Salvatore Pane

Tag: The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist

An Alternate 1985: The Neverending Quest for More Time

I now realize how much of a gift my time in grad school was. I had so much time to write, so much time to read. And I’d like to think I made the most out of my three years, but who can be sure, right? By the final year, I was writing every single day and had managed that feat on and off for much of the first two years, but that certainly isn’t the case now.

So many of us writers are led to academia after graduation, but holy fuck is it a time drain. I’m teaching a 3/3 load and, Christ, am I grateful for that opportunity, but that coupled with a kind of hyper mega doom cold has drained my writing time down to nil. I’m pretty much healthy now and have been writing maybe 4 or 5 days a week which depresses me greatly. I’ve had to go back to what I did my first year of grad school and come up with a writing schedule. During the end of my time in the Pitt MFA program, I simply made the time, would wake up at 8 or 9 and write for 3 hours. Now that I teach at 9am, I no longer have that luxury.

Another problem with the writing every day rule: I’m no longer working on a novel. I found it easiest to write every day when I had a consistent world and voice to return to. It was so easy for me to fall into the voice I used for The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist, because it was so close to my own natural writing voice. Within a few weeks of writing I fully understood that world, and what a comfort it was to inhabit it for a few hours every day for well over a year. The act of writing itself was a joy. It almost always is, but I felt a special kind of happiness working on that project.

With short stories, I just don’t have that level of comfort. You’re always coming up with new worlds, new characters, new voices. It’s such a drain. And I wish that I had the time to start a new novel now, but I really do believe you have to sit between these bigger projects and give yourself some time to replenish the well. I moved right from a very awful novel–the aforementioned ABORTION if you’ve read this blog for any length of time–into Digital Narcissist, because it took me 300 pages to find one interesting character and plot in that first book. I amputated that and started again. Otherwise, I would have probably waited.

I talk about this with my students a lot in workshop. As writers, some of us are sprinters and some of us are marathon runners. I don’t think my style or sensibilities are necessarily suited towards writing the short story in any long term sense. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been writing a short story or novel and found yourself wishing you were writing the other form?

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Kanye West is the Public Avatar of 21st Century Digital Narcissism

Full disclosure time: I have two short stories forthcoming about Kanye West and a third I’m trying to place. Two are excerpted from my novel which has a section where Kanye West leaves Earth to find eternal life only to end up on Mars a hundred years in the future where he destroys the remnants of our current generation who have all been quarantined there on an Infinite Porch by the New Youth. Oh, and Yeezy’s riding a stainless steel horse and talks in a Shakespearen dialect. Full disclosure two: I love Kanye’s music and once actually went out of the house looking how I do below, and it was maybe only 30% ironic.

Yeah. That's me in Vegas. You wanna ball with the kid, watch your step you might fall trying to do what I did. Mama ugh, Mama ugh.

This is all to say that you should take what I’m about to argue with a grain of salt. But when people used to ask me, “Hey, Sal. Why does Kanye West show up in your novel (The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist currently seeking representation hint hint!) about non-famous white kids?” I used to give some lame answer about how West’s journey mimics the protagonist’s, which in all honesty, it actually does. But today, I think I finally hit on the reason why West keeps inserting himself into my work again and again. It’s because Kanye West is the public avatar of 21st century digital narcissism.

This all started, like so much in this dramatic post-Obama life, over at HTMLGIANT. Blake Butler put up a post that ended with a pretty funny non-sequitor: “Kanye West still sucks.” In the comments section, I tried to convince Blake to come over to the dark side of Yeezy supporters and Stephen Dierks of Pop Serial linked to this awesome article on The New York Times about Kanye’s new video.

In a coming video for his single ‘Power’ that was created by the artist Marco Brambilla, Mr. West is seen standing imposingly with a heavy chain around his neck. As Mr. West raps, the camera slowly zooms out in one continuous, unedited take to reveal him in a classical structure, surrounded by female attendants who are partly or entirely nude; some kneel before him on all fours, others wear devil horns and still others are suspended upside down from the ceiling. The sword of Damocles hangs precariously over Mr. West’s head, and behind him an unseen executioner is preparing to strike him with a blade.

Ah, a nice allusion to the apocalypse. That’s usually all it takes to win me over. But then Stephen linked to Kanye’s twitter which he just started today. Let me share some of the radical highlights.

kanyewest: I hate stickers on laptops

kanyewest: I need this horse… Kings need horses http://twitpic.com/29suqi

kanyewest: I’m just saying… what’s your credenza game…#DON‘TTALKTOME!!! http://twitpic.com/29sqph

kanyewest: I’m not getting paid to say any of this…………. yet…….. hahahhaha

kanyewest: Sipping Molnar Family Poseidin’s Vineyard Chardonnay in the middle of the day sidebar out of gold cups for whatever that’s worth

kanyewest: my thoughts on Twitter so far… at the end of the day, God damnit I’m killing this shit!!!

AND MY FAVORITE:

kanyewest: I specifically ordered persian rugs with cherub imagery!!! What do I have to do to get a simple persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh

Photo courtesy of Anirudh Koul

He has a quarter million followers yet he follows no one. What I realized today is that Kanye West is the summation of every thing I think and fear about this generation distilled into one horrific/totally awesome human being. Facebook, Twitter, and other online outlets have given every one of us (and especially those of this generation) a voice and the illusion that we all have something very powerful to say, when in fact, most of us probably do not. Kanye West is walking insecurity. Despite growing up in the same kind of baby boomer controlled children media era that told kids they were all special and amazing and even their shit smelled like the gentle rains of the Amazon, Kanye is saddled with a crushing inferiority complex. He overcompensates with golden stages to perform on and is constantly barraging us with his opinion. I mean, have you guys read his blog? It’s insanity. And now he has twitter! And what does Kanye do when he doesn’t like something? He stands up and grabs the microphone off some lame teenage girl and tells the world to go fuck itself. His Taylor Swift stunt is the equivalent of writing DISLIKE under somebody’s status update.

KANYE MOTHERFUCKING WEST IS FACEBOOK TURNED SENTIENT!!!!!111

The hunger has returned to Mr. West's brain, but it never really left.

Flashback Monday I: My Interview With McSweeney’s or The Great Cataclysm of 2043

My entire novel is about digital narcissism, about what it means to an exist in an age where anybody can voice their opinion to an audience of billions instantaneously through Twitter and Facebook. I have a love/hate relationship with these outlets. On one hand, I see the danger, how isolated we’re becoming, how what it means to be human is being altered on a very fundamental level. But on the other hand, I really like tweeting about old Nerf Herder songs and linking to the sexual tension that is Comicvine’s video review show on Facebook. I often wonder how deceased writers would interact with these sites. Chekhov. Dostoevsky. They’re lucky in that most of the stupid apprentice writing they did will never see the light of day unlike David Foster Wallace whose undergraduate thesis is seeing publication later this year.

I don’t intend on bucking the trend. In fact, I’m going to embrace it. I’ve been cleaning out my external hard drive recently and found a back-up of my laptop from right before I finished college. Buried there is every file I ever wrote, including the incomplete 253 page single spaced fantasy novel I wrote at age fifteen (final line: “Immediately after her demise, the picture vanished, and the Memory Cube returned to its standard hue of blue, leaving the three Chosen Ones in complete and total disarray…”). So I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’ll post something from my more formative years that may be of interest to people other than myself. I won’t do this with any regularity so don’t worry.

The first item of inquiry is an interview I did with Eli Horowitz, the managing editor of McSweeney‘s, for a paper I wrote in an editing and publishing class with the poet Karen Holmberg. The questions aren’t super interesting, but the answers are kind of funny. And I really can’t believe how nice Eli was to do this, and how much of a pompous douche I was for even asking. Also, I titled the paper “The Future Is Robots” which is pretty neat.

1. What was the genesis of McSweeney’s? Did it come out of the end of Dave Eggers’ Might Magazine or did the creators think that they could fill a niche not catered to by the rest of the literary journal market?

Initially, if was made largely of work rejected by other magazines.  And something for Dave to do while he procrastinated on his book.

2. An obvious pillar of the McSweeney’s philosophy is to publish and nurture young writers. What guided you in this direction? Many other literary magazines don’t follow your principle about unpublished authors and I find it slightly alarming.

I don’t know — it just makes sense, right?  Why others don’t, I’m not sure, except I guess it’s kind of slow to sort through all those submissions.

3. How do you go about choosing which submissions to run? Do the section editors have meetings with reading boards? And if so, do they look over everything or is there a slush pile? If so, who goes through all the entries and decides what to go into the slush pile?

There isn’t really a slush pile; almost all the stories go through the same system.  Basically, there are a bunch of readers, and if any of them like a story it becomes a contender, and then Dave and I pick from that group. Everything definitely gets read, generally by three different people.

4. What do you usually have your interns do when they are on site? What about interns who are helping away from a farther location? On your website, you say you sometimes have both.

All sorts of things — reading submissions, fact-checking articles, going to the post office.  Those distant ones are generally readers — I’m not yet sure whether that actually makes sense.

5. Every issue of McSweeney’s seems very fresh and different from the last, but do you have any overarching message or theme that you hope each book contains?

Not really.  Well, a sense of excitement and possibility, and a respect for the stories themselves.  But there’s no conscious mission, I don’t think.

6. How did you personally go about getting your position at McSweeney’s?

I started as a volunteer carpenter for 826 Valencia, our tutoring center. One thing led to another, in a series of flukes.

7. Unlike most literary journals, you do a lot of public events such as They Might Be Giants vs McSweeney’s. What do you think these events add to the magazine, and what type of events would you like to see happen in the future?

Maybe a sense of community?  Once I say a woman on a giant unicycle flip five bowls from her foot to her head — I’d like to include her in a future event.

8. As a publishing house, McSweeney’s published the inherently political The Future Dictionary of America last year. Do you think McSweeney’s will constantly dabble in politics or was that a one shot type of thing?

Hard to say.  I think there will always be some element of that, but probably rarely anything so straightforward; that seemed like a particularly urgent need.

9. The designs of McSweeney’s magazines, even your books like How We Are Hungry, are known for their interesting and unorthodox designs. When creating the magazine, which is more important, the design or the contents within?

The contents.  Well, both, but the design can never interfere with the contents.  Our goal is to create a design that honors the writing inside.

10. Finally, what is the future for McSweeney’s? Whose hands would you like to see the magazine fall into eventually, and what vision do you want to see it taken in?

The future is robots, and an underground clan of freedom fighters. McSweeney’s will be destroyed in the Great Cataclysm of 2043.

Why Super Mario Bros. Will Affect the New Generation of Writers

A few years ago I came across a story of Tom Bissell’s in Best American Short Stories 2005. I can’t remember everything about “Death Defiers”, but I’m pretty sure it involved an American photojournalist in the Middle East who gets swept up in some sort of bizarre, familial poison plot. The details are fuzzy, but what I recall quite clearly is the final paragraph: a beautiful piece of prose describing the protagonist stepping on a mine and flipping through the air. I’m not doing this story any justice whatsoever, but I liked the piece enough at the time to add Bissell’s name to my “To Read” list.

I’m sure all writers/readers have similar lists. Mine’s in the back of whatever moleskin notepad I’m keeping my writing notes in at the time. The list comprises every book or writer that I need to read. Sometimes I make it through these lists in their entirety, but most of the time I do not. In the intervening years between first reading Bissell’s short story and now, I’ve seen essays of his from time to time but little else. Then yesterday, over on HTML Giant, I read that he was publishing a collection of essays about his addiction to video games (and flirtations with cocaine) called Extra Lives. They linked to an excerpt at The Guardian.

HOLY SHIT!

Finally, someone is looking at gamer culture with a literary (and serious) sensibility. Interestingly enough, the same Best American with Bissell’s piece also contained a short story about a World of Warcraft-esque human slave labor camp. But outside of that and Justin Taylor’s fantastic flash fiction Tetris/End of the World mash-up, I haven’t really read much that looks at gaming with a seriousness of intent. I was particularly drawn to this section in The Guardian excerpt:

What have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough….

It turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can…

Niko [the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV] was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together. (Bissell)

What I love about this essay is that it recognizes that video games offer a textual experience wholly unique. Literature and film require active participation to a certain extent, but no matter how much you contextualize movies or visualize the scenes in books, you can never have a  literal direct effect on the chain of narrative events in the way you can with video games. Even comic books, which require more active participation than film or books by having white space segmenting the action which forces readers to play out the missing moments of time in their minds, cannot match the interactivity of a video game.

I’m not sure where this line of thinking will carry me, but it’s something I’ve been dwelling on a lot recently as video games factor into the novel I’m very close to completing, The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist. The protagonist is a gamer nostalgic for the 8-bit games of yore and often embeds images from those games into the text. During a trilogy of scenes which take place during the early nineties, he describes his devotion to all things Nintendo via the following:

If you’ve only casually played video games, then you can not comprehend the inner depths of their joys. You don’t know what it feels like to give yourself up so completely to an alien world of colors and sprites, of repetition and absolute safety. You are no longer yourself. You are an avatar. Super Mario, an Italian plumber tumbled through the looking-glass. Link, the boy knight on a magical crusade to rescue Princess Zelda from the terrible Ganon. Samus Aran, the intergalactic bounty hunter tracking down alien eggs on a world controlled by space pirates. This becomes more “real” than the “real” world…

And so I began my descent into the world of microchips and immateriality. And so I began to fear the natural world. Because when you are represented by an avatar, you are no longer Michael Bishop, a skinny child with a broken arm and sharp ribs that push against your polar bear t-shirt. You are not weak and loathsome and oh so frightened that some threat lurks around every corner existing only to dismember you. I lost myself in those games for hours at a time, refused to leave the safety of my house and that monolithic Nintendo. I feared forests and lakes and birds and wind and most of all people.

The digital!

My first true love!

(Pane)

What’s interesting to me about all of this is echoed in Paste Magazine’s review of the aforementioned Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. Reviewer Charles McNair writes, “Justing Taylor’s first short-story collection artfully captures the view of the 200s from the perspective of a twentysomethingSeveral of his stories bear the unmistakable, bloggy influence of the 2000s. Do we sense some sort of new fictional frontier? Time will tell.” This is the first generation to come of age raised on video games and technology more advanced than the Atari 2600 and the Apple II. Will that have an effect on the writing produced by those writers? How about blogs and Facebook and Twitter and cell phones? I say overwhelmingly yes. Our sense of narrative has been irrevocably shifted by technology and it only makes sense that not only will the platform literature is disseminated through change, but the very writing itself.

Two brief personal examples to illustrate a point:

1) This is my actual Nintendo collection.

Over the past six years, I’ve managed to track down about 150 Nintendo Entertainment System games, 50 Super Nintendo Entertainment games and 20 GameBoy games. I don’t play newer systems very much because I’d usually rather spend my free time reading, but also because I know that like Bissell I have an addictive personality and remember all too well the days in high school when I would play Japanese Role Playing Games on the original Playstation for disgusting stretches (during one horrible summer before ninth grade, I played Chrono Cross every day for three weeks for at least eight hours at a time. I became so addicted that I only stopped to hurriedly eat a sandwich in front of the pause screen). Since college, I have been content to play the games of my childhood. Super Mario Bros. Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Maniac Mansion. Blaster Master. Fun games with marginal narratives that only take about a half-hour to complete.

All that being said, how can I not be affected by video games? Even if I don’t play much now, so much of my life has been spent glued in front of a television screen controlling digital avatars that it wouldn’t be realistic to clam my sense of narrative hasn’t been deeply impacted by these digital worlds. And I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this.

2) I went to college for creative writing. The program is very serious compared to other undergrad institutions and the teachers treat their pupils more like graduate students. I often bailed on the work in my other classes to work on fiction and cnf, and this was certainly not frowned upon by the real working writers who taught us. The books lifted up for us to worship were all written by the ’80’s dirty realists and their predecessors. Carver. Dubus. Wolff. Ford. Pancake. Munro. Bobbie Ann Mason. Richard Yates. And don’t get me wrong. They all still number among my favorite writers, and my devotion to Yates borders on the religious.

Unfortunately, after many years of writing each and every day, I eventually came to realize that I will never be a master of domestic realism. I don’t have it in me. My instincts naturally strive for the geeky, the nerdy, and it’s hard to hit that aesthetic in the parameters of sparse Carver minimalism. I wrote a very bad, failed novel a few years ago in the style of domestic realism. The characters were all working class, and the subject matter included decaying mines and the folly of local politics.

It was breathtakingly terrible, and after wonderful advice from a mentor of mine, I packed it away in a drawer. Since then, I have written something much more successful, and my work has begun to be published in very small publications. While working on my new novel, I found myself referencing Nintendo, putting up screen shots, using Twitter feeds, implementing blog posts, inserting web comics and even writing an entire scene in script format. People ask why I made these narrative decisions and I can only respond that it’s what felt natural and “right” to me at the time. Like Bissell, I feel incredibly affected by the prevailing technologies of my era. To deny that by reverting to a mode of writing three decades old is akin to denying myself, something Bissell and Taylor are very clearly aware of.

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