Setting goals isn’t always the best creative move

Digital Disruption - Critical Margins

If you do any creative work (and I’m assuming most Critical Margins readers do something creative) you’ll recognize what researcher Kenneth Stanley calls the “objective paradox”: According to Christie Aschwanden over at FiveThirtyEight (“Stop Trying To Be Creative”), the objective paradox is the feeling that “as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.” This hampers the creative process, which requires “blind searching” and “an openness to discovering whatever arises.”

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In Defense of the Present Tense (from

It’s becoming the most popular verb tense in fiction writing, and this article by Alexander Chee at defends it:

As a part time professional ‘creative writing tutor’, I can say I only ever teach the present tense as one tool among many. I do not urge it on my ‘sensitive and artistic storytellers’, or any of the insensitive ones either. I teach students that verbs are the way they create a relationship for the reader to time, and function a little like the way a horizon line might in a picture. As for using it to dodge the ‘politically dodgy’, well, I can’t imagine teaching anyone that way with a straight face—and so that strikes me as something of a straw man. Or, woman, perhaps.

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Interview with Michael Emmerich, Author of “The Tale of Genji”

Quick: what books pop into your head when you think of classics of world literature? Don Quixote? The Arabian Nights? Why do some books become part of the canon of world literature and not merely beloved of specific nations or cultures? In his new book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich discusses a classic of Japanese literature that also became one of the books that cultured people at least know about. What does the tale of The Tale of Genji tell us about reading habits and questions of literary prestige worldwide over the centuries and about Japan’s role in the world? I wrote to ask Mr. Emmerich for an interview. He graciously agreed and this is the result.

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Interview with Devon Powers, Author of “Writing the Record”

The story of how literary genres are born and gain legitimacy fascinates those of us with an interest in cultural matters. How does something like rock criticism come to be seen as a mainstream form of intellectual discourse instead of a fringe one? Who wrote and read this new genre? What was the impact of these new critics and journalists on rock and on the wider culture? These are the questions examined by Devon Powers in her book, Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism. I wrote to ask her for an interview, and this is the result.

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Interview with Aram Sinnreich, Author of “The Piracy Crusade”

Let’s face it — very few of us really understand what is at stake for average users of the Internet in the piracy wars. Our eyes glaze over when we hear about international treaties and copyright law. But in his powerful new book, The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties, Aram Sinnreich argues that free speech and privacy are under threat from cultural cartels in their quest to battle piracy. Scary stuff. I wrote to Mr. Sinnreich to ask for an interview and this is the result.

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Interview with Peter Swirski, Author of From Literature to Biterature



In recent months, I have been exploring books published by academic presses, and while poking around the website of McGill Queen University Press I discovered the book From Literature to Biterature Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution by Peter Swirski. I was intrigued and wrote to Mr. Swirski to ask for an interview. He very courteously consented and this is the result.

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The Vergecast tackles e-book pricing

Many book bloggers have discussed the recent news that the Department of Justice is investigating Apple and several of the major book publishers over price-fixing. Since it’s been covered by many tech, publishing and book sites, I won’t go into details about the case. Plus, I’ll admit to some ignorance of the way books are priced and sold—I’m more interested in understanding the content of books. (For those interested in the DOJ case, check out Tim Carmody’s piece in Wired and this editorial from NPR).

But on Friday, I listened to the Vergecast, a weekly video podcast that reviews tech news for the week. They spent a lot of time talking about the DOJ case and focused on how consumers use e-books. What struck me was that they got an interesting call from a listener who has worked in the publishing industry, and for the first time, I really feel like I get why publishers are scared of e-books.

Here’s the video. Fast forward to the 42 minute mark:

Some brief highlights:

  • Book publishers have a unique product. Unlike music, book stores can’t discount books in the same way because the product works differently. It’s a bottom up, not top-down model (i.e. books sales aren’t based on “first week” sales like music, unless you’re James Patterson, I guess).
  • Books are about peer-to-peer development. That’s why publishers are scared about e-books: they sell more at a lower price, but that doesn’t make money.
  • Most books aren’t sold in bulk, except, again, the James Pattersons and Stephenie Meyers of the world.
  • Book publishers like it when you buy a book based on its cover, essentially. This doesn’t happen with e-books, because most e-book publishers give you a “free sample.” The free sample lets you decide whether or not it’s worth purchasing, which is great for consumers, but not for sales.

And there’s probably more to say, but you should just listen to this guy riff on the publishing industry. I enjoyed it, and I hope you do too.

Three new ways to re-think Digital Literature

In my last blog post, I ended by writing that artists and writers need to use “early e-reading technologies as sandboxes for new modes of literature” and that the e-book, as it is now, doesn’t do enough to push this potential for experimentation. I urged writers to start re-thinking concepts of literature in the digital age.

kindle mixing with a typewriterI am not the only writer out there thinking about the e-book’s new potential. Today, I’d like to highlight three examples of writers who take on this challenge. These three approaches are nothing alike, and none of them do what is typical of the e-book today, which is to take a standard, printed novel and put it on a screen (sort of boring). What all three of these approaches have going for them is that they take standard literary modes (the novel, the poem, the art book) and force them to interact with new digital modes (the Web page, the mix tape, the webcam). Both old and new are needed in order for the reader to gain a full experience. This is significant because with most commercially available digital reading, there is not much attempt to play with form.

So here we go:

1. Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge. This novel takes on a post-9/11 America as its subject matter, but in doing so, it plays with 21st Century notions of reading narrative. Luminous Airplanes is a novel published in the traditional print (or e-book) way, but the novel is only fully realized through, an interactive journal/map that chronicles the novel’s protagonist. As Jesse Miller puts it in an excellent look at Luminous Airplanes over at,

As I clicked my way through La Farge’s hypertext, I had the distinct feeling that I was being prepared to face the very conditions that so troubled the novel’s protagonist, navigating the complex web of decisions that makes up life both on and off the web. La Farge has clearly presented the novel as at a small-scale version of the e-world open for the reader to both reflect on and explore.

Not only is La Farge tapping into the uncertainty of the 21st Century through fiction, he is commenting on the sort of hyperreality faced in the digital landscape and its unknown potential for change.

2. Jason and the Beast, “Made This For You: the Mix Tape as Literature.” Jason Braun is a fellow friend and colleague of mine, and he is doing some cool things with mixed media, re-envisioning what literature can do along the way. Recently, Jason wrote an article (“If the Book is Dead, then Why Buy a Zombie?”) for Jane Friedman’s blog where he presents his own vision for what the e-book should do:

The future of the book is limited only by our definition. We could pour narratives, poems, memoirs, how-tos, and manifestos into innumerable forms:

  • Mix tapes
  • Audio tours
  • Tagging online photos with links to audio, wikis, and narrative maps
  • GPS-enabled apps that start the campfire songs for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as they reach the Ozark mountain peak corresponding to longitude and latitude pre-programmed by the scout master.
  • An e-book in which the “author” has allowed readers not just to choose their own adventures, but to write the work’s last chapter and/or change it daily according to the number of click votes it receives on the book’s webpage. That would beat the hell out of book club.

This vision of the future of the book becomes reality in Jason’s latest album, “Made This For You: The Mix Tape as Literature,” which is available at his web site, In the album, Jason mixes his poetry and lyrics with clips of interviews (including some approaches to digital literature from Ander Monson and Al Katkowsky), and random snippets of conversation. In this way, the mix tape feels more like a modern work of literature than many realist works of fiction. It’s great stuff.

3. Between Page and Screen by Amaranth Borsuk & Brad Bouse. This interactive book takes an extended metaphor (the way we interact with text) and turns it into a narrative. The book itself is actually a collection of printed squares on each page that work like a QR Code works, except they interact with a reader’s webcam. In order to read the text, the reader must turn on his/her webcam and position the open book near the webcam. Animated text appears on the screen, but while reading, the reader is forced to reflect on the act of reading–like reading into a digital mirror. Design blog imprint talks about it in this way:

Soon enough, the reading experience pulls you in like any other. Word-play animations splice up the word “hear” into “he” and “ear.” The letters between P and S speak to the project’s larger themes, making assertions like “page don’t cage me in” and “a screen is a shield, but also a veil”; asking questions like “What are boundaries anyway?”

So even though it is not a traditional literary approach, the experience is one similar to reading a novel or any other work.

Of course, there are many more ways to play with digital literature. This represents starting points, and I hope that more ideas will come about as technology changes.

Have any other interesting or experimental approaches to literature? Share them, with links, in the comments.