Monday, May 4, 2009

The World You Live In

In the May 2009 THE ATLANTIC, Jeffrey Goldberg in an article "What Now?" poses questions about how the average person on the street views the current economy. Goldberg quotes a Nobel laureate "'You no longer know the world you live in,'" the laureate told him. "Right now, it's unclear what rules apply. I'm surprised Americans aren't more panicked."

As a writer, it is true. I don't know exactly what rules apply right now. Certainly publishing is falling off a cliff, and the ground in front of us is uncharted territory. Last year I had an agent tell me that she no longer was interested in fiction and would only look at my completed non-fiction manuscripts. When I whined that I had worked hard on my short fiction and wanted to see it in print, she asked "What for? It's embarrassing."

"Embarrassing?" My throat went dry. I felt panicky. "Embarrassing?"

She then explained that my short fiction was fine as far as short fiction goes, but she felt the form was dead in the water. Kind of like writing Shakespearean sonnets or imitations of Browning's dramatic monologues. Fine in its own time, but not what the world reads now. She really liked my non-fiction and wanted to see only that in print, wanted me to build a reputation on that.

I wonder what changes I will see in our Professional Writing major here at my university in the next five years. Several courses in our major come from the Communications department, courses preparing students to join a print newspaper organization, writing the types of articles that print newspapers have depended upon for a century or more. Basic News Reporting. Feature Writing. But now that the print journalism world is shrinking fast, now what?

And then there are the creative writing courses we provide in the English department. Short fiction. Poetry. Novels. I see the courses in film writing/screen writing remaining strong as they stand. But what about fiction and poetry? If no one is publishing these forms, who will keep writing in them? Of course the compromise may be Kindle. Or perhaps there will be no compromise at all. Maybe the world will cling to its respect and high regard for paper and ink literacy, its love of writing in the margins for the benefit of our grandchildren. Try writing in the margins on Kindle.

The course that I am placing bets on is New Media Writing, a course in which the image and the electric medium are the tools. Longwinded, verbose, multisyllabic: out. Short, concise, image-centered: in.

And as far as the Nobel laureate's surprise that Americans aren't more panicked about the economy: well, a few of us are Southerners. We live every year through tornadoes and hurricanes. We've seen our mountain forests decimated through over-cutting, The Hand of God (which plant biologists identified as Chestnut Blight), and now acid rain. We've had to work at share-cropping and coal-mining. In the last twenty years, we've lost over 500 of our named mountains to mountain-top removal methods of mining, where the trees and all vegetation are removed and nothing is left afterwards except a plain of bare rock with some fake green grass seed mixture sprayed on the top. The money from this devastation never stays in our region. Our grandparents who had any money in the bank during the Great Depression lost every penny they had scraped and saved while the banks kept right on expecting mortgage payments on time. So what's new? Or "What now?" as Jeffrey Goldberg asks, upset that his broker will not return his calls.

Did he really think his broker was his friend?

The South will suffer right along with the rest of the world, but it won't be the first time.

Prosperity has never felt very real to most of us with accents anyway.

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