In 1963, back when it was still acceptable for poets to be openly, ferociously competitive, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s whorled Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan was still new and aesthetically suspect, the greatest poet of his day mounted the stage under Wright’s spiral ramp and inaugurated a reading series sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Robert Lowell, a tall, elegant man of letters from an old New England family, read his own work to the crowd and then introduced a friend, “an underground poet still digging.” On cue, a stooped, heavily bearded, intoxicated man approached the lectern, and, in a peculiar, strangled voice, explained why it was proper for a trick-or-treating tot to use an expletive to curse the chairman of the First National Bank who’d dropped a polished apple into his sack and broke his cookie.
[You are encouraged to listen to the NUMBER STATION soundtrack below while you read this, for atmospherics]
Call me McGirk.
Call me McGirk. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and read the wordy part of the world…
My sincere apologies to Melville.
After a semester traversing a series of literary seas within seas, prying at the “unsayable, the unspeakable, the unknowable, the unattainable” silences within a series of difficult texts, the greatest white whale of all [writing] has yet to feel our [critical] harpoons. That most unknown known remains – the reader. The mysterious diaphane, the field thrown up between the author, text, and reader. What on earth goes through a reader’s mind while he or she takes in a string of words? It is our good fortune that a suite of cutting edge automated ‘readers’ are coming closer and closer to providing an answer.
As you navigate the Internet, the Internet – which is to say certain entities using the Internet – navigate you. This isn’t a benign process. They want to learn as much about you as possible so that they can snag your attention; diverting your time into loops of advertisements and possibly even push you through a point-of-sale and taking your money directly. They do this by gleaning information about you. Where you go, what you search for, what type of computer you are using…. Websites leave small tracking codes on your computer called cookies, and each of these transmits data back to homebase. By visiting this site I have already captured your IP address, and can tell which keywords you used to find this site, what type of computer you used, where you are located and a couple of other data-points.
The data I’ve collected is a crude simulacrum of you; an inscription of your desires for an instant (or obligations, as is the case for my only guaranteed reader ). These simulacra have a purpose. Electronic texts can be altered according to the whims of their readers. All writers crave attention. Electronic texts, through their intelligent operators, are aware of their readers, and can quickly respond to being read. By understanding the wants of their readers, operators can better shape content to serve readers’ needs. There are even advanced analytics packages that will automatically generate ‘content’ for users in response to what they ‘perceive’ readers as wanting (in fact this is a multi-billion dollar a year business, or it was until Google tweaked its search results to waterdown these serar)
However, as is the case with traditional pen and ink reader-response, our analytics are incomplete – and at times totally flawed.
Keywords (also known as index terms) are among the most interesting and valuable traces left by users. Most users most often first come across a site by searching for a specific term on a search engine. With this site, jamesmcgirk.com, about 53% of users are directed by a search engine (33% are referred by another site, and the rest come directly). My users mostly come looking for “James McGirk,” “mfa personal statement example,” “maine coon,” and a plethora of business and espionage related-terms I listed to attract interesting visitors. (More on this below) An entire industry has sprung up to interpret these keywords, and another to optimize content online so it can be better read by search engines (this is called Search Engine Optimization). Using search terms as a crude model for a visitor’s mind, weird simulacra have been created. Content is generated automatically at the discretion of computer programs. There are even companies assigning stories to human beings based on the suggestions of algorithims. When you hear the term content farms, that’s what’s going on.
As in the simulacra in Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, these replications of desire are incomplete. It would take an infinite amount of data (and a correspondingly infinite amount of time to collect this data) to accurately model a human being’s wants and desires. But machines are getting closer and closer.
Content can be thought of as a diversion, as a product designed to leach time from the consumer. A moment of communication between man and machine. A relationship. Ideally this will be a symbiotic relationship – a user will discover an article that is pertinent to his or her interests or finds a link to a product or service that somehow fits into his or her personal narrative. But this is rare. Mostly these diversions are a nuisance, at times completely parasitical. To the point where some even launch malware to seize control of your terminal and force your attention on it. But most are more subtle than that. Perhaps the most sophisticated technique is gamification; in effect snarling a user in addictive gameplay, the way casinos try to dazzle their consumers until they’re too numb to do anything other than play.
Literary forms are beginning to emerge in response to automated reading systems, searches, and other more prosaic but no less important technological developments such as archives and instant data retrieval. Online, an age somewhat akin to the pamphlet-strewn amateurism of the 18th Century America is in bloom. The most exotic forms can be found on the Internet’s wild fringe, in its anonymous and pseudo-anonymous chat sites. Here there is a frantic economy of monikers, memes and spoofed identities. In online forums such as the all-text Autoadmit.com and the semi-anonymous Somethingawful users compete to create the catchiest, most innovative forms – most often an evolution of an earlier idea, name or other fragment of an idea. The best innovators become famous within their tiny little spheres. Other fora (or is it forums?) are completely anonymous – the most famous of these being the notorious 4chan/b ‘Random’ board, [NOTE: extremely non-safe for work] – where the only recognition earned is the sheer longevity of a creation. The best of memes were once charted on the Encyclopedia Dramatica. (This is a mirror site, the original was recently closed down after pressure from the Australian government, among other more mundane reasons.) But now there is no reason at all to create but sheer artisitc thrill. Although ‘board lore’ has developed a concept somewhat akin to ‘duende‘ – a dark, nihlistic form of amusement known as ‘lulz.’
The next evolution of the online literary form – which one hopes will eventually lead to the hypertext equivalent of MOBY DICK, which became a sort of bellweather of American long-format literary fiction – could well come from manipulating these mysterious semantic mechanicals. They offer the opportunity to make writing dangerous again. With the proper keywords, information is taken up into automatic readers belonging to some very interesting entities, to the point where there can be real world consequences. As a way of experimenting with this form I have created a series of posts with keywords that I imagine might appeal to some of the more peculiar gleaners out trolling for information. Among these posts are lists of oil rigs, information about espionage, a fake consulting company specializing in complex shipping orders in the Arabian Ocean (mostly deleted), electronic warfare, and other ‘edible’ keywords. The visitors I’ve received include: hedge funds, multinational banking concerns, the department of defense, oil companies, environmental organizations, the Pakistani government, the Kuwaiti government, the Iranian government, the Russian government, an unacknowledged US military facility, a few mysterious hits from ‘Cabin John, Maryland’ (a park across the river from CIA), Mi5, Mi6, but sadly I have yet to influence any. To my knowledge, all that I’ve managed to do is intensify the feeling that I’m being watched when I type online.
Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy: Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy; Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: Forty Stories; “Ward No. 6”; Joseph Conrad: Great Short Works of Joseph Conrad; The Shadow-Line; Edith Wharton: Roman Fever and Other Stories; “Bunner Sisters;” Willa Cather: Collected Stories; D. H. Lawrence: The Complete Short Stories; Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Collected Stories; Philip Roth: Nemesis.
More to come…
Joshua Ferris (of And We Came to the End fame) spoke in class yesterday. He described his reading and writing process and it seemed diametrically opposed to my own. Ferris takes an enormous pad and writes little chunks all over, assembling a narrative from the fragments. Just thinking about writing that way made me uncomfortable (which likely means I should try it). The traditional method of writing, according to Ferris, is to build an idea (he called it a platonic ideal) in your head and then try to get it down on paper. I see writing as more of a thread, and as I write I’m trying to build something up from a spool of text. Ferris isn’t much of a world-builder, and admitted as much, saying there was no way he could get away with such an exotic narrator (a plural “I”) without setting his novel in such a familiar setting (i.e. an office). Another takeaway: Ferris talked about his MFA, saying that the only lesson he really took from Irvine was figuring out how to read without imputing his own aesthetic onto other people’s work. I have been struggling with how to read critically but correctly and that seems to be the key. Our professor suggested John Updike’s Rules for Reviewing (which seem to have vanished in its original form, leaving only bloggy traces):
Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Submission to the spell… if only it were easy
Snarfing pizza bones, nursing my sick Maine Coon who is less wooly and of more pleasant disposition than the above specimen. Even when he has a thermometer crammed inside one of his most sensitive spots. And he had to have his nailed trimmed which means he can’t hold his own against the other two. I’ll add a couple of short prose forms exercises when I have a moment.
I’m including this because during the application process I couldn’t find a single example of a successful MFA statement, so here’s mine:
My literary practice began as a reaction to an alien environment, and at its best retains the defiant posture of exile. I was born in London but dragged through a progression of increasingly strange, pungent countries by my parents, who were both foreign correspondents. Our last post was New Delhi, a dusty megalopolis teeming with medico-pharmacological complexes, sleek five star hotels whose clattering silverware and condensation-streaked windows conceal croaking lepers and shantytowns that look like dried mud puddles behind the tinted glass of an A/C taxi cab.
I attended an American Embassy School in an armed compound but prowled the city after-hours, trying to assemble my own version of the crystalline future I was convinced my homeland was sliding into and I could only glimpse at through the trickle of data coming over our 2,400-baud Internet connection. I collected transistors and halogen bulbs, gobbled waxy orange spansules of dubious intelligence-expanding pharmaceuticals intended for Alzheimer’s patients, and put out an underground newspaper called The Green Banana. My stories (pastiche of William Gibson and line art traced from The Last Whole Earth Catalogue) were typed, snipped into columns, taped onto B4 paper ‘plates’ and photocopied. My largest run was 300 copies, and peculiar enough to keep me confined to the school library “under supervision” by soft-spoken, khaki-clad American strangers when the Clintons came to visit.
I moved to the United States in 1997 for college, expecting to become a combination chemical engineer, architect and painter. The United States I found left me reeling; I drifted in and out of college, moved to Colorado, then California, then Hong Kong to intern at TIME magazine. I held jobs at casinos, in toy factories, forged bronze bells in an architectural commune in the Arizona desert, reading and writing throughout. At various moments Don Delilo, J.G. Ballard, Rudy Rucker, Jonathan Lethem, James Ellroy, Peter Carey, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and W. Somerset Maugham all fundamentally re-wired the way I thought about literature.
Early on my “real” work was patchy, more cartoonish doodle than writing, but gradually it began to take shape, particularly after working as a freelance journalist and online editor. I moved to New York City in 2002 and completed my undergraduate education at the Columbia’s School of General Studies in 2007, where, with help of superb instructors like Sam Lipsyte and Joanna Hershon I learned to discipline myself and pin down ideas, build the story-making machinery, and churn memories into fiction. What I want from grad school is to come in from the cold, to contextualize my work within the larger discourse of contemporary writing and perfect my exile patois. I completed my first novel in May, it was an attempt to harness that angry sense of alienation I used to exist in; though the story veered off into thriller territory in the latter third, I feel I have reached the point where I am confident enough for informed feedback and that, above all else is what I am really looking for.