Great writing does not depend on the tools

Yesterday’s Observer contained an astonishingly silly article from Tim Adams, entitled Will e-books spell the end of great writing? The short answer to that is “no”, but the confusion in Adams’s mind is such that I think his article needs to be taken apart piece by piece.

He starts with a quote from the great American novelist Don DeLillo, who says that he needs to use a typewriter to produce his prose. From this, Adams seems to deduce that without typewriters we cannot have great literature.

The absurdity is there on so many levels. First off, Cervantes didn't have a typewriter, and DeLillo's typewritten novels will work well enough on an e-reader. The medium used to create the text is of no relevance to the medium used to read the text, surely that's obvious? DeLillo's great contemporary, Philip Roth, writes standing up at a computer. Jeffrey Archer uses the same type of pen for every word he writes. You can't tell me that if Roth swapped to the PaperMate, he'd start writing the kind of drivel Archer churns out, or that if DeLillo was somehow forcibly deprived of his typewriter that he'd stop writing.

Writing is hard, and one of the most effective procrastination techniques is to convince yourself that you haven't got the right equipment to hand. If only I had the right pad, I could really bang that masterpiece out! Writing is also a routine for most successful writers, so it's no surprise that they devise an ideal setting for their work. One author, I forget who, rents an office space across town from their home so that they have the feeing of being at work (this may even be DeLillo).

All authors are different, and I simply can't see how the available tools are going to change the quality of future authors' output.

Adams seems unaware that you can use a computer without being interrupted if that's what you want. You're not even forced to be connected to the internet. You can use a tool like WriteRoom, an application that removes everything from your screen except your text, which DeLillo would probably like, and you don't need to be checking Facebook or Twitter while you do it.

Adams goes further though: he highlights a Nintendo DS 'game' that gives you a load of classic books that you can read on the device. He seems to be unable to look past the use of the word 'game' to describe this. But that's just what things you install on the DS are called, just as the e-readers you install on your iPhone are called apps. Providing people with access to a text in a convenient fashion is, surely, a good thing for literacy, rather than the hell-in-a-handcart move Adams seems to think it is.

Here he is getting into a little bit of logical trouble:

The makers of the bestselling Nintendo package may believe Shakespeare to be an "iconic author" of "must-read novels" but in describing him as such they betray some of the side-effects of their product – it treats all writing as if it were simply text, content, something else to scroll on a screen to suit your mood.

It's embarrassing that the makers of the 'package' think that Shakespeare wrote novels, to be sure, but how does a misclassification of an author allow you to make generalisations about the device itself, no matter how much you dislike the idea of the device.

Adams again:

We hear frequently that we are quickly moving toward an era that will allow each of us to become the editor of our own newspaper and director of our own television schedule; our computers will help us in this process, listen to our histories, define our likes and dislikes and recommend accordingly; they will be our personal shoppers and cultural critics, reinforcing our tastes.

This new solipsistic power, however, is unlikely to be without consequences.

Here, we seem to be back to the old lament for cultural gatekeepers. It's hard to see how a TV that filters out all the shows I dislike (i.e. most shows) can be anything but good thing. Is it somehow solipsistic to only watch the things you like? And if you think that the internet can't provide you with a healthy dose of serendipity to set alongside your reinforced taste, you should read Tim's post from a couple of months back.

The advent of large-scale social software has made it easier for me to find new things to fall in love with. I have made friends with people I would never have come into contact with other than through Twitter, and they have introduced me to things I would probably never otherwise have found. This is, surely, the very antithesis of solipsism.

More Adams:

There has recently been something of a backlash in the conventional publishing world against the "tyranny" of online conversion. Several of these books have argued that the feature of the digital universe that threatens to overwhelm us is that we are, in the phrase of Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at Washington, "always on", which is to say we are so consistently wirelessed to blogs and Blackberries and Twittering and Facebook that we are losing our capacity to think in the "real" world. Moreover, that the capacity for rigorous sentence construction, of the kind explored by Don DeLillo, is being replaced in online communication by a lazy and hasty "whateverism", where nothing that is written has to adhere to the rationalities of syntax or argument, and where no time is given to clarifying thought.

It's unsurprising that there's been a backlash in publishing against online conversations. In the past, it was possible for publishers to control the conversation by cozying up to a few of the right people - literary editors at major publications for example - and do the you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours dance with them. If anything is tyrannical about the book trade, it was surely this. We were told what to think from on high, without access to knowledge about the web of interests that informed the supposedly independent thinking. Now, an ordinary reader can have exactly the same say as these formerly privileged ones. Of course the old guard are mourning their loss of control, but the savvy ones - Hesperus Press is a good example - are embracing the new media. I'm part of a book blogging community, where every member writes a review of every book they read, and we get dozens of requests from publishers - mainly smaller ones who are of necessity not clinging to the past - to review their authors' work. They're not worried about the distribution of opinion, because they get a fairer hearing from bloggers than they do from the mainstream press, and readers know this, which is why blogs are so popular.

The second canard here is that blogging is, of necessity, not considered. If you're looking for someone who "adheres to the rationalities of syntax and argument", I point you to John Gruber of Daring Fireball. Every now and again, he writes a longish piece that has obviously been very carefully considered. He delights in picking apart others' arguments, and is very particular about his syntax. If you want to see the level of "clarifying thought" that he expends in writing one of these pieces, try his epic post on whether the new tabs in the Safari 4 beta were an improvement or not.

Of course there are bloggers who write badly and fail to think carefully, just as there are journalists, like Adams, who do the same; it isn't the medium that causes this problem.

Adams quotes Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob:

"In the pre-internet age…, there came a moment when you turned off the TV or the stereo, or put down the book or magazine… You stopped doing culture and you withdrew — or advanced — into your solitude. You used the phone. You went for a walk. You went to the corner bar for a drink. You made love… You wrote a letter."

This is a seductive concept. Except, see that "used the phone"? I'll bet you could dig up an article from the early 20th century with a similar litany of complaint against the telephone as the destroyer of the face-to-face communication. The mistake is to think that the medium of communication somehow dictates its use, or precludes the use of other means of communication. I value my solitude perhaps more than most people, but what the new technologies have given me are a way to indulge in my enthusiasms while increasing the amount of social interaction I'm able to engage in. I am many times more socially active, and far less solipsistic than I ever was before, and I think this is true of many people. I expose my opinions to a wide range of people and their criticism, and the challenge this presents can only help me to refine those ideas.

Adams finishes up with this:

Will anyone who is "always on" have the concentration to read the great social novels – those ultimate "interactions" with the world – on a screen? Will anyone be able to see far enough beyond themselves to write one?

Of course this ascribes an intrinsic value to "great social novels", which in fact is nothing more than a prejudice on Adams' part, but isn't it absurd to think that our use of technology would necessarily reduce our ability to focus? I've written ten times more since I started a blog than I ever did before, and as a result of my book blogging I've read more carefully than I ever have before, and I've stretched my reading into areas it would never otherwise have gone. All these thing have required far more concentration than formerly.

It's a shame that newspapers keep publishing garbage like this. Social software has opened up whole new ways of engaging with the world, of understanding others, and of engendering debate. It seems that people who decry its influence just don't understand it very well. I'm very optimistic about the future of writing in particular, and of society in general. It's a commonplace (which doesn't make it any less true) that social software has greatly increased people's ability to participate in and influence events in the real world. Institutions that were once secretive and closed are being forced to open up and to become more transparent.

For the novel, as for everything else, this is excellent news.

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