Friday, 12 August 2011

On Writing and Rioting

Are you a part of the problem or a part of the solution? A pertinent question after this week's riotous activities, and one that gives me significant pause. In my day job, working for a company that defines its profit margins by the number of shiny new smartphones it can unleash upon the world, I'm firmly part of the problem. As a children's writer, I should balance this by being part of the solution, shouldn't I? After all, I'm promoting youth literacy, social mobility and all the good things that can empower our beleaguered underclass to drag themselves up in the world. But I can't escape the idea that writers are increasingly irrelevant.

The idea that the only shop in Clapham left untouched by the looters was a Waterstones, initially made me laugh. Then it made me sad and ultimately it made me feel kind of useless. These are not rioters infused by the spirit of 1968, fuelled by Marxist ideologies or the Situationist writings of Guy Debord. Their revolutionary texts are the instruction manual for Call of Duty and the latest Samsung product catalogue. They are revolutionaries without a purpose, tanked with rage and battered daily by the shiny propaganda of the consumer economy.

Books are becoming an ever-marginalised activity, not because of e-readers but because the very nature of consumption is changing. I think the Nintendo DS can take its share of the blame for distracting would-be young readers, but to be honest it's just accelerating a trend that began with the original Playstation. Games offer us instant feedback and challenge, they engage our brains on a primitive level and constantly reward us for our efforts. Of course, you could argue that a good story does the same thing, and can actually take us much deeper into our primal responses as the tale pulls us through to the climax. But in a culture that is built around quick bite-sized rewards, who has the patience to wade through 250 pages to get that buzz?

Books may have lots of sex in them, but they are rarely sexy as an object. Even the Kindle is really only attractive to the kind of people who read a lot of books and wish they didn't have to lug them around. True, people with iPads read books, but they also spend a lot of their time surfing the web and playing slightly dull games. Books, movies, albums - these are all just more content to shove down the magic funnel towards the shiny device. This news piece about "tentpole" movies didn't surprise me in the least (you can see the evidence at your local multiplex right now), but it was unusual to see a movie executive openly espousing the view that story was dead.

So where does that leave us? Short of another wave of popular book culture like Harry Potter (unlikely), the readership of books seems likely to contract further. Should we be happy to live in a world of middle-class writers preaching solely to middle-class (increasingly female) readers? In some ways, that's no worse than the niche occupied by folk singers, documentary filmmakers or conceptual artists. But books used to be so much more, they used to really matter.

Children do not come out of the womb unwilling to read, no matter how deprived their family background. But with an increasing number of parents of all classes disinterested in reading for pleasure, and libraries teetering on the edge of extinction, how can we reach those kids? Or should it be us that adapts, turning our ideas into apps and games and two-minute YouTube clips rather than 85,000 word novels?

Children's stories bring excitement, laughter and wisdom. But most fundamentally, they bring hope. There are a whole lot of hopeless young people out there in the world right now who could really do with some of that.



  1. At first glance, a slightly saddening post, Nick - but I'm going to take it as a call to arms.As you say, children need hope and writing is a blatant act of optimism.

  2. Story isn't irrelevamt, it's at the very core of our being. Every reluctant writer I work with in schools has a story in their head, they just don't believe in their ability to get it down on to the page.
    It may change it's form a little, but story will always live on.

  3. Couldn't agree more with this post.
    Paul Arrighi
    Port Macquarie