Friday, 22 June 2012
I found this book lying in the road the other day. Cars had been driving over it, breaking the binding and ripping the pages. It wasn't anything literary, just a mass-market crime novel of the type that millions of people read every week. But emotionally, it affected me as strongly as seeing a piece of roadkill. If it had been an iPad or Kindle lying on the tarmac, all smashed up, I'm sure I would have wondered how it ended up there and thought what a waste of money that was. But because it was a book, it got me right in the gut.
What is it all about, this emotional connection to the printed work? Clearly, none of the other drivers who ran over the book on their way to work gave it a second thought. But for some reason it was me who stopped and gave the book a decent burial in the nearest recycling bin. Perhaps I'm just stupid and sentimental, feeling sorry for an inanimate object that has never known joy or love or pain. And yet, aren't these the same emotions we feel when we read books? To us, can't a book be as alive as the real breathing person that wrote it? A book can summon up the spirit of an author who is long dead, or characters who never existed in the first place. Think how many lives Shakespeare has lived since his death, or Dickens.
This is why writers find it so hard to adjust to the stark modern mindset of simply being content generators, people whose job it is to provide the Apples and the Amazons of this world with an unending supply of SKUs (Stock-keeping Units). The creative process is brittle – it doesn't obey the rules of manufacturing or business – and the techniques we evolve for one story may not transfer to the next. In order to keep doing what we do, with the necessary levels of enthusiasm and emotional involvement, we need to believe that we are doing something special. Otherwise, what's the point?
It wasn't a huge jump to see that dead book as metaphorical of what we all fear as the digital revolution gathers pace. With so much "content" in the world, delivered so quickly and anonymously, don't we risk becoming immune to its charms? What reason is there to give any particular value to a 99p e-book over (to use Gerald Ratner's infamous example) an M&S prawn sandwich? Both become bland and interchangeable, quickly consumed and just as quickly disposed of.
Succeeding as a writer in the digital world will require more than just creative talent and a flair for marketing. We will need to become evangelists for the importance of craft and inspiration, showcasing the work of our peers as much as we promote our own. People need to be shown that here is a thing worth doing and worth paying for. This writing thing we do is hard and hard work should be rewarded. Together, we can keep the spirit of the book alive, even as the book itself is crushed beneath the wheels of progress.
Posted by Nick Cross at 12:00