Terry on the aesthetic of bookishness, Industry Q&A, latest news.
In her 1998 essay “Writing,” the French writer Marguerite Duras described writing as “the opposite of cinema, the theater, and other performances.” It’s an act done in solitude. Upon a book’s completion, the author should be “annihilated by its publication,” Duras concluded. Its fate is out of her hands.
Duras, I imagine, would be abhorred by the compulsory carnival of press interviews and speaking engagements that many authors today have to embark upon following a book’s release. The book becomes a commodity, the creator partly responsible for its destiny in the marketplace. And with social media, the work of a writer — which includes writing and reading, alongside many other tiresome administrative tasks — can be distilled into a performance of intellect, despite its deeply private nature.
I recently came across the term “aesthetic of bookishness,” coined by the scholar Jessica Pressman, which aptly identifies this online display of literary production and consumption. Pressman employed the phrase in a 2009 essay that predated book-oriented social media. It described how experimental writers were drawn to the traditional “book-bound form” by playing with text on a “page,” even while publishing works digitally. “Books become aesthetic objects that blur the boundaries between reality and fiction by connecting their book-bound body to the virtual world of digital information,” Pressman wrote.
The term also gets at the more recent fetishization of literature on social media, among both writers and readers. The aesthetic “dark academia,” for example, offers a romanticized vision of scholarly life through stacks of leather-bound books and dimly lit libraries. Print might be dying, but the physical book retains its relevance as an aesthetic object. It accrues symbolic value, “as the form for fighting the good fight against the threat of the death of all things bookish: books, reading, and literature,” Pressman wrote.
Pressman’s analysis was published during a time when people feared e-readers would render physical books obsolete. That threat didn’t become reality, as evidenced by today’s publishing market. Yet the aesthetic of bookishness is so pervasive on social media, most acutely on TikTok, that its effects have bled into the material world. #BookTok helped authors sell 20 million printed books in 2021, the New York Times reported, citing data from BookScan. Penguin Random House, in an unsurprising move, recently announced plans to launch its own book discovery feature on the platform.
The book is a venerated symbol of one’s cultural tastes. It is tangible and static, an uneditable time capsule of ideas and thoughts that exists in stark contrast to our algorithmic feeds. A book is reading material and accessory: Celebrities and influencers are keen to talk about the books they read, or hint at their bookishness in paparazzi shots. The wealthy hire book stylists to curate their shelves. Books are discussed as “hot girl” accessories. Akosua T. Adasi gets at this tension in her Dirt review of Jordan Castro’s The Novelist: “When a book’s image comes to matter more than the content, where does this leave authors?”
This shift has changed the identity of authorship, too. It’s more than just a creative and intellectual endeavor; it’s a persona to aspire towards, a step in one’s self-branding journey. Writing a book is “the ultimate influencer status symbol,” such that even the anonymous administrator of DeuxMoi, the celebrity gossip Instagram account, has a debut novel out in November (it is co-written with young adult author Jessica Goodman). Writing a book, according to Duras, might be an act of suffering. It can also be a vanity project. Is a celebrity memoir any different than a skincare line?
In 2019, journalist Allegra Hobbs posited that “the influencer is insecure about not being the writer.” The difference between the two, according to Hobbs, is how “each metabolizes the experience of influence.” Her analysis centered specifically on well-regarded essayists and culture journalists like Jia Tolentino and Sarah Nicole Prickett, relative to aspiring influencer-writer types, like Caroline Calloway (who has yet to publish her book). Hobbs’s general assessment is astute, but not quite accurate to today’s internet. The pressure to leverage one’s personal brand for monetary gain has infiltrated nearly every creative profession, especially since the pandemic.
An influencer invites her audience to partake in an aesthetic vision or “lifestyle,” made possible by purchasable commodities, including novels. Meanwhile, a writer presupposes an intellectual or creative mission in their work. Still, most published writers are expected to capitulate to the attention economy, distilling themselves into a literary brand. They must produce promotional content to canonize their work, slot it into identifiable genres, and earmark it for comparison with other successful titles. (Book covers from major publishing houses, too, follow certain visual trends. Abstract splotches of bright color and sans-serif typefaces are currently in vogue.)
Even established, offline writers have seen their reputations whittled down into aesthetic or ideological signifiers. Ottessa Moshfegh appeals to well-read “sad girls.” Anne Carson’s poetry is associated with sapphic angst. Ayn Rand is for faux-intellectual contrarians. David Foster Wallace, by virtue of writing Infinite Jest, is a meme.
As a result, the distinction between writer and influencer has become harder to parse. The two are increasingly inextricable. Most writers have to court an audience. “The problem is that art withers and dies without dissemination. The artist has a dual quest, to create good work and ensure that it’s shared,” writes Lauren Ocampo in an essay titled, “I Really Didn’t Want to Write This Promotional Essay Tied to My Book Release.”
What do we expect from an author, as readers and consumers? Identification along moral, cultural, and ideological lines seems to be the means by which books are marketed and sold today. Beyond that, though, I’d like to think that most readers still hope to find meaning in literature. The aesthetic of bookishness depends on that core romance: that an image of a book can convey meaning about its reader, author, and the world.
This is especially true in our oversaturated online media environment. Users seek out content that brings value and cuts through the noise. That could be in the form of a TikTok book review, a daily poetry Instagram account, or even tweets from a writer — all varying ways to engage with the written word, however fleetingly, online. We might still privilege the physical book in form, but as Pressman so presciently wrote, it’s worth “thinking beyond dichotomies when considering the relationship between print and digital media.” — Terry Nguyen
Q&A W/ CREATORS OF INDUSTRY
We here at Dirt are big fans of HBO’s Gen Z finance-futurist show Industry. The show was created and executive produced by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, who graciously stepped in to our Discord for a live Q&A with our readers about this season and the future of the show. Full thread is here; below are a few highlights. Spoilers ahead, duh!
Down and Kay are in the process of writing Industry s3, but it hasn’t been confirmed by HBO yet. This obviously needs to happen, so we are sending emails now.
Season 2 was meant to be even more hectic and intense than season 1. It’s like prestige TV on fast forward. The show has no chill time.
The creators have Eric’s arc planned through a theoretical season 10 (!)
Yasmin’s horrible dad Charles was “one of the most accurate ‘rich guys’ we could have written.”
Kenny’s character “exists in every bank,” “Toiler, lives by hierarchy, uses it to assert authority as he’s insecure about his station and background,” Down said.
Join our Discord for more chats like this in the future. — Kyle Chayka
Hilde Lynn Helphenstein of the art-world meme page @jerrygogosian is curating a sale at Sotheby’s called “Suggested Followers: How the Algorithm is Always Right.” A TV show is also in the works: “I realized that the algorithm caught on to what I liked in relation to my suggested follows or the people who are following me, so I decided to approach artists who appeared on that page.” (W Magazine)
Netflix gives Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte a limited series prequel. (Variety)
TikTok is rolling out a dislike button. (Adweek)