Warning: this post contains half-baked speculation, crackpot predictions, and pretentious posturing. Oh, and links. Lots of links. You have been warned!
Thanks to the internet, we live in the interesting times of the Chinese curse. The internet is as potent as it is unpredictable. As a quick glance at the comments accompanying the average YouTube video will attest, it draws out characteristics – passion, obsession, hatred, hubris – that would probably remain safely obscured in ordinary social discourse. Being international, untrammeled, and ungovernable, it is also egalitarian: we are not just the passive users of the internet, but contributors and co-creators. We help to shape the internet – albeit in a very small way – with every blog post, comment, tweet and Facebook update. The internet is inspiring, sustaining, cruel, wonderful and awful, all at the same time.
And what of the internet’s impact on writing and publishing?
For many writers and publishers, the answer is obvious: it’s an advertising tool. A chance to get books out in front of a worldwide audience, with access to an ever-greater pool of potential readers. A chance to build a potentially huge online presence, a sort of virtual HQ from which to conduct marketing and promotional campaigns. And while writers’ forums are abuzz with advice about presenting, packaging, marketing and selling your work online, still many writers seem reluctant to engage with the internet in any more meaningful sense – as, that is, a vital aspect of the cultural environment, rather than as a means to a (usually commercial) end.
But this approach – employing the web as a business opportunity, while denying it any kind of deeper cultural significance – may be a little short-sighted. The internet’s influence upon cultural and literary life, I believe, goes far deeper than “txt spk” or ever-decreasing attention spans, despite the doomsayers’ warnings to the contrary.
For one thing, the internet offers us the possibility of creating work that defies the conventional structure of the novel or short story. My online friend Paul Sutton Reeves recently acquainted me with Geoff Ryman’s 253, an online, interactive novel consisting of sketches of each of the 253 passengers on a London Underground train, each sketch consisting of 253 words. These “chapters” can be read in any order, which arguably enables the reader to be not just a passive recipient but, in a sense, a co-creator.
The prospect of “reader as active participant” is one of the more intriguing possibilities held out by the internet. Last year, author China Mieville spoke about the possibility of readers “remixing” novels (read article here). Given the ease of file-sharing, and the universality of copying, cutting and pasting, issues of copyright may become increasingly blurred. In the not-too-distant future, the question may not be “Which edition?” but “Which mix?” Does this bring you out in a cold sweat? Or does it leave you unruffled, or even inspired?
Closely related to this is the issue of piracy, which is both easy and (probably) inevitable these days. It will most likely get even easier in the future. Are you worried about this? Should you be? Or is it just another example of the democratic, levelling nature of the internet?
Speaking of democratization, writers are enjoying greater freedom than ever before. Short stories and flash fiction, for example, may be enjoying something of a renaissance. Until relatively recently, the only way to get a short story published was to send it off to various publications in the hope that somebody, somewhere, would judge it worthy of being printed. Now a writer can make short stories available instantly, worldwide, whether by the usual means of uploading them to Amazon or Smashwords, submitting them to one of the many internet sites that are available for such a purpose, or just putting them up on a personal website or blog.
Noah Cicero, talking in this article about the beginnings of the Alt Lit movement, says: “A person could get a blog for free and write exactly what they wanted. And that was going to be the future.” As he also says, “Because the Internet allows for democracy, it lets people become who they want to be without having to fit into a certain mode of operation.”
All of which brings us neatly to one of the perceived problems of self-publishing. If you leave your front door wide open, sooner or later anyone who wants to will come wandering in. As a result, the stereotypical self-published book is badly-written, poorly-formatted, and stuffed full of typos and grammatical blunders. And while I’ve read enough excellent self-published books to know that this stereotype is unfair and often false, there is also – as with many stereotypes, probably – a small kernel of truth there. Egalitarianism is an attractive idea, but the consequences may not be quite so desirable. Is this inclusivity inspiring, or horrifying? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum? (And if so, wasn’t it about bloody time?)
Phew. That’s enough for one post. In Part 2, I’ll be taking a brief look at Alt Lit, a literary movement that has grown up around the internet revolution. In the meantime, I’m off to lie down in a darkened room for a while. Leave a comment, if you wish…