Monthly Archives: June 2016

Release The Krake––Er, SURFACE TENSIONS!

not what is actually being released

*not what is actually being released

I am going to interrupt my “Surface Questions” series – which, by the way, could use some more questions, if you’re at all interested in receiving a free copy of Surface Tensions (read the gist in previous posts) – due to a surprise. Namely, at least some distributors (Amazon seems to be out of stock) are releasing Surface Tensions today. If you preordered the thing, it’s either at or on its way to your doorstep right now. I’ll still do the question draw on July 1st, but I’d like to switch gears on this Big Deal Day (BDD, for short).

I’m excited to release this book into the world. I’ve worked harder on Surface Tensions than anything else. I’ve devoted my heart, soul, mind, strength, anxiety, frustration, perfectionisty issues, all that stuff to it. I’ve spent many hours on individual sentences. I’ve edited and edited. I’ve by turns delighted and despaired over it. For an entire summer, it took over my heart and mind like a crazy intractable virus. All of that led to today and to the upcoming months.

I recently listened to Louis C.K. talk about the process of working on his most recent show, Horace and Pete; I’ve heard him breathlessly ramble on about it for a full 90 minutes on WTF. Listening to C.K., I felt an acute sense that, for one who hasn’t worked on a creative project of that sort of scale, effort, heart, and intensity, he must sound like a bit of a loon, maybe even a bit of a narcissist: self-obsessed through creative obsession. (This is why you can sense many creative people squirm when they’re asked about their own projects; they feel the tug of narcissism and shun it.) But I also understood C.K.’s bubbly, breathless intensity: it’s kind of crazy to work on a project of massive, life-changing proportions in secret for many months before sending it out into the world. It’s only sensible to want to ramble on about it. (This blog has been my form of rambling.)

Unfortunately, the press declared that C.K.’s project was a failure. I hope that doesn’t happen with Surface Tensions, but I also acutely understand that, even though I’ve put a lot of effort into the book, that doesn’t mean that it’s automatically great. I get this oh-too-well. I’ve felt the spectre of non-greatness loom throughout the entire creative process. When I started working on what became Surface Tensions, my goal was to simply write a book that wasn’t bad. There were days of badness. I felt them and I took them hard; I sent my editor frazzled emails, full of ideas for editing and further drafts and badness-fixing.

But something happened at some transformative point; I can’t even tell you when, exactly. It was probably less one point than a slow transformation over time. All I can say was that at some moment(s) in time, I stopped feeling bad and started feeling happy about the book. I  felt that Surface Tensions was the book that it needed to be: it took on its own life to the extent that major edits felt somehow disloyal, disfiguring, wrong. And then I felt peace. I’m sure it still has some issues, of course. But I feel in my gut that it reached a point – a  pivot point that perhaps a lot of art reaches? – when complaints and dislikes will have as much to do with personal preference as with the work itself. It’s what it needs to be, and that’s kind of beautiful.[1]

So I hope you dig it. I have a couple (helpful, I hope) reading tips:

  1. For the less academically-minded among you, certain passages might seem complicated or wordy. I encourage you to avoid feeling intimidated or annoyed. Don’t worry too much about that stuff; keep charging through. It all leads back to real life, I promise. Knowing every thinker and theorist and idea isn’t essential to digging the book as a whole; stuff is only there if it helps illuminate and bring us back to things that really matter to all of us.
  1. For the more academically-minded among you, parts of this book might seem weirdly, embarrassingly everyday. I encourage you to stick with it; I’m putting ideas to the test.
  1. For the non-religious, I encourage you to let down your guard a little. I’m not trying to manipulate or convert you by any means, believe me. I’m trying to engage my own life experience as honestly and openly as possible. You don’t have to buy into aspects of my experience at all. I don’t even want that from you! All I want is intellectual and emotional integrity from both of us.
  1. For the religious, I encourage you to let down your guard a little. I’m not trying to demolish the Church with my critique, to get even with people from my past, to do anything brash or manipulative. I’m working through my stuff, clearly, but it’s my stuff and my stuff alone – I have no agenda,beyond the desire to write with loving, self-aware openness regarding my own life and the world in which we live.
  1. If I mention you in the book, even in a buried way, it is not the Ultimate Subtweet. Translation for non-Twitter users: it’s not a passive aggressive way to get back or lash out due to something you did. Like Mary Karr, I only write about people I love. I’ll say it again: I only write about people I love. I wouldn’t take the time to think about you, to even wrestle with your impact on my life, if you didn’t fill a significant, meaningful spot in my heart.

Finally, if you like the book, please tell your friends about it. Please share it. I’m not doing this to make money; I don’t have to worry about finances, fortunately. I merely believe in my heart of hearts that this book can help us bond together in loving unity, that it can help us use media to pull ourselves out of ourselves for the sake of interrelationship. I believe that it can help us think about media in ways that will make the world a legitimately better place.

And I can only do this through you. I once believed, as you might, that publishing a book implies instant cultural credence and popularity, instant opportunity for fame and success. The truth is, there are a lot of books out there, a lot that aren’t good at all, and a lot that go out of print very quickly. My publisher is wonderful, but it doesn’t publish Malcolm Gladwell or Rick Warren: the sort of writers that gain major book tours and rocket themselves to the top of bestseller lists.

This book will only be as successful as you make it. If you read Surface Tensions and enjoy it, if it moves you, if it makes you laugh and think, please tell your friends. Please tweet about it. Please Instagram about it. Please Facebook about it. Use media to allow it to help us grow together in what Stanley Cavell calls the “whirl of organism.”

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

Happy reading!

 

[1] I don’t say “it is what it needs to be” as a way to defensively deny its issues, although there were definitely points in the process when I did that as a way to squirm and avoid important edits. There’s a district difference, I’ve found, between saying “don’t challenge the art, bro!” as a way to remain stubbornly ignorant of error, and to acknowledge a legitimate state of peace felt toward a work that’s been thoroughly tinkered with and challenged and worked through.

Surface Question 2: “Most Influential Author?” (Part 2)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, comment or email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 2: When writing this book was there any one author whose works influenced you the most? Also, what are the odds of a lolcat translation of your book being released?

I suppose I have one more short response to this question. There is another Zadie Smith essay in which she says, regarding novel writing:

“Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. I want to hear every member of the orchestra – I’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if my sentences are baggy, too baroque, I cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If I’m disappearing up my own aesthete’s arse, I’ll stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say, and pick up Dostoyevsky, the patron saint of substance over style; a reminder to us all that good writing is more than elegant sentences. The only rule is quality.”

I’m not quite so methodical. But, while writing Surface Tensions, I subscribed to the swimming-in-sensibility routine. I spent half of my average workday reading, not writing, filling my brain with other people’s words and other people’s thoughts. I read Gary Shteyngart and Leslie Jameson and Emily Nussbaum and Phillip Larkin and Lauren Winner and David Foster Wallace. (I even took a class on Infinite Jest at the very end of my undergrad career just so I could swim in Wallace’s massive, churning, crazy great hot tub of a novel right before writing my own book.) I would occasionally pluck particular elements from a particular writer’s sensibility for a particular purpose: an equally silly and useful dash-made neologism straight outta Wallace over here, a bit of Joan Didion’s sentence structure for a descriptive segment on the California desert over there. But more often than not, I would indiscriminately swim in these great writers’ great prose and let it all soak in and sporadically spurt back out when needed. You can probably find bits and pieces of these writers all over my work, if you search hard enough.

And, of course, the great thing about writing a memoir-meets-essay is that I could quote directly from the articles and essays and books I was reading, thinking about, working through. My summer writing diet is imprinted into the book itself.

So although “Generation Why?” quite clearly made a difference on my way of thinking, there wasn’t really one author that made a bigger influence on my writing than others. I tried to inhale the whole chorus and exhale it through my own sensibility – creating, I hope, something inspired by others and unique in its own right.

 

Surface Question 2: “Most Influential Author?” (Part 1)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, comment or email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 2: When writing this book was there any one author whose works influenced you the most? Also, what are the odds of a lolcat translation of your book being released?

book catI’ll tackle the second question first: The lolcat translation is being polished as we speak. The finest translators in the land are squinting through their monocles, smoking their corn cob pipes, and scrupulously parsing page after page of fine-grained papyrus. It’s long, thankless labor, but somebody has to do it.

Now to the first question: the short answer is “no,” but that’s too easy. I suppose that the author who
really inspired this whole shebang, the first to make me want to write about technology and media and selfhood in the first place, was Zadie Smith. I was a second-semester freshman when I read her essay “Generation Why?” in a large, silent Bobst Library reading room, for my Intro to Fiction and Poetry class. I credit this piece with single-handedly turning my attention from criticism to essay. It begins as a review of The Social Network – and it’s a damn fine review, I must add: Smith describes how “muscles seem outlined by a fine pen” and how “water splashes up in individual droplets as if painted by Caravaggio” – before morphing into a broader critique of Facebook, what it’s doing to selfhood, what it’s doing to my generation. What starts as the critique of a specific film blossoms into full-blown cultural critique, grounded in philosophy and literature. But its not just transformation that makes the essay work: ideas weave their way throughout the entire piece like musical motifs. I thought it was magnificent. It is magnificent.

But I instantly knew that it wasn’t sufficient. It introduced the provocative and definitely-true idea that the technological systems we live within form our sense of what a self can be, what a self should be, and therefore shape and even denude ourselves in critical ways. But, as I wrote in my final essay for that writing class in early 2012, “more often than ever before, I see people trying to break through Facebook’s interface in order to start meaningful, nuanced, and thought-provoking discussions… More often than ever, I see people using Facebook to link to interfaces where being ‘liked’ isn’t the epitome of online existence.” I brought up a point that I heard Alissa Wilkinson – who ended up writing the foreword for Surface Tensions – make about idols and icons. I paraphrased:

Idols are mere commodities, things that have no influence beyond their own existence. Icons are things that point to something beyond themselves, things that link to things beyond their own hollow existence. In Wilkinson’s argument, Facebook can be an icon. It serves the function of linking. It links to literal Internet links, it links to actual friendships, and it links to actual forums designed to destroy the idol of merely being liked for simplistic, 2-dimentional reasons…

…People can choose to use Facebook to link to substance and make connections that actually matter. The possibility for devolution and mindlessness will always be available, but society can always have the potential to­­ – like Zadie Smith – see the shallowness of these sort of “connections” and consciously choose to transcend Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms. Online, with cleverness and popular preferences, it is possible for me to be my own Final Club president; I can be readily liked. As the programmers in The Social Network suggest, there is an “algorithm” for that. But is that really the sort of person I want to choose to be? Can’t I choose to link to something greater? 

The prose looks only okay to me now, formally speaking. (I took a class with Zadie Smith a couple years later. She helped my writing improve significantly.) But this essay is definitely Surface Tensions 1.0. My basic argument (this isn’t a spoiler; I make this point in the Introduction) is all here: modern media can diminish myself, can “curve myself inward,” as Martin Luther would put it, but it can also form a bridge, an intervening substance, between myself and things beyond it, things that matter. The rest of Surface Tensions is a Memory Lab in which I test the contextual viability of this theory. It looks at occasions when meaningful linking did or didn’t occur in my life, though a variety of mediums. It brings this idea down to earth.

To be concluded tomorrow…