The other night on twitter, I came across this post (shared by the Australian Writer’s Centre) about technology and its potential impacts on writing. As a teacher, technology is a constant challenge. Used well, it helps students to engage, collaborate and create; used poorly, it is an entertaining distraction. I teach English, so I’m no stranger to the intersection between technology, reading and writing.
What I found interesting about the article is that Scott Bourne seemed to see technology as that entertaining distraction - at best, a tool for enforcing discipline when it does not come from within. I had to wonder, had he only seen technology used poorly? Or is writing, fiction especially, something that can’t change much from decade to decade?
Reading has fallen under the influence of the tech bug much faster than writing. Data on ebook sales vs print is notoriously murky (perhaps because of all the indie publishers), but at the very least, we can say that e-books have made a significant contribution to the fiction market. This is perhaps partly due to reduced cost; readers are consumers, after all. A writer who refuses to publish a digital copy may miss out on a large portion of their readership and, as I am frequently reminded, “writing books is an art but selling them is always a business”.
I’ve recently finished reading David Foster Wallace’s excellent essay collection, Consider the Lobster. Thinking on how much I also enjoyed Umberto Eco’s essays, I tweeted a request for any good teaching resources or more accessible essays for younger students. As I was typing, I wondered if the creative non-fiction essay is becoming obsolete. Ask 99% of high school students what an essay is, and they’ll talk about academic essays, not something you read for enjoyment. The non-fiction they might read for enjoyment? The blog. I know there are teachers who explicitly teach the forms and conventions of blogging as a text type – what do you think? Are blogs the new “essay”?
The "Hemingwrite" e-ink typewriter that Josh Tyson mentioned in his article.
So if readers want ebooks, research is conducted with google, newspapers are read online and blogs might be the new creative essay, what does all of this mean for fiction writers? Technology has begun changing how we market and publish our work, and to an extent how we produce it (on laptops rather than paper), but so far it seems to have had little impact on our work itself. If the biggest change technology has made to us is the introduction of implements like the Hemingwrite or voice recognition software, then perhaps 21st Century literature will look much the same as 20th Century literature. I don’t share Josh Tyson’s belief that those tools will gouge the quality of writing; writing is about stories and the language used to tell them. Whether I’m holding the pen or not, I have to choose the right words and come up with the premise, the characters and the events.
The "Novel in a Day" project asks 24 authors to write a book together in 24 hours - but no one knows what anyone else is writing.
But what if I didn’t? What if technology could change the fundamentals of writing, so that it is, for instance, collaborative or changed by the reader? The wonderful PurpleZeus uses google docs in his classroom for collaborative technology projects; one could do the same with writing projects. While NaNoWriMo pumps out thousands of first drafts this month, a few days beforehand the Novel in a Day project asked writers to create, edit and polish content for a book they have limited control over. There are writers using social media to ask their readers what they would like to see in a sequel. In the 1960s, Julio Cortázar wrote the novel Hopscotch, where the chapters can be read in different orders or by leaving some out entirely. For a long time, I’ve been contemplating a similar project utilising the non-linear reading style of the internet, with hyperlinks allowing the reader to dictate the sequence of events. What would it do to character arc? To a sense of climax and resolution? I don’t know, but I’d be interested to find out.
If we think of technology as something that is designed to help us shut off from the world and write in solitary confinement, we’re missing the point. If we think of it as a tool to make the writing, rewriting and editing process more convenient as we move from place to place, we might be getting closer. But the tech revolution wasn’t just about making life easier. It was about the very question writers love so much: