Thursday, October 13, 2011

We are our medium

This post is a response to two other posts I read today. This one, by Cat Valente, which - to vastly oversimplify an elegant post - wishes we talked about the content of books, rather than the medium by which we read them, and this one by Paul Jessup, which longs for the days when writers talked about writing as art, rather than as business. 

Here's the thing. Writing has always been a business. That Anglo-Saxon bard, chanting out Grendel's destruction of Hrothgar's men in thumping alliterative verse? Did so in exchange for a place by the fire, food on his plate, mead in his mug. Dante and Chaucer had wealthy patrons. Shakespeare didn't just write the plays that were performed at Blackfriars Theatre, he was co-holder of the lease on the building (a building he helped dismantle and move when cost of the original location proved too great.) Now, am I trying to say that Will and Kit Marlowe or Ben Jonson never talked about dramatic structure or whether a clown ought to speak in blank verse when they had drinks at the Mermaid? Absolutely not. But I do think they discussed how those drinks were getting paid for, and thus, the business and economics of writing.

And for nearly as long as writing has been a business, there have been innovations in the way it was done. The switch from oral to written story-telling. The move from books being completely handcrafted and thus available only to the very wealthiest to moveable type printing. And yes, ebooks and podcasts. All of these things - and more - had effects. Even if not on the way stories got told, they had effects on who had access to them, on who bore the costs of their creation, of who had the ability to create.

And Cat is absolutely right to say that the thing that matters most in all of this is the story. She and Paul are both right to say that the reason we become writers is because we love stories and want to tell them. I agree with this absolutely. But I also think that once we start writing for publication, things become not so simple.

If I just wanted to think of myself as a writer, I could write stories for myself. I could polish them until they were perfect, and care not at all about what the market looked like or if they would ever sell or if anyone would ever read them. But once I start writing for publication - whether publication on my own blog, or through some form (paper or electronic) of self-publishing, or publishing professionally, I am no longer simply writing for the art of it. I am writing in order to get something back. That something may be money, or fame, or simply someone else reading it and thinking of me as a writer, but it is something. So let's not be disingenuous here and say we only care about the art. It may be the thing we care most about, we may be willing to make less money and reach a smaller audience in order to have more artistic freedom, but we are engaged in the business of writing, as well as the art of telling stories.

And when people outside of our immediate world of people who tell stories and get paid to do so get a chance to ask us questions, they are going to want us to respond to things like ebooks, and the fact that award-winning professional magazines are only available on the internet and for download and are never available in print format. They're going to want to ask us questions like why we trunk a story rather than self-publishing, or why we self-published our backlist, or why a publisher can't have an e-version of a long-awaited sequel available for download the day after the author presses send on an MS. Hell, I've seen writers complain about ebook pricing, and formatting errors, and say they won't buy something if they can't buy it for their ereader, so how can we be grumpy when fans do the same thing? We can say the only thing that matters is a good story, and I do believe it is the thing that matters most, but this other stuff - well, I understand why people want to talk about it. 

This doesn't mean that I don't believe there's space for discussion of stories, and the books that have made us who were are, and the things that have inspired us, that have made us want to be better writers. And yes, I would absolutely rather discuss someone's novel, rather than the format in which it was first published - reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making will make me a better writer. Knowing that Cat first published it as a serial novel on her blog won't. I've made plans when at World Fantasy at the end of the month to get together in the bar and talk about the contents of Little, Big, not about the fact that Crowley is going to be recording an audiobook of it. We should talk about our stories - they are the best part of us. We should want to make them the most important part of the discussion. But I don't think it serves us or anyone well to pretend there was once some halcyon age where talking about our stories was all we ever did.


  1. This reminds me of a blog post by David Byrne on how technology has always been influencing the kind of music we make and hear, not to mention how we consume it:
    (Actually, it's a review of a book)

  2. That is such a cool link - very interesting review. Thanks for sharing it.