Deakin University



Peter Davis and Jenny Lee



A Conversation about James O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word





Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
James O'Donnell
Harvard University Press, 1991/2001
pb, pp210
ISBN 0-674-00194-X

Jenny: I have a particular affection for James O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word, because it was almost the first book I read on returning to the academy. (You lent me your copy, Peter, and I've been grateful ever since.) I was hooked from the opening sentence: 'This book is for people who read books and use computers and wonder what the two have to do with each other.'

Peter: I'm sure O'Donnell would agree that the context in which we acquire and read a book becomes an integral part of our reading experience. At the end of his delightfully named chapter 'Hearing Socrates, Reading Plato', O'Donnell writes, 'We live in an age unprecedentedly fortunate in its recognition that reading is not one simple thing, but a related set of activities, each with its own power for enlightenment' (28). In my case, Avatars of the Word was the first book I purchased in Australia after a three-month writing assignment in India - a place where the notion of an avatar was never far from daily experience.

And now here are we, re-reading (and, for my part, struggling to remember) the many-layered ideas underlying O'Donnell's meditations. My first reading of his book was a linear experience. I picked it up, read the jacket and then read from page one through to the end. My second reading is very much non-linear. I have dipped into the particular bits that I recall. I have flicked back and forth as I have tried to grapple with the cosmic leaps that O'Donnell makes.

Jenny: Then again, Avatars isn't structured for a linear reading. It's really a series of essays, each opening a different window on a particular issue. Its central focus, though, is on the long history of the transmission of knowledge in the West, which leads into an extended series of reflections on where the book has come from, where it is going, and what is happening to pedagogy in the postmodern age.

Peter: I was almost shocked by O'Donnell's comment that 'For a time, academics will continue to delegate a large part of the responsibility for tenure decisions to university press editorial boards. In time, even that will pass; new techniques for arbitrariness and avoidance of responsibility will emerge, young scholars will no longer speak with such misplaced reverence and awe of the publishing process' (59).

Jenny: That statement is a classic example of O'Donnell in iconoclastic mode, attempting to defamiliarise the idea of the book (and take a pot-shot at the university hierarchy while he's at it). Elsewhere he writes of the 'unnaturalness of this whole affair our culture has with books' and reminds us that 'books are only secondary bearers of culture' (91). His point isn't just a negative one, though. What he's trying to do is emphasise human agency - that culture 'is us and making it, as well as remaking it, is our job' (91).

Peter: He also suggests that the triumph of non-linear reading will render the traditional monograph an endangered species.

Jenny: Well, to be fair, he's mainly talking about scholarly monographs, and he's got a point. There's a mismatch of form and function in most such works. They're generally linear in structure, but they're read in a non-linear way, with readers relying on the index to guide them to the information they need. Print-runs are short and costs are high. To bridge the gap, scholarly publishers often require authors to raise subsidies from the institutions where they work, and this opens the way for decisions based on patronage.

At the very least, to spend years labouring over a work that might only find an audience of a few hundred isn't an effective way of placing information in the public domain. (The real question for the universities, I can't resist adding, is whether they will need to reconsider the form of the PhD thesis once it has ceased to fulfil its conventional role of helping budding scholars to draft their first scholarly monographs.)

Although O'Donnell's immediate target is the traditional scholarly 'culture of letters', I think his arguments have important implications for those of us who teach professional writing. The obvious question is whether we too are teaching obsolescent forms of writing that are excessively dependent on a linear conception of reading.

I'll play the devil's advocate here. As O'Donnell points out, non-linear modes of reading didn't start in cyberspace. The shift from the scroll to the codex book was itself a move towards non-linear reading, because it was much easier to 'dip into' a bound book than to work your way down a scroll. In the industrial era, one of the hallmarks of book publishing worldwide has been the proliferation of reference, educational and technical books, which readers are more likely to raid for specific information than to read from beginning to end. Another leitmotif of twentieth-century publishing more broadly has been the remarkable growth of magazines, which have a shorter shelf-life than books and lend themselves to discontinuous, selective reading.

Those of us who habitually read books for pleasure - top-to-bottom readers of narrative texts and serious literature - can sometimes forget that this kind of reading is the exception rather than the rule. These days, most books are specifically designed not to be read as a whole. When I remind my editing students of this, they often seem quite shocked. It's a point that needs to be made, though. I don't think we do our students a service if we reinforce the idea that traditional books of around 60-80,000 words are the ideal towards which all writers should aim.

I suppose you could also ask: should we be consciously directing students away from the conventional book-publishing industry, with its low returns for creativity and its horrendous bottlenecks, and steering them instead towards magazines and new media? Or should we be helping them to circumvent the bottlenecks by publishing their work themselves, either in print or electronic form?

Peter: I agree that O'Donnell's book raises some profound questions about pedagogy, especially in relation to what we do as teachers of writing. Before I venture further into this realm, I'll recap some of what he says on the practice of teaching.

In his chapter titled 'The Ancients and the Moderns', he writes: 'we teachers do not automatically deserve a future. We must earn it by the skill with which we disorient our students, energise them and inculcate in them a taste for the hard disciplines of seeing and thinking' (123). Then, in 'The New Liberal Arts: Teaching in the Postmodern World', he says, 'School often presents itself to the imagination as [a] kind of sanitized theme park, but as school becomes university, risks need to be taken' (144).

The question becomes: what kinds of risks are desirable, and which are undesirable? I like O'Donnell's idea of disorienting and energising our students. This is a risky practice - especially in a climate that demands vocational training as well as academic discourse.

This reminds me of an exercise I do with my non-fiction students when I introduce them to the genre of travel writing. I ask them to use their non-regular hand (left-handed students use their right hand and vice versa) to write their name, address, email contact and so on. This takes some time. As they struggle with pen in hand, I invite them to describe the process. Among the most frequently uttered words are 'disabling', 'confusing', 'disorienting' and 'disconnected'. I then suggest that the same words can also be used to describe the traveller's feeling of being 'out of place'. I call the exercise 'A disorientating introduction to travel'. It provides the students with an alternative frame of reference within which they can begin to decode ideas and experiences of travel. The exercise invariably leads to invigorating discussion. I stress the fact that travel (as opposed, perhaps, to tourism) is a non-linear experience, and that travel narratives written in a non-linear way are generally the most engaging.

In many ways I think this is what we are having to grapple with as writers, and as teachers of writing in the academy. We are trying to find a place, not only for ourselves and our students, but also for our institutions and our disciplines. We are drawn towards this place called cyberspace. How should we travel within it? Are there any maps? How does it change our relationships? And how does it change our creative output?

O'Donnell concedes that the existence of cyberspace raises questions for which we don't yet have the answers. Both he and Margaret Wertheim clearly believe that the changes will be dramatic, but that it's too soon to know exactly what form they will take. As Wertheim points out in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, 'our conception of ourselves is indelibly linked to our conception of space' (Doubleday, 1999:308).

I remain buoyed by some of the dualities and ironies that abound. There is the duality (some would see as a contradiction) that O'Donnell himself embodies. He's a professor of Classical Studies as well as Vice-Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania. His book is rich with historical references, and his classical scholarly training enriches his ability to analyse and embrace the new paradigm of cyberspace. At the risk of stating the obvious, I believe O'Donnell has a profound sense of where we are, and he can conjecture intelligently and eloquently about where we are headed precisely because he has a deep understanding of where we have been.

Without wanting to sound too reductionist, his thesis is that we have to learn to adapt to our changing circumstances by embracing the new without rejecting the best aspects of the old. This may sound all very neat and tidy, but it certainly isn't relaxed and comfortable. Indeed, there is a definite feeling of discomfort associated with the new paradigm.

In the old paradigm, where the book retains its iconic status, structures are more easily defined. Often patriarchal, hierarchical and hegemonic, they have served (and continue to serve) as a foundation for the canon. We may not be comfortable with this system, but at least we know it and understand its machinations. This means we can also work creatively to subvert it. But how can you subvert something you don't yet know? How do you creatively subvert cyberspace, which is not (yet) a hegemonic structure or a homogeneous entity? Cyberspace is something else. It's a space with dangerous, exciting, slippery surfaces. It's a labyrinthine space with no definitive map. It behaves like a vortex, sucking everything into its path.

So where do we position ourselves, our teaching and our students in relation to all this? I think we would be irresponsible if we did not seek to have our students embrace the new world of cyberspace and all its known ramifications, which are changing as we speak. I also think we would be remiss if we encouraged our students to sever all links with the traditional ways of publishing. Perhaps there is value in our identifying and articulating the desired risks - or taking a creative risk by continuing to encourage our students to work with the old paradigm while grappling with the new. For my part, in teaching non-fiction, I aim to get the content, the passion and the technique right. How the content should then be transmitted is the subject of an ongoing debate.

Jenny: The sheer pace of change is exhilarating - if sometimes discombobulating. Even in the two years since Avatars was first published, there have been huge advances in the development of electronic books and print-on-demand systems. I have a feeling that this is going to be a real breakthrough, because it circumvents the book industry's biggest dilemma: the high costs of materials and distribution, which make it almost impossible to produce books at an economical price and adequately reward the creative and intellectual work that goes into them. Every time we buy a book, we're paying for the paper it's printed on, the petrol and handling costs of carting it around and the rent of the warehouses and shops that distribute it - plus a hefty sum to offset the cost of books that will be shredded or remaindered. This doesn't leave very much to compensate writers, even though it's their work that makes us want to buy the book in the first place.

Certainly there are quite a few industry insiders who believe that the new technologies will produce a renaissance in book publishing (liberally defined to include e-books and print on demand). For many years there has been a growing sense that book publishing has taken a wrong turn - that its constant emphasis on new titles is leading to short-term thinking and neglect of the established titles on the backlists. There's a lot of truth in this; when you hunt around Amazon or Barnes & Noble, it's alarming to see how many canonical authors are out of print. It's also interesting to see that second-hand book prices are rising steeply, which is a clear sign of unmet demand.

This is where the new technologies have the potential to break into new territory, and to improve authors' bargaining position in relation to the established publishing companies. In the Rosetta case in July 2001, for example, the US Supreme Court decided that Random House couldn't use its standard pre-1994 publishing contracts to claim e-book rights over backlist titles. This is likely to give established authors a lot more room to manoeuvre in negotiating the sale of electronic rights for their older works. Instantaneous distribution through the Internet also has the potential to overcome one of the biggest obstacles facing new publishers: the difficulty of generating enough volume to support a physical distribution system that has reasonable coverage. The problem has been particularly acute in Australia because of the relatively small market and the long distances that distributors have to cover to get books into widely dispersed suburban outlets.

It would fit O'Donnell's argument quite neatly if new technologies help to revive older works that have undeservedly languished out of print, and to restore the emphasis on the creative and intellectual side of publishing. I get the feeling that the closest recent analogy to the situation now is the period after WW2, when paperback non-fiction publishing took off. Bob Maynard, who set up Penguin's first Australian office, has described the effect as being like 'a gold rush. As if books had been hidden underground and now were suddenly discovered' (quoted in Geoffrey Dutton, A Rare Bird. Penguin Books in Australia 1946-96, Penguin, 1996:2). A lot of the impetus for the growth of publishing at that time came from the retranslation and republication of canonical works; in 1950, Aristotle's Ethics was on the US bestseller list. I can't see quite the same thing happening now, but I can certainly see electronic publishing leading to a big increase in the volume of book sales, a reduction in geographical barriers and an increase in the depth and diversity of the lists (if books stay in print longer and cost less to distribute, there will be more chance for the less heavily promoted, 'slow-burning' titles to find readers).

Jason Epstein is one industry insider who is unequivocally optimistic. In his work Book Business, he says that twenty years ago he advised young people to 'shun the publishing business, which seemed to me then in a state of terminal decrepitude if not extinction', but today he would give the opposite advice. (W.W. Norton, 2001:3.) His vision of where things are heading is more commercially oriented than O'Donnell's, and focuses mainly on books as we know them (more or less). Epstein doesn't speculate at any great length about the possibilities of non-linear texts and new modes of reading, and he expects many of the publishing industry's traditional gatekeeping functions to survive, mainly as quality assurance.

Also unlike O'Donnell, who describes intellectual property law as being 'based on an oxymoron' (97), Epstein emphasises technologies that still allow authors and publishers to profit from the transmission of ideas. I'm with him on that issue. Among the main casualties of the industrialisation of book publishing in recent years have been the mid-list authors, those who produce quality works that don't quite sell well enough to place them on the bestseller lists or spark the enthusiasm of the publishers' marketing executives. I know the frustration of working on books in that range, where the rewards to the author (and editor) never seem commensurate with the effort put in. Electronic publishing, less cumbersome distribution and the instantaneous 'word-of-mouth' afforded by the Internet should open new audiences for many of these works.

On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the printed book will disappear entirely. Beautifully produced books will always have a special appeal, even if they are luxury items. Maybe the best outcome we can hope for is that we save our remaining forests for works that we want to keep and read repeatedly, and use e-books to download the mass of 'one-read-only' titles from the Internet. In that scenario, the old and new technologies could coexist almost indefinitely.

Peter: Yes, I think coexistence will be with us for some time. Remember when video was going to displace cinema and recorded music was going to kill live music? And, while email has certainly changed the way we communicate, it hasn't brought the demise of snail mail. The digital revolution in photography has also led to the coexistence of new and not-so-new technologies. O'Donnell himself seems to be an embodiment of such coexistence. It's illuminating to read his conclusion in his chapter 'The Life of Mind in Cyberspace'. He describes himself as an 'old-fashioned text-consuming, text-producing gatekeeper of our culture' who writes with a fountain pen. But he is aware that he lives 'on the edge of exciting cultural upheavals' and feels a responsibility to use the privileges he has been given to 'contribute to the wise navigation of those upheavals'. Perhaps we need to impart this sense of responsibility, and awareness of privilege, to our students.

Somehow, in the planning of our curricula and in the delivery of our courses (if that doesn't sound too linear), we need to transcend the here and now and embrace the longer term. The danger will always be that we fall victim, collectively or individually, to some sort of ephemeral fashion. There can be no doubt that we are seriously locked into what O'Donnell terms a transformative environment. One of our biggest challenges is to step back from the fray and find a space where we can reflect on the nature of the transformation so that our response to it is proactive rather than reactive.

Jenny: I agree entirely, but one thing I think we can say for certain: electronic technologies have opened up new avenues for empowering our students - and ourselves as writers and teachers. Whenever I think back over the years that I've been involved in publishing, I'm struck by just how much more I can do now than in 1987. When it comes to producing typeset copy, for example, my little laptop is more than a match for the room full of computer equipment that cost my typesetter hundreds of thousands of dollars in the early 1990s. And I can produce e-books and web pages in full colour (a source of joy for someone who's spent years constrained into working in black-and-white).

Whether our students have their sights set on conventional publishing or intend to write for newer media, we can offer them a range of experiences now that was simply inconceivable when I went to university. The University of Pennsylvania, where O'Donnell works, is evidently alive to the potential of this; it's just two clicks from his web page ( to the home page of Xconnect, a virtual magazine produced by the Pennsylvania writing students, which has great design values, high-quality writing and editing, and a terrific sense of energy. Students who work on a publication of that kind get a real-life editorial experience that is impossible to reproduce in an orthodox classroom because of privacy constraints, and they can do so without the costs of print production.

This is in line with O'Donnell's approach to education, which emphasises 'collaboration, interaction, and student activity' (185). The problem, as always, is to work out ways of exploring these approaches within institutions that remain committed to individual assessment and certification. O'Donnell is emphatic that universities need to become more flexible; he argues that they should move away from unitary degree courses towards shorter, specific-purpose certificates, and especially that they should distance teaching from assessment - or, as he colourfully puts it, separate 'the nurturing pedagogue from the hanging judge' (182). This is an intriguing idea, and I would have liked to see him develop it further, though he does go some way towards this when he discusses using virtual spaces to allow students to rehearse their work 'off-stage' until they are ready to bring it to the more threatening collective environment of the classroom or workshop (186).

At the same time, O'Donnell is under no illusion that universities will transform themselves overnight. 'Change', he writes, 'begins retail, not works not by fighting evils but by creating excellence, first on a small scale, then larger' (189). 'Excellence' seems rather an old-fashioned word to be coming from his pen. But here, as in his discussion of the history of the book, he is looking back as well as forward, doing his bit to shape a new world from the remains of the old.

Peter: It would be interesting to hear O'Donnell reflect more on the nature and culture of change. We all know that change is happening at a rapid, always challenging and sometimes alarming rate. My concern is the way in which change is managed, particularly within the academy. I think the current funding crisis in Australian universities militates against the proactive response to change that we, as teachers, must make - especially if we are to fully exploit the potential for empowerment that the new technologies provide for us and our students.

I'm relieved that O'Donnell's desire to embrace virtual space as a place of learning doesn't lead him to negate the classroom as another place where learning happens. But I am amused by his reference to the classroom as one of 'the most private places in the university' (171). The classroom is a venue through which we nurture discourse. I like to regard it as a safe forum in which students can experiment with their discourse before taking the risk of going public. In this sense, I agree that the classroom is a private place, albeit a collective private place. For the student of writing, the classroom is a space in which text can be synthesised with the complexities of the aural and visual experiences that come from group activity. We can read the work, we hear it being read and we see the response. This forms part of the essential structure of a writing workshop. For this level of collectivity (read connectivity) to occur in cyberspace, the student needs access to very sophisticated technology. This leads me to sound a minor alarm bell. I worry about issues of equity and about the opportunities for those who, for whatever reasons, remain locked out of the spaces in which important things happen.

Cyberspace may appear omnipotent, but we live in a time where so-called free market forces drive much of our public policy. We have to be vigilant to ensure that the passwords to cyberspace are as readily available to the struggling student as they are to the salaried academic. As we are constructing this dialogue, there are moves afoot to 'rope off' vast areas of cyberspace in an attempt to answer that question frequently posed by corporations (including some universities): 'How do we make money from the internet?

Both spaces - the virtual and the classroom - embody a transformative potential. As such, I like to regard them as sacred spaces. A similar notion of the sacred was recently articulated by Professor Peter Sellars, who has the wonderful title of Professor of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California, when he addressed a conference of documentary film makers in Adelaide last year. He spoke about his forthcoming directorship of the 2002 Adelaide Festival. And he spoke of the power of editing and framing. 'An edit is when we're... connecting two completely different experiences and inviting them to enter into dialogue and proximity, but the inter-relatedness, the web of inter-relatedness of the world, is actually being deepened in that one cut. Can we understand our editing process as having that kind of power, and responsibility? How do we look, and what are we looking at? This question of the sacred has entirely to do with framing; the way you frame something is how you choose to regard it and whether it is sacred or denigrated' (Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, 1 October 2000).

Sellars' notion of an edit is comparable to O'Donnell's idea of what happens in cyberspace when people come together to generate ideas and (maybe) produce text. The 'web of inter-relatedness of the world is actually being deepened'. The question is, to what extent is this happening and what are the consequences? Sellars' question, 'How do we look, and what are we looking at?', also resonates with O'Donnell's discourse - what is a publication, and how should we read it? Content is also crucial; I would have liked O'Donnell to say more about the relationship between form and content. How will it be altered by the almost inevitable triumph of cyberspace as the space in which learning takes place?

This leads me to reflect on my own embryonic experiences of encouraging my graduate students to embrace FirstClass, the software package we use for communications in a virtual environment. I meet with my class in the same physical space (that private classroom) once a week for three hours. Since they have been using a virtual environment, they spend much of their time in their shared physical environment talking about what they have experienced in the virtual environment. I suspect this is more than simply the sharing of novelty experiences. Some of my writing students work in the IT industry. Almost all of them spend their working days in front of computer terminals. When I asked them, 'How many of you would prefer this course delivered totally on-line instead of in a classroom?' one student replied, 'I enrolled in this course to learn how to write and to work with people, not to spend more time at a computer. I spend all day at my computer.' This student is not afraid of change. To the contrary, he embraces it with ease. But he yearns for human contact. His response was echoed by many others.

Let me return for a moment to the question of how we plan for change within a university. Here lie myriad contradictions. Something as simple as ordering appropriate software and installing hardware can take many months. By the time the ordered software is installed and operational, it's nearly time to install the next generation. As for curriculum changes, they can be a painfully slow process. Within the privacy of the classroom, we can introduce new texts, different assignments and so on. But within the public domain of the university handbook (a sacred and often misleading text for thousands of students planning their future), changes to unit aims, formats and assessment procedures must be made months in advance. Perhaps this is not a bad thing; it prevents education from becoming faddish. But it does reveal the inflexibility of the institutions at a time when flexibility is essential if we are to work with new technologies. I know that I and many of my colleagues have learnt to become creatively subversive in order to achieve the flexibility we need. I think this highlights the need for a balance between long-term thinking and short-term action. And I believe this is what we must pass on to our students of writing.

We are dealing with a curious mix of knowns and unknowns. We know where writing and publishing have come from (O'Donnell draws on this history with great eloquence). We know what past markets have demanded. We are not quite sure where writing and publishing are headed, and we can only speculate on the demands of future markets. Within this, we must continue to carve out a present - as writers, teachers, editors and publishers. I think we must encourage our students into long-term as well as short-term thinking.

Earlier this year, I read The Clock of the Long Now by Steward Brand (Basic Books, 1999). Brand and some of his fellow computer buffs set out to encourage discourse about long-term thinking by developing a clock that will 'tick once a year, bong once a century and the cuckoo will come out once every millennium'. Brand embraces cyberspace as a valid environment for the enrichment of human activity, but he has concerns about the nature of digital information. He quotes RAND researcher Jeff Rothenberg, who wrote in Scientific American (Jan 1995:42), 'It is only slightly facetious to say that digital information lasts forever - or five years, whichever comes first'. Brand cites the problem of valuable information becoming inaccessible because the technology that once housed it has since been superseded and it is no longer economically viable for anyone to produce the old technology. He hopes that long-term thinking (coupled with a market economy that is sensible rather than rampantly 'irrationalist') will guard against such folly. In a poignant chapter titled 'Burning Libraries', Brand examines the demise of the Alexandria library and the cultural arson perpetrated by various twentieth-century regimes. Like O'Donnell, he cautions against cutting off the past.

Mention book burning and I immediately recall Ray Bradbury's story Fahrenheit 451 (Flamingo Press, 1954), in which people commit certain books to memory in an attempt to rescue their past from the tyranny of their present. I also recall my own experience of burnt books - and one book in particular that I identified from a fire that destroyed my mother's home many years ago. Hundreds of books were burnt in that fire. But, as anyone who has ever combed through a fire will tell you, books, don't burn easily. In the intense heat, the pages seem to fuse together, as if somehow locking the knowledge within.

The blackened, wet, smouldering book that I picked up happened to be en an edition of Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky. My memory of that book is often kindled when I think of the issues that we face with electronic publishing and on-line teaching. In some ways we are grappling with worlds in collision. The present seems to be colliding with its own future. My hope is that, at the point of collision, the spark will ignite new worlds that embrace old ones rather than destroy them.


Jenny Lee is a freelance editor and convenes the editing stream at Deakin University, Professional Writing.
Peter Davis is a freelance travel writer, who is also at Deakin University Professional Writing, where he convenes the non-fiction stream.



Notes and Letters
Catherine Padmore TEXT Vol 6 No 1 April 2002


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Vol 5 No 2 October 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady