Are writers obsolete?

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 Under: On The Web

I read a comment on a university forum recently (sorry, locked forum, can’t provide a link) where one of the students commented: 

“The role of the writer in society is currently being questioned as a result of technology’s influence. The written word seems to be less important today than even twenty years ago…. Perhaps the oral storyteller became the writer and is now slowly turning back to its original form.” 


Now it’s true that vloging, podcasting, and audio books have really taken off over the last decade and have become major markets in their own right, providing reasonable sources of income for hundreds, if not thousands of artists. It is also true that the paper book (p-book) publishing industry has been in decline for several years, due, in large part, to their own mistakes. 


It shouldn’t be possible for anyone to be saying that the writer’s role in society is obsolete, after all many, if not most, of the vlogs and podcasts are written before they’re performed. Just how much writing gets done depends largely upon what sort of production it is. I doubt, however, that there are many that don’t have at least some part of their production pre-scripted. Audiobooks, of course, are all written first. Then there are the wide variety of other situations in which writers are employed, as speech writers, as copy writers, as journalists, as advertisers, in PR. Name a field and there are people writing in it. 


Technology has not made writers obsolete, quite the reverse. The more technology we have, the more important writers become. And I think that here we see the problem, and it’s not in the obsolescence of writers, its in the definition of ‘writer’. The people who create technology, those who make it usable by Jane Public, are writers. They write code. A definition that narrows the use of the term ‘writer’ to mean ‘a person who creates fiction that is published in p-book form’ makes it easier to see the role of ‘writers’ in society as being in a state of decline. 


However, if we define ‘writer’ as ‘a person who uses written words to communicate’ then we can see that, actually, the ‘writer’ has never been more important, her role in society more pervasive, than it is right now. Everything we consume, at every step of its production, uses writing that someone had to produce. 


Of course, there are going to be people who say that such a broad definition basically reduces the idea of ‘writer’ to a farce. It means that every semi-literate teen texting his girlfriend is a writer, and such an idea undermines the esteem that writers should be held in. Such ideas have been butting heads around the internet recently. There have been several blog posts written in response to one that claimed that anyone who wasn’t dedicating their entire life, to the detriment of their family, their health, and their jobs, to writing, was in fact a poser, a hobbyist. [Original Post. Chuck Wendig's response. Scalzi’s response. Brian Keene’s response. Nicole Cushing’s response. Suw Charman in Forbes Magazine. The Business Rusch.] 


Part of this problem stems, of course, from the fact that the times have changed and our definitions haven’t. We say a person who farms is a farmer, a person who teaches is a teacher, and a person who writes is a writer. And this is true. But what we actually mean is, a person who farms for their living is a farmer, a person who teaches (or has taught) professionally is a teacher, and a person who writes professionally is a writer. 


Perhaps an easier way of saying it is, a person who gets paid to farm is a farmer, a person who gets paid to teach is a teacher, and a person who gets paid to write is a writer, regardless of any training, accreditation, or success. And that’s fine, right? A person who gets paid to write is a writer. But there are those who want to differentiate themselves from all the freelance journalists out there by saying that they’re fiction writers, essayists, memoirists, biographers, novelists. And that should be fine too. After all, a person who gets paid to do science is a scientist, and there are a lot of categorisations in that field, so why not in the field of writing too?


As you all know by now, I’m a budding pedant when it comes to the correct use of verbiage. Saying that writers are becoming socially obsolete is obviously wrong. But it’s possible that what was meant was not ‘writer - a person who gets paid to write’, but ‘novelist - a person who gets paid to write novels’. 


Here, of course, you are getting into a whole other thing, because, really, there are a lot of different types of novelist, and many of them have had, and continue to have, a lasting impact upon society. There are, at the same time, tens of thousands of other novelists whose books have had the social impact of rain on the ocean. 


Technology is certainly having a detrimental affect upon those authors and their paper-published books. But, and this should come as no shock to anyone, paper publishing is no longer the only form of publishing, nor even the most popular. There are, indeed, any number of people who still love their dead-tree books packed three deep on their shelves — me included — but there is a growing population of young people who haven’t grown up with that tactile experience, whose relationship with books is only as data on an e-reader. 


Perhaps what was actually being suggested by the author of that comment was not that ‘writers’ are socially obsolete, but that print publishing is. The writers, as always, go on telling stories, creating art, because that’s what writers do. Writers write. 


This, of course, leaves an important question begging – are writers, were writers ever, socially important? What is the role of the writer in society? And by writer, here, I mean ‘a creator of fictive art involving the written word at some stage in the creation process’. But that’s a topic large enough to demand its own post.


What I’m taking away from all this is that, as with most other things, there is rarely a consensus when it comes to definitions of who a writer is or what a writer does. Those who write fiction tend to see their own efforts as ‘true’ writing, and all the other stuff as somehow less creative, less meaningful, or just plain ‘less’. I’m as guilty of this as the next writer. I always considered my own non-fiction writing as somehow lesser than my efforts at creating fiction. I had no problems sending those out to magazines and newspapers or to my blog, while I’ve been very leery of sending out my fiction. 


Isn’t this just another form of prejudice? It might not be as harmful as sexism or racism or ageism, but, I bet that someone has been harmed by it at some point in their career. The mainstream ‘literary’ folks look down on us genre writers as being populist hacks, and we, in turn, look down on the freelance journalists as being wannabe writers. Perhaps it’s time we took a step back and recognised just how wide-spread and influential writing is in our culture, and recognised all of those who do good work. Perhaps then people won’t be suggesting that the role of writer in society is becoming obsolete.



In : On The Web 


Tags: writing publishing 
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Meet the scribbler


I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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