Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Emily Pinkerton's Warholian Dystopia

Writing is changing. In the past few years, the mainstream practice has changed significantly. I've been a champion for the way the Internet is changing writing for quite some time, and I'll continue to be, but when I think of the Internet's impact on culture and how that influences young writers, I get fearful. Great, wrenching fears crash in my ribcage, as I observe that for young writers, the Internet has become a place where your writerly ambition matters far less than your knack for self-promotion. I worry that the Tao Lins and the Megan Boyles and the Bebe Zevas and the Ellen Kennedys of the world will eat my lunch and end up being studied by future generations. This sounds laughable, but I honestly can't think of any other writers my age getting as much media attention.

Is this the new way to make your name? Write half-coherently at all times, paste your gchats into your manuscript or on your blog, vaguely anesthetize everything and obsess over your blog's Google Analytics? That seems to be the game young writers are playing. That's not a game I want to play, but where does it leave me as a writer? As a writer, am I a luddite? There is great irony here: I've been working in tech since 2004; I am the anti-luddite. Yet I can't help but wonder: does the success of the relentlessly self-promoting Thought Catalog-ers foreshadow our future? Does it matter what you do, what you create? Does it matter that I spend time trying to craft writing I believe is beautiful: poetry with meter and rhythm as well as a clear narrative? Prose with proper grammar and a sense of plot? Or does it not matter at all because in the same time it will take me to craft a single manuscript, Tao Lin will write three while on various drugs. And people will buy more of them because he willretweet every Tweet, cross-post his work and any reviews he can get (positive or negative) to Facebook - tracking clicks on every link and optimizing his websites to bring in more traffic and thus more customers. Is this the new publishing industry?

From where I'm sitting, what seems to make or break these artists is how much they're willing to promote what they do, and what extremes they're willing to go to for self promotion. There was a time when Megan Boyle's recounting of every sexual encounter she's ever had would have been ignored at face value: as the writings of someone with the emotional maturity of a teenager begging for attention. Now begging for attention is not only 'cool' and 'worthy of literary merit,' it becomes a self-pereptuating attention machine, which means your everyday minutiae become endlessly publishable content. Simply say "it's tongue-in-cheek," and all your juvenile blog fodder becomes paycheck-worthy and gets you published. Or at least it's passed as reputable enough for Thought Catalog, which is just 10,000 Twitter followers shy of The Atlantic. These numbers are not insignificant. The Atlantic may publish better writing; but if I had to put money on who will get more eyes on their work in the next five years, it's Thought Catalog, and the numbers themselves will give Thought Catalog's particular style of writing more credibility (so get ready for more Muumuu House-type publishers to spring up). If you’re in the 25-35 age range and trying to get work published: your anxiety is justified. As much as Lin & co. poke fun at 'staying relevant' they're onto something: achieving cultural relevance at this moment in history is an absolute joke. The only talent it requires is ability to draw attention to yourself via any means possible. Call it the Paris Hilton effect. Celebrity was once something gained by virtue of excelling at some kind of craft that was in the public eye. Now celebrity exists for its own sake - you can gain an audience anywhere (most easily, of course, on the Internet) and grow it by doing more of whatever you're doing, or doing it in a more extreme way. When you get married in Vegas for the sake of getting married in Vegas but then write about it how do you classify it? Is it A) the same PR stunt a thousand half-rate celebrities have pulled to get themselves more attention or B) a commentary on the alienation of modern writers?

Writing as influenced by Internet culture seems like a bastardization of postmodernist theory, mixed with too much advertising taken to heart, the sum then taken to the only natural conclusion: author as impartial exhibitionist, whose antics, when transposed into words and consumed by an audience, become imbued with a meaning that is whatever it needs to be – usually whatever is most commercially marketable at the moment – and instead of having a critic call bullshit, the work receives an equal number of comments in jest and in earnest, saying "that's deep."


Emily Pinkerton was an exceptional student in my Poetry workshop at Haverford College in 2007. She was already writing and thinking about digital media and poetry at an advanced level. Since then she has moved to San Francisco where she works for Twitter by day and writes by night. She is starting an online journal called Analogous Magazine. (bio via Lemon Hound)


Jake- said...

I feel like there's a stronger piece here that doesn't use the strawmen in her introductory list. It's hard to appeal to complexity and nuance on one side, while simultaneously throwing up some names of authors solely to have them represent all the evils of contemporary literature.

I'd rather have seen this argument, a perfectly good one, derived through internal considerations, instead of the Me vs. Them mentality of the opening graph.

alex. said...

Great piece.

Anonymous said...

Apart from the specifics here, historically there has never been any reason to believe that the writers who sold the most books or got the most publicity have been the ones studied or even known fifty years later.

nikki reimer said...

Sure, but how many of us will be alive in 50 years to know what books are studied, or known, or not? We're here now, let's discuss our current landscape. I find this piece compelling and relevant, personally. I don't know the names mentioned but I sure know the type. And I'd like to see this trend to onanism and spectacle discussed for what it is.

J said...

Anonymous: Maybe so, but that's no reason to take a laissez-faire attitude towards canon formation. Quality writing often does not have the good fortune to announce itself, via sales or publicity, to the public consciousness. Sure, we may not be reading Twilight fifty years from now (god willing we won't be!), but that leaves us with the task of deciding who we will be reading, and why. In that sense, pieces like this, that identify and interrogate trends, are essential.