Writers and the Internet–Downhill Slide?

[this piece originally appeared in RU Sirius's online publication 10 Zen Monkeys]

The internet has some advantages for writers, which I gladly exploit; it offers some access to new audiences, it offers new venues… But it has even more disadvantages.

A recent study suggested that young people read approximately half as much as young people did before the advent of the internet and videogames. While there are enormous bookstores, teeming with books, chain stores and online book dealing now dominate the book trade and it may be that there are fewer booksellers overall. A lot of fine books are published but, on the whole, publishers push for the predictable profit far more than they used to, which means they prefer predictable books. Editors are no longer permitted to make decisions on their own. They must consult marketing departments before buying a book. Book production has become ever more like television production: subordinate to trendiness, and the anxiety of executives.

And in my opinion this is partly because a generation intellectually concussed by the impact of the internet and other hyperactive, attention-deficit media, is assumed, probably rightly, to want superficial reading.

I know people earnestly involved in producing dramas for iPod download and transmission to iPhones. Obviously, productions of that sort are oriented to small images in easy-to-absorb bites. Episodes are often only a few minutes long. Or even shorter. Broadband drama, produced to be seen on the internet, is also attention-deficit-oriented. I’ve written for episodic television and have known the frustration of writers told to cut their “one hour” episodes down to 42 minutes, so that more commercials can be crammed in. Losing ten minutes of drama takes a toll on the writing of a one hour show — just imagine the toll taken by being restricted to three-minute episodes. Story development becomes staccato, pointlessly violent (because that translates well to the form), childishly melodramatic, simple minded to the extreme.

All this may be an extension of the basic communication format forged by the internet: email, chatrooms, instant messages, board postings, blogs. Email is usually telegraphic in form, compact, and without the literary feel that letters once had; communication in chatrooms is reduced to soundbites that will fit into the little message window and people are impatient in chatrooms, unwilling to wait as a long sentence is formulated; instant messages are even more compressed, superficial, and not even in real English; board postings may be lengthier but if they are, no one reads them.

Same goes for blogs. They’d better be short thoughts or — for the most part — few will trouble to read them. The internet is always tugging at you to move on, surf on, check this and that, talk to three people at once. How do you maintain long thoughts, how do you stretch out intellectually, in those conditions? Sometimes at places like The Well, perhaps, people are more thoughtful. But in general, online readers are prone to be attention challenged.

Reading at one’s computer is, also, not as comfortable as reading a book in an armchair — so besides the distractions, it’s simply a drag to spend a lot of time reading a single document online. But people spend a great deal of time and energy online, time and energy which is then not available for that armchair book. Occasionally someone breaks the rules and puts long stories online, as Rudy Rucker has done, admirably well, posting new stories by various writers at flurb.net. But for the most part, the internet is inimical to stretching out, literarily.

The genie is out of the bottle, and we cannot go back. But it would be well if people did not misrepresent the literary value of writing for the internet.

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