In a group chat, my friend sends me a link to an interview with Maria Tumarkin in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I take a few days to read it, slowly taking in each word, and am struck by its insight. In the interview, Tumarkin says, ‘I mean, it’s surprising how samey chapters often are in wildly different books of nonfiction. Samey length, feel, shape, why? Some weird symmetrical ironing goes on.’ I feel like I am sometimes guilty of this. Can we effectively tell a story with style, while still remaining legible? Are we able to write outside of received knowledge? What if someone decides that my writing is inaccessible to them? I go back to my notes disputing writing as ‘craft’; maybe it’s a sport instead?
I wonder what my audience is thinking, but it seems extremely difficult to pre-empt them. And as the ubiquity of the newsletter-industrial-complex surrounds me – with its standard-issue interface, font size and headings delivered straight to my inbox – I’m reminded of Molly Fischer’s piece ‘Email Newsletters Are a New Literary Genre’ in The Cut, where she writes: ‘Newsletters can be like newspaper columns, cut loose from institutional authority. They can be like podcasts that you cannot absorb while running errands, like zines without the photocopy static, like Instagram with the lifestyle recommendations rendered as text instead of subtext.’ But if newsletters can be anything, then why do so many of them sound like they were written by one person?
Maybe I’m getting distracted by the CMS. For those who may not be aware, CMS stands for Content Management System. Some examples include WordPress, Drupal, Medium and ArcXP (owned by Jeff Bezos via his limited liability company Nash Holdings, which publishes the Washington Post), among many others. Here is where I’ll bring up Chayka again: in a 2019 article in The Nation, he notes that CMS results in a tightly woven network of publications ‘like a forest sharing the same root system’.
This effect sees staff across various popular publications use similar tools to publish their stories, as well as rely on similar SEO tactics. As Chayka succinctly explains, ‘If an article is like a bag of chips for the consumer, then a CMS is like a vending machine’ – which is to say, CMSes increasingly define the terms in which digital media is produced and read. Alongside the mammoth growth of the online advertising industry, a CMS can exert a considerable influence on how stories and articles are discovered and monetised.
If writing continues to be measured in this way, through adaptive algorithms that decide which stories are worth ‘recommending’, which stories are free and which stories are paywalled, then we must ask: whose words do the algorithm value? Rather, what kinds of words and phrases do the algorithm deem worthy of visibility? This isn’t to say that we are necessarily beholden to these structures, but if this is the way the cookie crumbles, then we will see more and more writers and publications assimilate to these conditions. It might begin to restructure the reading experience too, especially in a time when people are griping about not having the requisite attention span to read or finish a book.
In my own writing, I see myself attempting to reach for a voice that is ‘mine’, even if the glut of digital writing looms over me, and even if digital writing first set the conditions for my becoming. It is Borges’s Library of Babel, except I am trapped inside and I can’t get out. I want to convey my politics, thoughts, feelings and opinions through language that, while restricted to the English language, hopes to elicit surprise, camaraderie and delight, even if what I write about is in no way surprising, chummy or delightful. If ‘craft’ in this context is equivalent to the ‘desired voice of many brands’, then I do not want to achieve mastery.
Here we see the parallels between ambient writing and ambient music yet again. If a ‘music library’ (read: Spotify, which, in my mind, is a CMS for music) ends up categorising songs and musicians through an algorithm of ‘vibes’ sorted into playlists with headings such as ‘Indie Chillout’, ‘Throwback Workout’ and ‘Sad Songs’, then maybe we can say that writing is gradually being itemised in this way. As Spotify critic Liz Pelly writes in a 2017 piece for The Baffler that analyses the similarities between Spotify playlist ‘genres’ and Muzak, ‘Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts.’ Sound familiar? No thoughts, just vibes.