Literature in the Digital Space: Beyond the Amateur-Professional Binary

While often presented as a threat to reading and literature, digital technology has opened the literary space by adding entirely new dimensions to it. “Amateur” authors have more opportunity than ever to express themselves and share their work. Meanwhile, professional authorship and the printed book, for long the only truly recognised form of literature, are often said to be on the decline. Increasingly, published authors also often turn to the web to complement and promote, if not replace their printed production, using the same platforms and spaces as amateurs. So, what does it actually mean to be an “amateur” or a “professional” writer today?

The boom in non-professional activity on the web, from microblogging through writing platforms such as Wattpad, to video and photo sharing platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, has been decried for the risk it represents for culture as we know it (Keen: The Cult of the Amateur) and praised for its utopic potential (Shirky: Here Comes Everybody). Both camps make strong and convincing arguments, and the potential for development in either direction does indeed seem present. The real question that such a rise of convergence culture (Jenkins) raises at this point in time is, however, not which vision might come true, but rather what is required for the positive potential to prevail. How we can think beyond the binaries, including the opposition between amateur and professional that loses its relevance when the source of legitimation shifts from traditional gatekeepers to communities.

In early summer 2017, eight literary practitioners came together in an event organised by Erika Fülöp with the support of Lancaster University at Free Word London to explore these emergent trends. All participants actively produce texts for publication, even if they are not yet necessarily published, and all engage in some way or other with the digital medium in relation to their writing. The participants were:

Claire Dean, writer, editor, performer, PhD student in design and computing

Molly Flatt, author and Associate Editor of FutureBook

Adam Lowe, writer, publisher, creative producer

– Chris Meade, digital author-experimenter and founder of if:book

Lou Sarabadzic, published author and blogger

Guillaume Vissac, author, blogger, and Editor at publie.net

And two other persons who wish not to be identified, one with a background in publishing and literary festival organisation and the other the author of an as yet unpublished novel.

Rather than just leading a regular academic discussion, the methods applied invited brainstorming and mind-mapping in groups. The questions moved from a focus on individual practices and self-definitions towards the role of digital tools and the way they determine everyone’s work, to conclude with imaginary dialogues with the inhabitant of a utopian city where people’s needs are provided for through universal income and cultural products are all free.

The warm-up whole-group brainstorming aimed to map the current perceptions of what it means to be an amateur or a professional author. The major associations with “amateur” were ambition, hobby, pleasure, writing groups, self-indulgence, self-improvement, therapy, interest, passion, a certain attitude, and being unproven. Professionalism was also associated with ambition and a certain (different) attitude, but also pressure, both selfishness and teamwork, exclusivity (in terms of access to status), compromises, quality, authority, pay, gatekeepers, visibility, being published and distributed professionally, reviews, and a sizeable audience. While ambition appeared on both lists, an overall agreement emerged that as far as the author’s person is concerned, what makes the major difference between the two qualifiers is attitude: the professional’s approach to their authorial activity involves taking into account the socio-economic context, accepting criticism and collaboration for the best result – but after a certain degree of recognition the author may attain more freedom and individualism.

Moving from statuses to practices, the participants were invited to list individually the activities they do and associate with their work as an author. The items listed on post-it notes were then grouped together thematically. Writing and reading unsurprisingly prevailed across the board, but both involve multiple variations from drafting to editing on the one hand and from leisure reading to research on the other, and they are complemented by other activities. These range from public readings and performances and running workshops to updating or even developing one’s website, interacting with social media, exchange with others (including authors, audiences, supervisors, other professionals), administration, and planning. More detailed analysis of the complex practice affinity map produced will require further study, but immediately apparent is the difficulty of drawing a distinction between amateur and professional in terms of their core practices. The time devoted to each may differ, but typically not the weight attributed to them.

Practice map

The following discussion in groups of four then focused on what else might matter beyond the practices when it comes to distinguishing between amateurs and professionals. This was the moment to think through what the participants thought marked or would mark for them the transition towards professionalism, and what conditions can make the distinction meaningful. This produced what were probably the most striking reflections and realisations of the entire discussion. Most importantly, the contributions tended towards an emphasis on commitment and achievement in their core criteria, diverging from the more standard definitions of professionalism, which focus on the fact of an income generated by the activity and/or the number of books sold and/or the proportion of working time spent on writing. “Profession” is listed in the OED, for example, as “a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification”, and the adjective “professional” as “engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur”. The Alliance of Independent Authors considers professional those authors who have “sold more than 50000+ books or equivalent” (https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org), and the report titled The Business of Being an Author (2015) defines “Professional authors” as “those who spend more than 50% of their working life engaged in self-employed writing”. The participants, on the other hand, placed the emphasis on the existence of a (long-term) commitment and/or on the completion of a substantial project. This takes us back to the point that started taking shape in the initial brainstorming, namely that the most relevant point for a distinction is not so much the socio-economic considerations, but the individual’s attitude towards their activity.

This is also the point that holds perhaps the most potential and interest for further exploration both in empirical and theoretical terms. If publication, in the broad sense of making available publicly to a broad audience, is no longer possible only through the gatekeepers, and the traditional modes of professional recognition (publication, prizes, mainstream media coverage, institutionalization etc.) become relativized because readers can directly receive texts from, and interact with, the authors without any institutionalised intermediary, then the traditional forms of authorial status also need to be rethought in light of the new mechanisms. On the one hand, readers can now take over as “validators”, manifest in the fact that publishers source authors based on readership achieved before publication through a traditional third-party publisher. On the other hand, with the (relative?) democratisation of making-public and the diversity of the available modes and forms of digitally publishable literary creativity, the economic considerations that used to define professionalism now leave more room for other aspects of authorship to count, namely, according to the observations of this group, the author’s attitude towards their undertaking and the nature of the latter. Further discussions, surveys, and focus groups might confirm the hypothesis according to which attitude and commitment would now be perceived by authors as a key factor in professionalism in the field.

The final part of the event invited participants to explore further a case in which financial considerations are taken out of the equation. This thought experiment consisted in imagining a dialogue with an author living in a city where everyone receives a basic universal income to cover their basic needs, therefore people need not take on a profession they are not interested in, but they also cannot charge for their work. Pairs of participants swapped roles in the dialogue to explore what such a world would mean for them. Some thought that gatekeepers of some kind would continue to exist, and even though they are no longer governed by economic considerations, power relationships would persist through the management of recognition. At the same time, there would be more room for diversity and micro-communities. Others wondered whether more or fewer people would write, with the myth of “The Author” fading as copyright disappears. While time and financial constraints would no longer apply, some noted, that lack of pressure might not actually be conducive to writing and sustained projects that require determination.

While this utopia might not be at immediate reach, the discussions throughout the event seem to have confirmed that the more traditional concept of professionalism is undergoing significant changes, which are in great part attributable to the transformations induced by the digital media, and which might either undermine its binary distinction from the amateur or substantially redefine both concepts.

Erika Fülöp

 

 

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