[Author's note: This was an oral presentation as part of a panel on Electronic Publishing at the AWP Conference in Atlanta, April 1996 (it would look different if I'd prepared it for a journal).]

[Editor's note: Looks fine to me. Considering the conversational nature of RhetNet, the markings of oral delivery seem appropriate enough.]

Against Speed:
The Case for Reading

W. Scott Olsen

13 May 1996

Let me begin with a problem, a contradiction.

It should be clear by now that few things have been better for the writer, and for writing, than the computer. It's been a little more than ten years since the early Kaypro machines, the now dinosaur IBM and Macintosh personal computers started to appear in stores, then on our desks, in our classrooms and in our lives. No longer do we resist a revision on page four because it means retyping everything to the end, which may be page two hundred and four. By providing a seemingly infinite potential space before ink hits paper, the computer has freed us from the insistent and premature feeling of permanence before the story or poem or essay is actually done. Simply put, the advent of the computer has made the writing process easier, which we can hope will lead to better writing.

Yet, here's the contradiction. While I believe the process has become a great deal easier, the development of computer technology now stands as the single greatest threat to good writing I can imagine. Simply put, I love my PC and fear the World Wide Web.

This is not an easy position to defend. The Web provides almost infinite publishing possibilities at virtually no cost. Every one of us can create a home page, put our words out on it, and invite the world to come and enjoy. So, to explain why I think the Web is, frankly, dangerous, I need to back up a bit.

If I understand the broad scope of literary history, when we were an oral culture, or planet, a Story was an act of community. While shamans, priests, whomever, acted as vehicles for re- telling the Story, the ownership of the Story was cultural, shared. Storytelling was an act of communal preservation. A way to preserve certain values, lessons, moralities. When we moved to a print culture, our ideas changed. Story, over time, became owned by individual and identifiable authors. And, as storytelling became more private, the community act was now an act of interpretation, of judgement, of aesthetics and theory.

In an oral setting, the moral nature of Story held center stage. In a print setting, with Story now pounded into clay tablet or 80 pound typing paper, the act of reading and interpretation holds center stage.

What scares me so much is that I believe we're at the brink of a change as large, and as radical, as the shift from oral to print transmission. Displacing both Story and Interpretation as the focus of our community discourse, is technology.

Now I should point out that I am in no way against technology. And I am excited every single day because of what the Internet offers me in terms of information, in terms of professional development, in terms of fellowship with other writers. The Internet and World Wide Web have the same beneficial effect on the exchange of information that the PC had on revision. It's easier, faster, broader in both scope and depth. But I am against what we call publishing on the net or web--more specifically, I am against the trend such publishing seems to be setting.

Let me explain why. In my local newspaper there was recently a story about a man named Chuck Duffie. Duffie wrote a short story called "The Mole and the Owl," which, after 17 rejections from print publishers, he put on a web site, complete with flashy graphics. In the first month on the web, more than 22,000 people took a look at this story. 10,000 of those visited on just one day, when the site was listed by InfiNet as a "Cool Site of the Day." The fact that the story is not very good is irrelevant here. Duffie describes his on line project as "thoughts, poetry and photographs woven into a collage, with no editing and very little rewriting. Just open the brain and pour." What is relevant is the fact that it's so easy.

And perhaps it's this easiness that bothers me most. My friend Eric Crump, a well-known figure in the Computers and Writing field, once said, "I feel lucky. I already publish where I would publish if I could. Since I can, I do...When I need to publish in a publication, I create it."

Likewise, my colleague Colin Morton writes, "Before going visiting at Christmas, I sent poems to three e-magazines. When I logged on again from a friend's house ten days later, I had two acceptances waiting. One of them had already been e-published."

In all things relating to computers, speed has been the ultimate virtue. But, as I've said before, too much of anything leads to overload. Hundreds if not thousands of new poems and stories and essays are posted to the net and web every day, for the most part bypassing the messy and painful step of editorial insight or confirmation. And, in the face of 22,000 people stopping by the read "The Mole and the Owl," it seems almost pointless to mention the poor quality of the work.

Still. I wouldn't really be worried if all the net and web offered was a great deal more writing in a public space. Every development in publishing technology since the clay tablet has lead to greater distribution and more publishing. Even if I worry that the ease of publishing on the net leads many authors to not do the work of revision, of turning good idea laboriously into art, all that really means is that I as reader will have to work a bit harder to find what I consider to be the good stuff.

What really worries me are those other voices in the net and web publishing discourse. What really worries me is a suspicion we may on the verge of something much more insidious.

In a fairly influential essay titled "Literature in the Electronic Writing Space," Jay David Bolter takes up the new technologies and the future of literature. Listen to some of his claims. "It is becoming clear that word processing and desktop publishing do not exploit the full power of the computer as a technology for writing...the computer allows us to define units of text of any size and to present those units in a variety of orders, depending on the needs and wishes of the reader...Above all, hypertext challenges our sense that each book is a complete, separate, and unique expression of its author...Hypertext encourages us to think of all texts as occupying the same writing space, and to regard any one author as simply adding new elements and links to that space. In a sense, all an author adds is new links among previous elements...any text becomes a temporary structure in a changing web of relations with other, past and future, textual structures...Wherever and however we use computers, we are turning the world into a digital text..."

Our community investment began with Story, moved to interpretation, and, it seems, if Bolter and his ilk would have their way, would move finally away from any moral concern in writing at all to the structural variety of intertexual links.

Perhaps it would also be instructive to mention here that many very good journals and presses have established web pages to increase their exposure, which I think is wonderful. And the chief criticism I've heard of those web sites is that they only mimic print publication--they do not make full use of the technology. As if full use of technological potential holds de facto merit.

Perhaps I am just resisting a new paradigm, and if so then so be it. But the tension is showing up in a great many places. A recent issue of Poets & Writers celebrated the work of Robert Atwan and the return of the literary essay, followed by an article called "Writing for the New Millennium: The Birth of Electronic Literature."

And a recent issue of a magazine for parents of small children contained an essay by Douglas Barasch titled "How Scary is too Scary?" wherein he writes: "Traditional fairy tales-- whose terrors mirror a child's own internal fears of loss and abandonment, of not being loved, even of his own intense, seemingly uncontrollable emotions--help a child grow attuned to these anxieties, according to [Bruno] Bettelheim, and to "make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings."

And then he writes, "Likewise, a child should be taught early on that it's perfectly acceptable to fast-forward past the scary parts of a video or to turn off the television. Exercising power over the media that confront them is an important skill for children to learn."

Friends, if literature becomes fully web-based, and if we teach our children that it's perfectly ok to fast forward past the scary parts, or to chose whatever links best suit their temporary interests, then Heart of Darkness disappears.

Yes, I am probably being nostalgic about this already. But I am in love with the slowness of reading. I look at my bookshelves, everything from Chaucer to the most recent issues of the Georgia and Gettysburg Reviews, and I cannot forget the countless hours spent somewhere else, having given myself over to the vision of other writers and trusting them to lead me. Unlike Bolter, I do believe a story or poem or essay is a complete, separate, and unique expression of its author. I turn to literature to learn things I do not already know, to learn the things that may pain me. I believe Tim O'Brien when he writes "You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you." I do not think I, or you, would often chose a hypertext web link that would embarrass us.

What worries me most is the apocalyptic example related in a recent Harpers may become normative. Brad De Long writes, "Last month, I went upstairs to put my five year old son to bed. He was talking--but not to himself. "If you want to read books," he said, "click on the bookcase. If you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over there." He was addressing some phantom user who was clicking on a mouse while viewing him and his room on a computer screen...If you need help, click on my picture on the dresser...I'll be there in a flash."

I do not want anyone, or anything, in a flash. I want the slowness of reading well, the power of literature to become subversive, teaching me things about myself and my world I did not expect. Storytelling is sacred, and no technology holds an intrinsic merit.



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