Pixels in the wind: traditional publishing vs. the blogosphere (part 1)

Of course people are discussing some of the same things as we are in other parts of the net. In this occasional series, I’ll be posting links for, and clips from, the more interesting points of intersection.

Judging by a report in last Sunday’s New York Times by Virginia Heffernan, one specialist in new media analysis at that newspaper, our BaronCharlus wouldn’t get much sympathy from her for his declaration of non-compliance with the trend for authors and other creators to dabble in new media – despite this rather endearing explanation for it:

For personal reasons I hope print, or at least the untampered written word, survives. One of the reasons I settled on fiction was its reliance on those little black marks to do all the work. [. . .] I don’t want to have to learn film editing, programming, hyperlinking just to tell a story that I could have once used only my imagination for. Perhaps its time to be left out on the glacier.

No, we don’t want you frostbitten on a big ice cube, BaronC. We’d prefer to read your ‘Yes, Virginia, there really are some of us who can’t be bothered . . .’ rebuttal of the arguments she lists.

This old-media response to the new alternatives just won’t hold water, she says:

If a story, image, film or report is compelling enough [. . .] it will [. . .] flourish on any platform, dominate every sport. By this logic, creators, producers, artists and journalists should attend only to producing great work and leave the current changes in the distribution and display of information to nerds in suits.

She tells us that her realistic old-media colleagues know that it’s bloggers über alles – and are ready to come out with their hands up:

And if it’s the afterthought message boards [read: blogger commentary] — the ones moderated by interns — that draw all the traffic, why are we in old media pouring so much money and time into “main event” programming that goes unread and unviewed?

This is why the differences between Sean Murray’s video plug for John the Revelator and John Le Carré’s for his new book amount to a how-to (and how not-to) tutorial:

We have to develop content that metamorphoses in sync with new ways of experiencing it, disseminating it and monetizing it. This argument concedes that it’s not possible to translate or extend traditional analog content like news reports and soap operas into pixels without fundamentally changing them. So we have to invent new forms. All of the fascinating, particular, sometimes beautiful and already quaint ways of organizing words and images that evolved in the previous centuries — music reviews, fashion spreads, page-one news reports, action movies, late-night talk shows — are designed for a world that no longer exists.

. . . But a Philip Hensher column in today’s Independent
on the same subject shows a member of the old guard grimly fighting his corner:

Last week, the much-loved and greatly admired literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, Sam Leith, was unexpectedly sacked. There is no sign that the Telegraph is planning to get rid of the books pages, although Private Eye has reported that he was told that his job was now “otiose”. Nevertheless, at a party to launch the new online Book Club of The Spectator, there were plenty of people prepared to venture that the books pages, in their traditional form, had had their day. The future belonged to bloggers and the view, taken en masse, of the reviewer on amazon.com.

Bloggers cannot, must not, be allowed to take over, he insists:

What the books pages offer, I think, is some guarantee of expertise, and some guarantee of responsible disinterest. Neither is total, of course.

He adds,

There is a place [. . .] for expertise and experience to speak out in a critical fashion, and that place, I think, is going to continue to be the books pages of newspapers. [. . .] If not, you’ll miss them when they’re gone, I promise you.

He doesn’t seem to have noticed that litcritter bloggers have already begun to replace them – at such sites as Ready Steady Book, The Reading Experience, and Nigel Beale’s Nota Bene Books

Nor has he apparently seen that both Beale, a blogging academic critic, and a blogger-opinionator and short story writer, StevenAugustine , display ‘product testimonials’ from the same leading literary scholar, James Wood, at the very top of their home pages (look to the right on the Beale site).

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5 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Editors and editing, The blogosphere

5 responses to “Pixels in the wind: traditional publishing vs. the blogosphere (part 1)

  1. BaronCharlus

    Have just posted some thoughts in extra-long posts.

    Synopsis:

    Books are great!!!

  2. BaronCharlus

    [Dear @BaronC, thank you, that was extremely thoughtful of you . . . to use the long posts pen for this comment. But it isn’t really all that long, and is too interesting and central to this discussion to be put anywhere else. I can’t reply immediately — owe other answers, too — but will as soon as I can . . . Do please banish from your mind any idea that I’m attacking books or fiction. I’ve been a bookworm’s bookworm’s _bookworm_ . . .; ), . . . all my life . . . it’s the present and particularly the future of publishing that I’ve been thinking about — wordnerd7 ]

    @Wordn,

    Nice, if daunting, to be cited as part of this discussion. Not quite what I wanted to read today, as I’m handing in my latest MS :-).

    Although Heffernan may be setting it up as a specious argument, I think this is unfair:

    ‘Creators, producers, artists and journalists should attend only to producing great work and leave the current changes in the distribution and display of information to nerds in suits.’

    It makes an assumption about artists’ attitudes that should not go unchallenged. In the quote of mine that you’ve used, I don’t – I hope – denigrate the artistic possibilities of new media but state how I, personally, prefer to create.

    ‘All of the fascinating, particular, sometimes beautiful and already quaint ways of organizing words and images that evolved in the previous centuries — music reviews, fashion spreads, page-one news reports, action movies, late-night talk shows — are designed for a world that no longer exists.’

    This, whilst exciting to read, is not – for me – entirely true. Pitchfork, for example, has no comments board below its reviews and is very influential. It should also be noted that Heffernan’s article is, from what I can see, about media rather than fiction and, despite citing ‘the previous centuries’, one could argue that only ‘page one news reports’ existed in any recognisable form prior to the 19th century. There aren’t any music reviews in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

    Doesn’t Leith’s sacking suggest a change in how (and where) books and other media are analysed, rated and promoted, rather than saying anything about fiction itself? Many comments you cite suggest a healthy public appetite for fiction, with all those Amazon reviewers and bloggers taking the time out en masse to rate, review and argue over Novellus Brontosaurus.

    Despite cinema revolutionising the way stories were told, certainly an example of ‘new forms’, theatre and the written word survived. Despite the invention of the Victrola, the Walkman, the iPod, live music thrives. Some forms survive because they offer an experience that is unavailable elsewhere, even if the means of ‘experiencing it, disseminating it and monetizing it’ change in ways we never dreamed of. To return to Heffernan’s list, we have ‘action movies’ but also action computer games, new action novels and the Iliad is still in print and available online. Don’t new media bring new possibilities in storytelling – I don’t know about media content – without necessitating the death of the old?

    A friend of mine once noted that the book has survived because it is unimprovable in its uniting of form and function. This is what, perhaps, the inventors of the Kindle and other i-readers have been finding. Books are portable, cheap, durable, don’t run out of battery; they are aesthetically pleasing (in some cases), survive forever if looked after – don’t need faddish upgrades – and can become treasured possessions and even objects of great value in their own right. I believe the deaths of the book as an object and the novel as a narrative form are far from inevitable.

    I’m going shopping soon, so if there are only boarded-up shells where Foyles, Blackwells and Borders used to be, I’ll let you know.

  3. wordnerd7

    @BaronC, my fingers are firmly crossed for a smooth passage for your new ms.. Your answering on what must have been a slightly tense day is hugely appreciated.

    About what you’re calling a ‘specious argument,’ . . . it can’t be as unfair as you say it is because you’ve told us that even you’ve been quietly blogging on training wheels – as most of us have been doing, or done. So though you protest, you aren’t guilty of what I read Heffernan as clearly disapproving of — ‘leav[ing] the current changes in the distribution and display of information to nerds in suits.’

    . . . And you have fans on more than one blog praising both your poetry and posts. As they say in NYC, what’s not to like? . . . You’re hardly George Steiner, who says that he himself is one of those who, ‘incapable of mastering the processor and the “mouse” . . . will be relegated to being . . . _helots of oblivion_.’ [my emphasis ]

    === I don’t – I hope – denigrate the artistic possibilities of new media but state how I, personally, prefer to create. ===

    Yes, and you said that eloquently — which is why I quoted you. But you might be surprised by how much you enjoy controlling the minutiae of publishing yourself. I’ve been thinking back to ten years ago when I had to beg techie nerds to insert just one more hyperlink into a text for me; put through just this one small correction . . . ugh!

    === Doesn’t Leith’s sacking suggest a change in how (and where) books and other media are analysed, rated and promoted, rather than saying anything about fiction itself? ===

    Am a bit puzzled here . . . I wasn’t saying anything, either way, about fiction; don’t think Hensher was, . . . and Heffernan was referring to virtually anything creative in high or low art that could be digitised in some way.

    === Despite cinema revolutionising the way stories were told, certainly an example of ‘new forms’, theatre and the written word survived. ===

    I agree, and if I were super-rich, I’d hire my own monk to make me an illuminated manuscript or two. ; )

    === Don’t new media bring new possibilities in storytelling – I don’t know about media content – without necessitating the death of the old? ===

    I didn’t read Virginia H as saying that the old forms had to die. She was speaking to the hand-wringing about the degree to which old media specialists should adapt to the new media – which . . . I’d say, … wouldn’t rule out _also_ working in the old ways.

    === I’m going shopping soon, so if there are only boarded-up shells where Foyles, Blackwells and Borders used to be, I’ll let you know. ===

    Borders is looking for a buyer, someone said the other night . . .

  4. BaronCharlus

    @Wordn,

    Thanks, as ever, for the thoughtful reply and words of support.

    Just to clarify – I hope – on the ‘specious’ argument; I was concerned that Heffernan might be characterising artists as having a condescending, even arrogant attitude towards new media and those who use them and, although I’m sure many do, I wanted to challenge that.

    Looking back,

    ‘I wasn’t saying anything, either way, about fiction; don’t think Hensher was…’

    I guess you’re right! I think that, because the quote of mine you used was related to fiction, I was reading much of what followed as including fiction amongst the ‘quaint ways of organizing words and images…designed for a world that no longer exists.’

    Hensher says: ‘There is a place [. . .] for expertise and experience to speak out in a critical fashion’

    I agree with him but this idea of expertise and who can claim it is the core of the online culture war, isn’t it? Actually, I think it’s the core of most arguments about art and who should be allowed to define it. Alarming and Parisa’s debate (though not addressing criticism) laid out the arguments and their, necessary I think, irreconcilability. It would be a frightening world where art had a universally applied definition. Although I do have sympathy for the Harold Blooms of this world who see a lifetime of study, love and careful thought being drowned out by Amazon ratings and the tyranny of populism. But ‘twas ever so. Didn’t Ben Jonson write long essays explaining why audiences were imbeciles for not preferring his clever plays to more lightweight fare?

  5. Baron isn’t what Ben Johnson did always the artist’s dilemma? The public are a bunch of fools for ignoring what one does and then as soon as they take notice and show appreciation they can be praised as having great discernment and impeccable taste. The sudden change is almost alchemical.

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