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Posts from the ‘Media’ Category

Why are all the best bloggers women?

Why are all the best bloggers women? What is it about the online space that allows women's voices to predominate?

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Sunday ephemera

"my nipples smell like sauerkraut"

After a very rewarding morning washing a tub of Vaseline out of my three year-old’s hair (in case you’re interested shampoo is useless but talcum powder and then shampoo seems to have helped) I thought I’d chuck up a few links to liven up your Sunday.

The first is a delicious new site called Autocomplete Me, which I found via Spike (who found it via The Millions), which uses the Google’s autocomplete function as a device to peer into the murky depths of the collective subconscious. Having confessed before to the voyeuristic pleasures of eavesdropping on other people’s search terms it’s the sort of site I can’t help but enjoy, but I challenge anybody not to be both fascinated and bemused by the fragmentary glimpses of people’s private worlds the site throws up. Some are cute (“What do you feed a Yeti anyway?”), a lot are weird (“Cheese is the devil’s plaything”) and  some are just plain worrying (“I’ve just had a conversation with my cat in the shower about pancakes. We both like them a lot”).

I also thought in the light of my post a few weeks back about the death of the letter it might be worth pointing to Stacy Schiff’s wonderful review of Thomas Mallon’s equally wonderful-sounding Yours Ever: People and their Letters, a book written in the shadow of the disappearance of the form to which it is devoted. Schiff reads Mallon’s book as an elegy for a dying art, suggesting in closing:

“It is next to impossible to read these pages without mourning the whole apparatus of distance, without experiencing a deep and plangent longing for the airmail envelope, the sweetest shade of blue this side of a Tiffany box. Is it possible to sound crusty or confessional electronically? It is as if text and e-mail messages are of this world, a letter an attempt, however illusory, to transcend it. All of which adds tension and resonance to Mallon’s pages, already crackling with hesitations and vulnerabilities, obsessions and aspirations, with reminders of the lost art of literary telepathy, of the aching, attenuated rhythm of a written correspondence.”

To which, my suggestion that blogs and Twitter might, in a very small way, be replacing the letter notwithstanding, I can only say, ‘Amen’.

And finally, a little Sunday song. I know this video’s done the rounds a lot of times already, I know it’s just marketing, but it’s a wonderful thing all the same. Enjoy.

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The death of the letter

Penny Black-1On Friday a journalist friend rang looking for some comments about the death of the letter. The story grew out of reports of a sharp decline in the use of snail mail, and having already spoken to historian Les Carlyon and linguist Sue Butler, both of whom had made the usual noises about the loss of a form which has allowed us to communicate complex thought and emotion for many generations, he wanted a literary perspective on the question.

Before I go any further I should say that I agree, at least generally, with the remarks by Carlyon and Butler which are quoted in the article. The letter is a remarkable form, not just because of its capacity to record the feelings and impressions of the moment for posterity, but because it is a form that has always been as much about a process of self-creation and exploration as communication.

In a way that shouldn’t be surprising. The act of writing isn’t simply about putting thoughts down on paper, it’s about a process of thought. And, as a result, the process of writing a letter allows us to explore thoughts and ideas we might not be able to express or even access in everyday life. Indeed in a very real sense, writing letters is less about communication than the creation of a self through the act of writing. Usually these selves are freer, smarter, sometimes they’re something like our best self, more often they’re versions of our everyday self which only find their true expression on the page. It’s a process you see at work in the correspondence of writers such as Philip Larkin or Flaubert, both of whom were capable of being scatological and filthy with one friend, and considered and thoughtful with another. Or in the epistolary relationship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, a relationship in which both revealed aspects of themselves they concealed from everyone else.

But the thing that struck me while I was talking to my friend on Friday, was that despite the passing of the letter, these are exactly the same processes one sees at work when people blog, or tweet, or even update their Facebook statuses. In all cases they’re projecting versions of themselves outwards, and in so doing engaging in the same processes of self-invention that once went on in correspondence. The only real difference is that they’re doing it in public, or at least semi-public.

Obviously there’s nothing particularly radical about observing that technology is altering our notions of identity. But it does suggest that the usual anxieties provoked by the passing of cultural forms and institutions are at least partly misplaced in this context.

More importantly though, it’s a reminder that the transition from the written letter to email isn’t simply a story about changing technology. It’s part of a much larger story about the way technology is redefining the boundaries between our public and private selves. It’s not a neutral process by any means, and its effects can be seen in the increasing anxiety about the management of confidential information, in the arguments about the use (and abuse) of surveillance technologies, and even in the rise of celebrity culture. But it’s also a story that’s as much about possibility as decline, something which can be obscured when one concentrates on only one aspect of the story.

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Australian Literary Review out today

ALRJust a reminder that The Australian Literary Review is free in today’s Australian. As usual some of the highlights are online, not least Delia Falconer’s review of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime and Michael Wood’s look at Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, but as usual the bulk of it is only available in the print edition (though over at Australian Literature Diary Kerryn Goldsworthy attempts to straddle that divide with some thoughts about her print-only review of Cate Kennedy’s new novel, The World Beneath).

So what are you waiting for? Go out and grab The Oz and do yourself a favour.

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The post-newspaper world

metal_typeThe current issue of The New York Review of Books includes an excellent piece by Michael Massing about the future of news. In contrast to the angst and aggro that often surrounds the subject, Massing’s piece is laudably clear and uncoloured by either Wired-style techno-utopianism or stupidly reactive declaratons about the enduring importance of newspapers and the frivolousness and pointlessness of new media forms such as blogging.

To his credit Massing seeks to tease out the increasingly symbiotic relationship between bloggers and conventional journalists, and to emphasize the increasing role bloggers are playing in breaking news, both as part of the daily news cycle and in a more sophisticated, investigative mode. And, interestingly, he suggests the real danger in the shift to decentralized modes of news gathering and dissemination is less about the loss of the resources of the major media companies, and more about the sort of echo-chamber effect that too often predominates on the net, in which people balkanize into self-reinforcing conclaves of shared opinion.

In a way, of course, Massing’s article is a counterpiece to Clay Shirky’s now-famous article, ‘Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable’, which argued that the current convulsions in our media landscape are analogous to the convulsions which reshaped European society in the years following the invention of the printing press. Indeed Massing pushes Shirky’s argument one step further, suggesting a further analogy between the printing press’ role in loosening the grip of the Catholic Church on medieval society and the manner in which blogging and new media are undermining corporate and government control of the flow of ideas in contemporary society.

I don’t think either Massing or Shirky would argue they know what the future of media looks like. But as both make clear, we’re beginning to see some of its outlines. Fewer large media companies and fewer newspapers. More rapid dissemination of opinion and ideas. A shift away from professionalized news-gathering and opinion towards news-gathering and dissemination by amateur or non-traditional sources. The increasing predominance of news services defined by their ideological positions.

All of these make many of those familiar with old media such as newspapers deeply uncomfortable, just as the rise of television news has traditionally unsettled those who give primacy to the sorts of values that are supposed to prevail in print journalism. Yet for my part I’m broadly optimistic about the future. Partly this is about my feeling that newspapers have never been the paragons of liberty their defenders claim them to be. But it’s also about recognizing that what’s happening is, in some sense, inevitable and evolutionary. As the technological underpinnings of our society change, so will our society, and there’s a level at which it’s better to see that as a positive, rather than fighting a rearguard action you’re destined to lose. What’s happening is painful, but it’s also exciting, and creates new possibilities on every side.

None of which is to say I don’t have concerns about how we manage the process, not the least of which is the question of how we manage to finance new media organizations capable of breaking news and carrying out investigative journalism in smaller countries such as Australia. Massing goes to some lengths to point out that rather than being parasitic, as they are often accused of being, increasing numbers of American political bloggers are now generating sufficient revenue to take on larger and more complex stories, involving considerable research and travel.

This revenue seems to be being drawn from a range of sources, but the bulk of it still seems to be coming from donations. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but I do wonder whether it’s a model we’re capable of replicating in Australia, a country with a significantly smaller population than the USA, and a far less established philanthropic tradition.

This isn’t to say there aren’t already groups in Australia seeking to develop models to enable such projects. I mentioned Swinburne University’s new fund to support public interest journalism a while back, and there are certainly other such projects in development.

But I think there’s little question the difficulties associated with setting up and financing new media outfits in Australia are exponentially greater than in the US. While it’s partly a legacy of its history, it seems telling that the one really successful Australian non-traditional news organization, Crikey!, runs on a subscription model, rather than by allowing free access to all its content and financing that through advertising or other sources.

Some have suggested the solution is some form of state funding, whether via direct subsidy of the sort the French Government has offered the French newspapers, grant-based funding of the sort employed in the cultural sector, or some sort of public trust model. For myself, I’d be very surprised if any of these models were either politically palatable or even particularly workable, though I’d be lying if I said I knew what the alternatives were. But it does seem to me the question of how we finance new media news services in a small country such as Australia is a real issue, and one the American or even the British experience is unlikely to offer answers to.

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Literary Bloodsport Part 3: The Writers Strike Back

Star-Wars-The-Empire-Strikes-BackI’ve been meaning to do a follow-up on my post about literary hatchet jobs for a while now, but the story in yesterday’s Gawker about Alice Hoffmann’s colossal dummy-spit (or is that dummy-twit?) is so hilarious I can’t hold back any longer. As the story explains, Hoffman took great exception to what sounds like a classic “mixed” review, and proceeded to slag off the reviewer on Twitter, even going so far as to twit the reviewer’s phone number and suggest people ring her up and set her straight. Hoffman is now backtracking, but it’s a little difficult to come back from “Now any idiot can be a critic”.

What’s particularly striking is that it’s only one of several cases of writers losing their cool about reviews in recent weeks. Last week MediaBistro reported that Alain de Botton (who I once heard a middle-aged lesbian describe as the thinking woman’s crumpet) took violent exception to Caleb Crain’s review of his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, taking time out from his clearly hectic schedule to blast Crain in the comments section of Crain’s blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything (Botton’s killer barb? “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make”). And in a rather more succinct comment upon a review of her new book, author Ayelet Waldman twitted, “May Jill Lepore rot in hell. That is all”.

Of course there’s a long and (ig)noble tradition of authors slagging off critics. But I suspect there’s a good chance these rather undignified displays say as much about people’s unfamiliarity with the technology as anything. With any new form of communication it takes a while to learn what’s smart and what’s not (ask yourself how long it too you to learn not to email when angry, or to reply all carelessly). And if there was ever a technology for which the old adage, flame in haste, repent at leisure was appropriate, it’s Twitter (at least with Facebook status updates you have some control over who’s listening, and you can quietly delete them if you think you’ve gone too far). Certainly the rapidity with which the story of Hoffman and de Botton’s dummy-spits has spread is a reminder of the capacity of the online world to regulate itself, and of the democratizing nature of the net more generally. Indeed I suspect Hoffman and de Botton’s real crime isn’t being intemperate, but assuming their status as authors gave them the right to be uncivil (that and the fact they look ridiculous).

Of course I would say that. I’ve always cleaved to Disraeli’s famous dictum, “Never explain, never complain”, and while I’ve had plenty of reviews I could have done without, my general view is that it’s not just undignified to get into a stoush with a reviewer, it’s a fight you’re almost guaranteed to lose. At best you’ll give a bad review oxygen, at worst you’ll look petulant and egomaniacal.

Of course de Botton and others might argue that in the new media environment the relationship between writers and critics is altering, and there’s now a place for more direct discussion and engagement. And they’d probably be right, at least with respect to non-fiction, though as I’ve observed above, authors who assume their status as authors grants them any particular cultural authority are likely to be pretty quickly disabused of that notion. Indeed at a very crude level the shift from physical books and newspapers to electronic books and websites is eroding the distinction between the cultural authority of different media, and promoting a situation where what matters is the quality of your commentary, not the publishing house behind you, or your visibility on bookshop shelves.

But I think the situation is very different with fiction. I’ve spent years avoiding explaining my books in interviews (contextualize, expand upon, talk about process, but never, if you can help it, explain them) partly out of a deep, and essentially uncritical unease with doing so, and partly out of a view that to do so reduces them somehow. However often my views about other aspects of writing change, I’ve always believed novels and stories are living things: mysterious, ineffable, prismatic, and that while writers may be required to promote them, ultimately the book will take on its own life separate from them. It’s possible our culture is increasingly inimical to that sort of indeterminacy, but take it away and a work of fiction is inevitably, and fatally, reduced.

For those wanting to read more about the Hoffman/de Botton imbroglio, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams has a few choice words to say on the subject, and later, on Ayelet Waldman’s intemperate remarks. The Literary Saloon also has views on the matter, as do The Afterword and Edward Champion (thanks to GalleyCat for the links). Likewise Motoko Rich has some interesting reactions in The New York Times. And if you want to see Alain de Botton repenting at leisure, you can read the excerpts from his twitterfeed at The New York Observer.

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I have nothing to say . . .

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