You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

The Plagiarist’s Tale: Cool Commentary or Rampant Ripoff?

A recent New Yorker article covers the rise and fall of a “writer” who published numerous pieces of work that he’d cobbled together from other texts. While this sort of intertextuality might be rewarded when revealed, this “writer’s” downfall was his unwillingness to disclose his sources–his temerity, even, in pretending that he had authored what he’d stolen.

This almost completely plagiarized work was to be published (as an original) by big-name NYC house Little, Brown before the secret identities of its sentences were uncovered. Appropriately enough, the plagiarized work was a spy novel of sorts, and there are (at least) two mysteries here:

  • Why, if publishing is so important (or important at all), is a huge and highly regarded publishing house capable of putting work in front of a series of individuals (agent, editors, marketers, publicists) without recognizing blatant plagiarism evident to internet commenters?
  • What do we call the work of this “writer” who didn’t really write but instead rearranged existing content in an interesting way

You might answer the second question with “curation,” a word that’s frequently tossed around the echoey hallways of the internet as a “profession” of sorts that involves borrowing/excerpting/stealing content from other sources and repurposing it or running it in full on other sites, primarily with the intent of attracting traffic to that site rather than the originating one. Great curation creates great sites (aldaily being one of my favorites) where you can go and explore many little bits of things to see which little bit entices you to read the whole.

Is that, in a sense, what this plagiarized spy novel could have been–a way to turn readers on to obscure thriller writers of the past, shutting down the modern monotonous mystery machine in favor of getting people into libraries, used bookstores, or deeper into ebook content? Perhaps so, if it had been labeled and marketed as such. But perhaps our society isn’t yet ready for such a thing, for a “writer” who just moves around bits of other people’s work (that’s what an editor does, right?) and puts them together in the best possible way.

That type of work, in a sense, may be even harder than creating something from scratch. It requires more finesse, more tightness, more assurance that each disparate piece you’ve grabbed makes a convincing contribution to the whole.

In his essay “Ecstasy of Influence,” writer Jonathan Lethem assembled insights on writerly influence using almost exclusively the words of other writers. In response to the case of the plagiarized mystery novel, Lethem told the New Yorker that such work “is not a lazy man’s game. As someone who sort of did this, it’s an immense amount of work.” Lethem eventually turned his own borrowed essay into a book of essays. What if the “writer” of the spy novel had done the same, and credited each element? Perhaps he’d then be an anthologizer, not an author (though he’s still not the latter, and not really either).

Who knows. But the nature of the internet or the nature of modern society or both of these elements as well as many other elements are combining to turn much of our work into something more collaborative than it used to be. I feel like I was “raised” as a creative writer, to respect the identity and autonomy of the author, and to struggle to create things entirely my own. And I still do this, in some contexts. But in a professional context, almost everything I’ve worked on has featured a large element of collaboration. I’m not necessarily comfortable calling a proposal or a document “mine” when it was edited and contributed to by several others, even if I may have written the majority of the content, or assembled and edited the full document. Who owns such works?

Pair programming is a common practice for developers, and creating content in pairs is more and more often being proposed as an effective way to quickly come up with something creative and effective. So is our society killing the author, or merely reshaping conceptions of authorial identity? I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to move this blog’s scope a bit broader to incorporate that question as well as the question of commentary.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary,

De- and Re-marginalization Of Marginalia

In his recent Kindle lament, Nicholson Baker described how, in Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,”

the fetching illustrations by Lorenz of a greylag goose and its goslings walking out from the middle of a paragraph and down the right margin are separated from the text—the marginalia has been demarginalized

In other words, the Kindle’s format removes illustrations from their rightful place within a text. But is that really a problem? Is the main point of these images to augment the text, to decorate, or to create a meaning of their own? Might not some new perspective be gained from the distancing of text and image?

The Kindle and devices like it even have remarkable potential to make images much more than marginalia. They could become videos, interactive features: actually watch ducklings follow Lorenz instead of see them frozen at a moment in time. It’s an evolution from traditional books, surely, but is it lamentable? Or might we not learn more from new technologies used in different ways?

A twist on the use of new technology to demarginalize marginalia involves a return to the Talmud: that book made of marginalia, literally constructed of commentary from rabbis created over years and years. Rabbis comment on each other’s works in the Talmud in ways very different from the ways in which we comment on items online. The commentary is serious, well-studied, and lasting, not ephemeral.

Thus we can see that ephemerality is not an inherent feature of commentary: to the contrary, Talmudic commentary is central to Jewish law and even in a sense constitutes it. The process of exchange and evolution over time is crucial to the ideas expressed in the Talmud.

Writing on the relationship between the Talmud and the internet, Jonathan Rosen compares the vastness of the Talmud–itself only a small portion of the many texts integral to Judaism–to the vastness of the internet:

when I look at a complete set of the Talmud.. my heart, along with my brain, begins to sink. Of course, I can get that same sinking feeling looking at the Sunday New York Times or entering the domesticated galaxy of cyberspace. Too much! I want to shout… I fear, with my limited skills, I won’t even be able to navigate my way to a solid patch of the past on which to drop anchor so that I can hold up under future assaults of information.

Perhaps this is part of the problem online. The Talmud is clearly and visibly textually anchored to something historical, even when it also incorporates later commentary. As Rosen marvels, it’s amazing that “a conversation that began two thousand years ago is still going on in pretty much unbroken form.” Everything online, by contrast, is amazingly ephemeral. Nothing is fixed. A website can be put up or taken down instantly. Comments and posts can be created, erased,

So why can’t online commentary come to occupy a similar space? Of course, no one would expect online comments to become central to any kind of thought or theory. But why don’t they at least try a little harder? Even on an intelligent site (with intelligent in the very title), the Economist’s More Intelligent Life, a reasonably intelligent article on novelists recovering from alcoholism receives mostly nitpicky comments aimed at one small factual error in the article (similar nitpicking happened on a post at NPR).

Once that error was first pointed out by one commenter, why did others feel the need to correct it, too? Was the point to make their voices heard? But why, when they had nothing original to say? Part of the point of the Talmud is to expand on what has already been said, to clarify, to refine, perhaps to improve. Online, the tendency seems to be to repeat, complain, devolve. People’s ideas are not appreciated or analyzed, just criticized for irrelevant inaccuracies. It’s as though one typo renders all intelligence moot. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t. So why do people behave that way?

Similarly, a nicely researched post on TechCrunch that profiles a number of female entrepreneurs in the tech sphere has been appreciated with an all-important comment on how “hawt” one of the women is. No comments on what the women are doing, the nature of their work, just an empty observation about something irrelevant to the topic.

Perhaps, like Google’s email goggles, all comments should have an “Are you sure you want to post this?” message pop-up when “submit” is hit. Better, the commenter could be asked, “Does this really contribute anything to the exchange?” The definition of comment describes the word as “a note explaining, illustrating, or criticizing the meaning of a writing.” If you don’t explain, illustrate, or (intelligently) criticize, why comment?

Much has been made of whether newspapers should “allow” comments on articles, particularly articles about crimes and other sensitive topics. Perhaps the issue should not be whether newspapers should regulate commentary but how commenters can regulate themselves, contributing only when they truly have something to say. Otherwise, they’re just talking a lot, not saying anything, and adding to a vast morass of marginalia that will never have the impact that it could.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary

BEA 2009: Did We Learn Anything?

Judging from the tweets, Book Expo America 2009 was more about building relationships than exploring meaningful issues: Ooh, look, book lovers can tweetup too! Wow! Meaningful relationships within publishing are important, but so is actual progress. And that doesn’t just mean talking about how no one knows what things will be like in the future, or lamenting a lack of galleys rather than celebrating a presence of, say, NetGalley (a system for viewing galleys online), or Eidelweiss (an online catalog system). Even Wiley wrapped up with a mere social media – mostly twitter – and will we be here next year. Well, okay, but what about social media and Twitter? Did publishers do anything at BEA other than finally admit that this social media stuff can’t be ignored?

According to the LAT, “Brian Murray reminded the group that sales of e-books make up just 2% of HarperCollins’ revenue, so they’re not a huge priority. When e-book sales revenue hits 20%, he promised to be more interested.” Except, um, book sales revenue is probably not going to hit 20% unless you work to make it happen! This goes along with Richard Nash’s observation that “The CEOs [of publishing companies] seem to think they’re not in the media business at all, but in a B2B business, where meeting with B&N and Amazon and a few independent booksellers constitutes doing business.” Nash goes on to say that, with the exception of Perseus, “the CEOs seemed more inclined to observe that all these bad things are happening to us, and it’s not really fair, and let’s focus on how to stop people [from] reading our books for free.” The commentary on Nash’s article is also smart, demonstrating the valuable symbiosis of original article and reader knowledge that results from the best forms of commentary.

It’s sad that publishers are only now, after a drastic economic decline that’s led to significant job losses in their industry and elsewhere, realizing that publishing is in trouble. But it’s even sadder that publishers don’t seem to want to evolve, but to move back to the way things used to be (and can never be again). Publishers have to start making smart choices, start making things happen rather than having things happen to them. O’Reilly is a great forward-thinking example for other publishers, opening up its work for commentary and hosting an annual conference focused on improving publishing rather than looking to the past. But everyone in publishing will be at the Hamptons all summer, anyway (right?), so there’s no hope for progress to be made in publishing anytime soon, is there? Oh, wait–Google’s taking over already; traditional publishers might as well tan the summer away.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary, Conferences

Tweeting a Lot

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