Art, embodiment, and internal necessity
There is a cohort of the population, all of the members of which have submitted some kind of poem, essay, or story of some sort . . . at least something . . . to a literary journal. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve read all the legends of people who got their big start in the writers’ world from publishing poems and stories in lit mags—people like J. D. Salinger, who wrote heaps of short stories for magazines before he published The Catcher in the Rye. They’ve read that passage in This Side of Paradise where the hero, Amory Blaine, is bored one day so he writes out a short story and sends it to a magazine, and they pay him for it—our cohort says “why couldn’t that happen to me?” They’ve leafed through things like The New Yorker, which is full of stories and little poems by all sorts of freelancers, and they are inspired and encouraged. And certainly it doesn’t hurt that there are piles of these kinds of magazines all over the place, with submission windows wide open, just waiting to publish your masterpiece. Of course there are the big ones like Poetry and The Paris Review, but they grade down through Prairie Schooner and the above-mentioned New Yorker; The Atlantic, which publishes poems every once in a while; and all the way down to magazines run entirely on the internet, the ones which won’t give you a straight answer about who the editor is or what kinds of poems they like. Every little community college with any literary pretensions at all has a magazine; my hometown trade school, known for its culinary and welding programs, has one. These magazines are often given names like Parallels or The Prism or The [insert geographical location here] Review and present themselves as willing and ready to read your submission and get back to you within six weeks (but don’t submit your poem anywhere else in the meanwhile). Of course, nearly everyone’s literary effusions are rejected—how could they not be? There are hundreds of these magazines, but there are orders of magnitude more writers trying to get published in them. The magazines have no trouble remaining afloat because they can pick and choose what they want to publish at their inscrutable and arbitrary whim—and the writers keep submitting, running on the fumes of that possible acceptance letter, because it’s self-evident that writers such as Joyce Carol Oates or Billy Collins had to start somewhere, and who’s to say it isn’t finally time for the fresh new crop of poets and short story writers to get the glory? Thus the lit mag-industrial complex rolls on, sustained by its own hype. But there’s really nothing wrong with that. Writers must publish if they want to get their name out there, and the only other options are for them to start a blog or to make a bunch of chapbooks on their printer at home and distribute them at the local coffee shops. Both of these are perfectly fine ways to disseminate one’s own writing, and in today’s digital culture, the blog option can indeed be the magic key to a rewarding and fulfilling literary career. But you’ve got to be willing to write for the long haul; it could take years for your blog to get noticed by the kind of people who can then help you move on to bigger things. And there’s always a “work in progress” aura around blogging; what is presented never feels like a finished body of work. You can always go back and edit the piece again after you post it, but there is something absolutely final about seeing one’s own work in print—THAT is how the poem should look, THAT is exactly how the story ought to be; THIS is the version of the text my future editors will use for the collected edition of my works. Despite doomy pronouncements of the end of print media and the small presses, literary magazines will never go away. There’s too much of an aesthetic about them. The written word, for all its black-squiggle abstractedness, is still tied to its physical medium in a way the other arts aren’t. Consider music, for instance. The cost of getting a well-made, professional-quality CD is prohibitive for all but the most dedicated amateurs. Hence, we have legions of Bandcamps, Soundclouds, little YouTube channels with four subscribers and 27 views, where musicians are putting out some of the BEST MUSIC OUT THERE. Trust me—there is, right now, music on Bandcamp that is every bit as good as any other band you can name—and you will never hear it. You won’t be able to find it. There’s just so much that you will have to sift through before you can discover that one track which speaks to your soul. Truly, Jeff Tweedy said it right on “The Late Greats” from Wilco’s A Ghost is Born: “The best band will never get signed—K-settes starring Butcher’s Blind—so good, you won’t ever know—they never even played a show—you can’t hear ‘em on the radio.” You might be able to find the paintings and photos you want to see because they are all on Instagram and that is sorted algorithmically—just get on there and start to ctrl+v your own favorite pictures, and Mark Zuckerberg’s app will do the work of finding similar artists for you. Or you could venture into Reddit, looking for art. It’s there; you just haven’t found it yet. Keep looking! Is the next Van Gogh laboring in obscurity, posting scans of their paintings to some Reddit board? You won’t know unless you look! And we haven’t even started talking about Tumblr or Patreon or Etsy or Pinterest! What does this all mean? What are we to make of all this creativity? I said at the start that there is “a cohort” of people like this—but you will never be able to pick them out of a crowd. They don’t all wear the same clothes or do their hair the same. They come from every race, class, ethnicity, or age group you can think of. They live in the beating heart of the city; they live way out in some cabin in the mountains of Montana. They are sixteen years old and they feel very awkward about their body; they are forty-one with a great job and beautiful kids. They hang out with three other writers every Friday night and argue about Hemingway for hours. They never leave their house. But they keep making pictures, and stories, and poems, and little art films they shoot on their phone about how the birds are flying around the tops of the apartments, or they invent a new microgenre of music that no one has ever imagined before and release four hours’ worth of it at once. These aren’t “content creators”—these are artists, people who throw away stacks of paper trying to get the exact shading on the cheeks in their boyfriend’s chalk pastel portrait; who weep because they got the reverb on the guitar line just right; who go to the campus poetry reading open mic with a handful of sonnets but who get frightened and can’t manage to go up onto the stage. They won’t get discouraged, though—they will come back next time, with a firmer resolve. They have a whole sheaf of rejection letters from the lit mags, but they keep submitting, and they will never stop. Their art is powered by an internal necessity. And they are everywhere! They could be anyone! You have no idea who they are! It was an absolutely beautiful evening, earlier this week, and I was mowing the yard but ran out of gas. There’s a station about three blocks away from me so I went to get some. On the way I noticed many other people also working in the yard—families, couples, or soloists; mowing, trimming weeds, spreading mulch around the irises, doing something with the tomatoes. And these weren’t the only people outside. I was passed on my left by a very apologetic cyclist on the sidewalk. People were walking their dogs. Strolling their baby. Even the goth kid with blue hair was taking a walk around the block. Why are they all doing this? Because the weather was perfect! Don’t think for a moment that all those incorporeal minds you interact with on the internet are spirits of pure ether; they all inhabit bodies, and if they don’t like being out in the climate there’s some other physical sensation they just love. I have no idea who these strangers are—I’ll probably never talk to them, never know their opinions and beliefs, but I do know two things about them, two things I can be absolutely sure of because they are true of me too and we are all humans—they all, every one of them, inhabit a body capable of feeling and sensation; and they all have a desire to express themselves, whether through their clothes and makeup or whether through paintings and music and poetry or whatever other kind of art there is.
And no AI art generator will ever feel like that.