Friday, April 4, 2008

Literature and the Internet

As my previous posts have indicated, I am endlessly fascinated by the marriage of art and technology (more specifically, writing and the Internet). According to Italo Calvino, this union will celebrate many happy anniversaries, provided that certain ideals are kept in mind. I could easily cite many academics and writers in this regard. However, my ultimate goal is to come up with my own pros and cons related to the effect the Internet has on literature. Granted, the fact that I have a blog rightfully indicates that I can think of more goods than harms. People who blog have their detractors, ones who side with William Gaddis's disdain of "every four year-old with a computer."

The focus should always be placed on the quality of the work on hand, whether it is found between the pages of a book or between the pages of the web. An excellent example is Imaginary Year, a former serialized web narrative by one of my former teachers, Jeremy P. Bushnell. He champions web and self-publishing, but in the end, quality reigns over formatting. To twist Marshall McLuhan's statement, "the medium is not the message." On the other hand, "the medium is the message," for someone like Bushnell can publish quality work without having to rely on publishing conglomerates or websites.

Where am I going with this? This week, I've been skimming Joseph Tabbi's 2002 book Cognitive Fictions, an analysis of how technology works with literature. Perhaps a work like this should not be skimmed, but as a former student of Tabbi, I saw firsthand how he preached that philosophy. Case in point: In one of his classes, we spent a single week studying the 1,000+ pages of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I've always respected Tabbi, despite his occasional tendency to opt for less hands-on teaching. The introduction to Cognitive Fictions has some provoking thoughts on literature in the 21st century.

"What changes is not necessarily the form or content of books per se, but the whole structure of support and beliefs about what counts as (meaningful) signal, and what is noise (Tabbi xi)."

This statement might seem obvious at first glance, but it actually provides a strong thesis statement on how the Internet highlights all kinds of literature. Anyone can publish themselves on the web, giving readers the bad with the good. A strong literary eye is necessary to separate "meaningful" self-published fiction from the "noise." Yes, this applies to printed works as well. If I had to guess, I would say that there is a 1:5 ratio between good books and mediocre ones. The beauty lies in the fact that every writer now has a voice. We as readers have the choice to either listen to or ignore that voice.

I will undoubtedly be exploring these ideas in the future with further readings of Tabbi, William Gaddis, and Jonathan Franzen. Also, I will be researching other blogs and examples of self-publishing, trying to come up with more advanced hypotheses of where the Internet is taking reading, writing, and publishing. Stay tuned.

Work Cited:
Tabbi, Joseph. Cognitive Fictions. Copyright 2002 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.


Michael Peterson said...

This is an area that I'm particularly focused on, myself.

James Yates said...

Michael, if you have any book/website recommendations on this topic, it would be much appreciated.
Hopefully within the next couple of weeks or so, I'll try to do a follow-up essay on this subject. This particular one is pretty vague, but I'm hoping to do some more research for a more detailed analysis or example on the subject.

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