Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.
And for ther is so greet diversitee
In English and in wryting of our tonge,
So preye I god that noon miswryte thee,
Ne thee mismetre for defaute of tonge.
And red wher-so thou be, or elles songe,
That thou be understonde I god beseche!
But yet to purpos of my rather speche.
At the end of his long poem Troilus & Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer commends his work to readers with these two verses and, particularly, the famous line ‘Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie’. This is a classic example of what I identify elsewhere as authorial anxiety in late medieval texts, both literary and non-literary. On the one hand, Chaucer hopes that his poem will be worthy of his Classical heroes (‘subgit be to alle poesye’); in other words, that Troilus will join a perceived ‘canon’ of literature. On the other hand, he expresses concern that his work might be misunderstood, misread or mistranslated by contemporary readers. Like many pre-print writers, whose works were distributed in manuscript form only and would have to be copied out by hand, Chaucer is anxious to maintain some form of authorial intention, to normalise potentially diverse and divergent readings of his work. To create a stable, guaranteed text.
[I might, with more time and space, argue that this particular authorial statement is in fact heavily laced with Chaucer’s distinctive brand of irony. In particular, the rollcall of Classical poets characterises the narrator as pompous rather than genuinely anxious; another one of Chaucer’s authorial personas perhaps. But whether this passage is satirical or not, it certainly reflects a universal concern, one which affects all writers and artists.]
I’m interested in the shift from manuscript to print and how that period might inform the current transition from print to digital. I always thought ‘Go, litel book’ was a great statement for the internet age. It expresses the anxious excitement of distributing material to a potential audience of millions in the click of a button. Posting a blog. Uploading a website. Sending a mass email. That sense of your work entering the digital ether, an anonymous space over which you have no control, and from which you cannot withdraw. You can pulp a paperback, but you can never guarantee that a blog post or email or webpage is not still cached somewhere deep inside a server thousands of miles away. Now, the logical extension of the open-field nature of online communication is the collaborative text, the Wiki novel. The simple one-to-many process of traditional publishing is being exploded by digital technology and, it seems, the natural compulsion of readers to ‘get stuck in’.
A recent experience of online social networking made me think of this. I uploaded a new poem, ‘I, Citizen’, to Facebook – something I’d seen other writers in my ‘Friends’ Network’ do. I posted the poem as a note and ‘tagged’ a number of my friends as an encouragement for them to read it. I had no grand expectations of feedback beyond, perhaps, a handful of brief positive comments. But within a few hours I already had two or three extended comments suggesting minor edits, including one from a small press publisher. Soon after, another contributor – this time, more forceful – suggested I rewrite the poem’s conclusion, partly on the basis that I could not ‘get away with’ a particular turn of phrase whilst another poet (who also commented, later) ‘*could* get away with using it’. As another friend came to the defence of the last verse, I suddenly found my poem being deconstructed in some detail. It was, I noted, a ‘feedback frenzy’ (as I write, there are 27 comments in total, including my own).
Now, I should say now that I’m not precious about my writing. Well, no more precious than any writer, at least. I enjoy receiving feedback and try to use constructive criticism to inform the editing/rewriting process. On the whole, the comments on ‘I, Citizen’ identified areas of the poem I was already anxious about, or brought up new and interesting interpretations. But I was a bit surprised by how readily people would offer detailed criticisms of my work in an essentially public forum such as Facebook. You might say I was asking for it, but when I posted the poem I only expected a few short comments. And as an editor myself, I’m aware of the sensitivity with which you should approach critical feedback. I have never contributed in-depth analysis of poems posted on MySpace or Facebook, although I am often engaged in doing just that in more private channels.
Despite my initial gut reaction to criticism, I’m pleased that ‘I, Citizen’ attracted so much feedback. The criticism was useful and made in good faith, and frankly it’s great that people actually engaged with my work in some detail. The internet is not an endless ether; online audiences are no anonymous mass. In fact Web 2.0 offers opportunities for writers to establish quite intimate and worthwhile connections with readers. It also gives them the right to reply. There are risks and sometimes you will get burnt, but the benefits of engaging with a potential readership are worth it, I reckon. Publishing in the digital age is about opening a two-way conversation. I think Chaucer knew that all literature is about reciprocity, that one man’s story will be taken, tweaked, retuned and returned; that the stability of his ‘litel book’, his ‘litel tragedie’, could never be guaranteed, but would shift and slide with every reading. For there is ‘greet diversitee / … in wryting of our tonge’.