FEBRUARY 6, 2015
Photo: Faulkner at Virginia, © 2010 Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia; Author Stephen Railton.
A SPRING DAY in Charlottesville: William Faulkner, dressed in Harris Tweed, leaning casually on a lectern in Cabell Hall to take questions from survey students at the University of Virginia. Or graduate students in American fiction or the undergraduate English Club or even Electrical Engineering majors. Faulkner held three-dozen classroom conferences during his two-year tenure as writer in residence at UVA in 1957 and 1958. His body language and affable expression were captured in a widely reprinted photograph.
Not visible in the photo is an Ampex portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and a studio-grade microphone, as well as the loops of wires and cables accompanying both. These devices — along with his two faculty handlers, Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, who subsequently edited and published transcripts of the recorded sessions as Faulkner in the University (1959) — were the writer’s constant companions at UVA. In other words, barely more than a decade after Beardsley and Wimsatt’s uncompromising disquisition on the “intentional fallacy” (a catchphrase still taught in literature programs today), two English professors availed themselves of the most advanced audio technology they could get their hands on to record every word the author spoke to his audiences.
Of course, no one accepts Faulkner’s utterances as the ultimate authority on his work. We’re too sophisticated for that, and Faulkner himself cautioned that his statements and self-representations were that of a “man in motion.” That is, Faulkner the person understood himself to be in dialogue with his own public image. Nonetheless, Faulkner in the University is something of a unique artifact; we have no Fitzgerald in the University or Woolf in Residence, for example, no archive of questions and answers from these writers documented to such an extent. And the full 28 hours of Gwynn and Blotner’s recordings are now digitized and available to listen to online. Here media archaeology meets literary studies, complete with the sounds of coughing, laughing, and chairs scraping.
Today’s social media landscape confronts contemporary authors with a qualitatively different opportunity to confront their public selves. Consider, for instance, William Gibson’s recent promotional activities and tour in support of The Peripheral, published for North American audiences on October 28, 2014. (The Peripheral is not an entirely arbitrary choice, given the prevalence of surveillance technologies in both of its near-future settings, but I believe I could tell similar stories about most any other A-list author; that this particular one is the godfather of cyberspace is really not much to the point.)
The day The Peripheral was released, Gibson embarked on a 16-city North American circuit that began in his hometown of Vancouver. I caught him on November 8 at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. He read a chapter (“Tarantula”) and then patiently answered a gamut of questions and signed books. A November 13 reading at the New York Public Library placed him on stage with James Gleick, one of his acknowledged influences. (Gibson had also been at the NYPL in April 2013, and had publicly read for the first time from what was then still his novel in progress.) The tour concluded on November 15 in Toronto. A week or so later and he was off again to London, for a round of appearances in what he has elsewhere termed the mirror-world.
Author’s book tours are not new, of course, and in fact are on the decline as rising costs and diminishing returns have rendered them increasingly prohibitive. And readers have been interacting with authors since there were authors and readers: Charles Dickens’s 1842 and 1867-’68 tours in the United States were both media sensations, filling newspapers with accounts of his doings on each occasion. “Wherever he moved,” wrote the March 15, 1842 New York Express, “It was like throwing corn among hungry chickens.”
What is new, however, is a book tour accompanied by the author’s own Twitter stream (William Gibson is @GreatDismal), to say nothing of the many hundreds of fans and followers who have Tweeted, Facebooked, Tumbled, Snapchatted, Vined, YouTubed, and Instagrammed his appearances. Spot-checking did not turn up a single North American in-store appearance by Gibson not documented by at least some video footage, and often the event is available in its post-produced entirety courtesy of the host venue — such is the case with both of the NYPL dates, as well as the Politics and Prose reading I attended. Add to this Gibson’s own interviews and media segments (there are dozens on this tour alone) as well as reviews, discussions, blog posts, and forum threads about the book — all pulled in its wake like the umbilical soul in Cayce Pollard’s memorable rendition of jet lag — and you have a landscape of social documentation and medial interaction that collectively generates an algorithmically amplified real-time archive of authorial presence.
Faulkner in the University was a single and singular volume, easily (perhaps too easily) digested by the critical establishment. But how does anyone who seeks to be a reasonably informed contemporary reader navigate this newfound environment of abundance? Gibson’s tour was modest by the standard of many others, but his remarks and self-reflections are always insightful. How many of these clips and interviews and forum threads does one have to absorb to be adequately conversant in the book? If you write about Pynchon’s early fiction without reading his introduction to Slow Learner, you do so at your own peril. What is the threshold of critical responsibility now?
Let’s say for instance you were interested in the relationship of The Peripheral to Gibson’s recent Blue Ant trilogy. It’s a worthwhile question, especially given that many reviewers have suggested the new novel is a return to Gibson’s earliest science fiction roots. Well, did you know that the new novel is in fact a sequel to the Blue Ant trilogy, that its futures are the future(s) of that world? That’s not just me talking: Gibson himself said so at Politics and Prose in DC, in response to a question from a fan — listen at about 34 minutes in to the video. Oh, you weren’t there and you didn’t think to watch that particular segment? Does it matter?
In one sense of course it doesn’t: it won’t interfere with simply enjoying the book or talking about it, but it still strikes me as a fairly important piece of critical information, something one would wish to be cognizant of, however much we may protest against intentional fallacies. When Faulkner explained to a UVA graduate student that Joe Christmas wasn’t really a Christ figure it mattered not because it’s the last word on the subject — we can still argue that Joe C. is a Christ figure if we’re so moved — but because the author’s recorded remark itself contributed to subsequent critical conversation. What is the status of Gibson’s reveal, occasioned purely at the behest of a fan, unindexed in its raw video format, from the standpoint of critical knowledge? How and where, by what channel or means, should it enter the critical record? Given that it is on record in the form of YouTube footage, that question seems more urgent than if it were simply something Gibson said in some undocumented circumstance. By virtue of its having once been uttered and thence recorded, is Gibson’s statement now canon or is it merely, well, peripheral?
So it’s clear that our media today capture and contain authorial presence with unprecedented levels of abundance. But the total recall and total information awareness that characterize these interactions are further complicated by the focalizing powers of hashtags, filters, and notifications. At the recent annual Modern Language Association convention in Vancouver, a group of literature professors, myself among them, convened a panel to offer up our responses to The Peripheral. Please don’t stop reading just yet. Of immediate interest are not the particulars of what was said in the room, but rather a brief exchange that played out online involving Gibson himself in his Twitter personage of @GreatDismal. Several of the panelists had fretted over the ending of the book as being just a little too tidy (if not downright sunshiny). Gibson, who had apparently been following some of the tweets from elsewhere in his home city (several of us had oh-so-casually @-ed him), proved not particularly charitable to this line of thinking:
Now it’s not as if this is the first time an author has pushed back at a critic over an interpretation, nor is it the first time delegates at the MLA have had their instincts, ah, challenged. Woody Allen lampooned a like situation in Annie Hall (1977), when a boorish academic expounding on Marshall McLuhan finds himself confronted — and summarily demolished — by the man himself. But the joke at the time was precisely that the media guru could be produced right there on the spot, his appearance instantaneous, his authority absolute. “Boy, if life were only like this,” Allen adds wistfully to close out the scene. There is a similar gag involving Kurt Vonnegut in the otherwise forgettable Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School (1986). My point is that previously the authorial encounter has been an elaborately staged-managed event and as such culturally resonant, even cinematic as these examples show. Today, through social media channels, such encounters have the capacity to become commonplace, their frisson a bit like what The Peripheral’s Flynne calls a wobble.
It’s not as if all of us at the MLA hadn’t dutifully read our Barthes back in graduate school. But it’s one thing to autopsy the death of the author from the safety of the seminar table; it’s quite another when the author (with some 157,000 Twitter followers) nixes one’s take on something so basic as the affect of his novel’s ending.
Literary criticism, after all, is not some nebulous cloud of musings and opinion. Whatever else it is, criticism aspires to be a comprehensive published record (in various media forms) that is committed both to establishing and to studying the textual canon of any given author. To claim to understand an author, to establish one’s authority as a critic or a scholar, means coming to terms with that author’s critical canon or archive, either in its entirety or (more commonly) through a decision about what to read and what to ignore. The mores of this enterprise have been upheld by citation standards and other scholarly conventions, by the maintenance of established reference resources like the MLA International Bibliography, and by the massive physical infrastructure of libraries and archives. Nowadays, however, authors’ statements about their work are laid alongside those of critics and fans, all commingling via the same web services and streams, the same platforms and feeds, all discoverable by means of a common interface, the search bar at the top of the browser.
Some may argue that tweets and other utterances of their ilk are mere ephemera. But let us remember that Twitter is also archived by the Library of Congress, and in an age where the right to be forgotten is hotly contested (as it might be said to be in Gibson’s novel too), the category of the ephemeral is increasingly questionable. Moreover, different social media services have a way of accreting and accruing in stabilizing packages even as the boundaries between such media and the sanctums of academic scholarship become ever more porous: an online video is embedded in a tweet, a tweet becomes embedded in a Storify, a Storify becomes embedded in a blog post; both MLA and Chicago styles have ways (however provisionally) for accounting for all of those formats, and others besides. The keepers of our collective cultural archives are in the midst of coming to terms with the global data store that is the true register of what “cyberspace” has become.
But there is also a new kind of archive taking shape. Today you cannot write seriously about contemporary literature without taking into account myriad channels and venues for online exchange. That in and of itself may seem uncontroversial, but I submit we have not yet fully grasped all of the ramifications. We might start by examining the extent to which social media and writers’ online presences or platforms are reinscribing the authority of authorship. The mere profusion of images of the celebrity author visually cohabitating the same embodied space as us, the abundance of first-person audio/visual documentation, the pressure on authors to self-mediate and self-promote their work through their individual online identities, and the impact of the kind of online interactions described above (those Woody Allenesque “wobbles”) have all changed the nature of authorial presence. Authorship, in short, has become a kind of media, algorithmically tractable and traceable and disseminated and distributed across the same networks and infrastructure carrying other kinds of previously differentiated cultural production.
Let me be clear: I’m not referring to “ebooks” here — that is, to literature as content or commodity. I’m referring to authorship itself as a category of cultural authority. If works and texts have become licensed properties subject to DRM and the strictures of the DMCA, and if readers have become self-enlisting data handlers by contributing ratings and other forms of reporting on sites like Goodreads (purchased by Amazon), then authors, I would argue, have become vectors for media diffusion, both in the mass proliferation of the authorial image and the power or authority channeled through their individually authenticated social media presences. Moreover, all of this also generates new kinds of authorial metrics and measures, new nodes of critical data that make pattern recognition possible amid our contemporary networks. While some scholars may shun such developments, others are embracing them, leveraging analytical tools and techniques to account for a landscape of authorship and reading that is no longer confined to simple geometries and lines of influence, and no longer served by the established critical schools.
One of the most important such vectors are the lines of interaction between literary and fan culture. The question of whether The Peripheral can be regarded as a sequel to the Blue Ant novels — a question seemingly definitively answered by Gibson, as we have seen — is emblematic here, more so than whether or not the novel has a “happy” ending. This is because sequels raise precisely the kinds of conundrums about storyworlds, continuity, and canon that often loom large in fan circles, where vast storytelling universes (Star Wars say, or the Harry Potter series) spawn hundreds or thousands of derivative works, some licensed, some not, all of whose relationship to the original franchise must be adjudicated for internal self-consistency (not unlike the genre problems of time travel fiction that Gibson, like any author who experiments with that device, must confront). Here the existence of a controlling authority over a given creative property is both a legally binding fact and the ultimate arbiter of arguments on forum threads. Even for more prosaic literary fiction, where transmedia franchises and fan fiction are unlikely to develop, I predict that the conventions and expectations from fan communities will cross over and mediate (literally) the authority of authors on a variety of critical questions.
Once there was a rumor that William Gibson didn’t do email, that he wasn’t even “on” the internet. It proved unfounded: “I do have an email address, yes, but, no, I won’t give it to you,” he eventually admitted. “I am one and you are many, and even if you are, say, twenty-seven in grand global total, that’s still too many. Because I need to have a life and waste time and write.” Social media has clearly altered that dynamic. One suspects Gibson is present on Twitter because he can set the terms of the engagement, following those he chooses to follow, letting the multitudes follow him in turn, retweeting or replying as he sees fit, and tuning out when he needs to tune out by snapping the Twitter client closed. He may also find it fun. With his algorithmically actionable nom de plume of @GreatDismal, Gibson (recall his recent collection of nonfiction was entitled Distrust That Particular Flavor) becomes his own man in motion.
@GreatDismal, in other words, is a peripheral, and no mere Wheelie Boy. Is a critical milieu in which Gibson has gone on real-time record about the ending of his own novel just the hermeneutical equivalent of what its characters call a stub? I prefer to think of it as seriously balls-out meta.