Writers Grapple With New Media, Too Often Failing To Understand It

by | Nov 14, 2010

Novelist and NYU creative writing professor, Zadie Smith, went to see The Social Network and came away with some thoughts on the film and Facebook that she shares in a New York Review of Books piece called Generation Why?

Smith is a fan of the film but she doesn’t “Like” Facebook.

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

In other words, you can’t reduce the richness of life into a series of posts to one’s Wall. That’s what literary fiction and films are for!

Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor for TheAtlantic.com thinks he understands Smith’s aversion.

When professional writers, especially ones trained in the literary arts, see horrifically bad writing online, they recoil. All their training about the value of diverse (or, you know, heteroglossic) societies and the equality of classes goes flying out the window.

In other words, professional writers are elitists who can’t relate. Which is odd, given that it is a writer’s job to relate and to retell what people (real and otherwise) are going through with compassion and sensitivity.

Bottom line, it’s not the platform but the people who use it who are responsible for content. I wonder if storytellers from the oral tradition long ago vehemently resisted the use of writing to falsely preserve what was meant to be an organic experience. Probably. And how did the 19th century’s literary masters see the arrival of the telephone? Was it viewed as an imminent threat to the written form? Most likely.

I understand that Smith and others are attempting to confront what they see as frightening changes to our concepts of personal identity and privacy. But this is also about the exchange of ideas through writing and I think we need to recognize where the literary opportunities lie in new media. Facebook and Twitter are platforms for “talking,” not writing. Blogs on the other hand are ideal for writing. A blog post unwritten is the exact same blank page writers have faced for generations. The big difference is the expedited publishing available that electronic media provides. But even this is by choice. A writer can choose to save draft after draft until she is ready to push “Publish,” just like the craftsmen of old. Of course, not every writer does this–I for one unwittingly publish misspelled words and other grammatical errors, and that may well be a blemish on my writing house, but I see electronic media as flexible, and fixable. Unlike print, it’s not “done” when it’s printed. Electronic text can be updated, or rewritten as needed. I hope that’s not seen as an excuse for sloppiness, because that’s not my intention. I merely want to point out how each medium a writer works in has its own rules, and we’re still finding our way through this seemingly infinite new galaxy.