Neil Gaiman is perhaps best known for his comic book series The Sandman, but he has a prolific body of work that includes one of my favorite novels, American Gods. To best describe Neil Gaiman’s writing style, I would probably equate him with DB blog guest Jerry Williams, except without the supernatural machinations. Gaiman, in American Gods, and Williams in his DB entries are quintessential Guy’s Guys. But I digress. The real reason I bring up American Gods is because of the book’s central premise: the relevance of tradition.
Tradition has never had a good track record with posterity. It’s a given that each successive generation will want to forge its own set of values, its own identity. It’s also a paradoxical given that these generations will want to preserve those ways for the future even with the awareness of their impermanence. In Gaiman’s novel, the Old World gods migrated to America hell-bent on asserting their place in the future. The thematic overtone is obvious: no one wants to be forgotten. Also: we all came from somewhere.
In a time of contraction, what worries me the most is that all the old ways will be clumped together as a single scapegoat. It’s true that our elected leaders failed us and that businesses merrily shirked their providence over the public trust. But a broken system shouldn’t penalize the decline of print media, for example. Newspapers constitute a very unassuming scapegoat: the elephant in the room that’s also a dinosaur. Everyone who reads the news reads it online now, right? And as for books, who wants to carry several cumbersomely thick books when you can fit hundreds into your e-reader? In fact, e-readers and digital media as a whole, although they are certainly important measures of progress, are tenuous salves for societal ills. We hail the Kindle and the iPad as keystones of the future even as economic chasms gape ever wider, shoving societal boundaries against one another like so many commuters on a crowded city bus until a final, rotten contraction that results in empty suburbs, shuttered businesses, and a public so toxically cynical that everyone is a candidate for the Communist Next Door. At our insolence, the gods of the Old World tremble with laughter. We have made progress with our innovations, but we have not earned that progress.
In 2003, DB was a pioneer that sought to bridge tradition and progress. At that point, we were already on our fifth issue. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lisa Russ Spaar called to mind DB’s basic premise: the “provocative juxtaposition [of] emerging and established voices, traditional forms of representation and works of art endemic to the Web, and international and domestic artists”. DB’s mission certainly painted broad strokes, but as Ravi, our Founding Editor, said in Ms. Spaar’s article, what makes the Web so much better than its predecessor is precisely that access to broader, more diverse audiences. Said Ravi in the article: “Even the most salable print literary journal has perhaps a print run of 5,000. That’s how many hits we sometimes get in a week (emphasis Ms. Spaar’s).”
The written word has always had a tenuous relationship with pragmatism. As discussed in a recent edition of Talk of the Nation, if it doesn’t have crossover appeal, then the written word has very little monetary, if not practical, value. Consequently, poetry is the literary art form that gets the shirt shrift. Novels can be turned into movies, and lyricists differ from poets because the lyricists has musical talent to inspire a catchy — and marketable — tune. In contrast, poetry is more esoteric, the domain of laureates and coffee houses.
In her article, Ms. Spaar, who has had work published in DB, wrote that she began discussing “the fate of poetry in the electronic age” as early as 1993. At that time, the nascent cyberspace culture was gradually but doggedly taking shape from the humble beginnings of Bulletin Board Systems and “legacy” services such as GEnie, Delphi, and an embryonic entity known as America Online. As largely local phenomenon, bulletin board systems and dial-up providers naturally and necessarily brought together small community pockets that were much less anonymous than today’s cyberspace culture. It was a novel idea to quickly and easily post a short story or a poem to your online friends, but in terms of forging a literary career, it was more of a hobby. Legitimacy belonged to the old guard. You still needed to see your work bound by a strong spine. You needed to a dotted line to sign, a blurb, an advance… As poetry becomes more accessible because of a publication like DB, its scrutiny is heightened as well. You certainly have a larger forum to air artful grievances — the eight years of George W. Bush as President constituted one exciting field day for anyone who wanted to use verse to complain about the world. At the same time, debate about poetry’s esoteric nature is further magnified. Poets may now have access to a wider audience and technological bells and whistles like hyperlinks and Flash animation, but what does it ultimately mean in terms of empathy and relevance? There will always be a pull between the old and new, between the sacred values of family and the demands of a larger, unpredictable world. There is no easy bridge to connect such opposing forces. Like evolution, our culture, humanity itself, will experience fits and starts. Our growing pains will seem endless and endlessly agonizing. No one knows what the final product will look like.
In this time of contraction, there are many who justifiably believe that Barack Obama’s election has resulted in more of the same. Instead of revolution, we got saddled with the Same Shit, Different Day. Full disclosure: this writer is a registered Democrat, but now I look with wary and weary eyes at all politicians from all parties. It’s 2010, the second decade of the twenty-first century, yet teachers are being fired left and right. The engineers, construction workers, and bus drivers who fuel and maintain our infrastructure are revered about as highly as asphalt. The boundaries that distinguish respect, celebrity, and credibility are demolished. Who wants to build roads and teach kids when you can scream the loudest on a reality TV show? Hope fades. Our future is uncertain. This is not meant to be a pep talk or offer empty campaign promises. The new (or the new-old?) buzzword should be authenticity: are you true to yourself? To others?
By Joe Ramelo, Social Media Assistant.
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