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In the Year 2017, I'm a God
August 8, 2007 - 9:36am

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I caught a lot of grief this summer from readers upset with what I’ve posted on this blog. No, I didn’t insult good country folk; I stand accused of writing too well.

The charges were leveled by friends and acquaintances, who no doubt felt they were looking out for my interests. One said that writing published first in print media might be republished on the Net (if the print source was good enough), but that it couldn’t go from Net to print. In other words, this blog is a throwaway, and I’ve ruined my chances for becoming respectable.

I gave one guy I know the URL for my interview with Chaplain Floro, thinking he would take it on faith to be pretty interesting. “Oh, it’s on your blog?” he said. He said he thought maybe it had been published, and he mentioned a print magazine with a fraction of the “circulation” of Inside Higher Ed. I could hear him smiling condescendingly on the other end of the line, so I hit him with the figures, how I get 400,000 unique readers each month and enough money in a year from this gig to buy myself a used Mercedes.

I knew I could get away with this because he once told me he totally believed in the resurrection of this guy.

“A Mercedes?” he croaked. Chaplain Floro shot up in his estimation.

There were others, including my own dear sister. I’d given her the link to a lit journal’s website, so she could read a long poem I’d published there under my real name, but she never looked. When I dragged out a print copy of the journal, she said, “It’s in a book?” and took it as if it were made of Limoges.

This will all be looked at differently one day. The Net will be seen as a repository of current and historical primary-source texts, its authors ambitious thoughtful writers, belle-lettrists, feuilltonists, memoirists, epistolary writers, daybook-keepers, fiction writers, poets, literary travel writers, pensées writers, epigrammists, unpaid journalists, humorless shits, propagandists, hacks, ranters, pollyannas, pricks, and illiterates—the same rogues as in print.

What surprises me but shouldn’t is that in the so-called age of mechanical reproduction (Warhol’s been dead 20 years, and Mr. Gutenberg 540), electronic forms of publishing are often ignored or devalued. Worse, they’re seen as spoilers for getting into “books” or “magazines.”

(Warhol’s followers get it wrong, by the way. Reproduction of oil paintings is different from reprinting texts. Literary texts are rarely if ever meant to be consumed as physical “originals”—though scholars do consume authors’ manuscripts—so continual mechanical reproduction does nothing to lessen their effect. The work lives in the mind, and publishers only show us what they can do with typography, fonts, paper, printing, bindings, distribution, and relative pricing.)

Is there any denying that there always have been, with time, multiple forms? Go get your Melville free online in searchable text, or from the bargain bin at the chain store, from your uni’s bookstore in a scholarly edition with secondary essays and annotations, or in a rich naugahyde-bound copy with gilt edges that smells like petrochemicals. (Yes, I just compared myself, fleetingly, inadvertently, to Melville. Let’s proceed.)

I have a strange relationship with technology. While I’m irritated when I have to adapt to its needs (in the name of it helping me), and I often distrust it, I sometimes find myself strangely ahead of its popular use. I owned Marty McFly’s early video camera, way back then, and used two VCRs in parallel to do rough edits. I was one of Amazon.com’s first customers; they were so grateful for my business, they gave me a free hat. I’ve used digital editing software in the lit classroom, and weird, homegrown sociology software in rhet classes. And while I can’t claim to be one of the first bloggers, I may be one of the first—what, in the low thousands?—to be paid for doing it. I try to use the platform for all it’s worth.

The week I started this blog, I went to sessions on academic blogging at the Modern Language Association Conference. At “Literary Studies in the Public Sphere,” Amardeep Singh and Michael Bérubé equated public with bloggic. (I felt great personal warmth for Singh when he said that the use of pen names in blogging did not reduce ownership or validity, that there can still be “a commitment to textual authenticity.”) Bérubé added, however, that he felt blogging was not a form of publishing (at least not one worthy for the c.v.), that it was “marginal in the best sense of the word.” My writing here is not academic, nor was meant to be, and often it’s not even about the academy, but it’s of publishable quality and worthy of my c.v.

That’s why I took an interest in the recent Ithaka Report, which says “the boundaries between formal and informal publication will blur.” (Also, I always do what IHE resident intellectual Scott McLemee says to do.) The report states:

Formal scholarly publishing is characterized by a process of selection, editing, printing and distribution of an author’s content by an intermediary (preferably one with some name recognition). Informal scholarly publication, by comparison, describes the dissemination of content (sometimes called “gray literature”) that generally has not passed through these processes, such as working papers, lecture notes, student newsletters, etc. In the past decade, the range and importance of the latter has been dramatically expanded by information technology, as scholars increasingly turn to preprint servers, blogs, listservs, and institutional repositories, to share their work, ideas, data, opinions, and critiques. These forms of informal publication have become pervasive in the university and college environment.

This is true for all sorts of publishing, and I find myself producing “gray literature” of something that might otherwise be called essay writing or creative non-fiction or journaling or humor/satire. The Report says,

We define “publishing platform” as a combination of infrastructure (storage, servers, processing power), software (content creation tools, content management systems, publishing applications), and the business models that support them. The appeal of such a “platform” is often enhanced by the aggregation of content it supports.

Many are writing, in aggregate, “content” that enhances the appeal of our current platforms, which we didn’t invent, by the way. We’re using what we have. I’ve been thinking that one might serialize a novel here, for instance. It’s an old tradition to publish successive novel chapters in periodicals.

And just because something comes wrapped in a digital dustcover doesn’t make it disposable.

 

 

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