Mouse potatoes


I've been thinking about the nature of web publishing. Lately I've been working on some short stories and also Chinese translations. These sorts of writings are quite different to online journal entries, they need more time to develop, and would be harmed by premature exposure. In fact they would be harmed by web publication per se, some writings look only to print.

I've taken an interest in print writers who have blogs, wondering how they manage writing for the two media. It sometimes seem they hold back on the web, or just yack about the business of being a writer, as if anyone is really interested in hearing that their proofs have arrived today and about their dealings with editors. I'm surprised, for instance, that a writer like William Gibson, who might be thought to have something of interest to say in his blog, hardly says anything, content to mostly quote stuff he comes across on the web. Perhaps this reflects his caution in regard to leaking away his writing energies on an undiscerning medium. I am certainly coming to believe I have dissipated my print writing by engaging so much with the web.

I think what I'm deciding is that it's important for a writer who embraces both print and web to keep the two distinct. Once you have that distinction settled, I find it frees you up in both. They're different mental disciplines. On the web, you're writing for the short-attention-span generation. Many no longer read books. In fact they hardly read at all, even on the web, they just stare at the screen and absorb a few word formations and get a gist. Book readers will probably read you more attentively, but those for whom the web has displaced television rather than books their reading seems more haphazard and fickle. They're quick to move on. They don't take much in. If comments are available, they're commenting before they've finished reading what they're commenting on. It's something to do, but why they're doing it just disappears in the litter-trail they leave over the web at the end of a night's 'surfing'.

I've been reading the short stories of Paul Bowles recently. I simply can't imagine reading these stories on the web. There is a great divide opening up between those who still read books and those who 'read' only the web. While at one time I wanted to reject the web, lately I seem to be more accepting of it. I think this has come about through making the distinction between web and print more clear to myself. I read three Paul Bowles stories last night, computer switched off. By contrast all the time I had spent on the web earlier on seemed like watching television, as I remember the experience of watching television. The web does not often grip my imagination. It informs, sometimes entertains, it passes the time fairly passively (the idea that the web is an active participatory medium is pure illusion), but rarely does it go any deeper.

The web's 'thinkers' are mostly engaged in thinking through a handful of lightweight slogans, or stating the obvious to those for whom it presumably isn't obvious. And then people comment on how marvellous are their insights. There are always exceptions. And after all, most books published are rubbish too, though in serious fiction there is still some great writing, for those to whom the pleasure of reading is in the quality of the writing rather than in its ability to distract and idle away time. (I'm always amused watching a person pick up an ad flyer on the Tube that has fallen out of a magazine, doesn't matter what rubbish it's about they will look at it glaze-eyed for ages before finally pulling themselves away and placing it on the seat next to them, like flypaper for the next idle mind. What kind of attention is that? It's TV-generation attention and the way people read the web too.)

For me, the web is a useful place to publish a few observations and shorter pieces, not particularly caring about the extent to which they are read or absorbed, or in what numbers, since there will always be a few individuals who come across it to whom it may prove of interest. There is a certain type of writing that suits the web, that one wouldn't bother putting in a book, but is nonetheless worth imparting. But there is equally a type of writing that should keep its distance from the web, that is trying to do something that cannot be done on the web, that goes deeper than the web can go. Writing that demands solitude and reflection.

I would go so far as to say that people whose reading is limited to the web, who do not read books or read them hardly ever, simply do not read and shouldn't kid themselves they are readers, despite the number of words they expose themselves to in blogs every day. It is not simply that print and web are different media, it is that the former has a chance to be read and the latter is mostly only consumed, and these days at such a rapidly increasing rate that people get incredibly impatient with blogs that do not update regularly, yet they rarely bother to read through archived posts written before they happened upon that site. When frequency of updates becomes more important than having anything to say, we have passive consumption, not reading. It satisfies our need to be idly transfixed. The couch potatoes have moved on from television and now they're mouse potatoes.