Friday, August 25, 2006

Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions

I hope to keep this up regularly as we move forward, so please pardon me as I in fact move backwards.

On June 5th of this year, Motoko Rich wrote an article in the NY Times about Mark Z. Danielewski's new novel, his second, entitled Only Revolutions. Like our good friend McKenzie Wark, Danielewski has thrown his work online, to the savage pack of readers anxious to sink their dripping fangs into his artistic achievement to make it, in some way, their own. But Danielewski is only allowing margin notes - these readers will not be changing plots, adding characters, or moving action from Cleveland to Toledo.

And in fact, by the end of this rather circuitous article, Danielewski returns to admit that he's making the book - the actual book - in such a way that the reader will have to turn it upside down every 8 pages to follow the action. This seems like he's just taunting those of us who insist on physical books, doesn't it?

Now having novelists use online technology to bridge the gap between writer and reader, artist and spectator, presents different issues than those that arise with someone like MacKenzie Wark. And generally, I have less of a problem with it. I feel stodgy resisting it - one novelist quoted in this Times piece, Vikram Chandra, uses the metaphor of some guarding the forts against barbarians at the gate, ready to take over. Don't resist. This seems extreme, though it rather fits the Kelly v. Updike debate very well. Updike was frustrated, cranky like a kid at Kelly's bullying, aggressive suggestion of putting the final nail in the book's coffin. And Updike is, of course, a novelist.

So the idea is the novelist, an artist with a medium, a concept of her or his art ending up in binding, with pages, with a cover and a title page and end papers and quotes on the back and... this is all sounding quite boring and staid. So you're a young novelist, and you think bigger, and you think these pages with jackets and quotes and page numbers are not going to cut it, and you imagine a story that leaps from webpage to billboard to free pamphlet to radio spot - this to me sounds pretty damn exciting! It brings to mind Shelley Jackson's short story, Skin, which turned into a project wherein each word - 2,095 total - would one by one be tattooed on volunteers' bodies. A friend of mine got a word, and I complimented him on his participation. It's fun and interesting and he's involved in this bigger artistic thing, but... I'll never read Skin, besides this one word. And if I do, how seriously will I consider its literary merits in lieu of this art project?

As an editor, I admit that I spend my days forcing work into a format, getting authors to fit more into convention in some ways. But is the resistance aimed at these experimental authors an issue of control? Are publishing professionals not prepared to be challenged by new formats? Are readers afraid of having to re-adjust to something that could be less convenient, because for other readers it's more convenient? Are other authors intimidated by their colleagues expressing themselves in more unique, technologically advanced ways, thereby forcing them to move into technology and possibly, away from their usual literary, even traditional work?

So that's where me and people like me are now, I think. You can experiment technologically, but at the risk of people focusing more on that than your work's literary merit. There are still paintings done on canvas - hell, there are even still life paintings, portraits, etc... So let Lisa Scottoline, an author of thrillers quoted in the Times, sit back while her publisher gives away a chapter of her book here or there. "Whether it's 'paper, pulp, gold rimmed or digitized, I don't think you can take away from the best stories,' she says." If this gal is happy to have her work chopped up and served in whatever style is en vogue, than I'm thinking her story isn't necessarily one of the best.

Is that wrong?

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