On May 8th 2012, at McNally Jackson Bookstore in New York City, The Coffin Factory held a panel to discuss Writing, Editing, and Publishing in the Americas. The panel incuded John Reed, Justin Taylor, Carlos Labbé, and Andrés Neuman, and was moderated by Craig Epplin.
Craig Epplin: César Aira is the writer I thought of when I heard the topic for tonight’s discussion, in particular, a passage from one of my favorite novels by him, a novel that hasn’t been translated into English, called The Flyer. And in the passage, the novel itself is a flyer, a long flyer that spins out of control and becomes a novel, and at one point the narrator tells us how he is composing this, and he is carving the blocks, he is carving his own font, and then he’s going to print it out using a mimeograph, because he can’t afford a typewriter and he can’t afford to make photocopies. So in this little scene, writing, publishing, and editing, it was all there. I thought we could start with this general question: How do you see these three practices reflected in your own work? Writing, editing, and publishing.
Carlos Labbé: For me, it’s all part of the same movement. This movement is to include the reader, whether you can include the Other. The Other with a big O, or the others. You can think about every fiction that has some responsibility. Political responsibility. These days we need to look towards people who have needs. In Latin America in particular, you need to think and to write and to publish with a notion of the Other—who can’t read books, people who don’t have the access to books, who can’t go to a bookstore and read, and who can’t have internet. So I always like to think about the writing and publishing from the word incorporation. To incorporate the other. Not only inclusion, but connection—to bring the corps, or the body of the other. I always try to bring the body of the other into my actions.
Andrés Neuman: Hello everybody, I’m very happy to be here in front of you and in front of Humor and Sports. What else can I ask for? Maybe Sex. But it’s a pleasure to be in such good company. And I’m sorry for my English, I will do my best.
I think that, well, Carlos said something with which I agree—that editing, writing, and translating are the same—learning, we could say. And I do think that correcting anything—others, texts—we learn the attitude to have towards our own text. Neutral or outside looking is a kind of muscle we have to train, so the idea is to read our own text as if it was by someone else, so you learn how to write and correct your own text. Doing this job of editing and translating and writing the text from an outside point of view, that’s very useful for a writer, and obviously for a reader, but I wanted to focus on it as a writer. It is a very deep learning experience, to read others’ text. This job of editing and translating are a kind of self-portrait, which is a very interesting thing to think about. It’s a self-portrait as a reader, so what you would like to read, you edit or translate it. You’re building your own biblioteca through this job. And, as a writer, I think it’s very interesting to publish, edit, and translate authors who are opposite to ourselves. So this self-portrait includes contradiction. Not a self portrait in the sense that we are trying to collect all writers who are similar to us, but something much deeper than that, learning from the opposite. So maybe if you are a Carver follower, you should edit baroque authors, for example. I’m very attracted to idea of being an editor who contradicts himself and tries to learn who I’m not and who should I be.
John Reed: It’s true that you get some very nuts and bolts sense from the editorial. I think you get a faster first draft, and hopefully with your later drafts, you know how to distance yourself, to get a much more refined draft. I didn’t really learn that stuff until my third book came out. I wish I had been doing some if it earlier. I’m going to sort of just agree with everyone, and try to bring a shame to it, which is, as a writer you have this identity, let’s say a vast circle of all the stuff you’re going to do. You know, various projects, some of which are better than others, some of which are more complicated and finished. Big circle. Then publishing is this little tiny landscape, this little tiny road that runs through it. Maybe a few different roads—one little tiny small press road, and one big press road, and some of them intersect but very often it just isn’t covered, but you need all of it for the road to go through. And then editorial becomes this thing where you’re reaching beyond, trying to make it bigger, and make yourself bigger. Writers almost always have these periods of editorial because it’s a kind of extroversion—to balance this introverted quality you have as a writer—you need to do it at some point, otherwise you just start going berserk.
For me, it’s important to do exactly what you’re talking about, to reach beyond your own capacity and into projects that you wouldn’t normally relate to. And I think there’s just something very human about it, along with teaching, and you’re trying to be bigger than you are, which is what we’re trying to be as writers.
Justin Taylor: I’m glad you brought up teaching. You know, I write, I edit, but I also teach, and one of the key lessons that I try to teach my students is this idea about editing and learning to edit oneself. Especially if you’ve ever run a writing workshop, or have been in a writing workshop, there’s this feeling that it’s all about when you get your turn to be workshopped. You have your two tickets to ride the roller coaster and you’ll wait in the line of the rest of the semester to get to ride the ride. And what I constantly try to impart on the students is that their own workshop session is the least important of the entire experience. And I tell them this: the thing you’ll be most proud of this semester will embarrass you in a years time, and in five years you won’t remember it to be embarrassed by it. But what you’ll keep with you is the fifteen, sixteen weeks you spent editing other peoples’ work. You know, line editing, learning how to spot clichés, learning how to spot dead language, and to read with an ear open and to say, That’s a nice five dollar word, but you used it two pages ago. And those are the kind of skills that, if you’re going to be a writer for the long haul, you really need to hone. And editing, whether it’s in a classroom or at a publication. Practice is the only way to hone that skill and it really is essential.
As far as the actual magazine that I work on, we publish mostly poetry, and we’re a tiny arts magazine. We come out once a year, and so we don’t do a lot of that kind of line editing. It’s more curatorial. It’s a limited edition print book, and a poet friend and I do it. The product is sort of an anthology in the year of his and my thinking—our conversation with each other, our conversation with the poetry world as it’s appeared to us over the past year, and, as I think several people said, you’ve got to get beyond yourself, or do things that challenge you, or that you thought you weren’t interested in.
To buck trends a little bit, I remember a couple issues back everyone was writing prose poems. And we were getting prose poems submitted to us constantly, and so we just said, You know what, if we’re seeing this many, they must be appearing in lots of other journals, and we’re just not going to do prose poems. This will be the no prose poems issue. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it just was.
So there are two very different kinds of editing. One is really curating and developing a product and then putting it out into the world, and the other is more interior and involves, and relates to the way you relate to your own work.
Craig Epplin: Those are two really good words: teaching and curating. There are two kinds of public editing. When you’re teaching and you design a syllabus for instance, you’re really participating in the act of canon formation and you’re helping your students acquire a library. And when you’re working on a magazine, and you’re curating what’s going to go in the magazine, it’s a similar sort of thing. So I was wondering, maybe along these same lines, what you all think of the relationship between this act and your own voice as a writer. Justin, you mentioned, for instance that it’s sort of a year in readings…
Justin Taylor: Yeah, in readings, or like I said, I co-edit it with a friend and it’s just the two of us—no interns, assistant editors, anything else. Just him and I emailing back and forth, and the two people we work with who physically design it, an artist and a graphic designer. As a rule, they won’t read the issue until it’s printed. So when they’re doing the design, they treat it just like blocks of texts, they don’t read the words. And they won’t show us the art, which is sort of a weird little trust exercise we’ve developed over the years. It wasn’t part of our mission statement, but it worked out that way one year, and we liked that effect, so that’s how it goes.
Craig Epplin: How do you see the relationship between your voice as a writer and your eye as a curator or publisher?
Carlos Labbé: The thing is, and something you can add to this list is, you can be a literary critic and it’s part of the same movement. I don’t know if my colleagues here can write a lot—I know Andrés can write a lot—but I think when you decide to publish a book, its the end of a cycle. When you have rid yourself several times and you decided that these are the times when you need to publish this portion of your writing, in this place and in this time. I don’t know if many of us have the courage to know when and where you should be publishing, but I would like to imagine, for example, next year, I need to publish a novel, for example, in Peru, because I want to be part of what’s happening there. So I think you can curate. Your work is like a big puzzle and you choose where you can put a piece. It’s like César Aira; he’s very conscious about where and when he wants to publish.
Andrés Neuman: I like the idea of the team job behind the editing process. Writing is supposed to be one of the most lonely and individual jobs, which is not necessarily true, but we can say, as a start, that it is. There are hidden characters involved in the writing process—you have your couple, and you get divorced if she didn’t like it, or he didn’t like what you’re writing, you get divorced, so it’s a risky relationship but, I mean, who hasn’t showed the text, to couples or friends or colleagues? So when a book comes out, or even when a book arrives to the publisher, it’s been read by others. I don’t show anything until it is finished. But, well, let’s say that writing is a lonely process, even though it isn’t, but what about the editing process? That’s a team job.
I was involved with a magazine called Letra Clara which is quite untranslatable, which is a clear letter, a set phrase, which is write clearly, letra clara, and that was the name of the magazine in my faculty, which I co-directed during my career, or degree. So for five years more or less I was co-director of that weird magazine, and what I remember about that job is not only the work we did with the text, but much more important, beyond that, was what we were talking about those nights when we were just recommending books. All the literary learning that comes out from the environment of the magazine. So it’s not about what kind of text you publish or edit, but as well, the deep influence and impact that the job with the people of the team has in your learning as a reader and as a writer.
Finally, to give an example of this, when I arrived to Spain—and I was born in Argentina, sadly, and my family exiled to Spain when I was a child—I used to write short stories. I was supposed to write short stories because I was born in Argentina, so I had to do that. But when I got into the faculty, nobody cared, nobody gave—uh, I was going to say a shit, but I shouldn’t, because this is a bookstore—but nobody cared about short stories. In Granada, where I studied, everybody wanted to be poet. So when I got into the faculty, I realized that nobody was interested in my short story, not because they weren’t too good, but because they were short stories. So, with the people of the magazine, Letra Clara, they were poets, so during five years I almost only read and wrote poetry, just because of them, just to have a subject of conversation, because I realized that they didn’t care about Marco Denevi or whatever strange Latin author I could mention. They just cared about anyone who wrote poetry. So I think I became a poet just by luck, because I worked with poets and when this magazine ended, I couldn’t change the fact that I was so involved with poetry.
John Reed: So, is this about how my voice influences what I edit, or reverse? I think I’m going to back up and say, on a nuts and bolts level again, editorial does give you some different muscles. For me, my last two books have come out of editorial—I did this book which was a mash up of Shakespeare, I took apart all the known works and put them back together, line by line, as a new tragedy, and that was pure editorial. I’m just holding a massive amount of text in my head & putting it back together and it’s a kind of a magic—you don’t really know how it’s working. And as an editor you’ve got to have this big download that you can then deal with very quickly.
And then this other thing I did, Tales of Woe, which I’m a little ashamed of, is true stories that just get worse. There was a lot of editorial research; they were all true stories. I was on the phone a lot, checking stuff, and the idea was to boil down a journalistic voice into an almost poetic form. That was printed on black paper, and it had an art element, so there was a lot of that editorial stuff, actually, printing, and understanding the printing process.
The editorial will also give you a painful lesson, which is, you know, you have this idea as a writer that you’re going to join the canon, and all that really is, is brainwashing. I hate to say it, but that’s what it is. There were 250,000 people in London when Shakespeare was writing. Shakespeare was backed by the Queen, and was working with a hundred other writers. It was just a very, very different circumstance. There are—how many of us in NYC? And eight million writers writing in English, and who knows how many worldwide. Really it’s a way to reduce us. You have these very marginal alternative distribution routes and one or two major distribution routes, and we buy into this notion that there are these people who are much better, which, editorially you see is not the case, I mean, it’s very, very clear. You’re seeing thousands of books roll by you, for awards too, which you get sucked into, and you’re just like, Oh my god, they’re all incredible, and much better than the crap I was reading in college. You know, I love Turgenev, I wrote a whole thesis on him and I read all this stuff all the time, which is much, much better than anything Turgenev wrote. And that’s just a numerical argument when you’re talking about the number of people writing and publishing at that time, and the number of people writing and publishing today. It’s a hugely different equation. That becomes a painful lesson because you’re not sucked into your own fantasy. And on the other hand, for me, it’s freeing because I see a lot of books by excellent writers that I feel have been forced out to some degree, and I don’t want to do that. I’m doing these books on politics and economy and narrative structure, or I’m doing essays and I know that’s not a big book, but I can do other stuff, and I want to get drawn into it when I really feel like it. That’s the biggest thing that’s happened to me in editorial in the last few years; I just don’t want to spend my life writing stuff toward my own ambition.
Justin Taylor: Makes a lot of sense. We were talking before about incredible aloneness, and you’re not alone as a writer—you have people who read your drafts, you have maybe a partner who hears you let off steam, day by day, how it’s going or not going, who also might be a person who reads drafts—but the actual act, you’re in a room by yourself, typing. In another sense, publishing a book of your own is a very singular statement; you wrote it, you put your name on it, you’re responsible for what’s in it. A lot of people contribute to making it happen, but ultimately it really is about you, it just is. And so editing, whether it’s a magazine or a literary journal, or even an anthology, and I’ve edited a handful of anthologies, whether its a magazine or a book, that editorial, that curatorial thing, is something that I always take enormous pleasure in because it’s a chance for me to explore my own tastes, to explore my own interests, sometimes within the framework of a very specific subject.
The first book that I ever had come out was an anthology of short stories about the apocalypse. It was a very specific theme and I got to play within that theme and push it. This was a number of years ago, and I was a pretty young guy, and I never promoted a book before. I didn’t know how you did that, and that was a very formative experience for me, and what it taught me after—well to give you a short version of the story, the book came out and the publisher went out of business the same day. And so I ran out of their office with a box of books under my arm and basically learned to be my own publicist. We had distribution, the book got out, but there was nothing, it was just me and my little box of books. I spent a whole summer being my own pitchman and what was really fun about it was all the things that would make you sound like an insane person, if you were saying them about your own book that you had written, make a lot of sense when you’re talking about a bunch of people who have put their individual heart, mind, and energy into—thirty five of them in that particular anthology—and the work that they had slaved and sweated over and then given to you for free, and I realized I had a responsibility to them to push the book as hard as I could and to trumpet their work and to go to bat for them.
Editing a magazine is very much the same way. Each issue of Agriculture Reader will have twenty or thirty people, whatever it happens to be that year, and it puts you in a position to promote what you did and be proud of it. On the one hand as full of ego as you might imagine, but at the same time really very egoless, because you’re saying, Look what all these people did, look at this community that I created, or somehow snuck into the center of, or whatever. And so it’s a way to be involved in the literary community, but it’s just not so brutally about you all the time, as it is when you’re both writing, and later promoting something that’s just of your own. That’s why I love having a hand in some kind of editorial work, giving me a chance to meet a lot of people, and push them.
Craig Epplin: I think of a quote that I really liked by Kenneth Goldsmith, where he said, “If it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.” This is an important topic for writing and publishing and editing, obviously. Years later he wrote a sort of reply to himself in which he said, “If you want something to be alternative, then you have to put it in paper.”
Can you talk a little bit about the situation writers find themselves in, in that contemporary writers are expected to have a web presence, expected to self promote in a lot of ways, and yet at the same time our literary culture is wedded to this idea of the paper object. The paper object is still a prestige; getting published in paper is important for many writers. What are your thoughts on that?
Carlos Labbé: I was thinking about this problem during the week, about the eBook—will the book in paper disappear? I think it’s the solution for the problem of an overwhelming amount of books each year in paper, because in the future, many books will only be eBooks and the better books will be in paper. I’ve noticed, living in the states, on this coast, I realize that you have a very big problem of space. You have to pay a lot of money for an apartment, and for storage. I think this is a problem mostly for Europe and the States. You don’t have space so you have to be into, we have to be into publishing eBooks. But I think in Latin America, or in Asia, or Africa, we need to publish in paper because we don’t have the infrastructure—we need the libraries and the bookstores. We have a lot of space but at the same time you wonder what will happen to the act of reading. Because when you read on paper you read with all your body—you read with your spine, and your back, and your butt, and your shoulders, and with your hands, and—
Craig Epplin: And you don’t with an eReader?
Carlos Labbé: The eReader is always telling you there’s a new email, some news that someone got killed, or died, and the paper book creates a person who can be silent and close in himself or herself. The eBook is always getting you to other places. It’s a very complex problem, but I think the reader of the future will be related to the notion of people. People will be less selfish and more connected, more community based, and I think in two centuries people will be reading just little books because they don’t have the capacity of being concentrated on more pages.
Andrés Neuman: I’m not so interested in the future. I think sometimes we run away from the present when we try to guess what will happen to the publishing industry in fifteen years. I mean, who cares? Well, maybe the publishers. But what I mean is that really a very good way of losing our contact with the present is thinking that we kind of go forward. So lets just talk about the present because prophecies are always wrong. I was born in the era of video cassettes, and that was supposed to destroy all cinemas, and now the video’s almost don’t exist and cinemas are still there, and the television was supposed to end radio and now the internet is much more suitable for radio, and televisions are in the middle of a crisis. So, let’s wait and see. But in the meantime, let’s think about what happens in the present.
In the present, if I am a lonely man, if I go to restaurants, I am alone, almost always, and I read, just because I want to forget that I am alone. And this is not a confession, I wont ask for anyone’s help. What I mean is that I can’t stop reading when I’m having lunch or dinner outside my house and I found the e-reader to be very useful because you don’t need your hands. You can just put an eReader on the table, and you can eat properly, without making a mess. And it’s so difficult to take a pocket book and try to read it while you’re having spaghetti—that’s not so easy. That’s an advantage of the eBook. And try to think of it as luggage. I travel short distances, like many of you, but I don’t take my own book. I hope my publisher is not here, ok it’s fine, I wouldn’t buy my own novel for a short trip because it’s a big book. But I would take it in my eReader. But on the other hand, I saw a comic, I think it was in the New Yorker a few years ago, which portrays the advantage of eBook to paper. They are taking off on the plane and the captain goes, Please fasten your seat belts, straighten your seat, and switch off your books. I do a lot of travels between Madrid and Granada, which is a 50-minute flight. It isn’t worth using your eReader then. When you think about taking off or landing you just can’t read, and I prefer to take a printed book. To write on the books, which I do a lot—I take notes, I underline, and as far as I see, that’s not so comfortable a thing to do in an eBook. It’s kind of annoying to write long reflections on the eBook. You can maybe underline, but not really develop an idea. There are certain physical processes that are absent in the eBook, and that’s a disadvantage. I think we’ll always be passing from eBooks to printed books. It’s a matter of integrating and adding. I think there are two beautiful objects, the eReader and the printed book, and there’s no point in guessing which will disappear first. In my opinion that’s an absurd exercise. You cannot compare an object that has lasted for centuries and centuries —it’s not so easy to beat. And just a new toy, who knows how long it will last, and I insist, who cares? And I agree with Carlos about on one hand maybe some bookshelves will disappear with the crisis of the printed book and that’s a problem, on the other hand, the bookshelves that survive will be very warm and nice places with a few books that the people working there will know much better, so there will be maybe less bookshelves but very, very accurate ones, so let’s think about the present and the present is about co-habitance and not about choosing, at all.
John Reed: Gosh, it’s such a big question. Three years ago I was really worried about the end of print books. I’m going to break it down into two separate categories, one is newspapers and magazines. Even three weeks ago I would have still rather been published in a print magazine, and I’m faced with this choice all the time now. Am I going to print in somewhere prestigious where it goes behind a pay-wall or pretty prestigious and it’s free? I just had some things published behind a pay-wall, and that completely sucks. It really sucks, it’s gone now. Forever. And my sense is that it’s just not worth it anymore. And I hear myself using this word, for magazines and newspapers, vestigial. I’m just not into it. And that’s a real transition that I’ve started noticing. It seems clear to me that it used to be that the internet was a dumping ground for the less interesting stuff, and now it seems like the reverse. Very often the print magazine is full of junk. That’s a big transition, and it’s surprising because I always thought better stuff would stay in books for a longer time, but I’m not so sure that’s true. Now I think you may see a holding of middle ground, this mediocre and very good stuff that will still be in print and then the other stuff will be going to the eBooks.
The other thing is that the best selling eBooks are 10-20,000 words, which is a totally different length, it doesn’t really complete with what were looking at here. And that’s a length that’s very natural too, that’s the length of 3-5 journalistic pieces—that was the length of journalism for 100 years, and now advertising has squinched up the word-counts and made it impossible to run things in serial, so that we don’t get that length anymore. That’s actually a very normal readers length. In some ways it’s more normal than what we have.
You know, eBooks aren’t that great yet. People were walking around with transistor radios in 1940. Once we have eBooks that are full color, that feel good—that’s an illuminated manuscript. That’s more natural than these books that we have, which are limited by mechanical process. I’ve got mixed feelings about the whole thing. But I also feel that in the short term, we have nothing to worry about. You would think that novellas, for example, would be dead because they’re competing with 20,000 word eBooks, in fact there’s been a verging of publication of these novellas, which people are reading because the eBook is creating a market. So in the short term, we’ve got nothing to worry about, and in the long term, we’ll all be such different creatures that we probably won’t miss anything.
Justin Taylor: I guess I’ll take the woefully regressive, conservative, reactionary stance and just say, I don’t like them. I don’t like eReaders. I don’t like using them, and I don’t like having them in my life for a very simple reason: it’s one more fuckin’ screen. And I spend so much of my life in front of a screen already, and I’m sure all of you do too. I sit in front of a laptop all day, whether that’s writing emails, working on my word processor on my own stuff, whatever it is. I have a little screen in my pocket, that I wind up checking more often than I wish I did because I want to see my email while I’m standing in the street, because I want to look up the directions to the place I’m going. Your life is overrun by that kind of experience and the eReader is just one more thing that needs to be plugged in, that’s going to kind of glow at you, that may or may not be emitting some sort of death ray, who knows? They’ll tell us in forty years—or they won’t.
And so one of my favorite things about the book, you know a lot of things I like about books have been said, but my favorite thing, for example The New York Stories of Henry James, that NYRB book, I bought it here, I’ve been carrying it around, it’s heavy, it would probably be a little obnoxious to take on a plane—I would do it, but you know, what do you want from me? What do you want from the book? Anytime I’m sitting reading The New York Stories of Henry James, the NYRB edition, I’m not looking at screen. There’s no possibility of my being interrupted, there’s no possibility of these alerts Carlos is talking about, and so if nothing else, I’m clocking time away from screenworld, which I just think is a net good.
And I think that, as were talking about life in the present, a real present tense concern that we don’t spend enough time thinking about is screen-creep. How much is it infecting our second to second, minute to minute experience, and if you are getting too high a dosage of screen time, what can you do to get yourself away from it? It’s not watching television—yeah its passive, the screen it typically farther away, but it is yet another screen, and the book is not. It is an inert object that doesn’t need to be charged, you can get water on it, I mean a certain amount of water on it would probably be fine, and so I favor it for all of those reasons. That is the roll that on a very gut level it plays in my life, and to bring it back to the original quote, the Kenneth Goldsmith idea, if its not on the internet, it doesn’t exist, there’s something really beautiful about the prospect of not existing, about being able to evade existence, particularly when this idea of existence is this perennially splayed self, all-access, everyone’s hearing about it and clicking on it and do they like it and how many people like it.
You know, the Agriculture Reader publishes an edition of 500. In a good year, maybe three or four fifths of that will get out to people. It is print only. We have a one page web thing where you can place an order. None of the material goes online, and the philosophy is just that we felt, and feel, that we don’t need to be everywhere, we just need to be where we need to be, and we can find the people we want to find, and the people who really want to find us, will. And everyone else will be fine without us. The world is not going to be made or broken by a poetry annual. Someone, somewhere is probably losing out on the opportunity to experience us, but I think it’s worth it. The tradeoff is worth it.
Craig Epplin: Another question is the question of writing on the web in the sense that what you’re writing on the web can change. There was a bit of a controversy recently about something that Jonathan Franzen said about the sort of crafted intentional objects as a whole thing. Writing on the web, keeping a blog, tweeting, all sorts of activities that happen on the web, are bodies of text that are in motion, that are in expansion, that are changing, that can be edited. That’s something the eBook and the print book have in common, they are not generally changed after the fact. My question is, what are we gaining, what are we losing, in a universe where more and more writing is happening in a medium that allows for expansion, immediate expansion, self publishing, for example?
Carlos Labbé: They say that writing is shaped by the way you read. The greatest writers are the greatest readers. Our everyday reading—in eBooks, or books on paper, or in little tiny phones—will change, is changing, our text. I don’t know which is the future, but I’m sure the future will be with less screens, less paranoia, and less fragmented. I don’t know if this is a prophecy.
Andrés Neuman: I liked your conservative approach, with which I, at least partially, agree. Let’s put an example that happened to me last week. When I arrived to New York, I felt kind of lost because I had been in the Amazon Jungle, which was kind of a change, so I noticed I was tending to stay in the hotel like a kind of safe place, and I decided, I’m going to buy some books. Obviously in a bookshop. So I went to a bookshop, and I had to walk, I had to have a physical experience. I bought a book by Kurt Vonnegut, and I decided to read the Catcher in the Rye in the English version, which I had not done before. It may sound weird to you, but I had only read it in Spanish. And I bought this book by Edith Pearlman, which won the National Book Award. I bought too many books, which I won’t be able to carry in my luggage, but that’s another subject, and I felt that I had landed to the city because I had gone out and bought printed books. I didn’t think, I’m going to download a couple of books in order to feel better in New York.
Justin Taylor: Because it wouldn’t have done it. You wouldn’t have felt better; it would have had nothing to do with New York.
Andrés Neuman: That’s true. And about the length, I’m not so sure that it’s a matter of length, it’s much more about complexity. It’s a contradictory problem here, because, I think you mentioned it, in printed journalism there is no space now, and online you can post much longer pieces. There’s no need to talk about literary criticism, everybody knows here that it’s getting impossible to do serious literary criticism in newspapers for all kinds of reasons. And on blogs, or websites, you can really do deep, serious reviews.
And finally, about a possible, maybe immediate, future, eBooks will bring another kind of books. To craft a different kind of object, many people are talking about that—putting videos, or whatever kind of inner links, which could be interesting but that won’t be literature. Maybe that will be the next art, and would be fantastic, but I’m interested in verbal language and so I think that won’t really change. And my art, if I have one, is about verbal language and so I don’t need videos and audio-video distraction, I just need syntax and words. But it’s possible that another kind of writing comes up, related to the possibilities of eBook, but let’s be very clear that that won’t be just an enhanced or improved literature, that will be another kind of art. The art of literature obviously will survive forever, and will always be done with wise and simple beautiful words.
John Reed: If I could cast a little bit of a different direction. So, when thinking about this stuff and sort of the debate on whether you like the electronic or paper, I actually hate it when someone tries to get me to read a 300 page book. And I’m carrying two 500 page books in my bag, just to let you know, but I’ll read a 90 page book in an eBook. What’s scary to me is not really the eBook or the paper— it’s if the mode of distribution itself doesn’t change, then we’ve got a real problem. Because the whole idea of the Internet has reduced the barrier between you and the information, so eventually the screen will be gone, it’ll just be you and the information.
And when we look at the categories in a bookstore, I mean, the categories through a mode of distribution, are an incredibly serious problem, which is one of these things, as an editor, you learn about when your book is coming out, which a big disadvantage. Everything is broken into very specific categories, which then filters into the marketplace, which is not just books. It’s books, its Bed, Bath & Beyond, it’s everywhere. And those categories are what you are supposed to be buying, that’s your identity that you are then buying back. So, if these categories are all going to remain, whether we’re looking at eBooks or paper books, to me, that’s scarier. And it seems immediately addressable, if we all resist a little bit.
Justin Taylor: We were talking earlier about editing. You edit multiple drafts of something, you know, any story of mine that’s come out, I mean, the story I had in the last issue of The Coffin Factory, there’s like eleven draft versions of it in my little computer folder, probably as many again that I printed out and scribbled over, and then put the changes in. It’s different in a way that the final product is revisable and there’s a sort of ability to erase the act of revision. You can chop the thing up, or change it and the scars sort of disappear.
If you’re publishing literature online, and you’re publishing in drafts, or an incomplete state, which people do, then I guess it’s up to you. It’s your blog, take the post down, password protect them, revise them, do whatever you want to do. We all see news stories or blogs that have some sense of journalistic, or basic courtesy to their readers, they note, This was updated to reflect the following. People started using the strikethrough now, to show this used to be here, but it’s not here, but I’m not trying to hide it from you. There is a sort of etiquette around those things that are developing.
In the larger sense, for literature, plenty of people revise—I mean Whitman put out the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 and kind of just kept putting out editions, and the first edition is a hundred some-odd pages and the last edition is 400 pages. Wordsworth did the same thing with The Prelude –even with the first version of the prelude, it’s like 30 pages long. You ever see the last version of The Prelude? Wordsworth and Coleridge, they did the same thing with Lyrical Ballads, even within a very short time, from the 1798 to 1802, Wordsworth wanted to put a little distance between him and Coleridge, he wasn’t sure how he felt about the “Ancient Mariner” anymore, and he slaps that preface on there, and he makes that very clear.
So it’s a different way of doing things that happens faster but in that specific sense, it seems to me very much part of the same process. The only time it really becomes troubling is this idea of things being lost. That if you’re really erasing the path behind you as you go forward, you’re doing a disservice, not only to yourself, but to the idea of some future person or community that might actually be interested in seeing the steps that you took along the way, and you’re doing a disservice to the idea of the archive.
Maybe this is egoistic, to imagine, looking forward, that you will be of some archival interest to some person, maybe that in fact is just hubristic and insane, it seems to me so easy to plan for that possibility, particularly in a digital medium, which is, as far as we’re all concerned, limitless space-wise and free. It just seems insane not to do that.