Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Stephen Page, CEO of Faber & Faber, talks at an event on Literature Leadership organised by the FLO consortium of Friendly Literature Organisations.
Members of FLO each gave short talks on different issues. Here's mine on the future of the book.

As it happens it was the poet Simon Armitage who was the first person to show me an iPod. I thought it was beautiful and snazzy, but just a classy form of walkman.

Actually the iPod was the moment when music stopped belonging on disc or CD or even concert hall and sailed aloft to exist in the ether, ready to be downloaded into our lives in whatever way seems most appropriate at the time.

That’s what’s happening now to words – Google digitising everything they can lay their hands on, Sony bringing out the e-reader, a Cambridge company Plastic Logic making a flexible screen on which you could watch a tv programme, read a short story, search a blog, or do all kinds of inbetween things we’re only just beginning to think about.

So the book is changing, artforms and platforms converging, but what’s that to do with leadership and literature?

We need to lead the way for writers grappling with the ‘transliteracy’ skills they need to make texts which incorporate new media as part of their substance, not just the wrapping.

And we need to be clear about the essence of what readers need, as all the trappings we associate with books transform around us.

But I think the ‘Literature Sector’ is ahead of the field.

We’ve talked for years about creative reading and writing. In the digital age that blurring of divisions between creator and consumer is now taking place across the board.

Other art forms are suddenly grappling with personalisation – turning their staged events into podcasts to be consumed privately in people’s own homes and heads, creating on their computers a ‘bookshelf’ of their favourite cultural product.

But we know all about bookshelves, and the portable, personalised virtual reality generator that is the book.

Film makers are horrified to find everyone churning out YouTube snippets, remixing Star Wars and finding thousands of viewers for a film of teenagers miming to stolen songs. Publishers realise that readers and writers can cut out the middleman and communicate directly...

But Literature Development and Reader Development are practices based on the interactivity between reader and writer.

Back in the 80s in Sheffield we set up Write Back noticeboards in libraries and encouraged users to post their own poems then post their comments on other people’s. We photocopied single copies of anyone’s work and made it free to borrow – looking back it was akin to a manual MySpace for local writers.

Before the blog there were photocopied pamphlets of poetry, before videocasting there were rooms above pubs. Anyone who has run a poetry competition knows about User Generated Content; there is no shortage of poetry out there!

And we’re used to seeing some great writing emerge from that dense but democratic mass of words.

Young poets - like Daljit Nagra, now being published by the illustrious Faber - are likely to have learnt their trade through workshops, contributing to small magazines, appearing at poetry clubs above pubs. Nagra lived in Sheffield so maybe he even came across the Write Back board. Once published, poets like bloggers know they’re still responsible for growing their readership through appearances and wordspreading.

In the NESTA report Ten Habits of Mass Innovation Charlie Leadbetter writes:
“The future of our society should not continue to extend the pleasures of consumerism ad infinitum. Our aim should be to become a society of adapters, contributors, participants and designers, with people having their say, making a contribution (often in small ways) to add to the accumulation of ideas and innovation. A society of mass innovation offers access to a deeper story about freedom and self-expression that will distinguish us from many societies...”
That could be a society modelled on the literature sector.