Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What happens when more people write than read?


This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “The Rise of Writing: What happens when more people write than read?” To listen, click here.

Here is all the writing I did yesterday: I wrote this monologue. I edited and wrote comments on a colleague’s law review article. I responded to comments on Why? Radio’s blog and to comments on Facebook. I wrote a recommendation letter for a student and some emails about that recommendation letter. I also wrote a handful of emails about a Pakistani scholar who I am bringing to the US and a few more about changing the server that Why? Radio’s webpage is on. I wrote things on my to-do list and notes in the book I read for today’s discussion. I sent lots of text messages to my wife.

I probably wrote for four hours yesterday, but almost none of the things I listed would be considered as writing by most people, they were just…work. Certainly, none of them made me feel like a writer and the one piece I didn’t get to spend any time on was the one I most wanted to, a scholarly article that I’ve been trying to finish for months. I know it sounds contradictory, but I spend so much time writing yesterday that I never got the chance to write.

There have always been jobs that required lots of writing. The most charming account is probably the 1853 novella Bartleby, The Scrivener, in which Herman Melville describes the young men whose jobs it was to manually copy legal documents, hour after hour, day after day. But one hundred and fifty years ago, writing was largely a specialized skill and nowadays, everyone is expected to do some of it. While there are still some professions untouched by the task, manual laborers or wait staff, perhaps, most everyone else has to create reports, or respond to emails, or summarize their activities for evaluation, or even enumerate their tasks each day. Writing permeates most everything we do and because we are so used to it, we may fail to realize that this is a new reality, and a revolutionary one at that.

There was a time when educated people were identified by what they read. There was a canon, a very specific collection of literature, philosophy, natural science, and history that cultured people were expected to know. Unpublished writing was more tied to personal correspondences and record keeping. But there is no canon anymore. We have replaced the idea of fluency in high culture with schooling that makes people “college and career ready,” and with universities that prepare people for work, not human excellence. We have gone from schools advocating for an established list of readings to an education system focused on writing, but we have yet to articulate the boundaries of composition. Reading has been eclipsed. 

What do we make of a world in which people write but don’t read? What do we make of a time in which everyone has a blog, and every twitter post links to a news article, but viewers only skim them? The newest studies show that on-screen readers actually read about every fifth or sixth word and then use their imagination to fill in the rest, but what is so compelling about an audience that doesn’t actually pay attention? Why craft words when they are never truly attended to. What is writing without reading?

Today’s episode is focused on the new phenomenon of mass writing. We are going to look at the changes in the workplace and our culture that the new wave of writing has wrought. But more so, we are going to look at the attitudes of these writers and ask what motivates them, what they find fulfilling or problematic as they compose texts. And, we are going to see if we can unpack the way that different writing sponsors—governments, companies, individual clients—affect the kind of writing people are expected to create.

It has become commonplace to think of writing as solidifying the voice of the author. But what the new writing has shown is that those who compose may not, in fact, write with their own voice at all. Their muse has been replaced by their boss, and their inspirations are more rooted in their paycheck than in the desire for self-expression. Is there such a thing as too much writing and if so, does the writing of the workplace leave us room for writing for its own sake?

I lamented earlier that I was so busy writing what I had to, that I didn’t get the chance to write what I wanted, but maybe the problem is that I fail to properly value my job as it really is. Maybe I myself am a remnant of an older time and I have not yet caught up with the mass-writing revolution that governs my life.

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