TO AN interesting talk at the Oxford Literary Festival this morning.
I found the first speaker the most engaging. Ivy Alvarez, a poet and teacher, smiled, a lot, and like she meant it. She gave us her personal history of moving from physical print books to the digital world. ‘The internet is a new country,’ she said and talked about the possibilities for contact between people that could never have taken place without our new digital passports.
The next speaker, Alexander Smith, is one of three students who run a publishing portal, mainly for students. I’m incredibly impressed that he and his friends have started DEAD BEATS.
Finally a French intellectual, Philippe Aigrain, spoke and made some interesting comments about the different ways the digital tools have been used in different countries. In China, the digital landscape for literature is dominated by one site on which writers post original work. In England, authors tend to use their personal websites, or blogs, to advertise their wares.
In France, writers have individual websites which they use to publish their projects including experimental collaborations (I’m sure they use them to advertise their books too). He showed us his very interesting piece, inspired by some music, which was, among other things, a demonstration of how a digital presentation can be used to slow down the reading of, in this case, a poem, the words becoming legible in time to the music. This, he saw as an interesting experiment in countering the speed culture which dominates so much of life, not least online. The poem and its digital presentation had been put together for an informal swap, in which he made something for a friend’s blog and vice versa. This is a common, often weekly, event in France, a sort of ritualised guest-blogging.
Both Aigrain and Alvarez talked about the blurring of the distinction between readers and writers. And it’s something I’ve noticed myself. Almost all the people who follow me either on twitter or facebook, are writers. We are a new type of writer though, many of us being unpublished, in the traditional, professionally-filtered, sense. Yes we want to read your work, but we want you to read ours too. We are readeurs, readers with our own voices, our own authorial intentions.
This is on one reading simply a symptom of our narcissistic age. But it’s also democratic and educational. Readeurs can be very sophisticated in their understanding of writing, on and offline. It’s an extension, a massive, oceanic expansion, of the truth that learning to write, for example, poetry, is also learning to read it.
There was some anxiety in the audience about plagiarism and copying. Plagiarism, said Aigrain, is rare, mistakes (misattributions) common (and far more easily corrected online than off) and if you don’t want to be copied, then don’t put your stuff online. His view, if I’ve understood it correctly, is that with so much content out there, indifference is more of a problem. Being copied, I think he said, is a huge compliment.
(They way I see it, the internet is porous and democratic. You can rub up against the very famous and those who will vanish without trace in your life and everyone in between. This is great, in terms of access, but it can also, in my experience, be enough rope. It’s easy to annoy the famous. They can be touchy, lack a sense of humour and feel very entitled to put over their views as the word of law. The internet is democratic, yes, but not without hierarchies.)
There was some discussion of whether or not digital practice changes output, changes the way we write. No one seemed quite sure. They mentioned ‘immediacy’ and ‘rawness’. They talked about personas. How do we know who anyone is online? There was some consideration of time. Is what we put on the net ephemeral, or there forever? Again, the answer seemed to be er, perhaps. Aigrain did say, interestingly, that the French authorities who are trying to archive online content have to be quick. There’s a lot of revising that goes on.
Anyway, I came home and looked at my blog and felt instantly unsatisfied. I don’t want pictures of leather-bound books anymore. I don’t want to try to write a novel in 10 minutes anymore (10 years is more likely). But I can have a lot of fun online in 10 minutes …