By Jacob Silverman
November 25th, 2008
In his recent piece “Literary Fame in the Time of the Flame Wars,” VQR contributor Adam Kirsch reflects on the how literary celebrity may be altered in the internet age, focusing on the case of Keith Gessen, founder of the journal n+1, author of debut novel “All The Sad Young Literary Men,” and favored gadfly for numerous literary blogs and gossip sites. Although in his piece Kirsch has some interesting ideas about the compulsions behind artistic creation, which probably deserve expansion in another essay, I thought some of his more intriguing and accessible, if occasionally vague, comments came when discussing the relationship between literary output, recognition, and the accessible, democratic nature of the internet. Here’s a sample:
The Internet has democratized the means of self-expression, but it has not democratized the rewards of self-expression. Now everyone can assert a claim to recognition—in a blog, Tumblog, Facebook status update. But the amount of recognition available in the world is inexorably shrinking, since each passing generation leaves behind more writers with a claim on our memory. That is why the fight for recognition is so fierce and so personal.
If that is the case, then the best strategy for writers in the age of the Internet may be to ignore the Internet and look down on it. If print is a luxury, make it a rare and exclusive one; if literature is antidemocratic, revel in its injustice. Make sure that the reward of recognition goes to the most beautiful and difficult writing, not to the loudest and neediest. Above all, do not start a blog, for the non-writers who wish they were writers will only despise you for choosing to meet them on their own ground. As one of the commenters on Gessen’s blog put it: “get off the Internet as soon as you possibly can. Every second you stay online…another 18-28 year old (that coveted demographic!) loses all respect for you.”
In considering the case of Gessen, I would recommend that writers avoid the internet (for few can skip over it entirely, except for someone living off the grid like Carolyn Chute or a member of the established old guard, perhaps no better personified than in the quasi-prophetic voice of Cormac McCarthy, calling from a mountaintop) not because by immersing themselves in the Web they meet their critics on their own ground, becoming caught in the same muck they ostensibly hold themselves above, but because more than anything, such activities are simply a waste of time. And yes, by creating a kind of self-consciousness that stifles authentic creativity, they debase the artistic spirit. They invite invective and bitterness and envy. But battling day after day with anonymous commenters is also anti-literary, unartistic, crude, resistant to intellectual insight, without any purpose beyond self-defeating narcissism. And before one works one’s way out, how many hours are wasted? How much stress and emotional concern and how many thousands of words devoted to, say, a litblog vs. lit mag showdown that concerns no one beyond the immediate participants and their friends?
Perhaps that’s why Kirsch doesn’t name the “one popular website” that has long, in internet time, served as Gessen’s most vocal antagonist (in part, because Gessen used to date one of its former editors; perhaps fortunately, Kirsch neglects those gossipy details). For those who spend only a little time in the literary or media blogospheres, it would be easy to name that site as Gawker. But in his non-utterance of that name, Kirsch may be taking on some of the same advice he dispenses. In this way Kirsch—who in his essay invokes Tennyson, Chekov, and Hegel, to go along with Tumblr, Facebook, and e-mail—dances above the fray, remaining mindful of it, seeing its errors and its passions, but remaining wise enough to not delve into it for long.
Yet here we are—on a blog—debating Adam Kirsch’s remarks on flame wars and skirting the same websites, issues, and voices that writers are, in his view, best advised to ignore. But of course, as Kirsch would likely confirm, the internet has much to offer writers, be they neophytes or well-established. For research purposes, there are boundless reserves of information out there, expert voices on every topic, centuries-old archives of newspapers, the endless joys of surfing Wikipedia, which Andrew Sullivan has rightly called “one of life’s true intellectual pleasures” (on his blog, naturally). There are online communities, sites for every niche subculture, author fan sites, discussion forums, places for artists to critique each others’ work, numerous literary magazines, and a bounty of blogs that contribute with heart, intelligence, and great enthusiasm to the literary conversation.
In the end, I think that discussions like the one that Kirsch has initiated (or hopped aboard) do provide a service to readers, writers, and critics. More than anything, the essay prods us towards some basic questions: What is most important? What will I read and what I will write in the limited time allotted to me? And if you care about literature, I would offer that the answer is not in internet flame wars or insular, endless back-and-forths between blogs and their antagonists, whether they come from print or their electronic brethren. No, it’s in the work. It’s in how books move us and in the fruitful, meaningful conversations they produce. Kirsch seemingly gets that, but it should also be emphasized that the infinitesimal slice of the internet devoted to bookish concerns can be a great crutch in advancing those simple but lofty goals. By ignoring the Web completely, we make ourselves, and our imaginations, poorer.