You’re Right, Bruce Sterling: I *am* the future of printed fiction. Let’s discuss at SXSW!

A few months ago I blogged about my ten-or-so year long [career|hobby| pipe-dream|unhealthy obsession] as an itinerant peddler of my self-published nanopunky cyberpunky biopunky novel and novellas. That post was called Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations.

A few weeks after I had posted this bit, the cyberpunk celebrity/novelist Bruce Sterling picked up on it, writing in an entry about me in his beyond the beyond blog entitled “The Future of Printed Fiction“. (Actually he didn’t write a blog entry about me — he copy/pasted my Wetmachine post and inserted into it a few oracular comments of his own.)

It’s all about being a make-do gypsy at the fringes of the web conference scene,” Sterling said in his prefatory remarks. “Gothic High-Tech, Favela Chic”.

I’ve been pondering that pronouncement (and others like it that he sprinkled through post by way of annotation) for a few months now (his post is dated October 14, 2010). Below the fold, I make an attempt at parsing them. I do detect a general tone of condescension in Sterling’s comments. Which, y’know, who cares. And furthermore I’m not even sure about that, that his comments are condescending. It seems like he’s making fun of me, but maybe he’s doing straight reporting or maybe he’s free-associating/scat-singing, like a jazz musician or person with Tourettes; I can’t really tell and anyway I’m not well-placed to judge, inasmuch as the subject is my life’s work. Mostly I’m grateful that Sterling blogged about me at all, because he has legions of fans & I got a nice jolt of web traffic and a mini-spike in book sales after he anointed me The Future of Printed Fiction. So thanks, Bruce.

In related news, both Sterling and I are slated to be in Austin, Texas next March for SXSW, the mega indie artist hipster conclave, at which event he will be giving a keynote talk to the multitudes and I’ll be on a panel (presumably before a much smaller and less adoring audience than Sterling’s) entitled “The Self-Publishing Novelist: Report from the Trenches

Since Bruce & I will both be at SXSW, maybe I’ll get a chance to chat with him & ask him what his comments meant. Or, maybe, just maybe, when I get to SXSW & plop myself down in a chair to listen to his opening address I’ll discover that I’m the subject of his keynote talk, which will be about nothing other than, yes THE FUTURE OF PRINTED FICTION & how I, Sundman is it! And I will find myself thereby catapulted into cyberbionanonovelist superstardom, right alongside Bruce Himself and William Gibson and what’s his face, who wrote Cryptonomicon and is now working some newfangled space-age post-fiction with my friend Nicki Galland and that other guy who wrote the book about little nanomachines taking over your mind — no, not Acts of the Apostles , the other one. Probably not, I realize that. But if you’re reading this, Bruce, and would like to join me for a cuppa whatever, please do  have your people call my people.

While I do confess to a bit of bewilderment about what Sterling is actually saying about me in his post, I think the gist is that printed (fiction) books are rapidly becoming “collector” artifacts for niche and rapidly shrinking communities of readers, like classic 35MM film cameras (Pentax, Minolta, Leica, Hasselblad. . .) that once commanded premiums in specialty stores and now go for a few bucks at flea markets.

Who knows, he may be right about that.

Parsing the Oracle

My original post began

“I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist.”

To which Sterling added:

(((Mind you, this is not me speaking here, but John Sundman. I’ve yet to read one of Mr Sundman’s books, probably because I never yet stumbled over him at a tech conference.)))

(But come now, Mr. Sterling. There’s no need to explain why you haven’t read any of my books. You haven’t read them because you’ve chosen to not read them. In that choice you’ve lots of good company; most people reading this blog post haven’t read any of my books, and moreover they never will. When I wrote you and offered to send you my books in paper or electronic form you declined. Which, more power to ya. I myself have declined offers of free books from random writers, and I’m sure that I’m importuned on a fraction of the scale you are.)

But I’m wondering: wasn’t it obvious from the text that it was Sundman, not Sterling, who was referring to himself as a “postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist”? Why the need to point that out? Did it strike Sterling as odd that a gypsy novelist would presume to write such highfallutin’ stuff? Maybe I’m just being touchy, but it does kind of remind me of this one time (in 1977, I think) when I was at a party in Lafayette, Indiana & I described something as being “rococo” and the hostess (whom I barely knew) interrupted me and said, “Oh! ‘rococo’! Where did you learn such a word?” To which I replied, “I read it in a book.” I digress.

A “close reading” as the New Critics might have said

But anyway, let’s get back to that prefatory remark that still has me scratching my head:

“It’s all about being a make-do gypsy at the fringes of the web conference scene. Gothic High-Tech, Favela Chic.”

Now, Sterling is right that “it’s all about being a make-do gypsy”.  My “Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues” post is indeed about being a make-do gypsy. It’s about improvisational traveling & opportunistic peddling; it’s about scraping by, watching pennies, begging favors, sleeping on couches, hawking wares like a sideshow barker or a Wolof bana-bana on the streets of Darkar or lower Manhattan. It’s about hustling to make a dime.

I’m a little perplexed by Sterling’s next phrase, however — “at the fringes of the web conference scene”. I suppose I do operate on the fringes of various scenes, but on the other hand, if I’m selling books in the main vendor area of a conference, I’m not on the fringe, am I? I suppose compared to keynote-givers I am, but that’s not my main point. What I’m really wondering about is the word “web”. What’s that doing there? Elsewhere in my post I wrote “I’ve sold books at USENIX conferences and CloudWorld Expos, at O’Reilly technology conferences and Linux Worlds, at Bar Camps and Geek Fair(e)s, at bioinformatics conferences and trade shows, at street fairs and on street corners. I’ve done it in San Francisco, New York, Vineyard Haven, Santa Clara, Boston, San Jose, Cambridge, San Diego, Tucson and points in between.” The conferences I’ve been to have been geeky and hackerific. But when I think of “Web conferences” I think of commercial-type deals, not Usenix or Bioinformatics technical sessions, or, Fred knows, Defcon. So “web” seems wrong to me. But on the other hand “web” these days is more or less synonymous with “Internet”, which is a stand-in for “high tech”, so, close enough. In any event, I spend a whole lot more time in my house than I do on the road. Hand-selling my books is a decidedly part-time activity. Whatev’s.

Now we get into the core of Sterling’s inscrutability. What the heck does the phrase “Gothic High-Tech Favela Chic” mean?

I can’t find any reason to think Sterling means “gothic” in the sense of the modern “goth” aesthetic in fashion and music, so I’m just going to rule that out (although I am in fact a big fan of goth music and a regular listener of the Bats in the Belfry goth music show on WMBR on Monday nights, hosted by DJ Mistress Laura Dark). Rather, I think he means “gothic” in the sense of gothic literature.

Now, when I think of “gothic literature”, I think of E. Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher or the Gormenghast novels of Mervyn Peake & similar. From Wikipedia:

The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new at the time of Walpole’s novel [The Castle of Otranto]. Melodrama and parody (including self-parody) were other long-standing features of the Gothic initiated by Walpole.

Gothic literature is intimately associated with the Gothic Revival architecture of the same era. In a way similar to the gothic revivalists’ rejection of the clarity and rationalism of the neoclassical style of the Enlightened Establishment, the literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere. The ruins of gothic buildings gave rise to multiple linked emotions by representing the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations

I’ll assume we all have a similar notion what is meant by “High-tech”.

So now we come to the word favela. Favela??

“A favela is the generally used term for a shanty town in Brazil”, so sez Wikipedia. But when I hear the word “favela” I think not merely of shantytows–I’ve spent some quality time in shantytowns of Senegal, and much enjoyed myself there — but of lawless places where the police of Brazil fear to go.

Now, I know that Bruce Sterling is popular in Brazil and I gather from his tweets (@bruces) that he spends a fair amount of time there, so I expect that he knows far more about favelas than do I (I’ve never been to Brazil).

(On the other hand, I do live on the island Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where live more Brazilians than in all of Rio de Janeiro, so I’m not totally ignorant on this point, I do believe.)

All of which is to say that I’m not exactly sure what favelas have to do with my blog post about selling books at Defcon. Yes, the Sahara Hotel, where I stayed during my Defcon adventure, is a bit past her glory days; so I said in my post. Quite frankly the Sahara Hotel is a bit of a dump. But it isn’t a slum, nor is it located in a slum, and it certainly retains at least some of its former charm. True, there is a tattoo parlor in the Sahara’s lobby; and yes, the place is kind of stinky and there are stains on the carpet. But, y’know, the Rat Pack used to hang out at the Sahara back in the day, Peter Lawford and the rest of ’em. Advantage Sahara. At no point did I ever feel remotely unsafe while staying there. If I do go back to Defcon next year, the Sahara Hotel will have a repeat customer. So in other words I’m a little unclear on this “favela” thing.

The word “chic” when used as an adjective means hip and stylish; when used as a noun, it connotes (I think?) something of an uber self-aware avant-guarde fashion-based sensibility; something Mick Jagger and Keith Richard had in their heyday (some say they still have it while others strongly disagree about that). Meanwhile I, as I think I’ve made clear to regular readers of Wetmachine, am a balding old technical writer/furniture mover/firefighter/food pantry volunteer, a husband of 30 years and father of 3; I live in the second-to-last house on a dirt road that dead-ends into a nature preserve on an island. As far as I can tell I’m about as far from being chic or having chic as you can get without being actually dead.

To summarize: before a word of my post has been cited, Bruce Sterling has said or implied that:

1) I & my books are (or are representative of) the future of printed fiction;
2) that this has something to do with gothicism (romaticized decay), vagabondage and poverty;
3) that the above is “chic”; that is, my activities as a self-publishing, self-marketing novelist are hip and hopeless at the same time, in other words, pathetic.

All of which may be true. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Later on, in reference to my mentioning the Argentinian novelist Pola Oloixarac, who was at Defcon and snapped a photo of me that she put in her blog, Sterling writes:

(((Nice to see the Argentines showing up — it means a Gothic literary world which is massively decayed, yet global.)))

Sterling doesn’t note, and I’m not sure whether it matters, is that Oloixarac (a rising star according to Granta and others), is not self-published and her books were not for sale at Defcon. She was there as an observer, pretty much like most of the 10,000 other people who were there.

But anyway, what I think Sterling is saying, or at least hinting, is that the world of printed fiction is decaying, like Gormenghast, like the House of Usher; that its once-stately castles of fine bookstores and libraries and decorous public readings by the likes of John Updike and James Balwin in the plush halls of elite universities are vanishing before the harsh winds of ebooks and interactive fictions and whole new modes of computer-mediated & crowd-sourced narrative discourse not to mention AI-written fiction (aside: my Cheap Complex Devices, 2003, is about, exactly, the eclipse of human-written narratives by AI-written stories (among other things)), blowing away like dry leaves, dust of an earlier, more naive, simple time — a throwback to the proverbial tribal sagas told around the bonfire of a winter night, in Iceland, long before Bjork, or Norway, long before Berit Ellingsen.

Anyway, left out of the occasion equation is that over recent months I’ve been selling about 100 electronic copies of my books for every copy sold in printed format. So my printed fiction is really just an instantiation of my books, and one of their benefits is that they’re visible and tangible — they’re marketing props, in other words, advertisements for my ebooks.

About which, who the hell knows where that’s all going?

Which brings us quite nicely to SXSW, and my talk there.

Sterling and Sundman at SXSW:Together at Last?

Somewhat to my surprise and very much to my delight, my proposal for a panel on self-published fiction was accepted by SXSW Interactive. Rather than belabor the resonances between this panel and my Defcon post with Sterling’s commentary, I’m just going to post here the text of the program at it appears on the SXSW site. Certainly I would be delighted to have Mr. Sterling show up in the audience for this one  — I don’t think he’s a self-publisher, so not eligible to be a panelist(?). I would be glad to accept questions or comments from him, however oracular or over my head they might be.

The Self-Publishing Novelist: Report from the Trenches

Organizer: John Sundman, Wetmachine
We’ve been hearing for a while that new technologies for authoring, designing, printing, publishing, marketing, distributing and consuming books will disrupt the traditional book publishing business model and empower the everyman self-publisher. The combined effect of new technologies will supposedly blast open the floodgates that have been simultaneously protecting readers from hordes of hack writers and arbitrarily keeping down literary geniuses whose works don’t fit into obvious conventional pigeonholes. With Print-On-Demand technology for paper books, with distribution channels such as Amazon and the Apple Store to connect book sellers with book buyers, with devices like the Kindle, iPad and Nook for readers to consume books anywhere, it has become fashionable to say that writers no longer need publishing houses, that the poisonous stigma attached to self-published books is losing its venom. But is it true? Self-publishing is not the walk in the park that some would have you believe. This panel brings together four writers who are explicitly concerned with the novel/novella form. We’re not merely self-publishing writers, we’re self-publishing novelists. We are custodians of an art form that is under threat by the very technologies that open the marketplace to anybody at all who claims that their manuscript is a novel. How shall novelists and the novel itself survive?

Questions Answered:

1. How Is the so-called self-publishing revolution affecting novelists (whether startng out or long-established)?
2. How does awareness of distribution formats (paper, ebook, ipad, smartphone, etc) affect the writer as he or she writes?
3. If you’re a self-publishing novelist, what’s the ratio of time you spend writing to time spent on other stuff (formatting, distribution, marketing, etc.)
4. Will new technology kill the long-form narrative format we call the novel? Are the novel’s days numbered? What will novels look like ten years from now?
5. What are the odds that a self-publishing novelist can make a buck?

I made this proposal before I was the Future of Printed Fiction. I do think that my new standing will only serve to enhance my stature in Austin.


  1. Hi John,

    Sterling has been using variants of “Gothic High-Tech, Favela Chic” since mid-2009. I usually take it as his short-hand for the spirit of our age, or the age we’re transitioning to. Hope that clarifies some of the mystery.

    Best of luck preparing for SXSW.


  2. I haven’t read many of his essays over the last few years , but since putting up this post I’ve read his (quite brilliant) essay on Assange and Wikileaks, and it it he mentions House of Usher, favelas, decaying social orders, and similar. In that essay it all makes sense.

    In his little blip about me I think the same tropes and preoccupations come out but I think that in using shorthand he’s being a bit procustrean, kind of force-fitting my blog post into his ready-made box.

    But like I said, he may be right anyway, and I’m happy for the exposure.

  3. Hey John, as Cole mentioned, Tech Gothic and Favela Chic are Bruce’s two intertwined near-future scenarios for making sense of the next few decades. Not sure if this is his first use, but I first saw them used in this reboot keynote. Transcript.

    The annotation style is incidentally something Sterling adopted since his Viridian note days, though I haven’t seen it re-embedded in this way before : )

  4. “On the other hand, I do live on the island Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where live more Brazilians than in all of Rio de Janeiro.”

    I doubt it.

    And wonder why in the Hell you believe that mocking brazilians is the right thing to do when someone like Sterling is unkind to you.

  5. I certainly did not intend to mock Brazilians, and I don’t think my post reads that way — but I can see how you might. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Brazilians living on Martha’s Vineyard live in favelas, merely that I have some familiarity with the word– because, you know, lot of Brazilians and Brazilian-Americans live here, so much so that (Brazillian) Portuguese is widely spoken here, and many anglos like myself have picked up at leas a smattering of the language. But I’m willing to bet that many of my Brazilian friends here would think that the line about “more Brazilians on Martha’s Vineyard than in all of Rio” was pretty funny.

  6. Also, I don’t take great offense at Sterling’s comments. I do detect what a friend of mind called “a whiff of smug condescension” in his tone, but I don’t mind, rather I think it’s amusing & I’m very happy that he did blog me — and furthermore, if I’m right that he’s being a little snotty towards me, then at least I have lots of good company, since he indirectly describes Ms. Oloixarac and in fact everybody from Argentina using the same lanaguage.

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