Literature Is About Taking Time

Question: Why do you think digital culture is unfriendly toward literature?

Rick Moody: Well there’s one reason above all others and that it that I think literature is about taking its time.  I mean the book as a form not only requires you to engage with it over a period of days or even weeks.  And I give an example; it’s canted in the direction of history as a form.  What’s interesting about Gutenberg’s Bibles, for example, that they’re still around 500 years later.  And when you compare that with digital storage mediums, paper and books just looks like the better deal in terms of history.  So on the one hand you have a foreign digital culture that’s really about haste and about getting to the meat of the subject as quickly as possible and then moving onto the next thing.  And on the other hand, with literary objects, literary cultural artifacts, you have a form that’s about taking its time and doing what it needs to do in a really prolonged and almost lazy way.  So, the two seem inimical to one another.

Question:
With the rise of the Internet, people read more text every day than before.  How does this affect the way fiction is written?

Rick Moody: I think it remains to be seen how it affects the way people are writing, but that it’s beginning to become clear.  And on the one hand, that’s evident with blogs.  A lot of writing in blogs is superficial and it’s not revised and so it’s got a lot of carelessness about it.  So that’s one example of how it happens.  

How it affects writers of literary fiction is sort of coming into view, but one way that I notice it is that books that were written primarily on a screen and never printed out and worked with by hand are now more numerous than they used to be.  And I imagine sometimes that I can kind of tell.  There are certain writers who work really quickly and the project goes straight from their screen to the editor to the copy editor to the printer—and it never got dealt with the way people used to deal with prose, which was to patiently revise.  And that period of time in which one patiently revises is a period of time in which you can make important decisions about whether that particular passage, or that entire idea, or even the book itself is really worthy or not.  And if you’re just sort of working fast and hitting "send," you miss out on that opportunity to think about what you’re doing.  

I think if people feel this pressure to sort of be instantaneous, we lose the kind of "longers" of thinking about what we’re doing and it may not be immediately apparent, but that’s happened.  But at some point we may wake up one day and realize that reflection has gone out of thinking entirely.  

Question:
Is the format of the story changing to fit our shorter attention spans?

Rick Moody:  The format of the story is changing if you think of online media as being a big part of the project now.  And a lot of literary magazines are online and that was never the case, but it’s a lot cheaper to do it that way.  And so now, especially poetry magazines and so forth, are as often online as they are in print form.  And I think insofar as work appears there, indeed it’s getting shorter.  I mean if you’re going to go pick a site that I like, like Fictionaut.com is a really good literary website right now.  You know, it’s a lot easier to write a story for Fictionaut that’s six pages than a story that’s 15 or 25 pages.  People are just less likely to read the 25-page story on the screen.  So the form itself selects for shorter stories.  

I think books that are being published in the old fashioned way, which is to say on paper, can still be kind of long.  My new book is longish, actually, but people are still willing to be patient with the old-fashioned kinds of books.  The problem starts to become evident when we’re pressured in the direction of publishing online.  

Question: Do young people read differently than they used to?

Rick Moody: I’ve been asking around a lot and particularly paying attention to the sort of under-12 set, and trying to figure out how they read and what they think about reading.  I mean they’re all playing the little video games all day long and so forth—and yet, in my engagement with younger people, the kids are reading still and they aren’t afraid of books on paper.  You know, we hear all this sort of conventional wisdom about college-age students and so on just being online, online, online all the time, and I think they are online a lot.  But I also think that the book, the old fashioned book, still has a lot to recommend it, and that many of these young people are still finding that there are things between covers that are seductive to them and so they’re still going there for those kinds of stories.  

And so I’m not willing to sign on to the idea that the book is dead and we should bury it now and move on to the next form.  I think there’s still the likelihood that a lot of people will go to the book for something they can’t get elsewhere.  

Question: We consume many more stories today than people did in the past. Is that changing what is being written?

Rick Moody: What I suspect, I mean, on the one hand, that strikes me as a really good thing... I’m glad there’s a lot of stories around. I think that psychologically, emotionally, there’s a need for what story can do and by that I mean a narrative that begins at point A and goes to point B that really travels somewhere and contains some kind of earthly wisdom in the fact that its transit.  That kind of story I think we’re sort of hardwired to find it valuable in a certain way.  And I’m sure that the proliferation of those stories has to do with the fact that we do find them valuable. 

That strikes me as great, the problem comes if the shape and manner of all those stories is identical. If every time we read a story we know exactly where the epiphany of the story is going to happen and what the payoff’s going to be and how we’re gonna feel.  In that circumstance they all become sentimental, or they all become melodramatic. They become degraded in a way.  What I imagine might happen and what would be most exciting to me is if that then suggested new ways of telling stories and a need to try to go further and to develop new story structures rather than relying on the tried-and-true in the same ways.  

I find that some of contemporary fiction, as it’s iterated in the slick magazines and so forth, does just what I’m saying. It hits the same moments, the same points, we react in the same ways, the prose feels identical not matter the writer.  And to me that’s tiring, but it also makes possible a lot of experimental approaches to thinking about story and that’s something to be optimistic about.  And it’s especially possible to be optimistic I think if we’re then also saying, "How can we use the abbreviated attention spans that adhere to the Web to our advantage, and try to come up with unusual story structures that thrive in that environment?"

Recorded July 28, 2010

Interviewed by David Hirschman

Digital culture is about getting to the meat of a subject as quickly as possible and then moving onto the next thing. Literature, on the other hand, is about doing what it needs to do in a prolonged—almost lazy—way.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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