One debate that will never go away concerns the relationship between the medium and the content of writing. Putting it more specifically: does writing on a computer change what and how you write; and is this a good or a bad thing, or just a thing?
Will Self has recently talked about throwing away his computer (and not metaphorically) because of its insidious influence on his literary product. The fluency with which it allows him to think “on screen” is, he fears, a poor substitute for those words which have been processed “in the head” – which have a greater density and rigour, and a more authentically individual voice. There’s been plenty of intelligent blog discussion of such issues, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to come; it’s not a debate that’s going to be resolved any more than we’ve today reached final conclusions about what effect the pen, the printing press and the radio have had on the kind of stories we tell each other.
William Golding, perhaps a prototype for Self, scrupulously resisted exposing himself to modern visual media because of the way the “language” of cuts, fades, flashbacks and all the other conventions of the screen infiltrated the prose style of modern writers. Did this make his books better? It certainly helped keep them distinctive, and distinctively literary in a sense that, say, the works of Salman Rushdie – a great embracer of the metaphorical language of the screen – are not. On a parallel note, I have alway thought that Nathanael West gave voice to a frightening insight in Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) when he wrote that:
Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio, and newspapers. Among many betrayals this one is the worst.
West chronicled the glorious early days of Hollywood with unwavering, dazzling cynicism, and died in a car accident at the age of just 37 (he was a very bad driver, but before he went also gave us the first ever fictional characte called “Homer Simpson”). His sensibility was in some ways Hellenic: tinged by the sense that human art has been in inexorable decline ever since a near-mythical, and pre-literary, time when the tales we told and the systems through which we comprehended the world were one and the same thing. Perhaps the definitive 20th century lament along these lines is WH Auden’s 1932 Essay…