Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Physical Act of Writing and the Psychological Problem

Tim Adams asks whether the art of great writing can survive the advent of the e-book. He works towards an argument (I think) that computers and our constant on-line status have created a kind of solipsistic self-centred mentality which may make us unable to appreciate extended arguments or concentrate on the great social novels which are at this moment being loaded onto e-books.

Well, maybe my head has already been turned to mush via all this stuff, because for much of this article I don't find his logic easy to follow. Adams begins by suggesting that the problem is based in 'different understandings of the physicality of the act of writing and the act of reading'. One assumes - or I did - that he is referring to different understandings about each of these things. However, he goes on to contrast an act of writing with an act of reading [* added: or to be more precise, elements surrounding an act of reading]: the fact that Don DeLillo still writes his novels on a manual typewriter with the fact of the new Classic Book Collection created for the Nintendo DS - and it's not clear to me from his argument what is the precise nature of this contrast or what it signifies. DeLillo, he reports, needs the physicality of his manual typewriter because he thinks of writing as sculpting: "I have a sculptor's sense of the words I'm making." This I can understand - as a writer I know that sense of a physical, bodily relationship with words in general and with the sentences you're making - and thus far I can follow. But then Adams says that in describing Shakespeare 'as an "iconic author" of "must-read novels" ... [the Nintendo makers] 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'.

This begs so many questions I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, although by describing Shakespeare as the author of novels the makers or their copywriters are betraying a pretty general cultural ignorance, I'm not sure that they are betraying anything whatever about an attitude to the physical act of writing or any other aspect of it, and this is hardly their concern. Their concern is quite properly with 'writing' in the sense of text - that product which is the goal to be reached via the physical act of writing and which even writers like DeLillo will acknowledge as separate from it - and I'm not clear what there is to complain about in this. Apart from which, text and content are never simple, they are complexly cultural. Perhaps in the last phrase -'something else to scroll onto a screen to suit your mood' - Adams' objection becomes clearer: he feels that the medium of the e-book diminishes the cultural character and impact of the text. However, it seems to me that this is a question not of how we write, but how we read.

He goes on to discuss interestingly our developing relationship with the computer, and the writing we do use it for in the form of blogging and social networking, which he sees, as I say, as increasingly solipsistic rather than truly social. (We can be fundamentally anonymous on the internet, and we are not subject to editorial correction, so that our writing on the internet can, I think he is saying, create a form of inward-looking self-aggrandisement.) He then asks: 'What effect might that have on writing itself?' adding that writing on the internet is not subject to the 'rationalities of syntax or argument', and that, constantly logged on, we are losing our capacity the 'think in the real world'.

But social networking on the internet is not the same as the writing of novels any more than writing letters to your friends has ever been the same as writing novels; it's not as if novelists are unable to shift between registers as necessary. Adams' final question gets nearer the nub of the problem for both readers and writers: 'Will anyone who is "always on" have the concentration to read the great social novels?... Will anyone be able to see far enough beyond themselves to write one?' It's a psychological problem, as I discussed earlier this year.

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