Sunday, 28 July 2013

Writing and reading

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. 


Jess said...

What a beautifully written article. I agree - reading and savouring each word is much more valuable than skimming bits and bobs on the internet. So many great writers were also readers!

Akosua said...

is the Swan's Way easy to read?
this article was needed, because i am trying to write more but now not doing for the sakes of sharing it but just having it. thanks for writing

Emalina said...

Yes it's a crying shame that novelists are being so devalued at the moment, reading good poetry and prose is one of the most cathartic and creative past times (not to mention writing it of course!). Beautiful portraits too, I love the English country outfit.

Let me know what you think of the Proust. I read all 7 volumes of A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu in my 20s, it took me over a year. Some parts I remember well, others not at all.... but ah the madeleine will stay with me forever...

Lidia Sagastume said...

Great article. I too believe that to be a good writer you must be a good reader. I think our generation is accustomed to instant gratification. Meaning, with the click of a button we have so much available to us we have become accustomed to that quickness. It becomes harder and harder for a writer to hold a readers attention, in my opinion. Being seen also seems more appealing than quietly reading to many. I know, now this sounds like a very bleak overgeneralization of our time.

Thank you for this article. It is something every writer must think about. As always, beautiful images and thought provoking writing :)

Melanie said...

Where does one begin to comment on this thoughtful piece? The first thing is I was horrified when I began to see newspaper columnists' photos headlining their stories. And THEN, the newspaper columnists started appearing on TV news recapping what they had written - this is what happens when one humongous corporation starts to vertically integrate its media assets. Where does it end? It seems the big thing is not to write an engaging novel but to sell the rights to Hollywood for the movie version. Having said all this, I am an optimist and believe that good writing triumphs no matter what. You are already on a good track.

Anakana Schofield (AK) said...

Thanks for this response to my article Rosalind. It's great to see people such as your good self pondering the questions I raised.

I wanted to start a conversation about reading and labour.

I was intrigued by your remark on the interest in the platforms you publish in rather than the content you write or create. There's something slightly Frank Sinatra New York, New York about it.

I hope you get along with Our Woman in Malarky.

Best, AK.

Ms Jelena said...

Such a great, insightful article! I think this goes for pretty much every industry - it's hard to be seen and acknowledged. It's about the connections, about who you are, who you know, networking, broken promises etc.

I, for one, think you write brilliantly :)


Josie said...


A thought-provoking and timely article, as usual. I must point out that it is the 100th anniversary of Proust's "Swann's Way"! I'm delving into my copy today as well.

I look forward to reading your fiction in the future as well!

Josie said...


A thought-provoking and timely article, as usual. I must say, though, that today is the 100th anniversary of Proust's "Swann's Way." I am delving into my copy today as well.

I'm looking forward to read some of your future fiction! Happy reading!

Charmaine said...

Fascinating piece. Thought provoking! Visibility is the new currency... How true! I think you're going to sky rocket through your English degree ;).

Kailey said...

I don't think I'll ever stop feeling completely awe-struck after reading/looking at a new post of yours Rosalind <3

Jean at said...

Ah, reading and writing. Your observations resonate and must be examined, especially by people who are intent on writing for a living. The only thing I challenge is your use of the phrase "when I finish learning". :-) I do know what you mean, though.

The gray and coral combination is lovely.

shipshapeandbristolfashion said...

Such an insightful post Rosalind. As a writer myself (in various guises) I find it so frustrating that traditional publishing is effecting the way, if at all, someone like myself is paid.

Twitter was once coined as a micro-blogging platform and between that and blogging, it does feel like anyone and everyone is a writer/publisher these days - wanting to be heard perhaps over wanting to say something, if that makes sense.

Andrea said...

Thank you for this article. I've been thinking lately exactly about that, how I forgot to read. I've been on vacation and there was hardly an internet connection and I actually READ. And I felt in love with reading again, like when I was younger and there was no internet and my best friends were books. This era is kind of pushing you to make, create, to produce. But we forgot that it's the reading which enriches and makes you grow and inspire. Good luck, Andreja

Thrifted Shift said...

That first quote is so true. The best writers in my class are always the most widely read students. My goal this week is to read and finish a novel while my little one is naps!

Thrifted Shift said...

Oh! And I forgot to add that I love these beautiful photos!

Damianne Langedijk said...

Oh I really love this photo's of you reading in the nature. perfect!

Ivana Džidić said...

wonderful article...I have asked myself many of these questions.

Great photos...I really like that skirt!

Izzy DM said...

I was just reading a blog post that made me think of the article you asked me about and realized I never responded to your question...

So I didn't quite agree with the writer for several reasons.

1. Everyone and their mother calling themselves a writer is not a new thing. Vonnegut and Stephen King complained about the same thing years ago-- i.e. people calling themselves writers when a surgeon wouldn't call himself a surgeon if he didn't work at surgery and study surgery. And I think King complained about people wanting to write but complaining they don't have time to read.

2. I've been a professional actor and a professional model, and I've noticed in every creative profession there are a lot of people there, trying to do these things for fantasy reasons. I met plenty of people I offered to help, set them up with my agent and so forth, and then they'd flake out about meeting the agent! They just wanted it to be a fantasy, and as I realized that I didn't despise them for it: I tried to understand where they were coming from and what they needed. That said, I'm sure it's very hard for writers to deal with all these wackos at their readings. I read an interview with a lit agent who said a "writer" threatened to kill himself if the agent wouldn't read his MS! But overall, if it's harmless, and people need their fantasies to get up in the morning, then who are we to judge? The writer of "Confederacy of Dunces" killed himself when his MS was rejected. His mom got it published posthumously, and it's one of the best American books out there. While he was alive, he wasn't published, but he was a brilliant, genius-like writer, so who's to say who's a writer and who isn't?

(And finally) 3. When I first started writing, there weren't the opportunities that are here now. From self-publishing online to the millions of online literary journals to online content for publications like the Guardian or NYT, there are so many exciting possibilities and opportunities to learn.

Not to mention meet like-minded people! But anyway the article made me think, so thanks for suggesting it. Lovely post as usual.

Willow said...

Another really great, thoughtful article (I really loved what you said about reading and how our ego must be set aside). Really, really excellent post.

Lovely shots, what a perfect way to spend a summer morning - reading a book in the garden wearing a hat, heels and a swishy skirt.

Miss Maple said...

Love your outfit in this post and especially the first photo. Great! I like the length of the skirt and the gem in your hair. Lovely!

Klara said...

Your thoughts on visibility are very interesting! As an artist/designer I spend a lot of time thinking about these things. It's not always easy to divide my time between actually making stuff in the studio and communicating what I'm doing via Facebook/Instagram/my blog. But in the end, making has to come first, or there is nothing to blog about :) I really do agree with you that visibility is the new currency!

The Foolish Aesthete said...

Terrific post. This is a discussion I often have with people, because I am obsessed with quality content -- visual or literary.

A year or two ago, I started a book and film club in the community, hoping I could rope people into watching thought-provoking experimental cinema or read great authors discussed in Literature departments. Very few takers. Nobody wanted to work (their minds) that hard. Even some Libraries, to keep themselves relevant, have bowed down to offering "chick lit" book club listings, as if women only ever had the patience for those kinds of books. It is so discouraging.

So bravo to you for always publishing great content, (and yes, accompanying them with distractingly alluring platforms!) and for continuing to immerse yourself in great literature. Enjoy Proust! -- J xx