The Absence of the Book
Oct 09, 2014
by Kylan Rice, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
As in any niche community, for poets there seems to simmer a war of virtues when it comes to online publishing. I know many writers and creative writing faculty who initially expressed great suspicion and disdain at eschewing print for pixel, or for being solicited by new online zines or journals like The Economy or Plume Poetry, now publishing the likes of D.A. Powell, Rae Armantrout, Michael Burkard, Norman Dubie, and Fanny Howe, to name a few long-time super-stars in the world of poetry.
In 2013, Bianca Stone wrote for Poetry Magazine that online publishing has arrived, bringing with it an incontrovertible set of benefits—free access, certainly not the least among them. As Stone writes: “The internet provided an ‘in’ to the generally inaccessible realm of publishing. I was getting to know the publishers, too, who are usually active poets themselves, living and creating around me. Everything changed from sending blindly, (desperately), to sending with some new, knowledgeable propose and camaraderie.”
In her article, Stone describes a kind of free access not only to discrete creative works, but also catalysis of and access to a community theretofore scattered, with slow-moving print media as its sluggish herald and geographically bounded university networks as its epicenter.
Other investigations into the consequences of literary free access have not been as positive. I heard the outgoing editor-in-chief of Southwest Review remark in a lecture that the free access to or demonetization of periodical writing inevitably leads to a dethronement of elite tastemakers and a subsequent decline in literary quality. Jacob Silverman, writing for Slate, argues that ease of access and online book culture has served to neuter the review process, where individual writers who find themselves penning a negative book review now fear a collective trouncing in an ultra-transparent online world of entangled literary alliances.
I might suggest another take on the state of affairs. By making use of Twitter and RSS feeds as well as email newsletters, print, online, and hybrid journals are able to stream poems, short stories, essays, and even book-length PDFs to their readers and audiences. A la Youtube. A la Netflix. The work, now “content,” is on-demand.
In such an atmosphere, writing becomes ephemeral, mobile, morphic. It moves through us, or we move through it, like a fine mist. We are less and less often confronted with literature as monolith. We can now just as easily encounter the book—previously geologic in its permanence—bound in paper and ink or digitally packaged into an epub or an interactive website.
Some might see this in a negative light, but I can’t help but recall Maurice Blanchot writing on Joseph Joubert, a favorite 18th/19th century French writer of mine. The ways in which Blanchot talks about writing in other essays, too (for instance, “The Absence of the Book”) outline a new paradigm of writing—one in which writing becomes a kind of streaming, a kind of collective consciousness filtering through people as well as text, thus closer to the source (a source?).
Here’s Blanchot, describing Joubert:
Joubert had his gift. He never wrote a book. He only prepared to write one, resolutely seeking the exact conditions that would allow him to write it. Then he forgot even this plan. More precisely, what he was seeking—this source of writing, this space in which to write, this light to circumscribe in space—demanded of him, affirmed in him inclinations that made him unfit for all ordinary literary work, or made him turn away from it. In this he was one of the first completely modern writers, preferring the center to the sphere, sacrificing results to the discovery of their conditions, and writing not in order to add one book to another but to take command of the point from which it seemed to him all books issued, the point which, once it was found, would relieve him of the need to write any books.
Perhaps Joubert and Blanchot would be pleased with the kind of free access to writing we appreciate in a digital age. Perhaps, even as it fundamentally changes how we read, the internet can begin to fundamentally change how we write and think about writing.
As a result, will we, in writing today, draw any closer to Joubert and Blanchot’s “center”? And what might be the benefit of “discovering conditions” rather than producing results? Might online writing constitute the “book” to end all books? The textual stream that relieves us of the “need to write any books” at all, and in doing so, bring us closer to others and to ourselves?