Monday, November 19, 2007

Buggy Whip Sales Down

When a writer reads such stories of the continuing decline in reading, said writer cannot help but feel like a designer of buggy whips round about 100 years ago, or a monastic scribe some 550 years ago.

What a rotten time to be a writer, the writer whines to the gods of grape and grain. What a rotten time to be born. Just as those before him, the whipsmith and the tonsured pensman of old, he wonders what will become of his art. For a thousand years heroic stories like Beowulf have been written on vellum, parchment and paper, with ink and pen or press. Why is it only now, in his lifetime, that the technology that drives his art is dying? Even as universities crank out more creative writing graduates than ever, and more books are printed than have ever been printed before - more and more writers and books are competing for the attention of a smaller and all-too-mortal audience. To be sure, a hundred years later the world will still need buggy whips - well, maybe not so much the world as a small corner of Pennsylvania and Ohio. But who wants to end his days writing for the literary equivalent of the Amish?

But then, he thinks, wasn't Beowulf originally told by storytellers, who saw their own art wither as writing and reading took over? Who needed a bard when he could get a book?

So who needs a book today, when he can get the bard? There's just one problem. Recorded stories have been around for a while now and they aren't exactly taking over the publishing world. Even with Podcasts and Youtubes, are young people any more likely to invest six hours listening or watching someone read a book? Fiction died as a performance art about the time people stopped sitting around open fires beneath the stars, and poetry wasn't far behind. When was the last time you loaded up the kids in the car to head down to the local Poetry Slam?

We can keep making buggy whips and hand-lettering vellum sheets and die a slow, agonizing death by dry rot, or we can embrace the technology and find new ways to tell our stories. It seems to me that movies are the medium - but either the costs or the audience's expectations must come waaaaaayyy down before video storytelling can ever replace the book. Honestly, I don't know what the new medium will be, I just know that someone needs to invent it, and quick. Because when I see it, I'm there. Unless I invent it first.

Egads, I've just written a "Print is Dead" post! See, there's nothing new under the sun. It's all been done and done and done.

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