Monday, November 14, 2005

The computing of literacy

I'm sick of my own longing for a "real book". Yes, I suck at sending out my work. For 20 years I've made little booklets and magazines - sometimes bad and sloppy, sometimes good and sloppy, sometimes, I think, very beautiful... And I still can't believe the scrambling after legitimacy that I see and frankly, that I feel myself do at times. Someone says a nasty thing about "self publishing" or vanity presses, and I know what they mean. They mean writing that's so bad you're embarrassed to be on the same planet with it.

But anyone can declare themselves a press.

When vanity has capital, it becomes legitimate. That's disgusting and unacceptable! We should be careful not to equate money with literary quality. On the other hand, hating the "legitimate" is no better than its opposite. I wish that people would exercise their own judgement in poetry; would take pleasure in excellent work whether it is found in odd corners or trumpted from the rooftops with vast marketing power.

Look at the snobbery around web-based publishing. I predicted ten years ago that it would be coming to a head right around now. Maybe I was too optimistic, because I hear sneers at web journals from all over despite the amazing greatness of what's out there. My anthology project would never have gotten this far without places like Palabra Virtual, for example. In science fiction, I've been reading for a book award, and have found almost all the best short fiction online, in Strange Horizons or on

Collectivity also does not guarantee quality. A magazine or a press run by several famous people with reasonably good taste doesn't automatically produce better work than something edited and published by one or two people. In fact, the more people you have on a project, the greater the likelihood that some crap creeps in, because someone's ex-boyfriend or old teacher or classmate can't be left out without great offense and scandal. Editing magazines or anthologies is a literary art, sometimes done well as a collaboration, sometimes fine as a solo production. (I tend to believe most strongly in tight collaborations that are heavy on process and commitment - but there are editors whose taste and judgement I trust more than others. )

So if we know good and bad when we see them, how come good work doesn't always bubble up to the top, like some kind of perfect libertarian merit-based fermentation process? Physical books and magazines are ephemeral, I think more so than earlier in this century. Libraries don't have space. Archives aren't as accessible as they'd like to be. Bookstores and publishing are a travesty, a running sore. More poetry books get printed and destroyed than get printed and sold.

It seems obvious that we need different models of publishing and reading.

In blogging, a new literary genre that is only beginning to gain recognition, it's almost all self-publishing. It is now incredibly simple, and free, to make your writing available. You can go to the nearest public library and blog all you want from a public terminal for most of the world to read as they please. How do you, then, as a reader, find what's good? (I'm not thinking yet about "How do you, as a writer, make money?") The search engine model is to create an algorithm, a formula, weighing various factors to assign relative ranking to web pages. This becomes a bit of a popularity contest, and it's possible to rig it just like you can rig the literary game by all your friends also being writers and critics... I imagined a few years ago in my paper "A search engine model of literary quality and intertextuality" that we could make open source, flexible algorithms to make infinite, individual, multiple, dynamic ranking systems for literature, for anything textual, so that the question "What is good?" could be rephrased easily, constantly, as "What is good for this particular purpose, at this moment, to whom, and according to whom?

So, to ask this question another way, how can I find some good poetry on the web? There's so much of it. No one's controlling what is "publishable" quality and what isn't. How can I filter out the crap?

I think granularity and tagging might help with this problem. A sort of "Technorati for poetry" or for literature in general would be very helpful. Imagine if every poem published on the web, anywhere, were marked up as a poem, tagged as a poem. And then imagine if one's identity as a critic and writer were also a tag. Instantly you have solved the problem of editing, publishing, judgement. You find a person whose work you like as your starting point, then you see if you like their judgement of what's good, and look at their tag clouds and their rankings, and keep poking, following, and adjusting until you have your own custom "magazine" of what you love best. Your own reputation then depends on your own judgement of what you say you love best. If you think about it, this imaginary data structure already exists, but it's imaginary. It exists already in informal social networks, in your trust of what your friend thinks of the latest book as well as what some pompous ass in the NY Times Book Review says about it. I just want this beautiful data structure, this social network of literary criticism, to have a home and good tools.

My understanding of all this is somewhat based on reading people like Eugene E. Kim of eekspeaks, and Mary Hodder of Napsterization, and that whole crowd that I met at BarCamp and BlogHer, too many to list here. But I have been writing and thinking about "it" for years without much connection to the places where most of the intense conversations are happening.

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Mark Pritchard said...

I was reluctant to comment here but no one else has so I'm going out on a limb. Your words about real books and publishing and starting presses reminded me of an article about James Laughlin, founder of New Directions. He was the son of a steel magnate and as a young man was an aspiring poet. He went to Italy in the early 1930s to apprentice with his idol, Ezra Pound. Pound told Laughlin he could do a lot more for literature by taking all his money and starting a press and publishing him (Pound) rather than becoming the mediocre poet he was destined to be -- only Pound was a lot more blunt about it.

The other publisher I thought of was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who will probably also be better known as a publisher than as a poet.

Where would the 20th century be without New Directions and City Lights?!

In any case there's also something to be said, and of this I have more personal knowledge, for starting your own magazine.

All that, and I still don't quite understand the whole tagging thing.

JM said...

re: a "Technorati for Poetry". I am intrigued. As in "I agree" and immediately jumped to programmatic structures in my head. Do you have more thoughts/is it something you'd want to actually discuss?

Liz said...

Yes! I would like to! I'll write you in the morning...