Internet Histories | 18 March
Dirty Girls | Bad Editors
Lamenting Reader's Retirement | The Future of Classical Music
Writing, Privilege and Poverty
“In Spring of 1996, my senior year of high school, I documented a group of 8th grade girls who were notorious for their crass behavior and allegedly bad hygiene...."
Michael Lucid was a 16-year-old in an LA after-school programme for educational and cultural development when he filmed “Dirty Girls”. Today, he's a screenwriter and presenter, but his quarter-hour teenage project has suddenly become his signature calling card, with over 175,000 views and counting and a writeup in the LA Weekly.
At Santa Monica's Crossroads School, Lucid was one of the rare kids who gets to interact with anyone – that serendipitous form of generic garrulousness that lets some teenagers talk to the cliques above them, hold the trust of those left outside, and pass on through where others would get singled out. He used the gift well. The 'dirty girls' are a group of quintessential riot grrrls led by two sisters, precociously confident in their look and presciently feminist. Lucid surveyed the gamut of the school's mainstream opinion – amusement, exasperation and plenty of cruel assumptions included – then turns it around to show us the girls themselves and their efforts to right the balance by printing and distributing their own zine on campus.
The first rough cut of the film made some of the girls' social betters recant, and the final 2000 version did the rounds of queer film festivals across the US where it served as a pure moment of recognition to grown women who had been dirty girls themselves. From here, it's an extraordinary time capsule from the use of Liz Phair's 'Batmobile' down and a wonderful testament to teendom's passive cruelty and unprepossessing spirit alike. The best part is learning from the Weekly piece that there's a happy ending – the dirty girls got out and became successful, satisfied adults without bowing or breaking.
My first experience of being published was writing music reviews for the University of Auckland's student magazine Craccum. I've reviewed music (singles, albums, gigs) for something like five other publications since that, and there were several trends. Mostly, reviewing an album (as opposed to writing a story and conducting interviews and research) went unpaid. The turnaround was onerous – you would get assigned several new releases at once and you'd need to have something down on them on paper pronto. And (not always, but mostly) they didn't get much editorial scrutiny – a glaring typo, sure – but the more critical and substantive vetting of how a writer made their case, whether they conveyed a sense of the album, whether they got their facts right, and whether they understood the context of what they'd been tasked with writing? Never if ever.
As an 18-year-old cub I made some horrendous calls (called Conor Oberst the new Dylan, went to great lengths to explain what 'real emo' was and still got it wrong, miraculously wasn't given any rap to review), but it was a print-only pratfall before a very small audience. Now, a hotly-anticipated release is judged first online, and those preliminary write-ups are shared, aggregated and scrutinised. Make it something that's pre-loaded on a tonne of cultural and critical context like the first My Bloody Valentine album in 22 years and the pressure's enormous. Here's what young writer Jessica Andrews had to say on Australian website MusicFeeds:
Being My Bloody Valentine’s first album in over twenty years, you would want this one to be well worth it (I thought it was a little coincidental that they released it so close to the actual Valentine’s Day, but I could just be a hopeless romantic at that).
I hadn’t heard much about this band before; they are completely out of my musical comfort zone, and when they were relevant, I was only a toddler. So when I heard all this hype about their first album in over twenty years having just been released, I figured that I should give it a listen and see what all the fuss is about.
I’m not a huge fan of the ‘shoegazing’ movement; sure it’s nice and chill. I even own a couple of vinyls similar to this to have a listen to while I’m having a few drinks with mates. But I would not usually listen to this type of music in any other situation...
And so on. Say what you will, but at least Andrews is honest to a fault in how she approaches mbv. A more savvy and less scrupulous writer with the same exposure would probably read Wikipedia and steal some adjectives and facts to come across as knowledgeable – and they would probably get away with it.
Kill Your Darlings picks up the thread from here. It's worth reading. Here's what happened, though: Andrews' review of mbv went viral and became a source of scathing criticism and mockery (you can see a sample on MusicFeeds' comment section). MusicFeeds panicked and reposted Andrews' review on their Facebook page, claiming the review was a joke that they'd been in on the entire time – “so bad it was good”, irony, iconoclasm, etc. Except the review wasn't a joke. It was the sincere opinion of an admittedly developing writer:
With this manoeuvre, Musicfeeds brought their tally of editorial failures to three. Their first was to commission or accept a review of a much-anticipated album from a young and inexperienced writer. (Andrews herself admits that she ‘hadn’t heard much about this band before’ and was ‘only a toddler’ during their heyday.) Their second was to publish it in the state it was in, with no or very little editorial oversight. The final and perhaps most damning one was to betray Andrews by presenting the review as a joke when a cursory scan of Musicfeeds’ archive indicates that her take on m b v is entirely consonant with her past album reviews.
Pay's worse online, and the double-edged quid pro quo is your writing's immortality. I'm increasingly uneasy about the way people who nominally call themselves editors will use the work of kids as content and not furnish them with the advantage of actual editing. This isn't just a problem for sites you've never heard of before like MusicFeeds – I actually start to get panicky when I vanish down the Thought Catalog K-hole, looking at the solipsistic and incoherent work of undergraduates or recent graduates that someone making okay money took a two-second look at and decided 'good enough'. If these young men and women hone their craft and want to write for the New York Times in five years time, their online portfolio starts (and therefore ends) with a painful homily about wanting the right kind of boy or girl to roll in leaves with and really experience things from when they were 20. Or maybe they never get to hone their craft at all.
(NB: The Pantograph Punch makes a point of giving feedback on all first drafts it receives from commissioned writers, and generally requesting a second)
On a more optimistic note, if you wanted to feel excited about the state of pop music circa 2013 then you could do a lot worse than check out the new video by Canadian artist Anjulie:
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Not OK[/caption]
When this popped up on my screen last Wednesday, I panicked. "But the internet," I fretted. "How am I going to read the internet?"
There are other RSS feed aggregators, of course, but the retirement of Google Reader marks a slow but monumental shift in the way we consume content online. The Googz cites dwindling usage as their reason for shutting the service down, and the unsympathetic “Google what?” I get from friends appears to support this too - as does the fact that our traffic comes primarily from direct visitors or people clicking through from social media. Mostly social media (that’s probably you: thank you).
There are small dangers to having these as your only options. Your scope narrows. You read what your friends are reading, maybe, and although there are simple solutions – make new friends, create bookmarks, use social media as the New Reader – the internet’s a big place. Between the endless minutes it takes to answer emails and scroll through your various feeds, there’s little time left to explore beyond your bubble. Besides, it’s nice there. It’s warm, and the people are often friendly.
At any rate, my objection isn’t to Twitter, or Facebook – they're an invaluable source of trusted recommendations. Mostly I'm lamenting the movement away from a less ephemeral option. Of hours spent standing quietly by tall shelves, scanning the spines of books collected and unread, registering delight at those once loved, nearly forgotten.
I can't remember the last time I saw Sophie Blackall's beautifully illustrated Missed Connections on Facebook, or Synaptic Stimuli, or the Dalkey Archive's fantastic collection of interviews with contemporary writers. If it weren't for Reader, I'd forget about Superbomba!, a great archive of found photos:
And I've definitely never seen anyone sharing links to Social Neuroscience (probably for the best).
The dull and unchallenging New Zealand Orchestral Sector Review was released about a month ago, but I've only just gotten around to properly having a look through it. It's really uninspiring, and a terrible wasted opportunity. It prompted me to go back and read through the archives of a blog penned by American music writer called Greg Sandow. He's concerned about the future of "classical" music, by which he means orchestras, opera, and chamber music ensembles and the music they play.
So, if you read through many of his posts, you'll get a good sense both of the depth of the issues confronting this sector, and some of the new approaches happening, mostly outside the big organisations. There's often some robust discussion - yes, actual discussion, not just "YOU ARE AN IDIOT AND WHY DON'T YOU LIKE MAHLER HE IZ GOOD" - in the comments, and Greg (I think I'm allowed to think of him as Greg now) often uses these as a jumping off point for his next blog. If you're not up for reading lots of posts, just read this one which succinctly outlines his ideas about what needs to be done. It's pretty relevant to most other endeavours.
And orchestras, big snooze, you might think, and who cares? Well, there's lots of things I can say to rebut that, but I'm also interested in how the trends in this area might translate to other art forms; it's too arrogant if we think that the head-in-the-sand mistakes that have been made in orchestras can't happen in theatre, or jazz, or indie or whatever else.
[caption id="attachment_6137" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Portrait of a formerly young man as a writer[/caption]
There’s this great kind of gag in Girls where the main one, Hannah, keeps wishing for really terrible things to happen to her so she’d have interesting things to write personal essays about.
It’s a puerile, selfish and ultimately self-fulfilling thing for her to say, but as someone who occasionally writes for a living, I guiltily get where she’s coming from. Thing is, though, she says it while living on Mum and Dad’s dime, and feels resentful about it instead of lucky. She fails to realise that if you’re truly the type of person who the world keeps striking about the head, you’re either not going to have much time for writing (what with the daily meagre feat of survival) or you’re going to be so brain-damaged you’ll soon have no aptitude for it.
Writing, privilege and poverty come together at a singular important question: who pays? Last week, in the wake of The Atlantic trying to get someone to send them a feature for free, that’s what Gawker asked. The answer?
No workable consensus was reached, but everyone seemed to agree that paying writers is very important, unless you can't afford to, or unless you're a youngish writer looking for more prominent exposure, in which case writing for free might be a good thing.
Payment for writing is a perennial issue, with some arguing you shouldn’t be paid for what you’d happily do for free, or writing is the last true artisanal craft, or, as above, you should be grateful for the exposure. Sure, but a cultural product is still a product, right?
The author, Cord Jefferson, makes some good points when he relates his own unpaid summer internship experiences and speaks of the concerning Whitening of print culture; you’d think that writing, a fundamentally intellectual pursuit, would be an equal-opportunity employer. Ah, the things we know that just ain’t so.
But it's then incumbent upon all of us to recognize that this is the culture we breed when we offer to pay writers nothing or next to nothing, thereby immediately eliminating anyone who needs a paycheck in order to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads. Some writers may be able to hustle double-duty for a while, filing short stories during the day while waiting tables at night until their big break hits. But the field will still be overpopulated by people who came into it with money and security behind them.
Jefferson ends by suggesting we live in the most creatively toxic environment in living memory, and he’s right (whether or not Amanda ‘fucking’ Palmer is a shameful exploiter or a selfless prodigy is a debate I don’t have enough invested in to care about). Random House, one of the largest publishers in the world, recently announced that their newest four imprints will operate under something of a split-cost arrangement with authors. Authors won’t see any profits until all the print production costs have been recouped by the publisher (whether that's after the first thousand books are sold or the first 10,000 is not stated), and both print and digital marketing costs will be shouldered 50/50 by each party. Essentially, it opens the door to a whole lot of digital vanity publishing by a previously respectable publisher. Rather than betting on authors whose work stirs passion and excitement, Random House will instead minimise risk by giving struggling first-time authors a raw deal. They’ve been almost universally criticised for it.
Question: will books and magazines and blog posts one day get published with those little ‘Fair Trade’ stickers on them?
Answer: srsly, whoever edits Gawker, tell your writers to quit starting sentences and paragraphs with prepositions oh my god. In the meantime, check out this site: http://whopays.tumblr.com, for a look at how much popular websites pay independent writers.
(We pay all our feature writers at the PP, trolol)