Go, litel book!

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’.

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8 Comments

  1. This is the most mind-tickling and meaningful blog entry I’ve read in a very long time! Not least because Chaucer happens to be one of my favourite poets, I have just ordered the freshly edited third edition of his Complete Works which I can’t wait to get my teeth into and I can’t sleep tonight thinking about it. Elsewhere Chaucer warns his readers to ‘Turne over the leef, and cheese another tale’ if they’re likely to be offended. Who’s to say that he is a citizen of London of our time.

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  2. Thanks Rehan, great Chaucer quote! Good luck with the Complete Works. I had to read that cover to cover at uni – at the time a chore, but what a writer… The Tales are brilliant, of course, but I’m a sucker for Troilus & Criseyde and also The House of Fame, which is a sublime deconstruction of relativity.

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  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. While you’ve been thinking about how the shift from print to manuscript might inform our approach to present times, I’ve been having similar thoughts about the shift from orality to literacy. We must have a chat some time…

    Philip Pullman once likened authorship to sending messages in bottles – once the message is ‘released’, you have no control over who will find it or what they will do with it. Only very rarely does a message sent in a bottle make its way back to its author.

    The difference with the Internet, I think, is that you CAN keep an eye on what has happened to your message. Google Alerts and similar tools mean that you can know, often within hours, exactly what is being said about you and your work online. And the interactivity of the web means that you can witness your text transforming into something new right before your eyes, as comments and wiki-style edits change what it is.

    This happens with books too – anyone who’s borrowed a book from a university library will be familiar with the derogatory debates that often appear in the margins. Even though print culture initially means the production of thousands of duplicate texts, once they’ve been ‘released’ they each become unique. The scrawls in the margins, plus the scuffs and other blemishes, show that my books have a unique history.

    The difference with the web is that this all happens before your eyes. And what happened to your poem is evidence for me that the act of authorship does not stop at the point of publication. We all participate in authorship, all of the time (http://tinyurl.com/3ew57c).

    I’m off now to read ‘Literary Practice in Late Medieval London’. I’ve been meaning to read that for ages…

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  4. … I can’t help thinking that some of these lines will make great titles for films or festivals. “Go, Litel Book! : A two day festival on the relationship between the web and print publications.”

    I’d go.

    Otherwise, a great post. I’m prompted to ask a question that’s been on my mind since I first heard th point on the bbc ages ago; someone, I can’t remember who, said that trying to gain a sense of how people thought of themselves – the concept of selfhood – was near impossible beyond the 16th century, because they had such different ideas. The point was never explored during that discussion, but since you mention Chaucer’s authorial personas, perhaps you have some idea of what was meant..?

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  5. Hello Jay … I agree, it’d be a good name! This point about selfhood I can’t agree with (although perhaps the full context is needed).

    It sounds like rampant teleology to me – the belief in absolute progress in Western (ie. European) culture, beginning with the Renaissance, the so-called Protestant Revolution, the Enlightenment, the birth of the novel, humanism, etc. etc. It’s not something I subscribe to at all. I think progress is a hugely relative concept, and I find the suggestion that the pre-16th century mindset couldn’t handle ‘selfhood’, well, patronising and wildly anachronistic.

    I’m not denying historical shifts and developments – no doubt there was a way of thinking about the world which was ‘Medieval’ as distinct from ‘pre-Medieval’ or ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Early Modern’. In particular a general move away from the public and towards the personal, or perhaps rather a move towards a personalised public, is present. But I would stress similarities and continuity rather more than sudden, revolutionary change. At least in wider culture (which may be prefigured by political or social change, as well as causes of).

    On a slightly related, and potentially contradictory, note, I find Chaucer’s construction of authorial identity far more interesting than many of his canonical successors. The rise of the novel certainly did encourage a more engaged writing of the inner, psychological self, but it also spawned a kind of disingenous obsession with selfhood – very much, I think, the product of privileged, pre-Industrialisation middle-class (writers and readers). Chaucer is often described as displaying ‘postmodern’ sensibilities, in the sense that he works with complex, contradictory identities, high levels of irony, intertextuality etc.

    I’m interested to see where the literature of the future will take us, as we move into a highly technologised and digitised culture and society where our sense of personal identity is simultaneously heightened and fractured, where the boundaries between private and public become (again?) confused.

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  6. Thanks for your comment Ben! I agree with all you say. Writing in the margins is interesting. There are a couple of projects undergo, or maybe completed, to develop technology to replicate this practice – so you can ‘digitally’ scribe in the margins of books.

    Really exciting, with huge practical applications, although I don’t think it will have the excitement of the real thing, which is about creating a physical palimpsest – textual graffito – which can be rubbed out but not ‘deleted’ from the system. I hope you enjoy ‘Literary Practice in Late Medieval London’. I wrote that for uni! 🙂

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