Friday, May 23, 2008

“my writing is essentially post-modern, but not ESSENTIALLY post-modern.”

I met Yona Silverman at Café Grumpy, a coffee shop on a tree-lined side street in Chelsea. Seeing as we are both writers, I thought we were going to discuss novels, poetry, enjambment– literary stuff. Little did I know we would chat about Africa and medical school.

“I’ve been in Uganda for the past 4 months; I lived in a Jewish community outside of a major city and worked on mostly health care-related projects,” Silverman responded when I asked her what she’s been up to since she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006.

Silverman spent her time in Africa creating HIV/AIDS curriculums for the local schools, as well as working at a pediatric hospital and setting up a creative writing program for high school girls. Silverman’s trip epitomizes the dichotomous nature of her talents: as a writer who is planning on attending medical school, she has just finished a draft of her first novel and is spending next year at Bryn Mawr completing necessary science requirements for school.

Working as a freelance writer for the past few years has taught Silverman many valuable lessons about the nature of her craft. In short, she says, “You have to get used to not getting praised all the time.”

In high school and college, Silverman felt as though writing was always tied up in positive reinforcement; being in the “real world” changed that, and she learned the importance of writing for herself rather than for a gold star and a pat on the back.

At 25, Silverman doesn’t really have the authority to compare the effect of technology on today’s writing to that of her childhood. Like me, she grew up in the era of Microsoft Word, a time when learning to type on Mavis Beacon was more pertinent than learning to write in cursive.

“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to write without computers,” Silverman muses after a sip of iced coffee. “I find it almost impossible to write free-hand anymore; it’s a completely different exercise.”

Silverman feels as though her writing style, which she cleverly labels “essentially post-modern but not essentially post-modern,” is greatly facilitated by the fluid nature of Word processing. I, too, wonder how I could possibly write an article or a poem without being able to constantly spell-check, change words, delete commas, and insert complete ideas.

Silverman says that she’s not big on blogs but merely peruses them casually. However, she then proceeds to list the blogs that she reads on a relatively-regular basis (sheepishly confessing to dabbling on Perez Hilton, one of my personal favorites) and realizes halfway through the list that she is, in fact, a pretty avid blog reader. One of the most original on her list is Vegan Lunchbox, the blog of a woman who creates, describes, and photographs a different vegan lunch everyday.

I ask Silverman if she thinks blogs are less legitimate than magazines or newspapers – we are all taught to question what we read online. What if Ms. Vegan Lunchbox’s vegan meatballs look so real because they are, in fact, actual meatballs?

“I feel as though online publications have less validity than those in print,” she admits, “but for the blogs that I read personally, it doesn’t really matter if they’re real or not – I think it would be kind of funny if the stuff wasn’t true!”

In traditional publishing, there is always a qualified person deciding what’s worthy of being read by the public. Although Silverman believes this allows one to trust what they read in print, she questions the necessity of having this omnipresent force deciding what’s good and what’s bad. On the Internet, there is no such force, and virtually anyone can deem him or herself a “published writer.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"one of the most important things about publishing is lunch"

Yesterday morning, I left my tape recorder in the office of Peggy Fox, president and self-professed “den mother” of New Directions Publishing. In keeping with its name, New Directions is an avant-garde publishing house most well-known for its work with great British and American authors – notably, the late Tennessee Williams, among others. Fox has done a lot of work with Williams, publishing some of his later plays and, after he died, collections of selected stories. She has done a lot to revive the work of other “deceased giants,” an aspect of the job that she greatly enjoys partly due to her academic background.

But back to the tape recorder. This being my first blog-bound interview, I wanted to make sure things went well (which included not losing handheld recording devices). I like to think that my social skills among academia are quite developed, which Fox believes is one of the most vital qualities one must have in her field.

“One disconcerting change that I have noticed in publishing is that young people don’t have the same knowledge base that we used to have. People should have a bedrock of knowledge about history, world religions, mathematics, biology…this breadth of facts is necessary for interacting. One of the most important things about publishing is lunch.”

A broad scope of skill and knowledge has certainly been professionally helpful to Fox; she started out at New Directions as an overqualified summer temp in the 1970s and worked her way up the ranks due to the fact that she “knew how all the pieces fit together.” She was well versed in editing, copyrighting, contracts, and more, and all of these seemingly basic skills fused together to create an impressive resumé. That and the fact that when Fox began working, a New Direction’s receptionist had an affair with Fox’s friend’s husband and ran away to Connecticut, leaving behind both a cautionary tale and a job opening.

But publishing has changed quite a bit since then, and Fox believes that the Internet has facilitated many remarkable strides. For one, technology has simplified the mechanics of the job, the logistical “in betweens” that bridge the oceanic gap between a playwright in London and a publishing house in New York City.

“Computers have revolutionized the way we do business,” Fox states. “We used to have to have our typists create carbon copies, Xeroxes were on heat sensitive paper…it was very time consuming. Now we are much more productive.”

As I sit at Fox’s desk, huge and littered with stacks of paper, I wonder aloud if she thinks there is a certain spark of personality that is lost in translation when people write e-mails over handwritten notes or read blogs over newspapers. She denies this, remaining firm in her belief that treating e-mails as if they are letters will help preserve the integrity of the written word for centuries to come.

“I write e-mails as I would write formal letters; I always check them over and take the time to print hard-copies for files. New Directions has an archive up at Harvard for all of our documents.”

Fox is incredibly open-minded about all the changes in publishing that hover on a technological horizon, admitting that this is in part true because she’s retiring in a few years and will not personally very affected by the changes. This, however, does not exempt her from having an opinion on the matter.

We discussed Amazon’s new pet project, Kindle, a wireless reading device that allows subscribers to download entire manuscripts onto their computers or handheld electronics much like we now download music and movies. Fox admits that programs such as this mark the start of an imminent revolution in publishing, a change that may actually be positive.

“I’m not about to say that this is the worst thing ever to happen to literature – it’s just different. Years ago The Odyssey was oral, and I’m sure when someone wrote it down there were people who opposed it, saying ‘Oh, now we will never remember any of the stories!’”

After the whole left-behind-tape-recorder episode, I fully support any form of publication that is, in fact, textual, whether it be hardcover or wireless.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

blogging's evil twin

I thought I would share my musings on an epidemic that has recently snuck its way onto the homepage of many a college student’s Firefox Mozilla: This site takes blogging and turns it into the mean girl that snickered at your haircut in middle school: it hosts hundreds of college campus’ homepages on which students may anonymously post gossip, rumors, and other not-so-legitimate forms of information about their peers.

Other students have the chance to respond to the statements and rate them on their “juiciness.” This would be all be just dandy if students stuck to valid topics of virtual conversation à la “What did you think of Professor X in class Z?” or “Can someone tell me how to get involved in club Q?” However, the actual posts look a little more like this: “Which girls have gained the most weight since freshman year?” and “Doesn’t X look like she got hit in the face with a shovel?”

As admittedly intriguing and, well, juicy as the website can be, there’s a serious question at hand regarding the definition of online publishing. Though some posts are truthful, at least half of the stuff on JuicyCampus is certainly fabricated information about people. While written defamation of character, libel, is illegal when it comes to magazines and newspapers, can this be said of online publications? Where are the boundaries of “legitimate” virtual publication: can you be sued for something you write on your Facebook profile?

JuicyCampus has issued terms and conditions that state that users may not post content that “is unlawful, threatening, abusive, defamatory, obscene, libelous, or invasive of another's privacy.”

The problem with this statement is that there is no guarantee that the thousands of students posting on the site will follow the rules, especially since the point of JuicyCampus is to gossip. It’s not as though these students are trying to gain literary prestige through their compelling posts regarding so-and-so’s sexual activities in the library; they are simply trying to evoke amused or horrified reactions out of their contemporaries. And because blog-like websites foster any and all text, it is difficult to patrol every single word that is posted online.

Freedom of speech and the limits of appropriateness have always butted heads, but the Internet gives these two tenets a new battleground on which to fight.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

here's the deal

School’s out for the summer (despite the fact that it is still May and therefore partly cloudy and 60 degrees in Connecticut), which means that it’s time for me to find a new way to distract myself now that my astronomy text book is in the trash and I no longer have reams of sociology notes to take. Though I would have been content with your typical 8-hour-days-with-no-pay camp counselor job, my advisor/blogger extraordinaire Al Filreis had other plans for me, suggesting that I start a blog of my own.

Being a newbie to the world of blogging, I have yet to uncover its many mysteries – including how to change the background design of this website. I am hoping that as I explore the newly technological realms of contemporary publishing, I will subsequently find my own place within its pixilated walls.