Sunday, April 5, 2009

Buscando le nouveau Weg (or, ¿Donde esta el Journal of Twitter Poetry?)

[Pic: Los Pikadientes de Caborca]

I recently spent a week in Mexico with a bunch of English-language writers and a wonderful collection of Mexican writers, editors, and arts management folks.We spent a lot of time talking with the moderators about the role of sf as literature. In our downtime, one of the contextual themes was the business of writing, and the sense that the business model for writers is increasingly fucked. One or two members of our collegial group support themselves as much through speaking gigs and honoraria as words in print (not unlike the musicians who make the money off concert performances in a post-Napster world), some supplement their writing income with day jobs, and a couple are far enough along in their careers that they seem to have escaped the famine (though they still have strong feelings about protecting traditional copyright). While I think we mostly avoided overt discussion of the subject at any length, the question of what's the business model for a twenty-first century writer loomed over the bar all week.

In the future, science fiction writers will be like poets, only a lot nerdier. (In fact, there's a pretty good case they already are.)

So as I troll through the Sunday paper (yes, in my secret fidelity to the old ways, I still have a home delivery subscription to a daily newspaper), perhaps I should not be surprised to see clues to the answer coming back at me from Mexico. Consider this Arts Section story from Josh Kun about how a rural Mexican band hit the charts:

ONE of the biggest Latin hits of the past year arrived on the Billboard charts all the way from Caborca, a small desert hill town in the Mexican state of Sonora, mostly thanks to a cellphone.

Last year Los Pikadientes de Caborca recorded “La Cumbia del Río” — a bare-boned singalong about dancing and partying by the side of a local river — on a home computer, uploaded it to their cellphones and, with help from Bluetooth and Memory Sticks, shared it with friends. The song quickly went viral, and its grass-roots popularity led to heavy rotation on radio stations across Sonora; before long, cellphone videos of people dancing to the song were flooding YouTube.

Los Pikadientes had no record label, but suddenly they were the digital darlings of regional Mexican music, with a hit on both sides of the border.

Sony offered the band a record deal and rereleased “La Cumbia del Río,” which spent six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Regional Mexican chart. The song’s ring tone sold more than 150,000 copies in the United States, and the band released a debut album, “Vámonos Pa’l Río,” which was nominated for a 2008 Grammy. The song is still on the Latin charts.

“We have to be honest; we wouldn’t exist without cellphones and ring tones,” said Francisco Gonzalez (who goes by the single name Pancho) of Los Pikadientes, whose new album is scheduled for June, complete with an elaborate ring-tone marketing plan. “We ended up doing eight months of promotion in the United States because of that one song. We’re the ultimate cellphone success story.”

One of the things Bruce Sterling riffed on during his talk in Mexico City was the idea of a regional literature (and music and other arts) where the region is the planet. Ergo, Mexico City is "the global capital of Latin American globalization," and Mexicans have more standing to write about future Torino than a contemporary Turinese like, say, Bruno Argento. While La Cumbia del Río seems distinctly regional, revealing a lifestyle an attitude about life in rural Sonora, you can see the future unreeling in this viral meme, as you imagine what's going to come back at these guys from other cultures, and how it will start to change what they do and how they situate themselves in the world.

See, e.g., Spin the Roti and Rap Raga Polski, regarding the strange discovery of Polish hip-hop in a Bollywood style.

How long before there is some South Asian rhythm running through the mixes blasting from the pickups parked by the river in Caborca? Before the ladies in town are watching South Korean telenovelas like Winter Sonata. Before the world experiences the strange congruence of North Korean Norteño?

The next story in the thread comes from the "SundayStyles" section, in a very well-researched piece by Jenna Wortham. About how to make a killing writing a killer app, for, naturally the phone.

Is there a good way to nail down a steady income? In this economy?

Try writing a successful program for the iPhone.

Last August, Ethan Nicholas and his wife, Nicole, were having trouble making their mortgage payments. Medical bills from the birth of their younger son were piling up. After learning that his employer, Sun Microsystems, was suspending employee bonuses for the year, Mr. Nicholas considered looking for a new job and putting their house in Wake Forest, N.C., on the market.

Then he remembered reading about the guy who had made a quarter-million dollars in a hurry by writing a video game called Trism for the iPhone. “I figured if I could even make a fraction of that, we’d be able to make ends meet,” he said.

Although he had years of programming experience, Mr. Nicholas, who is 30, had never built a game in Objective-C, the coding language of the iPhone. So he searched the Internet for tips and informal guides, and used them to figure out the iPhone software development kit that Apple puts out.

Because he grew up playing shoot-em-up computer games, he decided to write an artillery game. He sketched out some graphics and bought inexpensive stock photos and audio files.

For six weeks, he worked “morning, noon and night” — by day at his job on the Java development team at Sun, and after-hours on his side project. In the evenings he would relieve his wife by caring for their two sons, sometimes coding feverishly at his computer with one hand, while the other rocked baby Gavin to sleep or held his toddler, Spencer, on his lap.

After the project was finished, Mr. Nicholas sent it to Apple for approval, quickly granted, and iShoot was released into the online Apple store on Oct. 19.

When he checked his account with Apple to see how many copies the game had sold, Mr. Nicholas’s jaw dropped: On its first day, iShoot sold enough copies at $4.99 each to net him $1,000. He and Nicole were practically “dancing in the street,” he said.

The second day, his portion of the day’s sales was about $2,000.

On the third day, the figure slid down to $50, where it hovered for the next several weeks. “That’s nothing to sneeze at, but I wondered if we could do better,” Mr. Nicholas said.

In January, he released a free version of the game with fewer features, hoping to spark sales of the paid version. It worked: iShoot Lite has been downloaded more than 2 million times, and many people have upgraded to the paid version, which now costs $2.99. On its peak day — Jan. 11 — iShoot sold nearly 17,000 copies, which meant a $35,000 day’s take for Mr. Nicholas.

“That’s when I called my boss and said, ‘We need to talk,’ ” Mr. Nicholas said. “And I quit my job.”

Compelling stuff. The Twitter-ization of copyrighted content, perhaps? In an ADD world, content (mostly) does better in more digestible chunks. Songs, applets, cheap little content subscriptions, all supported by micropayments. And in an economically distressed world, micropayments may be the right price.

The third story in the thread comes, unexpectedly, from the Week in Review section, a piece by film reviewer A.O. Scott on "Brevity's Pull" — the postulate that the publishing industry's marriage to the monolithic novel is about to break under the pressure of external change.

To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult, akin to singling out an ambitious novelist’s journalism — or, God forbid, criticism — as her most notable accomplishment. The short story often looks like a minor or even vestigial literary form, redolent of M.F.A.-mill make-work and artistic caution. A good story may survive as classroom fodder or be appreciated as an interesting exercise, an étude rather than a sonata or a symphony.

A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome. That kind of thing is just not commercial. Contrary examples like Raymond Carver, who wrote almost no piece of fiction longer than a dozen pages, tend to confirm the rule. Carver, who died too young in 1988, was praised for his reticence and verbal thrift. He was a great miniaturist whose work grew in an anxious, straitened era, whose virtues lay in going small and staying home. But the conventional wisdom in American letters has always been that size matters, that the big-game hunters and heavyweight fighters — take your pick of Hemingway-Mailer macho sports metaphors — go after the Great American Novel.

But this maximalist ideology may be completely wrong, or at least in serious need of revision. The great American writers of the 19th century, whose novels are now staples of the syllabus, all excelled in the short form. Herman Melville’s “Piazza Tales” are as lively and strange as “Moby-Dick”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales and sketches are pithier than “The Scarlet Letter”; Henry James’s stories, supernatural and otherwise, show a gift for concision along with the master’s expected psychological acuity. And the first great American fiction writer, Edgar Allan Poe, secured his immortality by packing more sensation into a few pages than most of his contemporaries could manage in a volume.

The near-simultaneous appearance of three new literary biographies offers a powerful and concentrated challenge to the habit of undervaluing the short story. The subjects of these lives — Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever and Donald Barthelme — all produced longer work as well, but their reputations rest on shorter work. And this work, far from being minor, is among the most powerfully original American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century.

Much of it, indeed, makes the novel look superfluous. The literary landscape of the 1950s and early ’60s was thick with Southern writers, Roman Catholic writers, writers who dabbled in the gothic and the absurd, but none came close to the blend of grotesque comedy, moral seriousness and steel-trap intellectual rigor that courses through O’Connor’s tales of wayward Southerners. And no sprawling, anguished epic of marital unhappiness or suburban malaise can match the insight and elegance of, say, “The Swimmer,” Cheever’s perfect parable of affluent anomie.

As for Barthelme, he not only brought the energies of the indigenous avant-garde to the pages of The New Yorker, but also somehow married high-powered experimentalism with middlebrow entertainment without betraying either. If the big, anti-realist novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon are giant machines — more than a little imposing, perhaps a little dangerous — Barthelme’s sketches are ingenious gadgets that rest comfortably in your hand, throwing out sparks and shocks.

Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish. More of life is glimpsed, and glimpsed more clearly, through Barthelme’s fragments, Cheever’s finely ground lenses or the pinhole camera of O’Connor’s crystalline prose.

I completely agree, and then hasten to say I've heard (and said) it all before. But considered in the context of these other trends, I can't help but wonder whether there isn't something more to it now.

Writers probably neglect the extent to which their forms are dictated by technology. Printing words on paper is a technology, as is the physical transportation and distribution system used to get the words to the readers. Though I'm not ready for a Kindle, and my room is piled with big fat books and pulpy little paperbacks (some of them kind of smelly), I can't help but wonder whether the form, and the example of some of these other arts, isn't pointing the way for us.

We know that less is generally more. That a short poem can pack in a lot more meaning (or at least raw linguistic power) than an entire book. And a Borgesian ficcion or a Ballardian "condensed novel" or a Barthelmian power chord riff can unpack wonder with more potency than any novel constrained by the rules of bourgeois narrative. The maximum mindfuck explodes from narrative acts of nuclear fission.

I read written works on my iPhone. The public domain pulp doesn't really do it for me. The complete Shakespeare in a single applet, on the other hand, does, especially in small doses — as much as a scene and as little as a single passage.

Have you ever looked at one of the mainstream commercial science fiction magazines on the newsstand, at your favorite bookshop? Do you think anyone who's never been to a filk would ever buy a thing that looks like a cross between Reader's Digest and soft tentacle porn? The stories inside are better, but even they are following the old form of the old medium. The literature of the future, alas, is trapped in the technology of the 1930s.

So as I think about this, I can't help but wonder if the next important literary magazine won't be a magazine at all, but rather some sort of cell phone/PDA applet that loads fresh content in digestible chunks to the user's client device. With a (tentacle-free) graphical interface that amplifies the prose. One can even imagine a journal constrained by the 140-character Twitter box. What more perfect container to pack herds of smart gnomes and breed some 21st century post-haiku?

Language is a virus from outer space, right? So why can't it go viral like La Cumbia del Río?


Anonymous said...

Some time ago (I think it was 2002 or 2003) I was talking with Mark Finn at an Armadillocon about the major sf magazines, and we both hit on their declining subscription rates. I made the observation that the people who used to gravitate towards the magazines got more sense of wonder out of the average manga than they did out of the best magainzes. And, while I recently renewed my subscriptions to the magazines, I'm finding that I'd rather read an anthology like Fast Forward 2 or The Living Dead than carry around the latest edition of Asimov's.

Christopher Brown said...

Of course, Fast Forward 2 is the trendiest bit of coffee shop cool you can find. You are definitely on to something about the link between freshness of format and sense of wonder — which is why I think something really new and indigenous could have a real impact.