The reader, the writer, and technology – where to next?

the book is deadI’m a little late with my last post because I’ve been lost in my PhD for the past few weeks. I’m researching how young adults source and engage with narrative. It’s because I write for the young adult (YA) demographic that I am very interested in the who, what, when, where and why of YA reading.

I’ve written in this blog before about the changing nature of reading, but getting stuck into the research that backs the anecdotal evidence I gather as a convener of YA writers’ groups is both validating and terrifying.

It’s validating because it reassures me that I am lucky enough to have my finger on the pulse of YA reading attitudes and habits. But it’s terrifying because of the implications for writers of YA fiction. At this point in history, we are experiencing a convergence of the flow of media between traditional and multimodal platforms. And it's this that is challenging the notion and definition of what it is to read.

Traditionally, narrative content was developed and presented as text on a page to be read in a linear fashion from left-to-right and cover-to-cover. Reading this way required concentration, concentration enough to allow the reader to get carried away by characters and the lost in the plot. Reading had the potential to transport the reader to another time, another place, another reality, and drop them there for days. But the way in which young people read is changing. Instead of sitting somewhere quiet, oblivious to the operations of the mundane and succumbing to the fictional world between the covers of a book - they are skimming the surface of multiple platforms simultaneously without losing themselves completely, in any.

Story is no longer about deciphering and interpreting marks on a page. It’s become more about a multitude of visual and auditory stimuli concurrently bombarding the senses.  Without fully immersing themselves in any single mode of literacy consumption, young people are browsing multiple platforms in an attempt to maximise their absorption of content.

You’d typically find them sitting on the lounge with their iPad on their lap. They’ll be watching TV, playing Minecraft, scrolling through Facebook feeds, chatting with friends via IM. They could be using an App to game, or edit pics, or interact with random TV viewers. They might be tweeting, googling, pinning. Maybe they’re surfing blogs, downloading software or apps or music. But they’re doing several or all of these things AT THE SAME TIME.

So where does actual reading factor into it? If you accept the various Education, Sociology and Anthropology research reports, you’ll note that the nature of general literacy, and YA engagement with it, is changing. Once upon a time, a literate person was one who could recognise text-based symbols on a page and gain some meaning from them. Nowadays, a literate person must not only recognise the various sensory stimuli created by sounds, images - both still and moving, but they must also have a semiotic understanding of the platforms that both create and disseminate these.

Nowadays, a literate person is one who understands the nature of feeds, walls, search engines, youtube, limited character communication, and not only engages with this multimodal means of consuming content, but is also able to create content to contribute to it. Maintaining effective social connections depends on this. So too, does the ability to sift through the proliferation of independently created content, including eBooks,   and make judgement s about what is reliable information and quality content, and what is not.

And writers must be able to rise above the rabble to remain relevant in this technological battleground. But how? How do we, as professionals, maintain the status quo as authors, as constructors of quality fiction? All the evidence suggests that we are headed toward a paperless society. We’ve already seen the explosion of eReaders and eBooks flood the market. Bookshops are collapsing all over the place, publishers are shrinking and morphing into electronic shadows of their former selves in an often vain attempt at relevance in a marketplace that no longer requires a gatekeeper to fiction, and readers are turning to links instead of chapters.

Does this mean writers must become developers to create fiction that YAs want to read/watch/interact with/consume?

I suspect that strong narrative writing will remain where it’s always been, a place where readers seek respite from their chaotic existences, for the experience of losing oneself in another reality. It may just be that the ‘other reality’ for the writer, will turn out to be in cyberspace.

Writing Well

writingisitsownrewardSome might say the value of teaching kids to write well is a redundant concept. As in — of course, kids need to write well, how else will they succeed at school? But when I talk about the importance of teaching to kids to write, I'm talking about so much more than academic achievement.

I'm not suggesting academic achievement is unimportant, it is important. It is a well-known fact that the better a student is able to write, the better they will do at school or university. After all, a great deal of assessment is dependent upon written tasks. This may or may not be the best way to determine effective teaching—I make no judgement about that, but the reality is that writing remains the primary means for students to communicate knowledge and understanding. And they are continually judged on it, beginning with the Naplan tests (current standardised tests for all school students in NSW) in Year 3, and again Years 5, 7 and 9, before they even get to the senior years of schooling. All kids, regardless of age, stage of development, or school are subject to this regime of testing.

But much more important than academic achievement, is developing the capacity to fully engage with all levels of society through effective communication. Writing a fabulous essay might get great marks and a place at university, but writing a heartfelt  letter of thanks, or a deadly letter of complaint; or conveying emotion using the written word where it’s not possible to do so in speech, can mean the difference between being able to connect with people, or not. It can be the difference between social ostracism and social engagement.

We live in a changing world. Multi-modal communication is a fact of 21st Century life. And in the context of the developed world, that means no one need be socially isolated— irrespective of local or global geography. It means the condition of physical or mental health, or socio-economics, is less of a determining factor to engagement and acceptance, than it once may have been. So long as one can write well.

Online communication is more and more becoming the first point of engagement in everything from making friends, to buying a book, to applying for a job, with a myriad of things in between. People are full of judgement, it’s the human condition— and where once they might have made those judgements about the way a person looks, or the way they dress when they arrive for a job interview, nowadays they have already perused the online presence and made those judgements based on written communications. And not just the formal communication. They'll have read social media sites and developed a sense of the person through the words they've used to represent themselves and communicate with their friends. Double-edged sword? Absolutely!

But if people—especially young people, learn to write well and embrace the power of effective communication, they can benefit from a head start to social and economic engagement in ways that were never available to the generations before them. And without having to fit in a box.