Vox: Kirk Marshall
Here’s how I choose to argue the incommensurably debatable, incommunicably topical conundrum as to whether the emergence of e-publishing signifies the “demise” of print publishing (which I’m certain we’re all resolved to agree wouldn’t be an especially dignified or auspiciously indemnified death, but would probably involve blood, entail entrails, command carnage, inspire violence): I’m forever resigned to envision an alternative world, a feasible future, a caricatured grotesquery of reality populating some Philip K. Dick short-story, in which these sorts of speculative arguments collapse into one another like farts in an echo chamber. It’s not that the praxis of publishing, nor discussion, debate, hyperbole, hypothesis or even a literary soliloquy addressing the fate of formats is devoid of value – it’s not a question of intellectual economics, it’s a question of whether a rampant concatenation of contentions from writers and editors can constitute anything short of pretentious – but after the months of monotone dialogue that any individual invested in literature must endure when conversation about the future of publishing abounds, I’m left feeling somewhat devoid of a voice. Let me tell you a story as to why this is the case – as to why all vacillating views on the evolution of publishing might not even be valid. A few years back, when I was younger and more adventurous but no less handsome, I relinquished ongoing employment as a full-time teacher in Tokyo, Japan, and returned to Brisbane, Queensland, to work for minimum wage and free felafels in an Australian performing arts bookstore, which was sequestered below street-level and kept in a state of reasonable disarray where cats seemed to always spawn from between the floorboards. The bookshop will have to remain unattributed, but I’m comfortable enough to disclose the personal tyrannies of the shop’s pyrrhic inhabitants, and specifically those of my boss, a piratical sycophant with the heart of a giant aardvark. A kind of Zarathustrian übermensch who assumed the disquieting physical status of Hemmingway, equipped with the faculties of an elegant like Laurence Olivier and the facial hair of the Brothers ZZ Top, my boss was a fantastical misanthrope who would smoke Toscani cigars at the counter, swill cask wine from the only clean highball he claimed to possess, and swear at his customers if they asked him to locate a book by ISBN. I distinctly recall one torrid afternoon when, an hour before I would close shop, he arose storming from his back-office to explain to everyone currently occupying his establishment that they were all “cunts” and if he had a gun on premises, “browsing might become fun for everybody”. He was constantly amazed that his bookstore continued to attract patrons at all, but such an emotion manifested itself as a Gordian knot within his sheer interior, because he loathed the idea of transacting business – my boss was an avowed Communist, and often quoted aloud from The Communist Manifesto – and yet feared falling into bankruptcy by resisting to sell his wares. He was a gregarious ex-emeritus professor of Literature and Philosophy who had, for decades, engaged in combat with the “coterie of academic fucks” occupying Queensland’s pre-eminent tertiary institution, and had retreated into a tiny life of bookselling, daytime drunkenness and month-long heart attacks. On one profound occasion, he cornered me in the store during business hours to extol the pleasures of eating marijuana by the leaf, which he advised “was an elevator to the stars”. During my three-month stint as bookstore assistant, dogsbody, and infrequent fire warden, my boss paid me cash-in-hand from the same teapot he used to brew tea. He retained a corkboard honour wall with almost obsessive focus, which he decorated and scrapbooked with the many faultlessly eloquent civic complaints that he had published in the city newspaper. He chased me around the store chanting C.J. Dennis’s The Glugs of Gosh in an attempt to dismantle the mechanics of freeform verse, and when I found myself stonewalled between two shelves of children’s books, shaken and with no salvation in sight, I could do little else but succumb to song:
“Begone, red Devil!” I made reply.
“Parch shall these lips of mine,
And my tongue shall shrink, and my throat go dry,
Ere ever I taste your wine!”
What I am revealing here, perhaps for the first time, is that I loved the man: he was of angelic muscle, and his lust for life was violent and infectious. I harbour not a single reservation when I confess that, despite occupying only a crazy three-month ellipsis in my life prior to my move to Melbourne, he persists in my memory as a favourite boss. Perhaps the most significant disclosure in context to our discussion of e-publishing, however, is that the man was a rampant champion of technology: he preferred to populate his days by playing Space Invaders in preference to consolidating stock via Thorpe-Bowker’s Booknet, and found it appropriate to demythologise the 3D motion-capture rendering of Angelina Jolie’s Scandinavian porn-Gorgon in Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, insisting that a perfect world would be one in which we all participated in suitmation by wearing svelte spandex, to transubstantiate our flesh for pixels, our dicks for vectors. He took me aside one morning and confided that he was dying from heart disease, and that the bookstore was no longer commercially viable – I think we both laughed at this juncture – and that he would have to liquidate his assets. His speech wasn’t entirely lucid, now dislocated of his common bombast so that appeared small before me, a man of vast shoulders but small dividends. He kept mopping his face with the palm of his hand – it was a fact that we were seized by a Queensland summer, but it wasn’t the sort to squeeze from between your pores – and I discerned the image of a defeated lion at the threshold to our store, as he turned his back to me and gazed accusingly at the street. “One day soon, you won’t find a single fucking book on a shelf,” he muttered, his eyes squinting through the shopfront glass, a tornado whistling through his septum. “I’m not assuming the role of a doomsday prophet here, either. A book will either be electric, pure thought, reduced to an electronically-calibrated text document that people download, read, discard, pirate precisely like gaming shareware – or it will be a kitsch hardcopy print-object that is purchased via the internet, from behind the colophon of an online bookstore and from inside a cardboard box secreted beneath a web developer’s bedroom mattress. It will be both these things, and neither will come to occlude or cannibalise the other. I’m looking right square at the future,” he rumbled, the musculature in his neck summoning up visions of dinosaur flesh thrashing through gingko canopies. “I’m standing right at the brink here, Kirk, we both are, and this is the future. Books will be two things, and they will be the same thing, and people will again convey their monstrous ignorance by arbitrating false values that one of these things is superior to the other. But it won’t matter. Because booksellers will become new again. It’ll be like we’re finally all lycra-clad performers in a collective act of suitmation. We’ll forego these physical ramparts for pixels, and we won’t have to invest a flying fuck in the worries of pundits or patrons. Literature is gonna invade cyberspace, and people like you and me who it’s slowly killing might be able to retire, happy, fresh cannabis in our mouths. They’ll set us all on pyres to Valhalla, set upon the rafts with torches, and we’ll ebb out into the wine-dark brink, words crackling between fibre-optic cables within our earshot like a dying applause.” He turned to me then, and regarded me with eyes that were dry and full of sorrow for a day he would not greet. “No-one will ever say that I mattered. That’s the very point. If there’s words swarming behind computer screens or between covers in days to come, I wouldn’t want to matter. The words will be king, and we’ll all have won. Not a single cunt will interrupt our tea-breaks ever again.” At the doorway, his body spangling against the daylight, his shadow cast the store in a hue I don’t even think it’s important to debate.