If nothing else, the rise of the ebook has had at least one positive effect on the publishing world: the return to vogue of the short format. In the world of ink and paper there was limited scope for publishing essays and short fiction. You had to have an entire collection to make it worthwhile, and even then the market was restrictive. There were always potential avenues – but no one made a career out of journals and anthologies.
In the brave new world of epublishing, however, anything goes, and it turns out that essays and short stories do have a market after all. What used to be the realm of chapbooks and pamphlets has become publishing’s newest success story.
While it’s hard to imagine a market for Tom McCarthy’s Transmission and the Individual Remix in the pre-electronic book world, it enjoys both a new readership and a refreshing poignancy as an ebook – and maybe that’s the point. Published by Vintage in their eShorts series, Transmission opens by quoting German electronica pioneers Kraftwerk, and uses the myth of Orpheus to posit a theory of literature as the rebroadcasting of cultural signals that echo through the ages. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect format for it than the digital page.
At times McCarthy seems to forget that his theory is just that, though, and (as those familiar with his work might expect) his tone is didactic to say the least. At its core Transmission too often reads like an apology for McCarthy’s own forays into fiction, excluding much else of worth and yet holding his own catalogue up as an example of what literature is, and should be. Under the author’s new cultural regime 99% of fiction should be piled up and burned as worthless junk, while his own novels – miraculously – are elevated to the pantheon. Such self-promotion can’t help but undermine the validity of his argument.
Fortunately McCarthy is more credible when drawing parallels between literature and technology, and the Kraftwerk analogy in the opening pages is a masterclass in high/pop culture crossover. His analysis of Gysin’s and Burroughs’ cutup techniques is astute and worthwhile too, and when he’s not stretching his argument to extremes McCarthy can be extraordinarily persuasive. It’s just a shame that he pushes so far into the theoretical, and so quickly – as artistic manifestos go, Transmission is in an awful hurry to get where it’s going.
Transmission and the Individual Remix may not be as revelatory as McCarthy would clearly like it to be, but it’s engaging – and eccentric – enough to suggest a new way of looking at our cultural heritage. An entire book of it would have been smothering, but this eShort allows us to dip our toes into McCarthy’s thought processes without requiring full immersion. And that’s a good enough reason to fall in love with the unlikely rise of the e-essay.
Transmission and the Individual Remix is available now from ebook stores, priced $1.99.