The Writer's Role

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Writing off the PageIn our digital age form can blur the bounds of work and life.  Writers are producing much more than fiction. In a piece about the writer’s role written in 2002 Edward Said said, "Yet at the dawn of the twenty-first century the writer has taken on more and more of the intellectual’s adversarial attributes in such activities as speaking the truth to power, being a witness to persecution and suffering, and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority."

Services like Twitter, @author, and less well-known sites like Red Lemonade offer readers unprecedented access to a writer’s day-to-day life.

Identity seems to supersede all else even if many fiction writers are activists who serve a vital role in the community. Each writer must work to define what is life, what is work, what is identity, what is fun, and what of the admixture is for sale or common use.

In the same piece from 2002 Said references a book by Pascale Casanova and relates that “there seems to be a global system of literature now in place, complete with its own order of literariness (littérarité), tempo, canon, internationalism and market values. The efficiency of the system is that it seems to have generated the types of writers that she discusses as belonging to such different categories as assimilated, dissident and translated figures–all of them both individualized and classified in what she shows is a highly efficient, globalized, quasi-market system."

The Independent’s review of the same book stated the issue a bit differently. “But its core concerns the idea of literature, and the metropolitan institutions that define it, as a system of power: of gate-keeping, border controls, admissions and refusals.”

So what has the free-range digital domain done to all of that? What parts of that quasi-market system will provide structure for readers and writers online? Is it wise to allow for so much herd behavior, so many cults of personality?

Well, no. More than ten years after Casanova delineated a system of global literature there is reason to wonder that more powers of protection might not remain.

In a piece entitled It Knows related to all things Google Daniel Soar writes, “Since there are more ordinary people in the world than there are businesses, and since there’s nothing that ordinary people don’t want or need, or can’t be persuaded they want or need when it flashes up alluringly on their screens, the money to be made from them is virtually limitless.”

So the issue of admissions and refusals becomes less about a given piece of fiction getting published and more about what degree of commercialism writers are willing to tolerate. It’s not that readers are not critical thinkers who can’t make their own decisions about the value of a given story.  It’s that a large hegemonic power in publishing might be nice to have if literature is contending with the ultra-commercialized powers of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook.