I wrote this in July of 2001, almost eight years ago. As I'm finally plugging away at my novel that has languished in my digital storage for years, I thought my old musings on digital writing and publishing were as relevant and disheartening as it was back at the turn of the millenium.
July 7, 2001
The Problems with Being a Reader/Writer in a Digital Age
The printing press isn’t that old. From a global historical perspective, Gutenburg barely got the Bible published. In 500 years, we’ve gone from typesetting to word processing. Even 20 years ago, most writers still plucked away on typewriters. I didn’t use a computer to type my school papers until law school in the mid-1980s. Now, my writing has proliferated as much as the technology. Any rant, any rave, any errant thought can be captured and held. Storage space is small for words and the editing is easy. No need to discard the old drafts or maintain stacks of paper. Old habits die hard and paper is still strewn all over my offices, but the stacks in files in my word processor alone, boggles the mind. I’ve authored thousands of pages and I have yet to fill a CD.
1. Publishing has lost its mystique.
Nothing can be as overwhelming or disconcerting as stepping into a Barnes and Noble and strolling through the mass marketed isles, understanding that on my desk at home is an even more voluminous warehouse of books on the web site, ranked, critiqued and ready for my shopping cart. The volumes, the pages, the sheer mass conjures thousands of individuals at word processors, sitting at desks, pecking or scrawling their thoughts, their stories, their recipes, their how-tos, their histories and their life stories to be processed and consumed.
The entire process seems not unlike farming. The farmer toils and produces food, growing each year out of the land, as massive machinery, picks and harvests the grain only to start the process over next year. The writers have become consumables, not unlike food. We stuff our heads and return to renew our feast another day as cranial hunger ensues. For over a hundred years, this has been done through the newspapers, mass produced, read and discarded. No lasting art from the paper. The proliferation of web zines, the ease of self-publishing with a computer and laser printer, takes the cost of publishing and puts it into the hands of those to whom it might otherwise have been inaccessible. Anyone can publish. Anyone can see their words in print.
Twenty years ago, being a published writer was a Holy Grail that at times seemed unattainable. Even now, the rejection slip stories are proliferated and propounded. The only reason people don’t get published today is if they have a rejection fetish and enjoy the rejection. The difference between being successful and making a living writing and publishing is vast.
For a case in point, I look at a poet whose workshop I attended in Salt Lake. Apparently, she is highly regarded and well thought of in academic circles. I purchased a book she had published on her philosophy of art. The thing that amazed me was the length of her personal bibliography contained in that book – 14 pages of books, essays, journal articles, published poems, video recordings, sound recordings, interviews and biographical/critical studies. She has a fourteen page bibliography and until I signed up for the workshop, I’d never even heard of her. I thought of my own bibliography – non-existent. I thought of all the writers with longer and shorter bibliographies that I’ve never even heard of or thought about.
Maybe this is where the food analogy falls apart. Books are worse than food. They may become dated, lacking those illusive literary qualities of universality and verisimilitude. Unless they are burned or the hard drive crashes or the CD scratches, the written word becomes the perpetual consumable. We can eat and eat and never be filled and the thing we consume still exists. This gives rise to the ubiquitous discount book shelf. Super Buy blue stickers. 50% Off or More. Prices as Marked. The book, having lost its economic efficiency, can still be consumed by the deal and word hungry. I used to yearn for literary recognition. Now, I yearn to one day find my book on a discount book shelf.
There are no used food stores. What happens when one consumes a book already consumed by another? My house, my office could be used book stores. I have more books than I’ll ever read that I own and I still buy more. I am not a library. I am not wealthy. I think I could start at one end of my personal library and never read it all in a lifetime. What does that mean to a writer? I’ve eve bought the books and the author may not be able to get me to read it. The task seems insurmountable – a triathalon of biking up Everest, swimming the Atlantic and running across a continent. How or why in the multitude of voices, will anyone bother to hear what I have to say? Why is what I say important in comparison to the words that have gone before me? Am I just looking for a flash, a moment in time, where for a second I become consumed, rather than ignored?
2. Too much information, so little time.
Filter. The only option at our disposal is to filter. The problem is that in this ocean of
words, to borrow a tired metaphor, the reader is adrift. My personal reading style could be described as the synchronicity of the accidental encounter. I read something. It leads me down a path. I follow it, finding others along the way. I drift, apparently baseless, reading vociferously and indiscriminately.
The great promise of the information age is that all our information will be filtered. We will receive only those items we wish to receive. We can make ourselves myopic by choice or multi-optic. I can write a piece on reading and writing in the digital age and it can be directed to those who wish to read it, by an expressed preference. If I can generate an audience, Amazon.com will send them an email every time I publish a new book. I can subscribe to email lists that effect my own interests. On top of the bombardment of books and paper, I receive electronic missives at a rate that could eliminate my entire need for books at all. I could simply spend my time reading what is sent to me on my computer.
The question is how do you select what you read – obviously, if you have reached this point in the article, you have read this far. Case in point – why have you chosen to read this article? The answer is complicated, but lies rooted in the answer to two deeper questions: Why do I read? and Why do I write? If this was a flow chart, these two questions could be followed back to the initial question of all questions – Why?
Certainly it may be overkill to suggest that metaphysics lies at the heart of reading a magazine article. Yet, the choice of what to do with the precious commodity of life, is inherently tied in with the desire to write. The writer realizes that the written word, if preserved (thus the appeal of the ‘published’ author), is a perpetual consumable. The perpetual motion machine of interacting in the world. Even when the machine of a body dies, the perpetual motion machine of words carries on.
The more eccentric and outrageous science fiction fantasies discuss the potential to download our thoughts and mind into the computer. We scoff. We realize the absurdity of capturing the entire consciousness in a machine – or at least the incredible complexity of such a task. Yet, I sit in my apartment on a Saturday morning, not dressed, a computer on my lap, pouring my thoughts in as fast as my fingers can act as a conduit to the screen, so that this moment or at least a portion of this moment is preserved to be consumed and consumed again by an audience. The life seems not to come from simply saving the thoughts on the hard drive, but by having that hard drive accessed by other conscious beings. My thoughts in your head give me a sense of immortality. Every writer must at some time fantasize and hope that the body of work is discovered after they are dead. I want to be discovered while I am alive. I want to connect with other human beings. This becomes the answer for me to the two questions and ultimately to the Why? question. I write to connect with other people. I read to connect with other people. I live to connect with other people.
If this is the purpose, then why not just converse? Why not just hang out with my friends and family? As a basic answer, the need to connect is broader. I need to connect with like minded souls. I need to connect on my own selfish terms. Some compulsion spurs me to create art. Art is a connection that is deeper than simply conversing. Art reaches at the deeper issues in life. Art gets into the depths that daily life seems to miss. Art speaks to a spot that seems often ignored. We have trained ourselves to see the artistic only when we are reading, looking at art, watching film or engaging in some aesthetic activity. To connect on that level, we must play on that stage. Art is a conveyor of emotion. We speak of an emotional connection, yet we experience the connection in a poetic image or a story.
3. Lack of direction in our information choices.
Where do we look for art? Academics can kill the artistic impulse. Capitalism can kill
the artistic impulse. The exceptions are obvious. Academics occasionally out of all the dryness and banality, create amazing artistic creations. Capitalism and consumerism similarly have produced out of the over-dramatized and highly sentimentalized dross, sparkling gems of artistic expression. Even in the fledgling artists and fledgling publications, much is highly lacking. and amatuerish, yet the novice creates great art. The percentages, if they were kept, I have a feeling would be remarkably consistent. The percentage of junk versus the percentage of brilliance is probably quite consistent.
To some extent, when I write, I always want to tap into the brilliance, the amazing force of creating great art. However, in a discussion of art, its purpose and the nature of being a reader and a writer, I do not intend this to be great art. I intend this to be a jumping off point for discussion, a more direct appeal to the community created by writing – to discuss and illuminate what we mean when we say we find something great. The discussion becomes critical in the sensory overload of the digital era. Time needs to be spent, simply to determine where or what is deserving of our time.
I abhor at times the pure chance system of what I read. At other times it takes me wonderful places that I would have never gone. I have become wishy washy, lacking any absolutes. I learn of history and influences and the web becomes a convoluted mixture, folding in on itself and folding out, lacking and filled at the same time. It is a very personalized mixture of knowledge and it is unique from anyone else’s.
Not much has changed, with the possiblity that things have gotten worse for the publishing industry and the choices have exploded exponentially.
Words -- it is all just words.