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Why the Internet and Ebooks Are Changing Publishing and Writing for the Better

Posted: 01/10/2012 00:00

The internet ruined everything. It ruined music, it ruined actual human relationships, it ruined the postal service, and now it has ruined the publishing industry. Literature is going to hell in an Amazon shopping cart because people don't like physical media any more, and great works of art are going to be lost forever because of the unguided ochlocracy of amateur online content.

This seems to be the consensus among the more ossified voices of the literary establishment. Just this week, there have been articles arguing that book blogs are somehow detrimental to "real" criticism, and apocalyptic pronouncements that freely lent ebooks will see authors sleeping in Waterstones' doorways, or else eating cold baked beans from the tin and trying to stifle a resentful grimace whenever somebody mentions The Casual Vacancy.

Why this vitriol? It seems that these fearful and barbed comments are merely that of people who sense their impending obsolescence, and are trying hard to hold back the tide of change. They are the same reactionary responses of the status quo when any paradigmatic shift threatens their lofty position and hints that a new generation with different priorities may be about to usurp their pulpits; their air-conditioned, inner-city office spaces. Because publishing has changed; writing has changed, and while the consequences of this change will, of course, not be truly apparent for a while to come, I believe it is largely a change for the better.

The internet has catalysed this change in two ways. Firstly, and most obviously, it has changed the means of delivery and the means of literary production. For no cost, you can now distribute your writing, and for no cost you can now read a cornucopia of different texts. This of course, is one of the primary objections to the ubiquity of writing blogs and hastily constructed ebooks - that invariably a lot of the writing now available online is terrible, and its overwhelming prevalence obfuscates the writing that truly deserves attention.

I think the problems with this argument are manifold. Not only does it sound archly self-righteous and undemocratic, it also rests on the presupposition that the traditional publishing model was somehow purely meritocratic; that it was a totally neutral arbiter of culture without vested commercial interests. Surely the shameless plugging of Fifty Shades of Grey has put this line of reasoning to bed (no pun intended) for good. Only the internet, it seems to me, is able to cater to every niche, and provide true, unbridled choice for readers; readers who are no longer subject to the whims of big publishing's marketing departments and editorial biases.

Secondly, though, and more importantly, it seems the internet has changed the very literature that it is facilitating and delivering. As if exemplifying Marshall McLuhan's adage, the internet has shaped a new aesthetic and fostered a writing community with different ideas about what it means to write in our current milieu. This is most prominent in the output of the "alt lit" community, for whom the internet is content and accommodation -- just as New York was to Frank O'Hara and the New York School in the middle of the last century.

The internet has left an indelible mark on much of this essential and important writing. Not only have the imaginative possibilities of a google search been turned into dazzlingly experimental flarfist works, the language of the internet has made the leap into literature, manifesting itself in a distinctly terse style, perhaps exemplified best by Tao Lin's Richard Yates.

What is more, the tone of much of this work departs from the cynical intellectualism of postmodernism and instead provides a refreshing breath of self-reflexivity and sincerity. Willfully infantile, joyfully heartfelt and undogmatically profound, the poetry of Steve Roggenbuck epitomises exactly what the internet has done to writing. Informality has been turned into the surprise tool with which meaningful literature has been crafted; serious issues have been apprehended by looking at them askance with a half-sincere smile.

I remember first stumbling across DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM and being awestruck by it's innovativeness and its non-existent price tag. It changed things for me. As a writer unsure about what to do with what I was writing, it enabled me to look beyond fusty publishing deals and the nihilism of an industry haplessly witnessing its own decline. I began to question the validity of my received knowledge; I began to question the disheartening and patronisingly paternal advice I'd read in my new copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, where it was recommended that 'you... keep your first novel, and maybe even your second and third, in your bottom drawer.'

This advice now seems depressing and unhelpful, like a teacher who tells a bullied child to 'come back when they hit you again, otherwise there's nothing I can do.' Certainly, it is antithetical to the positivity and embattled optimism inherent in this new internet-facilitated aesthetic. The internet is, after all, a participatory and social medium, and it seems to have encouraged writers to support each other in an open, mutually constructive conversation, where it is better to share something and be "boosted" by peer encouragement about the good aspects of it, than have something quietly dismissed by an unseen editor, or never shared at all.

In this spirit, I think it would be better if we stopped bemoaning the state of things in the literary world; if we stopped assuming that we're witnessing the passing of some golden age. It is true that huge challenges lie ahead for publishing and writing in the wake of technological advance, but this is no reason to get tied up in a state of malthusian gloom.

After all, isn't it heartening that people will blog about books for free? That people will share the fruit of their literary labours and not demand a penny recompense? Change just creates new opportunities for creative approaches and inventive ideas. Technology may be taking us into terra incognita, but we're just as likely to discover gold, or at least some place that's hospitable, as we are hopeless desert.

 

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