Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What Future for Words?

This is the first in a series of posts Ì have written on the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I tried to blog #live-ish from the event, but bearing in my mind I'm rubbish at filing my blog copy when I have a laptop and three free hours...trying to do it between talks and book signings and dinners was a little difficult.. and I was a little lazy.

The What Future For Words? debate was sponsored by Warwick University and asked just asked that questions and furthermore, what the challenges and opportunities facing a new generation of writers in the shifting cultural landscape were. 

Chair Roly Keating of the British library was joined by writer, AL Kennedy, publisher Gail Rebuck, spoken-word artist Amerah Saleh and games writer and novelist Rebecca Levene to discuss the future of writing in the UK.

So your first thought may be that this subject is pretty huge to discuss in one hour - always the way but the panelists did their best, intelligent as they are. As a burgeoning "self-titled" writer, the future of the industry is something I do think on. 

Basically, it's all this digital stuff that's causing the problems, natch. Both the literary and publishing communities have grasped and embraced the digital world - or been forced to - much more in the last five years than they did before when most looked snobbishly down at the Internet from their high artiste platform of proper-ness. Most tend to comprehend it now, but what are the issues for words. From the panel's discussion and my rambling, one finger typed notes in my phone's notes page, here are the main points.

The Book

The physical book is important. This seemed unanimous. The digital book has its time and place but it is important that physical books keep existing. You can pass them on to others, you can immerse yourselves in them without the worry of an email popping up.

According to Gail, a small study in Scandinavia said that people have less recall when they have read something on a screen, they don't remember the experience or the details of what they have read nearly as much. I would agree with this but mainly because our relationship with the screen is - and has always been - frivolous, we have numerous live programmes, documents, apps running at once. I've often thought I would be a better writer if I wrote with paper and pen, though slower and incredibly badly spelt.

I believe in real books too, sometimes I think my collection will probably be the only thing I pass down to any N.O.K.

Gail said that the books someone reads become a narrative of their life, leading them through the bad times and good and that's why they are important. I would agree.

Attention Span

Apparently they're shorter and confused and the "yoof" struggle to focus. Alison argued that it was because they weren't engaged in the subject and if they were their attention spans would be fine. 

Others argued that the brain can change and adapt to be less focused because we are constantly bombarded with content and we don't know the affect of this yet.

I myself have certainly felt the repercussions of the cacophony electronic devices and modes of contact vying for our attention at every turn. As a child, I was a bookworm, a fast reader who could sit for hours with a book. Nowadays I struggle to concentrate if there is anything else around that might shake my focus. Around my room there are piles of unread books as I seem now to be the person I once scoffed at, the holiday reader. In real life, I barely manage a book a month which shames me.

If someone of my generation struggles, someone who was not brought up with technology wired into my make up, how will this era affect the reading and writing and language of the one below me. It does worry me.

Can our brains be irreversibly changed?

Libraries & Book Shops

Unanimously, the panel agreed on the importance of libraries and people, especially young people having access to them. The library is so important, free reading, free access to as many books as you could want. This is important, especially to youngsters part of households that can't afford to buy books or who do not have much interest in them.

However, more and more libraries are closed as they become "irrelevant" and often children are not aware of libraries or do not care. How do we change this? Access to the free printed word is a necessity that we must work to keep.

Another point that touched me from the panel was their emphasis on the wandering nature of the book shop. When you go into one, it is your head that takes you on a journey through the books, not Google's algorithms. You went in there for Caitlin Moran and you purchased a retelling of the Greek myths as well... because it just piques your interest. Google would have served you up Lena Dunham and Tina Fey, Amazon would promise you that people like you also like Bryony Gordon and Germaine Greer, Mindy Kaling??? NO.. are you sure....Why don't you buy THREE Caitlin Moran books then... because you save moneyyy...*

In a book shop we pick a bouquet of mixed wildflowers, never-mind that they don't go together. They are all delicious fodder for our hungry minds.


In terms of language it seemed to all come back to this. Those who are gifted with a good education are streaks ahead in their ability to communicate and their knowledge of the power of language. 

Amerah Saleh mentioned that her introduction and appreciation of poetry was through spoken word poetry she found on YouTube which then inspired her in addition her teacher at school who taught so well and with such enthusiasm that this was infused into her students. 

I had such a teacher and really education is all about a these star staff stoking fires in their pupils. Mine, my English teacher acted out scenes from A Street Car Names Desire with such passion that I was sure she was Blanche DuBois. I'd always loved reading and stories but she taught me the power of language in telling a story. 

Those who have uninspired - or just plain bad - education, can often not recover from their early loss. 


Storytelling and writing must be not be left to commercial forces said Allison Kennedy, if money runs everything it becomes far too depressing. This is true certainly. In fact when things are run purely for commercial gain, people tend to lose interest anyway. Just look at those brands that try too hard with online content and social media - anything too salesy and the public lose interest.

None-the-less, the written word is in an interesting place when it comes to economical issues. More and more people are giving it away free and more and more the public expect this. As Rebecca Levene commented "It has never been easier to get your words out there and it has never been harder to make your living as a novelist." She has several paid jobs herself. Most fiction writers now will also write freelance editorial pieces, teach or hold down a full time job. We can't all be John Grisham or JK Rowling, it's just not realistic anymore. 

Whilst a busy market can be a good, we need to think what it means for the long term. Will it be more difficult to find the wheat among the chaff.. Or will the talent always rise to the top. 


There tends to be two opposing viewpoints here; those that think language has always and will always evolved and it is something to embrace and relish. Others think that text speak and slang has caused fragmented communication and loss of words. (See Harper Collins and Deliberate PR's clever Save a Word campaign in 2008-9) 

Alison Kennedy talked of the three voices we all have. The colloquial speech, the formal written word and the  language of our inner thoughts. She explained that if one learns to use the formal written word properly AND has the others, they become the greatest of communicators.. of writers. The ability to weave a clever narration comes from formal use of language, characters speaking the voices of the people in the story makes for a rich narrative. E.G. someone like Zadie Smith, Khalid Hosseni or Dickens. A lack of true voice jars in a story. 

The inner voice is more truthful and less law-abiding, I think.

Never-the-less if we don't have the ability to write formal language due to over use of digital speak and slang, we lose the familiar foundation and readers' recognisable flags. 

A Phoenix or just plain ashes, one wonders....

My Postive Thoughts for the Future 

On a positive note, I love how easy it is these days to send ones writing out there in to the atmosphere. I love how much there is to read and skim and post and share and like and read out-loud and pass on again... Amongst the haystack of Internet chaff, there are still the wheat needles.. sometimes even amongst teenage fanfic writers ;) As one of the panelists said, digital is not about debasing or degrading culture, it's about opening it up. 

The fact that in our country we are allowed to use language to express ourselves however we want (really) is also a true gift and something we take for granted. Many countries censor the Internet.

As a final thought I turn to Will Self who wrote a thesis about the dying art of literary novels, he said:
I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.  - Will Self. Guardian. May 2014
I hope that this is not true. Nor do I believe it to be. Nor do I necessarily accept his definition of a literary novel. However, I understand his sentiment. We should not let this happen. We should want to use and know all the words we have. Language is power my dear.

The thing is as well is that everyone loves a story... and they always have and I think that will save words, because we always want the best ones, that tell the story most beautifully. I hope it saves the book too.

*Please let it be known that I worship the ground Caitlin Moran walks on.. so if I did buy books off Amazon, of course I would have bought all three..

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