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Nov 25, 2010

Sophie Cunningham: is writing evolving?

Is form following function? Are we evolving? Or, to the question I want to consider here: is writing evolving? And is there a danger of Australian writers losing their distinctive voice, asks writer and editor Sophie Cunningham?

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In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith asked, if a workman (or woman), poor (or otherwise) could blame their tools. “Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible … [the] idea of personhood is certainly changing … I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.”

Malcolm Gladwell contended a version of the same thing in his controversial New Yorker article on political activism, an essay in which he refuted Twitter’s claims to excellence in this area: “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.”

While I take issue with some of the points both Smith and Gladwell make, the issue they are raising is an interesting one. Is form following function? Are we evolving? Or, to the question I want to consider here: is writing evolving?

I first noticed a shift back in the early 90s, when authors were submitting manuscripts they’d written entirely on their computers, using (usually) Microsoft Word. It would be fair to say that they were less tightly drafted than the ones that used to arrive, typewritten, with a ribbon tying them together — there is nothing like the labor intensiveness of having to retype every word of every draft to force a writer to kill their darlings.

Over that decade though, authors came to understand this and, to some extent, learned to compensate for the ease with which Word allowed them to call something a draft. It’s important to note this — new programs can both facilitate a writer’s strengths and encourage their weaknesses and a good writer, over time, learns to work in a way that plays to the former, not the latter.

This century, the range of softwares used and digital forums available has multiplied. The most noticeable impact of this is the fact that when blogging or writing essays (for both print and online papers/journals) one gets a greater response from pieces with more of a sense of openness.

This can lead to more engaging and relaxed work but it’s an approach that has to be careful not to become disingenuous. There is no point in putting a perky ‘what do you think’ at the end of a post if you don’t really care.

Certainly, though, authority and control are not what a writer is rewarded for these days. What readers seem to want is ‘space’ for the issue at hand to be explored in a conversational fashion. As Ken Wark argued in an essay published in Meanjin earlier this year: “The adventure happens in the making, before the work is finished. ‘The work is the death mask of its conception,’ says Walter Benjamin.”

This in turn segues to the shift that some writers are making to an explicitly communal approach. To some extent good blogging is already about this. The comments become an extension of the article; changes are made to piece in response to these comments; a new post is put up which is an evolved version of the previous post. It’s an approach that some are extending to fiction writing, though this is something I struggle with. Committees, digital or otherwise, are something I — and many writers — shy away from.

All this begs the question as to whether the number of reader comments actually indicates a greater engagement than pieces read in the old-fashioned, uncommented upon way: silently, with clear boundaries between the author and the reader. It would be a mistake to assume noise means more is going on. Essays being read, and enjoyed, on iPads aren’t just these more open-ended pieces. They include the kind of dense, tightly crafted and clearly researched writing that readers have always enjoyed.

As authority and the theatrics of objectivity (different, of course, from sustained and serious attempts to cultivate a genuine perspective) fall away, the personality of the writer becomes more important. This is both good: we are no longer in the thrall of authoritarian, and some might argue, patriarchal models of journalism; and bad: every piece of writing is in danger of becoming an opinion piece. Jay Rosen has written at length on the advantages of this for journalism and has also discussed the ways in which authority can be bought back into the equation by giving readers more access to source material behind an article. The writer doesn’t have to exude authority, they just need to provide the right links to the right sources. (Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is also an advocate for this approach.)

There is a lot of talk about how the self has become more performative — that is,  fake — as social media has taken off, but performance has long been an intrinsic part of socialising and certainly of writing. Take the letter. That’s a form in which the letter writer cultivates a highly edited version of self. Here, for example, is an extract from a letter Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf, from holiday in France in 1900:

“The only man of amusement (barring a decayed millionaire and a gouty Baron) is an Oxford person who teaches little boys and in intervals writes poems for the Spectator… He gives me his poems to read (bad enough) and good advice (rather worse) and his views on Shakespeare (quite ridiculous).”

I can’t help thinking the man would have given fairly spectacular status updates of Facebook.

If there is a shift towards openness, a move towards a more clearly telegraphed personal style, it is a shift responding not to national imperatives but global ones. Geography is falling away. Early last century papers like The Bulletin were crucibles for a writing style that was distinctively, often cartoonishly, Australian — and they encouraged this voice at a time where the models for public speaking, journalism and longer forms of writing were British ones.

The Australian voice became more in fashion after WW2, in a shift that was aided and abetted by Australia’s (well-founded) sense of itself as finally being a player on the world stage. This voice was encouraged by literary journals like Meanjin, and later Overland, as well as by newspapers of the day. It was a voice that was tied into a swelling of national pride.

These days, this association with a nationalist agenda complicates our relationship to the whole idea of an Australian voice. It’s a voice that can be associated with tirades and rhetoric. With blokes and the bush. With Les Murray’s attempt to write a preamble to the constitution for John Howard back in 1999: “We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.”

It can be hard to remember that our voice is more nuanced, less static, than these clichés would have us believe. It’s a voice created by poets (indeed, ones like Les Murray), by slam poets (looking at you Omar Musa and Easy Bee), cartoonists (take a bow First Dog), by essayists (Marie Takolander, Benjamin Law), historians (Michael Cathcart, Clare Wright), musicians (Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins), bloggers (Kerry Goldsworthy, Anthony Lowenstein) and novelists (Christos Tsiolkas, Fiona McGregor). It’s not clear what it is that makes them distinctive, makes them Australian. But they clearly are.

Given that the move towards the digital realm follows on from other changes globalisation has wrought in the world of publishing and bookselling — debates around copyright, government policy making (parallel importation, etc), the financial imperative to reach an international audience —  it’s hard not to imagine that Australian writers are in danger of losing their distinctive voice. The question we need to ask next is: does it matter?

*This essay is part of Crikey’s Big Ideas series. We’ve had enough of sound bites set on repeat, glib slogans and half-baked committees — we’re looking for the vision thing. One Crikey subscriber will also get the chance to share their Big Idea with our readers: send us a three-line pitch, on an issue of national importance that gets you fired up, to boss@crikey.com.au with ‘Big Ideas’ in the subject line.

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5 comments

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5 thoughts on “Sophie Cunningham: is writing evolving?

  1. Sophie Cunningham

    Oh dear, I listed Benjamin Laird as an essayist, when I meant the wonderful Benjamin Law. Apologies to both Laird and Law.

  2. Jack Nicholls

    An excellent example of comments becoming an extension of the article!

  3. freecountry

    The problem is, no matter how well journalists enhance their style, in the internet age you’re selling ice to eskimoes. What you’re doing for pay, someone out there is doing unpaid, just for the satisfation of exposure. Improve your style to win back readers from the amateur blogger, either he’ll learn to mimic your style or another will take his place.

    The process of opinion taking over from news reportage began before the internet boom, but it’s become a feedback loop since journalists noticed these amateurs taking their place, and made the fatal mistake of trying to play the amateurs at their own game. Ice to the eskimoes.

    There’s only one thing left that mastheads can offer which amateur blogs can’t, and that’s professionalism. No, I don’t mean wearing a tie or minding your language. I mean if you’ve ever paid a lawyer thousands of dollars for a one word yes or no answer … if you’ve ever brought in an engineer to fix a machine, who did hours of calculations and then turned a knob just one notch … if you’ve ever asked a specialist doctor what are all the treatment options and been totally confident that anything she left out is stuff you don’t need to know … that’s what once used to be called professionalism.

    You don’t buy Encyclopaedia Britannica for its style; you buy it because you hope the brand guarantees the highest standard of effort to getting the facts right, getting the right facts, and getting them in the right order.

    With so many ways now of getting hold of the raw facts, we hardly need journalists for that any more, except in specialist fields like foreign affairs bureaus (which is mostly outsourced to the agencies these days, anyway). People want analysis, not just data. Journalism courses are no help with this; they teach little but media studies how to cut that ice for those eskimoes.

    I suspect any newspapers that remain profitable over the next ten years are likely to be those that employ economists, scientists, historians, lawyers and so on; editors who forget about trying to get scoops and instead invest in being not only right but reliable. Not just quoting a politician accurately, not just knowing the background of the topic better than the politician does, but being able to ensure that the most pertinent information is presented in that backgrounder–to be able to assure readers that anything left out of the story was not missed but rather judged to be less pertinent.

    Newspapers that don’t figure that out will sooner or later, one by one, be found floating masthead-down somewhere on the out-tide of the Yarra.

  4. Norman Hanscombe

    Quality of written material is important; but without quality in readership, the former goal is never safe. I’d argue that the effects of a language variation Gresham’s Law have become a relevant factor.

    With language requirements increasingly lowered to ensure (among other things) that more of us can ‘pass’ whatever pieces of paper society currently deems as many of us as possible should be given, I’m less interested in band aids to mask the effects of the underlying cancer, than I am in examining what the problems underlying causes are.

  5. Roquefort Muckraker

    I started to write some blather about the medium and writing, and then thought to hell with it; it’s such a bleeding obvious point that it doesn’t really warrant comment. Of course writing is changing, it always has and always will.

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