Recap: “(Re)making Media” Event at McNally Jackson

Posted on: January 6th, 2012 at 11:22 am by

What does it mean to be a writer these days? Is it still the romanticized image of the isolated character banging away on an old-school typewriter a la Hemingway, with a bottle of whiskey by his side? Or is it the self-publisher who writes while multitasking between Facebook posts, Tumblrs, and tweets, simultaneously downloading the latest underground band’s music, while also entreating friends to write positive reviews of their books on Amazon? Seriously, who has time for whiskey? Or writing?

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Wednesday night’s talk at McNally Jackson Books, “(Re)making media: DIY, ‘zines, punk rock, Gen X and millennials in the digital age,” aimed to address these issues.

Created by publicist extraordinaire Lauren Cerand, the discussion was moderated by Jacob Lewis, founder of Figment.com (an online community for teenage fiction), and featured panelists Blake Nelson (Girl, Dream School), Christopher Bollen (Lightning People), Mikki Halpin (Ben is Dead, Shut Up Foodies, Eyresses), Isadora Schappell-Spillman (Teenage, Rookie), Ian Vanek (Japanther) and Jenna Wortham (Girl Crush Zine).

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Described as “a timely discussion of media production, distribution and consumption trends of this century (and the last),” much of the talk boiled down, as Lewis observed, to how in the digital age, everyone seems to be both a creator and a consumer. Just like its prerequisite, the Internet, the evening teemed with a bevy of ideas and wildly different opinions. If you put novelists, bloggers, ‘zine creators and musicians together in a room, it will tend to feel like an online comments section come to life (or perhaps the US Congress, but with actual content).

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Most panelists were hopeful about the future of publishing. Despite how distracting and time consuming it can be, they felt they get a great deal out of living in this information-overload age. Some, like Wortham, were enabled by Kickstarter, which funded her blog and ‘zine. Others, like Nelson, used the Internet to research trends and seek out what is cool, inspiring his novels. Vanek, on the other hand, felt that it is “important to be invisible, to focus on your own work.” Too much time, he opined, is spent trying to have a presence online instead of focusing on creativity.

Teenagers, who (big surprise) seem to be setting the standards for all that is trendy and consumable, were the central focus. Bollen, however, was not fully on board with this direction: “These conversations are always about teenagers, but I’m concerned about how my generation – people in their 30’s – is going to grow. I didn’t have the internet until my senior year at college. It was the loneliness of being isolated [before then] that made me want to go places and write.”

While blogs have led to book deals and stardom, some of the panelists were content to simply keep writing online. Halpin, whose snarky blog, “Shut Up, Foodies,” created a media buzz, was surprised that people clamored for her and her co-creator to become media stars. “That’s not what we wanted. We didn’t want a “Shut Up, Foodies” book. It became very weird to us.”

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Appearing wiser than her sixteen years, Schappel-Spillman, who was in the band Care Bears on Fire when she was eight, provided both a writer’s and musician’s perspective, “When I was younger, I was on a major label and it soured me on the music industry. Not that they are the enemy, but there were so many people involved. Maybe in the future, major labels will get cool. But right now, it’s more important to be involved in a community.”

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Where, or what, is that community? A sense of community, the group felt, can be created both on and offline these days. Halpin said that “‘Shut up, Foodie’ was a good fit for the internet, because of the foodie culture that existed online.” But she is also a fan of ‘zines since “they are a forced interruption. You can’t multitask while reading a ‘zine.” She added that while parents and teachers can check what their kids are reading online, a teenager yearning for something private or edgier can sneak around with a little xeroxed ‘zine in their pocket.

So, once you’ve written the Great American Novel (or a treatise on accessories for cats), how does one not get lost in the shuffle of digital overload? Nelson (who had a novel sitting in a drawer for ten years before it got published), stressed doing your research: “Proust figured out the one or two people who could help him, and he weaseled his way in. You have to use some back alley.”

Is our world that much different from Proust’s? After all, his writing career began with self-published literary magazines.

-Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg

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