“I can’t read from a screen”, and other electronic writing complaints

Another great post from James Bridle at booktwo.org with an alternative take on one of the classic criticisms of electronic literature (“I hate reading from screens!”). James compares the authors of The Guardian’s Writers’ rooms series to ascertain how they compose their books, and identifies the ‘lovers’ of screens (15 authors), ‘haters’ (10) and ‘in-betweens’ (4).

I’m one of those (in-be-)tweeners who composes on paper then transfers to screen at a later point. I find staring at a blank sheet of paper much more inspiring than at a blank screen; the physical motion of the pen on paper is more pleasant than fingers on keys; and it is still much easier to sketch/doodle/write upside down or in circles on paper than in any word processor I’ve seen (admittedly, ‘straight’ text novelists may not have the flexible doodling requirement that I require for first drafts of multimedia writing). Finally typing/drawing everything up on to a computer at a later stage encourages me to assess and edit with a fresh head.

This particular booktwo post is investigating the author’s side of the electronic vs print discussion, so it doesn’t delve into the obvious issues of screen legibility. However there are many other excellent posts on booktwo that do, so I strongly recommend looking through the archives. My feeling is that screen reading is certainly still too tiring for most people’s eyes, but this won’t be the case in 10-15 years time when the rapidly developing new screen technologies are widespread. Portable reading technologies will also help change the need to sit at a (computer) desk and read, which is certainly less comfortable and convenient than reading a book on a sofa, on the train, or in the bath (to quote a favourite Margaret Atwood complaint about electronic books).

New portable technologies may bring their own restrictions, of course: reading a 100,000 word novel on a mobile phone screen will always seem ambitious at best (iPhones?), an utter pain the backside at worst (generally any phone from Motorola), unless phone tech changes fairly dramatically. But poetry and short stories could flourish within those restrictions on screen size. Similarly collaborative efforts like A Million Penguins or interactive and participatory fiction could really take off on mobile and net-connected reading devices.

Then there are the thousands of multimedia, generative and participatory works that will always require reading from a screen rather than a printed page; then there is the hugely interesting potential for crossover devices such as Manolis Kelaidis‘ blueBook (for more on this see the Nov 2006 booktwo post, or the June 2007 post by Tim O’Reilly after this years O’Reilly conference, where Manolis and the blueBook were the undisputed stars).

So, plenty to keep persuading those screen-haters that they really are missing out, and that this particular ‘fad’ (i.e. electronic literature) is here to stay (and no, screens will not REPLACE books, just supplement them). If you are an e-author just remember (for now) not to expect your readers to sit through dissertation-length texts… and stay clear of those ‘interesting’ aesthetic choices such as pink text on lime green pages.