It seems like hardly a week goes by without one literary writer or another hyperbolically decrying the way we’re all going to hell in an electronic handbasket.
First Jonathan Franzen argued that e-books are damaging society and suggested that all “serious” readers read print.
Last week Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan complained of social networking, “Who cares that we can connect? What’s the big deal? I think
Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live
in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks
exactly the same.”
Zadie Smith has written of Facebook: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he
or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character.
Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent
experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our
fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we
consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be
careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more
free, they just look more owned.”
This of course comes on the heels of Ray Bradbury complaining in 2009: “They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told
them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the
Internet.’ It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”
And of course there’s a long and storied history of writers eschewing technology and returning to nature, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I don’t have any stats to prove this definitively, and to be fair, there are some modern literary writers who definitely embrace tech. Colson Whitehead is tremendous on Twitter and wrote reminded everyone that the Internet isn’t the reason you haven’t finished your novel. Susan Orlean, William Gibson, Margaret Atwood and others have embraced Twitter.
But doesn’t it seem like there’s some nexus between literary writers and technophobia? Are literary writers more likely to fear our coming robot overlords and proudly choose an old cell phone accordingly (if they have one at all)? Do they know something we don’t?
Even when a writer really does use tech as either an artistic mode of
expression or as a relentless self-promotion engine (or both), like Tao
Lin, he’s derided (or praised, depending on one’s POV) as “a world-class perpetrator of gimmickry.”
Have lit writers become our resident curmudgeons? Or are they just like any other cross-section of the population? Is it tied to deeper fear of the transition in the book business? Is it just not interesting to think new stuff is cool?
What do you make of this?
Neurotic Workaholic says
I think if they're not accustomed to using things like Facebook and e-books, then they're more likely to be wary about it. On the other hand, like you said, there are people from older generations who have embraced technological advances.
I'm kind of divided on this issue. I don't use Facebook or Twitter because I think both would take up too much time; they seem like a lot of work. But I like blogging because I think it's good writing practice and it's a good way to meet other writers.
Ray Bradbury is a shocker!
I think FB is a great way for a fiction writer to stay in touch with the day-to-day concerns of real people.
But I can also understand busy writers complaining about the amount of time eaten up by keeping up with FB friends.
Franzen is (in effect) telling poor writers not to shop at Walmart. He can afford to be snippy about ebooks. Without estories (short, not books) I might not be published at all. Without Facebook and Twitter, I'd have to grab strangers on the street and beg them to read my stuff.
Honestly? I think it's because most of these quoted writers are bad at social media so they disparage it. "You don't see me on Facebook or Twitter not because, god forbid, a genius like me doesn't *get* it, but because I *reject* it." I feel justified in saying this because I am bad at social media–at least in terms of connecting with potential readers. I'm not an extrovert, and I bet most lit writers aren't either. I've met plenty of writers (many YA writers) who are extroverts or otherwise self-promotion gifted, and they're *awesome* with social media. I appreciate that plenty of writers feel that way–but am self-aware enough to see that it's only the well-esatblished writers who can afford to reject social media in its entirety offhand–and that, in that old maxim "It's not you, social media–it's me."
I'd much rather connect with friends in person and save Facebook for stalking people to see who's gotten fat since high school…but I also recognize that the world is moving in different directions.
I am an aspiring literary novelist but I have to agree with what someone said above me- the professors, the MFA writers-in-residence, aren't helping the peaceful merger of lit writers and technology. I am a creative writing student and my prof is a self-proclaimed luddite- he has a feature cell phone and has just signed up for Facebook two years ago. He is 36 going on 37, so age isn't really a factor, I don't believe. I am 33 and have always embraced technology, am pushing my way through promoting my literary YA novel, etc. I'm not sure where the disconnect is for these writers, though they are the only ones, it seems making any money from their literary works. My professor is not.
As a lit writer I can tell you I don't think I am going to devote all my work to a strict literary formula. I want to make money at this. I want to do this for as long as I can. Twitter, Facebook, G+, LinkedIn, etc is a step I must take to ensure, or at least tilt the odds .85 degrees in my favor.
I wonder if it has something to do with what they view the role of the writer is. With the advent of media, many commercial authors have embraced it as a tool to connect with fans, and they consider connecting with fans and creating communities for their writing an important part of their job. But literary authors are probably more likely to consider their job solely "writing"; why should they reach out to the people who read their writing?
Sue Harrison says
The 2 F's. Fear and frustration.
Afraid of new things.
Afraid to leave the classic ways behind.
Afraid we can't learn new ways.
Frustration at the amount of time taken away from writing to master and use new media.
Frustration that the brain changes (it's documented)caused by using the shortcuts available via new media will mean beautiful writing no longer has a place in society.
I say, "To each their own." I love holding printed books, and I love getting an e-book in 30 seconds. My book is available in both formats, and the printed version is selling better, because people still visit bookstores. So yay! But friends who are on my Facebook, who didn't know I'd written a book until they saw a post, enjoyed downloading right away. So I'm for all of it–whatever works best for the book! ♥ K. L. Burrell
What is a book but a box of many characters? And what is a computer/the internet but a box of many more characters? I don't understand how it can even be considered limiting or superficial, especially in comparison to a traditional book.
I think the technophobia derives from feeling slightly threatened… well-established authors around before the digital age may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the access people now have to fictional works – it ups the competition!
Wendy Bertsch says
I believe what we're hearing is the fear of established writers that their exclusivity is disappearing with the power of the big publishers who have supported them, and whose power is vested in print.
Eva Ulian says
This attitude reminds me much of Aesop's fable "The Sour Grapes"- which because the fox could not reach them dismissed the grapes as being sour. Likewise, those who haven't a clue how to master Internet say the same thing.
I can see both sides. How's that for straddling the fence? My next gig will be politics. This conundrum reminds me of the setting of Fahrenheit 451. Yes, I will be that lady who goes up in flames for her books. I love to caress the pages, admire the art and care it took to create the actual book. Going deeper, I appreciate the actual experiences that lead to the stories I've enjoyed. A virtual adventure is never the equal of the real thing. How to describe the smells and sounds are tempered by what we've known in our past. Your past is not mine and vice versa. I appreciate technology for opening new worlds to me that I cannot afford or physically manage to visit. I appreciate the ease with which the internet makes possible for me to send my words out into the world. Like all things in life, there needs to be moderation. A melding of technology and experience, the virtual and the actual, is the best we can strive for. Afterall, the quill was once new technology.
Sorry to disappoint, but I agree with them. How can anyone who loves words and the richness of the English language read Twitter without a sense of revulsion?
Nathan Bransford says
"How can anyone who loves words and the richness of the English language read Twitter without a sense of revulsion?"
This sentence is less than 140 characters. Does it lack meaning and inspire revulsion?
A million poets would disagree with the notion that being brief necessarily means dull and meaningless.
"How can anyone who loves words and the richness of the English language read Twitter without a sense of revulsion? "
Well if that's your standard, how can you go anywhere without ear plugs or talking to anyone when the majority of the population butchers the language just by speaking daily without a sense of revulsion? Are you a hermit?
Twitter is not a genre of literature. It's social media. That means it's people talking. If you choose to avoid the global chit chat, that's a valid choice. Trying to compare it to literature, not so much.
*No offense to anyone writing their WIPs one status update at a time. There's no way to account for the artists. 🙂
I'm late to this discussion, but I wanted to chime in because I'm a literary writer, I'm 25, and I don't think I could ever read a book on an e-reader.
I've tried. Many of my friends have e-readers, and I've attempted to read books on both Kindles and Nooks, but there was something about reading on a screen that made my mind wander, and I generally gave up after only 15 pages. In comparison, I can read print books for hours without falling prey to any distraction. I love the feeling of pages under my fingers.
So why the attention deficit? I think I'm enough of a digital native that my mind subconsciously links words on screens with reads that are supposed to be quick and easy — I can't read a long article online; that's not what the Internet is for. When friends send me manuscripts over 5 or 10 pages long, I have to print them out.
This is not to say that I'm a technophobe; I use Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, and I'm the social media specialist at my day job. But I can see why established literary writers are leery of the advance of e-books and other technology. The "death" of the print book is something that brings me great sadness, too. When I chose to become a writer, I did so partly because of the desire to one day see my name on the front of a print book, and I knew that getting my name on the front of said book would take years and years of effort and rejection and, ultimately, validation. While I know that e-books take hard work, too, seeing my name on a screen seems like a much easier job: all I have to do is open Microsoft Word and type my name. The concept of having a novel released only as an e-book isn't satisfactory; it doesn't connote effort to me in the same way that a print book would.
I have no idea if any of this made sense, but the transition from print books to e-books — the general dissolution of physical connection in general — bothers me a lot.
"A million poets would disagree with the notion that being brief necessarily means dull and meaningless."
Brevity isn't the problem. It's the distortion of the language into unrecognizable gibberish such as this:
Great catch by @sullydish reader that Dr. George's objections to HHS regs =rejection of Cath principle of double effect https://bit.ly/AeGnrS
Meghan Ward says
I'm late arriving to this conversation, but I thank you for posting about this. I see this all the time among both literary fiction writers and serious nonfiction writers. They're very resistant to social media. They see it as a time waster (maybe they're right). It's difficult to convince them of the benefits. I think Mieke was right in saying that literary fiction writers don't see people reading blogs as their target market. I say the more ways you can reach readers, the better. It can't hurt to try.
I'm not sure if it's a generational issue or some writers don't realize that comunication has changed. It seems to me that they believe the internet is a cold and distant machine, or just a fad. But they forget that the internet is just a media behind which there are real people, and these people are their readers!! Readers waiting for the market to change, as our ways of comunication did. A spanish writer said in a great article about this subject that even the sold of carts stopped when Merzedes Benz invented the car! We must stop living in fear because of the future. It's not the future anymore, but the present.
Well, that's all I have to say about it 😛
Congratulations for the article and the blog!
Katherine Hajer says
There was a lot of material in there for so succinct a blog post… let's see.
I was surprised at the Bradbury quote from 2009, given that he was a guest speaker at an electronic writing conference I attended in Vancouver in 1995. To be fair, his main point during his keynote speech was that authors should worry first about whether their writing was any good, and second what medium was being used to publish with.
I agree that Facebook does suck, but not because it's technology or because it's social media. It sucks because it is a bad example of both those things and is a pain to use. I was on it regularly for a year, then gave up and deleted my account over a year ago. I am still in touch with all my friends and have never looked back.
Twitter, on the other hand, has been wonderful for me. I found out about this blog post from Twitter. People who criticise the 140 character limit forget that you can include links to longer, more detailed text in those 140 characters.
I am 41 years old, and have a teaching degree specialising in English literature and computer science. Because I've had to teach the history of the internet, I know that it is older than I am. The World Wide Web version of it will be twenty years old in three years' time. Calling it "technology", claiming to be a luddite, and then using things like typewriters, cars, and elevators is hypocritical at best.
At that conference back in 1995, there was a lot of discussion about the possibilites of the new web medium. Perhaps we should focus on building out some of those possibilities instead of complaining they don't exist yet.
Alison Hill says
Is this the beginning of the end for book signings then? You can't really sign an e-book can you?
Just wondering… I like social media but I also love the tangible, and am starting to buy up as many books as possible so I'll have something to read in years to come. Reading more than two pages on a screen gives me a headache, and I agree that it feels like work! But then, on sites like Facebook authors can really connect directly with their readers, which is nice. The problem is that the internet is now saturated – everyone's an author, filmmaker or a writer, even Joe the Plumber suddenly became a journalist. Remember him? and it's so easy to get lost in that huge cyber slush pile. Yet it does give us all a chance…Hard one this, but ultimately I still love my real books thanks. I'll give you my copy of War and Peace when you pry it from my cold, dead hands! LOL
Mirka Breen says
Remember Trivial Pursuits? That game was fun the first time, but quickly became banal. The Internet social sites can become Trivial Pursuits on steroids.
Judicial use can prevent burnout, and thoughtful blogging posts (of which you are top-of-the-heap, Nathan) can make for interesting coffee breaks. But the sheer size and hyperactivity deserve the literary folks’ ire. They are classical music to cyberspace MTV.
Caleb Powell says
Free choice is pro-choice. Use social media, don't let it use you. But don't knock it.
I came across this blog post while researching for my own blog-response to Franzen's rant. (https://divinesecretsofthewritingsisterhood.blogspot.com/2012/03/novel-20.html) The other comments here have me feeling some hope for humanity! Count me in as a literary writer who finds the sea-change in the publishing industry more exciting than scary.
Katherine Hajer says
The Internet was created by people who are now in their 80s, and went commercial in 1995 — when people like me were in their early 20s. I'm in my early 40s now. I've had e-mail since I was in my late teens, and I consider myself a late adopter amongst my peers.
So, with absolutely no sarcasm intended, I'm confused when you say you're writing for the young adults who created the web (it was created by people who were middle-aged at the time, and the time was the late 60s to early 90s).
I mean, if you're not into it, then you're not. But since your target demographic (young adults) tends to use it quite a bit, I respectfully suggest you at least learn its history. There are several excellent books on the subject if you prefer to stay off the medium itself. Research DARPA and Douglas Englebart to start. Then follow up with Tim Berners-Lee, then the growth of the web once it was opened to commercial businesses.