Monday 11 May 2009

Readers and writers - restoring the lnk

A lot’s been made of the democratising effect of the Internet. We live in a world where we can all be producers of culture. Anyone with Internet access can set up a blog and pour out their soul. And it takes little more than a mobile phone and to that you can add sound, picture, and film to the “we’re all at it now” package.

But that’s not what I’m interested in. The sociology of our supply-heavy culture is fascinating, but what’s even more exciting, culturally, is the way technology has changed the relation between producers and consumers of culture. Sure the Internet is a large part of it, but so are developments like print on demand technology, allowing you to publish your own book on a tiny scale with little more than a pdf – and, more important, to bring out a new edition of the book any time you want to.

What’s so special about the new way of producing and consuming culture? The fact that as a reader, listener, viewer, I can go straight to the artist. And as an artist I can put my material out there to be accessed directly by my audience. We’re directly in touch with each other (to the extent we can add comments straight onto any piece of art to let each other know what we’re thinking) Gone are the days when focus groups and test screenings forced directors to change the endings of movies like Fatal Attraction, or add explanatory voiceovers (Blade Runner). Gone are the days when a record company tied you in to a gazillion album deal and forced you to churn out a gazillion copies of the same sound (Paul Young, George Michael).

What we’ve been less quick to pick up on as we celebrate the delightfully diverse creative culture, the fresh, untampered voices of musicians and directors, is the relevance of this new directness to writers.

We can all, for under £50, publish our own work on sites like Lulu. Gone are the days when editors, agents, publishers, reviewers got to dictate what the public could and couldn’t read. Gone are the days when if something’s not “on trend” it’s impossible to get it published. Gone are the days when an author has to turn their voice down, give us an uplifting ending, put in a little more of this and a little less of that because their publisher wants it.

We can now offer readers the prose we – and no one else – wanted to write. And as readers we can access prose as the authors intended it to appear, and not as we are told it should appear.

Traditionalists have attacked this uncut, unedited prose because, they argue, without editors it will be amateurish and – to be frank – shockingly poor, full of stodge and typos. And I have to say, when I read the later works of authors who’ve hit the big time and get to override their editors, I can see their point. The last few Harry Potters could have done with a good axe to the roots.

My answer is twofold. First – so what? Isn’t it actually up to the readers to decide whether they want typo-laden, raw, unpolished “rubbish” or not? And if they say they do, isn’t it up to anyone who cares about culture (as opposed to people who care about preserving a tradition) to accept that? Are there still people who would say punk should be excised from the history books because, let’s face it, 99% of it was bloody awful? Wasn’t the point of punk more than 30 years ago to give everyone to do it for themselves? And wasn’t the result a much-needed creative shot in the arm for the whole of western culture whose positive influence we’re still seeing today?

I fail to see the validity of the “but it’ll be crap” argument, the “it’ll devalue the proper stuff” argument. No, I’ll go a lot further than that. I find these arguments toxic, pernicious, totalitarian, downright frightening. Who these people think they ARE to define culture and value. Music had Johnny Rotten meets Ken Tynan. Art had Tracey Emin meets Brian Sewell. Literature is in serious need of a similar moment; a moment when the public see the veneer of ossification and decay ripped away from their perception of literature for good.

My second answer is that the argument misses the mark – it’s as though the traditionalists who claim to be preserving the industry as it stands don’t know the difference between editing and proofreading. If I don’t have an editor, agent, or publisher, I’m still perfectly free to have a graphic designer, a team of proofreaders, and an IT whiz producing my website. True, many of the self-published books out there are full of typos and stodgy writing. That’s hardly proof all self-published books have to be that way.

For me, it’s this aspect of writing today I find most exciting of all. I’m writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes on Facebook, posting a chapter at a time. I post what I want, and readers tell me if they like it or not. What results is a book that pleases everyone, but more than that – the novel grows out of the direct, interactive relationship between me and my readers. THAT’S exciting.


  1. Dan, my question to you is very simple. The algorithm of putting venturesome readers together with self-empowering authors still works against this happy union matching up. The probabilities are against happy unions being made in virtual heaven. There is too much snow for both parties to plough through.

    How do we discover one another in the first place if we don't know who we're looking for ? Be it the unknown reader (akin to the tomb of the unknown soldier) and the unmediated mass of latter day authors with access to virtual printing ?

    Social networking may work for bands because of the buttressing of live performance/ video streaming and the fact that fans can subsist on single tracks (at least in the beginning - eg Arctic Monkeys). Can literature fans stake dedicated patronage of a writer based on a short story or a few chapters ?

    How the fuck do we reach out beyond our local supporters of kith and kin ? How do we tap into those beyond our familial tendrils ?

  2. Hi Sulci

    not sure how regular your Facebook access is so just to repeat a comment I made there about dialogue: have you read Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher? She has huge numbers of "conversations" without any dialogue - it's absolutely incredible. Her Nobel acclamation praised her "musical interplay of voices"

    In terms of the answers to your first paragraph of questions - I am trying to find out, and every time I come across something that works, it will appear here. The second para - I dodn't know, but if no one tries we never will. There was a discussion about physicists on Authonomy yesterday. This is one cat I want to know is dead - think about it like this: I'm taking 7 months out of my writing life to get an answer. If it's "no" what have I really lost? I'm in my 30s and I seem to manage to churn out a book and a bit in a year. If it's "yes" I've gained SOO much more. If I take that 7 months back and put it into subbing to agents as normal, and three years down the line someone else makes the big breakthrough, how would that make me feel?

    For me, it's a no-brainer.

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