The Democracy Of The Written Word – A Ramble

One morning last spring, I found myself worrying about international politics and the future. To distract myself, I started imagining somewhat unrealistic and fanciful “alternate history” scenarios about how things could somehow turn out for the better. As I daydreamed, I noticed something interesting – most of my daydreams were more influenced by things like TV shows and computer games than any other type of cultural work.

This then made me think about how cultural influences have changed over the years. Half a century ago or more, a well-written novel by a single author could have a surprising impact on culture and politics. The most recent example of this is probably Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” from 1949, which is still referenced in political discussions. But, there are plenty of other historical examples, such as the “invasion literature” genre that was popular in Britain in the years before World War One.

Yet, I realised, the idea of novels having such an influence on people is very much a thing of the past.

Even during the 1960s and 70s, protest songs probably had more of a cultural impact than opinionated novels did. Although there are probably famous opinionated novels from this time period, they usually tend to get a lot less recognition than musicians do.

In more recent years, if someone wanted to make a political point to everyone, they had to do it through something like a TV show. For example, shows like the various versions of “Star Trek” helped to promote a more utopian vision of the future during the 1960s-1990s. They also probably had some level of influence on our current technology too (eg: tablet computers, automatic doors etc.. were probably at least partially inspired by “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).

Of course, culture changes and the shift from novels to protest songs to TV shows as a way of making a political point is an example of it. I mean, in the near future, computer and video games will probably be the main tool that creative people use to make some kind of political point. They’re becoming more mainstream, indie games are more popular than ever before and games are finally starting to be taken seriously as an artform by mainstream culture (at least when they don’t do stupid, greedy things like including loot boxes etc..). So, they’ll probably be the next evolutionary step of opinionated creative works.

But, with all of this progress, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something.

Basically, in order to produce a TV show or a computer game, you need a team of people and a budget. Although novels used to require a traditional publisher, all of the actual creativity just involved one author. One person with a typewriter or even just a pen and paper. This lends opinions expressed in fiction a certain individuality which is much harder to achieve when a group of people are involved.

Likewise, there’s something oddly democratic about the idea of one person writing a story that makes some kind of difference. Yes, in practice, the publishing industry was almost certainly fairly narrow-minded during the heyday of the opinionated novel, but the idea that anyone could write a novel that made a point is an interesting one. After all, the materials needed to make it were cheap and easily available, and almost everyone learnt how to read and write at school. So, theoretically at least, anyone could do it.

The same, of course, cannot be said for more complicated things like TV shows and computer games. Yes, you might argue, “people can make Youtube videos” or “there are ‘game maker’ programs out there which don’t require programming“, but they don’t really compare to the large-budget offerings from more well-financed teams of people.

As such, they lack the meritocracy of the written word. Basically, if a story is good then it is good. If it is well-written, then it is well-written. It doesn’t matter who an author is or how wealthy they are – if they write well, they write well. if they don’t, they don’t. There’s no such thing as “large-budget special effects” in a novel – words are words.

However, with a game or a TV show, the quality and appeal of it depends on a whole host of other factors. Money matters more, a larger team of people are required, technology plays a role etc.. in other words, they miss out on the “anyone can, theoretically, do this” element that prose fiction has. And, when it comes to expressing opinions in a creative way, I think that this makes the world a slightly poorer place as a result.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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