Change is always abhorred by the public and also by the few who envision it in the first place. Being creatures of routine and identifiable milestones, we are a tad too lazy accepting new directions, new ways of life and new ideas that will shake us from our current stick-ups. And so too it is with the literary revolution that has brought on a debate bigger than the mythical King Kong.
We live in the e-Age – where everything that is byte-sized and scrollable is put up in our densely populated second world – the World Wide Web. any form of literature, sound, visuals, design, theory and ideas, concept and technology, engineering and the occult, all find a place online. What this has done to the way we perceive information has obviously gone through a meta-transformation. Info-consumers not only passively absorb information from published sources anymore, or from the TV or radio, we actively seek it, challenge it, distort and transform it, and change its very genetics in the quest to create something new.
What happens when the largely passive public now actively debates and transmutates information that is for ages being passed on by the few groups, clans, communities and cliques in control of the same? Well, there’s a raging debate of course. The critic class, the culturally powerful class, the information transmitter fumes about the gradual change in the status-quo. There are rising insecurities about how the public isn’t capable of handling such transformations by itself and the value of information is diluting. There is also the sharp tang of fear among the monied culturatti – if the masses learn to wield technology, culture and power, where do we go from here?
The debate has always been the same: everytime a new technology comes along and the balance of power shifts – from the hands of the creators to those of the consumers – the former hits the panic button. When it comes to the literary revolution, be it online information, social media, e-publishing, print on demand, etc, we have puritans convincing the masses: You are not good enough to decide what is literature, we decide it for you.
Print on Demand, ePub, online writers, bloggers and critics are facing a tough battle in the 21st century. Not only do they have to make a living by finding a viable audience online, they are also consistently hounded to find respect among the touchstones of the publishing industry in the real world – the publishers, the newspaper critics and the literary agents. So, winning approval ratings, increased readership and Facebook Likes from the virtual community of readers is not proving to be enough of a bargaining chip to prove a writer’s worthiness. He/She still has to go through the Faustian hell of getting his soul-work whetted by the haloed publishers.
Writers, belonging to any background, context or genre, have yet to find respect and acknowledgement of their hardwork, if they haven’t been seen on the New York Times Bestseller’s List every month. Not only have they made no money online, worst, they are sometimes giving away their works for free, in a contest or by installments to the avid online freebie grabbers. Imagine, if no one wants to pay for your work, how can the larger public be convinced of its value? Cause, let’s admit it, a technology, concept, idea or creation is “valued” only at a price (see how we value the nuclear bomb because of the number of lives it has taken?)
This then leads to another thought: Wasn’t art always considered priceless or beyond the scope of having a particular value attached to it? Artists, musicians, writers and craftsmen work in the realm of art and their “products” are viewed as a gift to the general public for consumption, enjoyment, relief and amusement, appreciation and life changing experiences. The point is to take the work of art to the larger public and have them open a dialog or discussion about its merits, its place in the scheme of things, its context, and shelf life in life’s value chain. That’s how art used to be created, distributed, procured or sold, and challenged in the public domain.
Writing was never a viable career option. It’s only post the 1980s that you have writers who don’t hold a day job and write at night for a sustainable living. Else, even today, for every J.K. Rowling, there are 100,000 Ordinary Johns who hold two-shift jobs and write only for a passion, and not to hit the Sunday list of the NY Times Bestsellers. In fact, I think, for the seven long years that she struggled for food and shelter while typing away her Harry Potter stories in several cafes, Rowling could have simply put up her stories online and anticipated the same revolution.
If vote bank politics is what it takes to propel a writer writing for the Web to fame and success, then there’s no dearth of it online. The e-reading community is mammoth and aggressive in its quest to be heard and acknowledged. An online writer has millions of people visiting his webpage, a few thousands downloading his material and a few hundred or less responding to his creation with a comment, a Facebook “Like”, a Twitter comment, and the 365 ways through which the online world spread messages and information to each other. If the number of ‘hits’ be the count by which you measure an author’s readership, just like the number of sales registers a literary author’s success – then the Internet is no poor cousin playing second fiddle to the window displays of a Landmark, Odyssey or Higgin Bothams bookstore.
Being an amateur writer in the process of learning the ropes of the publishing industry, I am caught in the middle of a long running debate. It’s more an unsaid subtext in the literary circles, where it’s understood that to be a name to be reckoned with, I need to have a few hundred hardcover books in print in some of the snazziest bookstores of the country, and to hit the peaks of a Vikram Seth, Salman Rushie or Arundhati Roy, I either need to be in exile, a migrant in the USA or UK, or have a fatwa hanging over my head. What’s really amusing and amazing is that these very established authors today, have jumped on to the ebandwagon and promoting their books online, twittering about it and created Facebook pages where the online community can lend them a few more virtual credits, kudos or brickbats.
This is not to say that you have to be a puritan and stay well inside the fence of either of the divide – the online versus the old world – and not crossover anytime you wish. But this ignominy and stigma associated with being an online author or a self-publisher has to change. The reading public has to decide whose story is the best told, whether its a 200-page paperback or a 600-page PDF available at Amazon.com. It’s the text that matters, folks. The writer has this story to tell and it doesn’t matter which platform he chooses to be a story-teller.