(being a potable portion of a chapter not yet posted with A Republic of Books, the novel in progress to be found elsewhere on this site)
I understand it is no revelation at all that a novel is a condensation of life—or that this art form was that for a long time, at least, until our actual lives were existentially reduced to mere extensions of electronic media, to be lived vicariously through some most recent manifestation of an MP3 player, iPad, or smart phone, whilst on the tether of Wi-Fi. But I had another thought or two, by further extension.
This occurred to me awhile back when I was first considering the publishing of my own next novel as an e-book. Having given up on the prospect of finding an agent for my curmudgeonly work, which is always ‘too long’ or ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘unsympathetic,’ and thus recognizing the reality that if it were to be published at all, it would have to be done by me, I was made to ponder what medium I might use for my message. The cheapest means were clearly the virtual pages of an e-book . . . There was obvious irony in that, in bowing to the very death of the corporal book that I had fought for, but it might accomplish what else I wanted—what any author would wish—a small measure of immortality. Or at least a couple of decades of accessibility, somewhat akin to my frequent rediscoveries in attics and basements of so many authors I’d never heard of before handling some faded volume pulled from a dusty box—these being better by far from the first paragraph on than the average hack work currently promoted full-page in The New York Times Book Review or Publisher’s Weekly (those journals support their efforts by selling advertising space and I don’t fault them for that, but I do hold them to task for the editorial matter squeezed between the ads that serves both mammon and balderdash.)
Worse, the thin broth of contemporary lives lived in fear of everything: afraid of germs and cholesterol, snakes and CO2, clowns and ghosts; afraid of being alone, and of commitment; afraid of guns (even while thrilling to the pretend vengeance of a Liam Neeson or Daniel Craig shooting anything that moves); afraid of being too fat, or too thin; afraid of failure; afraid of offending Muslims, or women, or blacks, or gays. By necessity, such a fallow existence is lived in hatred of anyone who dares make something more of themselves, just for having made the insignificance of their own lives so obvious. The jealousy feeds their self-contempt.
But comparison is unfair, don’t you know.
The relative safety of modern life for several generations has meant a large increase in the number of these types who exist from moment to moment. And they vote their fears. Just one more deficiency of democracy in our modern era. Yet, withal, from the loins of any of them might arise a better issue. We are all one species, of the same genetic stuff, and the next hero might even come from the lowest form of bureaucrat!
One caution: the superficiality of most lives, purposely pursued as they are for the entertaining moment found in handy self-gratification, would make their own individual loss insignificant, but such deaths should not be alikened to the grisly end of the motorcyclist who seemingly thinks they will always survive their own stupidity. I have another thought about that, in common with the mountain climber and the test pilot. The kin of the motorcyclist are not the only ones who should mourn. In that instance, mankind has lost a brave, albeit foolish soul. The resultant ‘Darwinian’ reduction of the gene pool leaves too many of us alive who haven’t the balls to operate a Vespa. If only that motorcyclist had combined some rational fore-thought with their pursuit of speed—or at least a basic understanding of the laws of physics and the incompatibility of flesh and asphalt—they might have spread the seed of such spirit beyond the narrow lanes of the interstate, or intersection, or the sudden tomb of a cold crevasse.
I contend that the bravery of the test pilot, as illuminated so well in the first sixty pages of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, as well as that of the Good Soldier Svejk who is the more common, is still the genetic fail-safe of the species—God, if you like—keeping us from oblivion. The embarrassment they cause to lesser mortals would be humorous in observance if it were not so darkened with the tragedy of useless death—and that waste so often magnified then by the petty wars of political kings.
So here I am, publishing my novels as electronic data—not real. False typography set upon a phony topography of electronic pages. Where’s the beef then? I am no test pilot. Nor a soldier. Merely an observer.
My gripe is that the half-life of the e-book is not only a small fraction of its physical kin, but with the collapse of publishers who once showed their mettle in risking good cash on what they adjudged to be the finest words they could find (unlike the State funded verbal masturbations issued at most colleges and universities, or the wholly unfunded maunderings such as this to be found almost anywhere clogging the internet), and in the absence of any means of viable distribution, or of the bookshop as a purveyor of what some curmudgeon such as myself might judge to be the better of what is offered and thus achieving a good Darwinian epitome of what is the best we have, what I am making here myself is merely a cake to be eat (as in et) alone, or by a few friends, or lacking that, to be left out in the rain. What seed is actually spread in our time is only that of the best promoter. Yet perhaps that too, by its own devious means, is a function of the processes of natural selection. Thus, in my far less dramatic way, I am destined for the cold crevasse as well.
But to be reduced to fertilizer for electronic worms offers no consolation.
And too, my ‘art’ is at the expense of those who have made me safe. My debt is to them. Not to the tax man who serves the interests of the crowd (aka, the ‘public’).
An alternative example would be, and in much the same way, I believe (though you may not see it at first), that there is now an enormous investment of human creativity in what is called ‘popular’ music. I don’t argue with the terminology of hip-hop, rap or rock. I am simply devastated by the banality, and with the cold fact that not one in a thousand today can tell you who Asger Hamerik is, or Louis Glass, or Zdenek Fibich.
Those are just a few of the great composers of only one hundred years ago. And they would be essentially unknown to us now if they had not been saved for a moment longer from the crevasse by the internet and YouTube. (You see, I am not a Luddite!) Otherwise entombed in the works of those good souls are finer melodies than anything written by, say, Paul McCartney, Carol King, or Adam Levine. Note: likely, if Levine had been born a hundred years ago, he would have turned out something better, because his audience would have demanded it. At least something of the mellifluous or melodic genius of a Cole Porter or Duke Ellington. But no such demand exists. And Mr. Levine is clearly a great success at giving the public what it wants today. And therein is part of the rub. The greater cultural force of the moment is not Beethoven, but Barnum.
Understanding the collapse of Western Culture does not require a critique of a specific individual who has reduced his considerable talents to the lowest common denominator. The catastrophe is world-wide. The bankruptcy is whole-hearted. As the good Lord Byron said, “When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls, the World.” The West no longer believes in itself. Heart rent, it bleeds to death on the asphalt, beneath the wheel of the Toyota Carolla as much as the heel of the vandal.
Sadly, I could go on. I have in the past, as you few well know. But the rant must be fore-shortened here lest the larger work still be unfinished when comes the knocking at my own door.
So, as I was saying, I decided, as ephemeral as the effort would likely prove to be, that I should publish the bloody thing as an e-book. Using CreateSpace, a bastard child of the Amazon gorilla and a Xerox machine, actual physical copies might then be obtained by any who could give a damn and a few dollars. Better that than filing the printout away in my drawer with the others.
There is a very good article by Adrienne LaFrance that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly magazine recently. It neatly epitomizes what is in store for the electronic media product of our time—disappearance. Total loss. A sort of virtual EMP. Right now, the literature produced in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages a mere ten years ago is fading away if left unattended by updates. For the writer who made the mistake of dying then, tough luck for anything they wrote that never found its way into ink and paper.
This vision even caused me to imagined myself as a burglar, sneaking into houses and hiding copies of my own self-published novels there in the attics or basements, that they might be found in some future decade by another bookseller. I am fool enough to have begun a short story on that line before yet another unfortunate depression of thought occurred to me—there would be no future booksellers.
I have proceeded in this process, nonetheless.