In an example of what can only be called postmodern irony, one of the recurring themes of the discussions I have over Twitter is the near-impossibility of online discussion. Sure enough, the internet is filled with bloggers, reviewers, commentators and critics all furiously opining on one issue or another but conversation implies give-and-take or call-and-response whereas most blog posts tend to be lengthy monologues bellowed into a storm of utter indifference. We write about the arts but we seldom actually converse, ‘the conversation’ is not something that people have, it is an abstract entity that exists half-formed between dozens of blog posts, reviews and articles. Like the world, it is everywhere and yet impossible to locate.
As a result, I thought I would make a few announcements and post a few links that have recently helped my thinking about online discussion.
Firstly, a few of us are going to be blogging about Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957). We are each going to take it in turns to write a position paper on a particular section of the book and then post it and discuss it over at Maureen Kincaid Speller’s blog Paper Knife. The first essay is due to go up on the seventh of March. I’ll link to it when it goes up but if you are looking for an excuse to read through a classic work of literary criticism and discuss it then this is your chance.
Secondly, I am going to be joining the staff of the online magazine Strange Horizons as a junior articles editor under the direction of S.J. Chambers. Needless to say, I am extremely excited by the opportunity to add my grey matter to the august brilliance of Strange Horizons. As someone who writes for a number of different online venues, I am always aware that there is nothing more dispiriting than indifference. As Gail Pool puts it in her really rather excellent Faint Praise – The Plight of Reviewing in America (2007), editors don’t just fix your spelling and call you on your bullshit, they also help you to develop your thinking and serve as your first point of contact with literary culture. A good editor can not only improve a piece, they can also remind you why it is that you sat down and wrote it in the first place: because you had something to say and you wanted to be heard.
Thirdly, as a member of the Strange Horizons staff, I will also be posting to the editorial blog with a regular round up of links to reviews, articles and other pieces of genre and genre-related criticism from around the Internet. Far from being merely useful sources of traffic and things to read, these sorts of posts serve to bind the community together and provide a concrete venue for ‘the conversation’. Without a central clearing house for the best in genre writing, too many people are saying too many clever things in complete isolation. This must stop. Ben Abraham provides a similar service for the community of people who write critically about video games and if I do the job even half way as well as either Ben or Niall used to do at Torque Control then I will be delighted. Needless to say, while my RSS feed is pretty comprehensive, I cannot catch everything and if there’s something you are particularly proud of then please do not hesitate to drop me a line and let me know.
Fourthly, Ben Abraham is famous not only for having a very clever blog, but for having a blog at which it is impossible to comment. A little while back, Ben produced a post that prompted a good deal of controversy and discussion but because Ben’s site does not allow comments, it is now incredibly difficult to find out what was said. In a round-table discussion recorded for Critical Distance, Ben defends his decision to not allow comments and there ensues quite an intriguing chat about the value of different forms of online communication. Does not allowing comments encourage ‘the conversation’ by forcing people to write their own blog posts and argue on twitter or is it reducing something worth preserving to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trend on Twitter? You decide (Please RT, comment and pay attention to meee!)
Fifthly, one of the problems with ‘the conversation’ is that, at least as far as genre is concerned, ‘the conversation’ pre-dates the Internet. In order to allow a conversation to take place, previous generations set up magazines (…or fanzines …or semi-prozines …or whatever the award-friendly nomenclature du jour may be). However, with so much commentary now appearing online, there is a real danger that ‘the conversation’ will be split resulting in a degree of cultural isolation. Some dead tree publications have been incredibly pro-active in addressing this problem by making their content available online, by releasing less expensive e-editions or by creating websites that allow them to participate in online discussions using new material whilst also providing an obvious gateway into the material that does appear off-line. Even allowing people the opportunity to subscribe online helps to forge links between critical communities.
Of course, while some magazines and journals have worked hard to maintain the link between online discussion and off-line scholarship, others have been less successful. Academic journals are particularly bad in this respect, as, without institutional backing, gaining access to academic journals through services such as J-STOR tends to be either impossible or prohibitively expensive. However, it is not only academic journals that seem to struggle with the idea of the Internet. One serial offender in this respect is the venerable New York Review of Science Fiction. Long held to be an acid test for serious critical writing about science fiction, fantasy and horror, the NYRSF’s website has not — at time of writing — been updated since April 2009. Given its history, the fact that it is one of the few remaining dead tree venues for serious genre writing and the pressing need for the field to open itself up to new voices the NYRSF’s self-imposed exile from the Internet is nothing short of tragic.
This, however, is comic.
The February 2011 issue of Locus – a dead tree magazine that has bent over backwards to remain relevant in an age dominated by online discussion – contains some useful data on the health of genre magazine publishing. In the section devoted to critical journals, someone asked NYRSF’s editor David G. Hartwell about circulation figures. Along with subscriptions and newsstand copies, Hartwell listed about ten electronic subscriptions. According to Hartwell, the editors were “surprised that more of our foreign subscribers did not take advantage of it”. I can only agree with this sentiment. Currently, if you live outside the US, receiving NYRSF involves a complicated process of pre-buying copies from a website that distributes fanzines. You send money via PayPal to the site and they send you copies of the magazine until your credit runs out. Given the hassle involved in this process, an electronic subscription would be a god-send but in order to subscribe to the electronic edition of NYRSF you need to actually know that it exists and it is not mentioned anywhere on their website. So perhaps Hartwell should have said, “we are surprised that more of our foreign subscribers are not psychic”.