Thursday, December 14

The 21St Century Writer

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The archetypal image that a writer conjures up is a man or woman, invariably dishevelled or extremely suave, an obsessive perfectionist or eccentric joker, a self-hating or a narcissistic hot air balloon, a sage-ish octogenarian or a swashbuckling young dyna mo. As some of these contrived analogies demonstrate, it is hard to box this community. While this might ostensibly make generalisations somewhat difficult, the turn of the century and maturity of technology means that a clear direction has started to emerge where writing, and writers, are headed in this brave new wired (well actually, wireless) world.

The interface where writers and readers interrogated each other used to be the paper. However, increasingly, ‘ebooks’ are overtaking sales of ‘regular books’. As e-readers—such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Amazon’s Kindle, and Apple’s iPad—continue to improve, distributors are increasingly focusing on digital media as the modus operandi. This reflects several other major developments.

The year 2010 might also be remembered as the first year when ebooks outsold hardback editions on the online store, Amazon. With stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders teetering, the rise of the digital book and bookstore is clear for all to see.

The internet also provides a new medium for marketing books in a fash ion impossible in bygone years. With its egalitarian structure, the internet has provided a static-free connection between authors and their readers. The simplest method can be to simply make a page on Facebook, where all relevant updates can then be posted. Twitter allows users to directly feed whosoever chooses to subscribe to their feeds pithy 160-letter morsels.

Modern means of travel and communications have reduced the world to a (’90s cliché) global village. Taking these changes in stride, writers represent some of the most diverse backgrounds amongst all villagers. Writers like Zadie Smith have introduced their own internationalist flavour into their words and characters, creating a world that refuses to comply with geographical and/or ethnic lines.

This modern experience has been chronicled by writers such as the Booker Prize winner, Kiran Desai, in a relationship with the Turkish Nobel prize winner, Orhan Pamuk. Her novel, The inheritance of loss, explores the new cultures that the characters are exposed to in a modern world which has blurred age-old borders. Writers are now, more than ever, carrying a global outlook about them, keenly aware of markets far beyond their native language and indigenous territory.

The internet also means that rarely does a writer find himself/herself alone. Physical location, as demonstrated so ably by the eminent science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, is of little consequence to the modern writer, who operated out of his recluse in Sri Lanka. In fact, technology means that physical ability can also be overcome, as is done so by the physicist Stephen Hawking, the author of, amongst others, A brief history of time. While writers such as Jonathan Franzen prefer to remain disconnected, many make the most of the images, voices and visions that the internet offers in chaotic abundance.

And yet, having said all that, there is little to be said about how technology affects writing itself. While I have talked of the many different ways ideas can be dispensed, those who generate them remain intrinsically unaltered, unenhanced, and well, untainted. I do wonder that while there are so many more ways to share thoughts, the nature of those thoughts themselves hasn’t really evolved.

Undoubtedly, while making the process more ergonomic, technology will not write a book of itself, nor particularly aid a writer in doing so. It might help us with synonyms and spelling, certainly not with metaphor and meaning. It can tell us when not to break the rules of grammar (and that too, not all that well), but it can never tell us when rules should be broken. While it can help substitute for some experiences, translate some sentences, it can never unravel the intangibles.

So while the 21st Century writer might be resplendent with blacktooths and blueberries, little of his core differs from that of his brethren from days gone by.

In that, there is something to be said about the art of writing, for it is not just that, but it is an extension of man’s sensorium, a transliteration of complex internal machinations into art, into idea, into a world within the inner one.


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