It's not about the house.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Only Small Men Are Afraid*

There’s a call-in show on NPR here (and in some other places) that I don’t usually listen to anymore, because I think the guy who hosts it is a wad. But I was in the car yesterday, and all the other stations had banded together for some reason against the cause of decent music. I mean, maybe “Gypsy” was a decent song the first 80 million, billion, trillion times I heard it – but enough already! Let the memory be all that’s left for a while, could you please?

The point is, I listened to the call-in show. And this time, the guest was a wad, too. She’s written a book that's essentially about how people don’t read books anymore, and therefore what is the internet doing to our very BRAINS????

Good god, Chicken Little, take a pill.

To make it a complete and total wad-o-rama, they threw in this particular Senior Editor at a certain Literary Monthly (who, my true sycophantic heart would like to interject, is obviously a brilliant genius, yay!). You might assume he was on because of his connection to the bookish cause, but no. He turns up on the show three times a week. They call him a “News Analyst,” but all he really does is read loosely-related quotes (quotes he no doubt culls from Bartlett’s over his morning Muesli), passes them off as witty observances that just occurred to him, then pats himself on the back for being so gosh-darn well-read.

My Lady and I like to pretend he’s caught up in some clandestine intell-exual affair with the Chief Wad and Bottlewasher.

Anyway, I’m taking my frustrations out on these folks, but the real reason I’ve got my knickers in a twist is that I am sick unto my very death of people bitching and moaning about this whole "Future of Literature" issue. All they’re really doing is standing on a soapbox, shouting “I read! I’m smart! I’m better than you!” If these people really cared so much about the written word, I say, they'd be willing to give it a shot it in any form.

Let me put it to you this way: I don’t know what a shirred egg is, exactly, but I like omelets and frittatas, I like sunnyside and scrambled, I like quiche and hard-boiled, and lord knows I loves me a decent flan. So if you put something on my plate and tell me it's a shirred egg, you can bet your ass I’ll take a taste. Even if it looks like snot, which something tells me that a shirred egg probably does.

All that said, I am an avid reader (I’m smart! I'm better than you!). I am also sometimes bold enough to call myself a writer, whatever that might mean. And it seems obvious to me that these could be thrilling times. We could be heady with artistic innovation, adaptation, and experimental spirit, instead of taking out our spinal columns and flogging ourselves with them at every turn.

I used to work in the music industry, and because of the particular job I held, I fancied myself a sort of amateur ethnomusicologist. One thing I learned back then that fascinates me still is how, over the 20th century, popular music reinvented itself with every subtle change in sound recording.

At first, for sure, some things got lost. Folk songs that lived and breathed and had dozens of verses, got standardized and shortened down to two or three. But then people started playing around with the new medium, writing for it specifically. Later, when 45s were invented, the B-side became an art form all its own. Long-playing 33s made possible the notion of the “concept album,” and when Walkmen became ubiquitous, some people wrote with headphone-listening in mind. Not too long afterwards, digital recording (i.e., CDs) brought previously-unimagined layers of sound. And now we’ve come full circle: folks are once more thinking in short snippets, with a mind towards thirty-second ringtones.

It is sad, undeniably, that those folk songs got paralyzed a hundred years ago. But, if you had the chance, would you really get in the way-back machine and shoot Thomas Edison to save them? I wouldn’t. Although I might anaesthetize Stevie Nicks for however long it took her to write “Gypsy.”

The same thing has always happened, with every artistic discipline. Look how many different ways painters have found to fill their canvasses since photography made portraiture obsolete. Or how writing for the screen diverged from writing for the stage -- and imagine what Samuel Beckett might not have been able to accomplish if moving pictures hadn’t relieved him of the burden of actually entertaining people.

Instead of mewling and shaking our fists at “kids these days,” we ought to be working at sussing out what these new media we have at our disposal could do for our craft. Maybe a novel – or whatever we might choose to call the new style we’d invent – could be written on the actual internet, jumping around from site to site to let the reader find the pieces on his own. Maybe an e-book comes with musical accompaniment for every scene. Maybe subjects literally wander through the story, carrying on the business of their daily lives behind the words, and even speaking up once in a while. Maybe it’s as simple as hyperlinks to images and definitions, to provide a broader background for those members of the audience willing to dive in, without bogging down those looking for something lighter. Or maybe – ooh! – maybe, like in the old Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons, the words themselves are always blowing off the page…

Or else perhaps it’s none of these. Perhaps, since I’ve never even seen an e-book, I’m in no position to imagine what one might someday do. But I also can’t imagine that when, say, firearms were first invented, all the old knights sat around bemoaning how “Nobody appreciates a decent swordfight anymore.”

I don’t know, though. Perhaps they did.

At least until the last of them got shot.

*Yes, I got this out of Bartlett's. So? I never claimed to be anything other than a pompous old wad myself.


Leslie said...

Hear, hear!!

Janice said...

yeah, what she said!

renovationtherapy said...

LOL Rock on!

A lot of it boils down to...

1. people like the sound of their own voice (especially in radio...)

2. publishers/employees are terrified of Google. the Google booth at BEA each year is hysterical, people look at it and skirt around it not daring to set a foot in it...

Khurston said...

HEY!!! je offend!