This is the age of words. All sorts of them. Angry ones in newspaper columns; disgustingly abusive ones on twitter; stacks of them in magazines. Printed, strung across screens, blazoned on adverts, sandwiched in book pages. How many do we see in a day? What percentage of them are we generating ourselves? But maybe the most important question: how many stay with us and actually mean something?
It’s a topic that’s been on my mind ever since I read this polemic on being an author by Anakana Schofield in the Guardian, in particular this observation:
“There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely.”
As a young person growing up in an age where it seems that creative writing workshops are around every corner, but the book deals of the future are scant (and payments shrinking by the hour), it was a timely article. The kind that I really needed to read. The kind to be printed off and stuck up somewhere prominent.
Schofield asks three questions, each elaborated on in paragraphs full of quips and points as sharp as a fresh pencil.
1.) “Why do the media care so much about the novelist… when they should be concentrating on the novel?
2.) Why can't I get paid for many of the articles I write?
3.) Why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel… when the more important thing is how to read one?”
The transition to a media world that focuses on authors' personal lives, an industry that doesn’t pay proper wages and a society desperate to get published (but not buying books) suggests to me a struggle between visibility and invisibility. In this context, being the author of a published novel (or, in fact, writing anything available to a wide audience) can become a way of being seen. It is a type of visibility that is then linked to status - as though the idea of being published has displaced the importance of what is being published.
I have had articles in national newspapers and magazines. Some of my peers were more interested in the platforms than in the subjects I discussed. It’s not surprising. To have respected publications on a CV gives gravitas and legitimacy. It’s also useful for the writer when it comes to pitching further articles, being part of the way the industry works. But is there a line between the desire to write, and to be seen writing?
Visibility is alluring – and, for some, addictive. I’m part of the generation fed on a click-click-click diet of instant access where worth is measured by prominence. It’s like a new version of the American Dream anyone-can-do-it philosophy, but based on web traffic and the hope of something going viral. Thus we must be witnessed doing things – to be gaining twitter followers and keeping them up to date or to be blogging and maintaining as many page views as can be mustered. There have been suggestions recently that visibility is the new currency. And as this happens, prestige begins to be placed above (and also to undermine) monetary worth.
By contrast, reading is private. No one is watching you do it, apart from fellow commuters on a train or friends and family sharing the same dinner table. It’s a solitary activity where the ego must be set aside for the mind to become receptive. Where writing for an audience can become a way of being visible, reading is about invisibility.
It can also be communal. My mum is a member of one of those strongholds of communities – a book group, where snacks are provided and themes debated. Using a different forum, whenever I finish a novel, I try to sum it up on my twitter in a few words; e.g “Finished reading John Saturnall's Feast in the small hours of this morning. Sumptuous language, riveting plot,” in the hope that it might open up a dialogue with others who might have read or thought about reading it. I’ll also talk to (and sometimes at) my parents and friends.Of course there is a huge irony in thinking about and articulating all the things mentioned above on my blog! But the truth is, I do enjoy engaging with many aspects of social media.
I am just beginning to establish myself as a freelance writer. My career ambitions extend in the direction of fiction, but there’s plenty to learn about the artistry of novels and short stories. The only ways to move forward are through practise of technique and exploration of bookshelves. Both yield fulfillment but require commitment. They take time. One of my concerns is that I have no idea what kind of a publishing industry will exist by the time I’ve finished learning.
For me, writing is a part of who I am. What Schofield’s article solidified for me though were the reasons why I should spend even more time in the tangible, prolonged company of books rather than skimming websites.
What better prop in the accompanying photos than a Penguin copy of Swann's Way by Proust? It was an eighteenth birthday present, and I'm looking forward to diving into it. All items I'm wearing are second hand, the location our garden - partially neat and mainly disorderly, filled with tortoise paraphernalia and all the tools my brother needs to modify his tree house.
As well as writing excellent articles, Anakana Schofield's book Malarky has just been released - see more about it on her website. I need to buy myself a copy.