The Future of Please Shut Up
You know how some expressions seem really charming and infectious at first, like using “Bananas” as an adjective? “The Future of Publishing” had a similar luster, I guess because no one in publishing had ever thought about the future until it arrived with the internet. I am guilty, though of moderating a panel, one of hundreds of thousands, since approximately 2005, of the same name last year although it was a fun and cool conversation that mostly focused on inspiration and why the all-star line-up of indie publishers do what they do. It was at the first-ever Pilcrow Lit Fest in Chicago and here’s a photo. Anyway, I pledge starting today, to never use that phrase again in an ironic or intentional fashion.
Publishing has issues. The Media have issues. The Economy has issues. And yet, with the explosive popularity of text in contemporary modes of communication, people are reading more than ever before. I know that’s true in my case. I was a bookish kid– one who cried in second grade because my teacher wouldn’t let me do an 800-page book for a report — but I’m genuinely surprised I found time for it in between watching television for six hours a day while pounding Cokes and maybe tying up the phone. I thought this article about “The End of Solitude” had some intriguing points, but on the whole, I find the idea of childhood much less alienating today than it was in the 1980s. And sure, maybe people are hyper-attuned to social networks now, but we’re born alone, we die alone, there’s plenty of time for solitude. I certainly remember feeling that way the last time I had a broken heart.
Instead of getting caught up in a conversation about the fluidity of systems that seem to be evolving faster than their participants in many cases, I like to investigate how we know what we know. And how I came to discover The Wire. For most of my adult life, I have not owned a television. It’s not something I miss. If you stop watching television for a year or so, the idea of commercials begins to seem too Orwellian for even superficial contemplation. When The Wire came out a few years ago, I heard about it now and then but it wasn’t on my radar, in the same sense that when an author I work with showed me “Lost”/Nixon, a piece he would publish in The New Yorker, I had to admit I had no idea what it was about. And yet, in the past month, it seemed as though everywhere I went, people were discussing The Wire. A friend was offered to loan me Season One on DVD because he had moved on to Season Three on iTunes. More than one sleepy conversation was shrugged off by multiple friends who confessed to staying up way too late squeezing another episode in. And then finally, I was in line somewhere and two people behind me discovered their shared love of the show and I felt ubiquity squeezing in on me finally. I watched it. I like it. More than anything, though, it got me thinking about secondary patterns of cultural distribution.
The Wire was on for five seasons. According to a 2007 profile, “‘The Wire’ has never won an Emmy…Its audience is modest. Last season, about 4.4 million people a week watched ‘The Wire.’ ‘The Sopranos,’ by contrast, had thirteen million viewers a week last season, and ‘Big Love,’ considered a marginal hit, had six. On any other network, ‘The Wire’ would not have been renewed after the first season, and even on HBO its continuation was far from certain.” And yet, in late January 2009, in downtown Manhattan, moving in circles populated with media insiders and cultural influencers and hipsters in general, I cannot escape near daily mention of this show. I am fascinated by the meme, and how it’s playing out, and what it says about how word of mouth spreads right now in relationship to the existing (and emerging) channels that filter popular culture. For instance, I would not expect any new criticism of The Wire to appear in a major publication. It’s very old news by that standard. And just because I’ve recently had a moment of discovery doesn’t mean I’m not entirely behind the curve. But the thing I am thinking about lately, especially as I think about the way that the constricting economy is accelerating trends, is what the curve is, where it is, who’s tracking it. And how.
For instance, we’re about halfway through The New You Project. By all of the indications I would consider positive — the creation of new opportunities for the author, global feedback that continues to stun me on a daily basis, the idea that a book once deemed dead for no good reason has been revived for a much-deserved second run — it’s a resounding success. But what if the old standard were applied? What if YOU or The Invention of Memory receives no new reviews in a print publication deemed to be of critical import. Is it a failure? How do we know?
— LAUREN CERAND
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