Dear Prison Notebooks

Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members describes the twilight of writing professor Jason “Jay” Fitger through a year’s worth of his letters of recommendation (LOR), which themselves describe the twilight of a literary culture that presumably passed noon in the last century or two. Fitger diverts his recommendations to rant with cantankerous wit and futility against “unsocialized drones who long ago abandoned the reading and discussion of literature in favor of creating ever more restrictive and meaningless ways in which humans are intended to make themselves known to one another” (88). Not communicate, but make known: self-advertise, recommend, largely in an electronic language of Procrustean brevity. Nonetheless, in letting Fitger fight his battle, Schumacher shows he has already lost.

Fitger argues that “reading and writing of literature both requires and instills empathy” (38). Research from outside the world of the novel has, in fact, confirmed this claim, and Schuhmacher succeeded in making at least me feel sorry for Fitger at times. But as much as Fitger complains about the online forms that offer only inane, pre-ordained choices of evaluation or cut him off mid-sentence, few of his letters exceed three of the book’s pages. Yes, certain people and themes span the letters—Fitger’s advocacy on behalf of his student Browles, his relationship with his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend, etc.—but the “chapters” remain largely independent. Consequently, the book can be read amid distraction, in short bursts, stopped and started. The act of reading resembles scrolling through Facebook posts: a few moments to orient oneself, a quick laugh or tug of sympathy, then repeat another time.

Like the resistance to a Gramscian hegemon, the story of Fitger’s subversion takes the form of its oppression in order to be intelligible—or, one imagines, publishable. As Fitger laments, “the LOR has usurped the place of my own work, now adorned with cobwebs and dust in a remote corner of my office” (11).

I hereby post…

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A Place in the Museum

When I hear about the latest short story or novel built from Facebook and text messages or told in Tweets, I don’t think, “Hurray! The next Sorrows of Young Werther! The next Finnegans Wake!” Instead, I think, “I probably won’t like that.” When I do stumble into things that have text-ese in them, I feel unease, and often disdain. Have I become a curmudgeon? Apparently. But why? Because, egotistically enough, I want to believe my work should belong in a museum in 50 or a 100 years, not now. I don’t want to be obsolete before I’m established.

I appreciate listening to WWOZ and SWR online and I maintain this blog, so why might digital communication and social media threaten me so? I suspect three reasons. First, I can be lazy. I’ve invested in learning about things such as the semi-colon, and I don’t want to lose the value of those skills (as, I’m sure, said many a weaver in industrializing England.) Second, I fret, rightly or wrongly, that the more time people spend on things Internet-y, the less time they spend on literature. I’ve seen this substitution among many students as well as friends, and all those studies that say we read and write more than ever before may be true but never seem to quantify the type of such reading and writing. Indeed, here is my third suspicion: the habits of such media appear to value speed in production and consumption, which would militate against certain stories and styles if no one can get past 500 words. Neil Postman has argued better than I will for the changes in reasoning and epistemology that accompany such changes in technology. Many a college class has already chipped away at the research paper in order to create space for the Internet meme as an assignment.

I want a slower, more reflective, slightly more reserved age—a world of me! It seems not to be the age in which we live. Shocking. So now I mope. When I hear about fiction that responds to the digital reality via incorporating said reality, I feel like the barbarians have gotten through the gates. Not only is literature squeezed from the outside, but it is being altered from the inside. (All those agents reading on Kindles!) Never do I feel greater sympathy for Bouguereau and all the French Academic painters than in such moments of self-pity. It’s like watching Fauvists storm the galleries while photography takes away more commissions–or Eliot slipping record players into his poems.

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Of course, it’s my task to adapt. And I probably will. After all, I do love the Pictorialists. And I’ll survive, and get over myself, and continue to look for people who make what I like, or, failing that, make stuff that I like so that I have it around to preserve in the museum of myself—which, of course, makes me more a product of my era than I may care to admit.

In concluding, I note, fan fiction seems to be emerging as the new dominant paradigm of literary production. But that’s a story for another time.