On a mild Tuesday afternoon in August, I switched on my computer and began writing this essay. Since 2017, I had been plagued by thoughts about the homogenisation of culture, as a phenomenon that can be attributed to globalisation and the algorithmic feedback loop – what the Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson termed in The Cultural Turn as a ‘postmodern sensation’, and what I’ve attempted to analyse in the past. I wanted to know if this was leaking out to writing, an art that is increasingly regarded as a ‘craft’. This demarcation implies that there is a gold standard to aspire to. Was writing like woodworking, where sentences can be honed to a sharp edge to produce a piece of writing that can be displayed tastefully on a website or social media profile? Or was writing more like pottery, where only the most patient are rewarded, and what is ‘imperfect’ can be appreciated as an objet d’art?
We are living in the era of the pull-quote. Attractive soundbites are quoted on social media platforms as a way to signal cultural literacy and taste, and decontextualised citations arranged fetchingly on an Instagram infographic for easy digestion. To that end, I wondered if it was possible to approach non-fiction using the language of fiction – if we are now living in a ‘fanciful castle of facts’, as Rivka Galchen, author of the 2016 essay collection Little Labors, once wrote, then could we possibly bend those stale ideas of ‘truth’, ‘expertise’ and ‘relevance’ to achieve a kind of literary (and perhaps, existential) luminescence? If I quoted a line such as ‘The Internet made the personal essay worse, as it does for most things’, then there was more of a likelihood that it would attract attention. Even if the essay might linger unread within someone’s haphazard graveyard of opened tabs, the fact of it being clicked on adds to the piece’s value come evaluation day at the end of the year. I would know – I once had a book review listed as a ‘best of’ in a certain year, and I am an editor in an industry where hard statistics are often considered important for endeavours such as grants.
Conversely, what if I quoted something in the vein of ‘Nothing had been said, really. Nothing of particular interest or note, and yet they clapped as though the fundamental structures of their lives had been elucidated to them somehow’. (For those wondering, this line is from Booker-nominated novelist Brandon Taylor’s short story ‘Prophets’, published in Joyland earlier this year.) Due to the absence of affective words, the probability of the story garnering enough attention is significantly lowered, unless the author is already known to you. On the one hand, a line like the above may generate enough interest to deserve a click, since Taylor is becoming exponentially well-known in the anglophone literary world. After all, cultural tastes do spread through word-of-mouth, each one like a useful secret waiting to be adopted. At the time of writing, this is evinced in the tweet’s metrics, of which it has accumulated 153 retweets and 596 likes (this is only counting the author’s own, not those from the publication or elsewhere). Still, if you had not heard of Taylor prior, then there would be less of an impulse to click on the link in the first place, unless you are someone who considers themselves to be especially voracious or time-rich. The best-case scenario? You clicked on the link and read the story despite having never heard of Taylor, because you have a curious disposition.
In Ouyang Yu’s sprawling essay ‘The Case For China or a Self-Obituary’, which was recently shortlisted for the Melbourne Prize, he describes a scene where a conversation is happening between an unnamed man and woman while they have dinner. In the brief section, they discuss something the man calls ‘the 50-page thing’, a ‘publishing industry requirement’ that novelists must abide by. It is a common expectation that authors only submit the first 50 pages of their manuscript to publishing houses for consideration. Slush pile begone! The man concludes, ‘Which is why most of the books you buy these days have excellent beginnings but shoddy middle and bad endings.’ The woman agrees: ‘Like a beautiful, well made-up face, atop a full-blown body.’ This throws an oft-contemplated yet unaddressed conundrum into sharp relief; how might we as readers and writers combat these injurious requirements that ultimately prioritise the forces of the market? When first impressions and outcomes matter more than the act of reading itself, arbitrary measures such as ‘engagement’ and ‘marketability’ are used as yardsticks against unquantifiable devices such as narrative and stylistic structure – like scum, they rise to the top.
As Jameson observes in The Cultural Turn, ‘[…] economics has come to overlap with culture: that everything, including commodity production and high and speculative finance, has become cultural; and culture has equally become profoundly economic or commodity oriented.’