At the Contemporary Museum of Art in Montreal, Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” plays on nine screens in a dark theater. Each screen features a single musician set to the backdrop of a room in a chateau, which is in disrepair: one woman in a pale lace dress plays cello with a French door open to the outside gardens, one man plays guitar in a claw foot bathtub. All nine musicians chime in to sing: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” In the theater, museum-goers experience all nine screens at once: a simultaneous narrative. In a second theater, which exhibits Kjartansson’s “World Light,” four screens play different scenes from a Halldor Laxness novel at the same time. In the same moment, viewers watch a woman pull on her dress and stockings in the morning, while across the room she fights with her future lover. The presentation of “World Light,” a Nordic story told in its entirety in one moment, calls into question the sequencing of narrative—that is, that a narrative should be read from beginning to end, or that those components should be separate at all.
For a few months I was an intern for an online literary magazine, helping with their social media. I’d done some marketing via Twitter and Facebook before, but nothing on this scale or with the guidance of people who really know what they’re doing. It was an exciting opportunity. But as I got more involved and learned the tricks of the trade, I became disillusioned.
You learn quickly that all most people want on Twitter and Facebook is an image. It doesn’t matter who or what you’re trying to promote: all the retweets and shares go to whoever has the most striking picture to share. It helps even more if it’s a picture of an already famous author, preferably one who’s dead. James Joyce playing the guitar is social media gold. (Note-to-self: ask Ploughshares editors if I can use that James Joyce pic.) The form is far more important than the content. They don’t even really have to match. If you’re talking about an author people are a little less familiar with, you’ll want some black-and-white landscape photography or a 19th century painting, something that screams “CULTURE!” and that you don’t have to think too hard about to enjoy.
Whatever it takes to share the literature, right?
Maybe, except that the literature doesn’t really seem to get shared. The magazine I worked for publishes literature and criticism of what I consider the highest quality, but the data reveals that very few people will follow links to read even the most retweeted articles. Even fewer will stay on an article long enough to read beyond the first couple sentences. You’re now roughly 300 words into this blog post. If you’re reading this sentence, you’re one of a proud few.
Hello again, Writers.
So I was driving to New York City a few weeks ago for a conference at NYU, where I talked about the ways story and song benefit public discourse. To say I’d been obsessing over the political impact of storytelling would be an understatement. So maybe it’s no surprise that I got worked up over this radio conversation about the #YesAllWomen Twitter trend:
“[D]o I think [#yesallwomen] can be beneficial in shifting the conversation?,” journalist Keli Goff asked on NPR’s “Tell Me More.”
Sure. Do I think it is beneficial in the ways that if all the people who were doing hashtag activism actually voted or wrote letters to their members of Congress or actually gave donations to specific organizations doing specific work, no I don’t see it as particularly beneficial, except for creating platforms for people who want more attention for themselves—particularly in social media.
Goff’s words betray the persistent cultural belief that sharing one’s story is worthwhile only if it leads to some objectively beneficial socio-political result. If all you’re doing is storytelling, you probably just want attention. And maybe you should (shut up and) do something that actually matters, like vote. Or picket. Or call your Congressperson. But for god’s sake don’t “just talk” or “just write.”
This is the story of Todd Manly-Krauss, the world’s most irritating writer. He’s a good enough guy in real life (holds his liquor, fun at parties, writes a hell of a short story)—but give the guy a social media account, and the most mild-mannered of his writer friends will turn to blood lust.
Okay, so he’s not a real writer. Except that he is. At times I fear he’s me.
One morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.
Leaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:
We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…
Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?
Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.
But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-“activist” writers can take to dive in:
- Identify Our Stories
- Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
- Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”
In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.
We featured a post recently about literary magazine approaches to social media, and it got us thinking: How are writers being innovative with social media and technology? Enjoy this multi-faceted roundup.
- Justin Alvarez surveys literary magazine approaches to media promotion in “Social Media in a Literary World.”
- Emerson College’s Electronic Publisher-in-Residence John Rodzvilla looks at the innovation of digital literary magazines in “REDACTED: Experiences with Digital Americana’s Interactive Literary Magazine.”
- In “Why I’m Not On Twitter Yet,” Jamie Quatro explains her “fears of incompatibility with the medium.” In her follow-up entitled “Regarding Recognition: A Response to Michael Nye, With Gratitude” she further speaks of the “call/response, writer/reader connection” of Twitter.
- In our “Innovators in Lit” series we look at lit mags, editors, and writers on the edge. Here are our interviews with The Lit Pub, featherproof books, and an interview with Dzanc Books editor Matt Bell.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Although the Irish playwright wasn’t aware of social media at the time, one could argue that his observation is even more valid in a time where we think more and more in public. Instead of allowing strains of thought to saturate, seeds are thrown out to the public eye hoping to grow—or wither. Like your Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds, information is filtering through every millisecond and as easily as a thought can drift into view it can as quickly drift away.
For a newsroom, social media is the perfect platform to distribute content: news is constantly changing and article summaries can easily be slimmed down into a hundred and forty characters—just enough space to draw in a reader and “convert” them to the organization’s website. Additionally, news content is quick and easy to ingest, allowing just enough time to catch up on the next breaking news update.
But what about a literary magazine, whose ultimate goal, arguably, is for readers to take a break from the world around them, however long, to simply sit down and read? How does social media fit in here?
Plate VI from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
It took, it seemed, only a few seconds for the first response to appear. My heart plummeted as more appeared in my Twitter feed, each increasingly indignant, ticking off like a plunging stock exchange. I knew there had not been enough time for any of the commenters to actually read the article I linked to; they were simply responding to the post.
For many reasons—professional and deferential—I won’t repeat the exact content of the post, but it was the kind of thing that starts flame wars like dry underbrush. Blame it on laziness and a communal obsession with drama, but provocation sells. There is an art form to highlighting the main points of an article in 140 characters, especially one of a satirical nature, but if you do it “right” you have the chance to reach a potentially unsuspecting audience. At its best, a Twitter feed plays out like snatches of witty conversation heard on a subway while reading the newspaper. At its worst, it’s crude, manipulative.
So, I had a few options: I could write a rebuttal for the joke made in poor taste. Maybe accept that stirring controversy is not such a bad thing for web site numbers. Or, simply delete the tweet and hope no one noticed the blunder.
As Christopher Hitchens said in Love, Poverty, and War, “There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.” The thing is, I deleted the post.
It all started with a VHS copy of Black Christmas.
Browsing through discarded copies of Steven Seagal/Jean-Claude Van Damme action trash and forgotten Gen X rom-coms shined a tattered cover with the tagline “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl … IT’S ON TOO TIGHT.” The box was a bit worn at the edges and tattooed with stickers for a video store in Palmdale, California. What was this tape’s cross-country journey, from a small desert town to a little second-hand record and video store on St. Mark’s Street?
Perhaps, a story you’ve heard before: a video store closes, and a stranger purchases a forgotten film from his or her youth on the whim; a child grows up and moves to an east coast school, armed with an array of atypical cultural accoutrements “borrowed” from his or her parents; the now-adult loses interest in such dated technology, and—that’s where I come into the story—the accumulate-and-purge cycle begins again. I bought the tape for four dollars and instantly ran to my dorm room to watch it.
The room was quiet enough to hear the spools churn as the VCR pulled the tape from the cassette shell and wrapped it around the head drum. An elevator down the hall rose, stopped, opened, closed, and rose again. A muffled conversation two doors down slowly died away, as black leader filled the screen; a fingernail or two was bitten; and I moistened and remoistened my dry lips, wishing I had poured myself a glass of water before sitting down. I knew nothing about the film, and that both scared and excited me. Suddenly, a church bell rang, and the image of a three-story house faded in across the television screen.