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January 28, 2007

Inaugural Noises

I've been publishing pieces of nonfiction prose, of one sort or another, for just over twenty years now - at first in small political or scholarly journals, eventually in some of the larger American magazines and newspapers, and from time to time between the covers of a book.

There must be hundreds of them by now. And yet I find it difficult to speak of having a "career." It has never seemed a particularly useful concept, at least for defining my own experience, and in any case, its presuppositions seem not to apply. For the notion of a "career" is always cumulative, progressive, relentlessly forward-looking. In that regard, you are now in the company of someone who is seriously out of his depth.

As a writer (hell, as somebody trying to live from day to day) I have for a long time been guided by various models from the past, even the somewhat distant past. That probably explains this recurrent experience of feeling totally out of touch with the contemporary world in general and my colleagues in particular. (To have a much greater interest in the past than in the present is no real advantage to someone writing for magazines and newspapers.)

Anyway, I'm telling you all this in lieu of preparing the manifesto that Doug McLennan, editor of Arts Journal, asked me to write for the launch of Quick Study. The invitation to blog here is extremely welcome. This a really good neighborhood. But explaining what I'm going to try to do isn't so easy.

Probably the best I can manage is to sketch, instead, where Quick Study is coming from: The baffled and anachronistic outlook of someone constantly zigzagging between deadline and archive, writing "pieces" but never quite able to assemble a whole from them.

Until about ten years ago, my understanding of being a writer took shape within a certain familiar horizon of what was meant by the term "publishing." Early impressions are deep impressions, and the formative ones, in my case, involved paper and ink.

I wrote for photocopied 'zines; for radical periodicals; for solemn newspapers read by the plutocrats; for academic publications read by no one; and, every once in a while, for magazines with slick paper (and even slicker editors). I would finish my manuscript and send it off, and at some point the text would come back from the publisher in a new incarnation. The resulting artifacts had different degrees of cultural authority and geographical distribution; and the paychecks were also variously large or small, at times to the vanishing point.

The whole experience varied from one publication to the next. But with hindsight the similarities were perhaps more important than the differences. Writing meant creating a certain kind of textual object - one that would later exist on the numbered pages of another sort of object, a material thing that could eventually be placed on a shelf.

Then, in 1997, I was asked to write something for a web-based publication. It was a strange experience. The thought that the piece I was working on would never be sent to the printer (and so never come back from the printer, that phrase by then being part of my sense of the natural lifecycle of any finished text) was actually somewhat distasteful.

So was the discovery - once the piece actually ran - that an editor had gone through the text inserting various hypertext links. A couple of them were useful, but others reflected a fairly juvenile sense of humor. Now, my own sense of humor is not always refined (as my wife can document) and so that was not, as such, the problem. But the jokes, aside from being dumb, were not organic to my intention. They had been grafted on arbitrarily.

What I had not yet learned (and this would take some time) was that hypertext links were not so much an option as an obligation. The medium is the message - and this one is dialogical in a pretty strong sense.

Over the first half of the decade, more and more of what I wrote ended up online, although the majority of it was still appearing first in print. More and more, the old attitude that something was "really" published only if appeared on paper fell away and even reversed itself. It felt as if something didn't count if people couldn't find it online.

In early 2005, I left my position at a well-established and prominent newspaper in order to accept an invitation to write a column for an online journal that promised to be somewhat livelier. And that promise has been realized. I've continued to publish in "dead tree" periodicals more or less frequently (at least a couple of times a month) and am now working on a couple of books of the old-fashioned, paper-and-ink sort. But the vast majority of what I have produced since February 2005 has appeared only online.

Now, no huge mutation of sensibility accompanied this change of venue - nor even any very obvious alteration of my writing habits. I still do a certain amount of writing with pen in hand, for example, which is incredibly inefficient but a step evidently impossible for me to skip. I still think of a text as being a certain kind of object to be constructed and shaped, rather than (as seems a lot more appropriate for this medium) a species of performance taking place upon a virtual stage.

It seems that I am living through - or rather embodying - what sociologists used to call "cultural lag." My outlook is outmoded.

It's true that, as someone in his early forties, I would probably be having such thoughts in any case. In other ways it is seems like a repeat of earlier experiences. (The best years of my life have been spent in the decades before I was born.) Once you establish a recurrent pattern of being always out of step, that becomes, in time, your normal rhythm

At the same time, like most people, I now do a lot of reading online, or at least onscreen. There are a couple of dissertations on my laptop right now, for example - things I might never have had a chance to see otherwise. Films that would be unavailable from the best video store in New York are available online, if you know how to find them. I read a lot of books that are long out of print, but often find out about them online. And so forth. You don't need more examples. You know how things are.

In fact, chances are my situation is anything but unique. The contradictions are in reality itself. It is obvious that this medium is doing strange things to the culture at large, and also to our attention spans. (Not necessarily shrinking them, either, or at least not just doing so, though that is the only thing that gets discussed much.) I'm hoping against hope that not all of the changes are for the worst. Quick Study will a running commentary on how it looks from here.

Posted by smclemee at January 28, 2007 6:33 AM


Nice inaugural address. I look forward to seeing more from this blog.

Posted by: Jen Moss at January 29, 2007 12:16 PM

Well, I can only say that I'm looking forward to more of this. Particularly, for reasons of personal taste--or lack thereof--the mutterings about trash-cultural ephemera.

Posted by: Jim Reische at January 29, 2007 12:24 PM

I've always thought the "Remember Me?" function had an air of desperation to it, like it was begging for an exclamation point: "Remember Me!" Seems more appropriate.

Oh, and welcome to the wide world of RSS.

Posted by: Scott Eric Kaufman at January 29, 2007 1:46 PM

Always exciting to see a new McLemee project!

I do find it interesting, though, the way this is written. You point out the obligatory nature of hyperlinks, the power of the medium, but you also make frequent oblique references -- unclarified by hyperlink or otherwise, unless one alreadly knows your career. It seems that there's still some room for literary license....

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at January 29, 2007 1:57 PM

Unrelated: I can't get your RSS feeds to work. The Atom feed seems OK.

That apart, welcome indeed.

Posted by: Vance Maverick at January 29, 2007 3:47 PM

Welcome to the desert of the real, Scott.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at January 30, 2007 12:01 PM

Loved the speech you linked to--I wonder what relation the lost art of reviewing has to the lost art of literary criticism, and whether the newer communication and information technologies will bring audiences for them.

BTW, what do you think of Hawthorne's "citizen of somewhere else" line from "The Custom-House"? I can't just dismiss it as typical high lit-rachah escapism, especially given the state of American literature back then. But the various political possibilities of living in the past/print are worth exploring, no?

Posted by: The Constructivist at February 4, 2007 10:32 PM