So yes, it’s a bummer that Michaela Watkins got fired from SNL but I have to say, I will not miss her Angie Tempura character one bit. I never found this joke funny. It’s too easy get cheap laughs by taking potshots at the Internet’s worst tendencies, and I involuntarily cringe when people do it, the same way I cringe when someone takes any “joke” that had blog currency three years ago and exports it to meatspace. Like when a standup comedian says something about the “world wide information superhighway.” (Or: “meatspace.”) Oof. That is how I always felt about those “Bitch Pleeze” sketches, basically: “Oof.”
Sure, go ahead and make your joke about how I can’t find the humor in a caricature of an iced-coffee-addled, pajama-clad, facial-ticcy blogger who spews inarticulate scattershot hate at the world because it just hits way too close to home. Ha ha! Congratulations, you have been promoted from Captain to Admiral Obvious in a fancy ceremony; here is your new uniform and some medals. Also, HarperStudio is going to publish a book of your best mean anonymous blog comments. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?
Sorry, that’s enough of that. Let me just gracefully back up from there into what I was wanting to say which is that for some reason, no matter how ungrateful the Internet* can sometimes be, I am often moved to speak up in its defense. (You’re welcome, douchetards!) This is a perverse and self-defeating impulse but sometimes I just can’t help myself.
At 11 this past Sunday morning I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Book Festival about the future of literary fiction. This panel was moderated by former Soft Skull publisher and current niche social publishing community-startup -starter Richard Nash and featured Lipshitz 6 or, Two Angry Blondes author T Cooper and Anna In-Between author Elizabeth Nunez. My boyfriend Keith was also on this panel and this, aside from my deep abiding love of panel discussions, is why I was there. Obvs in the interest of domestic harmony I will recuse myself from commenting on anything that Keith said except to say that basically I agreed with him. Luckily I don’t have to mention anything he said in order to contextualize anything the other panelists said because, even though the event was nominally a discussion, each of the panelists went off in his or her own direction. One thing nobody ended up talking about was what, specifically, might happen to fiction in the future, but since soothsaying is a ridiculous thing to expect from a panel of non-psychics I wasn’t disappointed by that, per se. What I was disappointed by was the way both Nunez and Cooper seemed to be cultivating — possibly without realizing they were doing so — a seeming sneering disdain for their audience, both the audience in the Community Room of Borough Hall and the potential audiences of their novels.
Nunez began her remarks by mentioning that she had just learned that morning that her new novel, recently published by Brooklyn-based indie Akashic, had been selected as an Editor’s Pick by the New York Times Book Review. However, she told us, in spite of this honor and in spite of also getting tons of awards and nice reviews over the years for her many other novels, her books do not sell very many copies. Her theory about why her books don’t sell more copies is that the publishing industry is too dumb and racist to figure out how to market a black author who isn’t Terry McMillan or Zane. It is a frightening bad sign for the future not just of books but of America, that Elizabeth Nunez’s books are not bestsellers. I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating but this really was what Nunez wanted to talk about, at the outset of this panel. At times she seemed to be trembling with rage.
And you know, I absolutely sympathize with her, to a point. There aren’t a lot of people who would disagree with Nunez that the book industry’s business model is deeply flawed and that we need to come up with new ways of enabling books that aren’t by Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer to connect with their audiences. In fact, many people are actively working to do just that. And so railing against the old, flawed model — especially when introducing yourself, and maybe your work, to a roomful of people who most likely do something with their lives that has to do with the industry you’re maligning — seemed like an odd tactic, fomenting-change-wise.
Then T Cooper started talking about The Internet.
Conversations about The Internet tend to dog any conversation about the future of book-reading and book-publishing. This one was especially interesting because it took on not only the question of whether The Internet — meaning not only e-book-to-iPhone downloading and other methods of book-reading that don’t involve books as physical objects, but also online marketing and the idea of self-branding — will Change Everything, but also whether the reams of internet-writing that many of us spend our days consuming and creating are changing our ability or desire to read non-online, process-oriented fiction and nonfiction. And this is actually an interesting question, one that I don’t know the answer to. I like reading and writing both kinds of writing, so I hope they will both continue to exist. I understand why people think they are opposed, but to examine the reasons why people think they are opposed gets us into a long and messy conversation about, among other things: Do people have a right to expect to get paid or to get attention for doing what they love? I think that artists who aren’t getting the money or the eyeballs they think their work deserves often blame these deficiencies on the Internet in a way that earlier generations might have scapegoated another new technology: the television, the radio, etc. But actually, being able to make a living and/or command a wide audience by writing literary fiction or nonfiction has always, in every generation, been a privilege accorded a motley — and maybe kind of arbitrary! — few. File under “life’s not fair.” Please believe me that I’m just as upset about this as Cooper, Nunez, and you are. But: life is not fair.
T Cooper fears that unedited, ill-thought-out online reading and writing is crowding out the curated, edited writing that appears on the printed page. He doesn’t, he says, want to see a review of Keith’s book next to a picture of your cat. He is uninterested in kitty pix in general. The idea of a Twitter novel makes him want to “kill himself.” He said that he didn’t understand why people thought other people wanted to hear about what they ate for breakfast, clearly expecting a laugh from the audience that only sort of came. (That was when I started to cringe and think of Angie Tempura.) Nunez nodded vehemently: “I always tell my writing students that your first draft is like vomit — it doesn’t smell good and no one should see it but you!” she said. Both authors shook their heads in saddened disbelief about why anyone wants to spew their vomity rough drafts all over the internet for the world to see. They complained about being encouraged by their publishers to blog, to Tweet. They resisted the undignified idea that they would be forced to be available to their readers via online presences that they themselves would have to participate in creating. At this point, an audience member asked all the panelists how involved they had been in their books’ marketing campaigns. I don’t remember exactly what Cooper said but he seemed to regret that he’d had to be involved at all. In general the idea seemed to be that book marketing ought to be something that an omniscient, dogged employee of one’s publisher does while the author remains behind the scenes, unsullied by hustling.
While Cooper and Nunez sat there and basically expressed their disdain for people who work in publishing and people who are interested in reading or writing about books online, I wondered who, exactly, they thought was sitting there in the Community Room at 11am on a Sunday, listening to them speak on a panel about the future of fiction. Or maybe they hadn’t thought about this at all.
I think — and I base this opinion on having worked in book publishing — that a lot of authors think of “readers” the way we think of any intangible but demonstrably present phenomenon, like bacteria. We can’t see them, so we don’t think about them much. We like them in theory when they’re helping us, digesting our food et cetera — in fact, we take it for granted that they will do so – but mostly we only notice them when they’re making us sick. It’s not a given that authors make the connection between the way they feel about books and writers they like and the way someone might feel about them, and their work. Readers are not bacteria, though. They are people, and they are, potentially, everywhere – including, increasingly, online.
Being a jerk, I raised my hand and mentioned this to the panelists, but I was too vague — I said they had to be willing to reach readers “where they lived.” Nunez said she was willling to do any event, anywhere — “Just tell me where!” she said. And then the panel was over.
*I know, I hate people who talk about “The Internet” like it’s all one thing, too, but that’s part of the point I’m making, somehow.