Social Writing

by Mel Gilden

I will not say the future of writing that Bob Stein sees before us is wrong; but I will say that it makes me very very uncomfortable.

Stein is the head of an organization called Institute for the Future of the Book. The institute is made up of heavy thinkers such as Mr. Stein, who see reading evolving from a solitary pursuit into a communal, electronically networked activity. In their future, communication between reader and writer will be so quick and easy that the line between them will fade away. Readers will be able to comment on work before it is finished, thus changing the final product.

But the final product doesn't actually matter much to Mr. Stein. He predicts that work appearing on line will be so easy to pirate that anybody will be able to read anything for free. The only way to make a literary living will be to host discussions about the work, not to sell the work itself.

It seems to me that much of what he proposes comes from the same place as the idea that anyone can write well and that all information should be free. Which itself grew out of the idea, so popular in the 1980s, that there are no winners or losers but only players — that everybody who plays is equal to everybody else.

Though Stein may be right about the results of pirated material (I like to think a solution will be found even for this) I disagree with almost everything else he says. 

I agree that writing is communication between a writer and a reader, but it seems to me that the communication is at its best when it flows only one way, from writer to reader. A writer is a professional who in theory has spent a lot of time thinking about his subject whether it be fiction or non. We, or at least I, purchase a book to learn what that particular writer is thinking, to be guided by his expert hand through a maze of character, situation, and style. If I have any thoughts on the writer's work I may certainly contact him if I'm so inclined, but now we're talking about MY thoughts, not the thoughts of the person who wrote the book. I certainly have no interest in changing his book as he wrote it.

In my life reading is a joyously solitary activity, a direct mind meld between the writer and me. I might enjoy discussing the work with other readers, but I don't want them changing the work. Once a writer believes a work is done and it appears, either electronically or on paper, it should not change, and certainly it should not change because the readers have an opinion or a theory. Will Captain Ahab find Moby-Dick? Will Huck and Jim get away? Depends on which version you read. I find this whole idea of constant rewrites to satisfy the ever changing demographic of readers disturbing and wrong headed.

If reading and writing become social activities, both activities become something else. And I guess that's fine. I'm all up for new art forms. Certainly some people will enjoy this sort of thing. But please call it something else. And leave my old art form alone.