Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Neal Stephenson puts commercialism and publishing in context.

Neal Stephenson gave an interview on slashdot. It was interesting mainly as a display of the dazzling slashdot cultural millieu and the way the writer disported himself. However, Stephenson had some stuff to say about SF publishing categories which at first seemed highly signicant. In fact it is a fairly simple reframe of the notion of commercialism around his work. Read this quote and that's all you need to know:

"The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn't need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

"Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It's conventional to refer to these as "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

"But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" as opposed to "commercial" but I hate that term too, so I'm going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system. "

Now the only significant thing about this quote is that it alters the context of commercialism for SOME people reading it. For me it's like DUH; I already know that commercialism has certain positive and a negative aspects.

A quote which is equally as significant sounding is this:

"f you take the narrow view that a bookstore is nothing more than a machine that swaps money for books, then it follows that there's no need for a physical store. But here we are five years later. Some bookstores have gone out of business, it's true. But there are big, beautiful bookstores all over the place, with sofas and coffee bars and author appearances and so on. Why? Because it turns out that a bookstore is a lot more than a machine that swaps money for books.

"Likewise, if you think of a publisher as a machine that makes copies of bits and sells them, then you're going to predict the elimination of publishers. But that's only the smallest part of what publishers actually do."

Another recontextualisation. I think the core idea here is that a business is about people. The publishers matter because they are people, so naturally we care about them and their role is significant. The care factor in books, it turns out, is remarkably high. Care in publishing is an incredibly significant commodity, and it is sold and bought between writers, agents, executives and editors. In many ways it is the bartering currency of a long term writing career.

This is a significant idea. The marvel with Stephenson is that a fairly wordy reply manages to skitter over the glittering slashdot surface without catching on any hooks or flaws, thereby giving the requisite impression of SF/geek coolness.

The rest of this interview is also glamour with little substance, but with fewer ideas.


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