Monday, August 25, 2008

Ones and zeroes

Short Schrift has a great post on the possibility of the digital novel. Most interestingly, Tim observes that The Sopranos is a really interesting model of a "TV novel" not just because of its extended, in-depth characterization and plotlines, but because it is, at least in part, designed for DVD viewing.

Shows like The Wire [and The Sopranos] almost seem to work against their broadcast format -- until you realize that the show is watched almost as much on DVD, in a digital download, or on cable On Demand as it is by viewers who dutifully sit on the couch every week. It's a show designed to be watched a disc at a time rather than an hour at a time; the one-hour divisions are just convenient chapter breaks, giving you a chance to take a breath and get a drink before you sit back down and click ahead to the next one. (Also, like the novel's chapter and page, it gives you a convenient way to reference moments in episodes when you're talking about them.) Lost gives you cliffhangers; The Wire gives you catharsis.

I think that this is an important observation. One of the great innovations of the printed narrative is the control that it gives the reader over the experience of the narrative. The oral epic is something that is received—with the possible exception of the storyteller's patron, the audience is not in control of the time or manner of the telling, and since recitation is dependent on a number of mnemonics, moving back and forth at will within the text is difficult if not impossible. I would thus describe the "conventional" broadcast serial—as per Short Schrift, think Lost—as analgous to the oral epic. The audience is given bits and pieces at the storyteller's will, and is largely dependent upon a single specific broadcast schedule in order to recieve narration. Premium cable series like The Sopranos pointed to an alternative model even before DVD release, as episodes are broadcast multiple times in a short time frame (as opposed to once a week, and then possibly much later in rerun), giving the viewer much more opportunity to watch at will, or, even more importantly, to re-watch. (It must, of course be noted that a Lost/Sopranos broadcast/DVD opposition is far from pure, as any devotee of the Lost DVDs will rightly observe, but I think it remains accurate to observe that there is a way in which Lost is serialized and sequential that does not entirely apply to The Sopranos.)

As a writer with avant-garde ambitions (although, again, I certainly have more ambitions than accomplishments), I'm deeply interested in the idea of the digital novel. I think that one of the great challenges of contemporary narrative is the creation of the 21st Century novel in the way that Proust, Stein, and Joyce created the 20th Century novel. I've been amazed at the seeming inability of the internet, for its revolutionary impact of the way that we communicate and share information, to make more than a sidelong dent on literature, and I think that Tim's discussion and Robin's comment hint at why that may be.

The internet has absolutely replaced print as a repository of general reference information (even if Wikipedia has problems, why in the world would anyone buy an encylopedia, and even the OED has announced that it will stop updating its print edition), and it threatens to do the same for immediate information sharing (ie, it's close to killing the newspaper). Digital media has also revolutionized video creation and sharing. While the costs of creating even a digital video shouldn't be understated—you need a computer, an internet connection, and some sort of a camera—those costs are dramatically less than conventional film.

What the internet has largely not done is to change narrative or video in themselves. Digital media makes video creation and editing cheaper and more accessible, but it hasn't created new forms, especially long forms. Short format video has exploded, but it isn't exactly new. Likewise I think that a great deal of the enthusiasm for "hypertext" (such enthusiasm itself, it seems to me, a phenomenon largely of the early to mid-90s) is based upon a misperception. I would not be the first to observe that all text is linked text. The idea of the "endless chain of signifiers" is itself an early to mid-20th Century formlulation. I would like to make an argument that HTML hyperlinks are in fact a poor actualization of the idea of hypertext. Referentiality in the "ideal" hypertext is infinite. An HTML hyperlink leads only to a single location. There is no way for a hyperlink to enfold the infinity of referentiality. Imagine a hyperlink that led to a different location every time it was clicked, and you would a have a good idea of what would be required to make a start. (The hyperlink, perhaps, as the Google search term.) In this sense, even an index listing multiple sources is preferable to a single embedded hyperlink with a single embedded destination.

Either way, the internet does not really offer, in this sense, new capability to text. Although, in all fairness, neither does Ulysses. The question is really what the internet has to offer narrative, and while I'm eager to explore the possibilities, I'm also a bit skeptical. After all, be it video or text, the internet does not seem to be friendly to long format narrative.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Air conditioning killed Detroit

From "Does air conditioning make people vote Republican?" by Edward McClelland.

Mercedes-Benz built its latest plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., an industrial feat that would have been impossible without air conditioning. When General Motors introduced the Saturn, it built the plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Detroit, GM's hometown, has lost dozens of factories, and over a million citizens, many of them to air-conditioned cities. With its empty city blocks abandoned to pheasants and crickets, it now looks like a laboratory run of what will happen to the earth after the human race disappears.

Trying to get published: minefield or quicksand?

Having recently finished a first draft of my "Alphabet" project, I've started sending letters out to small magazines in the hope of publication. For the curious, feedback on the project has been good, but no bites yet. I do intend to put the full project out as a Revelator chapbook at some point, but there's no specific timeline for that at this point, in part because "the full project" is more than just my 26 entries.

Sending out submissions has me thinking about the publication process again. "The Alphabet" project itself doesn't really fit neatly into genre boundaries, which makes it a challenge to figure out whether I should be sending it out as poetry (I tend to think of it as prose) or fiction (it's not narrative—there are almost no characters, per se, and no plot). The entries tend to be short, and I have given thought to posting them as a sort of serial here on Wordwright, but I'm hesitant to do so for the same reason that I'm in no hurry to get the chapbook together at this particular moment.

Last spring there was some tension at the University of Iowa over a plan to make all Masters' theses freely available online. "All Masters' theses" would have included MFA theses from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and after severe protest from Workshop students, Iowa announced that they would not, in fact, make theses available online. (Via The Chronicle of Higher Education, subscription required.)

On the whole, I'm in favor of making scholarly work, including creative writing, as widely available as possible, and all else being equal, I agree with the argument that making creative writing available for free on line has a tendency to actually help sales of physical copies, especially for new writers looking for an audience. If I had been a student at the Workshop, however, I think I would have been one of the voices arguing against free online posting of creative theses.

One of the most challenging parts of the publication process for a writer, especially a new writer without either an established audience or an agent, is convincing a publisher to invest resources in actually publishing your work. Whether or not a free online edition of a particular book is actually competition for a printed edition, many publishers still believe that readers are unlikely to pay for something that they can download for free. Most first-time authors do not have the economic power to enter a negotiation with a publisher at that disadvantage.

Sadly, something similar holds true even for the small literary magazines (who usually don't pay contributors at all). Editors of small literary magazines rarely reap much financial benefit from their efforts, and so their primary motivation is to be able to share something with an audience first. Many such editors are likely to view work available online as "already published," and thus may turn their attention to other work.

This makes sending out submissions a very strange situation, especially for someone like me who has always been something of a self-publisher. I would really like the chance to share my work with anyone who would be interested in reading it, but in order to try and get my work to new audiences (through small literary magazines), I'm actually keeping myself from sharing it with at least a portion of the small audience that I already have (though this blog).

I still think that "The Alphabet" is wonderfully suited for serial publication on something like a blog, and it would make for a month of great reading on Wordwright. But I think that I'll wait for that first round of rejection letters to come back before I actually do it.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Kwame Kilpatrick: the cliffs notes

Those of you who live outside Michigan may have seen the headlines that Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is in a bit of hot water. Here's a (relatively) brief summary of what's going on. (For an in-depth treatment, all of the Detroit Free Press's coverage is available here.)

Ages ago (in 2003), there was a rumor of a giant debauched party at the mayor's residence. A huge, Playboy-mansion-esque party. None of these rumors have ever been substantiated, but City police investigated, and Kilpatrick and his chief of staff Christine Beatty realized that the investigators were going to discover that they were having an affair.

So they fired the investigating officers.

The officers sued for wrongful termination. Kilpatrick and Beatty testifed in court that they were not having an affair and that the officers were fired for reasons unrelated to the investigation.

Kilpatrick lost the civil suit, a $6 million judgement.

While Kilpatrick was preparing his appeal, the officers' lawyer discovered text messages, sent on city pagers, demonstrating that Kilpatrick and his chief of staff were indeed having an affair, and thus that they had lied on the stand. Confronted with this information Kilpatrick settled the case, for $9 million (in city money) and arranged to have the messages kept secret.

Eight months ago or so, the Detroit Free Press got their hands on the text messages, and published them, leading to the perjury charges.

Kilpatrick has refused to resign, but he seems to be having trouble living up to the conditions of his bond. His personal travel was restricted, and he was supposed to give 48 hours notice to the court any time he needed to travel on city business.

Yesterday, Kilpatrick had a hearing because the court found out that he had traveled to Windsor on July 23 on city business without notifying the court. The judge found out about it by reading it in the newspaper. Days later. Which means that Kilpatrick not only didn't inform the court ahead of time, he didn't even bother to tell them after he got back.

The infuriating part is that all he would have had to do was make a phone call to the judge to let him know that he needed to make an emergency trip on city business.

Kilpatrick was jailed yesterday on the bond violation for the trip to Windsor, but an appeal judge this morning gave him a new $50,000 full-cash bond with no travel allowed and the requirement that Kilpatrick wear a GPS tether.

On July 24, the day after his trip to Windsor, Kilpatrick shoved a police officer who was attempting to locate and serve a warrant on a friend of Kilpatrick's. This took place at Kilpatrick's sister's house at 4:00pm on a Thursday afternoon. There has never been any explanation of why Kilpatrick was at his sister's house in the middle of the afternon in the middle of the work week.

Today, the Michigan Attorney General charged Kilpatrick with two felony counts of assaulting a cop. Which itself may be a violation of Kilpatrick's bond conditions in the perjury case, and may get him thrown back in jail.

And this is the sitting Mayor!

So the best-case scenario now would be for the governor to remove the mayor, which would leave the rest of us able to focus on the bribery accusations being made against City Council members.

God bless Detroit.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

It just sucks, all around

Lansing voters rejected on Tuesday a millage proposal for capital improvements for the Capital Area District Library (CADL) by a margin of 54.5% to 45.5%.

I'm deeply disappointed with this proposal, not just because of the "why should I pay for something I don't use" rhetoric that gets thrown around every time the library or the bus system asks for funding, but because of the way the CADL shot themselves in the foot by putting the initiative on a primary ballot.

The millage request was a large one for an ambitious project—0.96 mills for a total of $93.6 million to "replace five library buildings, expand six more and renovate the other two." It would have been a tough sell even without a painful downturn in the housing market, and a controversy over an obscurity in state property tax law that has meant that many people have seen their tax bill increase this year even as the value of their house plummets.

Common wisdom seems to be that the CADL wanted to take advantage of the low turnout on a primary ballot in order to pass a funding increase that would have had no chance on a November ballot. Given the margin by which the proposal was defeated (and the fact that the numbers were even worse in the early returns), I'm not sure that the measure ever really had a chance, but voter suspicion is going to carry over to future funding requests, and make it even more difficult for the CADL to get funds to fix buildings which have mice, mold, and failing mechanical systems.