What if this is literature?

By Chloe Ruthven

Common sense tells us that there is writing—the sequence of letters that adds up to words—and then there’s all of the other stuff: illustrations, delineations, the style of a font. Literature is the writing part, and not the rest. You can pull them apart. You can credit the writer for the words, the typographer for the font and layout, and the illustrator for the drawings. Looking for literature, common sense (and the word’s root: Latin, littera, or “letter”) tells us we must look for letters, the writing part—words put into a meaningful sequence. But common sense masks the fact that when we see “writing” we see much more than a sequence of letters. From the narrow intervening spaces that first pushed the individual letters apart, to the wider spaces that eventually grew between words, to the scattered mess of punctuations, to emptiness in the borders between paragraphs, to other coded marks, writing is comprised of all manner of mark-making (and the absence of markings). Writing is shaped by the tools we use to make it. As the tools changed—from incision to brush strokes to pressed metal type to pixels—writing has changed.

And now Emojis! Is it any accident that as the work of writing gravitated from paper and ink to the bright, colourful realm of pixels on a screen, the work suddenly blossomed with an undergrowth of graphical cartoons that are half drawing and half writing? Or that our lines and paragraphs began to flow free of fixed margins, recomposing in novel shapes as the writing comes into view on this or that device or as the device is turned sideways in the hand? Today the writer does much more than choose a sequence of letters and then inscribe them in a line. The writer is a mark-maker still, but the markings she can choose, the materials of her composition, have evolved far beyond what, say, Gertrude Stein knew. The new tools we use for writing will birth a new literature.

With the proliferation of digital social media new virtuosos are emerging, extending the capacities of a dynamic medium deftly and to great effect. In social media, the future of literature is being composed by people like Arash Hampay who…

…or so the editor of this series said to the skeptical writer who took a trip across Europe to find out.

What if this is literature?

8 August, 2022