In a recent essay about electronic communication in Slate, Tim Harford begins by saying, “It stands to reason that distance is dead.” Then he gives four reasons why that argument is mostly crap. And when Cris Mazza suggested that for this blog entry I engage in a fun bit of studied self-pity by considering all the things I’m missing out on by choosing to reside so far away from the living, breathing scene of Contemporary American Literature (hereinafter “CAL”), I went and had another look at Harford’s opening proposition.
It’s still, as he argues, mostly crap, but perhaps not quite to the same degree in the field I’m addressing here as on the prairie he crosses. For my money, distance as re: CAL is in fact not dead, nor even dying, but pretty well beat up, as e-means land blow after blow--albeit not equally to all parts of the body. Which means that while I had no prior intention of turning this into an on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other, manure-but-also-flowers type exercise, it may well shape up that way regardless.
I’ve come up with four Ways in Which I May Very Well Have Suffered Horribly Without Ever Knowing It as a result of my varying but generally appreciable distance from CAL (and for those of you keeping score at home, it’s been nearly four years for me and my family here in China, and before that eight years in Peru, and before that a bunch of places with mainly hard-to-spell names): logistics, learning/craft, schmoozing/networking, and parties. Obviously, those four categories can (and perhaps most often do) intermingle. But to keep my brain from melting down, let’s pretend for a moment that they don’t.
Logistics is the easiest category to dispense with: the interwebsurfnet thing that all the kids are talking about these days has this aspect of distance on the ropes. I rarely have trouble getting manuscripts in or out, and editing sessions are, I think, faster and easier than ever. And while it’s true that overseas magazine subscriptions cost a little more than the regular kind, it’s hardly an overwhelming difference.
Learning/craft is perhaps a stickier wicket. The conferences and readings and seminars and workshops that together constitute a good chunk of CAL have for the most part been something that I could only imagine from afar, kind of like Britney’s recent meltdown, rather than something I could participate in firsthand, like Britney’s forthcoming recovery, assuming she ever decides to come to me for advice, and I can think of something useful to say. The only exception to this in the past decade or two has been Francis Ford Coppola’s online workshop, Zoetrope, which I discovered in 1998 or thereabouts, while I was living in a small and still-smaller-feeling desert town near the Peruvian border with Ecuador; Zoetrope brought me into touch with a number of extremely talented writers and critiquers, which was something I very much needed at the time, and still often do. Not unrelatedly, thanks to the great generosity of the webpage editors of many literary journals, I have easy access to nearly as much contemporary work as anyone anywhere else, and can study it at my leisure. Summing the writers at Zoetrope with those found in these journals and the authors of the books in my small but steadfast ex-pat library, I’m not sure I have any right to plead for additional instruction.
Schmoozing/networking, though, has for the most part been a non-starter. As Harford is at pains to point out in his article, electronic means are much better at maintaining relationships than at establishing them in the first place. Certain moments in this world still need a handshake. Trust comes sooner with eye-contact. On the other hand, the technical term for my level of interpersonal networking savvy is “sucky,” so even if I had been invited to and present for any of the moments in question, they may well not have helped any. And I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. That which hardly needs saying: in our cleanest heart of hearts, we all want this business to be all and only about the quality of the work, not about who you met at MacDowell. Furthermore, I was fortunate in that mail (e- and regular, working in conjunction) sufficed for finding an agent and then an editor. And these days, there are book webpages and personal webpages and Facebook and MySpace to close the gap slightly further. (Yes, I have a page at MySpace. How do I feel about that? Well, as Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said of the French Revolution: it’s still too early to tell. But I’ve met some great folks there, and some magnificent writers with whom I would otherwise have had no clear form of exchange, and that’s all to the good.) Finally, full disclosure, I did get to do a little of this in the course of my first, brief, and thus far only book tour last year. And it was totally fun!
I’ve saved partying for last, because here distance is still the undefeated champ. While the rest of you were throwing down at Plimpton’s crib, and romping in the bushes at Bread Loaf, and standing uproariously still so that David Foster Wallace could, between mugs of tequila, shoot haiku-inscribed tangerines off of your heads, I was, well, doing whatever I was doing at the time. (Mainly walking around. Also, looking at things. This is what I like: walking and looking.)
Now: would I trade a single moment of that walking and looking and et cetera for any other given moment spent luxuriating in the glories of CAL? No, I really wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t envy the hell out of everyone who has! All of which means that I’m very much looking forward to the tour coming up this October to push my first collection of stories, and to the actually real reality-based realness of whatever the folks at Dzanc have in store. And for the record, Mr. Wallace, I’d very much appreciate it if you’d save a round for me, in both senses.