Oxford, Michael Bible, and the “Real” World of Writing

27 Mar

Last week, we were on spring break, so Melissa and I made our way up to the University of Mississippi for this year’s Oxford Conference for the Book. We had a great time–walking around the square one night on our way to or from dinner, I overheard someone say that she liked living in Oxford because “the weather is mild; the food is good; the people are nice.” And I have to say that, based on our time there last week, that’s a pretty fair assessment.

We met lots of great people during our time there and bought lots and lots of books and heard lots of brilliant people say lots of brilliant things, but I want to spend a minute here to mention a session on Saturday morning titled “Virtually Published: Blogs, Internet Journals, and Online Writing.” The session was moderated by Anya Groner and featured Jack Pendarvis, Maud Newton, and Michael Bible, whose name I recognized but couldn’t immediately place–it turns out his chapbook Gorilla Math was published by Greying Ghost about the same time as mine, and some of his work has been discussed here on Vouched.

There were lots of great moments in the session, a session which was something of an anomaly at a conference that puts a great deal of emphasis on the printed word. Asked how the internet had changed his writing, Jack confessed to a growing inclusion of exclamation points and unicorns (no kidding!) in his online writing. When one of the old guard challenged the reality of all things online, Jack mused about what happens to things when they disappear from the internet (not a system of tubes, perhaps, but maybe a giant hole we were collectively filling? One day, would the hole be completely filled?), and when this audience member complained that his grandson “only has friends on the internet,” Michael was quick to quip, “At least he has friends.”

Things might have turned very ugly there but didn’t (thanks, Jack, for keeping things a little light in that moment). Instead, they mostly turned philosophical, as audience discussion turned to the question of what it means to call something real.

And we might talk for a while about whether or not things on the internet are real–that is, if we could first reach some agreement about what it means to say that something is real. But I think what’s at stake for most people in that sort of a discussion isn’t metaphysics (which, unfortunately, was where more than one member of Saturday’s audience wanted to steer things); rather, I think what’s at stake for most people here is the issue of authenticity. Does an internet publication have authenticity? Is it authentic? Can it speak with authority? Or, we might say, does a writer published on the internet have any claim to the title author, with its implications of authority?

Yes, I’ll say. Or at least, sometimes.

I think that people who challenge the authenticity of internet publishing base that challenge, mostly, on the fact that there’s so much junk online. Tons and tons and tons of it. There’s more drivel published online than you could ever read, not if you started now and spent the rest of your life doing nothing else. If we were to think of the internet as a giant system of tubes, those tubes are largely clogged with writing you’re probably better off not reading. Or if the internet is a giant hole, it’s a hole filled mostly with junk, to be sure (Lolcats, anyone?).

But if there’s lots of junk online, we have to admit that there’s junk in print, too. I mean, I’ve read Dan Brown’s work, and I know for a fact that there are plenty of books published by major publishing houses that have shit for prose.

Now, it may be the case that the legions of editors in the print industry (not to mention the economics of print publishing) have kept a great deal of drivel out of print. But if we agree that in spite of editors’ best efforts, there’s still a fair amount of drivel in print, then we also have to agree that the discussion of online versus print, at least as it relates to claims of authenticity, is a discussion of degree, not of difference. Both print and online publishing have made public some great work along with loads and loads of terrible work. Perhaps there’s more terrible work online than in print, but perhaps not, and in any case, it isn’t the terrible work that really matters, in my opinion.

The issue of how we define great work and terrible work is really outside the scope of what I’m writing here, but what matters, I think, are the words that people have written that mean something, words crafted so that they get at something about this thing we might call the human condition, or (more broadly speaking) life–words that give us a way of seeing the world in a way we might not have seen it before, that show us something we know in a way we didn’t know it. And we can find those words, we can have those experiences, both online and in print.

Which brings me back to something that Michael Bible said at the beginning of this session in Oxford, something that much of the old guard seemed to have forgotten by the time they were complaining about the “unreality” of the internet.

I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but Michael began with the comment that he didn’t think that any of us–us meaning people who were publishing online–were using ebooks or web journals or the like as a way of bringing about the death of the printed book. On the contrary, he said, we’re doing it because we’re so firmly committed to the continued life of the book. The end goal of all of this, he said, is the book.

It also brings me back to a status update on the Vouched Facebook page the other day:

The other day at Ball State, someone asked me what I thought of eReaders, and I think they expected me to say how much I hated them and rant about the end of literature or something, because they looked really confused when I said I loved them and had one myself.

It’s fascinating to me, as well as more than a little sad, that so many people seem to think (or to assume, perhaps) that the worlds of electronic publishing and print publishing are opposed, or even at war with each other. Maybe that’s what it feels like to some people, but from where I’m sitting, it feels like we’re on the same team.

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