Thursday, 13 January 2011

The WWW and Literary Standards

In Acumen 24 (1995!) I wrote an article called Poetry, Technology and the Internet. Though the Web's growth has been explosive since then, it hasn't been matched by increased Quality Control. This article (an update from one in Acumen 63) looks at how such mechanisms might e-merge.

I hope I'm not oversimplifying the past too much by suggesting that once upon a time, hierarchies of periodicals, publishers and review placements established a scale of achievement. Further selection for school books, anthologies, awards, and interviews in non-literary media confirmed these indicators of quality. The people who made these choices generally did so as part of their job.

Several 20th century developments fractured this framework. In the US, many authors started working within academia, and with the growth of literary theory the poems to be studied were not always chosen for quality but for how usefully they illustrated a hypothesis. The avant-garde (particularly Modernism), sporadic popularity of performance poetry, and the influence of minority and international poetry popularised new aesthetics that sometimes diluted (or even disabled) mainstream opinion. This fragmentation of genres led to fragmentation in evaluation too. Meanwhile, the poetry book market contracted, so even less significance was attached to poetry's remaining mainstream practitioners and critics.

The Web accelerated and exaggerated these trends, and is increasingly becoming the predominant mode of distribution, but mechanisms of judgement are slower to make the switch. Prestigious web-sites have come into being mostly by prestige transfer - they're Web off-shoots of accredited print magazines or newspapers. Small press examples include Sphinx (Happenstance) and Envoi (Cinnamon), both of which have dozens of reviews online. Sites like www.reviewsofbooks have collected online book reviews which mostly come from sources originating from the paper world. The Web has produced native alternatives - sites like Ron Silliman's (whose authority depends on an individual) and Jacket (which has gained a reputation by the traditional virtues of quality and longevity). However, few web magazines have a reviews section (reviews tend to be in blogs) and there's no hierarchy of reviewing sites, no Web equivalent of "reviewed in the TLS".

As long as traditional paper bastions of canon-formation survive, the Web will have trouble establishing credentials. Prestige depends partly on longevity, which gives paper magazines an edge, and printed magazines because of cost are constrained by space which forces selectivity. If a paper magazines transfers to the WWW with the same editor and amount of material (Stride, for example) one might expect the quality and prestige to be unaffected, but the nature of readership and submissions is likely to change which in turn might have a detrimental effect. In practise, the online magazine is likely to be poorly funded and under new editorship (see the TriQuarterly story).

Each medium sometimes reviews works from the other, but the traffic's mostly one way; paper magazines might only be quarterly, and newspapers no longer have room for much poetry. As paper magazines disappear, the centre of gravity will shift towards the Web anyway but how can the migration of judgement mechanisms be managed and encouraged? Unless an effort is made to preserve informed opinion and debate, reviews will disappear, replaced by adverts or a poetry equivalent of "Richard and Judy". The respected arbiters of taste in the paper world could be singled out for assistance - they need to become visible and active on the Web, not just use e-mail and google. By committing themselves to the Web they'd enhance its authority. Pivotal institutions need encouragement to migrate web-wards in such a way that their influence isn't eroded, and grants could help key review-orientated publications to be put online.

However, the Web isn't a mirror image of the paper world. Some concepts won't translate well, and attitudes might have to change

  • Popularism - The people who equate "popular" or "free" with "bad" in the paper world will need to adapt when they use the Web
  • Quality - The whole notion of monolithic Quality Control is already an out-worn concept, and of course wasn't even true in the past. The Web is an excellent "word-of-mouth" medium, and there's no shortage of opinion on-line - each blog is a soapbox, and Amazon hosts thousands of opinions. This may not be a bad thing, some say - power will be snatched from the grip of a small clique - but how can consensus emerge?
  • Changed Author/Reader relationship - The distance between authors and readers is reduced by social networking, thereby changing the nature of reviewing - it becomes more immediate and viral.
  • Archiving - Who will archive? How will poets be rediscovered if by forgetting to renew their service-provider subscription their work disappears?
  • Education - What will set-texts look like? How will copyright issues and loss of revenue be dealt with?
  • Measuring success - Booksale figures will be replaced by download/hit-rates, and review-counts replaced by blog mentions, but what other criteria will be used?

Behind all this change is the issue of who pays the new "gatekeepers". I'll conclude by listing some possibilities

  • Readers may have to pay for some Web publications. The TLS, PN Review and Contemporary Poetry Review already work this way to some extent, and many American magazines are available online to academics, at a price (Poetry is free but that's a special case).
  • Perhaps the free-viewing/paying-for-submission model could be adopted - there's talk of using this in the academic world.
  • Maybe editors could be bypassed, replaced by an online readers voting system (after all, the TLS poetry competition was run that way).

I think where paper has the advantage at the moment is the quality of the readership - people (often older people) in an influential position are likely to be paper-biased, but not for long.

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