficient options on the table?

Which is more likely: That EL has accepted money from investors on the strength of their belief that Michael Cunningham represents dangerous literary fiction? Or that they have accepted money from investors on the strength of their belief that by presenting themselves as dangerous, hip, e-media pioneers who will save the short story and literary fiction from dusty oblivion, they can successfully build up enough hype and buzz to create a self-sustaining magazine that can throw up an occasional Youtube animation/illustration while actually publishing the same authors, the same stories, and the same bland-ass crap that everyone else is publishing?

Say what you will about n+1, and we have, but at least they were using their mad bank to finance something alternative, drab, political, dour, and grim. Their issue #7, which I was kindly sent a free copy of by Keith Gessen in exchange for talking shit about him, features a very good story by Caleb Crain, who I've never heard of, plus weirdo expatriate Russian poetry and a tiresome Italo Calvino ripoff by "Last Samurai" Helen DeWitt. This is at least eclectic and daring. They at least have something specific they are doing. This is not what Electric Literature is doing. Electric Literature, based on their first issue, is people using their mad bank to convince us, once again, to ride the Ecthroi wind to hype and disaster. They are entering into investor relationships, which means they now have investor obligations to provide salable literary product. This is going to be a problem when it comes to questions of (1) publishing fiction people might want to read, and (2) publishing fiction that actually represents some kind of new voice in the world, that breaks new ground, that is not a "beautiful" or "well-crafted" story. Because that's what's going to move copies and activate readers who love their New Yorker. That's not what's going to activate readers who have no hope and do not know that stories can make them have a better day.

Here is the best we can hope for:

The best we can hope for is that after six or seven issues Electric Literature pulls a fantastical bait-and-switch, ditches Cunningham and crew, and starts publishing John Fowora and Kerry Donoghue for $1,000 a pop once they have a guaranteed audience who they're now willing to risk alienating, offending, and affecting. The best we can hope for is that the new boss will not be the same as the old boss, despite using his methods, despite exhibiting his sense of literary taste, despite his cool advertising photos of models with cigars telling you that literature is BAD for you.

Did anyone ever immolate themselves because of the work of Michael Cunningham? Even toy with the idea?

Electric Literature, I want to believe that this is Phase One of your master plan, that you are building a mighty machine using the master's tools, and that when you are done you will use that machine to bulldoze the master's house. I want to believe that you are going to find the most fucked up, heartbreaking stories you can imagine, ones that represent voices other than Michael fucking Cunningham's, and that you are going to give the writers of each of those stories $1,000, counting on the sheer novelty, imagination, and voice of those stories to bring your Cunningham-suckled readers back issue after issue. But what I think is this: you are plugging an umbilical cord of fat and poison into your own navel. And you will watch the poison flowing into you while you build your dangerous new e-magazine, and when you are finished, you will want to disconnect it.

But you will see the clean floor of the master's house below your feet. How ugly it would be, covered in fat and bile and poison. You will see the clean floor. You will hesitate.

Posted by future on Wed, 14 Oct 2009 22:45:14 -0400 -- permanent link

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