A while back I was asked to reflect on a question about the rise of self-publishing and the supposed decline of the ‘professional’ look and feel of books that we have come to expect since the invention of the printing press 500 years ago. I was also invited to comment on concerns regarding the editorial purpose within the changing publishing industry, especially concerning the digital developments of the last five years. Did I believe that we are witnessing a temporary dip in the long history of the editor’s craft, or rather, a long-term decline?
As an editor and general lover of language, I appreciate the craft of creating and shaping an appealing text. As someone who likes to read – whether it be fiction or not – I can get genuinely excited about a well-written piece of text in which an idea has been successfully transferred to paper. Conversely, in everyday life I often find myself confronted with bad writing or the uninspired presentation of what could have been a good idea – if not for lousy editing. Professionally, I sometimes have to edit or review texts that are just down-right cringeworthy. In a time when just about anybody can become a ‘writer’ or a ‘published’ author, sometimes it may feel like the overall quality of literature just isn’t what it used to be.
At the same time, as a historian, I have to remind myself that things aren’t that clear-cut. When looking at the bigger picture, one can see that this mildly depressing feeling is neither the result a temporary dip in the history of the craft, nor part of an actual decline. Instead, I would prefer to argue that the rise of self-publishing – and the perceived decline of professionalism that has come to be associated with it – is part of a development that is far older than the aforementioned 500 years.
In fact, it’s not professionalism of publishing that is in decline; it’s the monopoly on the art of writing, editing and publishing that is giving way to something that is ever more egalitarian and democratic. The invention of the block press itself is a symptom of this long-term process, as its successful introduction decisively broke the monopoly on writing, editing and publishing once enjoyed exclusively by the monastic clergy and court scribes. Like modern-day eReaders, laptops and inkjet printers, the printing press significantly reduced the cost of creating books, as well as reducing the amount of skill required, making publishing and the distribution of the written word accessible to a greater portion of the population. At the same time, the possibility of ‘mass media’ resulted in a greater variety in quality of literature, rendering all those artful, gilded, hand-copied manuscripts all but obsolete, while at the same time opening up the market for poorly written, sloppy pamphlets and leaflets. As technology makes the luxury of sharing ideas in writing more accessible to a growing number of people, it automatically becomes more of a challenge to ensure quality – or at least the level of quality safe-guarded by the monopoly of a small, restricted elite of literate artisans.
Without exaggeration, this process of increased active literacy can be traced back through the growing power of the literate elite in Republican Rome, the relatively liberal environment of the great schools of ancient Athens, the evolution of the Demotic script – used for administrative and commercial purposes – as a more pragmatic alternative to the Egyptian priests’ sacred hieroglyphics, all the way back to the creation of writing itself at the expense of oral tradition. eReaders are just the latest model in clay tablets.
While a badly written text may be annoying, I don’t think a decline in professionalism is something to be afraid of. Instead, it’s whenever the proliferation of the written word gets stunted by hundreds of years of economic decline or loss of political freedom that I tend to get worried. For a historian, uncovering lots of carelessly scribbled, throwaway writing is a sure sign that a society is healthy and prosperous.
So in essence, we’re faced with a trade-off: Professionalism versus democracy, artistry versus ease of use, pluriformity versus quality control. While I might feel horrified by bad or uninspired writing, in the end there is no right or wrong. It might seem a little exaggerated, but whenever I hear somebody complaining about ‘the lost art of writing’, I always imagine how people would have reacted when writing itself was first developed. “It will never catch on!”; “What about just telling the other person what you want to say?”; “Kids these days only know how to write stuff down! Whatever happened to the lost art of memorizing!”
What’s happening now is just technology facilitating new ways of expressing oneself, opening up new ways of spreading ideas to more people, and taking away that privilege from the few that would like to call themselves professionals. I’m not that worried, because what will remain is humankind’s innate need to express, to share, and to immortalize its ideas. Texts – whether spoken, written, printed or uploaded – will remain indispensable. The fact we keep inventing new technologies that change the ways in which we create and disseminate those texts only underlines – not undermines – their continued importance. Equally, there will still be call for experts who know what makes a great text work; but as always, technological progress will demand that those experts themselves evolve as well, or step aside for a generation that can.
Anyway, it’s not the look and feel that matter. It’s the idea.