Thursday, August 6, 2009

Words, words, words

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.


  1. Hello, Ashley,

    Thanks for putting this discussion into a new perspective. You're quite right, the presentation, the medium, may well be secondary. But I'm not sure that I am completely convinced.

    I read differently when I read a printed book. I flip back and forth. I may wander off into a side chain of thought, leaving my finger stuck in the pages to hold my place. E-reading seems to require more concerted attention. It's easier to get lost.

    When I was writing a lot of poetry, I used to copy it by hand into my notebooks. I would never type it. Even when I got a computer, it seemed to cry out for hand printing. Lately I've been posting some of my early poems on my website, and they look strange in "print". Not exactly the same poems at all.

    You're right, the words are the main point of our writing. But the presentation, I think, influences the words' effect.


  2. I do agree with Lisabet that the presentation influences the work. But I think both forms of the media are wonderful and hope the world embraces ebooks more fully in the future.

    I'm really interested in Bob's poetry now, and keep picturing a face as hairy as a dog's arse... hee hee hee

    Great post, Ash.

  3. Lisabet,

    I agree that the medium does play a part in our interpretation but, to my mind, it's only a small part.

    For example, when we think about Shakespeare, specifically his plays, we have copies of his original works from (amongst other sources) the annotated scripts and prompt notes. These look like indecipherable scribble nowadays but they convey an enormous sense of history. It's easier to read a printed (paper) volume of a Shakespeare play, complete with footnotes and explanations. It's cheaper to read an eBook download. And it's probably most satisfying to visit the RSC and watch professional actors performing the words.

    To that end, each version serves a different purpose and provokes a different reaction through the medium in which it's presented.

    But I'd argue that it's still the same words.

    As you pointed out in your blog at the start of this week, in the future there will be other media through which these words are conveyed (from Comdev screens through to Haptic Gloves and VR Screens). When these devices come into use, they'll be transmitting the same words to readers.

    Glad to see we can disagree ;-)

    Thanks for reading and responding.


  4. Jenna,

    The next time I see Bob I shall try and get a photo of him and maybe steal his cigarette packet for you.

    Thanks for reading and responding.


  5. <><><>applause<><><>

    which can be translated into several languages and transcends well to audio.

    very well put. placed. prolifigated.

  6. Hmm, an interesting look at this. Yes, words, words words. Having different ways to present them gives readers choices, I suppose. Something to think about. A reader might feel more comfortable buying a bit of smut from online rather than from the local shop. Not saying this has any bearing on Shakespeare or De Sade, but it does merit thinking about, in my opinion.

    So, do we get a sampling of YOUR poetry? I wonder what those others made of you before your reading. Oh, did you wear the cap and gown? That would have made them all sit up and take notice.

    Great post, Ash.


  7. Lyn,

    I'd forgotten about translations! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Thanks for reading and responding.


  8. Jude,

    All of my poems are typewritten and saved on pages in the back of my filofax. When I stand up to read it looks like I'm delivering a sermon. (If I was m dressed in the cap, hood and gown, I would look like Harry Potter reading a spell from a book).

    And you want to see another sample of my poetry? This is from the opening to Betty & I...

    We went to one of those swingers’ parties,
    Me and my blow-up doll: Betty.
    She wanted to add a new kink to our lives.
    I just went there to get sweaty.

    Our relationship was at a low point.
    And it had been that way for a bit.
    But I still tried to treat her with flowers or clothes.
    Or a bicycle puncture repair kit.



  9. Oh my GAWD!

    Harry Potter meets Larry Flynt. LOL

  10. Ashley

    I'm not sure I agree with the idea of the medium not being important. I think paper books still have major advantages over digital fro readers. I'm endlessly frustrated by the fascistic lock Adobe DRM has on my digital books so that some books I bought fair and square I'm not able to read because they can;t be unlocked. But just like the cheap wood pulp paper of the old pulp magazines it requires minimal expense for a publisher which enables him/her to give new writers a shot. Theproblem is always the same, getting an audience.

    I've tried writing poetry off an on. "The Color of the Moon" actually has a lot of poetry written by me for use in the story. I think a writer should stidy poetry even if its not his thing, just to acquire a feel for words words words. I agree with you all the way on that point.


  11. Hi Garce,

    I agree that poetry is important for all writers. I think it gives us a feel for how words link together and how we can express thoughts in different and more poignant ways.

    And there are some narratives that wouldn't transfer properly from one medium to another. I remember one book (remember is too strong a word there - I can't recall its title) where the narrator begins by encouraging the reader to sit down with the book, take a glass of wine, and turn the pages slowly. Whatever effect the author was trying to achieve with that particular story would fall flat if the book was presented in any format other than printed paper.

    Thanks for reading and responding.



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