May 25, 2015
Stephen Elliott: The Art of the Overshare
Posted on Oct 22, 2010
By Sheerly Avni
Avni: Well, the tone of The Rumpus is often celebratory. Or, at least, personal and friendly—there are lively comments sections, monthly gatherings, a book club, a strong focus on community, and especially on connection. You have said that there are two types of readers, those who read to escape and those who read to connect.
Elliott: Absolutely. There are different reasons people read, and different reasons people write. Some people write to be part of a literary tradition, because they love literature, they came upon some story when they were in college or high school, and want to be a part of that tradition.
And others who write to communicate. I mean, basically, they’re screaming and they are trying to write in such a way that will make you want to listen to their scream. … They’ve realized that if all they do is scream, you’ll put the book down, so instead they are trying to make something that actually gives back to the reader, because the reader is doing you this huge favor, so it’s kind of like you are making a bargain with him, or her: You’re saying, “I’m going to write something in such a way that you’ll enjoy it, and then you’ll do me the favor of reading it.” So my readers are the ones who were interested in connecting.
Avni: And connecting is both easier and harder in the age of the Internet.
Elliott: Certainly if you think of Web 1.0 and then back to old media before the Web came along. It’s like we were all sitting by the same river, and catching things as they passed. So there might be different groups, that were into things, but there weren’t so many rivers. But now there are streams and they are so small and so specialized, based on your microtunes and preferences and your ability to tailor all the information you are receiving and where you are receiving it from.
We lost community in writing when we lost the ability to all grab hold of that one book we could all talk about, because everybody knew that book, just the way everyone saw “Seinfeld” because there were only three channels. … There [later] were more points of connection, so now, with so many more channels, outlets, websites, there are fewer things people have in common that they can talk about. And Web 2.0, at least in part, in my opinion, has risen as a response to the community that was lost during Web 1.0. Community is the one thing, the one idea, the one that has just completely overwhelmed everything else.
Avni: What does community mean to you?
Elliott: Community is people sharing common interests—things that you care about. It used to be, for example, if you were into S&M but you lived in a small town you were never going to meet someone who had similar desires, because how would you find out if they did? You were part of this subgroup only a fraction of the population belongs to, so it was very difficult for most people to find someone to talk to. … There were some communities, but the majority of people who were into bondage or S&M or extreme S&M, the smaller the group the harder it was to find, so much so that most people just accepted that they wouldn’t. Whereas, the Internet makes it possible to meet people that are into anything you are into. Going to see a prostitute is a very private thing, but now there are whole discussions, where people are trading discussions back and forth about sex workers they’ve seen.
Or community forms around a book. People don’t just want to read a book, they want to talk about it. But with literary books, we’re talking very small readerships, very small publishers. There are probably more writers of literary fiction right now than readers. OK, that’s a joke but it’s also a little bit true. And before, you had to suck it up, read the books you liked, and accept the fact that you wouldn’t have anyone to talk to about it in your small town.
Now it’s different. So how do these people find each other to talk about these books they like to read? How do they connect and share their experience? That’s community—and thanks to Web 2.0 people expect community around everything they do now.
Avni: For a long time, you focused less on these kinds of questions in your work and more on big issues: political campaigns, the war, Obama. And in 2007, after years of activism, you wrote an essay for The Believer in which you described the political arena as “the worst of human nature on display under glass.” You compared it to a schoolyard, “just a bunch of hurtful insults, character destruction, power grabbing, and coalition building. Meaningless, but with consequences.”
Elliott: I really burnt out on national politics. I don’t know if I’m a person who can effect change on that large of a level. But then hyperlocal politics really grabbed me and I was like, oh, there it is. I found that I found it being replaced by the American Apparel campaign, when we fought, successfully, to keep American Apparel from opening a store on Valencia Street in The Mission, which is where I live in San Francisco. And that was as satisfying as anything I’d ever done.
Avni: Well, it’s also your own neighborhood.
Elliott: I would feel weird protesting in someone else’s neighborhood! But the important thing about this is that we started campaigning only 17 days before the planning commission hearing; it was real fast, and that’s why nobody was fighting it [the plan to open the store], because they thought there wasn’t enough time. But it was like throwing a match in a barrel of cotton, it just lit right up. People took to the streets, and all you had to do was make some posters and set up a website and it was on.
Avni: What are some other issues coming up?
Elliott: Definitely Sit/Lie, which is a proposition to criminalize homelessness in San Francisco. That impacts me quite a bit, because I would have been arrested under this law for sitting in front of a closed business between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 at night. Says homeless people aren’t allowed to sit down. Everyone else can just go to the coffee shop, and take a break. Basically, that’s just crazy.
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