The word "culture" and "cultivate" have the same root in Latin. Cicero wrote about "cultura animi," or the development of the spirit as one also develops fruits and grains through watering, nourishing, pruning and harvesting them.
The notion is that one, or a group, brings something along through a consistent technique or approach. Over the millenia, we've adapted the meaning of culture to characterize human behavior versus agricultural practice. We think of culture as the form within which a group of people typically cooperate, communicate, symbolize meanings, and establish hierarchies of value.
Literary culture, which is my primary culture, seems to be evolving at an astonishing rate, perhaps to the good.
I publish stories and essays on line and in print. The on-line publications are the ones that are energizing the evolution of literary culture that concerns me most at the moment. I like it. Can't help it.
First, I reach more readers faster, including people of particular concern to me, through on-line publication, than through print publication. I'm still old-fashioned enough to value print materials a great deal. They make me feel more secure sitting on my bookshelf. The problem is that that is where they sit: on my bookshelf.
Through on-line publication I've developed a readership, and interaction, with readers and writers throughout the U.S., in Romania, Scotland, Japan, and Korea. People have contacted me with motivations I really had to question. Why did a hydrologist write to me? How did the guy in Scotland find out out about me? I'd write back and find that they'd been scouring the internet, following connections, and seeking kindred spirits, of which I apparently was one.
I've published a few things in Canada and am particularly pleased by that. Canada is one of my favorite countries because of its own sensible, cooperative culture, not as cut-throat as the U.S. and perhaps a bit old-fashioned in its courtesies. There are Canadian writers--Alice Munro, Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, and Charles Taylor, to name four--who are among my favorites. I like the fact that The Toronto Quarterly and The Puritan Review (also in Toronto) wanted to publish my stories.
In times past, I could not escape describing myself as a diplomat. That's how I made my living, but I always knew I was a writer. Now I say "writer" when asked what I do--that's the question in Washington, D.C.: "What do you do?" This generates a bit of a look. What kind of writer? "Literary writer." "What's that?" I say I write fiction mostly. Pretty soon, the conversation moves on.
Lately I've been tempted to say I'm part of an international literary subculture. By that, I would be referring to my on-line network of friends, readers, and correspondents. But why should I call this a "subculture"? Is it? Subculture of what literary overculture?
When I grew up, the publishing centers of the world were its great cities--New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome, etc. And the highest concentration of literary folk were to be found in these cities. I wonder if that's so anymore. Lately I have published stories in Toronto, Amherst, Ripon (California), Paris, and somewhere in Colorado (in fact, there are two more stories about to be published, one in Colorado…one in California…and now that I think of it…one in Virginia).
Am I involved in a subculture? Well, I would not say I am involved in mass culture or commercial culture, and I would not say I am involved in the culture of writing mysteries or thrillers or science fiction, but perhaps the encompassing culture of literature qua literature now has broader implications.
It happens, too, that when I tell certain folks of my generation that I'm publishing on-line, they just don't know what that means, or don't read on-line…don't have the technology (or so they think). The fact is that the raw numbers of what's being written, published, bought and read are moving in the on-line direction. And it's also true that one can find audiences in the most remarkable places, as I have indicated.
So I don't really think I'm part of a literary subculture; rather, I think I'm part of a literary culture that is evolving in an almost stealthy manner, but at lightning speed. The symoblization of meaning in the human sense has a number of manifestations, words, images, sounds, tastes…I could go on. And now we are living in a world wherein my interest in Dostoevsky reaches the man in Romania. And my interest in William Gass reaches the man in South Korea. And my interest in terrorism reaches editors in Colorado and California.
Once upon a time you could make a good living writing short stories in America. That has not been the case for 99% of writers for a long, long time. High-paying periodicals have cut back or shut down. But literally hundreds of new publications have sprung up.
Money, I think, has nothing to do with literary value. Blake died impoverished. Could I go on t0 mention Poe and a few hundred others? Sure. Could I tell you who published even the financially successful writers like Dickens? Nope. I've read Dickens but couldn't care less who published him. Dostoevsky, in fact, published his Writer's Diary himself (with the aid of his wife and brother). Almost no one published Emily Dickinson. How about Shakespeare? Scholars know, but generally, even denizens of academic literary culture don't care.
What seems to be happening now is a renaissance wherein writing and reading is exploding. We are in worldwide touch with one another as never before. There aren't hours enough in the day to keep up. This is good; it's also revolutionary.
Cicero's "cultura animi" referred to the cultivation of the spirit, or soul. Those of us who till those fields have not been extinguished in cyberspace, we've been set free.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund