Will Self on the future of reading

Hello, I’m back by the way (long story).

Will Self’s article in the Guardian on Saturday was a fascinating tour of some of the issues that face writers, publishers and readers. Here are some choice extracts:

On the book as artefact:

All the valorisation of the printed word – its fusty scent, its silk, its heft – is a rearguard action: the book is already in desperate, riffling retreat. The relationship between words and revenue has become a debatable one – we can wax all we like about the importance of the traditional gatekeepers and the perspicacity of editors and critics in separating out the literary wheat from the pulpy chaff, but the fact is that these professions depend on the physical book as a commodity.

And what about those gatekeepers, now that digital publishing can route around them?

Back when I began publishing novels, not only did the reviews in the quality press mean something – in terms of sales, yes, but also as a genuine assay of literary worth – but as a writer, you knew that there was a community of readers who paid attention to them. No longer. The rise of reading groups and online readers’ reviews represents the concomitant phenomenon to the political parties’ use of focus groups to formulate policy: literary worth is accorded to what the generality want; under such terms of endearment, what is loved is what has always been loved, and the black swan of innovation flies unseen and unheralded.

So are the universities potential gatekeepers?

The academy is now a profit centre all its own, with academics publishing online in order to secure professional advancement, rather than because their scholarship is meaningful or valuable; and university administrators encouraging the development of courses of “study” – such as creative writing – that are no such thing, but rather steady revenue streams for institutions dependent on fee income.

Ouch. So what of the future?

I am not in the least bit pessimistic about these developments – I don’t think the telephone, the radio, film or television made our culture in any sense more “stupid” or “ignorant”. I believe that our society – and others – will both preserve its storehouse of knowledge and use digital media to develop new forms of understanding, including what it means to be literate. The losers in all of this will be traditional cultural forms that were dependent on the technology of the codex: the extension of the human mind into the virtual inscape is already under way; people no longer depend on their own, personal and canonical memory to analyse and validate new information – they have outsourced such mental operations to algorithms owned by Sergey Brin et al.

Hmm.. not in the least bit? That last sentence is a little pessimistic, perhaps. It’s a compelling thought, though. As the computer desktop has evolved from a user-owned arena to a rented window onto the cloud, so might the text–especially if some essential aspect of it no longer inheres in words alone.

As to whether such dependence on what is, effectively, a monetised intellectual prosthesis will impact negatively on our culture, the answer has to be an emphatic “yes” – unless, that is, the new web-dependent generations seek their own liberation from the shackles of late capitalism, just as their foremothers and fathers won concessions from those who owned the mechanical means of production.

The problem is well defined. The solution is left as an exercise for the reader, although I do like the revolutionary rallying cry. Are gatekeepers needed in place of online reviewers, book groups, and crowd-funding sites? If so, then what form should they take? If the means of distribution is to be wrested from a few digital monopolies, how is this to be achieved and, again, what should this look like?

Let’s try to answer that.


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