The effects of Amazon.com on the book industry, the debate as to whether it is good or bad for the cause of reading and literature, remains heated, and I find myself rooting both for and against Amazon. One thing that I AM decided on, though, is that Amazon watching is fun. Whether they are announcing a new innovation with a front page letter from CEO Jeff Bezos, like the recent introduction of the “Search within a book” feature, or just slipping new technologies quietly into their listings, there always seems to be something new popping up there, and each new feature seems like it generates another round of debate about this behemoth of a website. The feature I discovered yesterday isn’t likely to ignite too many debates, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Part of what is fascinating about Amazon is the way they turn the inner workings of their operation into content for the website. Features like Purchase Circles, “Customers who bought this item… also bought these books…”, and “Customers who bought books by this author… also bought books by these authors…, take information that typical companies guard closely and turn it into entertainment for readers and fodder for search engines. The new feature that I noticed the other day is called “Early Adopters.” According to Amazon, “These are the newest and coolest products our customers are buying. The following lists, updated daily, are based entirely on purchase patterns.” The term “early adopter” has more or less entered the popular vocabulary in recent years. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point have popularized the notion that there is a certain type of person that is predisposed to seeking out, learning about, and owning the newest technologies. This idea is based on the broader theories of an economist named Everett Rogers whose book Diffusion of Innovations (1965) explained that individuals could be divided into five categories based on their openness to innovations. 2.5% of the population are Innovators; these are the extremely adventurous, willing to take risks on unproven technologies. These folks pay top dollar to be some of the first people in the world to own flat screen televisions and Segways. 13.5% of the population are Early Adopters; these are the folks who have the insight to seek out the best of new technologies and with their buying power and word of mouth, they can turn an obscure new product into a household item. Early adopters are considered among the most important consumers in the marketplace, and when a new product is introduced marketers spend millions directing ads at this population, knowing that they can make or break their new product, a fact clearly not lost on Amazon in the naming of their new feature. The rest of the population is less exciting. The Early Majority (34%) is slightly more adventurous than average, the Late Majority (34%), slightly less. Then there are the Laggards (16%) with their rotary phones and wooden tennis rackets. Clearly, marketers have no patience for folks with more “classic” tastes, and the marketers at Amazon are likely no exception, hence their choice of buzz words. What’s interesting about the Amazon “Early Adopters” area is that, along with more typical applications like Electronics and Cameras, they apply the term to music and books, where new products are more likely to be derivative than innovative. Regardless of their intent, the algorithm used to generate the list for books needs some work, since the list is clearly made up of books that are being purchased in bulk by students, churches, and self-published authors, not books that are being purchased by folks with literary tastes on the cutting edge.
WHEREAS… It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to discourage a writer’s use of cliché; and It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to say that clichés are too familiar and therefore ineffective; and The first time we heard this cliché against clichés it was a revelation, but with each successive repetition the cliché against clichés became increasingly faded and opaque, i.e., clichéd: a comforting logical fabric (“I’ll say the thing about clichés!”) to throw over a gap where uncertainty lay; a stand-in for new and difficult thinking because you’d have to remember all the way back to the first time you heard this cliché against clichés to actually see, once again, that clichés are ineffective because they prevent you from seeing; but also an efficient shorthand, one soothing for its familiarity, and in its familiarity suggestive of rightness, and in its rightness suggestive of belonging: to the community of those who’ve been through writing workshops and so have been inducted into the Army Against Clichés, which is also an Army Against Genre Fiction and Commercial Fiction and Popular Nonfiction, all of which are what they are (beloved, commercially viable, popular) because they return dependably to clichés of storytelling invented and real; and which may itself be an Army Against the Teeming Masses, who buy mass-produced books for the soothingly familiar stories inside; and which is therefore an Army of Elitism, reproducing clichés of class; but which may also be an Army Against Itself; and WHEREAS… Every word of our language is a cliché, so familiar as to be efficiently, effortlessly understood; and We cling to these clichés (of language, of description, of workshop) for their ease and also for their familiarity, which suggests rightness, which suggests belonging; and Cliché, here, may refer to a bevy of workshop clichés, including: clichés of praise (this is effective, is working, is strong, great, fantastic, amazing, well done), which stand in for consideration of what these terms mean; clichés of condescension (this isn’t working, is ineffective, weak, less well-done), which cover over uncertainty about what these terms mean; clichés of response and suggestion (too heavy-handed, sentimental, familiar; more subtle, restrained, fresh), which assume there is a single aesthetic community to which we all belong; and other such meaningless pandering and avoidance of considerate thought, tics that are contagious because we reach for agreement because we reach for belonging because the truth that there is no rightness is so damn maddening; THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED… That we will use the cliché against clichés against itself, at once ratifying and refusing its meaning: abstaining, in our conversations about new writing, from using workshop shorthand, i.e., from not thinking; abstaining from agreeing with each other too much, i.e., from group-think; granting that, in the process, we will create new clichés; and trusting that we will question and thereby destabilize these clichés along the way. Image Credit: Flickr/Tom Newby Photography.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you'll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the "lit-blog.") And, as I'm still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers' review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke.It's often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson - at Rake's Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed's place - illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride - "B.R. Myers is Satan"; "Who's the Wanker?" - but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies - the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson's prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. "Prose of amazing power and stylishness," Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis' piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper's, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I'm embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson's wide margin of error. "Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper's pencil," I wrote, "I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson's] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson's sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as "bric-a-brac?" Can "someone standing in [...] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?" In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers' Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel's first - "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed." - is bad.Critiques of Myers' motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won't rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn't been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect "had," strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else...something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers - a myopic literalist - seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed" is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn't make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character's point of view can also be seen in the following passage... Alan's comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, "Yes. Yes!" Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we've been thrown, without comment, deep into a character's point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven't read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn't read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I've been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I'm troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers' remarks in print.
I got a neat book in the mail the other day out of the blue. It's a smartly packaged collection of drawings by an artist named Don Nace. The book is called Drawn Out. Nace's strokes are like dark scratches on the page, and at first glance the drawings seemed full of tiresome, and possibly adolescent, angst. But after only a few pages I found myself quite mesmerized - drawn in, as it were - by the deceptive simplicity, the deep emotion and dark humor of the drawings. Thanks to a pointer from Ron, I see that Nace has a website where he posts a new drawing nearly every day. It's worth checking out.