This week, I decided to do a quick interview with our good friend Christopher Cocca. He wrote a guest blog here a few months back and he's beginning a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at The New School. This week we talked about school, postmodernism, and technology. He's posting his side of the interview with me over on his blog sometime this week, too.
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Nathan Key: Thanks for agree to let me interview you, Chris. Now, from what I’ve read on your blog, you've recently decided to head back to school for an MFA? Can you tell us more about that and what prompted you back into education?
Christopher Cocca: There's no shortage of opinions on the utility of the MFA on the web and in general. For me, it's about being around other people who are trying to do the same thing I'm trying to do: push myself to producing the best possible texts. Doing this with other writers (students and teachers) appeals to me. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't major in creative writing or English instead of political philosophy as an undergrad. And I'd still get the MDiv. I'd do it all the same as I did, including eventually going back and exploring/improving this part of what I do in a more formal, educational setting. I'm glad to be going back now, in my extremely late 20s, with a very clear focus.
NK: You know, sometimes I wish I could head back to high school and college with that clear focus you just mentioned- knowing then what I do now. Ah well… On your blog you've mentioned Postmodernism quite a bit, lately. One meme I've been exploring here on this site is the postmodern idea of "death of the author" and how media, art, and literature have been affected. As a guy who's writing a novel and working toward publishing your own ideas and stories, how is your role as a writer and storyteller changing?
CC: The death of the author is another way of saying everyone's an author. In the postmodern literary sense where reader-response sometimes is taken to trump everything, I get what some people mean, but on the other hand, with all of us social networking, tweeting, meme-ing, song-quoting, whatever...everyone is some kind of passer-on of content. Some people are creating, authoring. Some people are receiving and retransmitting. Many, actually. RT hashtag cliche. The interesting thing to me is that our references are so ubiquitous but people still think that repeating them makes them clever or interesting, that somehow repeating this line or lyric or saying this punch-line or snarky thing --- the punch-line everyone's expecting because you've heard it a million times --- makes us authors. I'm talking about general conversation here, not just the passive-aggressive what I had for lunch today Facebook status updates. And then you've got what's going on in Iran, which should really make all of us feel pretty shameful about most of the things we use social media and social networking for. Nothing in the world to say and all the freedom to say it.
Here I'm going to do it myself: we're like the Junkions from the original Transformers movie (the cartoon). Using catch phrases from television shows to navigate our lives and determine how we speak to one another. In art, this is interesting: it's open source, it's sampling, it's remixing. It's the good things about the death or redefinition or authorship.
In conversation, it's the worst. It's free time x cheap entertainment x laziness. I tend to feel this way about cliche in writing, too. So, as an author or a writer or a blogger or whatever, I try to edit all of those placeholders out. The challenge is finding new ways to say things, and I think this goes for speech and relationships, too. No one can ever play "In Your Eyes" for Ione Skye again. Think of all the tender little phrased you'd love to say to your wife if you weren't so embarrassed by them because people in movies said them first.
Maybe the problem is using other people’s art to express yourself in the first place. Sometimes it's amazing (the Grey Album, for example), or the open source art projects that are coming up. But in real life it's sort of cheesy. So I think we need to learn to make our own art for our own purposes, which is why people started making art in the first place.
NK: Speaking of Open Source- which makes me think of all sorts of free downloadable content- you've been posting some bits and pieces of your novel, Milton County Power & Light up on your blog lately. I've seen a few other authors post their books online, too- Monster Island is a great example- and I'm wondering if the future of authors is similar to the future of musicians- it doesn't really seem like musicians really need record labels, and it doesn't seem like writers need publishers. Where do you think we're heading with all this?
CC: This is something people are talking a lot about, especially with things like LuLu making publishing and delivery so easy. It seems very similar to the success we’ve seen among indie bands and unsigned artists through platforms and communities like MySpace, YouTube etc.
But while I agree that musicians don't really need record labels anymore, and while writers might not need publishing houses, they still need editors. I think that's the disconnect in the analogy. A musician can throw up a demo or a crummy song on MySpace and when no one likes it they can take it down, make it better, whatever. But if you self-publish a novel before it's really ready, that's out there forever. I think we sort of understand music as more of a work in progress in the sense that demos and alternate cuts and completely unfinished songs are interesting. Boxsets and anthology albums are full of these things and people collect the bootlegs. It's not the same with writing.
That said, just like writers need editors, most musicians need producers. But then you've got this whole crop of one-man virtual bands that do it all in their bedroom on a Mac and it's amazing. Chad Van Gaalen is like that. I guess what I'm saying is that it depends on the maturity of your talent. I know that I'm not about to self-publish a novel because I know how much work I still have to do. If I wrote a perfect pop song, maybe, I'd know it. At present, my book isn't that.
So that's the practical side of it. But there's also another difference. Releasing your own album is almost a badge of honor. When your band gets big you can reminiscence about how you put out the first EP yourself and sold it out of your car and even for people who never make it past that, I think it's all very romantic. It's cool. Maybe I only think that because I haven't done it. But there's not the same kind of vibe when it comes to self-publishing. I think most writers aren't ready to say the self-publishing has the same kind of punk ethos. Even small presses who's mission is to publish new voices or avant guard stuff have editors and gatekeepers and for good reason. Someone has to go to bat for your work. Reading an experimental novel doesn't have the same built-in viral opportunities that listening to a 4 minute alt.country track does. It's just not a viral medium. This is probably why flash fiction is so popular on the web. Six-sentence stories or one-sentence stories can become memes. That's what tweets are, and people are using Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook for this kind of viral lit, mircostories, koans, whatever.
NK: Of course, none of those writing forums pay really well, either. I know from past experience that a band might be able to make money from live music shows or T-shirts. But writers don’t really have that sort of thing…
CC: As far as a paycheck, at the moment, I think it's more about building social and artistic capital than actual capital. But publishers will find a way to make more money than they currently are off of the kinds of things you're talking about. Writers will too and a few already are. Present company excluded.
NK: OK, last question. Who'd you bet on if Stephen King and John Grissom were up against each other in a cage match?
CC: Neil Gaiman.
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Nathan Key likes to think about faith and philosophy and talk about it with others. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. He doesn't always refer to himself in the third person.