Sunday, March 21, 2010

Let Me Tell You a Story...

Current Reading: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

Inspirational Quote: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot." -- E. M. Forster

I've read a lot about the death of the novel, the death of the short story, the death of publishing and the death of reading. In other words, a lot of death. It's depressing (yeah, death is like that). But I think that, as writers, we have to look beyond the death of our particular art form and realize a fundamental truth:

It's not about writing. It never was.

Writing is just one form of communication, and the rise of computers and electronics has caused all forms of communication to undergo a transformation for which very few industries were prepared. During my work in telecommunications I've watched a tradition-bound corporation with its feet firmly in the analog/digital world shaken up by the advent of network-based Internet communications. The television networks are trying to figure out how to survive in a world where there are hundreds of channels subdividing an audience which spends more time watching YouTube than the boob-tube (archaic reference courtesy of my father). Music producers can't figure out whether to embrace the spread of their music via the web or try to prevent it.

And publishers are looking at the rise of e-books with trepidation. They don't know the economic rules that will govern the literary world when books are available on-line, and they're starting to realize that "when" is now.

What does this mean to us as writers? The same thing, I imagine, that the rise of language meant to the caveman who had told his stories via cave paintings. It means the same thing that the development of writing meant to the oral storyteller. It means the world is changing. It means we're going to need to develop new skills. It does not mean that there is no place for us in the future. In fact, it means we are needed desperately in this future.

We are storytellers, and the importance of that cannot be overestimated. Stories aren't just amusements. They are the ways we tell each other what it is to be human. They are the ways we tell each other about our world and our place in it. They are the ways we time travel, discussing our memories of the past and our hopes for the future. They are the ways we connect and share what it is to be us. Historians know that they can uncover everything about a civilization, it's battles and its triumphs, its crops and populations and leaders, and still know nothing about it. Let them uncover its stories, though, and its people live again.

We are storytellers, and whether we work in printed words or images connected through hyperlinks, or posted videos for which we provided scripts, we are vital and necessary. We will survive this electronic shift, although we shouldn't imagine that the transition is going to be comfortable. We'll have to learn new skills. Maybe, as individuals, some of us will be unable to make the transition, but there will come other new storytellers and the tradition will continue.

We'll survive, and that survival will make for a heck of a story.
(Here's hoping we can find someone willing to pay for it...)


Susan Quinn said...

Amen, brother.

I am tiptoeing into the future, but I'm one of the lucky ones - I don't have a lot invested in the status quo, I'm open to change, I like taking risks and I'm tech savvy. Those who have a stake in the status quo, even if they meet those other criteria, are going to fear the change that comes to buggy-whip manufacturers of all ages.

That being said, there will always be a place for the things of the past (in this category I am quickly placing paper books). I'm writing a story 70 years in the future, and just today I had to imagine the library of the future. It had a great many cool things, I discovered, one of which was a climate controlled special room to hold the antiquities...paper books.

Ulysses said...

A library of the future... hmm. I do wonder what that will be like. A server farm with multiply redundant backups? Electronic text transcription is fine for recent books, but for things like the Dead Sea Scrolls we'd need something more substantial. Maybe holographic recording of the pages?

Luckily this kind of thing would allow for the absolute preservation of ancient books. Anyone off the street could come in and page through the extant copies of the Iliad without ever disturbing the physical pages, which would be in a preservation vault somewhere.

Of course, as with any source of electronic information, access and circulation control will become security headaches of the highest degree. Mass data storage would need to make serious leaps in order to accommodate the terabytes of information required to store holographic data.

Likewise, display and manipulation of that kind of data would require practical virtual reality tools.

Certainly Google Books is headed in that direction, but it's also trampling copyright on the way and I cannot consider that a good thing no matter how beneficial (or even inevitable) the end result might be.