Digital Publishing Is Literature's Punk

Category: Writing

I don’t really remember punk but I know punk retrospectively. At the time the best punk was happening, I was about 7, so I kind of moshed into the punk scene a bit later, when the remnants of it were still swirling about in by-pools of Indie and suchlike.

I love the idea of punk, that somehow it gave those unable to string together more than three chords (plus possibly a C sharp chord and an E7), the opportunity to be admired. Then added to this, all you needed was a bit of attitude, a political statement and box of your mum’s safety pins and you were more than half-way there.

There was this idea that punk ushered in an era of democratisation in music and this appeals to my naturally leftist sympathies. Joe Bystander could pick up a guitar, learn a few notes, weave a bit of street poetry over the top and become a working class hero, kicking against the big money labels and the gurus that made human beings into pop constructs in order to line their own pockets. Then after the last strum, Joe would go back to work in the local abattoir.

It strikes me there is a bit of this democratisation in the literary world these days, with the ever-changing monster that is digital publishing. If the post-recession publishing world has become as risk averse as they say, the stories of the great unpublished hammering up a few of their stories for Kindle and e-book markets and making sales is surely hopeful, in spite of the fear of losing books and libraries.

I suppose then, I am a believer in digital publishing, but I do go through moments of doubt.

Like all historic movements, punk appealed not only in what it was but also what it removed. It stirred things up, knocked things down. When all that was anodyne was toppled, we waited for the great leap forward. And what did we get? New Romanticism. Awful hairstyles, make-up where it shouldn’t have been and electro experiments that sounded like you had tinnitus before you actually did. Cheated? Mmm, like never before.

But other technological conduits of democracy have come with a sting in the tail. The internet, the global giver of free information for all, has facilitated some incredible advances (unless you live in parts of the Scottish highlands and the broadband speed is the equivalent to waiting for the St Kilda mail).

Digital publishing is what it is, though, in giving everyone a say, it has also become a mass portal for nonsense and misinformation. Much of it is fun nonsense but the whole notion of editorial went years ago.  And if you're a writer - don’t expect to get a decent research answer on the interweb- that would be like trying to find economic recovery in Portugal.

So, when the digital revolution has reached a plateau and the centrifuge stops whirring and we’ve all just about had as much democracy as we can take (and we do tire of it), then what? 

The common answer, at the moment, seems to be that we do not know. Possibly a few publishing people will lose their jobs, which is a shame. Possibly, some writers who would have never before had an earthly chance, might get noticed, which is nice. All I know is that, whatever happens, Tesco will win and I will be praying that there is no literary New Romantic equivalent out there, just waiting to lacquer their hair up and feed off what’s left.


Kenneth Stephen

Kenneth Stephen received a New Writers Award in 2010.