Everybody Writes


Author Sherman Young

There are no true readers today, only would-be writers.
Gore Vidal

A friend of mine recently won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for new fiction. Sponsored by a bread-making company and a newspaper, the Vogel rewards the unpublished work of young Australians under the age of 35. (It’s nice to know that 35 is still considered young by someone.)

As a launching pad for a literary career, winning the Vogel is a pretty good place to start. Far from being a repository of one-hit-wonders, many of its winners have gone on to publish widely and successfully. Every year, the Vogel receives around 200 entries, of which a handful are shortlisted by the judging panel of three. The winner gets her novel published, pockets some cash and gains the kudos of her peers. Everybody else receives pretty much nothing. Such is the nature of book publishing.

Apart from the literati, nobody seems to notice the Vogel. It might rate a mention in the quality broadsheets, but that’s about it. A quick check of the Australian Publishers Association’s bestseller list doesn’t show any recent winners. Which means that in 2004 “05, no Vogel winning book sold more than 10,000 copies. Maybe Gore Vidal was right; more people want to win the Vogel than read its winner.

Everybody is a writer. Once written, getting a book published is the holy grail. Getting published represents a validation of sorts, a sign of approval. If a publisher prints it, it must be good. Getting a book sold is another thing entirely. And getting a book read is probably the most difficult thing of all.

We teach our kids to read, to write and to do math. From an early age, ‘writing stories’ is central to their education; even as the more creative pursuits of primary school evolve into the writing of more formal reports. What’s more, the study of literature, of how stories are made and what they mean is central to our learning. So it shouldn’t be surprising that everybody fancies themselves a writer.

Most writing is invisible. Secret journals are filled with adolescent angst, half-written novels lie dormant in desk-drawers, never to be seen by anyone; 20-somethings spend their days writing self-absorbed attempts at contemporary classics. The occasional effort is made public; sent unsolicited to an agent or a publisher only to end up in a slush-pile in the corner of an editor’s office.

Even more occasionally, a manuscript is published. At that point, when a book emerges from the unsolicited pile; or even when a commissioned book becomes a real object, something happens. When the book launch is done, and the book sits on shop shelves to be turned cover-out by family and friends, a writer becomes an author, they have been accepted into an elite club, their chosen path has been validated.

Wanting to be an author is the sign of a healthy ego, a way of trying to convince yourself that you matter.

Books provide the vehicle for those who wish to become authors. Getting a book published, with its institutionalised culture of approval, was for years the only way in which writers could become authors. The path to authorship was known; write a book, submit a manuscript to an agent or a publisher, and then get published. The difficulty in negotiating the various hurdles required to evolve from a writer into an author only made the rewards of authorship more attractive.

Modern publishing, however, appears to have different priorities.

Publishers seldom draw on unknown writers; some no longer have a so-called slush pile and many publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. Too much work is required to read them and decide what is publishable; it is often easier and more profitable to make books another way. So books are commissioned based on ideas pitched from within or from agents. Ideas which are themselves based on what is thought might sell. Today, authorship is not something a writer earns by being published, but something bestowed on whoever has a saleable idea.

Roland Barthes wrote a eulogy for authors in the mid-1960s. His ‘Death of the Author‘ famously separated the author from her text, any role in the reading of that text, and from her reader. His compatriot, Michel Foucault, clarified the purely functional role that an author might play. To him, the author served a classificatory function, which can be seen in the way that libraries and bookshops are organised.

Beyond Dewey Decimal or genre, it’s almost always done by the surname of the author. (And given the sales advantage of being at eye-level to the potential buyer, authors have apparently been advised to change their names to maximise their exposure.)

The ‘author function’ is also about attribution; about conferring authorship to a particular person, or persons. As a result, it is tied up with the law; the author bears a responsibility for her words, and is consequently granted the rewards borne of that responsibility.

And the author-function is about branding. Very few book buyers understand the role of publishing imprints and generally buy books by particular authors, irrespective of their publisher. Just like brands of running shoes or jeans, the author-function is about marketing and reputation. The brand must be properly spun, it must be managed for best advantage; as surely as the mythology of the Wild West has no bearing on today’s made-in-Vietnam Levis 501s, the author-function need not actually resemble an actual author in any way whatsoever.

Part of the problem is that there are far more author wannabes than publishing companies want to deal with. Rather than finding writers and nurturing their ideas, this wealth of writers has allowed book publishers to take a completely different approach to publishing. Because they’re concerned with shifting objects rather than ideas, the motivation for publication is not the quality of the writing, nor the idea. Instead publishers rely on a hook (not a book) that allows their sales team to properly pitch the book to booksellers in the 15 seconds or so they have to make the sale. That hook can be a movie tie-in, a comprehensive merchandising campaign, previous success as an author, or earlier fame at just about anything.

In an age where everyone writes and nobody reads, writers will inevitably struggle to be heard above the din. An opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, written by an author wannabe with a collection of rejection slips summed up the problem:

unknown writers stand no chance against known non-writers. Let’s face it: if I want to get published I’m going to have to become famous for something else first. I need to survive something against incredible odds, or commit a serious crime and endure a brutal stretch of incarceration, or sail solo around the world for no reason.

So in an age when everybody writes, the way books are made has been inverted. No longer is it necessary to begin with the writer; now publishers can begin with the book. A publisher might come up with an idea like a cookbook, or an illustrated book about dinosaur fairies, or a book on the death of the book. And then find someone famous to write it.

Because everybody writes, writing is a commodity. And the law of supply and demand holds true, publishers are swamped by writers demanding to be published, so for the most part can control the market for written goods.

New Media, New Writing

If the book publishing industry was the only means of production, this would be a problem. But, as ever, the internet has acted as a social amplifier. Not only has it provided a means of production to millions of writers, it has turned them into authors with significant readership.

No longer is a publishing company required to validate these writers’ ideas and expression. Instead, they are tested in a live marketplace of ideas. On the web, every step from writer to author occurs in public; a writer’s reputation is immediately up-for-grabs; their validation or otherwise is accessible, instant and visible to anyone with a connection.

Is it different from print-on-paper publishing? Yes. But, crucially, in the paperless world of the new media, you don’t have to be a Vogel winner to matter.

Perhaps the key characteristic of the new media is a shift in emphasis from consumption to production. New media does not have audiences but users; or in the parlance of some, it has ‘producing consumers’ or ‘prosumers.’ Of course, there are still distinctions between people we call writers and people we call readers, but there are undoubtedly more avenues for publication. As a result, more people can be seen writing and creating.

Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘intercreativity’ (as articulated in his 1999 book, Weaving the Web) is a key characteristic of the internet; one which distinguishes it from older media forms. In this new world, everyone is encouraged to be a creator of content, as an author, photographer, musician or film-maker. Angst-ridden teenagers no longer confide their deepest secrets to their diaries, now they can ‘show and tell’ to the world. That special wedding video is no longer only for a treasured group of family and friends. It can be youtubed and googled, so that even the most far-flung non-relatives can find it and watch it.

The internet makes the invisible visible. Whereas previously our frothings about the latest Dan Brown novel have been drowned in schooners of beer at the local, now we can post our impressions to Amazon’s reviews. Our long-hidden angst over the worth of The Lord of the Rings movies can be published on the Internet Movie Database.

The internet allows users to respond to media products and contribute to ongoing discourse. And as well as critiquing media products, we are reinventing them. For example, fan websites or newsgroups allow devotees to obsess over Buffy or Lost. They can chat at length with like-minded peers, and speculate on characters and possible outcomes. And they can create entirely new plotlines based on characters from their favourite soap opera or sci-fi series.

This ‘fan fiction’ allows audiences to redirect the outcomes of their favourite shows to their own liking, and publish it for peer acclaim or rejection. The fanfiction.net website is one such repository of parallel universes. It lists thousands of shows, with literally millions of alternative storylines. For example, the last time I looked, there were thousands of scripts for The West Wing.

This was only one of many media products evolving in the hands of its audience in ways its creators may not have intended.

MIT professor and cultural critic, Henry Jenkins argues that fan fiction is a way for users to re-take control over their myths. He suggests that:

if you go back, the key stories we told ourselves were stories that were important to everyone and belonged to everyone. Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.

Away from these mashed-up media products, there are those who write from scratch, who publish their own writings on the net; anything from new recipes for snail porridge to reviews of the best Peking Duck restaurant on the planet; from political analyses to examinations of the latest cool running shoes.

As many have noted, publishing on the web is not difficult. And indeed, many are writing of books; using their web presences to review new releases, comment on the industry, suggest titles to like-minded readers.

Authors too are slowly embracing the possibilities. Some, like Jeanette Winterson are full-blooded in that embrace. She has a substantial web presence, offering an archive of various writings, extracts from new books and the possibility to engage with the author in her forum. Others are less enthusiastic, but whether book people take advantage of them or not, the new media forms have at the very least provided new ways for writers and readers to connect.

Now, everyone blogs.

While webpages are simple to create, a barrier still exists; you have to think (just a little bit) like a programmer to build a website. Despite the small size of that hurdle, it is real enough to prevent many people from publishing on the web. Blogs changed all that. Blogging tools are as easy to use as email, and importantly, cost nothing. Type your words, press a button and your blog is updated.

Like it or not, blogging is either your worst nightmare, or your ultimate dream: instant global publishing.

Most blogs are chronological; time is the key dimension for their creation and continual updating. Every entry is time and date stamped, and listed in reverse chronological order. There is normally a calendar with days highlighted signifying the presence of a post, so the nature of blogs is to demand of the blogger constant, regular postings and it’s commonly accepted that the most popular and influential blogs are the ones that are updated regularly.

Furthermore, the technology has evolved to allow easy tracking of a blog’s progress. Tools such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds alert blog readers that their favourite blogs have been updated, obviating the necessity to visit a blog unless new content has been added.

For those concerned about ‘quality,’ there are mechanisms for assessing the worthiness of blogs. Unlike traditional publishing, there is no editorial board or acquisitions meeting. Instead, a blog’s visibility is constantly judged in real-time by its readers. By counting trackbacks (or other blogs which link in), recommending and tagging in social networks like digg.com or del.icio.us, and allowing open commentary on blog posts, an environment has emerged which rivals the traditional publishing institutions.

Blogs might not be copyedited or peer-reviewed. But their success depends on another mechanism entirely; validation depends on what the readers think. Get it right, and technorati.com will rank your blog highly. Get it wrong, and your blog will disappear from the radar. Of course, the words will still exist somewhere on the world wide web. But they will cease to matter.

As a result of this transparency, the ‘blogosphere’ has exploded in scale and possible influence. There are tens of millions of blogs out there, a number which doubles every six months. And the diversity of blog topics reflects that of the internet’s inhabitants. They range from highly personal commentaries on specific topics to broad-brush forums for political diatribe. Some of these are read by huge numbers of people.

The bigger blogs such as instapundit.com or boingboing.net are visited by up to half a million people a day. In brief, the blogosphere is changing how we read and write and it provides ample evidence that media consumers are becoming media producers.

Blogs are filling a need; a desire for writers to be published and validated in some way.

Next week, Sherman Young looks at blogs, wikis, blooks and the future of publishing.

This is an edited extract of Sherman Young’s The Book Is Dead: Long Live the Book (UNSW Press) $29.95

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