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Lately I’ve developed a new social mutation, a kind of internal timing reflex when it comes to the low art of hanging out. It’s a close cousin to the one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi count I used in college to time how long it took at a party for someone to ask “What’s your major?”, or the one that kicked in a few years later for how long it took coworkers to ask, in the months following my wedding, “So: how’s married life?” But these days the setting and the people have changed. I’m at a bar, or a dinner, or having a smoke, and the players aren’t extras in my daily life anymore. They’re close friends, people I’ve known for sometimes decades, and what I catch myself gauging now isn’t how long it takes for them to ask about my status, but instead about the status—or the profile photo, or the link, or the comment, or the “like”—of real humans we know in common, and how those humans filter their distant lives through a crude, blue web portal.
“Thing is, A.’s just preaching to the choir with the liberal outrage links…”
“Did you read that thing B. posted? Oh, you shared it? Oh then that’s how I saw it…”
“Yesterday C. liked a page for ‘Sluts.’ Right under D.’s kids’ birthday party pics in my feed, I just see C. likes Sluts—”
And so on.
It used to be that this sort of conversational turn would come paired with a doomed complicity, a reluctant break from the standard regimen of TV / work / books / movies / that last time we hung out / work. But it lasted only as long as it took for someone to point out “we’re talking about fucking Facebook,” after which the topics thankfully snapped back to the real-world order. I don’t know when it happened (2010? 2011?) but the shift was heavy and insidious, and now it seems like “talking about fucking Facebook” has become the new conversational order. Depending on the context and how well we know each other, my time spent with friends now goes from zero to full-tilt-Facebook in less than ten minutes. And once the topic’s breached, there’s talk of little else. It’s as boundaryless as it is genderless—male friends, female friends, all of us in the vicinity of our thirties, all of us locked into some indignant semi-gossip about who’s got the funniest statuses, the best pics, the cutest kids. Whose updates are obnoxious, or whose seem sad and dire in their insistent joy. Whose posts make us feel useless, whose make us feel better, and, most importantly, whose we’ve unsubscribed to entirely.
“We should really stop talking about Facebook,” someone will say now.
“I know, I know,” someone else will say.
Then, as a group, we proceed to do no such thing.
But what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about how people “are” on Facebook? A decade into its existence, its seems that those of us Zuckerberg originally built the thing for—mid-aught undergrads and twentysomethings—still seem at a crossroads in our acceptance of not just the medium and its pull over us, but also the power of Facebook as a sly innovator of the social more. Relationship statuses, birthday wishes, check-ins, the utterly useless “poke”— as early adopters, we gave over to it all jaggedly, and with no shortage of guilt and shame. (I didn’t relent until 2008, at age 30, after everyone I knew had stopped apologizing for enjoying it.) Probably because we still remember a time where we got along without Facebook, the residue of that shame still haunts our activity there, even while the reach and etiquette of Facebookery continues to evolve into something formidable. The web is clogged now with listicles and SEO clickbait featuring tips and no-no’s: how to post, how not to, who to fear becoming, how to comment, when to “like”, etc. — all of it swirling into a stew of nebulous, Fanny Burney-type decorum logic. To a generation who came to Facebook with little beyond an itch to spy on the evolution of people we once saw naked in high school, its not hard to see how that shift in language—and that’s what Facebook interplay has become now, a language—might provoke a response not unlike the one we had when Ice Cube started headlining family comedies: Oh, so this is like, a real thing then?
Which could explain why, to us, Facebook still feels like less of a given and more like a social experiment. Only for this one, we’re both the experimental group and the moderator, responding to our surroundings while at the same time gauging that response, providing real-time commentary on it. To one another. A lot. Yet of all the Facebook conversations I’ve had, none are more thorough than the ones I have with other writers, like me—people attuned to the reflexivity of experience, the power of mannerisms to create character and, above all, story. The talks are exhausting, and can last for hours (I’m not discounting myself here), but the bulk of it is less gossip and more in the spirit of Aristotelian detective work, searching for the holes in the stories of Facebook characters and how they apply to their real-life counterparts—what doesn’t add up. And once we get past the general status-and-photo talk, we arrive always at some version of the same question, one that’s plagued every Facebook conversation I’ve been a part of in the last year or so: How can X be such a nice person in real life, yet such an asshole on Facebook?
It’s a question that’s usually answered with heaps of praise for the real-life person in question; how they’re “really just an awesome person, so nice, seriously, but fuck: if I see another post about how lucky X feels to be married to the amazing Y, or how Z fought the indignities of a grocery line to triumph in their unstoppable quest to be their own biggest fan—and it goes on like this, devolving into some armchair, semiotic no-man’s land where none of us can tell which of the two—the person or the profile—advertises the “real them” more effectively.
Which points to the core problem with Facebook’s goal to be the most lifelike avatar of our true selves. With every effort Big Blue makes to deepen its humanity with photos and videos and widgets and timelines that stretch back to the very moment of our births, it greater exposes an unsettling schism in its depiction of us. Facebook captures everything about us but our essence, in effect creating an uncanny valley of human personality, where the tiny ways in which our profile fails to fully broadcast the “soul” of our being nullify the ways in which it succeeds. We exist in on Facebook only as flat characters, robbed of any arc, converging in a themeless, expressive limbo. Unlike with Twitter, which is somehow empowered by its ephemeral break from anything resembling a true identity (See: @nottildaswinton, @mayoremanuel, @drunkhulk, etc.), Facebook has become handcuffed, as its evolved, by its commitment to the opposite.
As such, an expression of id-like emotion on Facebook—So very happy for Jenny Decker and Scott Raner!—lacks, to the real-life person reading it, any of the drive, psychic tension, or context that led to that emotion. Like with all flat characters, in the storyline of Facebook there are no hurdles or denouement for any of us. And worse: there’s no way to concoct a moment that’s truly shared, which, given the goal of Facebook, can lead to an acute, dissonant kind of irony.
More than once I’ve heard friends confess to spells of deep loneliness and alienation as a result of steady Facebook exposure, that ticker stream of cleverness, cluelessness and self-promo scratching at something nameless and aggravated in each of them. And while I’m sure that’s no doubt triggered by something at least a little FOMO-related, it’s just as possible that the Facebook brand of loneliness could also be a result of inching that close to versions of people you care for, then realizing you’re helpless to tap in to the layers of intangible depth that brought you so close to those people—your friends—in the first place.
The whole predicament creates a distance fuzzy and subtle enough to be immeasurable, but that doesn’t stop me and my friends from huddling in perplexed circles, talking it out as if we’re psychotherapists. But I can’t tell if what we’re doing in these conversations is trying to measure that fuzzy distance, or if we’re mourning the loss of our perceptions of someone’s personality, or if, instead, what we’re really doing when we talk about Facebook is nothing more than plain and simple longing—missing our friends, wishing they could crawl their real, 3D selves through our gleaming little phone screens, have a seat, order a drink, and settle the issue for us once and for all.
Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in Agni, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Wall Street Journal, Indiewire, and a bunch of other places. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, Ucross, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University a while back.
On the last night of September—the weather cool, the hills yellow-green, early autumn coming to Appalachia—the poet Edward Hirsch gave a reading in our university library. In introductory remarks that echoed Levinas and Martin Buber, he called our attention as critics and writers to the intimate relationship between self and other, between author and reader.
This relation is difficult to define or quantify. We teach our freshmen English classes the legs of the rhetorical triangle. We trace the line between Author and Audience. There is much talk of efficacy, little of intimacy. Even in the graduate seminar room or on the conference panel, it is easier to practice a shallow hermeneutical skepticism, to assume bad faith, to approach ready for polemos rather than eros. This is not all the time, mind you. Piercing light can still shock me from cynical routine.
This kind of light breaks through the New England forests of 18th century poet Philip Freneau’s “The Indian Burying Ground”:
By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews;
In habit for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer, a shade!
This quatrain calls me, each time I read it, into intimate relation with
Freneau. Not only do I imagine the ghostly deer he depicts, I imagine Freneau himself in a real Northeastern forest coming upon a real deer, its movements even in life as fluid and delicate as a ghost’s. This is a man who has seen a deer move, who has known or imagined the breathless exhiliration of the hunt, and who through his craft transfers that experience into something strange and striking. Like the deer and hunter which repeat their chase after death, the dead Freneau also repeats his experience to us over and over, through the ages, per saecula saeculorum.
Of course as a reader for a literary journal, I cannot spend all day appreciating an intimate connection with authors through their submitted work. One must eventually judge the quality of their expression. I am keenly aware as I read through my pile of non-fiction submissions that I am not a creative writer. Or rather, I am aware (as I assume many of my literary-critical colleagues are) of my status as a failed creative writer. How many graduate students in literature have the same file on their computers—hidden in a folder within a folder –containing secret creative attempts. My own contains love poems: some effusive, some fragile and affected. I showed them once to a close and particularly candid friend, who told me:“Reading your poems is like dancing with a woman at a seventeenth-century ball. We move formally, exchange expected pleasantries, and leave knowing little about one another.” So much for intimacy.
I am keenly aware as well that many of the pieces I mark for rejection I could not produce myself. Making such judgments requires that I adopt an attitude of great humility.
Often I’ll send a submission to the genre editor with a note explaining my disinclination to give the piece the standard “1-to-5” rating we use to rank contenders for publication. Typically I make this decision because the piece confesses—in graphic detail—abuse, shame, abjection, all manner of degradation. Who can raise the critical pen to dismiss trauma testimony as lacking in polish or sophistication? I am by no means over-sensitive. I have forwarded my share of snarky, biting editorial notes, but there is a limit to cool distance. There is a point where the writer of creative non-fiction is no longer a writer, but a human person trying (well or poorly) to confess some tangled, painful mystery.
Reading these creative submissions reminds me as a student of 19th-century literature that the authors who line my bookshelves were not only once anxious amateurs sending off their work to editors. It reminds me—most fundamentally—that they are women and men who confronted the same tangled mysteries that many of us confront today. They are real. They are individuals. They hold out their experiences as invitations to intimate relation.
As I work through my inbox on the Submittable server, these authors on my bookshelves surround me: a cloud of witnesses, a literary communion of saints. I imagine some strange high priest, his arms raised orans before a bookshelf-altar, reciting their litany: Chopin and Cather, Verlaine and Dostoyevsky, Mann and Mauriac.
To his litany I would add other names—the submitters’ names that glow on my computer screen. They too call us to share in their experiences. They too invite us to traverse—albeit in small, provisional ways—the divide between author and reader, between self and other.
Matthew P. Smith studies 19th-century American literature as a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee. This is his second year as a non-fiction submission reader for Grist.
by Christian Anton Gerard
I am Grist’s current editor-in-chief, and it gives me great pleasure to be writing this inaugural post for our new blog. I have served on our journal’s staff for the last five years in every capacity possible. My experience on Grist’s staff has also allowed me to see Grist grow, and to begin to understand that making a literary journal involves more than any one person or staff at any given time. During the last five years I have to come to understand that the journal I serve is, like the making of literature itself, a collective project. In what follows, I’d like to address some thoughts about the writing and editing community and why we have decided to launch a new blog in the first place.
Several years ago a poet friend of mine attended a conference session where
someone inevitably asked the editor of an established journal what her staff looks for when making their selections. The editor responded that the best way to know what the journal looks for is to read past issues. After the presentation, my friend, in a rather audacious move, approached the editor and asked if she really believed her own answer.
“Well, yes” the editor said.
“Then doesn’t that mean you’re just publishing the same issue over and over again?” my friend asked.
“You’ve got a point,” the editor replied. “I guess the truth is we don’t really know what we want until we see it.”
I often think of this story because it reminds me of the messiness involved in writing and publishing. The editor wasn’t lying. She’d been asked a difficult question, one of the most difficult questions anyone can ask an editor. That question essentially means, “what can I send that will be accepted into your journal?” How was the editor supposed to explain the magic that happens when the reading season opens and everyone on staff begins talking about a few pieces that aren’t just wonderfully crafted and full of the good fire, but also speak to each other in a way nobody could have anticipated? How was she supposed to explain that the journal didn’t have a plan for what the next issue would look like, because it was still in the act of making itself?
In framing her answer as she did, the editor was doing her best to give writers some kind of empirical way to proceed in a submission process that often feels cryptic to all involved. She was also doing her best to maintain a professional image. She was projecting the idea that editors always know what they’re doing and that journals have a plan, or at least a way to differentiate themselves from the thousands of other journals out there.
There exists in the literary world an idea that some journals are “better” than others, and this idea is packaged in many different ways. Some of us believe a journal is better than another because it has been alive longer. Some of us believe a journal is better because it publishes the people we read and want to be, or because the masthead consists of writers with vast credentials. But I’m beginning to think there’s a problem with our terminology. It’s not that these journals are “better” than others for these reasons. Rather, they’ve gained a communal recognition because from year to year their staffs have established an interior culture of commitment to the process that is journal making and editing.
Much like the writers they publish, the journals that consistently demonstrate their commitment to producing the best possible product have embraced the messiness inherent in the creative writing process. But they’ve also done a great job covering up that messiness. When we hold the latest issue of The Southern Review, New England Review, Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, [or insert any journal you love] we see the final product. We see that thing as perfectly polished as the work inside. What we don’t see are the hours of conversations taking place about why piece A will fit better than B or what kind of arc the issue is making from beginning to end, nor do we see the hours and hours editorial staff spend reading, talking, and working to understand what it is they’re doing with the publication of each issue. We don’t see the conversations taking place concerning how the present issue works both with and against the tradition a journal has already established, and what it might mean for a journal to publish a piece or pieces normally outside its wheelhouse. This is the kind of messiness I’m talking about. The kind of messiness that makes it difficult to say what it is the editorial staff looks for when selecting work for a journal, because journals are constantly revising themselves in the act of making themselves.
As writers, we’re told from the beginning to send our very best work and to expect rejection, lots of it, and to revise, revise, revise. And revise we do. And rejected we are. So much so that we’re either deadened to the rejection, or we begin to take it personally, as if the world, or the pen and paper have something against us.
I remember thinking when I was younger, “I’m working so hard here. Why isn’t anyone noticing?” I wasn’t able to see editors as people or journals as living things, that sometimes what’s been published in the past isn’t what the journal needs to grow in the present. I was focused on my work. I wasn’t able to understand that editors have to turn away more excellently written material than they’d like to because they’re striving to make something larger than each individual piece, and sometimes an individual piece, no matter how stunning, just doesn’t work with the current issue’s movement. Editing is just as messy as writing, and I wasn’t able to see that then. I wasn’t able to understand that making a journal is a process, and editors themselves are often left scratching their heads thinking, “I’m working so hard here. Why isn’t anyone noticing?” When the process remains hidden, both writing and editing can be solitary and lonely.
As Grist has grown we have begun to increasingly ask ourselves what it means to be “the journal for writers,” and we’re beginning to believe we can do more to enact the fellowship inherent in the writing community of which we’re all a part. Grist has begun another revision of itself. We’re thinking that all of the polish I discussed above both in writing and editing, the polish that covers up the messiness we all know exists, but don’t often openly acknowledge, only works to present one side of the writing and publishing life. To that end, we have decided to launch a blog feature on our website to let writers and editors be people as well as ink on pages. We’re hoping to let writers illuminate the work of writing in a different way, sharing something about process, craft, or introducing ideas that don’t fit into the traditional journal format because of space, timing, genre, and the like. The blog will feature an ongoing series of contributors all sharing their thoughts on writing and the writing life in a format that asks for the honesty before the polish. We’re asking our bloggers to open up and talk about the messiness inherent in what they do, to help us all remember that we’re not alone in a writing life happening, by and large, before publication. Of course, not all of these pieces will be about messiness, and indeed, some will be quite polished in their own right, but we’re hoping you’ll find something in each post that underscores a part of the writing community we don’t often or always talk about when we talk about writing.
I hope our new blog will give you another way to identify with other writers, and that you’ll embrace this unkempt part of Grist that’s jumped out of bed late to work, tying its tie at stoplights, failing to get its makeup on before the light changes. I hope it will be another reason you keep coming back to us, as we, like you, revise, revise, revise.
Christian Anton Gerard is editor-in-chief of Grist. His first book of poems, Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella, is forthcoming in spring 2014 from WordTech.