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June, 2005 : Feature:

Electronic Community and the End of the Lone Writer

In general an author has always lived in a room, has read books, has cultivated silence, is acquainted with the style and sentiments of the best authors, but he is out of the way of employing his own eyes and ears. He has nothing to hear and nothing to see. His life is a vacuum.
Walter Bagehot, Literary Studies (1879)

The idea of the lone writer has been with us since long before the Victorian age. Numerous critics have traced the privatization of writing and reading to the advent of print culture at the beginning of the modern era. By contrast, medieval culture was largely oral and, as Thomas Streeter observes, "In oral cultures, all interaction is interpersonal" (n.p.). Rather than being largely private, authorship was often shared, even anonymous. Bella Millett points out that medieval "vernacular works were not normally regarded as the intellectual property of a single, named author, and might be indefinitely reworked by others" (n.p.). With the advent of the print revolution, writing and reading as interaction became less important and the role of the writer increasingly isolated and individual.

The image of the author as the lonely genius, churning out his brilliant prose or poetry in a garret (presumably while his wife or mother cooks his meals and washes his socks) has little relationship to the electronic writers' communities emerging rapidly in cyberspace. This is a much more practical observation than Michel Foucault's "author function" (125) or Roland Barthes's "death of the author" (142) and involves neither deconstruction nor death nor scriptors. While we would argue that electronic community is once again making writing and literature more performative and communal, works are still referenced by their authors and have yet to truly give up their point of origin, contrary to what Barthes pronounced in his famous 1968 essay.

Though the author still exists, and authorship is still a commodity, electronic space is in the process of creating a forum in which writing is transformed from a private to a public act. Here writing is conducted in virtual workshops in which support and feedback are a constant part of the writing process, such as the Online Writing Workshop (OWW) or Critters. Here authors are experimenting with fictional collaboration through blogs while friends and fans look on and give advice and encouragement. For writers such as Cory Doctorow and Elizabeth Bear, the public act of blogging has become an essential part of the writing process.

The first significant online community for SF writers developed on the Science Fiction Roundtables on Genie. The original SFRT (later SFRT 1) was founded in 1986. At its peak, Genie had four round tables for the science fiction and fantasy community, writers and fans alike. After Genie's oft-lamented demise, a number of other outlets arose to take its place—the SFF.Net newsgroups, with their semiofficial relationship to SFWA, the Rumor Mill, LiveJournal, Journalscape, and many other venues of online discourse. Postings and chatter in these communities range from social discussion to market reports to detailed technical disquisitions on the craft of writing—linking writers at a level of involvement otherwise inherently challenging for such a geographically and socially diverse group.

In addition to being an outlet for craft discourse pace such as Bear and Doctorow provide, these online communities also offer an opportunity for writers to interact with editors, agents and readers, and for the text even to take on a life of its own. The hypertext writer Mark Amerika refers to his project "Grammatron" as a "public domain narrative environment" (n.p.), but the term could well be applied to the many electronic "spaces" for writers on the World Wide Web.

Reading Roles: Print Culture, Digital Culture and the New Reader

The ways in which electronic communication is changing written culture do not stop at the role of the writer; the role of the reader is undergoing radical transformation as well. Alvin Kernan sees the role of readers in print culture as that of "isolated individuals, encapsulated in silence" (132): Reading, by its nature...makes for the private, inward-turned self, the separated individuals who make up modern society's "lonely crowd" (131).

The reader in print culture is frequently little more than an eavesdropper, but the reader in digital culture can be anything from passive recipient to active participant. The "eavesdropper" is present in the electronic community on blogs and in chat and on lists as the "lurker," but at any given moment, a lurker can become a contributor by merely posting a message. On the surface, this may seem mundane, but the implications in the relationship between reader and writer are far-reaching. A reader who watches a book take shape, or perhaps even contributes an idea which is eventually incorporated by the author, has a very different relationship to the resulting printed work than the reader who simply chooses it by the cover. And even the reader who has chosen the book by the cover can often easily contact the writer through email or blog. Of course, fan letters have existed for centuries, but pressing a button and sending an email is a far cry from going to the effort of looking up the address of the publisher, taking a letter to the post office, and buying a stamp for it.

The electronic community shared by writers and their readers also generates a sense of intimacy which has no direct analog in the pre-electronic world. Responses to email and online posts can be immediate—meaning both sincerity straight from the heart, and ill-considered emotional reactions. In this, reading and writing can become an interaction, much as authorship often was in an oral culture, where a tale was told and retold, tested upon audiences, crafted to elicit the reactions desired by the teller. So writers, working with one another and with their involved readers, use the electronic community to re-enter that ancient relationship between audience and tale which has existed since the Neolithic hearth.

Reader and Writer in the Text: Hypertext and Hyperfiction

Interaction between reader and writer in digital media also takes place on the level of the text itself, in the form of hypertext—the links which invite the audience to read at random. Among bloggers, these links both connect the community and lead away from it, pointing towards sites of interest, and tempting the reader to stray from the text of the individual writer. It may perhaps be going a little too far to claim that "THE PURPOSE OF THE COMPUTER IS HUMAN FREEDOM" (Nelson, 44; capitalization in the original) as Theodor Nelson does, who invented the term "hypertext" in the sixties, but the form of hypertext admittedly gives the reader a certain freedom not to be had in the printed text.

In hypertext fiction or hyperfiction, the use of the second person is more common than in print fiction, and it is tempting to see this as a reflection of the writer-reader interaction on the level of the text. When the narrator of Michael Joyce's hyperfiction Afternoon, already deemed a classic among Hypertexans, asks, "Do you want to hear about it?" (first text space) the reader has the option of literally answering, and the fiction will take a different turn whether the answer given is "yes" or "no": the answer to the direct address has consequences for the progress of the fiction, making the addressee a more specific being than merely an implied reader or ideal audience. If the actual reader enters "no," for example, the screen which comes up next contains what seems to be a direct response: "I understand how you feel. Nothing is more empty than heat. Seen so starkly the world holds wonder only in the expanse of clover where the bees work." The "you" whom the narrator addresses here is "just" a narratee, a fictional construct, but at the same time, she has the option of responding by clicking a mouse button.

In an early manifesto for believers in hyperfiction, Jay David Bolter's Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Bolter claims, "Electronic writing emphasizes the impermanence and changeability of text, and it tends to reduce the distance between author and reader by turning the reader into an author" (3). That Bolter may be speaking metaphorically and that the author still retains a certain authority, however, is eminently obvious from license agreements, such as the one in the insert of the hyperfiction works distributed by Eastgate Systems:

You may not: I) Modify, translate, reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, create derivative works based upon, or copy...the program or the accompanying documentation... (insert to Joyce's Afternoon)

For all that the reader has become an accomplice or partner in the textual experience, hyperfiction still depends on authorial intent, and control remains in the author's hands, through copyright, custom, and even "moral right" as asserted by European Union law.

In Conclusion

The lone writer has perhaps never been truly alone. Save for compulsive diarists, writers have always written (or at least narrated) for an audience. Storytelling is the most accessible form of travel, allowing intent, experience and emotion to be projected across distance and generations. The privatization of writing which has been sustained in both artistic practice and popular consciousness across the past four centuries may well be little more than a ripple in the long campfire tradition of human storytelling. Even though online interaction has taken the place of ancient flames, the electronic community is still no more than another vehicle by which the direct interaction between author and audience asserts itself. The lone writer has certainly not left us, and for some authors it will continue to be the only way to work, but electronic community has brushed some of the dust off of the mythical garret and made it possible for writer and reader to develop a closer relationship again.

Works Referenced

Amerika, Mark. "Reconfiguring the Author: The Virtual Artist In Cyberspace." Grammatron (no date).

Authorship Collaborative, Martha Woodmansee, et al. "Economic Right, Moral Right, and Databases." Case Western Reserve University, 2003.

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." In Image Music Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Harper Collins, 1977.

Bear, Elizabeth. Blog: "estimating the frog:pond ratio." Live Journal.

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

Chartier, Roger. "The Practical Impact of Writing." In A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance, Philippe Ariès and George Duby, eds., Arthur Goldhammer, trans. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1989: 111-159.

Doctorow, Cory. "My Blog, My Outboard Brain." O'Reilly Network. 31 May 2002.

Doctorow, Cory, and Stross, Charlie. "Unwirer." Craphound.com. June 9, 2003.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?" Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1977.

Joyce, Michael. Afternoon, a story. Eastgate Systems: Cambridge, MA, 1987.

Kernan, Alvin. The Death of Literature. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990.

Millett, Bella. "What is mouvance?" Wessex Parallel WebTexts. 2003.

Nelson, Theodor Holm. "Opening Hypertext: A Memoir." In Literacy Online: The Promise (and Peril) of Reading and Writing with Computers, Myron C. Turman, ed. Pittsburgh and London: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992: 43-57.

Streeter, Thomas. "Media and Long-term Social Change: the Puzzle of Modernization." University of Vermont (no date).

Myron Tuman. Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. London and Washington D.C.: Falmer Press, 1992.


Copyright © 2005, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

COMMENTS!

Jun 6, 20:01 by Bluejack
Comments on the Myth of the Lone Writer and/or Ruth and Jay's article are invited.

For the article itself, click here.
Jun 7, 02:20 by Jeff Spock

Thought has been provoked. This article is interesting in addressing two aspects of the "lone writer" image --getting the writer out of the loft, and getting the reader into it.

As far as the first part, the Internet is a godsend. As an English-speaking writer who has not lived in an English-speaking country for 13 years, I would be about as isolated a garret-occupier as you could imagine without the Internet.

The second part is interesting as well; using technology to rebuild the sense of community -- in this case between writer and reader -- that existed for millennia before being steamrolled by industrialization and urbanization. What is happening is, as noted in the conclusion, not new at all; it is really, really old. The storyteller by the fireplace, the town crier, the tribe's oral historian. The audience is there, reacting to the story as it is created. Just like blogging, except time-zone dependent.

Aside from literature there are some other examples of technology rediscovering community that have made me think "Hmmm..." lately:

1. Music. One of the hypothesized evolutions of the music industry is that songs will continue to be distributed electronically, and ever more cheaply. Artists will make their money from concerts and gigs, playing directly to their audiences. The Internet gets you known, but you make your money from playing for your fans... sounds kind of pre-industrial, no?

2. Movies. The Hollywood studios are like big pharmaceutical firms. All the money goes into the next blockbuster, and you pray to every functioning pantheon that it does well. But now with desktop technology everyone can make movies, and the indie scene is generating stuff that is far more interesting than the average studio fare. Again, technology is letting us make the creative process more human, more intimate, and less expensive. Serial movies on the Internet -- whether they are based on video games or blogs -- are almost conversations between the creators and the people who watch them. The same could be said for comic strips, and probably other media as well.

3. Shopping. We went from the Mom and Pop corner shop to the supermarket to Wal*Mart (we all know what the "*" replaces). What is happening now in retail, worldwide, is that the big stores are trying to rebuild a sense of community for their customers and treat the different in-store departments as if they were, well, little Mom and Pop shops on, well, Main Street. Try googling the term "category management." Here, however, massive databases with customer profiling information are exploited to give the impression that the store really actually knows you as well as Mom or Pop might have. Why? Because the shopper wants to feel that community around them, to rediscover the social aspects of these everyday acts. Anybody remember the chain "Suds & Duds," where you could have a beer while you did your laundry? Yeah, okay, it failed, but the image that came to mind when I first heard of it was the old public washplace you find in medieval villages.

I come to the conclusion that we are resolutely social animals, and that we will continue to put a great deal of energy into exploiting technology to this end.

Great article. Thanks.
Jun 7, 07:16 by Gene Stewart
A blog is neither short story nor novel, neither of which is enhanced by communal pile-ons or workshopping, so I find the main thesis of this article less than persuasive. Yes, the individual writer is still the prime and best producer of the kinds of stories we traditionally call fiction. Blogs and inter-active fiction and hypertexts and the rest are new forms, and of a different nature that strays far from story per se.
Jun 7, 16:15 by Jim Van Pelt
The lone writer is still a part of my writing process and thinking about writing, but I think the lonely writer can be and is a thing of the past. What the Internet has done for me is to plug me into the 24/7 SF convention that is always accessible. Instead of waiting weeks and weeks for my next convention fix, where I can chat with folks of similar obsession, I can log into different bulletin boards (I like SFF.NET, NIGHTSHADE BOOKS and SPECULATIONS RUMOR MILL) to find like-minded people to share ideas with.

Dividing the "lone" from the "lonely" is a semantic hair-splitting but an important one to me. Despite the always connected possiblities of my computer, when I write, I'm still a lone agent.
Jun 7, 16:50 by Bluejack
But there are people for whom the actual writing from original composition through the several cycles of edits is -- if not collaborative -- conducted with the input of others.

I think that, rather than extra-fictional writings people may do in blogs, or new forms of storytelling that may (or may not) be emerging, is the interesting new way of writing that Jay and Ruth were putting their finger on.

But that's not to say everyone's doing it!
Jun 8, 10:36 by Jim Van Pelt
The exchange of rough drafts over the Internet has expedited the feedback/revising/editing process, but I don't think it's much of a change from what many writers were doing before the Internet. The lengthy correspondance between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, the writing group the Tolkein, Lewis and others belonged to, the expatriots in Europe with Hemingway and others, all were feedback loops.

I co-wrote a couple stories with Brian Hopkins all through e-mail exchanges long before I ever met him in person. What the Internet has done has collapsed the writing world into a space no larger than someone's livingroom, and everyone who uses the Internet is in it. Depending on how gregarious one is, there is the possibility for much more conversation about writing and specific pieces. Jay, for example, could send me the first paragraph of something that he's working on for comment, which would have been possible before only if he was my neighbor. I think the Daniel Abraham, Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin chapbook (Shadow Twin) was mostly an Internet collaboration.

The increase in communication is exciting, but it could have downsides too. The isolation of a writer can be a part of the creation of a unique vision. Could that edginess be smoothed away with too much talk about the work in progress (this is the same critique of traditional writers groups)? I doubt it, partly because I don't believe in the "Clarion story" or the "Iowa story" myth, but it is an interesting counterpoint to the Internet's upside.

And, of course, as Bluejack pointed out, not everyone is doing it.

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