Publish and Perish

from The Oxford Magazine, Eighth Week, Hilary Term, 1996, p.11.


It was revealed to me a few years ago that I should die at 3pm on September 29th, 2017, falling out of an apple tree, as I stretched a branch too far to pick the highest and reddest apple, having published my last book the previous Thursday.

My confidence has waned since. It is partly that increasing decrepitude makes me doubt whether brother body will make it---I often have to use a ladder instead of picking properly, as my simian ancestors did, from inside. But more importantly, it is that I doubt if publishing will be a thing much done in those days.

Already there are changes. Camera-ready copy has the great advantage of protecting me from feminist copy-editors wanting to emasculate my prose and innovative compositors with idiosyncratic ideas on English spelling. Emotionally also, it is better in freeing me from the nausea of proof reading my stale regurgitated words, too late to correct the errors of logic and style, but still too recent to be entirely out of mind. Thus far it is a change for the better. After having been big with book for many weeks, the day of deliverance comes, the parcel goes off to the publisher, and peace re-asserts itself. But the electronic revolution will not stop with personal computers and laser-jet printers. Already the World Wide Web offers quite new ways of disseminating ideas, and soon academics will be going public in quite a novel form.

Our present concept of publishing stems from the high overhead cost of setting up type, and the relatively low marginal cost of producing copies of printed works. The initial hurdle is high, and much effort must go into getting everything right, since there are few opportunities of subsequently correcting mistakes or answering queries or criticisms. The printed text is objectified, and we are easily led to believe that we have fashioned our work in solid form, more lasting than bronze, which will survive untarnished from one generation to another.

But words are not things, and as we view them on the screen we see them as more fleeting and more flexible, but also more directed towards a recipient, than when we pen them on the page. When I make the Thoughts of Lucas available in Cyberspace, I shall be fully aware of how transient is magnetic ferric oxide, or some current flowing through silicon circuitry. Bertrand Russell recalls a nightmare of being in the university library when they were weeding out surplus stock, and seeing Principia Mathematica poised above the waste-paper basket, but I meditate on how much easier it will be to press [DELETE] and consign my thoughts to total non-existence. Only if they strike some chord with future readers will they survive: if I am on the right wavelength, they will resonate to my thoughts and harmonize them with their own, but otherwise I shall be only noise with no significant signal detected.

But it will be easier to alter, and that may be a good thing. Plato is said to have re-written the first book of the Republic thirty seven times, something that few publishers would tolerate now. But on the World Wide Web I can reshape my ideas as often as seems desirable, either to improve the presentation or to take account of criticisms. Instead of coming out once and only once in a big way, I can move into the public arena little by little, making small adjustments at each stage. The process will be much more fluid, more like the way the lectures of the Schoolmen gradually assumed definitive form, and perhaps finally assuming a better shape than if they had had to emerge initially in rock-like permanency.

More important still will be the pressure of the recipients on English prose style. Written English differs from spoken in English in having to rely on word order alone to convey sense, without any added guide from gesture, tone of voice, of facial expression; printed books differ additionally in not allowing for any response from the reader. It is essentially a monologue, where spoken English is naturally a dialogue. It is, in consequence, more prolix. Every objection has to be anticipated, every question answered, before the opus goes out to the world at large, because there is no way a reader can ask for further elucidation, or voice objections and have them answered. Electronic communication is more epistolary, and already I can feel the pressure of the medium on the style of exposition. I feel impelled to be briefer, more laconic, knowing that if what I say is not clear, come-back is easy, and often immediate; I am starting a dialogue, not giving the last word in monologous form. I am also less tempted to use acronyms, since it is easy to press the [F3] key and have them spelt out explicitly, and not be bothered by subsequent enquiries about what the letters stand for.

English is changing. I remember registering many years ago in C.S. Lewis' History of English Literature that the golden age was past, and thinking that the English of the twentieth century was grey by contrast, but later realising that that judgement was too harsh: twentieth-century English is not chromatic, but can, at its best, achieve the twin virtues of limpidity and rapidity. It does not obtrude itself, but allows immediate access to the underlying thought, and it does not waste words, but makes each not only say what needs to be said, but to suggest also to the reader much else left unsaid. I feel uneasy when Cicero speaks of using the purple paint: although I can make my VDU show purple words, I cannot write purple prose myself, because it just does not fit the spirit of the age, the only acceptable colours being those that occur unstudiedly in the iridescence of a fast flowing stream.

Electronic publishing will, I suspect, nudge English prose further in the direction of epistolary excellence. Thus far we have operated a ``push'' system, whereby the publisher pushes out books and periodicals to libraries and bookshops, leaving them available on shelves until someone wants to read them. But bulletin boards work on the ``pull'' system, with offerings waiting until a browser finds them sufficiently interesting to download them on his own machine. If it is not readable, it will not be read. Reader-friendliness will become a dominant pressure on us as we write, hoping to be read by other academics, equally busy, equally pressed for time. Already in my electronic mode, I feel impelled further along in the direction of clarity and speed, urged to have my words wing rapidly to some unknown resonator before being annihilated by an ultimate [DELETE].