By Ashley Lister
The written language, as we all know, began from the oral tradition. Before ebooks, before print books, even before we started engraving lists in tablets of stone, people were telling stories from mouth to ear. This is not to suggest that any one of those methods is superior to another (although I wouldn’t want to carry the latest Stephen King novel in my back pocket if it had been carved in tablets of stone). This is just a prefatory reminder that the most important point in storytelling is not the medium: it’s the message. Or, to quote Hamlet: Words, words, words.
I was part of a poetry recital last month. Along with several other poets, I was reading some of my work at a local library. The audience was a modest crowd of poetry enthusiasts and my fellow poets were local writers of different levels of skill and ability.
As a writer, and to distract myself from the worry of performance anxiety, I took to watching people and trying to pre-guess the quality of their work through their personal presentation. This probably sounds like the worst sort of judgemental snobbery. It is. However, because it helped calm my nerves, I still feel as though the exercise was justified. And, I wasn’t judging people on their personal appearance. I was judging them on the appearance of their poetry.
Mary-Ellen was the first poet to take the microphone. Mary-Ellen reads from type-written versions of her poems that are protected by stiff laminate covers. Her poems use flowers as a metaphor for sex. Long slender stems plunge into open, moist vases. Petals unfold for the wanton/welcome penetration of Mr Bee. I only had to hear one of her poems to understand why her poems are always laminated. It must make them easier to wipe clean afterwards.
That said, I have always put forth the opinion that Mary-Ellen’s poetry is not bad. It’s certainly not good, but I will always tell people it’s not bad.
Then there was Bertram. His last name sounds very posh and has hyphens. I won’t repeat his surname here. He’s rich enough to be litigious and I don’t need the hassle. Bertram’s poems are not just written: they are presented on parchment-coloured pages and inscribed in the sort of calligraphy that would make a Trappist monk curse with jealousy. They look absolutely beautiful. The only problem with Bertram’s poems is that they sound fucking awful.
I’m being a bit unfair here. I shouldn’t be so harsh about other people’s poetry. Poetry is a lyrical medium and, to that end, what’s lyrical to one person might not strike the same resonance with another. However, whilst Bertram was reading from his elegant parchment-inscribed calligraphy, I watched half the audience rush to the emergency exits in order to meet ‘suddenly remembered’ obligations.
And, finally, there was Bob. Bob’s face has clearly never seen a razor blade. His cheeks are as hairy as a dog’s arse – and not nearly as kissable. He dresses as though his clothes came from the wastebin outside the back of a thrift shop. And his poetry was written on the back of a cigarette packet.
But Bob’s words had every remaining member of the audience held spellbound. He recited his poetry with a majesty and authority that proved captivating. His use of language was thoughtful, measured and eerily beautiful. Admittedly, I think it was a mistake for him to also read the government health warning at the back of the cigarette packet, but that’s just one critic’s opinion.
And I mention these three examples to show, whether they’ve been saved under laminate, inscribed in calligraphy, or written on the back of a cigarette packet: it’s only ever words. Spoken, carved in stone, printed on paper or published electronically: it’s only ever words. Nothing less and nothing more. Words, words, words.
Which pretty much sums up how I feel about the debate between print and ebook publication.
The first story I ever had published was in a print magazine. The publisher was slow at getting out contributor copies. I think this was because, like so many print publishers, sending out the contributor’s copy meant they would also have to send out payment. This meant I got to see my first short story on the shelf of a local newsagent. It was a truly exciting experience. It was an experience that was only bested when I received the printed and published copies of my first novel.
My first e-publication was a poem. It received a runners-up mention in an online poetry competition. (Ironically, now I think about it in this context, the prize I received was a copy of a printed book). I was truly overwhelmed that my poetry had merited such a prestigious response. The memory of that accomplishment is up there with the treasured experiences of my first magazine publication and my first novel.
And this is why I don’t like to differentiate between print and ebook publication. I’ve had good (and bad) experiences with both media and I’m loathe to say that one is superior to the other. It’s true that the standard of writing in some ebooks is far from spectacular. But, without being so crass as to mention specific authors and titles, the same accusation can be levelled at so many print books the argument quickly becomes redundant. I’ve read Dickens, Kafka and De Sade in ebook format and I’ve enjoyed them to the varying levels at which the classics merit being enjoyed. I’ve read some authors in print whose work is akin to the wilful and sacrilegious desecration of a tree.
Regardless of the format – carved in stone, printed on paper, or published electronically – to me, it will only ever be about words, words, words.