Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Senior Readings + Epstein on Publishing's Future + Problems of Digital Media Preservation

Customarily in the university's undergraduate writing program, graduating senior majors and minors read at the end of the academic year, in late May and early June. This year, however, the readings moved to this just-concluded winter quarter, which meant that the spring quarter wouldn't be so overloaded, but it also translated into 2 readings per week for several weeks at first, and then 1 reading, usually on Tuesday evenings, up through this--exam--week. For the last three months, 2 to 3 seniors, paired with a faculty member who teaches in the program, have read.  I participated this evening in what was the final reading, with three seniors, Allie Keller (whom I taught in her introductory fiction class), poet Meriwether Clarke, and Aaron Kuper (a poet who was in my Situation of Writing Class). I hadn't heard Allie present her fiction in several years, and had never heard Meriwether or Aaron read, so it was a pleasure to hear all three of them. Aaron, who has a connoisseur's eye for books (once he brought for show-and-tell a well-maintained, hardbound, mid-20th century copy of Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol at a midwestern bookshop), seemed to have taken to heart one key suggestion of one our class readings, of reading other poets' work in addition to your own, in Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" I didn't know that he was going to do so (he read poems by Millay, Verlaine, and Sandburg), but I'd decided, after the panel discussion on Saturday and a review of all the translations I have done, a great many of them for and on this blog, that I'd pick a selection of them, and read four to end the program.

I've never read any of my translations at the university, so this was a first for me, but I'd also never read any non-English texts aloud either, so I chose one poem each from French (Alain Mabanckou's "Séjour Terrestre"), Portuguese (Manuel Bandeira's "Desencanto"), Spanish (Severo Sarduy's final poem from his series, "Cuadros de Franz Kline"), and Italian (Eugenio Montale's motetto "Il fiore che ripeti"), and read both the original and my English translation. It was, to put it simply, really fun. I ended by reading one of my favorite poems from Seismosis, "Color," which with several others was recently translated into French. I didn't want to overdo it, though, so I read only the French translation of "Process," the one-line poem that opens and closes the volume. The English and French ("Processus") rhythms differ, but the words themselves are quite similar. And with that, I helped to bid our wonderful seniors goodbye. Congrats to all of them, and as I said at the reading, it's been a honor to work with and teach them.


I mentioned before that in the Situation of Writing class we read Jason Epstein's charming, memoiristic survey of his profession, Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future (W. W. Norton, 2001), which explores both the transformations in the last half-century of mainstream literary publishing in the US and Epstein's particular role in them.  In "Publishing: The Revolutionary Future," a short piece that appeared in the March 11, 2010, New York Review of Book, Epstein revisits many of the themes in his book. He once again discusses many of the major challenges facing his industry, as well as the current possibilities inherent in the electronic and digital platforms that had only just begun to appear a decade ago. In particular, he touches upon several issues that he didn't explore as much in the earlier work in part because of the state of e-publishing then: the question of social networking sites' role in the creation of new works; the potential proprietary problems with digitization; and the "cloud" approach not only increasingly central to computing but to thinking itself.

Concerning the first topic, he argues that while collaboration on certain projects is possible (and I can testify personally to this), to an immense degree the work of literary creation is solitary. All the workshopping and Facebooking in the world cannot transform a poem, say, in the way that a writer herself, even with aid from such sources, can and must do. With regard to the second issue, of digitization, Epstein suggests a practical approach that would benefit readers while not disadvantaging publishers, though it raises a basic question: in the digital world, can you really, fully own a book as you've been able to for centuries with a hardcopy version?  This question rose in sharpest relief recently when the behemoth sales site, Amazon, at decided to delete digital copies of Orwell's 1984, at the request of the book's publisher, from Kindle users who had downloaded it. With a hardcopy book, this simply would not have been possible. Amazon was heavily criticized, but as the largest online retailer in the country and the owner of the propietary software--if not the actual content--through which Orwell's book was displayed, they had and demonstrated how much control they had in a way that would not be possible with a hardcopy book--unless, of course, we descended into a Fahrenheit 451-type scenario, or some similar confiscatory scheme.  Is "purchasing" a book from Amazon on its or similarly proprietary software then only a form of rental or leasing? If so, why isn't this discussed more? And given the instability of software, aren't there multiple dangers involved with this particular format? Should someone who "buys" a book for the Kindle also be able to print out a hardcopy version...just in case?

On the third topic, he cites the "nihilism" in the anti-textual push for a "collective brain" that would "[reproduce] electronically on a universal scale the synergies that occur spontaneously within individual minds." Among the issues I've noted and others in the article, this one did not come up in the earlier book, perhaps because the concept was only nascent even among researchers at that point, but we're now at the stage where the "cloud" concept has begun to take off. In the absence of texts as we've known them, their materiality, or even the hard drives on which our digital files have been stored, can we even speak of textuality any more, or are we now onto something completely different? Are changes not just in materiality but in consciousness itself, in relation to this concept, pointing perhaps to a new ontology of thinking, creating and reading?  What is the appropriate metaphor beyond the "cloudlike"?  What stands in for the virtuality that is more than concept but still not fully in our grasp, except in evanescent flashes?

Epstein's perspective here, as in the book, brims with hope and not a little caution. His print-on-demand machine suggestion still has yet to take hold, but it still seems feasible and, perhaps, one route to counter the deep fears and creeping reality of the anachronization, dematerialization and detextualization of literature. These contraptions very well may play a huge role in our literary future, not only by allowing us, to a degree not yet known, to identify, print and own books we have only dreamt of or been able to access via libraries and archives, but also in saving some of the artifacts of our contemporary literary culture, such bookstores, which as physical entities seem poised, like the mainstream publishing industry and all the industries once related to it, to fade into but a ghostly shimmer of their former selves.


Epstein, though citing the fragility of digitization, doesn't explore the question of preservation, both of past electronic and digital works, or current or future ones. In this past Monday's New York Times, Patricia Cohen, in "Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit," discusses some of the chief issues librarians and archivists face in accessing, preserving and presenting, for research and public interest and enjoyment, works originally created in a digital format. She focuses on Emory University's impressive display of author Salman Rushdie's personal archive, which includes not only book covers and handwritten journals, but

four Apple computers (one ruined by a spilled Coke). The 18 gigabytes of data they contain seemed to promise future biographers and literary scholars a digital wonderland: comprehensive, organized and searchable files, quickly accessible with a few clicks.
Yet those searchable files aren't so easy to reach, because with "born-digital" materials, which is to say, in dealing with particular types of hardware and software, there are any number of challenges.

Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper. Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.

Imagine having a record but no record player.

Cohen goes on to talk about how Emory, like Stanford University--in part because of its geographical location at the very heart of Silicon Valley--and the University of Texas's library, has become a leader in this area, addressing and solving some of these problems, but the larger questions the article raises are legion, and yet they aren't so frequently and publicly discussed, whether you're talking about future e-books and formats, past electronic files and digital materials, or the lifespan of many types of hardware and software. Cohen notes that Stanford's library has set up the nation's first digital forensics lab, starring FRED (Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device), a recovery machine, to address hardware and software access and preservation issues. Emory's library, she adds, has received funding to emulate Stanford's effort. At Harvard, one of the nation's largest library systems, the archivist has been storing the 50+ floppy disks received as part of John Updike's bequest until a policy and systems are in place to deal with them.

Erik Lesser for The New York Times
Salman Rushdie at Emory University in Atlanta, which is currently exhibiting his personal archive, including personal papers, and electronically produced drafts of his novels.

As I pointed out to the students in my class, I don't have a computer that can run any of the ancient 5 1/4" floppy disks I used in college, or even know of anyone who has the hardware to run Xywrite, which is the specific software program I used; and while C and I do have some old Macs at home, I don't know if I can still open many of the 3 1/2" disks that hold some of my earliest literary efforts and who knows what else? Some of them are now saved to an old iMac, which itself has careened towards obsolescence. And then there are all the online works I've created, like my old website, accessible, though only in part, via the Wayback machine. But what about projects that have been scrubbed from the Net altogether?  I also don't see emails as artifacts to be saved, but should I? Do I want people to be able to comb through them? I still write letters, but I can say with assurance that my approach to drafting handwritten letters always entails more care than any emails I write except those for work, which also receive a high level of attention. As regular readers of this blog know, my grammatical and spelling mishaps, especially when I'm writing with a TV playing the background, are legion.

A friend who's an archivist at a major public research responded to an email about this by noting that this is an issue he's been thinking about and trying to address for some time. He noted that he tries to get writers to think about printing out drafts, the issues related to electronic and digital media, and what preservation and access might look like. What he didn't say, and what the article suggests, is that there are, as of now, no clear standards on how to address these questions, which will become more pressing with each passing day.

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