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The Gate We Should Have Kept: And Was Mystique That Bad?


Gate [1]

One of the most perceptive regulars in #FutureChat [2], The FutureBook digital publishing community’s weekly live discussion, is Carla Douglas of BeyondPaperEditing.com in Kingston, Ontario.

And in a recent doing of the discussion, Douglas pointed out that writing, while once among the most isolated and solitary of careers has been made one of the most social by digital communication.

Douglas is always more graceful than I am in these insights of hers.

My iteration of her comment would be that the imperatives of self-promotion through social media — that inexorable drive to be communal, communal, communal about every last thing — simply has blown the roof off the artist’s garret and left us unable to make a single sausage unobserved.

[pullquote]Something about the enabling force of the digital dynamic is causing us to want to expose our guts to all comers. Something about instantaneous global communication (my tweet is faster than your tweet) is making us tell all, confess all, reveal all.[/pullquote]

We just can’t shut up. Yakking is the chronic condition, and we seem to be incurable.

Look, I do honor and cheer the mighty millions of Wattpad who seem to want to “share” (boy, am I sick of that word) their every written word with every last human being who will look at it on any minute of every day. Me, I have no need to crowd-source my damned grocery list, but if they want to be sure that broccoli and sprouts have the approval of their peers, then, by God, I want them to have that approval.

But grocery lists will never be the same. No, let me rephrase that: grocery lists will be the same. And that’s the problem with all this.

Homogeneity — in the overused name of “diversity,” no less — is impossible to avoid when the trend-tracked hive-mind of “shared” creativity becomes life-by-committee and expression by critique group.

And I regret it.

That’s my provocation for you today. I’m not saying that you should stop or change anything you’re doing. It’s not as if you or I can stop or change anything the culture (a term used so loosely) is doing. And doing. And doing. Good God, we are doing so much. So much.

No, do carry on. You must. We must.

But I’m here today to say that even as we hurtle forward on this industry-wide crash course in the digital dynamo, I’m glad I didn’t have to see Emily Dickinson conduct #PoetryChat every Friday at 11 a.m. Eastern.

Because I Could Not Stop To Think…

Provocations image by Liam Walsh [3]
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Sorry, Emily, I know that’s not “Because I could not stop for Death.” But there is a certain thoughtlessness afoot here, and something is being grimly reaped by the accelerating drive of deliverables and Google docs.

I’d feel better, silly me, if we called into consciousness, at least, the loss of something that may not have been as frivolous as we once thought: mystique.

I’d be very pleased if you’d join our #FutureChat today, as a matter of fact (bring a poet, too). We’re talking about something  you may have heard about: The Ethical Author Code [4]. Here’s my walkup to today’s live chat [5] at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook. It gives you the background. Here’s a consideration [6]at Thought Catalog of how the issues of author ethics may coincide with the overrun of publishing by amateurism.

Briefly, The Ethical Author Code was launched a week ago by Orna Ross, the sturdy founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors at The FutureBook Conference in London. It’s an attempt to redress some of the inappropriate conduct of some authors — usually the self-published are blamed, not always fairly — especially around how they handle consumer reviews and self-promotion. These are guidelines to be voluntarily signed onto or not. Some will call them unseemly, others will seize on them gratefully, almost no one will have no opinion.

And were we always as opinionated as we are today? Remind me to give you my opinion of that.

It’s in such settings as The FutureBook’s gathering of digital-publishing players that we can and should expect these industry pressures and problems to be on the table.

What I worry about is that all the world of letters, at least, has become a live chat. Of one kind or another.

Salem’s Lottery

So about a hundred of us took our chances on the first Writer Unboxed Un-Conference at Salem, Massachusetts, quite near the end of the Conference Siege of 2014. There was a lot to like about it, and Writer Unboxed czarina Therese Walsh is to be endlessly praised for pulling such an intricate five-day event together. Her husband Sean Walsh (did you know he’s a playwright?) achieved the Mensch of the Year title for about the next decade, tirelessly taking care of duties, details, dementia for us all.

I think I have a few things to say about Salem, things its chamber of commerce may not enjoy. Those are for another column.

[pullquote]There is a gateway missing now. It leads directly to the watery darkness of actual creative development. I wonder where it is. I don’t think it’s on Pinterest.[/pullquote]

What I did notice at #WUUnCon, as we hashed it out, was that even in the context of something so determinedly about writerly craft — not business — writers have become creatures of the light, the light of community, community, community. Our assembly basked in it. I sat in on sessions that were nothing more than group therapy. (“Now write down the moment you were happiest,” we were instructed. “Now write down something you got from your mother.”) I still remember a time when we said to writers that if their work was, in fact, self-therapy, then it might not, in fact, be literature. We don’t seem to say that much anymore, do we? Your disappointing childhood is welcome wherever online sales are transacted.

Something about the enabling force of the digital dynamic — and I have not yet fully got a handle on this — is causing us to want to expose our guts to all comers. Something about instantaneous global communication (my tweet is faster than your tweet) is making us tell all, confess all, reveal all.

This comes down to some of the most practical mistakes imaginable. A very sensible note from the management office in my housing complex has just reminded residents that it’s unwise to babble away on social media about their coming holiday trips: they’re alerting potential burglars to the fact that their homes will be empty. It used to be that a terrible social faux pas was to make your dinner guests watch your vacation slides and video. Now, you can bore our lives out — and signal the crooks — before you even pack for the trip.

This also comes down to some of the most obscure, all-but-ineffable changes in creative expression we see today. No mystique.

The other day in London, as I said goodbye to a friend at a restaurant, I realized that one of the things I enjoy about our relationship is that I don’t know what her home life is like. I’ve never seen the house, never met the family, never sat on the couch. How wonderful. There’s a little mystery left to that novelist. And how rare is that?

Missing Mystique

We know what the aurora borealis is. We know how Ebola is spread. We know exercise matters and sitcoms do not.

The Poet and the Vampyre [7]But we still don’t fully know what Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, and John Polidori got up to — not fully — in that summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva, not even with Andrew McConnell Stott’s fine The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters [7] (Pegasus, 2014). As Tony Perrottet wrote in the Times [8] in 2011, five years later, Dr. Polidori would commit suicide at age 25. Six years later, Percy Shelley would drown in Italy. Eight years later, even Byron would die in Greece, at 36.

There is a gateway missing now. It leads directly to the watery darkness of actual creative development. I wonder where it is. I don’t think it’s on Pinterest.

And for all the educational, instructional, and, God help us, communal advantages of a digitally connected world, I wonder if our best writers won’t, in the very near future, begin to connect less often, commune less readily, congregate less willingly.

What if it’s not just the time-drain that gives us trouble with social media and community-or-bust types? What if good work needs some privacy, some mystique, to land its majesty, even today? What do you think? Is this just the Campari talking?


Main image – iStockphoto: MatSilvan

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About Porter Anderson [9]

@Porter_Anderson [10] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [11], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [12] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [13]