As emdashes recently pointed out, last week’s New Yorker cover was the second Bush/Cheney “gay joke” in recent memory. I gave a chuckle when I saw it, but, honestly, I expect New Yorker covers to be a little more, I don’t know, subtle than that. So I was sad to see what had been originally slated for last week’s cover – before Dick Cheney shot somebody – an elegy for New Orleans as Mardi Gras approaches. (via Jenny)
I myself prefer only to read books that have been described as "unputdownable," but Joe Queenan has his own preferred adjective which appears to be serving him well:Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as "astonishing."Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed "luminous" or "incandescent," but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer.
Last week, when it was announced that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I’m guessing I felt something like a football fan does when his team wins the Superbowl. I loved the book, pushing it hard on my bookish friends and even harder on the unbookish ones, certain that this was one of the most broadly appealing works of fiction to have come out in a long time. After the announcement, I wanted nothing more than to high-five all my Egan-loving friends posting the link on Facebook. It was heartening to see that the sentiment seemed widespread and magnanimous. Surely the celebration had to do with the brilliance of the book, but also the fact that a woman won in a year of several lively discussions regarding gender inequality in publishing (see the VIDA report on publication statistics and the backlash to Jonathan Franzen in general.) Alas, the feeling of deserved recognition was short-lived. In a Wall Street Journal interview that Egan gave shortly after receiving the news, her advice to young writers ruffled some feathers: My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at The Tiger’s Wife. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?...My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower. The Harvard student Egan is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was much lauded until it was discovered that large sections had been lifted from other books; among the plagiarized authors were Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), Sophie Kinsella (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and Megan McCafferty (the Jessica Darling series), all of whom are best-selling authors of the “chick-lit” genre. Chief among the offended was the oft-outspoken author Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes), who was also a prominent voice of the aforementioned Franzen backlash. A tweet from Weiner shortly after the WSJ piece ran: “And there goes my chance to be happy that a lady won the big prize. Thanks, Jenny Egan. You're a model of graciousness.” Following Weiner’s lead, devout fans of chick-lit sounded off; over at The Frisky, in an essay titled “In Defense of Chick Lit,” Jamie Beckman, who opens her essay declaring that Egan was “one of her favorite authors of all time,” expresses doubt that she’ll ever recommend Egan’s work to a friend again. It’s not hard to see how Egan’s statements offended—“very derivative and banal” isn’t exactly timid diction, and it’s a real downer to have someone you respect make you feel like you’ve got bad taste. But before anyone accuses anyone of “step[ping] on other women as [she] makes [her] way to the podium,” as Beckman puts it, we should consider a couple of things. First: the offended parties lay claim to a genre ubiquitously referred to as “chick-lit”, a term used to describe fiction that relays, as Beckman puts it, “thoughtful, funny, relatable voices for the everywoman who’s looking for her personal pieces of life’s pie, including the career, the apartment, and the guy.” I don’t aim to scrutinize the content of the genre so much as the fact that the chick lit demographic has fully embraced the term. Ladies, it’s 2011. Who refers to women as “chicks” aside from Ed Hardy-wearing man-children? Uninspired as it may be, detractors calling the work “fluffy” can’t really be blamed—it’s built into the name, for god's sake. It’s difficult to move forward in an argument about the sexist climate in publishing when a group that is supposedly trying to push for more equality has accepted and even defended a derogatory label. Granted, the term was probably coined by some marketing department somewhere, but authors of the genre stand by it unflinchingly (see Michele Gorman’s article in The Guardian). It’s no secret that the chick lit authors are outselling their literary fiction counterparts by far. What’s alarming is that the tremendous success of the genre is largely because it’s marketed to women who identify themselves “chicks.” Perhaps the bigger issue at hand, though, is the severity of the backlash to Egan’s comments and the reasoning behind it. Bloggers at the The Signature Thing declared it “majorly ugly girl-on-girl crime,” and numerous commenters declared a boycott of everything Egan from this point forward. Another blogger at NerdGirlTalking was utterly perplexed: “Jennifer Egan, have you even MET Meg?.. Because how could you meet Meg and then call her work banal or derivative? I don’t care if you think those things, Meg is so nice that saying those things are almost like kicking a puppy.” These former Egan fans are uniting under the notion that in addition to being a meanie, Egan is setting feminists back 50 years. How could she? In the male hegemony of publishing, us gals are supposed to stick together. Which is all well and good, in theory. But to suggest that a woman writer should not be critical of other women writers is counter to progress. It reminds me a little bit of the 2008 election. There was a certain kind of Hillary supporter that believed all women should be in support of our potential first woman president mostly on the basis that this could be our first woman president! Which is all well and good, in theory. But to express any sort of dissent guaranteed you a look of pity mingled with disgust: Poor thing. She must secretly hate her vagina. This kind of mindless unity is counterintuitive. What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction. Publishing should strive to be a meritocracy (though whether it succeeds is a whole other issue,) and Egan’s comments are an acknowledgment of that. On the other hand, in the chick lit realm, amid the outrage and demand for more respect, there is, in fact cowering: observe Weiner selling herself short (and acknowledging a literary hierarchy) in an interview she gave to the Huffington Post: “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan "Genius" Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.” In 1971, Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex to “three days of menstrual flow.” Mailer then proceeded to head-butt Vidal before they appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, and six years later at a party, he threw his drink in Vidal’s face and started a fistfight. While I’m not suggesting that this is admirable behavior (though it is pretty funny,) it does nothing for leveling the playing field if every time a woman author remarks on the quality of a work of fiction, hysteria ensues, she’s thought of as a catty bitch, and there’s a concerted effort to rally the troops against her. In a year when a male author (Franzen), appeared on the cover of Time for the first time since the last male author (Stephen King,) appeared on the cover ten years ago, the significant success of Goon Squad shouldn’t be drowned out by bitterness because Egan encouraged young writers to aim higher than a genre whose very name degrades its creators. What we should be concerned about is that glaring inequities exist in publishing. So, ladies, one more time, in case you didn’t hear Egan over Weiner’s whining: shoot high and don’t cower. We can’t very well get much done with the kid gloves on.
If your Twitter or Facebook feed includes anyone who cares about American poetry, you've probably seen a link or 11 to Rita Dove's recent letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books (and Helen Vendler’s painfully terse reply). If not, here’s a quick rundown: The November 24 issue of the NYRB included Vendler's review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dove. The anthologist responded with a letter calling Vendler to task, in particular, for explicit and implicit dismissals of poetry by black Americans. Vendler replied, in full, “I have written the review and I stand by it.” To understand what Dove objected to, you needn’t read any further than the opening paragraphs of Vendler’s review: Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations. Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology? Notably, Vendler’s list of America’s foremost 20th-century poets is entirely white -- a fact that becomes especially significant when set up against her subsequent suggestion that this legacy of greatness is being crowded out in part by “introducing more black poets.” Up to a point, it's worth going easy on Vendler. Like Dove, she had a job to do -- the same job, really: make a case for what was worth reading in 20th-century American poetry. Dove made hers, and the NYRB asked Vendler to evaluate it. And after those two paragraphs Vendler’s argument mostly shifts away from issues of race and into critiques that, accurate or not, have more to do with Vendler’s dislike of what she calls “accessibility;” her defensiveness about what Dove refers to as the “poetry establishment;” and what Vendler describes as Dove’s “breezy chronological introduction, with its uneasy mix of potted history (in a nod to ‘context’) and peculiar judgments.” While any of these could be stand-ins for racial prejudice, I don’t believe they are. Instead, they feel like an uncomfortable mix of, on the one hand, Vendler’s legitimate arguments about selection and interpretation and, on the other, her fear that the poems she loves most won’t matter enough to others. But those first two paragraphs can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Dove rightly takes her to task for this, effectively unpacking the implications of, for example, dismissing minority writers as being of merely “sociological” interest; suggesting that such writers tend to be valued for their “representative themes,” whereas the major white writers Vendler lists are supposedly notable for their “style;” and asserting that they write poems because they “wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel.” (Vendler might argue that she didn’t mean any of these observations to be specific to minority writers, but she introduces all of them right after complaining that black writers are over-represented, and a critic who’s famous for her attention to detail should know that she’s setting up that reading of her remarks.) Dove also fairly marks the places where the shadow of such remarks can be discerned later on in the review. Ultimately, I think Vendler’s condescending talk about race and writing is driven by her defensiveness about her own tastes (and more about that in a bit), which of course does nothing to excuse it. But given that Dove and others have already effectively unpacked this most glaring aspect of the review -- and given that Vendler’s case seems far from unique -- it’s worth stopping to look at the assumptions that underpin most arguments against inclusiveness in art, including this one. Part of what leads Vendler astray is her belief in a kind of literary value that’s all noun and no verb -- that is, one that wants to define value without making room for the fact that many people do in fact value the very writing that, she says, is not, well... valuable. In the process, she, like many other critics (and not just of poetry), creates an oddly unpeopled universe -- or, at least, one that’s strangely devoid of living people. Vendler asks us to think of value in terms of a hypothetical and permanent future, one that will have unvarying and therefore conclusive (that is, correct) notions of what was good and bad in our writing. It’s an exasperating argument, since it asks us to defer to the critic’s mystical conjuring of our far off progeny, a population that will, of course, have the same values as the critic herself. But even if the critic is somehow right about what the academics of the 22nd century will value (and even if the 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries value the same things), it begs the question -- why should it matter? Our current canons are based on what a select group of current readers find useful, pleasurable, interesting, meaningful. Were readers in the 17th century wrong for sometimes finding pleasure in other places? Should they have been more concerned with what a Harvard professor might care about today? With some notable exceptions, taste is not a moral category. Yes, it makes a difference if we eat meat; and it matters, too, if our diets are full of sugar or salt. In different ways, it matters if we embrace art that enforces our prejudices, degrades others, or results from exploitation. The same is true if we choose to read in ways that inspire pettiness or abet us in living timid, unfulfilling, unimaginative lives. But more often than not, none of that is really at stake in these arguments. Just as some people will like poetry and some will like fiction, some sculpture, some movies, some wine -- some many things, some few -- there are countless ways to get to meaning through poems and just as many different experiences of meaning to arrive at. And almost all of them are worthwhile. In fact, we can enlarge ourselves by being more imaginative about value; it’s a way of learning about others that resembles the experience of art itself, an act or curiosity and creativity and engagement. Many critics seem to move in the opposite direction, letting in a sense that the appreciation of writing outside of their preferences somehow threatens the value of the poetry they want to champion. If page-counting is a necessary part of reviewing an anthology -- of unpacking its claims -- the treatment of artistic appreciation as a kind of zero-sum equation is not. There's a strange logic here, one that feels a little like the idea that gay marriages would threaten the sanctity of straight marriages (which is not to accuse any critics of homophobia -- just to note the ways in which a lack of imagination about other people's pleasures can turn into an unwarranted prejudice and a strangely militant attitude about the things others do and love.) Vendler's hardly alone in this. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself by defending the great tradition, as he imagines it, from the encroachment of all kinds of writing. In a nice bit of synchronicity, Bloom actually moved to the vanguard of the cultural wars by releasing his own anthology of sorts -- The Western Canon -- which made headlines for selecting 26 essential authors and defending their pre-eminence against an army of straw-men and -women: feminists, cultural theorists, etc., a group he likes to refer to as “The School of Resentment.” He, too, has passed judgment of Dove’s anthologizing, in his case when he made the selections for a Best of the Best American Poetry that largely discarded the choices of the series’ first 10 editors, including Rita Dove, and instead came up with his own roster of works that “will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets.” It’s likely that some of the defensiveness that critics like Bloom feel comes from their awareness that their own selections may be subject to attack, their awareness that championing an all or mostly white or male roster of artists is going to leave them subject to charges of racism and sexism. But there’s a simple way around that: admit that the kind of writing you value is just one kind of potentially valuable writing. Keep in mind that, in trying to maintain the prerogatives and preferences of the establishment (quotation marks deliberately omitted), you’re trying to sustain a series of cultural traditions and institutions that have been hostile to women, blacks, and other minorities on grounds that have nothing to do with merit. Take seriously the ways in which others experience and uncover meaning at the same time you ask others to preserve space for the things you value most. And (hey, why not?) take a little bit of time to consider the possibility that female and non-white writers are already doing important work in that same vein -- and that maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you at first glance in part because you haven’t yet immersed yourself in a slightly different set of cultural experiences and associations. (On that last note, Vendler does eventually get around to praising both Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa, but it comes so late in her review that it doesn’t provide much counterweight, and her assertion that the “excellent contemporary poetry” of these two writers “needs no special defense” revives her claim that many other black writers are valuable only under the terms of some separate and lower standard.) The importance of this extends beyond racial inclusiveness. One of the most useful things a critic can do -- and one that Vendler herself has done at various points in her career -- is to open us up to new sources of pleasure and insight. In denying the value of so much that clearly does provide value for others (including, for me, the brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Vendler faintly praises for a “pioneering role” before expressing wild outrage at Dove’s claim that Brooks’ first book “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”), a critic works against our capacity for imagination. We can, should, and will continue to argue about artistic quality, but we should do so while remembering that poetry can only live in the minds of living readers, and that its value comes out of their encounters with individual poems, which are, thank god, incredibly various (both the poems and the encounters.) Too much criticism suggests that we must serve art -- a supposedly timeless art removed from the particulars of people immersed in culture and history. And yet the most enduring value of Shakespeare -- the favorite cudgel of literary culture warriors -- is his ongoing service to individual readers, his ability to bring them joy and inspiration, bring them a more vibrant connection to the language we all speak in our own ways, rich grief, and insight into people living very different lives. Why worry so much about any other writing that provides the same?
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Apropos of a post earlier this month on limiting and culling overflowing book collections, Scott McLemee takes on the topic (via) in Inside Higher Ed. Leaving aside whether we are somehow seeing (in a trend that would fly in the face of publishing industry gloom-and-doomers) an explosion of ill advised impulse book buying around the world, lets have a look at the solutions recently proposed. Recall that the article mentioned in the above linked post suggested conducting "regular inspections of your library;" following "the 'one in, one out' rule;" spending "more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks;" using the library more, and "beginning to follow the 'Google Books' rule.McLemee looks at a professor, overrun by books, who has reached a breaking point. A case study of sorts:At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves' worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to "the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler" would have a fringe benefit: "I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office."It sounded like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.Along the way the gamut of emotions are felt:There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.Not sure why I'm dwelling on this topic of late, but I suspect has to do with the fact that we're moving again soon, and with that comes inevitable book culling, though this time the damage should be limited. Best of all, we're finally (finally!) going to be moving somewhere where we'll be living for more than a year, so I can unbox all the books and put them on some sort Mrs. Millions-created shelving masterpiece. Brilliant.
1. When I was 17, I registered my first copyright. Unofficially. My three dearest friends and I were ready to share the recordings our rock band had made, but had some reservations about uploading them to the social media sites which were just then being retooled for independent musicians to self-market. Naïve about the system -- and hopelessly naïve about ourselves -- we expected that, without precautions, rogue musicians could present our songs as their own and claim for themselves the glory we were due. It turned out that we owned the copyright to our songs when we wrote them, but had to register that copyright in case of dispute. So I did what is called a Poor Man’s Copyright: I self-addressed an envelope, placed one of our CDs inside, mailed it and, when it came back to me, put it away, unopened, for safekeeping. This document proved that we had created what was sealed within before the postage date. I still have that envelope stashed away, and under current US law, that copyright will likely endure well into the 22nd century. And yet, it is hard to say what “copyright” will mean by then. Intellectual property is a dynamic concept, legally and culturally, one that is always being reshaped on one hand by changing methods of creation and distribution, and on the other by markets scurrying to catch up. The abstract line between public and private ideas -- the line that intellectual property tries to police -- is the very same line the Internet blurs so well. This January, copyright witnesses a simultaneous push and pull, a drive for greater stricture on one end, and a graceful unknotting on the other. While Congress resumes deliberations on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) -- the latest legislation meant to address the rise of social media, streaming services, and file sharing -- scholars in the UK and most of Europe are rejoicing the entry of James Joyce’s corpus into the public domain. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have been in the American public domain for many years, but due to differing laws, certain editions of Ulysses and the entirety of Finnegans Wake remain protected for nearly another quarter century in the US. Hypothetically, under a SOPA regime, European websites publishing text of these newly public later masterpieces could find themselves dropped off of American search engines, or starved for funds if they rely on American companies like Google’s ad service and PayPal to generate revenue. The copyright status of Joyce’s work has been of particular interest to scholars and fans on both sides of the Atlantic, due mostly to the stubborn and sometimes egregious permissions policies set forth by Joyce’s sole heir and executor of his estate, his grandson, Stephen James Joyce. But this month, the Joyce copyrights enter a new twilight period made all the more striking by a history of differing national laws. In the 1970s, the US went from a publication-based copyright system to a European “biological” one, with a copyright term of the author’s life plus an additional 70 years in most cases. But the US Copyright Office set up certain benchmarks by which older works would be grandfathered in. Works published before 1923 would be in the public domain, while those published in the window between 1923 and 1978 would enjoy up to 95 years of copyright protection from the date of publication. And while the first edition of Ulysses dates back to 1922, the 1934 Random House edition (the first officially published in the US) enters the public domain in 2030; and Finnegans Wake in 2035. It is likely that the American copyright in the Wake will outlive Stephen James, an old man now without an heir of his own. And yet, despite the recent lapse of the copyrights in the EU, it is just as likely that Stephen James will fight to enforce that remaining American copyright to the very last. In 2006, D.T. Max profiled the heir for The New Yorker. In the brilliant piece, Stephen James revels in his antagonistic execution of the estate, believing he is complying with Joyce’s wishes: “I am not only protecting and preserving the purity of my grandfather’s work but also what remains of the much abused privacy of the Joyce family,” he once said. “Every artist’s born right is to have their work . . . reproduced as they want it to be reproduced.” For Stephen James, great works of literature (even those as dense as the Wake) are meant to be enjoyed singularly, without critiques, analyses, or guides. He has used his rights to the fullest in preserving his grandfather’s integrity and deterring the academy, which for too long, he believes, has piggybacked on Joyce’s genius. He once requested a $1.5 million permissions fee from a scholar hoping to make a multimedia version of Ulysses. When the scholar refused, Stephen James told him, “You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you’ll never quote a Joyce text again.” It is not easy to say what exactly Joyce would have wanted to happen to his work. He was at times an eager self-promoter, asking friends like Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams to write essays in support of the unfinished Wake and admitting to filling his books with enough puzzles to keep professors busy well into the 21st century. But he was also, throughout his life, strapped for cash, and spoke out for “Author’s Rights” when American publisher Samuel Roth began circulating unauthorized copies of Ulysses (the book was originally deemed obscene in the US; Joyce could claim no copyright in it, since it had been “stricken from the mails”). Indeed, with the Internet reshaping how we think of intellectual property, we might learn a lot from Joyce’s ambivalence, as his body of work begins its march into the public domain. 2. In many ways, the attitude of Stephen James Joyce resembles that of the Stop Online Piracy Act, stodgy and clinging to old ways. Introduced last fall, SOPA would have expanded the arsenal of cease-and-desist tactics that the entertainment industry has been deploying ineffectively for the last 15 years, starting with the crackdowns on file-sharers. Copyright holders would have been able to create an embargo against websites allegedly violating their copyrights by compelling payment processors and ad networks to suspend their services, with very little recourse for contesting the accusation. Congress was set to vote on SOPA before the end of month, but shelved the legislation last week following an internet-wide protest that included daylong blackouts of sites like Wikipedia, which opposes any restriction on the flow of information. Google and Facebook, also in protest, would have been asked by the attorney general to redirect users away from sites (particularly foreign sites) engaging in “piracy,” a policy that The New York Times, in a recent editorial, likened to China’s policing of the Internet. Besides, there is little reason to believe that outwitting the SOPA measures would not have become standard behavior for many Internet users, just as torrenting and streaming have. So how is it that we are not finding more secure ways to remunerate artists and thinkers? This is after all the most benign reason for reinforcing intellectual property laws. It seems to me that since the veritable explosion of the Internet, and since the economic collapse of 2008, the dialect movement of culture and economics has been accelerated and re-codified, plunging people on both sides back into an age-old confusion about art and money. In November, I attended a panel discussion on the “Creative Economy,” a concept elaborated over the last decade by such economists as John Howkins and Richard Florida, who argue that knowledge will become an increasingly important economic resource in the 21st century. At one point, a woman from a major media conglomerate spoke approvingly of the imminent crackdowns and lawsuits SOPA would have brought about. I was so irked when the rest of the panel agreed that, during the Q&A, I posed a troublemaking question: The internet is an incredible force for creativity, allowing people to share work freely, outside time and space. And yet the rhetoric around this exchange is extremely negative, invoking piracy and theft. To what extent, then, is the creative economy just another name for the capitalist economy? That last part, of course, was meant to inflame. But it didn’t. It was evident to one gentleman, a city official, that “creators” should be compensated: “How else are they supposed to make a living?” The Internet is at once one of the greatest products and one of the greatest drivers of a creative economy, though probably not the one that the panelists had in mind. Given the activities that it enables, it promises to drastically change the way culture is produced and consumed. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation is also how we learn, and how we align ourselves with the styles and ideas we find meaningful, and thus build community. Innovation for Joyce lay precisely in imitating the “open-source” texts available to him: his access to the public domain and his ability to play with the ideas and language he found therein allowed him -- at the height of modernism when art was meant to be self-referential -- to wink at the knowing reader with a spoof of Homer, Vico, or Shakespeare, and to change that same reader’s conception of all the great works that came before. The difference is, without web access, Joyce had to go to the library or bookseller for his material; and Joyce had to fund the publication of his books. But the Internet also threatens to do away with those terms (production, consumption) and the commodification of culture entirely, and this is where it gets tricky. Proponents of SOPA need only point to the act’s subtitle to defend it: “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” All the buzzwords of creative economics are there. And yet the concerns of Stephen James Joyce (propriety and privacy) are not. 3. It feels like the “Creative Economy” encapsulates two opposing economies, creativity and consumerism, and copyright law is the locus where the conflict is most evident. And yet, this conflict is more than one between abstract entities: it’s a practical and emotional dilemma for any writer who has ever tried to make a career of his or her craft. Even Joyce, who borrowed famously, claimed his work as his own, and expected due compensation. The conflict between the openness of the creative process and the restraint of good business acumen is one embodied by Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post, the sons of HCE and ALP in Finnegans Wake. In the “Shem the Penman” chapter, Shaun scolds his brother for squandering all of his good stories in the pub: Comport yourself, your inconsistency! Where is that little alimony nestegg against our predictable rainy day? Is it not the fact […] that, while whistlewhirling your crazy elegies around Templetombmount joynstone, […] you squandered among underlings the overload of your extravagance and made a hottentot of deulpeners crawsick with your crumbs? Am I not right? Yes? Yes? Yes? Holy wax and holifer! Don’t tell me, Leon of the fold, that you are not a loanshark. According to Shaun, Shem will inevitably go broke because he was too much in love with telling stories, gave them out for free, has made people almost sick of hearing them. And yet Shaun senses that Shem is not naïve. He may in fact be something of a loan shark, and by giving easily up front, Shem can demand more later, when selling his book to the very people who have long enjoyed his yarns. Joyce was commenting on a very real and persistent phenomenon, one that even my friends and I in high school had some inkling of when we thought it wise to “register” our songs: it is necessary to self-promote up until the point where one is entitled to charge admission to one’s work. The Internet illuminates this threshold between ruthless self-promotion and entitlement, while greatly enabling the former and destabilizing the latter. None of us today will ever live to see our creative work become public domain, but Joyce lived in a time when his books were not guaranteed legal protection. In a speech he gave to the International PEN Conference in Paris, summer of 1937, Joyce reflected on the Ulysses piracy debacle and the successful international protest he organized against Samuel Roth: It is, I believe, possible to reach a judicial conclusion from this judgment to the effect that, while unprotected by the written law of copyright and even if it is banned, a work belongs to its author by virtue of a natural right and that thus the law can protect an author against the mutilation and the publication of his work just as he is protected against the misuse that can be made of his name. Joyce had a sense of propriety when it came to literature, that even if writers could not make their work lucrative, their visions should be respected. It’s true this did not always extend to the texts he spoofed and lifted from. And yet, author’s rights are an idea on which many of us would think favorably. This should by no means be interpreted as a mandate for his grandson’s obstructionist policies, nor for greater policing of the Internet. Rather, we are going to need a completely new online framework for supporting creators, and to get there, we might have to move beyond a tired notion of “copyright” and towards “author’s rights.” Image Credit: Flickr/Horia Varlan
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