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'The internet makes us feel alone. It is its primary paradox.'

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29.04.2020.


You've been a critic most of your professional life, you've been a president of the National Book Critics Circle, an editor of Granta, you've written for different major newspapers and magazines both in the USA and the UK, you've published your own magazine Freeman's. How has the media coverage of literature changed since the beginning of the 21st century?

It has gone through a revolution -- moving ever more from paper to the internet. In 2000, for example, in America, one in four Americans got their news online. Now that number is nearly 40%. It has become mainstream to tweet and use social media. More than a billion and a half people the world over are on Facebook. The newspaper industry has been the fastest shrinking businesses in the globe, especially in America, taking with it fast chunks of essential reporting. A democratic belief in writing to a broader group than intellectuals. We now live in a world driven by powerful algorithms which are constantly studying consumers, examining them intimately, individually, so that tech giants can give each of us more of what we appear to want. As a result, there are far fewer accidental encounters with literature in the pages of say a local newspaper. This is becoming true across much of the globe. This is, to my mind, deeply distorting to open debate - including in literature. On a fundamental level, it means we see the same people and ideas - if you can call certain likes and dislikes that -- over and over again. I am made hopeful though by the numbers of writers and thinkers who are beginning to question this scenario, the values of speed and technological connection. I find more and more of my students are keen to make something, an actual object -- with their text or a literary journal, magazine. There is push back, in other words.

How has the book publishing industry changed in the same period and has it been affected by the changes in the media?

Again this has been a vast change -- the most successful large publishers today in many markets are the ones that know how to trap or buy and use metadata, so they can find, say, where people are interested in honey, or the history of labor movements. They buy this information and then microtarget those customers using sophisticated advertising schemes. The biggest owner of such data is, of course, Amazon, which owns upwards of 50% (!) of the book trade in some nations. This approach creates a feedback loop, in which to publish well you need data and to get the data you need a behemoth like Amazon to exist.

The ultimate networks, though, are always human networks, they are hard to commodify, and their pleasures are not so easily turned to 0s and 1. So simultaneously to this drift toward a fascistic consumer model, small and local groups -- be it bookstores, salons (you know this from a reading series) nonprofits, and literary festivals -- have become ever more important. People don't want a computer recommending their book, they want a person. In many parts of the globe, in Romania, in Italy, in Brazil, there have been a way of new small publishers stepping in to create a more humanized space for literature and engagement.

The lament about people not reading books has become white noise and still there have never been more books published. However, since the economic crisis in 2008 we have witnessed closing down of public libraries, independent bookshops and even big bookshop chains struggling to survive. What is your take on general reading habits? Do people read more, or less, or different than before? How does this affect literature?

Books are and always will be important, and stories even more so. Independent bookstores, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, were doing brilliantly in America for the reasons I stated above. Partnerships with festivals and local reading groups had helped them all over the world. In many countries, though, studies show people begin reading less at the end of their teenage years, and drop off a cliff in their 20s...only some of them to return back, maybe, if they get older. That is in essence where one part of the battle lies. The other part, to my mind, is in literacy -- actual and cultural. Some nations, like the US, have been undereducating their population for years as the values of a social welfare state come under fire by right wing idealogues. The result is a vast chunk of the US population does not read at all. This creates enormous risks and paves the wave to the idiocies out of which demagogic populism arises.


Literary festivals are not a new phenomenon but they seem to have exploded in the same period. You travel a lot to festivals, curate some and in general are very familiar with the scene. Where do they fit in the large picture? Can their proliferation be seen as a response to the digital change?

The internet makes us feel alone. It is its primary paradox. The network which supposedly connects us in fact sharpens the blades of unwanted solitude. Books are a primary comfort of solitude, wanted or otherwise; books also drive conversation as much as any media. After reading a great novel, or work of history, a collection of poems, many people want to talk about and discuss their meaning. This is one major way that we have produced meaning for hundreds of years. As more and more life goes online, and those interactions mimic but do not deliver the feeling of intimacy and debate, the hunger only grows for those in their real form. In person. Even if it is slightly performed, as it is at a literary festival. So it's no surprise to me at all that people come to festivals in the millions across Europe every year. Also, a festival atmosphere - because it involves music and food, friendship -- gives people a kind of shared ritual of celebration, across boundaries. Finally, a festival is a perfect environment in which to present new ideas or writers from cultures outside the one in which the events are held. This has always been important to literary culture: finding and talking about what is new.

What is the position of labour in this context, especially precarious labor in cultural field? How do critics and writers live of their work now? How will this pandemic affect their lives?

Across the globe, in the age of digital capital, wherein labour markets are being eroded by mechanisation and protections for workers have been all but crushed, the value of human labour has approached absolute zero. What does it mean to be a unit of labor now in such a world? Is a click a unit of labor? It's certainly not an hour of work. In America, for instance, the minimum wage hasn't been raised in any real way in decades. The COVID crisis is an opportunity to finally address that. But I'm not hopeful. The stock market and the rumor and corporate largesses that move it have nothing to do with labor any more -- even though it's constantly referred to as if it were a meaningful marker of economic health. Here's an example. In America, on the day jobless numbers reached a new all-time high, 6.6 million more people applying for unemployment, the US stock market rose nearly 3%. It's psychotic.

What worries me for writers and people who make and distribute forms of reading is how knee-capped they have already been by the internet's focus on what is free. You can read many publications for free, watch scores of movies and television shows for free, so of course it is virtually impossible for publications to pay many of their staff well, let alone the writers making the 'content.' In a world in which advertising clicks runs online sites, or remains deeply important, what is clicked on, or draws attention, has enormous value -- value greater than its meaning, or cultural value. Not surprisingly, in this degraded information environment, with writers paid badly, and needing attention more than ever, we have evolved into a situation of constant scandal. Watch literary twitter and it is one explosion of cultural anxiety happening faster than the next, usually with the same participants setting the terms. It's absurd and it has nothing to do with complexity and rational debate. It's a kind of version of Hunger Games for writers.

As literary critic you inteprete the text, but as an author and editor, from your poetry collection Maps through Freeman's magazine and anthologies Tales of Two Cities and Tales of Two Americas, all the way to your latest book Dictionary of the Undoing you've been more of a geographer trying to outline the world, to map it out in order to understand it. Interpretation and orientation seem to be your two obsessions?

Maps have of course been used to distort and project, but in their most enlightened forms, they grapple with what is fundamentally there. They ask what is its nature, they try to respect its scale, and the best of them took a lifetime. I find that the ways of knowing which we think are vast and probing are increasingly clear to be limiting. Like the internet, due to the reasons I've stated above, and how it shows its user more of what it has asked for before. The way this tool has distracted us from what is happening in our villages, towns and cities, and the way power and wealth has been piled up in the hands of a very, very few, demands we step away and look around us. Go out into the world and see it, even if it's just the areas around your home. What is the state of that miniature state? Who is it overlooking and why? Is it fair? These are the questions that fire me up and make me get up each morning.

Social and political commentary is very important for your authorial and editorial work. As a white male editor, you're very aware of the privileged position you occupy and part of that awareness is insisting on inclusion of literary voices from different economic, gender, racial, linguistic, geographical, social and other perspectives. What does it mean for literature and what does literature mean for that type of awareness?

Being aware of this privilege is an essential task for an editor, but making a kind of drama or performance of that awareness takes up time, energy, and ultimately space; so an equal value to that awareness are those of humility, of selflessness -- not in the religious sense of the word. But rather the getting out of the way sense of the world. I put my name to my journal because I stand behind its work, but it is not about me; the best parts of it are the people who write for it and what they are doing in its pages.

The next issue of Freeman's has a 30,000 word essay in it by Semezdin Mehmedinovic which is one of the most profound meditations on love - and care, and how we are ennobled by these activities - I've ever read. In those same pages, the novelist Maaze Mengiste, in far briefer fashion, thinks about the notions of mothering and love which were passed down to her through stories and example, from a grandmother. The prism of collaborative work only works if all parts of the prism are considered of equal value. So what does that make of the editor? In the best case, that just makes me - or him or her or them - the person holding the stone up to the light.

Your latest book Dictionary of the Undoing lists words that American society (and I guess many other societies in the world) has abused or mistreated. It is a direct response to the political context created in the past decades and laid bare by Trump's regime. What's language got to do with it?

Absolutely everything -- language powers our reality show. If it grows cloudy or begins to be flecked by distortions or outright vandalism, we begin to struggle to see around those things....you hear a word citizen enough uttered to me, say, White Men, it immediately becomes a tool to chisel a population down. Rather than enlarge it. My goal with that book was to take words which had begun to suffer in that way, and open them back up, show that the repair they required was only a kind of stepping away from the cycles of dialogue in which they were used, and a bit of polishing, with thought.

You also discuss the idea of corporeality and the lack of awareness that we're part of natural world. It has become painfully prophetic. What has this health crisis reveal about American society?

Our bodies are as sick as our culture. In America, our food and water supply have grown poisoned by corporate malfeasance; they have been neglected by government care. Many people in the country were living -- 80% (!) -- paycheck to paycheck, and were shopping at stores which only sold fast or packaged food, which was not good for you. Making and distributing this kind of food has been disastrous for our environment, and there has been a well-financed, relentless assault on the possibility of giving Americans affordable healthcare. Currently, right now, the federal government is suing various states to try to take people off the health care roles of Obamacare. During the COVID crisis! I am sure some of your readers follow Aleksandar Hemon on social media, but he is not wrong when he says the only conclusion you can glean from this kind of government behavior is that those in power want to kill people. Anyway, my feeling is the collective vulnerability that is being experienced right now is an opportunity to question the health of the nation, its food supply, how it provides healthcare, what the government protects workers from. That it could be an enlarging moment if we survive it and get a chance to vote our way into a more forward thinking government. In the meantime, I think all of us -- here or where your readers are - can participate in making such an enlarging moment by slowing down and thinking about language, the words we use, the assumptions they carry. Those, after all, are things we deploy every day, even if its just in the noisy quiet of our own heads.

Covid-19 has changed profoundly how we deal with the world. That's why it's ironic to think that in Dictionary of the Undoing you call for slowness and the need for physical proximity, the spaces where one can be with others in a meaningful interaction in order to change political reality. How do you see that from this experience? What can technology and virtual world offer?

We all need, to some degree, tenderness, physical care, meaning, and a feeling of belonging. We also need to give. Indeed, most of the studies which have been done on happiness show that people who donate or help with their time and bodies feel much happier than those who do not. The internet offers a powerful hit of tribal belonging but it is not so great at the other things here. Nations are similar -- they might provide constructs, but sometimes they do not reach all the way down and touch us. So we need to do that locally. Turn off the distraction that pulls us into polarized pre-determined debates and do what we can in the world right in front of us. We need to reacquaint ourselves with where we are and who we live among. Sometimes, that is indeed not possible, due to disability, or danger; but in many cases it is right there, waiting for our care or capacity to create better spaces. Virtual technology can facility this -- make it easier to figure out how and where to meet. But ultimately, as COVID-19 is making clear, we want to be somewhere together -- not on a zoom call.

Your new book Tales of Two Planets scheduled for August is the anthology of texts written by writers from developed and developing world and it discusses climate change. What can you tell us about it?

It's a book that relies upon the idea above -- that we need to look at the world in front of us, to fathom how to live in it with any kind of ethical integrity -- but it hopes to create a broader global collective out of that activity. So there are writers in the book writing from the Himalayas, Iceland, Brazil and Burundi -- and many places in between -- describing how the climate crisis is being felt where they are right now. Across these tales many similarities begin to appear. You'll notice how corruption often stands in the way of making true change - whether it’s Beirut or America.

Across the stories, in Kenya or Argentina, there's also a contempt within societies at poverty, even as the poor stand to suffer from this climate crisis. In other words, the climate crisis will only increase the gap between haves and have nots. Finally, though, you might also see that a communitarian spirit lies right between the crust of power and disfunction; how people have always helped each other, never more so in times of need. My hope is that people leave the book with that idea. That it is up to us to do something, as so many governments have washed their hands before a catastrophe that will effect us all -- and it can be avoided still, just.

***

John Freeman (born 1974) is an American writer and a literary critic. He was the editor of the literary magazine Granta until 2013, the former president of the National Book Critics Circle, and his writing has appeared in almost 200 English-language publications around the world, including The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal.

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