When you do something everyday, it becomes, well, quotidian. The cup of coffee you stir in a zombie-like stupor, the Facebook page you open before you even check your emails, the weather app you open on your iPhone to check if you can wear that new summer dress yet (I, incidentally, have not worn my new summer dress yet). These things become so common, so natural that we barely stop to think about their meaning in the greater scheme of things. After all, a lot of the things we do today as if we’ve been doing them for decades, we’ve only actually been at for a couple of years.
Reading and writing are two of the things we do completely naturally, but whose very nature has been changing very rapidly over the last few years, and it’s probably time to take a step back and assess quite how that’s affecting our ability to produce and consume chunks of wordage.
A couple of months ago, I came across an article in the New York Times about how the act of writing changed when we moved from the typewriter to the word processor. Nietzsche, an early adopter of a rudimentary form of typewriter said “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” There is necessarily a relationship between the ability to easily amend what is being written, and the freedom with which we allow ourselves to write.
A Slate Culture Gabfest discussing the NYT article and the book it reviews, paraphrase an interesting observation by Joan Didion. She says that writing on a word processor is less like painting and more like sculpting, in the sense that you start with a massive block of text and you chip away at it until it looks like something decent, rather than carefully layering things the way you would have on a typewriter. But what about the notion of writing on a digital device for consumption on another digital device? Surely the departure from paper-based consumption and enjoyment of the written word must have some effect on the writing process itself. However, as the article also points out, “It’s easier to talk about how things used to work than how they work now.”
In a sense, we think we are superbly equipped to create and craft words together on our devices, but that may not actually be the case. The most widespread word processing software, Microsoft Word, is pretty clunky and hasn’t changed fundamentally in 20 years, whereas the world surrounding it has. Quite a bit. There are whole articles devoted to eloquently hating Microsoft’s ubiquitous piece of software.
As Tom Scocca puts it: “Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for Web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper.” So, basically, there is a gulf between the way we want to write now and the tools at our disposal.
An article in Fast Company reviewing the Slate piece goes even further, blaming the user experience in Word for friction with editors. As he puts it, “Track Changes is meant to be a handy way to follow collaborative edits. Instead, it reads like fistfight over the Oxford comma (does the default color scheme really need to be “you got an answer wrong” red?). When I’m edited in Google Docs, I feel like my editor is the most laid back boss in the world. When I’m edited in Word, I immediately want to walk off a project.” It is pretty jarring to realize that something like the interface of a piece of software can influence the creative process. After all, software is designed by engineers, not writers.
We all realize we live in a world where we are bombarded with information. Twitter streams, mini-feeds, apps begging to be downloaded, apps begging to be updated, push notifications. At the moment there’s whole damn industry developing that offers people a chance to disconnect. But some of the more innovative writing tools are actually on devices that are incredibly distracting and meant for consumption rather than creation. I use an app called Writer (I wonder how long it took to come up with that name) on my iPad. Besides making you feel really cool because you’re using an app called Writer, it also has certain practical features. The app forces the you to focus exclusively on the sentence being written, and blocks out everything else. It really narrows down the writing experience to something that allows for an enjoyable flow, if paired with a physical keyboard.
What’s interesting about the information overload is that we’re all contributing to it. If you think about it, we all write today far more than we did a decade ago. That Facebook status update where you cracked a joke about the American Presidental election, that’s a piece of writing. That angry comment you left anonymously on a blog you hate, that’s part of the record of our time. There was a time no so long ago when our written communication was limited to very specific audiences. Emails to work colleagues, a note to a lover, a letter to the editor of a magazine. But today, we all write things for the world to see on a daily basis. What are the implications? Well, on the one hand it means that the quality of what we read suffers, but it also means that what is truly good stands out even more, through the phenomenon of choice paradox.
The other consequence, as described in The Shallows, is that we are becoming increasingly incapable of deep thought, as evidenced by the fact that I wandered off to 9GAG 6 times since I started writing this. No one will ever write another War and Peace. Since our consumption is hyperlinked, so is our creative process. Let’s say you’re writing a short story and you end up googling a location to make sure exactly where it is. We all know how it goes, you’re on the Wikipedia page for Hampstead Heath, figuring out how to describe some specific corner of the place, and before you know it you’re on a blogpost about the album Joe Pesci released when he was 25 years old, under the name Little Joe Sure Can Sing. Apparently he can’t.
But at this point, there’s no real use resisting change. I find it funny when people claim that they love the cracking of a book’s spine, and the musty aroma of a second hand bookshop, and that they’ll never own an e-reader. Nonsense, of course they will. There’s no fighting it at this point. My 70-year-old father, author of a dozen books, a collector of old manuscripts and an avid reader (to put it mildly), loves his iPad to bits.
And if you really think about it, you don’t love all your books. There are books you love, and with which you want a certain physical relationship. No, not that kind you pervert, the kind where you hold them and stroke them and enjoy their smell. Hmm, actually that does sound pretty perverted. Books are intrinsically sensual, they evoke feeling, whether it’s in their content or their shape. There will always be physical books, but there will be far far less of them. The same way writers will always take notes in a battered Moleskine notebook.
To a large extent, technology dictates both how we consume and how we produce writing. One of the most interesting, and oddest, developments in recent years has been the jump from the widespread availability of production tools to the ability to self-publish. Hundreds of thousands of books were self-published last year, and Amazon would have you believe that’s an amazing thing. While it is truly wonderful that people have a desire to write, most of these books have sold a handful of copies. And when you consider that one definition of a book is that it is the physical object (or at the very least the content) plus its ubiquity, you have to stop and wonder if these hundreds of thousands of ‘books’ that aren’t read by anyone are really books at all.
There is still a huge role for publishing companies to play, and I don’t say this as someone who works for one and is in the process of helping set up another one. Rather, I’m saying it as a published author. There is a legitimacy to being vindicated by someone whose job it is to identify a work that can have some level of success, and it is a feeling that goes hand in hand with the satisfaction of the book itself then being a success with readers. There is a process of mentoring, editing, crafting and marketing that one just can’t do alone. It’s one of the reasons the handful of people who are successful self-published flukes end up hankering for a publishing deal with a major house.
Some people have managed to master the tools at their disposal, and commit to interesting thinking about digital publishing. Seth Godin, for example, has published a series of extremely successful books in digital format, and has launched the Domino Project. However, Godin, Kawasaki and other similar writers are kind of on the tech side of things. These early adopters of interesting models already have huge followings and a deep knowledge of the way the tech works, your average quality fiction writer really doesn’t, yet.
I guess the key takeaway is that things are changing on a daily basis, faster than they have in most people’s lifetimes. And rather than be petrified by it, and cling to the past (like the French seem to be doing), we should see this is a huge opportunity and even a responsibility. What we choose to do with these technologies will define a generation of readers and writers.
So, no pressure then!