Notebook: Real Time (Part Two)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Author Serhiy Zhadan (left) and friends in their “mobile unit” delivering supplies and helping to evacuate people in Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 29, 2022
Read Part One of this post here!
When it comes to streamed participation in live history, TikTok in particular has proved a compelling source of connection across cultures and a dangerous conduit for misinformation. Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, in their “Media Manipulation Casebook,” have studied uploads from the Ukraine battlefront and detailed the ways in which TikTok’s platform, editing tools, and algorithm invite and obscure the distortion of images. Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, Berkeley’s Alexa Koenig, and policy analyst Ben Rhodes have called for more detailed metadata and time- and location-stamping of posts to make open-source material searchable and verifiable. Rhodes has suggested that the platforms create an archive of posts removed for violence, to preserve a record of atrocities. Meanwhile media outlets from around the world are using platforms like WhatsApp and Signal to keep track of their correspondents and collect information, even as they fear transmissions falling into the wrong hands.
While our awareness of events far away may be magnified during these weeks by these changing-before-our-eyes technologies, the benefits of legacy organizations—to provide resources and protection to writers and researchers, to sift through contradictory evidence, to reach large numbers of people—remains salient. Among writers and artists I’ve seen moblizations of support through streamed readings and fundraisers, and shared original work responding to the crisis online written in the moment, mostly on Facebook and the secure message service Telegram. Book Post’s Eugene Ostashevsky joined a remote Margaret Atwood and the author herself, among others, in reading the contemporaneous war diaries of Yevgenia Belorusets—see our Diary of February 25—with other Ukrainian writers to raise funds for Direct Relief for Ukraine; this week Book Post’s Polina Barskova will join Eugene Ostashevsky, Maria Stepanova, and others for a remote conversation about the work of Yevgenia Belorusets as well as Boris Khersonsky, Marianna Kiyanovska, Lyuba Yakimchuk, and Serhiy Zhadan. A Ukrainian literary agent created an ad-hoc effort to put translators, writers, publishers, and journalists together to bring Ukrainian voices into the English-language discussion.
And yet in spite of these ever-multiplying forms of connection anxiety remains about how in turbulent times one will have the means to write, study, teach, research, publish; security, opportunity for reflection, stable distribution remain essential for durable work. Many of these writers are literally hiding in basements, or living out of suitcases in temporary ports of call, unsure where they will be able to land. I was in touch with a group in the Western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk that was helping artists to pack up their works for protection from attack and for transport; Ivano-Frankivsk was bombed a week later. Can such vital resources as the nonprofit Proekt, modeled on America’s ProPublica, survive and pay salaries on an average of $8 per person crowdsourced donations?
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On a more peaceful eddy alongside these apocalyptic events, news of publishing and writing in the US was also capturing a reality that was becoming more decentralized, more immediate, more author-controlled, and yet more subject to vicissitude. The science-fiction author Brandon Sanderson announced the self-publication of a four “secret books” on Kickstarter, garnering $37 million as of this morning and becoming the most successful novelist in Kickstarter history. He said he was motivated to strike out on his own in large part by legacy publishing’s unwillingness to adopt creative packaging responding to the new possibilities of digital reading; of course he made more money this way for himself; but he also somewhat ominously was reacting to Amazon’s market dominance and ability to freeze out authors and publishers. “Time and time again,” he wrote, “studies of contemporary tech media consumption have shown that the person who controls the platform is the one who controls the market.” He saw his gesture as one that asserts more power for authors and opens more opportunities.
Seasoned commentators like fellow science-fiction writer John Scalzi reminded would-be imitators that Sanderson was able to pull this off because of a vast audience developed through traditional publishing, a carefully developed publication infrastructure of his own, and a zest for self-promotion perhaps not shared by everyone who toils alone at a desk. Meanwhile Esquire published an essay looking at several well-established novelists, Salman Rushdie, George Saunders, and Chuck Palahniuk (all middle-aged men), who have begun serializing their work in this very newsletter format, Substack. They relished the freedom and the direct connection with their audience they gained from being, essentially, self-published authors, but again the commentator noted that such opportunities are harder to exploit for those who don’t have a running start.
How will our writing, our analysis, our recorded history endure through this moment of trauma, disruption, decentralization, possibility? Will Ukrainian and independent Russian culture reconstitute themselves abroad as a diaspora like they did in Soviet times? Will all our new mechanisms support that, and support those who stay to speak the truth from a devastated or locked-down version of home? At the moment we barely seem able to fund decently our own writers, teachers, scholars, or provide them with any sort of security; we are far from offering refuge to those streaming over our borders who are charged with keeping their battered cultures alive.
Book Post author Michael Idov, who was born in Lithuania, grew up in the US, and has worked as a writer and filmmaker in both Russia and on these shores, admitted on Twitter that he hoped one day a chastened Russia might collect itself into a “‘Big Sweden” or “Cold Portugal,” “a cute, slightly wacky cultural powerhouse” that wouldn’t threaten anybody. Podcaster Andrey Babitsky told Masha Gessen, “If I’m going to continue considering myself Russian, if I am going to carry Russian culture around like a jewel, then I have to acknowledge that Russian culture contains the possibility of this war—that one can read Tolstoy, author of the best antiwar texts ever written, and do this.” Meanwhile Ukrainian poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan, whom Idov reviewed for us, is organizing relief and resistance in Kharkiv (see above), pausing only occasionally to read a poem or sing with children in the subway, and Yevgenia Belorusets’ war diary of last Wednesday tells us of a woman who said no, she was not brave to stay in Kyiv, “the really brave people were those who were gathering in the occupied cities of Kherson and Berdyansk to protest against the occupiers. People disappear there all the time, whether they’re arrested and deported to Russia, or injured and shot at during the protests.” She often loses touch with her family near Berdyansk in the small town of Polohy, where “the internet connection is unstable, the power goes out, and food is scarce. Her relatives are able to survive mainly due to a small bakery in the neighboring village that works to supply the whole district with bread.” Literature is straining before our eyes to hold these new realities—to engage our hearts, to speak the truth, to inform the future.
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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