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Literary Fame in the Time of Flame Wars

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

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 exists...in 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.

More from this issue

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

  • 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).

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Literary Fame in the Time of Flame Wars

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