Of ‘Wows!’, ‘Likes’ and ‘Facebook literature’!

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By Sandeep Sahu

Speaking at a literary festival in Bhubaneswar a few weeks ago, an eminent poet was at his sarcastic best against ‘Facebook poets/writers’ ridiculing them as people out to prove their (non-existent) literary merit by collecting ‘Likes’ on the popular social media platform. Accusing the latter of delusion, he said they live in the ‘virtual’ world and have very little connection with the ‘real’ world.

At another literary do in the city a couple of weeks later, this acclaimed poet/writer carried on from where he had left off at the previous event, describing, sarcasm dripping out of every word, how ‘Likes’ and ‘Wows’ are lavished on anyone whose profile has the picture of a good looking woman on Facebook. [For someone who admitted that he is not on Facebook, his knowledge of the ways of this social media outlet was incredible indeed!]
He was no doubt speaking for a lot of litterateurs of his generation, who are convinced that the Facebook variety of literature is spurious stuff that is of interest to frivolous people who have nothing better to do than ogle at the profile pictures of good looking women and scream ‘Wow!’ at the drop of a hat.

I will be the first person to admit that a lot of what the award-winning author said is not without a basis. Much of what passes off as poetry or literary writing on FB is indeed pedestrian stuff and most of the ‘Likes’ and ‘Wows’ they fetch are indeed perfunctory, meaningless words that need not be taken seriously. But that still does not explain the venom these people pour out against social media at the first available opportunity. After all, isn’t much of what is published as poetry in nondescript ‘literary magazines’ and literary pages of newspapers mediocre stuff too? Why is their ire not directed towards these publications and focused solely on the social media? In any case, don’t even mediocre writers have a right to exist and showcase their ware – no matter how worthless they are – on whatever platform they think fit?

The truth is they are plane scared; scared that their hallowed turf is being encroached upon by a bunch of ‘upstarts’. Not everyone can be a Sitakanta Mohapatra or a Ramakanta Rath. But anyone has a right to aspire to be a poet or a writer, doesn’t s/he?
Ask any aspiring writer in the state how difficult it is to get a publisher for a newcomer. Commercial considerations prevent the publishers from looking beyond those who are already celebrities in the literary firmament. Literary magazines too shy away from publishing the writings of the new kid on the block for fear of losing their ‘reputation’. Where does an aspiring writer with a burning desire to be read by others go in such a scenario, except to the social media?

The internet, of which social media (SM, in short) is an offshoot, has provided a level playing field for literary players of all kinds – the high-brow, the middle-brow and the low-brow. Just about anyone with a literary pretension can post his writing in cyberspace. It has broken the stranglehold of the publishing industry that established writers have thrived on for so long. While most of the aspirants may indeed be bad writers, some do manage to shine using the worldwide web, sometimes even getting publishers after they shine on SM.

It is nobody’s case that Facebook – or, for that matter, the internet as a whole – would (or should) replace the publishing industry. But it is an additional forum – and a democratic one, at that – available to those who have little chance of breaking through the closely guarded iron gates of the publishing industry that lets only established writers in. Why, it offers even established writers/poets the privilege of using it to reach out to those who are unlikely – or unable or unwilling – to buy their writing!

Much the same happened in the media too with top notch editors and editorial writers turning their noses up at the advent of this new elephant in the room called the internet. But to its eternal credit, mainstream media (MSM) was quick to realize the power of the internet and joined the bandwagon to stay afloat. It has got to a stage where SM is driving the agenda of the MSM.

It is time our grey eminences of the literary world realized what their counterparts in the MSM have already done: that the internet – and its offshoot SM – has come to stay and rather than crib about it, one must learn to live with it and use it not just to stay afloat, but to stay ahead.

As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them!

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