Bookmark Now

Writing in Unreaderly Times by Kevin Smokler (editor)

by Tim O'Neil

24 October 2005


After reading editor Kevin Smokler’s introductory essay, I entered the corpus of Bookmark Now steeled for the worse. Smokler, described on the back of the book as “one of the country’s leading thinkers on the future of contemporary literature, publishing, and the arts at large”, is essentially a booster—and boosterism turns my stomach.

Perhaps I am a pessimist. In any event, I read Smokler’s words of unvarnished optimism with a feeling of sinking dread: if the universal signs of declining literacy which constantly assail the culture could be dismissed with a mere wave of the utopian futurist’s fairy-wand, then certainly the world would be a better place. But, having lived a few years myself, I remained resolutely unconvinced that the preponderance of net-savvy teens, hip-hop storytellers and slam poets actually meant that the stone-deaf ignorance suffered by the majority of citizens stood any chance of abating. Communication will always exist, and furthermore, there will always be a hyper-literate minority defiantly set apart from the main tributaries of the mass media. But to proclaim that blogging and 50 Cent constitute a new vanguard of literature strikes me as an American intellectual’s version of Stockholm Syndrome. In essence, our lives our shaped by an aggressively illiterate and doggedly capitalistic power structures that resist any but the most cataclysmic change to the status quo of blissful ignorance—I have yet to hear an argument for the future of literature as a mass medium that does not strike me as whistling past the graveyard.

cover art

Bookmark Now

Kevin Smokler

Writing in Unreaderly Times

(Basic Books)

But, given Smokler’s introduction, most of the book has blessedly little to do with the above topics. Thankfully, what we have instead is a collection of 24 essays by young writers, both up-and-coming and well established, on the almost impossibly wide topic of writing in the modern age. As you may expect from any such collection, the quality of the essays is mixed. Thankfully, the amount of torpid, NPR-ready personal experience essays is relatively small—most of the essayists have no problem establishing a lively, individuated tone.

I am pleased with the almost wholesale dismissal of the modern phenomenon of MFA writers—even by graduates of such programs—and consequently the bloodless prose in which they traffic. I enjoyed Michelle Richmond’s recounting of her days in such a program in “From Somewhere Down South to South Beach”, including all the salacious details of the all-night sex parties. Still, there was a slight twinge of regret when I had almost finished her fine piece and come to the final paragraph to find her question “So do you need to go to school to become a writer?” answered with a shrugged “Probably not” (emphasis mine). Speaking merely from personal experience, the idea of any prospective writer submitting to the ritual humiliation of a writing workshop strikes me as the very essence of superfluity. It has even occurred to me on many occasions that writing workshops are, by their nature, anathematic to the very concept of writing on any rational level. You either are a writer or are not, and the notion that any writer would need the imprimatur of any professional institution is slightly degrading on the face of it.

But ultimately the only slightly chimerical figure of the ivory tower comes in for a good beating, the underlying message of a good majority of the essays being that writers do themselves a great disservice by subscribing to the notion that writers need to be “stuffy and pompous” (as Paul Flores describes the pre-slam poetry recitals he attended in “Voice Of A Generation”). Thankfully, the other extreme stereotype, that of the well-mannered, urban bohemian intellectual gets a thrashing as well, particularly in Meghan Daum’s “If I Had A Stammer”, which describes the vocal and social mannerisms of the modern enlightened hipster class, and Robert Lanham’s vitriolic “The McEggers Tang Clan” (as concise a jeremiad against the contagious idiocy of David Eggers’ McSweeney’s empire as any I have seen). Of course, the essays stop short of totally condemning the pretensions of the thrift-store dwelling “down-talkers”, probably on account of the fact that this social subset constitutes the vast majority of people who would be reading this book to begin with. Best not to insult the customers.

While there are many interesting viewpoints on display here, a few of said viewpoints are so highly iconoclastic as to be almost incomprehensible (at least to me). Two essays (Adam Johnson’s “A Call For Collaboration” and Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith’s tag-team “As We Mean To Go On”) call for collaboration to become more widely accepted in the literary world. This suggestion strikes me as just slightly more acceptable than coprophagia: whatever you do in the privacy of your bedroom is your business, but your evangelism on the matter will win you few friends in polite society. Tom Bissell’s apologia for videogame culture seems almost rational on the face of it, until you realize that his defense of such “distractions” is so layered in rationalizations and caveats as to become essentially meaningless. Sure, there is little progress to be gained in arguing that videogames could not theoretically become a worthy art form, but I’m not holding my breath. If these hypothetical art games are ever created, who is to say that the benefits of a handful of interesting experiments could ever outweigh the massive and unrelentingly deleterious effects these machines have had on our culture and society?

If there is one truth with Bookmark Now makes evident, it is that literature is a far more diverse and individual experience now than it has been at any point in our history. The balance between the sexes seems almost equal in this world of letters, if nowhere else in our society, and minority communities are, despite occasional setbacks, working towards achieving a truly representative parity in the publishing world. Also, while there is no doubt in my mind that blogging and other online interactive communication are no permanent substitute for true brick-and-mortar literacy (sorry, Sarah!), there is also no doubt that the commercial possibilities of the online world are rapidly leveling the playing field for almost anyone with the ingenuity to exploit the opportunities. I’m a blogger myself and I’ll be the first to admit that the vast majority of blogging is less Algonquin Round Table and more locker room circle jerk—to use a distasteful but particularly apt metaphor. But people like Pamela Ribon and Douglas Rushkoff (to name just two who contributed to the present volume) use their blogs to further their legitimate writing careers, so the format is not without merit. (You could probably make a much stronger case for blogging as a restorative balm to the cause of journalism than of fiction writing—but alas, no journalist presents such an argument in these pages.)

Ultimately, while there are many diverse views on display here, they all fall short before the unexpressed but omnipresent reality that reading and writing are uniquely individual enterprises. Blessed few of the essays speak of the romance of literacy in rapturous terms. But also, few of the essays even hint at the cold truth of the matter, that writing is one of the most depressing and thankless vocations any person could ever pick for themselves. Communication and self-expression are nice, but they’re nothing compared to the omnipresent self-loathing and despair that accompanies any literary endeavor. Honestly, there’s more romance to be found in shoveling shit than in slaving over a hot keyboard, and those of us who do it do so not out of joy but out of a grim and inescapable sense of purpose, which cannot be dimmed by reality.

As much as I enjoyed parts of Bookmark Now, I can’t help feeling that the volume is actually quite self-serving, a love-letter to literacy for and by those who already consider themselves enlightened. I understand the desire for optimism, but any portrait of writing that does not include at least a sliver of soul-crushing despair is a portrait of writing that bears no resemblance to the practice as it has existed throughout the centuries. But then again, football cheerleaders rarely mention steroid abuse or gang rape in the course of their fight songs, either.

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