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End of the Written Word?

November 18, 2012

End of the short story, end of the poem, end of the literary magazine, end of the novel… Inconceivable! And also a bit frightening–like a Stephen King Novel, when they existed. Last night I imagined a time when news came through the paper as the prominent source, when a new short story was the talk of the town, when a house had no, or a sparsely used television set, when there was no real technology like the Internet and iPhones, X-boxes, or video games… what was that like? Did kids read more, explore nature more, did families pay more attention to one another if only because they were forced to? Or a time before that when verbal story telling and play acting was the prominent source of entertainment–I can imagine a few knights outside the castle, in the woods, swords recumbent at their sides telling animated stories of battle, women powdering their noses and speaking emphatically or morosely of love. Hey, I’m not knocking technology! Without it, I’d never be on this blog today, never had my story accepted by NecrologyShorts.com. I’m just speculating… the idea of the death of the short story, poem, literary magazine and novel frightens me; for these are my passions, my joys in life, and my aspirations. In The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, in an interview by Kelly Nickell, Kurt Vonnegut says, and I quote, “This country used to be crazy about short stories. New stories would appear every week in the Saturday Evening Post or The New Yorker.” He goes on to explain that short stories can no longer cause a sensation as they did in the aforementioned periods of time. People can still read short stories and be wowed, but it’s a private experience now, whereas before every middle class literate person would be talking about it. “Hey, did you read that new story in…” I entered a poetry contest the beginning of this year with Riverstyx Magazine (none of my poems were selected by September) and was given a subscription for the reading fee. I’ve received issue #87 and #88 and have enjoyed having this subscription. #88 was a themed issue:  “END OF THE WORLD.” In the introduction to said issue, Editor Richard Newman, towards the end of the article writes about the demise of many literary mags in recent years, others switching to online only formats, some major publishers declaring bankruptcy, and several distributors going belly-up, including one major bookstore chain. (I remember hearing on the news about some Borders book stores being shut down in malls, etc.) Could it be the end of the written word? Richard Newman does not believe so, even though: “Certainly poets and writers and people who actually buy books huddle in the small minority… Good literature will survive the trends… if only a handful of people keep it alive and do not surrender to the rapture of destruction.” I agree and hurrah! And as Kurt Vonnegut states at the very end of his interview, he’s  “sitting around right now trying to think of what would be a neat idea.”

My take: Even with all the video games and iPhones, 2012 and 2013 and the years to come will not see the death of the written word. Storytelling has been around since the inception of time. Then came the written word. Once upon a time few people were literate enough to read and write, but thank God for language Arts teachers. I, for one, will write until I run out of words and ideas or die. And look at the longevity of literature, all the way from the Bible. The forefathers of us writers, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, London, and so many others, did not implement and evolve and experiment for nothing. No, there are many reasons writers write: for themselves, for their readers, for the future, for the past, and for probably a million more esoteric reasons. [Okay, sidebar: It does irritate me that the library near my Mom’s home no long carries Nancy Drew novels for they are too old; I’d like my younger sister to read and enjoy these stories. Yes, it’s true that at some point the old must make way for the new, but can the vintage and contemporary not find harmony on the shelves? Without reading Edgar Allen Poe or Hawthorne where would our examples of the macabre or of romantic triumph derive? Mark Twain, Sarah Orne Jewette–the regional. London, Crane–the growth of realism… I remember going to the library, sitting all the way in the back corner and picking up The Canterbury Tales... end of sidebar]

And as long as there are boys and girls who are inspired by 5th period English, and those who have funny ideas that are harder to explain than write, and those who go through hell and must express it on paper because verbally it is ineffable and not powerful enough, and those who can’t write better than anything else they do, and those who want to alway write and get better at it, the written word will never die. The first book in the Bible, Genesis, was written between 1450 and 1410 B.C. The cave men scratched symbols on the walls, the Mayans drew pictures. Stories will always be told and the written word will endure.

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6 Comments
  1. leslie bryant permalink

    hey sean–i’m your mom’s cousin. my name is leslie–my dad lloyd is margie’s brother. i love reading your blog…you are an amazing writer, i’m inspired by your thoughts, struggles, and perceptions. i teach reading and writing to 6/7 year olds in austin, texas and this post was quite relevant to my life and work…trying to inspire and guide kids to read and write and grow from it. do you have a decent library at the prison that you are in?

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    • Due to mail being backed up I did not receive your comment on my bLog dated 11/18/12 until today, 12/19/12. That’s cool that you teach kids to read and write, 6 and 7 year olds, because it must begin somewhere and the earlier the better. To answer your question, sometimes the library is decent and sometimes there is not a library at all. However, my Grandma often keeps me stocked with good books. I’ve really enjoyed the Sylvia Plath and Pat Conroy books she has sent. I can keep only 10 books in my cell, so after I read them, I give them to the library. Good luck and thank you for your work. I hope a “few” hearts take fervent hold of the lessons of reading, writing, and grow from it. May many little poets and journalists and readers be born and discovered.

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  2. Ellen permalink

    Nice thoughts, and well put. Thank you for not being defeatist. A couple comments: the Internet, e-mail and those silly iPhones have done more “damage” to the U.S. postal service than to the printed/written word. And, you didn’t say anything about e-books. Sometimes I wish they’d never been invented, but some of their biggest fans like being able to increase the type size.

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    • Yes, I forgot to mention e-books. And I’m pissed about the damage done to the postal service. Even in free world, I wrote letters. A pen is like an appendage to my hand. Ask anyone who ever knew me. Always had pen and paper in my pocket. And I never gave it much thought. It was just a natural thing I did–toting my pen with me like a gun. I think printed books will endure as well. The publishing, literature world, etc. is very ancients, but you know this! Glad you enjoyed my thoughts on this subject.

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  3. Wendy Holland permalink

    Sean,
    Great story! Technology is not always what its cracked up to be 🙂 I love to read and call me ” old fashion” but even with the e-reader, I still find myself buying books and placing on my shelf once read. My taste for literature varies and I admire any writer that can capture a reader with a good story line and draw them in. Its a rare and special gift. You have this gift. Im so proud of you for heeding your call and perfecting it. If you would like any
    particular books, please let me know. I shop random small town book stores, in search of special treasured books. I will look for you and can send to you or your mom to forward you. You are such an inspiration and a blessing, sweet boy. I think of you often and pray that peace surrounds you. Remember, peace comes from within 🙂 Again, let me know if you are looking for certain books and I’ll do my best to find them for you. ~Merry Christmas Sean~

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    • Thank you for your too-kind words! I feel like people are plotting to try and make me feel better–my demons tell me it’s just not so. I’m not sure how to take all these nice things people are saying about my writing. It’s sort of Kurt Cobain-ish. He didn’t know how to handle the love strangers gave him because he was so talented! {Not saying I’m as great as Cobain.} But he was just expressing himself, debauching his “ugly pain prettily” and doing what he knew how to do. And people loved what he “just did.” It is sort of an odd feeling truly. Thanks. You know what? If you ever come across “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway or “Catcher in the Rye” by Salinger, I’d love those books. They have to come from a distributor like Amazon, who has good used ones cheap. I don’t know to thank you, other than just saying it: Thanks! Right now I’m reading House Rules, written by Jodi Picoult. First time I’ve read her, but seems gripping.

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