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?



5 Responses to “The Future of Please Shut Up”

  1. I will, as advised, try to be better about “the future of publishing”, even though I’ve discovered it’s all about “my future in publishing” for most people. Which is perfectly fine.

    I am intrigued by this concept of social discovery — and not just because I haven’t yet watched the DVDs of The Wire that we borrowed from friends. When you note that major media (what is that, these days) won’t be covering this series, I see that as the problem with so much media today: the one shot process. Last week, there was a story on the way viewing for online television series (again, need better terms) between the first and second episode. My guess is that this is because there is so much hype for the *first*, and people don’t necessarily watch online programming in the same manner that traditional television is viewed. Yet success or failure is determined in that first window, never mind the extended (or long, if you prefer) tail is out there.

    Same with books. So much goes into that first release, especially if it’s a hardcover, that no energy remains for long-tail markets. Yet, we know that so many books are long, slow builds. There’s a discovery process, a word of mouth process, a hearing about it so much you have to check it out process. Think about how I got here — I’ve been aware of this project for some time, but this that and the other have stopped me from checking out the site. Then one link, one moment of intrigue, and here I am.

    To me, that’s how you judge success in this (theoretically) new world. Are you reaching people in a sustainable way or are they passing you by because you’ve written them off when they don’t show up on Day One?

  2. Interesting piece. I decided to watch “The Wire” because in the space of approximately a week, 3 entirely different people told me I should–my brother–urban, Jewish, 40’s; a friend–West coast, Quaker, 60’s; the guy in the video store when I told him how sad I was that I had just finished “Six Feet Under.”

    This may not contribute to your larger thesis, but one thing about shows like “The Wire” (and “Six Feet Under”) is that they lend themselves to the kind of intense viewing you can do when you get them on DVD or by download. While it might be nice to watch them along with a larger population, week by week, there are benefits to not doing this and watching them in larger chunks within a shorter period of time. (Someone at Slate wrote about watching “Six Feet Under” this way.) As more people watch them this way, they continue to be relevant when it seems like they shouldn’t be. As for me, I’ve watched the first three seasons of “The Wire” and have been saving the last two for a time when I want to be absorbed the way I’m absorbed when in the midst of a season of “The Wire.” And when the time comes that I do watch them, I’m going to want to talk about them and will probably start pushing them onto unsuspecting friends and the cycle will continue.

  3. Humans always have had, and always will have, the need for myths. We associate capital M myths with a certain period in civilization and a certain canon of titles and forms but only because the myths at that time coincided with wider than ever before distribution channels- migrations and conquests, and ways to set them down (publish them) that would leave a trail.

    I’m not going to claim all television is mythic in nature or used as myth by its consumers but some series are, because of the nature of the storytelling, because of the stories themselves, the themes. Plus, in the case of David Siimon & Co, and I’d also add Joss Whedon and Moore & Eick, their authors are purposefully and self-consciously using the recognizable mythic forms: characters making a journey against crushingly formidable odds, exerting huge energy to fight their way even though even though at some point they come to realize their journey and the things they encounter are put in motion by forces they will never control and that have no regard for their personal experience.

    Take that very relatable formula and put those stories into the constantly revolving, constantly growing, and always hungry channels of distribution allowed by media today. A show debuts on a network at a certain time slot, it has a life, that life ends. Then it gets syndicated on other, often multiple channels, in addition to being distributed and consumed and most of all SHARED one to one, and one to many, on the Internet, in all kinds of niches that allow for new consumers of myth to find it. These shows, which are really just stories, may never die. They’re benign epidemics.

    WHat’s harder to pinpoint is whther there’e a common time in their life when people seek out, have a need, or become willing, to pick up a story and stick with it. I’ve got a friend whose kid was nine when Buffy went off the air. A couple of years late, between pre adolescence and adolescence, she became hooked on it. It told her story, which was in part, high school is hell. My nephew, in his twenties, had never seen the Wire, despite my urging. He entered a rough patch in life, lost a relationship, went through a lot of isolation and started watching the Wire. The bleakness and fatalism spoke to him.

    People discover things by accident but I think they get hooked, drawn in, for a variety of reasons. We need something that the story gives us, though most of us might not be able to describe it.

    Just my 2 cents

  4. Anyone wants to borrow the dvd’s of the wire – just ask me. I don’t have “that” kind of cable (and i DO watch tv – the bad kind of tv – the kind of tv that you can’t get stuff like “the wire” on), but i heard about the wire and i got the wire on dvd and once i watched one disk, i had to watch all disks, and that meant waiting a whole summer for the last season to come out on dvd for us plain folk what don’t have the good kind of cable. so, now i have all the dvd’s of the wire, and i’m a much better person for it. and you can be too. the wire is good. the wire is better than the kind of tv you can’t get stuff like the wire on. just saying.
    i have no idea what your blog post was about. i think you were annoyed w/ the “future of publishing” as a phrase being bandied about with no thought for the realities of the state of the business. Well, I am in accordance with you on that one. Ain’t no future or past or present where good art is making the scene. It’s just – good, ageless art.
    Good books rock no matter what the season. don’t go telling Shakespeare that he is backlist cuz he will CUT you.
    And, Lauren, I hope you can convince a few people besides those of us w/out good cable that books don’t belong on a seasonal publicity schedule — but instead, like seeds of really fabulous evergreens, need time to take root, establish themselves and grow grow grow.
    plus and on top of which – YOU is really really good so far. More on that later.
    ~ KM

  5. I believe firmly that the most effective recommendations come from individual people whose taste one knows and can trust. I will read whatever my mother recommends because I can trust her taste in books. I don’t have to know my advisers personally (although that helps); I will listen to anything that this guy in Mexico recommends me, even though I’ve never met him and don’t know his name.

    The important thing is that my influencers’ tastes don’t have to match my own, they just have to be authentic enough for me to appreciate their choices. Lots of books I like Mom is unlikely to read.

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