Read to Write

What’s the word? Apparently, writers like Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth have given up on the word — at least the made up word. Over at Salon, Laura Miller dedicates an entire article to it. First, I was angry and defensive. What blatant hypocrisy. Then, equal parts disappointed. So, even literary giants like these men don’t like to read fiction, which for the most part, the vast majority of people in the world don’t read anymore. Philip Roth reads, but in his statement, he claims he now prefers books about history, science, or politics, and goes on to say that he turned away from fiction, because he “wised up.” To what exactly, Phil? Because this statement seems to very much bolster the pervading notion that if something isn’t true, it isn’t valid, and that fiction is frivolous and a waste of time. The overwhelming advice that any aspiring writer gets from the more successful, the advice I’ve gotten the most of, is to read. Read like mad. But, apparently if you’ve become a McCarthy or a Roth, you can give it all up after you’re successful? You just read to get published, and win Pulitzers, and be a part of Oprah’s book club, and then that’s it? Miller brings up the appropriate argument that reading too much can actually constrain a writer. I’ve even heard similar quotes from Alice Munro. I remember reading in an interview with her that she felt reading too much can leave a writer stifled. This is a valid point, because the main goal of a budding writer is to find his or her own unique voice. I think the difference with Munro is that she was warning against reading to the point of imitation, not giving up reading stories altogether.

The reverse ageism underlying in all of the arguments or excuses can’t be felt more, coupled with questioning the use for fiction. So, people who have had more experience in life shouldn’t indulge in stories? According to this article, they have “reached a saturation point,” but then goes on to admit that the novel is perhaps the single most intimate art form revealing the inner life of another person. And, old people shouldn’t have this relationship with a story, because they’ve already met enough people in real life? Huh? What kind of logic is this? The beauty of fiction is in the access of a different consciousness than one’s own, and if it’s good fiction, the resonance of having this access shouldn’t depend on age. Philip Roth may learn facts by reading about science or anthropology, and as Laura Miller notes that staunch proponents of nonfiction proclaim, even if it’s poorly written, he will “come away from it having learned something about the world.” But, within fiction is just as much truth, only a different kind — the truth of someone else’s experience. The personal truth attests a universal, more transcendent truth. McCarthy or Roth, while were once eighteen, for instance, don’t know what it’s like to be eighteen now. They don’t know what it’s like to be a lower class woman living paycheck to paycheck. They don’t know what it’s like to be a gay teenager kicked out of their parent’s home. They don’t know what it’s like to have survived a rape. They don’t know what it’s like to be an undocumented U.S. immigrant afraid of law enforcement. They don’t know what it’s like to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. And, the list could go on. And on. And, while they may have read stories about people like this before, or even written about people in similar situations, it still won’t be the same character who’s affected in a different way than the particular story they happen to read at the time. Much respect for both of them, much more for McCarthy than Roth, I’ll admit, but the central question I can’t get over is this: How can any writer expect their work to be read or respected and not consume and support the art they produce?


He Doesn’t Sound Like Someone Who Would Have a Hairy Back

The printed page is obsolete. Information isn’t bound up anymore. It’s an entity. The only reality is virtual. If you’re not jacked in you’re not alive. – “I, Robot… You Jane,” S1, Ep. 8 of The TV Show
I’m not a person. See me not exist? I’m not on the book of faces, and I don’t tweet like a bird. Deleting my Facebook about eight or nine months ago was liberating, and a good number of people have asked me if I miss it, which usually causes me to pause. I think about it, and realize that I haven’t even thought about it until they’ve asked me, so I can say that’s a no. I’m broadcasting it in the months after that October post I wrote when I first started this blog that I don’t at all. I promised myself I wouldn’t write about it anymore, and this post won’t be about Facebook. Okay, okay. It is, but it’s more about something larger, which is the digital world. Obviously I still live and participate in it without being a part of much social media. I e-mail, text, work a job that glues me to a computer screen for eight hours a day and sometimes more, and read my news mainly on the internet. I’m a cafeteria follower of the digital world. I pick and choose what aspects of it I want to be a part of. And, I’ve been trying to figure out where I draw the lines. I don’t own a TV, which is similarly liberating, but I indulge in a good deal of streaming Netflix and DVDs. I have a laptop and find myself using it for everything, which is part of what I fear about our current technology, especially with that ipad2 commercial where it espouses the greatness of it by showing how it’s everything in one device. No, thank you. I still don’t know what technologies I find acceptable for myself and which ones I’ll pass on. I just recently got a smart phone. Since it was a free upgrade, and the plan was comparable to what I was paying anyway, I figured why not. I hardly use the internet on it though. The only difference is that I’m now updated every time I get an email, which I don’t even like and have been meaning to change the settings to disallow that. The week before I got it, I was out at Wick’s for the weekly Team Trivia I’ve been doing for about two years now, and at one point, I scanned my friends, and every single person in our large booth had their head down, crouched over their phones, tapping their screens in silence. I turned to my friend, Alex. “Exhibit A of why I don’t want a smart phone.” Do we now come out with friends to sit and look at our phones? Is that facebook status, tweet, or Angry Birds game more important than having a conversation in person? Yet, I still caved and got one when I said I never would. Was part of it peer pressure? A response to the jokes I received with my old phone? I’m sad to admit, yes, partly. But, it’s scared me into thinking if I gave in to that — something I never said I would — what other technology I adamantly refuse will I gradually and inevitably embrace?
At times, I feel like a paranoid lunatic, or think that’s how I’m being perceived by some people. Either as someone who’s needlessly cautious or someone who’s a snob. The issue I’m questioning is one that’s been around for quite some time. While thinking about it the past few months, I felt like being conflicted with the digitalization of information and interaction was something specific to the last five years or so. I recently watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the campy and self-aware 90’stastic first season, and it hit the same mark I’m writing about now. I found myself falling into the same stance as Giles, the dry but wry British librarian, who outright resists computers altogether, instead of Jenny Calendar, another teacher, who thinks he’s a snob for it. He explains at the end of the episode that he doesn’t like computers because they don’t smell, and as he bumbles, “books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.” I’ve also wondered how prescient the last chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is. It thrusts forward to a future world in which people have “hand sets,” which I assume is some device like a phone attached to one’s hand, people T, meaning text. There was some law passed to protect personal digital information, because it’s implied that certain companies somehow exploited people’s personal information for marketing purposes, though specific names like Google, Facebook, or Twitter never appear.  Language has changed, and words like “freedom,” “democracy,” and “story” are all written with quotes around them, because they no longer have any meaning. Text language is ubiquitous and is characterized by abbreviating everything while taking out all vowels. In my experience with the way some people in my life email and text, I can see this shift happening, which is sad. Language evolves, and I’m a strong supporter, but not to the extent of wiping out core elements of what makes our language artful and intelligent. If someone texted or emailed me in this way, I probably wouldn’t respond. Or would I have to if everyone in my life did? The hashtags and @reply symbols I sometimes use in emails with my friends ironically, and partly to poke fun at how base digital communication is would no longer be ironic. It would be how I would have to communicate. This gets at the core reason of my resistance to some digital media: it was supposed to make people smarter, but it’s seemed to do the opposite, clearly evidenced by the way our language has been dumbed down by it.
Personal interaction. This is the reason I give when asked about why I don’t participate in social media. “Because I value personal interaction more,” I’ll say. It’s an easy answer to give, and I’ve given that same rote response so much I’ve lost what it even means at times. I also say it’s to free myself of distractions. I’m distracted enough as it is to the point where I now put my phone in another room and close the door during activities like a good Saturday morning writing session, and even then I’m on my computer with Gmail or Youtube just a few key strokes away. I often wonder how I get any reading or writing done. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy what digital media has given me. I like that I can cultivate my own media experience. I can watch the TV shows and movies I want to on Hulu or Netflix without having to own a TV and bring in what I don’t want into my home. I can email with a friend who’s currently teaching English in Vietnam and follow the blog of her daily events. I can find any previous This American Life podcast I remembered from three years ago and want to re-listen to. I can indulge my love of pop culture while particularly bored at work by texting cast parties back forth with Alex. My ipod is pretty convenient, another technology I once resisted and now have come to accept. Although, I’m guilty of itunes purchases instead of buying from Ear-x-tacy, the local music store in town, and also downloading music in torrents. But, I draw the line at e-readers. And another major line is when it comes to something like real human interaction, which can’t be replaced by media. Once, I skyped and was crept out by it. Not just by the audio and visual delay, because even if that glitch was fixed, which I’m sure has been by now, it would still be unsettling to have an interaction with this computer screen, pretending as if it’s the loved one. I’m someone who likes to think before I express an idea, who chooses his words carefully. Sometimes this is why I may be a little quiet in social settings, apart from some shyness. This quality I have is part of what makes me want to text or write an email or message instead of speaking in person. It’s more controlled. It’s not chaotic and free-flowing. I can ponder. So, it’s not always easy for me. And maybe this why I’m afraid I’ll eventually give in to what I say I won’t now. But, I keep in mind that placing more emphasis on written communication as opposed to real time isn’t authentic, and that’s been my goal by taking out some digital communication in the last almost-year, to experience people in all their quirks and personality more authentically. In that Buffy episode, Willow dates someone over the internet (who yes, in true Buffy fashion, turns out to be a demon), and Buffy is leery, pointing out that she can’t know him based on what he writes in messages, saying “he could be a circus freak — he’s probably a circus freak!” and says, jokingly but with a hint of seriousness to Willow, “He could have a hairy back.” And, she responds, “Well… he doesn’t sound like someone who would have a hairy back.” As silly as this point is garnered from the show, Willow’s reaction is similar to how people now view interactions with people online, as genuine and wrapped in the illusion of connection, when true connection can’t be replaced by the cold, unfeeling, visual field of the computer or phone screen.
What about you? What is your relationship with how you interact with the people in your life and technology? Does such a heavy reliance on digital communication bother you like it does me, at times? Do you ever make an effort to limit it? Or not? Do you think that anything that helps being connected to more people is something good? Do you really think things like social media connect us to the world more? I’ve been telling myself my smart phone purchase can be offset by lack of FB or twitter. I guess in the end, it’s all about a balance. And, I’ve been doing well in the last few months. I have noticed a difference in the way I value the real communication I have with people, even if they are status updating at the dinner table just a pizza or burrito away.

Call Your Girlfriend

I watched Robyn’s new video last night, then went about my life, and then the more I thought about it, the brilliance of it started to resonate slowly. It’s one long single shot, she dances, lights flash. What’s the big deal? It’s the simplicity. In a culture of pop music in which videos are ADD central, and each shot is quick and the cuts sharp, most feel like a visual assault. So, that’s why this is so refreshing to me. I watched it again when I got off work, and again, and then a fourth time. It’s mesmerizing, demanding that the viewer focus without realizing that’s what’s being demanded. For the most part, I don’t listen to much pop music, and for the acts I do, I usually deem them my “guilty pleasures” and won’t admit to liking save for around a select few people. Robyn is my exception. I feel like she’s everything Lady Gaga should be but isn’t. She’s unique. Just look at those dance moves and 80’s wear! The difference is that she’s just herself without the contrived image. This video re-affirms my opinion, and I wanted to share. I started listening to her Body Talk series in January, fell in love with it, also wrote this post in which Robyn was a part of my discussion, and she’s been blowing up my ipod for a solid 5 months now, and I’m going to see her on Sunday, which I feel is like the culmination.