TEXT review

What in the www is happening to writing?

review by Ross Watkins


The Future of Writing
The Future of Writing
John Potts (ed)
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK 2014
ISBN 9781137440419 EPUB
ISBN 9781137440402 EPDF
ISBN 9781137440396 Hb
EPUB 162pp AUD65.00


References to futurism typically present technology as a source of threat and/or reform, and in The Future of Writing, editor John Potts has assembled a wide range of contributors and perspectives to discuss such threat and/or reform to writing as we know it. The Future of Writing considers the impact of online technologies on the structures and models of knowledge production (and the business of it) – where ‘disruption’ is a ‘favoured descriptive word’ (3) – as well as the impact that written content may exert on our future writing and reading practices.

The book is divided into three parts, each addressing the current determined impacts and posited possibilities of the digitisation of writing and reading. ‘Writing and Publishing’ provides commentary on the curation of online information, and the shifting role of the writer across the evolution of desktop publishing – effectively, a canvassing of issues relating to the storage and sharing of writing as data and influenced by data and its processing. Richard Nash discusses the function of database algorithms in influencing our reading and writing in the online environment. Kate Eltham proposes the removal of the print and electronic containers presently binding our books – in a post-digital age where storytelling becomes a networked process (both physical and online). Eltham argues that the traditional structures that underpin publishing will ‘melt and shift in a networked world’ (31):

In the unbounded networked reality of books, the most valuable service a publisher can provide is not to make whole books available to the world, but to create new and interesting relationships between things on the network: between words and other words, between books and other books, and between readers. (31)

Sherman Young reviews the shifting access to and appreciation for self-publishing, from the development of print-on-demand to Amazon and the fully-digitised experience of narrative; part of this change is the realisation of electronic self-publishing as the ‘new slush-pile’ of traditional publishers, where the market selects the next mainstream crossover title. Young’s appraisal celebrates the usurpation of publishing power and authority, and the paper ends with the contention that, if ‘credibility is all that publishers can contribute, could traditional publishing companies now be considered the new vanity press?’ (43).

John Potts’s ‘Book Doomsday: The March of Progress and the Fate of the Book’ provides a powerful foil to Young’s complicity in the doctrine for disruptive technology – which Potts equates with modernity’s ‘doctrine of progress’ (49):

Progress is now measured in terms of faster, smaller, and more flexible. The post-industrial world of information is depicted as clean and free of industrialism’s sins: e books save trees… Each new generation computer or smartphone renders its predecessor out of date; at the same time, each new model is a step towards the utopian future: wireless, energy efficient, sustainable, and increasingly immaterial. (51)

Potts points out that the ‘trouble with the logic of progress is that it’s not really logical’ (51), and goes on to track the resistance of object media to their predicted obliteration, citing the multi-sensory objecthood of books as the key factor which will ensure that ‘[t]he book is not going to disappear because of a few digital doomsday predictions. Its future is not yet all used up’ (55).

In ‘Part II Creative Writing’, Nigel Krauth opens with an exploration of the ‘multigraph’ (cf. monograph) within the hypermedia context. Krauth points out that, ‘[i]t cannot be said that the new technologies have snuck up on creative writing and ambushed it’ (60), and he traces multimodal precursors from Herbert and Sterne through to the contemporary avant-garde generating narrative works on/for hypermedia platforms. The chapter presents an expansive range of remarkable and rousing works to elicit four main views of new technologies and creative writing, including print-based multimodality, digital/app crossovers, and app/web natives – ‘works of fiction or poetry [which] include nonfiction, history, and the exegetical; they are richly illustrated with photography, graphics, and digital cleverness; they incorporate performances by the authors and music soundtracks’ (63). Krauth’s fourth view is founded on Gunther Kress’ theory of ‘reading paths’ and the increased reliance on imagination to negotiate meaning within multimodal works. For Krauth, these prospects clearly mean a ‘richer experience for readers and greater possibilities for writers’ (72).

Chris Rodley and Andrew Burrell’s ‘On the Art of Writing with Data’ returns focus to the relationship between writing and ‘Big Data’, forming a neat link back to Nash’s chapter on algorithms and the truly ‘networked’ literary artefact – ‘data-driven literature’ (Rodley and Burrell, 80). A telling example to those new to such works is Howe and Karpinska’s No Time Machine, which ‘crawls the web for variations of the phrase “I don’t have time for” and combines them algorithmically with other found text to construct a “poetic conversation” about time’ (81). Rodley and Burrell’s stated agenda is to ‘engage in a dialogue that helps define this emerging practice’ (86). Next, and finally for this section, is a chapter by Kathryn Millard and Alex Munt, who make twenty-nine observations of hybrid or multimodal forms, their approach founded in the fact that ‘[t]he word text derives from the Latin word textus, to weave’ (91). The form and structure of the chapter itself, while not a multimedia composition, perhaps goes some way in exemplifying the layering of informational spaces that new writing can forge.

The third part of The Future of Writing is ‘Journalism: Estate 4.0’. As the four chapters here address the shifting nature of journalism and new technologies – a comparatively far more volatile paradigm shift – they are of less immediate concern for creative writing practitioners and researchers, and thereby a lesser concern for this review. Still, the transformation of storytelling is of value to creative writers, and it is this base principle which would find some appeal and benefit to readers of TEXT.

Overall, Potts has drawn together a fairly diverse representation of views on the future of writing amid the technologically-driven challenges and prospects on our foreseeable horizon. And although these debates may date as quickly as technology itself, the collection forms an important waypoint for authors and researchers interested in not only predictive manoeuvres, but also gaining further understanding of present transformations in the way we orient ourselves to the market and its making. For creative writing, it appears ‘the multimodal is here to stay; its virus has spread from the screen back onto the printed page, in spite of the fact that the idea of co-existence and cross fertilisation between paper and digital is still not on the old guard’s agenda’ (Krauth 68).



Ross Watkins is an author, illustrator, editor and academic. He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste