I recently came across a most provocative article. In “The Writing Revolution,” two university professors – Denis G. Pelli and Charles Bigelow (a MacArthur Fellow no less) – hypothesize that we are headed toward a state of “nearly universal authorship.” The two profs chart the rate of book authorship since the invention of the printing press alongside the rise of bloggers, Facebook commenters, and tweeters, using 100 readers as the criterion for “publishing.”
“Since 1400, book authorship has grown nearly tenfold in each century,” they point out. “Currently, authorship, including books and new media, is growing nearly tenfold each year.”
On the chart the rate of increase for bloggers, Facebookers, and Twitter mavens looks like the Rockies rising out of the Great Plains. The profs are bold: “Extrapolation of the Twitter-author curve (the dashed line) predicts that every person will publish in 2013.”
This sort of extrapolating is what got Thomas Malthus in trouble a few centuries back, but never mind. And OK, OK, let’s not dwell on the absurdity of classing a tweeter with the tribe of Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Jane Austen. Granted, this is like a grocery manager putting apples, oranges, raspberries, mangoes, and kumquats in the same bin, but we at 317am have always held to a liberal view of story telling. So let’s try on the idea as a thought experiment.
The old school has it that story telling is a sacred calling, a kind of priesthood. The writer ventures alone deep into the self, and if she’s up to the task, returns with universal emotions and truths in the form of stories. As Iris Murdoch wrote: “All artists dream of a silence which they must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawn.”
In this model, a magical thing happens when the reader, also in solitude, is lifted out of himself by the book the author has produced. Writers from Samuel Johnson to Virginia Woolf have praised the idea of “the common reader” – an educated generalist with the smarts to savor the author’s genius. Writers need readers as much as birds need trees. The great James Joyce, never fearful of grandiosity, once said: “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” Not likely these days, but you get the point.
There’s another model, however, which I’ve heard about through friends: teenagers playing a video game called Halo. What I’ve been told is that groups of friends play the game digitally, making up story lines and characters as they go along, texting back and forth, distance no object to creative collaboration. The writer-reader nexus becomes a community.
What I worry about, though, in the new age is a shortage of common readers for what writers produce. This may already be true of poetry in America, where we seem to have more poets than readers of poetry, or at least buyers of poetry books. It’s true that writers have always been the best readers of other writers – the most faithful, the most zealous, the most discerning. More authors, at a minimum, mean more appreciators of Finnegans Wake.
But the problem is time: we all have a limited amount. In the Digital Age every piece of content competes with every other bit of content for our attention. Time spent writing is time spent not reading. I know that blogging 317am 15 to 20 hours a week has not chopped my book-reading time – Proust still gets his steady 10 pages a night – but I confess that my newspaper reading, once a two-hour-a-day addiction, has taken a hit. (No big loss actually.)
We seem to be returning to the time of storytellers round the campfire that Gunter Grass imagined in his 1999 Nobel acceptance speech, a time before the ancient split between tellers and listeners had taken place.
“People have always told tales,” Grass said. “Long before humanity learned to write and gradually became literate, everybody told tales to everybody else and everybody listened to everybody else’s tales. Before long it became clear that some of the still illiterate storytellers told more and better tales than others, that is, they could make more people believe their lies.”
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson tells us that new media make for a universe of niches. So maybe the future is niches upon niches – all of us inhabiting our own little digital worlds. A few friends and me will be writing our Twainish-Hemingway-like stories in the old text-heavy Western literary tradition and passing them around to each other in some online form. And, at the same time, the Halo gangs will be doing their thing. In either niche playing the game beats spectating.
(Many thanks to Donncha for that lead photo above of a crowd of potential authors.)