“Nobody wants to read, but everybody wants to write.” This observation comes from a great interview with Gary Shteyngart, author of the acclaimed Super Sad Love Story. You don’t have to have read the novel to enjoy the interview (on NPR with the wonderful Terry Gross); a strand of the book, set in some near fiuture, is about how reading books will become a thing of the past.
“It’s so depressing, I feel I’m insane to write novels, I’m like one of those last Japanese soldiers on one of those islands hiding in caves and shooting at the American advance and hasn’t heard the Emperor has surrended.” And: “It’s over — my concentration, my reading life has been shot … I’m not against technology, I love my iPhone passionately, I think it’s a beautiful piece of technology but sometimes technology outpaces humanity’s ability to process it … I know that’s where I am right now because my mind has been sliced and diced in so many ways — so many packets of information coming at me … How is literature supposed to survive when our brains are just pummelled with information all day long at work — for white collar workers, we go home, we’re really going to open up a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle through it? Or are we just going to turn on Mad Men?”
Shteyngart’s amusing melodramatic ironies were, last Tuesday, more seriously backed up by one of ABC’s more thinky (a good thing) ventures.
Shteyngart’s title-providing remark was echoed by author Richard Flanagan in the excellent episode, Jennifer Byrne Presents: The Future of Books. (ABC iView until a bit before the end of May.) The three panelists Richard Watson, Kate Eltham and Flanagan; and Byrne restrained herself from trying to make things frightfully entertaining.
Flanagan, who lent a nice, blokey gravitas to the program — on the technological enablement of self-publishing: “Everyone is going to wish not to be a reader, but to be a writer … and they’re going to be prey to the worst parasites, of which American writing schools are just the beginning.” (He said other good things beside, but see for yourself.)
Eltham, CEO of Queensland Writers Centre, is entirely upbeat, going so far as to say: “Distraction has a positive effect on our ability to solve problems creatively…” I found her optimisim rather unpersuasive and suspect it comes from currently having a bureaucrat’s job where all this churning change is professional fodder: “The fundamental shift that is taking place now is the shift toward the reader … it is a shift away from the people who produce books and literature and a shift towards people who read and share and consume them.” I found her lack of specific examples and her distance — provided by the other two guests — from day to day reader-writer-publishing quiddities something like a parallel reality — maybe she is speaking to us from the shining future.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Britisher Watson, a strategist (! marvelous job title), was forthright and made the most pertinent point of the show: “If you want to talk out about the future of the book, to some extent we’re far too old to answer the question. Go out and talk to a bunch of ten-year-olds, and actually, personally I’m quite scared about what they might be saying. I had a conversation with somebody who was 13, 14, recently, who openly admitted they didn’t read books anymore because they’re too long … and they’re not interactive enough for them.”