Should we adjust for the times?

A couple of weeks ago Nick wrote a response to a piece on the purported death of the novel that raised some interesting points about value, expectations, reflective reading versus cursory reading, and consumer trends. It’s that last area that I’d like to consider in a little more depth here, specifically regarding whether or not we as writers should try and adjust our personal styles to more closely match developments in the wider popular culture.

As I mentioned in my comment to Nick’s post, this year is the centenary of William Burroughs’ birth and in a London Review of Books article by Gary Indiana on a new biography of Burroughs’ life it is highlighted how his ideas on communicative tendencies and his abrupt writing style have increasingly proved to be prescient. Burroughs looked around himself at the advertising that was growing ever more ubiquitous and predicted that our minds would come to flit from this to that, never resting anywhere for very long. On this, Indiana remarks that, “The trilogy that followed Naked Lunch went much further in anticipating the staccato, associative patterns produced by the internet, TV channel flipping and ‘screen reality’; considered unreadable when they were published, the trilogy books can be followed today almost as effortlessly as a novel by Hemingway.”

Burroughs did not, of course, adjust his style for his own times; rather he famously flouted the conventions of his day and even most narrative conventions as well. He wrote only what he wanted to and that his influence has stretched so far is likely due more to the power of his ideas than to the accessibility of his texts. There is a lesson to be learned here but it’s one that requires a bit of daring.

We have come to have attention spans that can be measured in milliseconds, to produce and to expect little more than sound bites, and to employ sloganspeak as a shorthand for meaningful conversation. This can even be seen in our humor, which is now punctuated by one-offs that would make Twitter proud for their brevity. These are vast cultural trends that are a result of a great many coalescing factors and it is not my intention to pooh-pooh them or wring my hands over the current state of affairs. Instead I’d simply like to point out that for better or for worse that is at present how we approach not only our entertainment but our lived relationships and daily interactions as well. If as writers we feel that we should meet people where they are then certainly we should take these developments into consideration. If, however, like Burroughs we are more interested in pursuing our own vision, then we can ignore any potential reader demands that do not fit with our personal approach. To make this decision we need to consider how we want to balance practical concerns with artistic ones. Burroughs came from a wealthy family and received a sizeable stipend until he was 50 years old; writers who need to, or are trying to, make a living at it will naturally have concerns that would never have occurred to Burroughs. Although it’s not, of course, all about money, one’s ability — and flexibility — will come into play as well. These are hard choices, but that we retain the freedom to make them is a blessing, and we owe it to our readers and ourselves to consider them carefully before putting fingertips to keyboards at the start of a major project.

Next week, Paul j Rogers on his trip to see how Lotte’s famous Choco Pies are made.

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  1. Nick Cody
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I heard somewhere that David Bowie wrote his lyrics in a “cut up” method that Burroughs may have invented. Randomness supposedly plays a part in it. I haven’t had time yet to read that Gary Indiana article (is that name even real???), but I’d like to see how much of Burroughs was artistic planning and design and how much was randomness masquerading as novelty. Either way, good post and I’m looking forward to Paul’s take on Choco pies!

  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree it’s important to take ‘controlled risks’ in your writing. But out-and-out experimentation is fun to write and usually less fun to read. Besides, Ulysses, ’Godot and Nova Express are respectable members of the establishment now. Big shocks like that — that work — don’t come easy. Anyway, those books belong to another time and place. Perhaps the modern reader (all thirty-eight of them if you believe the doomsayers) read books to escape the very world that Burroughs stylized and predicted? I’ll register with the LRB and take a look at that article by Dr. Indiana Jones — thanks for the link.

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