Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Newsflash: old guy doesn't like new-fangled foolishness

One of the New Yorker's sacred Great Men of the Arts, John Updike, doesn't like the idea of an online library:

"You are in the front while writers cower in their studies," he told the audience. "I see bookstores as citadels of life. They civilize neighborhoods." His favorite local store "brightens my life and the whole street it's on."

Speaking of the May 14 New York Times Magazine article called "Scan This Book!" about the universal library of the future--where all texts would be available digitally and snippets of them mixed together the way listeners mix favorite music--Updike mocked some of the writer's predictions, including that authors will be involved in more performances and that readers will have "access to the creator." He called the article's vision a "pretty grisly scenario," a kind of "throwback to a preliterate society where only a live person adds, shall we say, value." He wondered if the culture of celebrity had made "signed books seen only as a ticket to the lecture platform." The written word, he continued, is "supposed to speak for itself and sell itself even if the author's picture is not on the back cover." Sadly, he said, the author has grown "in importance as the walking, talking advertisement for a book."
and ...
He noted, too, that "yes, there is a ton of information on the Web but much of it is unedited and inaccurate." By contrast, the book, he continued, "is still more exacting and demanding of writers and consumers."

He concluded, "Booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."

I love a good bookstore, but what I like even MORE is easy access to information. If you live in a sweet upscale hi-culture neighborhood, and I feel confident in predicting that John Updike does, then yeah, you might miss those little boutique bookstores where everybody knows your name. But as you are probably aware, most of the world does not live in neighborhoods like John Updike's.

I absolutely love that I can go online anytime, almost anywhere and look stuff up. Stuff like - hey, I remember why I dislike John Updike, because I read a review he wrote about a book by a gay author about gays - but I don't remember the name of the book or exactly what he said or when he said it. Now if I had to go to a library or a bookstore to get the info, I wouldn't bother. Who has the time? But abracadabra, I enter "Updike" and "gay" and "review" into Google and Google gives me the facts:

The book is called "The Spell" the review was written in 1999, and I find that "Updike zeroes in on his real complaint about gay male relationships where "nothing is at stake but self-gratification." "Novels about heterosexual partnering," Updike explains, "however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family."

Updike also said: ""Perhaps the male homosexual, uncushioned as he is by society's circumambient encouragements to breed, feels the isolated, disquieted human condition with a special bleakness: he must take it straight."

Thank you, Gay Today

Have you ever heard such a pile of right-wing shit? And when I enter "updike", "apologizes", "The Spell", and "review" into Google I find no evidence of Updike having second thoughts on the topic.

The best part of Updike's recent comments is his bemoaning the culture of celebrity. As if his entire career hasn't benefitted from a culture of literary celebrity. And that's what it boils down to - the stripping away of privilege. Now even I can post stuff to a blog and have it read, potentially, by thousands of people. I might be as good a writer as Updike, maybe better, but unless you're annointed by the literary gatekeepers it doesn't mean anything. Updike dimly understands that the days of the literary gatekeepers are numbered, but he doesn't get why - not because of some newly-invented celebrity culture, but because celebrities won't be quite so celebrated as they once were because of all the competition.

Professional editorialists have the same reaction to Internet bloggers - they feel threatened by the competition. And so they should. You no longer have to go to cocktail parties with the editor of The Atlantic to get your license to opine, like that mental midget Caitlin Flanagan. Anybody can do it, and although the Flanagans and the Updikes of the world and their cocktail party pals can't admit it, some of those anybodies who might never have had the opportunity to be heard before everything went online might be good.

But it isn't just the chance to opine that's new. It's the chance to get at info. I doubt Updike has ever had a comparable experience, but when I was an impoverished teenage mother living in a white trash town, I went to the town's tiny library to try to take out copies of the plays of Shakespeare - I had recently been enthralled by the BBC's production of AS YOU LIKE IT and I was suddenly a Shakespeare fanatic. Well this white trash library had available about four of the plays. It took me over a year to track down, one way or another, all the rest. Now you can go to Shakespeare Online and read everything Bill S ever wrote plus essays on the plays, a glossary a quiz and additional sources. I'd say that's an improvement.

Of course Updike's not going to like it. I doubt that another annoying privileged old guy, Harold Bloom likes it. Anybody can be a Shakespearean scholar if they want, and more efficiently than if they had to go to the big city library to get at the relevant texts.

I love libraries myself. I wish libraries were open 24-7 so that you could go to them for a night out - I'd rather spend time in a well-appointed library than a noisy bar any night. But I'd be there for the pleasure of the experience, not for the efficiency of information gathering.

Of course privileged, well-paid, annointed Great Men of the Arts have time to linger over shelves and watch the women coming and going talking of Michaelangelo. The rest of us gotta get stuff done and pay the rent, suckah.

Is it a coinicidence that guys who are considered science fiction authors get what the authors of Important Novels don't?

Kurt Vonnegut, in his book Fates Worse Than Death, said:
In the children's fable The White Deer, by the late American humorist James Thurber, the Royal Astronomer in a medieval court reports that all the stars are going out. What has really happened is that the astronomer has grown old and is going blind. That was Thurber's condition too, when he wrote his tale. He was making fun of a sort of old poop who imagined that life was ending not merely for himself but for the whole universe. Inspired by Thurber, then, I choose to call any old poop who writes a popular book saying that the world, or at least his own country, is done for, a 'Royal Astronomer' and his subject matter 'Royal Astronomy.' Since I myself have become an old poop at last, perhaps I, too, should write such a book. But it is hard for me to follow the standard formula for successful Royal Astronomy, a formula going back who knows how far, maybe to the invention of printing by the Chinese a couple of thousand years ago. The formula is, of course: 'Things aren't as good as they used to be. The young people don't know anything and don't want to know anything. We have entered a steep decline!' But have we? Back when I was a kid, lynchings of black people were reported almost every week, and always went unpunished. Apartheid was as sternly enforced in my hometown, which was Indianapolis, as it is in South Africa nowadays. Many great universities, including those in the Ivy League, rejected most of the Jews who applied for admission solely because of their Jewishness, and had virtually no Jews and absolutely no blacks, God knows, on their faculties. I am going to ask a question -- and President Reagan, please don't answer: Those were the good old days? When I was a kid during the Great Depression, when it was being demonstrated most painfully that prosperity was not a natural by-product of liberty, books by Royal Astronomers were as popular as they are today. They said, as most of them do today, that the country was falling apart because the young people were no longer required to read Plato and Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius and St. Augustine and Montaigne and the like, whose collective wisdom was the foundation of any decent and just and productive society. Back in the Great Depression, the Royal Astronomers used to say that a United States deprived of that wisdom was nothing but a United States of radio quiz shows and music straight out of the jungles of Darkest Africa. They say now that the same subtraction leaves the United States of nothing but television quiz shows and rock and roll, which leads, they say, inexorably to dementia. But I find uncritical respect for most works by great thinkers of long ago unpleasant, because they almost all accepted as natural and ordinary the belief that females and minority races and the poor were on earth to be uncomplaining, hardworking, respectful, and loyal servants of white males, who did the important thinking and exercised leadership.

And Douglas Adams said in "The Salmon of Doubt", more succinctly, if not better:
Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Shelf Awareness by way of Sivacracy.