Reruns

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
– Proverbs 26:11

Thinking about Cam, the recently released movie by screenwriter Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber (streaming on Netflix), I’m struck by how long I’ve been trying to do the same things.

  • I keep wanting the world to be other than what it is.
  • I keep imagining other ways it could be.
  • I keep trying to figure out how to move the world, or some small corner of it, from what it is toward what I imagine.
  • I keep realizing that I can’t do it, or that it can’t be done.
  • I keep making phase shifts, from imagining changes in the world-that-is to imaginary alternative worlds-that-aren’t.

There have been times in my life when I’ve allied with others who also want to change the world incrementally from what it is to what it could become. Mostly those efforts proved disappointing, to me at least, and arguably also to the world, though lots of people have made their careers that way.

A prototypical conversation between my father and mother:

Father: I did my best.
Mother: Your best stinks.
Father: Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.

A prototypical conversation between me and myself:

Me: No reason it can’t be.
Myself: No way it ever will be.

If you’re chronically dissatisfied with the world as it is, don’t you at least once in a while have to acknowledge that the problem might be yourself as you are? It’s more adaptive to take what the world gives you by making the world a little bit more like itself.

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Take Cam. Alice the cam girl is taking what the world gives her by giving the world what it wants. She’s good at it, but she’s insatiable: she wants more. The world is insatiable too: it doesn’t just want what she can give; it wants all of her. She resists. With no allies and no resources other than her own ingenuity and pluck, she reasserts herself as an autonomous agent in the world. The movie is smart, arty, engaging, exciting. It might be the sort of movie you make if on some level you’re satisfied with the movie world as it is, if you can take what that world will give you, if you’re prepared to make that world a little bit more like itself. Maybe you can resist, can retain your autonomous agency while immersed in an insatiable world, can climb the charts to a position where you’re able to call the shots. Maybe, if you’re prepared to do what it takes, you deserve what you get. You have to work at it, but you also have to want it. Not only do you have to accept the world as it is; you have to love it.

I can’t do it. I lack the drive, the energy, the desire. I lack the love.

When I started writing fiction it was mostly because I loved the world of fiction. Not pop genre fiction, but what for lack of a better adjective has to be labeled literary fiction. I wanted to adapt to that world of fiction, to exert personal agency in that world by writing my own fictions, to make that world more like itself through what I wrote. In retrospect I concede that I misread that world, that I was adapting to a fictional version of the world of fiction, a world riddled with holes and lumps and contorted by digressions and loops, unreal as psychosis, as science, as theology.¬† Since coming to that realization I’ve wanted to make the fictional world-as-it-is into something closer to my imagined fictional world-as-it-is-not. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked. My best stinks; expect the worst and I won’t be disappointed. No reason it can’t happen, no way it ever will.

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When I first met Danny he was a senior at our daughter’s high school, introduced to me by Isa, the older sister of our daughter’s best friend from early childhood. At the time I was thinking about starting a film project among high schoolers who wanted to make movies, not for class credit, not as a program they’d have to pay for, but as an endeavor motivated by shared enthusiasm. I imagined a project called Reruns — here was the gist:

It’s a zombie world. Sitting zombified on the couch, you click through the TV channel changer. Every channel is showing reruns of old zombie programs. The collaborative project is to write and film these short clips of zombie TV shows, assembling them into a simulated trip through the channel changer. The clips will be short — from 5 seconds to a minute long — and fragmentary. All genres of programming are fair game: drama, comedy, reality TV, quiz show, news, documentary, sports, ad… The unifying structure or narrative isn’t imposed on the fragments; it emerges from flicking through them one after another.

Sounds a lot like Son of Strands. I presented the idea to Isa and Danny, both of whom were adept at cinematic art and craft. They liked the idea and were prepared to help me get it going. Around that time, out for an afternoon run, I came across the father of one of our daughter’s other childhood pals. The dad was a PhD physicist who worked in a government alternative energy lab but who had toyed with the idea of quitting to become a science teacher. Figuring him for a fellow traveler, I ran the Reruns idea by him as we ran along the Boulder trails together. Now’s the wrong time of year, he said; you should wait till the summer. And do you have any experience with filmmaking? with teaching? I told him to go fuck himself, to shove it up his ass — the last conversation I ever had with him. But I abandoned the project shortly afterward, having decided that I was attempting to manipulate kids into doing something that I wanted to do. It would be better if the high schoolers themselves initiated and ran their own project — as Danny had done a couple of years earlier, starting and running a kids’ theatre troupe.

Son of Strands. Do I write short stories? No. Have I ever edited a literary magazine or anything like it? No. Go fuck yourself and shove it up your ass. But you’ve got a point. I’m an outsider to that world; I don’t like many aspects of that world; I’d want Son of Strands to take shape in an alternative world of short fiction that’s more to my liking. Shouldn’t this sort of project be launched by people who already live inside the world of short fiction, who love that world, who want to carve out a niche in that world by making it more like itself? I’m the wrong guy for that job.

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Around the time I was sketching out the Reruns project I wrote “Looking Up” for an Open Mic event at a nearby bookstore. It’s a 2,000 word story about an unknown novelist who suddenly achieves worldwide fame, reading long portions of his work in progress aloud to a vast and rapt audience, a novel that seems to be writing itself as he turns the pages. I asked Danny to read my story, giving particular attention to the ending: should the writer continue reading his self-writing novel and increasing in renown, or should a sniper from the audience shoot him dead and take his place at the dais? Danny thought ending A was better. I posted the story on my blog: most of the commenters preferred ending B. I went with ending A for the Open Mic reading, but in subsequent rewrites I stuck with the B version. Analogously, in my imaginary ending to Cam Alice wins the competition against her AI d√∂ppelganger by snuffing herself on-screen; the audience, oblivious, celebrates AI-Alice for having staged such a clever CGI performance, propelling “her” to the top of the charts.

 

Toward Postcapitalism in the Litmag Ecology

Contemporary open-access short fiction is already trending toward postcapitalism. Manuscripts are selected for publication based less on commercial potential than on artistic merit or the quirky tastes of the individual publishers and their readers. No fixed costs are incurred for printing, transporting, and distributing, so readers’ access to content is immediate and unlimited. And also free: these magazines don’t charge a cover price per copy — decommodified literature. While some open-access litmags generate revenues from grants and ads, it’s not enough to pay the publishers and editors a living wage, let alone generate a profit. Most writers don’t get paid, while the few receive a flat (and small) fee per accepted piece rather than a percentage of sales revenues generated. Still, there’s a slew of litmags out there, their numbers growing by the month, and by all accounts their inboxes are chronically stuffed with new submissions.

Are short fictions published in open-access litmags of lesser quality than those offered by commercial publishers that sell their issues one copy at a time to readers, pay the staff and the writers, and perhaps even turn a profit for the owners? In short, as a reader do you get what you pay for? I can’t offer an empirical comparison, having read only freebies this time around, but I can hazard a guess, and not a particularly controversial one: on average, the commodified litmags publish better short fictions than do their open-access compatriots. “Better” how? Is it literary artistry, or craftsmanship, or appeal to readers? Probably all of the above. Writers aspire to excellence, to recognition, to readership; a capitalist economy presumably rewards attainment of those aspirations financially. In the hierarchy of literary magazines, the ones perched on top are the most selective, charge the highest cover price, have the widest circulation, pay their writers the most money.

Better on average. Few mediocrities find their way into the pages of the prestigious literary magazines, but that’s probably the case also for works of startling originality. Litmags that charge a cover price are commercial enterprises, selling their issues as commodities in the marketplace. The market for literary fiction might be artier than the market for romance or crime, but the standards of acceptable artiness no doubt converge on what appeals to a paying audience for literary fiction: writers with established track records, especially those who’ve had their own books published in high-prestige outfits; writers with letters of commendation from big-name literary authors; writers with respectable academic pedigrees, as grad students and especially as professors; writers whose prose fits snugly within the aesthetic parameters already established as fashionable among the literary fiction tastemakers and buyers. While authors with firmly established reputations can push the boundaries, up-and-comers are advised to demonstrate mastery of the established paradigms if they hope to see their names in lights emblazoned across the marquee.

For literary aspirants the open-access magazines function as a kind of minor league, a way station on the ascent, a place to demonstrate the unique talents that make them worthy of promotion to the big leagues. And of course for the majority who never reach the upper tiers of acclaim, of popularity, of money, who presumably lack the talent, the drive, the resonance with the zeitgeist to hit the big time, whose artistic deviations from the literary norms are never embraced by the curators of high-prestige literary fiction, the minor leagues offer their own opportunities and challenges, their rewards and frustrations.

The demimonde of open-access literary magazines operates as a gig economy, where all the writers are independent contractors. Like other gigs, the writers have no long-term job security and receive no benefits. Like many other gigs, the writers work from home, effectively eliminating workplace relationships among workers and precluding the formation of worker solidarity in negotiating better contracts. Unlike most other gigs, the writers agree to do the work for no pay, and in many instances their bosses — the publishers — do too. Why do they do it?

No doubt the writing and publishing of fiction is for some a labor of love. In a sense the writers who submit their short fictions to open-access litmags are the independent inventors of the literary fiction industry. Energized by the spark of creation, the writers work for no pay, absorbing the up-front risks with no assurance of reward. The open-access mags function as startup incubators, vetting the inventors’ offerings and putting the winners on display for the publishing companies that can afford the packaging and the marketing required to turn the innovation into a mass-produced product, widely disseminating the writers’ textual innovations. Most inventions never make money for their inventions; most start-up entrepreneurs fail within the first few years.

At the beginning of this post I was prepared to regard the world of contemporary open-access short fiction as a forerunner of a postcapitalistic economy. But are the writers and publishers postcapitalist in the proactive sense of renouncing the old economic model while exploring alternatives that are more equitable, less exploitative, oriented more toward societal betterment than individual financial gain? Or are the writers postcapitalist by default, because the capitalist publishing industry doesn’t regard their labor or their creations as valuable commodities? Postcapitalist like tailings from a gold mine, like investment bankers who’ve been replaced by AIs, like crackpot inventors of impractical schemes. If so — if fiction writers have been deemed economically valueless — then maybe collectively they ought to board up the mine, abandon the factory, convert the R&D lab into loft space.

But the literary mine isn’t played out. There are still human writers, and some of them really do strike gold. The literary profession assembles itself along a radically skewed financial distribution, with a handful of big-name best-selling authors positioned way out there on the right tail while the vast majority cluster at or near absolute zero. It’s probably the case that most writers who seek publication in literary magazines don’t aspire to bestsellerdom. A stable midlist career, augmented by teaching and workshop and editing gigs, seems attainable. For some writers it is attainable, but even those midrange authorial slots, poised at the edge of financial precarity, grow scarcer as burgeoning supply competes to satisfy stagnant demand.

Suppose we were to partition off the top 1 percent authorial moneymakers and the next 10 percent of midlisters as the professional writers, focusing on the remaining 85 percent. No doubt many continue striving to climb the professional ladder, while many others are self-avowed hobbyists. Is there another sector of fiction writers who regard themselves as dedicated and accomplished literary practitioners but who have either abandoned hope of making a living at it or never entertained such hopes in the first place? Would these unpaid adepts collectively constitute a postcapitalist literary industry?

Gardening, cooking, decorating, tinkering, studying, meditating, politicking, fighting, teaching, caregiving — people don’t always do it for the money. And people who get paid don’t necessarily outperform those who do it for free. Some people take jobs that are less challenging, less inspiring, and less remunerative in order to devote more of their time and energy to their unpaid avocations. Passion, love, instinct, tradition, obsession, recognition, self-expression, self-discovery, competition, solidarity, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of obligation, the exercise of control over self or others, societal betterment, devotion to a higher power or a lower one — who knows why people do what they do. Is it postcapitalistic to work for non-pecuniary motivations, or precapitalistic?

Working for no pay in a capitalistic economy is no way to make a living. Even in a socialistic literary economy the supply of writers far outstrips the demand, stimulating fierce competition for a small number of small grants. If against all odds universal basic income were to become public policy, or if communism were suddenly to eliminate money altogether, then writers could freely write while writing for free with the assurance that, while they may never attain a life of luxurious decadence, they won’t be consigned to the stereotypical lot of the starving artist.

If some form of postcapitalistic economy were to take shape in some alternative universe, its realm of open-access literary short fiction might look a lot like the one that has taken shape in our already-existing actual capitalistic universe. Collectively the litmags configure themselves into a polyvalent space, a diverse ecosystem that extends affordances to novices and aspirants and arrivistes and established masters, to starving artists and artists of independent means, to hobbyists and meticulous craftsmen and radical experimentalists, to capitalists and precapitalists and postcapitalists.

Still, if one were to design a litmag that dangled explicitly postcapitalistic lures in the waters where the writers of short fiction swim, what might such a magazine look like? I’ll try to craft that thought experiment in the next post.