Literature in the age of twitter
The twenty-first century, we are told at ever-decreasing intervals, is the age of speed. The geeks who wired the world to the internet have obliterated many of the obstacles space used to throw in the way of commercial and intellectual exchange, and humans have been earnestly trying to imitate their computers, cellphones, and blackberries by working faster, handling more and more information, and making ever more elaborate attempts at multi-tasking.
Up until recently I thought academic publishing was one of the very rare holdouts against the age of speed. With their demands for hardcopy submissions, the panels of referees they employed to peruse submissions, and the long months they took to reply to would-be authors, academic publishers - the academic publishers I dealt with, anyway - seemed to operate on a schedule that belonged to the glorious era of Victor Gollancz and Cyril Connolly, not to the age of twitter.
The refereed journal of poetics Ka Mate Ka Ora has, however, disabused me of my ideas about the inherently leisurely nature of academic publishing. After submitting my essay about Kendrick Smithyman, American imperialism, and Antarctica to Ka Mate Ka Ora, which was planning a special issue on the influence of American on Kiwi poetry, I received a startlingly quick response. I fired my submission off late on a Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning received a lengthy referee's report along with a note of acceptance from one of the journal's editors. Ka Mate Ka Ora is academic publishing on amphetamines.
But speedy publishing has its dangers. A few days after having my essay accepted by Ka Mate Ka Ora, I discovered that it contained a grave error. I had written about an unpublished Smithyman poem called 'Aircrash in Antarctica', which I found in Smithyman's papers on a sheet marked '23 October 1958'. I had discovered that an American plane had crashed in Antarctica's Admiralty Mountains on the 16th of October, 1958, and decided that Smithyman must have been responding to this disaster. I was less than delighted when, a few days after getting the thumbs up from Ka Mate Ka Ora, I found another loose sheet of paper with the same poem on it marked '20 October 1956' amidst the chaos of Smithyman's archive. Would I have to junk most of the claims in my essay? Was I wrong to assume that Smithyman must have written his poem in response to a disaster on the white continent, rather than out of some more private urge? Had I underestimated the great man's imagination?
A few desperate google searches revealed that an American transport plane had crashed in Antarctica on the 18th of October 1956 - two days before the earliest draft of Smithyman's poem. It still made some sense, then, to argue that the poem was a response to a specific incident. If anything, the eerie similarities between the 1956 and 1958 disasters underlined my argument that Smithyman saw the 'blooding' of Americans and New Zealanders who ventured into the Antarctic as inevitable, not the result of bad luck or human error.
When I let Ka Mate Ka Ora know I'd need to revise my essay I received an immediate reply informing me that the journal's 'America' issue was about to be uploaded to the net, and that I had only a very short time to make my changes. If I'd been any later in discovering my blunder it would have been preserved forever in cyberspace.
Now the ninth issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora has been officially launched, according to an e mail I received earlier this week from Michele Leggott, the former Kiwi poet laurete who founded and co-edits the journal. It's rather difficult, I suppose, to launch an online publication, compared to more traditional cultural artefacts, like films or ships or printed books: one can't break a bottle over the stern, or hush a packed theatre as curtains part and credits fall hypnotically over an opening scene, or set up a table and an eftpos machine in the corner of a cheap bar and start flogging volumes of prosaic poetry or poetic prose to tipsy punters.
I nevertheless want to welcome the ninth Ka Mate Ka Ora into the world, and to point internet users in its direction. Even if the journal's editors and referees operate with twenty-first century efficiency, their dedication to the ancient and perhaps endangered art of poetry flies in the face of the era of twitter, google, and Sarah Palin. As I've noted in several shockingly elitist posts, poetry, especially the difficult, allusive poetry of Kendrick Smithyman and other modernist masters, demands that we read - and, therefore, think - with a care and creativity which citizens of the twenty-first century, with their much-attenuated attention spans, find increasingly difficult to muster.
Where so many other, more powerful forms of discourse demand that their language be transparent, a mere pane of glass through which a pre-existent subject matter and argument can be viewed by a voyeuristic, because essentially passive, audience, poets - good poets, anyhow - call upon the complex layers of history and meaning which are hidden in even the most apparently simple words and phrases. Because it assumes that New Zealand offers both an audience for poetry and a collection of writers capable of considering poetry thoughtfully and at length, Ka Mate Ka Ora pays us a compliment. We should repay that compliment by reading and contributing to the journal.
Nobody could accuse Brett Cross, the founder and proprietor of Titus Books, of insisting on twenty-first century efficiency. Brett does not return manuscripts in haste, unless he is very unimpressed with them. Like Cyril Connolly, Victor Gollancz, Jonathan Cape and so many of the great publishers of the past, he does not so much read texts as absorb them, word by word and sentence by sentence and page by page. Some book publishers pride themselves on providing would-be authors with exhaustive responses to manuscripts, treatises full of observations about syntactical minutiae and notes on minor characters. These publishers imagine that they are being fastidious, and therefore professional, but no amount of long-windedness can disguise their failure to come to an authoritative judgment on a book. Sartre said that all philosophical questions are ultimately simple, because they come down to a decision to act or not act; the same might be said about the decisions publishers have to make. Brett's judgments, which are often delivered orally, over a beer, have a terseness which should not be confused with superficiality. He makes a decision and sticks with it, regardless of commercial considerations, reviewers' opinions, and the complex politics of the literary world.
The two books being launched by Titus next Thursday at the Alleluya Cafe on Auckland's K Rd are both, in quite different ways, testaments to Brett's style of publishing. Kingdom of Alt is a volume of short stories by Jack Ross, a writer Titus has supported since its inception. With their baroque structures, explicit and sometimes bizarre sex, extreme but seldom gratuitous violence, and innovative use of page layout, variations in font, and illustrations, Jack's books have all too often been easy for reviewers to ignore or to misunderstand. They have also frequently been expensive to publish. Titus has nevertheless stood by Jack, and there are signs now that the critical tide might be turning. It is certainly gratifying for me to see that Paula Green and Harry Ricketts' handsome new survey, 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, devotes considerable attention to Jack's work. Alex Wild's first novel The Constant Losers, which will be launched alongside Kingdom of Alt next Thursday, is another work which does credit to Titus Books. Alex Wild is in some ways a child of the twitter generation. If Ka Mate Ka Ora threatens to put academic publishing to shame with its alacrity, then Alex threatens to embarrass graduate scholars. She has still not yet reached her mid-20s, and yet has somehow managed to complete a Masters Degree degree in German, which involved a long and complex research assignment that took her to Apia and to Berlin, as well as a degree in Creative Writing. If that wasn't enough, she has already started work on a PhD in the German Studies Department of the University of Auckland. What, I wonder, happened to the good, or perhaps bad, old days, when students took five years to finish a BA, a couple of years to choose a postgraduate research topic, and then many more years to rifle through library card files and write a thesis in sloppy longhand, whilst along the way experimenting with various recreational drugs and engaging in several unhappy love affairs with their peers?
Alex's novel was written as part of her Creative Writing degree, and on the surface, at least, it seems to confirm her as a laureate of the switched-on, wired-up generation of twitterers, virtual romancers, and music and DVD pirates. The two main characters of The Constant Losers are pooter-savvy music geeks, who communicate in a dialect that is a strange mixture of the ruthless efficiency of cellphone text-speak and the flagrantly redundant adverbial phrases of decadent youth. "R U OK?" and "I'm like, really busy, like, y'know, being totally wickedly OK" are both sentences you'd expect them to drop.
But Alex's almost anthropological fascination with inner-city youth and musical subcultures and her up-to-the-second vocabulary cannot disguise her decidedly old-fashioned regard for literary form. Like such distinguished works of literature as Dostoevsky's Poor Folk, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Bob Dylan's Tarantula, The Constant Losers can be considered a novel of letters: its two characters fire cheaply but lovingly produced, music-obsessed 'zines' at each other in a mad polemic. The Platonist structure of the novel gives it a classical symmetry and calm, despite its pages of slang and its erratic action. Alex's handling of language also demonstrates a marvellously old-fashioned interest in form. Her characters' talk is never sloppily open-ended, even if it is, necessarily, shot through with non-sequitirs and redundancies. Unlike Kerouac and James Kelman and many other devotees of the vernacular of a subculture, Alex never forgets that she is writer, not a tape recorder. The Constant Losers is a book capable of long outlasting the apogee of the youth culture it so lovingly documents, and Titus Books deserves credit for recognising this fact.
Update: if you wondered why I spent so many words praising Brett Cross earlier in this post, wonder no more: I've been trying to bludge a copy of The Constant Losers off him, so that I can give it away to a reader of this blog. Brett has agreed to umpire a competition based around the following, deliberately incomplete, paragraph from Alex's novel:
(He used a leaky pen on a Wendy's serviette, and then filled in some colour and detail with ketchup and pepper when we were both seated in the big family dining room at eleven in the morning or so, right under the 24-Hour-Drive-Thru neon lightbox, with a guy in a suit sitting at the next table along pointing at a fast-food-dining-table-sized setup of shiny cardboard diagrams of triangles and waterfalls as if he were in his plush conference centre.______________________________________. He was probably going to agree to join the pyramid scheme right there and then, in the conference centre in their minds, smelling like a $2 meaty chilli.)
A sentence has been omitted from Alex's paragraph; readers are invited to suggest something to fill the gap in the comments box underneath this post. Copies of The Constant Losers will go to the punter who produces the most interesting substitute for the omitted sentence. Feel free to offer something of Proustian length, or Nabokovian delicacy, or something tormented by scrambled syntax and sudden changes of tense.
The winner of our competition will be announced at next Thursday's launch and on this blog later that night. If you're at the launch, Brett might even buy you a beer. If you're not there, he'll get your details and post you a copy of The Constant Losers with twenty-first century efficiency.