AYIN YAZARLARI
Vizesiz Pasaportlar

Yazarımız Jamal Mahjoub’un yazısının çevirisi henüz elimize geçmediği için, şimdilik yalnızca İngilizce orijinal metni yayına alıyoruz...

 

WRITTEN IN THE SAND

 

In order to discuss this subject in any kind of realistic terms we must first dispense with a few hazy concepts. The first one is literature. In the English speaking world the concept of literature has long since been abandoned and the rest of the world is soon catching up. The idea that writers exist beyond the bestseller lists is one for which there are few subscribers and little evidence. You may think that it is publishers, editors, journalists or academics who judge what is or is not considered good literature, but you would be wrong. Literature is actually in the hands of the people who run the bookshops. They decide what is and what is not literature. In Britain, the combination of the removal of the fixed price and the growth of chain stores means that they control such a large portion of the sales market that if they decide you didn’t sell enough copies of you last book then you can forget about writing the next one because they won’t even stack it on the shelves in their stores.

Secondly, the media. Journalists are not actually particularly interested in reading unless there is an added factor of enticement. A book is a dull, lifeless object in their view unless it happens to be attached to an attractive figure with a dazzling smile, great hair and a lot of sex appeal. Someone who is preferably already famous which makes the job of talking about them all that much easier. A common feature of any literary interview in the English speaking world is that priceless moment when the journalist demands a brief summary of the book you have apparently written, as they he or she has not managed to get to the end of it yet. I say apparently because journalists are themselves aspiring and frustrated writers, the idea that someone else might have been able to manage what they failed to do is not only intensely irritating it is frankly an insult to their intelligence. They despise other writers.

Of course, there are still universities with departments devoted to teaching the subject, but this can be explained by the fact that there are academics who spent years of hard study to gain the required qualifications and are obviously interested in protecting their jobs. This will soon pass since attendance is dropping. Increasingly empty classes are already forcing them to take drastic measures to try and maintain interest. The curriculum has turned towards replacing works that might require more effort on the part of the students, with easy reading material which has the added appeal of having gained popular success. The students are not studying for their own well being, to raise their consciousess, broaden their horizons or any other noble aims. They seek the fast road to success. Studying bestsellers is a practical way of keeping everyone happy.

The commercial appeal of the phenomenal bestseller is the explanation behind one of the most remarkable statistics of recent months. Becoming a writer, it seems, is the ambition most desired by the population of Britain. This bewildering fact can only be explained as an outcome of almost total ignorance of the life and fate of the vast majority of writers in this world and by the fact that these poor anonymous creatures are largely ignored by the press. The result is that most people’s idea of an average writer would tally with someone like J.K. Rowling, author of a series of books about a boy magician (the subject of many a doctorate thesis being scribbled feverishly even as we speak), and also the richest woman in England.  

The confusion between fame and literature is also present in the annual circuit of British literary festivals which tend towards celebrity love-ins, where the public are lured into travelling great distances and paying extortionate ticket prices to witness in the flesh ageing film stars, musicians, television personalities, retired politicians and journalists using their fame to do what they never managed to achieve in earlier life, namely publish a book. Fact is the new fiction. There are few if any actual writers in sight. Pop stars, singers who can no longer drum up an audience, all of them are to be found, wandering like a band of obscenely wealthy gypsies across the globe, from Brazil to Zanzibar, from Wales to Timbuctu to Colombia, floating on a tide of adulation. The organisers strive to make their recipe for success even more enticing by holding them in far off exotic places. To the pampered wealthy who have the time and money to take an interest in literature the combination of a week on a tropical beach along with the chance to see your favourite writers in the flesh is irresistible. Literary festivals have become glorified travelogues, the kind of organised charter holidays with a bit of pretentious stuff about literature thrown in to make you feel better. As for those who cannot afford such luxuries, literature is clearly not for them. The amount of state money put into supporting literature is minsucule. Public libraries have been reduced to nothing but a fond memory.

The idea that a writer might produce a body of work over the course of a lifetime lived largely in obscurity, a collection that traces the development of an intellect, the exploration of the limits of the author’s abilities, from the earliest frenzied scribblings to the late flowerings of a powerful talent, is one that has been consigned to the musuem along with the dodo and the mammoth. In principle, literature still exists. People talk about it. There are still places called bookshops where you can buy it and the newspapers keep us enthralled with tales of petty scandals and outrageous shenanigans surrounding writers and book people generally, the vast sums of money poured on yet another unsuspecting innocent whom the lucky wheel has touched. Writing, real writing, has become an obscure branch of musty research, akin to palaeontology. A matter strictly for fetichists. Once a year, the venerable wise men of Stockholm gather to extract a name from the hat of oblivion and award some half-forgotten scribe with the noble (Nobel) honour. What would we do without that ritual, that faint glimmer of hope, a flickering sign of life in an otherwise dying universe? Most look on dispassionately, some hoping that it will bring recognition to a corner of the world into which no light has yet been shone. Publishers pray that they will get their just rewards for years of loyal dedication to an obscure writer taken on by god knows whom and whose work has never really drummed up any real excitement. A forgotten relic from another age resurfaces, flags are waved and the festival of moral righteousness begins to spread its wings.

But what actually happened to literature, to the writing itself? Well, in part the change is a technical one. Although a great deal of speculation is generated by the question of what method any given writer uses, the fact is that few writers still resort to pen and paper. A few poets condemned to obscurity perhaps, one or two inmates of high security prisons, and of course all those people who inhabit places where the electical supply is unreliable or non-existant. Most of them we are unlikely to hear from and can effectively be eliminated from this study. As for the rest of us, there are writers who still use typewriters, which have a quaintness attached to them, rather like collections of classic cars. But alas, they too are a fast dwindling number, a dying breed. The fact is that the vast majority of ‘writers’ are actually word processors. That is what the machines are called. Computers compute. Word processors process words. That is what we do. And whereas with a machine the keys had a tendency to keep getting jammed, and a new sheet of paper had to be inserted at the start of every page, with the word processor there is nothing to slow you down, nothing to halt the flow.

Here, we can learn a lesson from the days of the Beat generation. In the 1950s the Beat legend Jack Kerouac famously wrote his novel On The Road in ten days flat. He did this by drinking a lot of coffee and taking amphetamines. He also taped his paper together into one continuous roll so that he wouldn’t have keep stopping to feed a new sheet into the machine. ‘First thought, best thought,’ was his motto. He wrote down the first thing that came into his head and he just kept going. Truman Capote, a poisonous rival, famously dismissed Kerouac’s style as ‘typing’ not ‘writing.’

Whatever we think of his work, Kerouac would undoubtedly have felt quite at home with the electronic streams of the digitalised age. The words flow without end from the tips of your fingers. No paper involved. Stream of consciousness writing was a bad influence on a lot of people, who thought that all you had to do was to tap into that river of brilliant gems that resided in your subconcious and you would be transformed into a literary genius.

Years ago when writers first began using these devices, there was a debate. It wasn’t much of a debate and it didn’t last very long. More significantly, it coincided with a phase in the development of computer technology. The Amstrad Word Processor was expensive and most writers were poor. The people who used them swore by them, those of us who didn’t looked down our noses sceptically.

I began writing on a Smith Corona portable typewriter that I borrowed. In the beginning the single sheets of paper terrified me so much that I opted for A5 which is half the size of an A4 sheet. It took less time to get to the bottom and seemed somehow less intimidating. I wrote my first novel entirely on A5 paper. The advantage of the old machines was that when you made a mistake you had to stop and consider what to do. You could rip the sheet out and start again, which, if you were close to the bottom, would entail a lot of time and effort, or you could resort to applying a layer of correcting fluid. You painted over the word, waited for the white liquid paper to dry and then you typed the word or line again. If you changed a line more than twice the page would begin to look a mess. This made rewriting slow, laborious and painful. It was harder to make the decision to change a line when you needed to re-type the whole page. On the other hand it was very physical, mechanical work. Your fingers got tired. When you were stuck, lost, devoid of inspiration you could dismantle the machine and clean out all the bits of hair and dust that were clogging up the mechanism. A writer should always have a screwdriver handy, Garcia Marquez once said. The thinking being that whenever you get stuck you could go and fix something in the physical world, let the mind take care of itself for a while. 

The debate about word processors centred on the question of whether it was possible to identify a novel that had been written on such a device, as opposed to one created in the ‘traditional’ manner, using pen and paper or a typewriter. The argument being that by using the ‘cut and paste’ tool on a word processor the novel would be deprived of its inner consistency, the organic coherence that emerges from each sentence being created in sequence. The debate, if you can call it that, soon went away, swamped by the reality that as computers became more widely available, everyone was switching to them.

You have to learn to write with a computer just as any craftsman has to learn to use a new tool. Personally, I feel the computer is closer to the speed and rythmn of the mind than a typewriter, which I recall as a constant battle with fingers being lodged between keys and ribbons running out of ink and the continuous need for vast amounts of correcting fluid which turned the page into a mess of uneven lines and crooked words. The old system required a good deal of work on the part of the editor, something which has also been changed by the technical changes. Nowadays editors in publishing houses have neither the patience nor the experience to look at a manuscript and identify what is wrong with it. Appearances are everything, even when it comes to manuscripts. So novels are expected to arrive on their desks looking like the finished product. They want it to be presented almost the way it would appear when, if, it comes off the printing presses.

To survive in this new age of global markets, unbridled greed, otherwise known as neo-liberalism, literature has turned itself into spectacle. Many young writers don’t have the time to read, they are too busy attending writing workshops and searching for items to post on their websites. The audiovisual revolution means that words are struggling against images and sounds. Writing is no longer about quality, but about quantity about filling up cyberspace as fast as possible with words, any words.

The real shift in our reading and writing stems with this interface between the stirrings of our imagination and the physical world. It may seem obvious, but reading a book is different from seeing a movie. We have to engage our imagination to read a book, following the guidelines laid down by the author, but the work of recreating the story is ours. And reading a document on screen is also different from reading a book that you can hold in your hand. Books will soon be available in digital form. Little hand held devices already exist, but they are growing more sophisticated all the time, with screens that resemble well-lit paper that give off less glare and covers that resemble books. All of this tactile stuff is to seduce the reader away from the printed page. It will undoubtedly succeed. You only have to think about the queues of people waiting to buy their iphones to understand that technology wields a powerful fascination over us.

If we no longer write on paper, or read from paper, what does literature become? What happens to it when books are no longer books? What happens when the information they contain is passed around freely on the internet without any form of payment? Probably the writer as we know it will cease to exist, and become something else. We are in the midst of a revolution, then, and there is naturally a lot of resistance, just as there was around 500BC when writers first began to write their stories down as opposed to reciting them from memory. The distrust lay in the belief that a person could not tell a true story that was not embedded in their memory. Resorting to a material source, a piece of parchment, introduced the possibility of deception. Anyone could read from a roll of paper but the words would not be theirs.

And now the evolution of storytelling has taken another turn. I suspect there will be counter movements, alternatives, the equivalent of the Slow Food phenomenon, perhaps. Places where people go to read quietly, far from the electronic hum of machinery. And to meet the demands of the new era a new kind of writing will survive and flourish. It is already with us. It is fast and appears to be written with almost no afterthought or consideration. It pours out into digital space, filling opinion pages, weblogs or blogs where anyone can express themselves on any subject. Nowadays the first thing a writer needs to do is to find an agent to sell their, as yet unwritten, novel, and the second thing is to set up a blog to air their opinions and create a space for themselves out there in cyberspace. This is the key to existence. A blog’s popularity can make or break a writer. It signifies that you already have an audience. A publisher is more interested in a writer who has thousands of potential buyers, all aware of the coming masterpiece, than in an obscure hermit who has spent years locked away in their garret producing a masterpiece which frankly is going to go nowhere by itself.

So we now appear to have come full circle. Standing in the market place like the storytellers of old, trying to sell our wares on the basis of whether we can attract an audience. The volume of words in circulation, the loss of authorship, the possibility of plagiarism, even unconsciously, the end of the old world and the beginning of something we do not as yet understand. Words, stories, no longer belong to any particular person. They are out there, circulating fast and freely for anyone and everyone to pick up and use. There is a an element of empowerment in this process, just as there was when literacy spread beyond the hallowed ground of the temple and priests lost their status as the intermediates between the masses and sacred texts simple because they were the only ones capable of reading them. Power and knowledge have always gone hand in hand. To relinquish one is to relinquish all.   sacred texts. And there is also disempowerment. The past counts for nothing and we, the writers, are like the priests of old. Whether we survive or not will depend on whether we can stay in the race for long enough to avoid being run down by what is coming up behind us.