Second nature

15 February 2010 | Articles, Non-fiction

World Wide Web pictogramWe hear a lot about how the internet is going to transform the reading and the marketing of books. But what about the act of writing? Teemu Manninen reports from the frontline of a new generation of authors for whom life has always been digital

When we think of the future of publishing in these times of electronic reading devices, audiobooks, and the internet, when it seems as if the whole material being of literature is about to be transformed, we may ask how the marketing of books will change.

What happens when publishing goes online? How will authors cope with the new culture of the internet?

The internet is a place of fads: often silly, usually forgettable, but sometimes significant inventions and fashions which change the way we interact with each other on a daily basis. Many of these innovations have to do with communities: the much-touted ‘social media’ of forums, message boards, chat channels and the like, where news of bands, books and movies proliferate much faster than through traditional networks such as newspapers and television.

Because communication is faster, fashions are born and die much faster; the cycle of culture is speeding up. At the same time every dead fashion is piling up in some obscure niche of the web. Nothing ever really goes away on the internet. It has simply lost the attention of the general public. Online, it’s the attention that counts: how do you get it, and how do you keep it?

One has to ask how publishing will mutate in accordance with these new conditions. Will we find ourselves in the midst of a new kind of literary culture centered around digitally savvy writer-celebrities and their fan communities? Or will the internet become a vast graveyard of ghosts whispering about their 15 seconds of fame?

An example of the kind of authorial behavior that we may witness in the future is the up-and-coming generation of authors of ‘indie fiction’, such as the Americans Tao Lin, Blake Butler and Shane Jones. Indie fiction is not a literary school or even a set of stylistic similarities shared by a generation of writers, but rather is loosely attached to group blogs and internet literary magazines, such as HTML Giant (which is edited by Butler, the author of two well-received novels). It is an economic and material category: most, if not all, indie fiction is published and marketed by small presses such as Featherproof Books, Calamari Press, and Publishing Genius on or via the internet, sometimes not even in paper format at all.

But what is this ‘indie’, you might ask, and how does it herald the future of publishing? Well, it is, of course, a popular music term, deriving from ‘independent’, meaning independent of major labels, big money; an alternative to mainstream culture. ‘Indie fiction’ is therefore also a cultural category, and it is true that indie fiction has more in common with the mentality of so-called indie musicians and indie record labels than it has with traditional publishing houses and traditional literary culture – more with social media such as MySpace and Facebook than the institution of literary agents and venerable magazines like the Paris Review or the New Yorker.

As many indie fiction authors also seem to be alumni of creative writing programs, one could almost say: what art school has been for rock music, the MFA (or Master of Fine Arts, the degree awarded by creative writing programs in American universities) will be for literature (the list of significant musicians who went to art school and then changed the face of popular music is quite amazing: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, REM, Radiohead…).

What this means is that indie authors are rooted – unlike mainstream authors, who do not cluster around any such institutions – in the same hotbeds of alternative, twentysomething student lifestyles from which new trends in fashion and music almost always emerge, or which, at least, trendsetters scrutinise in order to find the new ‘it’ phenomena. But what is important is that they emerge independently of mainstream institutions, which can hop on the train only when it is already moving.

‘Indie fiction’ therefore means the subculturisation of mainstream literature: ever smaller niches for ever smaller audiences. This does not mean that indie authors are afraid to ‘sell out’, or that they will not also jump aboard the traditional bandwagon when it comes around. One could even argue that the expertise in self-promotion which successful indie authors accrue is an important skill set for their future careers, since it means that such authors have measured the mental pulse of their demographics and can speak to them on their own terms and through their own channels.

Take the aforementioned Shane Jones, a 30-year-old author who explicitly set himself with the goal of using internet forums to promote his novel, Light Boxes. The novel was originally published by Publishing Genius, a tiny press, and Jones promoted it on the internet by putting up a website, giving interviews to internet magazines, and by sending ‘hundreds of personal emails’ to his readers on the site Goodreads.com, a kind of public bookshelf for people who want to list and review their books. Since the site can also be used to find new books through your friends on the forum, after Jones got himself noticed by more and more people on the site, more and more people recommended the book to their friends.

Ultimately Jones’s marketing campaign was successful, since it got him noticed by the venerable Penguin, who published his novel, and also by Spike Jonze, the Hollywood movie director, who optioned the film rights for his novel.

A more famous example is probably Tao Lin, the self-appointed ‘it boy’ of indie fiction. Lin, who has published two novels, a collection of stories and two collections of poetry, is famous for using the internet in order to get attention for his work. He has, for instance, used his blog to sell $2000 shares in an unpublished novel, each of which would entitle the owner to 10 per cent royalties. This gave him wide coverage by the press in the US and the UK.

Lin is also known for sending relentless amounts of ironically self-promotional e-mail to the editors of almost every major internet magazine having anything to do with literature or culture at large – these messages often detail even his most mundane chores. At one point, Lin and (perhaps, since they all may be Lin) four other authors used Craigslist, the hugely popular internet notice board for classified ads, to shop for interns to promote their books.

But perhaps most famously, he’s claimed to have subsisted on shoplifting and selling the stolen merchandise on eBay, the internet auction house. But since the stolen items were corporate products and Lin used the proceeds to buy, among other good things, organic food, he therefore claims that the thefts were ethically vindicated. He later wrote a book, called Shoplifting from American Apparel, which, to my surprise, I bought from the Academic Bookstore here in Helsinki.

Such antics only work, of course, if the writing is good. And judging by Jones’s, Butler’s and Lin’s novels and short stories, there is good reason to take them seriously. Whereas both Butler and Jones tend toward the surreal, referencing magical realists like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar, Lin’s work brings to mind both Hemingway and Donald Barthelme, writers of surgically precise prose, the one realist, the other fabulist. Lin’s writing, especially in the 2007 novel Eeeee Eee Eeee, combines these two tones into a voice which, when the amalgam succeeds, is at once funny, serious and absurd, imaginative and deadpan, ironic and minimalist.

The voice of these new authors, at its best, uses humor and absurd imagination to isolate and foreground the existential angst of a generation brought up with the bodiless anonymity of digital life, with text messages, chatrooms and blogs. It is a voice depressed by the narrowed experience of modern networked life in the blue glow of computer monitors, but one that is still yearning for moments of imagination, happiness and meaning – even if such things seem to be only the nostalgic phantoms of their previous incarnations.

Tags: , ,