Follow Harriet on Twitter
The Challenges of Twenty-First Century Writing
Recently after I finished giving a lecture at an Ivy League university, an elderly, well-known poet stood up in the back of the auditorium and, wagging his finger at me, accused me of nihilism and of robbing poetry of its joy. He upbraided me for knocking out the foundation from under the most hallowed of grounds, then tore into me with a line of questioning I’ve heard many times before: If everything can be transcribed and then presented as literature, then what makes one work better than another? If it’s a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire internet into a Microsoft Word document, where does it end? Once we begin to accept all language as poetry by mere reframing, don’t we risk throwing any semblance of judgment and quality out the window? What happens to notions of authorship? How are careers and canons established and subsequently, how are they to be evaluated? Are we simply reenacting Barthes’ death of the author, a figure Barthesian theory failed to kill the first time around? Will all texts in the future be authorless and nameless, written by machines for machines? Is the future of literature reducible to mere code?
Valid concerns, I think, for a man who emerged from the battles of the twentieth century victorious. The challenges to his generation were just as formidable. How did they convince traditionalists that disjunctive uses of language conveyed by exploded syntax and compound words could be equally expressive of human emotion as time-tested methods? Or that a story need not be told as strict narrative in order to convey its own logic and sense? And yet, against all odds, they persevered.
The twenty-first century, with its queries so different than that of the last, finds me responding from another angle. If it’s a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire internet into a Microsoft Word document, then what becomes important is what you — the author — decides to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and — more important — what to leave out. If all language can be transformed into poetry by merely reframing — an exciting possibility — then s/he who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged as the best. I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window, we’re in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all words may be created equal — and treated thusly — the way in which they’re assembled isn’t; it’s impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality. Mimesis and replication doesn’t eradicate authorship, rather it simply places new demands on authors who must take these new conditions into account as part and parcel of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: if you don’t want it copied, don’t put it online.
Careers and canons won’t be established in traditional ways. I’m not so sure that we’ll still have careers in the same way we used to. Literary works might function the same way that memes do today on the web, spreading like wildfire for a short period, often unsigned and unauthored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple. While the author won’t die, we might begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way: perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Christian Bök has claimed, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones; so that even if literature is reducible to mere code — an intriguing idea — the smartest minds behind them will be considered our greatest authors.