Already in 1936 Walter Benjamin could write that even the existence of Letters to the Editor had changed the whole game. 1 There are even many days when we write more than we speak. And by “we” here I don’t mean professional writers or editors, I mean anyone employed in a white-collar job with a handful of friends and family, who communicates with colleagues and acquaintances using email, SMS and messaging applications. 2
Scolds can exercise themselves with the ensuing “corruption of language” 3 and more enlightened scholars can mine the conveniently self-documenting phenomenon for doctoral theses, but the more interesting question is where does this leave the professional writer. 4 If “everyone” has access to the means of production of texts, not to mention their publication and promotion, and “everyone” has an authorial relationship with language, what do we go to the professional writer for?
Not all professions are viable indefinitely, hundreds fall by the wayside as soon as a technological innovation makes it possible for anyone to do it themselves. How many people still go to a photographer to have their portrait taken?
In the case of journalism and factual writing, the lines between the professional and the amateur have become extremely blurred. Since we have access to countless sources of our text we don’t need the professionalism of the columnist who can deliver a thousand words of at least serviceable quality once a week. 5
But when it comes to the language itself, how will the mandarin mode of language assert itself? There is a way in which Modernism raised the bar of entry as a reaction to mass literacy; will a similar priesthood re-emerge. Ethnographic 6 writing is now possible on an unprecedented scale—will new Odysseys, imaginative Wikipedias, be the dominant literature of the 21st Century. Or will the hardest form—poetry—become the only form of literature that carries any prestige?
- 1If, for the moment, we can elide the question of whether we can write without reading.
- 2Messaging services are a true revolution in language in that they create a third form that is neither speech, nor strictly speaking, text.
- 3This has become one of the branches of online activism. People proudly call themselves “grammar nazis” in their Twitter profiles as though Leni Riefenstahl had a camera trained on them.
- 4I’ve never liked the intransitive use of the word author. (I am not above scolding.)
- 5This, after all, is the definition of professionalism; reliability rather than brilliance. Astonishing novels can come from the Sunday writer—The Leopard, for instance—but even a mediocre work has its place in a novelist’s ouevre.
- 6In Eliot’s sense.