Mommy, what came before the Internet?

In this post I segued from some vague ideas about power and modernity to an examination of one specific cultural custom which I believe to be lost.

Blogs are awesome.

I still don’t understand them, completely.

The printed paper media have had five hundred years to establish themselves as industries, so it’s easy to get a handle on them. Whereas the whole internet thing is so new, and, if you’re like me, you hardly had a handle on the old stuff before technology turned everything basically upside-down.

I think the main difference between the pre-cyber world and the post-cyber world is that information is no longer the possession of elites. Elites, in this case, are simply those people who can gain power by using information. I wonder how much of the structure of our current academic system, to name one example, is based upon the presumptions of the pre-cyber world. I wonder how many university professors were for hundreds of years secretly padding their self-esteem by knowing things which today would be freely accessible. I wonder how much power was wielded by the institutions of the pre-cyber world based on the fact that the availability of information was limited.

Since I’m someone who hasn’t yet acquired a college degree, I can’t prove that my pronouncements aren’t colored by personal bias. I guess it’s not too much heresy to say that we can only expect our modern institutions to undergo convulsions as technology changes.

But that someone like me, who has NO higher credentials and no job, can find a place, have a voice, is due to the internet. And yet, I have to point out that, prior to the internet, there was a rather romantic way of becoming well-known and having a voice. It consisted in the process of hunting for a print publisher. I myself have never participated in this process.

Because print media is so expensive, there was rarely an opportunity for an anonymous writer to be published without their work first being vetted by an “editor”. In those days, the quality of the writing was generally higher because the editor/publisher needed to stay in business by selling enough copies to pay for the printing. So such editors, in order to increase the value-per-page of the final product, had to be picky about what made it onto the page and what didn’t.

Since the invention of the internet, the relationship between the writers and editors has begun to disappear. I want to name two, no, three examples. These are books by authors who had achieved essentially legendary status in their time, the now legendary age of the printed word.

In high school, we read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Great book. Now, for anyone who wanted to follow up on that author they would inevitably be led to Franny and Zooey. In the introduction to Franny and Zooey, Salinger thanks his editor for his patience:

As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.

This kind of relationship between author and editor – if I’m not mistaken – has been made obsolete by the invention of the internet. Young aspiring authors will have to find relationships of this depth somewhere else from now on. There’s no longer anything heroic in being an editor, because anything you reject can just as easily show up on the author’s personal website, e-book, or other free place. You’re not “saving the world” anymore. There’s no such thing anymore as any of that romantic stuff with which Salinger fills his book’s introduction. Today Salinger could just as easily put it up on the web with no need for the kind of heroism previously required in an editor.

The previous example covers most of what I wanted to say. I said I’d give two others. Robert M. Pirsig writes in a foreward to Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance how he was turned down by 100-some (if I recall correctly) publishers before being accepted by, again, a heroic risk-taker.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is another example, although not exactly the same. I’m not trying to make any specific point here, but just to say that I can hardly even imagine how the internet might have made Joyce’s life (and his works) different. What would James Joyce’s website look like? His blog? The world is upside-down.

So I don’t really understand the internet yet, but still, I’m writing this now and in two seconds you will be able read me from anywhere in the world. But we no longer have the writer-editor relationships we used to. Editors, while still important for many writers, can no longer approach the heroic roles they had during the “legendary” Age of Paper. I’ve had to learn to accept this profound paradigm-shift. There’s still room for heroism in the world, but no longer of this type. The whole profession of writing is changing.


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