The internet and oral traditions

A couple of years ago, I read J M Synge’s sublime work of anthropology/travel writing, The Aran Islands. It’s an incredibly special book for many reasons, one of those being the fact that it captures the final years of a culture on the brink of extinction, as modern forms of legal, industrial, political and economic organisation make inroads into the islanders’ traditional ways of life.

Yet, one of the most poignant and significant aspects of the work for me, was the emphasis it places on story-telling. Narratives were central to life on the Aran Islands, and storytellers occupied a fundamental position for Gaeltacht communities. Their purpose was not just to entertain, but to provide a sense of identity: to bring order to an existence which was, as Synge points out, often blighted by tragedy. As fishermen and sailors working the Atlantic, the Aran Islanders’ lives were dictated by the weather, by a harsh, unforgiving environment, and by extreme, unrelenting poverty.

What distinguishes the narratives of Aran storytellers from, say the written prose of their British and Dublin counterparts – novelists and writers of short stories – is the fact that originality is an alien concept. The same stories had existed amongst the islanders for centuries – gradually twisted and changed, weather beaten like the ‘wet rocks’ on which the Aran communities lived. Synge, for example, realises at one point that a story he is being told is a Gallicised version of The Merchant of Venice. The story teller is unaware of this. His only interest is to keep his audience’s attention gripped. And at the same time, the audience themselves become a part of that story, as they interact with the narrator, offering suggestions, encouraging or criticising.

Which brings me to my analogy with the internet. This form of orality apparently died out, we are led to believe, forced into extinction itself by the printed word and the concept of originality. And yet, the emergence of websites such as Wattpad, Authonomy, Scribophile or Figment would suggest that somehow it never really went away – that it’s actually come back and it poses a serious challenge to mainstream channels of publishing, or of concepts such as the writer working out her lone career in glorious isolation. Because now, when we write, we’re not alone.

Now readers are becoming as much a part of the writing process as the author herself, just as Synge’s islanders interacted with their storytellers by altering and remaking a narrative every time it was relayed. The appeal of writing on a website like Wattpad lies in the fact that it is a genuinely collaborative process. As readers offer their opinions and suggestions, the tale is twisted, changed, swings from its original axis and spins off onto alternative pathways that the author may never even have envisaged. And there is never any ‘definitive’ version. Once the story is out there, it becomes the subject of infinite revisions, emerges as an improvisation, surpasses the textual limitations of the traditional, printed work.

Obviously there are many out there who still decry self-publishing. It leads, some argue, to an inevitable race to the bottom, as amateur writers churn out derivative works, lacking in imagination, flawed by weak grammar and limited vocabulary. I would agree to the extent that however we choose to publish our writing, there is no excuse for poor editing or plagiarism. It is an insult to the reader’s intelligence. And yet, is it not the case that those current criticisms of the indie press bear comparison with the sidelining of oral traditions in the past?

The new push to self-publish presents opportunities for writers to engage and communicate with their audience: opportunities which break down the barrier between author and reader, challenge concepts of originality and reconceptualise writing as a genuinely collaborative process. That’s something I’ll always be in support of.