Prose from Poetry Magazine

Literary Fame in the Time of Flame Wars

Is the Internet really going to change how literary reputations get made?

by Adam Kirsch
Earlier this year, a young novelist named Keith Gessen published his first book. Even more than most such debuts, All the Sad Young Literary Men was highly autobiographical: it had several narrators, but each were recognizable as versions of the writer, and the real-life originals of even minor characters could easily be identified. The novelist's own ambition was the book's major theme, and in a sense its writing was less important than its publication, which consummated the drive for recognition that was both its inspiration and its subject. Because of this self-reflexive quality, the book took on a kind of symbolic significance. It was an almost chemically pure example of the kind of literary ambition that has less to do with wanting to write well than with wanting to be known as a writer.

The limitations of this kind of ambition could be seen in the book's reception, not so much in the print reviews as on the Internet, where it became the target of extraordinarily virulent attacks. Attacks, not criticism, for in the discussion of All the Sad Young Literary Men on several blogs and one popular website, literary criticism in the ordinary sense played almost no role. Its detractors had little to say about its plot, characters, or prose style; more curiously, perhaps, neither did Gessen, when he took to the Internet to defend himself. Both writer and readers treated the book, properly, as an assertion of self, and the only question was whether that assertion ought to succeed—whether Gessen ought to become famous.

The question was worth debating. The problem was that, since the debate was not tethered in something relatively objective, like the book's artistic quality, it had to become at once personal and abstract. The author had claimed recognition, the critics wanted to deny it—it was as simple and passionate as that. Inadvertently, they had exposed literature for what at bottom it really is—a power struggle.

* * *

According to Hegel, "Self-consciousness that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or 'recognized.'" The infant wants only this, the king and the millionaire take roundabout paths to achieve it; but the writer alone seems able to obtain it immediately. Writers write in order to be recognized. To be recognized as good writers, yes—but that is not enough of a goal to explain the frenzy of literary competition. If writing were simply a skill, demonstrating that one possessed the skill, even in supreme measure, would be as technical and trivial an achievement as something in athletics. It is because writing is a communication of one's mind and experience—one's being—that it promises to gratify the original desire of spirit: to have one's being confirmed by having it acknowledged by others. Writing makes others the mirror of the self.

But the Gessen affair, in which the writer seized on this promise of literature with such naive directness, exposed its true strangeness. Why, after all, should writing well—an aesthetic achievement—be the price of being recognized, a universal human need? Why shouldn't a writer who simply expresses that need as clearly and urgently as possible be rewarded with the recognition he demands—regardless of whether he has created a beautiful linguistic object? Isn't there something trivial, even monstrous, about a system that makes artistic gifts—which are randomly, amorally distributed—the only means by which recognition can be purchased?

The economic metaphor is not accidental. As far back as we can see, the economics of literary fame have been based on scarcity: there is not enough recognition to go around, so every human being's just claim cannot be met. Beauty is the currency, as arbitrary as gold or paper, in which recognition is bought and sold. We grant great writers the dignity of having really been, the posthumous recognition that we call immortality, because they please us with their arrangements of words. Because of how well they wrote, we remember not just their works but their letters, travels, illnesses, aspirations—we feel with and for them. But we do this as irrationally as the peahen rewards the peacock with the biggest tail feathers, which have nothing intrinsically to do with reproductive fitness.

If the scarcity of recognition is a symptom of the world's fallenness, then literary ambition is a form of complicity with fallenness. In other words, it is a sin. Because there is not enough money in the world, people steal; because there is not enough power, people do violence; because there is not enough recognition, they make art.

* * *

The Internet, we have heard again and again, is going to transform the future of reading and writing, the way Gutenberg did. Gessen's case, however, suggests that the transformation is not going to be a benign one. Michel Houellebecq titled one of his novels The Extension of the Domain of Struggle, and portrayed post-sixties Europe as a place where the competitive principles of capitalism had been extended to sexuality, with disastrous results. In the same way, the Internet brings the atomized, absolute competitiveness of capitalism to the struggle for recognition that is literature. Online, there are no mediating institutions—no editors, magazines, publishing houses, or critics with the power to confer or protect literary reputation.

This ought to be a paradise—a Rousseauan state of nature, uncorrupted by authority and custom, where all readers and writers are free and equal. In fact, Gessen's experience suggests that it is more like a Hobbesian state of nature, where everyone is at war against everyone else. Just look at the way his readers address him online: "The problem with American literature today is you"; [you are just] "some overrated pretentious writer whose books will end up in the bargain bin at Costco"; "[your book is] like one of those unbearable leg cramps you get in the middle of the night. Once it's over you kind of want it back just to see if it really was as bad as you remember." No wonder Gessen resorted to posting pictures of cute puppies on his blog, in an ironic-but-not-ironic attempt to prove to the world that he too has feelings.

But this self-abasing display of good intentions, typical of the guilty rich in an economy of scarcity, could not bridge the gulf between the novelist and his foes. There was no ignoring the fact that, for all the abuse he took, Gessen was always attacked by name, while for all their fury, the commenters were always known by their handles. This was an uprising of the have-nots against a have, and like most such uprisings, it could only be a riot, not a revolution. When the dust settles, the published writer is still recognized and his detractors are still anonymous.

The Internet has democratized the means of self-expression, but it has not democratized the rewards of self-expression. Now everyone can assert a claim to recognition—in a blog, tumblr, Facebook status update. But the amount of recognition available in the world is inexorably shrinking, since each passing generation leaves behind more writers with a claim on our memory. That is why the fight for recognition is so fierce and so personal.

Yet the bloggers who were so indignant at Gessen's attempt to engross more than his share of recognition did not direct their indignation at literature itself. They did not want to dismantle the prestige of "being a writer," but to claim it for themselves; they did not want to end the economy of scarcity but to move individually from the camp of the have-nots to the camp of the haves. In this they are like the snobbish narrator in Proust, whose fascination with aristocratic titles reached its height at just the historical moment when titles became completely meaningless. They are not revolutionaries but social climbers.

If that is the case, then the best strategy for writers in the age of the Internet may be to ignore the Internet and look down on it. If print is a luxury, make it a rare and exclusive one; if literature is antidemocratic, revel in its injustice. Make sure that the reward of recognition goes to the most beautiful and difficult writing, not to the loudest and neediest. Above all, do not start a blog, for the non-writers who wish they were writers will only despise you for choosing to meet them on their own ground. As one of the commenters on Gessen's blog put it: "get off the Internet as soon as you possibly can. Every second you stay online...another 18-28 year old (that coveted demographic!) loses all respect for you."

* * *

People who are reconciled to the injustice of this world console themselves by dreaming of another. It used to be that the poor could look forward to the Kingdom of Heaven; so, too, those who go unrecognized in this world could at least be sure that they were recorded in the Book of Life, where no name was omitted. As Tennyson put it, already in the optative mood: "That nothing walks with aimless feet;/That not one life shall be destroy'd,/Or cast as rubbish to the void,/When God hath made the pile complete."

People who are not reconciled to the injustice of this world, but also don't believe in the justice of the next, take refuge in the imagination of redemption, which is always hypothetical and probably useless. Their patron saint is Doctor Astrov, the worn-out idealist in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, who retains a glimmer of hope in the future: "You know, when you walk through a forest on a dark night and you see a small light gleaming in the distance, you don't notice your tiredness, nor the darkness, nor the prickly branches lashing you in the face," he explains.

But even Astrov doubts if the millennium will bring him what he, like everyone, most desires—recognition. "I wondered whether the people who come after us in a hundred years' time, the people for whom we are now blasting a trail—would they remember us and speak kindly of us? No, Nanny, I'll wager they won't!" To which the pious old nurse replies, "If people won't remember, God will." Can we, then, bridge the gulf between the actual future, where nobody except a few great men and women will be remembered (if even them), and the ideal future, where everybody will be remembered as they need and deserve to?

Imagine it this way. The Internet, which seems so immensely sophisticated to us, turns out to be just the first primitive stage in the evolution of a global, networked mind. In time—a thousand years or a million, it doesn't matter—what was once humanity becomes a virtual entity, inhabiting every place and no place, singular and plural at once. These contradictions are simply a way of saying that we can't imagine what it will be like—just as mystics used to define God negatively, for want of any positive knowledge.

Nor will that future mass-mind be able to imagine what we are like. It will be as divorced from its past as we are from homo erectus, and it will pursue the mystery of its origins as avidly as we try to dig up Neanderthal burial grounds, or theorize about the lightning strike that brought amino acids out of the primordial soup. But some day, on an unfathomably antique, all but forgotten level of its memory archive, the mass-mind will unearth the archaic structures that make up our Internet. It will decipher these traces of its own past as eagerly as our scholars go to work on Greek papyri recycled as mummy wrappings.

Our scholars, when they decipher old texts, are less satisfied when they find yet another copy of Homer or the Bible than when they stumble across the provision lists of a Sumerian king, or the private letters of a Roman legionary posted at Hadrian's Wall. Literature tells us the way people thought they were and wanted to be seen; but these random, personal, undeliberated traces of ancient lives show us the way they really were. Evidence, not eloquence, is what we need to understand our origins.

So too with the virtual mind of the inconceivable future. When it looks for traces of us, it will not turn to novels or poems, but to e-mails, blogs, and Facebook pages. Mind will treasure these evidences of its own past, and devote all its infinite resources to interpreting them. And because it is infinite, it will have more than enough attention to give to each of our lives. Even the least articulate of us will become the focus of a kind of ancestor cult, subject to the devoted meditation of innumerable intelligences. The first will be made last, and the last first. At last, the scarcity of recognition will give way to the plenitude that has always been the mark of the messianic age. If only we could be certain that this was the future we had in store, no poet would ever have to write another line.
Originally Published: October 23, 2008


On November 1, 2008 at 10:25am L. Lee Lowe wrote:
'Make sure that the reward of recognition goes to the most beautiful and difficult writing, not to the loudest and neediest.'

Or better yet, ignore the reward of recognition altogether, as I do when I publish online.

On November 2, 2008 at 5:32pm evecointreau wrote:
"The internet we have heard again and again, is going to transform the future of reading and writing the way Gutenberg did."

But it has: how else would I be sitting where I am, responding directly to the words on this page? In respect of the ease and speed of dissemination the shift is quite comparable to that from hand-copied manuscripts to print.

As regards the Rousseauan vs the Hobbesean "state[s] of nature", I don't see this at all. There is no "state of nature" here. It seems to me that the internet is very much in the process of replicating the intricate hierarchies of print media which (for anyone who needs reminding) extend from the varieties of vanity publishing through magazines and journals of low-to-medium quality thresholds to the rarefied heights of the most prestigious.

"The Internet has democratised the means of self expression." Not really. It may look that way while the deck is still being shuffled, with many quality journals still unable (mainly for financial reasons I gather) to make the shift that this one apparently has. But once (if) that happens, I don't anticipate that things will be much different from the way they are now, with roughly the same distributions of quality vs dross.

Thanks for your thoughts though, I enjoyed reading them even though I disagree.

On November 3, 2008 at 10:20am Jordan wrote:
I for one am pleased and surprised to see Kirsch come out for Flarf in that last paragraph.

On November 3, 2008 at 2:03pm erica wrote:
I wonder if Kirsch believes his premise goes some way toward explaining why so many so-called poets are personal and professional failures -- that is to say, people who can't or don't achieve recognition elsewhere.

The notion that most published poems come from the fingers of people who are generally incapable is hardly absurd, given the evidence.

On November 4, 2008 at 10:41am Henry Gould wrote:
... but is the desire for recognition really the essential motivation underlying art and poetry?

Major writers have certainly pointed in that direction. "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes). "Fame is the spur..." (Milton). But my guess is that even these exalted figures were voicing their views, not while at the pitch of creative composition, but in a moment of analytical distance & fatalism.

Do chess players play for recognition? Piano players? Certainly, they take their gift & talent into the rivalrous, dog-eat-dog marketplace : but the expression of the talent itself should not simply be reduced to ego-gratification or the ratification of one's sense of self-worth.

I recognize this central distinction - it's important to me - precisely because I, like many another, have long years' experience with literary struggle & "unsuccess".

I have to remind myself that art is a mystery; that the development and nurturing of artistic talent, through active engagement with the forms, traditions, wellsprings & conundra of the art itself, is what it's all about.

On November 5, 2008 at 9:37am Henry Gould wrote:
Let me put it more bluntly, by answering my own question. Why do chess players, piano players play?

For the love of playing. It's from this nexus of love & effort that all good games & all authentic art emerge.

They glory in their skill; they secretly wonder at the surprising, beautiful, unaccountable gifts of their talent : works of art, poems, those offspring of the hierosgamos of nature and artifice.

In other words, Mr. Kirsch's argument, that the basic motive for poetry-making is the desire for recognition, is not merely reductive - it's simply fallacious.

No one will deny that fame & fortune (along with anonymity & failure) are fickle, illusory, and at the same time pervasive social factors; but this state of affairs does not mean one must accept Fame's (& Adam Kirsch's) seductive argument, that Fame is the actual SOURCE of artistic making.

On November 5, 2008 at 8:36pm Robert Donohue wrote:
Why anyone writes, and publishes, at

all is a good question that’s bothered

people who are quite good at doing

both for a long time. Take this, from Sir

Phillip Sidney:

Come. Let me write. ‘And to what end?’

To ease

A burdened heart. “How can words

ease, which are

The glasses of they daily vexing care?’

Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do


‘Art not ashamed to publish they


Nay, that might breed fame, it is so


‘But will not wise men think they words

fond ware?’

Then they be close, and so none shall


‘What idler thing, than speak and not be


What harder thing than smart, and not

to speak?

Peace, foolish wit; with wit my wit is


Thus write I while I doubt to write, and


My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps

some find

Stella’s great powers, that so confuse

my mind.

As long as we’re human I think it’s part

of our nature to be in some sort of


On November 11, 2008 at 3:21pm Nobody wrote:
The tongue-in-cheek conjecture at the end cannot redeem so ignorant a statement, made in earnest, as "Evidence, not eloquence, is what we need to understand our origins." What intelligent person would propose such a foolish absolute? The dismissal of art in favor of relics (and vice versa) indicates a fatuous conception of man and history: one side proposed by the Philistine, the other the Decadent. To suggest that we would know even half of what we do about our origins without Homer or the Bible, because literature "tells us the way people thought they were or wanted to be seen," is ridiculous and myopic. ("...or wanted to be seen")! The "Evidence...eloquence" bit is a matter of rhetorical convenience and nothing more. You cannot learn the way man thought from an ancient list of provisions, nor can you learn in detail out of what materials man built his villages from a work of literature (although the argument has been made).

On November 17, 2008 at 12:00pm Tim W. Brown wrote:
Kirsch is justified, if naive and idealistic, in believing that art should triumph over personality in literature, thereby supplying critics with an objective measure of a given book's value. This would certainly be the case in a perfect world; but, as we all know, humans aren't perfect, and they universally exhibit petty, jealous behaviors, of which Gessen's online critics were patently guilty.

However, Kirsch neglects to hold the publishing industry, particularly Gessen's publisher, Viking, accountable for perpetuating these impulses in the current literary environment. They put Gessen in a bad spot. By choosing to publish the book, which in print reviews received universally mediocre to poor notices, Viking seemingly relied upon the inflated reputation of a literary "it boy" instead of more aesthetically sound decision-making.

Of course, Viking is hardly alone in seeking profit before art. Yet if you're examining "recognition" in economic terms, i.e., scarcity versus abundance, you should also look at the role of commerce enabling the very thing you object to and also examine that. A telling example of all that's wrong with publishing today is when big contracts are awarded to TV actors, retired politicians and professional athletes based upon their recognizability, resulting 9 out of 10 times in crappy books that don't earn out -- short-sighted moves that combine bad aesthetics with bad economics.

P.S. One of the bloggers criticizing Gessen correctly predicted his book's Costco bargain-bin fate: is currently selling All the Sad Young Literary Men at the "Bargain Price" of $6.99, marked down from its cover price of $24.95.

On November 19, 2008 at 3:49pm matt wrote:
I'm not so sure the price a book goes

for on Amazon has any meaning at all

as far as literary merit. As a counter

example, I clearly recall how Infinite

Jest was listed for under $10 (even in

paperback the book's MSRP is $18) not

long before DFW killed himself. Then,

naturally, the price shot back up


And Gessen's novel was not universally

panned, as you suggest. I googled for

a review, and here's the first one I

found, a pretty positive review from the

NY Times:


On November 20, 2008 at 12:07pm Drew Johnson wrote:
This is a comically & criminally narrow take on an interesting literary situation. All the interesting thoughts Kirsch layers upon Gessen's case can't elide the fact that he hasn't presented Gessen's case.

I didn't dislike Gessen's debut, but...Gessen's literary debut cannot under any circumstances be called "chemically pure" as a shockingly high-percentage of debut novelists are not founding editors of currently-hip (and quite interesting) literary magazines. Kirsch's essay loses even the semblance of credibility by 1) picking Gessen as his "pure" example and 2) failing to provide any n+1 context. N+1 isn't even mentioned. Yet, in the case, of Gessen, that's the whole shooting match--the reason for the vitriol Kirsch pretends to dissect.

I don't pretend to understand what the point of writing such an empty account of a contemporary phenomenon would be, but I'm sure everyone will have their pet theories.

Bookslut's blog provides a nice, succinct bit of context. Good thing we have lit blogs or Kirsch might be the arbiter of record. A job he's clearly not up to.

On November 21, 2008 at 7:30am Henry Gould wrote:
It's embarrassing, but I have to admit my previous 2 comments on this essay reflected a superficial reading on my part. I was being obtuse.

It's more nuanced & ironic than I realized. Adam Kirsch is NOT saying that the desire for recognition is the source of creative art and literature. He's saying that the drive for recognition, the wish for self-validation - vanity, in other worlds - is the most powerful engine of human ambition, & shapes the lineaments of the "fallen" world.

Artistic gifts, on the other hand, are, as he writes, "randomly, amorally distributed". Our recognition of beauty is "irrational".

I think - or I hope - that when he writes "because there is not enough recognition, they make art" -which is the phrase I initially latched onto to make my critique - that Kirsch was being ironic, tongue-in-cheek.

In this world there exists the beautiful - which is the original of well-made art; and there is human vanity and ambition - the origin of bad & ersatz art. Everyone - including the good artist - has plenty of will and ambition; but art stems from a gift, an inspiration or talent, which is beyond our manipulation & control, & hence its "irrational" scarcity.

On November 21, 2008 at 9:49am J Hayes wrote:
Sic transit gloria mundi is a fairly old theme, really. However, if a writer or musician or artist wants to avoid being despised by the 18-28 year old crowd, he/she would do well to avoid "fame" of any sort. I recall that both myself & other young writers quite delighted to snipe at either our peers or our older contemporaries who'd achieved success. The difference was we couldn't go on their blog 20-30 years ago & (anonymously) tell them about that-- which is a change. But the economy of scarcity that Kirsch talks about really only serves critics by making it easier to build canons, & by giving them a workable number of chess pieces to move around their critical chess board, as he does in this essay. In fact, for every "famous" author, poet, musician, painter, etc. etc. there are myriads of others who do their work either contendedly or as malcontents, & some even realize that this fame deal for the most part is an illusion. Just look at any of those "Best Poems" or "Best Short Stories" anthologies from the 70s-90s in your local used book store & see how many names you recognize. But to say that a lust for fame is the determining factor in creation reall is simplistic.

On November 21, 2008 at 10:27am Henry Gould wrote:
The "fame deal" may be an illusion, but it's a complex, multifaceted illusion. Some artists, for example, are deservedly famous - their work is that good. Some deservedly famous artists are nevertheless TOO famous, because of the exponential echo-effect of the said fame deal. And artists are famous, and seek fame, with a variety (& a mixture) of motives. Some seek fame because of the message they believe they are meant to deliver : the Good Book says, "don't hide your talent under a bushel", rather, "shout it from the rooftops"... & thus (self-promoting) Whitman sends his "barbaric yawp" over the "rooftops of the world". & that in itself is an amazing feat - part of of the devious, subtle & serpentine proces of writing itself, of stamping glittering images in letters. Fame is involved in the shine, in the glitter - "fame is the spur". It used to be called "glory". And yet again, whoever seeketh their own glory shall be humbled. It's complicated.

On November 21, 2008 at 11:48am J Hayes wrote:
I believe the distinction I'm trying to point to is that "fame" (be it a "deal" or everlasting glory) is really not something-- in my opinion-- it's all that beneficial for the average creative person to fixate on. Are some people more talented, or "great" if you will, than others in the practice of their craft. Of course. This is even more apparent in a field like music where actually physical skills are required to be a master of the art, & much less obvious (though clearly still apparent in many cases) in writing, where judgments are perforce more subjective. But really, as someone who does create, it's for the critics to decide-- if I fixate on it, it really doesn't move my own endeavors forward, & unless I run into a budding Whitman I'd probably encourage other creators to think the same way. I was once in a class with the poet Charles Wright & I remember him stressing that "no one" in that room-- with an emphasis on "no one"-- was a Whitman. If we don't keep this perspective we only damage ourselves. I'm pretty sure that the actual Whitmans out there won't be held back. But for me, the purpose of creating is to connect. When I'm dead & gone I have no illusions that my creations will give me any sort of immortality.

On November 21, 2008 at 12:30pm Henry Gould wrote:
That makes a lot of sense, J. Hayes. But sometimes, psychologically speaking, you have to understand a thing in order to get over the fixation. If we simply identify fame with fate or destiny - as Charles Wright seems to have done in your class - we are ceding it to someone or something else. The irony is, Whitman's own career - like Dickinson's & others - gives the lie to Wright's admonition. There very well could have been a Whitman in the room : there's no way of knowing.

On November 21, 2008 at 1:46pm J Hayes wrote:
Mr Gould:

We may be making a lot of the same points from slightly different perspectives. You're right in a way about C Wright's comment. In the case of the actual Whitman & Dickinson, they perservered with creation even tho they weren't accepted in their own time.

Where I see the damage of the cult of celebrity-- whether than celebrity is a musician or a movie star or a famous author etc. is in the way it can hinder creative efforts. As a musician & music teacher these days (my formal association with the poetry biz ended a number of years ago) I see firsthand a number of people held back by the thought that 1. They must be great (in whatever sense) for their efforts to be worthwhile; 2. They shouldn't even bother to try because they aren't great (as so & so is). To me, as I said, it's about connection with others, & also connection with whatever creative force I may contain. I like the line from the folksinger Utah Phillips who said "A revolutionary song is any song you sing yourself." Though Utah Phillips may be a pretty far stroll from Hegel, I think this sentiment is germane to the conversation.

On November 21, 2008 at 2:11pm Henry Gould wrote:
I agree with you, M. Hayes. "Cult of celebrity."

I suppose the most acutely critical statements about the dangers & damages of fame - in relation to the creative process - have come from the famous themselves (though I can't think of any offhand).

It's a gift to find beauty & grace among the ordinary anonymous everyday unknown humble & &... & blindness not to see it.

"I'm Nobody - who are you?" What's the rest of that Dickinson poem? Something about how boring to be famous - like a frog...

On November 21, 2008 at 3:46pm John Hayes wrote:
Here it is:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you-Nobody-Too?

Then there's a pair of us!

Don't tell! they'd advertise-you know!

How dreary-to be-Somebody!

How public-like a Frog-

To tell one's name-the livelong June-

To an admiring Bog!

Emily Dickinson #288, ca. 1861

On November 22, 2008 at 9:41am Amos Johannes Hunt wrote:
I don't know anything about the Gessen

controversy, but I'm not sure that it's very

important for Kirsch's argument here. I was

able to follow it well enough. What I think is

more telling is Kirsch's outrageous reading of

Hegel. Would Hegel accept success as a writer

at the cost of such absurd interpretations of

him? It wasn't for the sake of the attention of

posterity that he wrote, but for the satisfaction

of the mandate of absolute mind, "know

thyself," which has nothing at all to do with

Hegel's private "mind and experience."

For the sake of clarity, the problem here is


(1) Kirsch attributes a motivation to Hegel which

is contrary to Hegel's thought.

(2)Kirsch then reads that motivation into Hegel's

system, as though Hegel could have attributed it

to himself.

Problem (1) isn't logically incoherent, just

groundlessly subversive. (2), on the other hand

is absurd.

On November 22, 2008 at 2:52pm Dixon J. Jones wrote:
Kirsch writes, "The Internet has

democratized the means of self-

expression, but it has not democratized

the rewards of self-expression."

This is an interesting variation on the idea

of "socialization of risk and privatization of

profit," which I first heard in an economic

context (Fresh Air interview with Steve

Fraser, Oct. 1, 2008).

On November 22, 2008 at 2:52pm Dixon J. Jones wrote:
Kirsch writes, "The Internet has

democratized the means of self-

expression, but it has not democratized

the rewards of self-expression."

This is an interesting variation on the idea

of "socialization of risk and privatization of

profit," which I first heard in an economic

context (Fresh Air interview with Steve

Fraser, Oct. 1, 2008).

On November 23, 2008 at 11:41pm Henry Gould wrote:
So if beauty is everywhere, & honors & recognition are scarce, does this mean there's a CONSPIRACY (of Quietude, or Editors, or the Elite, or...)?

I don't think so. I think poetry is a part of nature at large... but it is a FREAK of nature. It's an artifice, a built thing - just like architecture, or music.

The democracy or ubiquity of beauty does not presuppose or guarantee the ubiquity of good poetry. Good poetry is RARE.

& it's discovery & acceptance by the people is a RARITY beyond compare (cr. Whitman, Melville, Dickinson).

"Let us now praise famous men" (& women) - a line from an old text of the Biblical Apocrypha. Saved (perhaps) by Alexandrian librarians, ca. 100 BC...

On November 28, 2008 at 8:38pm michael robbins wrote:
The comment stream here begins with one person's bid for recognition while denying that he wishes to be recognized. There's nothing profound about the internet's propensity to attract idiots trying to shout one another down. And only a fool could have imagined it would turn out any other way. The problem - &, yes, it's a problem - is that anyone is allowed to say anything, anonymously. I can't imagine what motivates people to write blogs - I can't imagine imagining that anyone could or should care what random thoughts occur to me throughout the day - but even more, I can't imagine wanting to know what a bunch of strangers think about those thoughts. If Gessen had just remained silent, his detractors' ressentiment would have had no force. The internet drags everyone down to its level because it truly is democratic. And the demotic is vulgar, by definition.

On November 30, 2008 at 9:24pm Henry Gould wrote:
Michael, see, if you haven't already, Marcel Detienne's fine book, "The Masters of Truth in Ancient Greece".

Detienne outlines the whole problem as follows.

Poetry has its origins in magic, religion, divination, monarchy, inspiration, the techne of poets... (cf. Pound, Eliot, Yeats, D'Annunzio, many another...).

Criticism/theory/philosophy, on the other hand - via Socrates et al. - has its origins in dialogue, and Democracy.

So far so good, for the Age of Theory.

The problem is that (as Detienne describes) dialogue and democracy have their origins in military conquest and the divison of spoils among violent warriors. (Riveting reading of Homer, here.)

It's Poetry vs. Warrior Democracy. Going back about 3000 years. & still at it. Blessed are the Peacemakers.

On December 1, 2008 at 1:13am AnonymousVulgarian wrote:
I love how certain posters have completely ignored the comments of those who have tried to give some kind of context, such as those of iconoclastodon and Drew Johnson. It's as if this were a conversation where certain people kept pontificating regardless of what the other person was saying, as well as making judgments without all the facts. If you're going to use Kirsch's piece to declare that the Internet is full of "idiots trying to shout one another down," one must also consider that Gessen was one of those idiots. One has to consider his involvement with n+1 and the meanness surrounding that magazine, Gessen's treatment of Emily Gould, and examples of positive and successful uses of the Internet by other writers (e.g. Warren Ellis). Envy isn't the cause of the ire, it was an angry response to the over-the-top critical praise of a silly book with shallow characters. The discussion the Internet's reaction to Gessen as an example of "the way we live now" (as well bringing in Rousseau, Hegel, and the phenomena of fame) only works if one takes the Gessen experience out of its proper context.

On December 15, 2008 at 10:31pm Susan Ioannou wrote:
The late senior Canadian poet Louis Dudek was particularly sceptical of contemporary fame, describing it in his book Epigrams as “merely the privilege of being pestered by strangers” and “like sugar, a pure white poison”. He knew that young writers especially were vulnerable to such “mere noise”, and in his Ideas for Poetry he wrote: “A popular success poisons the minds of aspiring young poets by making them hanker after an illusion, where they should be sharpening their eye for what is genuine.”

On December 19, 2008 at 1:27pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

"It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous."

- Robert Benchley

On January 16, 2009 at 8:52pm BenjaminL wrote:
Shouldn't someone mention that Kirsch

and Gessen were classmates at


On May 24, 2009 at 2:25pm Will Brovelli wrote:
I like this article... a lot.

On March 19, 2010 at 3:08am susmita paul wrote:
This article is beautiflly crafted ... reminds me of Nissim Ezekiel's poem GOODBYE PARTY FOR MISS PUSHPA T.S . What Mr. Kirsch is writing is ironic. The desire of recognition does , at times, motivate the writer to write. But that is not what creates masterpieces that transcend time and place. For a creative work to survive the onslaught of time, it needs somehing more than ambition. Something that we can possibly but vaguely call skill and dedication. Fame is temporary but recognition is eternal. The concluding sentence of the essay captures this irony of ambition most poignantly. Loved reading it!

On November 30, 2014 at 5:01pm Dylan Michael Riley wrote:
Once, in a dream, I saw a man
With haggard face and tangled hair,
And eyes that nursed as wild a care
As gaunt Starvation ever can;
And in his hand he held a wand
Whose magic touch gave life and thought
Unto a form his fancy wrought
And robed with coloring so grand
It seemed the reflex of some child
Of Heaven, fair and undefiled -
A face of purity and love -
To woo him into worlds above:
And as I gazed with dazzled eyes,
A gleaming smile lit up his lips
As his bright soul from its eclipse
Went flashing into Paradise.
Then tardy Fame came through the door
And found a picture - nothing more.

... And this is Fame! A thing, indeed,
That only comes when least the need:
The wisest minds of every age
The book of life from page to page
Have searched in vain; each lesson conned
Will promise it the page beyond -
Until the last, when dusk of night
Falls over it, and reason's light
Is smothered by that unknown friend
Who signs his nom de plume, The End.

- James Whitcomb Riley, "Fame"

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2008


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 Adam  Kirsch


Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (2008) is published by W.W. Norton. His second collection of poems is Invasions (Ivan R. Dee, 2008).

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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