The Future of Writing


With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) giving literary enthusiasts the perfect excuse to lock themselves away and embrace their inner novelist, here’s a thought for the art of writing in the 21st century. This once simple and straightforward art form is now awash with a cluttering of paraphernalia that feigns to spur on the writer to greater realms of productivity. Only last month did David Nicholls, creator of the beloved One Day which was turned into a film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, admit that he experimented with an application called Write or Die while crafting his latest novel Us. This tool apparently ‘aims to eliminate writer’s block’ by forcing authors to write a certain number of works within a specified time period or risk losing their previous work—a seemingly torturous atmosphere in which to create art. This is just one example of a plethora of apps and software that claim to summon a writer’s creative spirit one way or another. ZenWriter exemplifies a more kindly approach, taking over the entirety of your computer screen to bolster your focus while also providing soothing background music and the supposedly authentic, metallic tapping sounds of a vintage typewriter for a classic feel. Unfortunately the atmosphere created is a bit more Medal of Honour than Buddhist writing sanctuary.


Perhaps the zenith of writing-inspiring gadgets comes in the form of the Hemingwrite. Described as ‘the Kindle of writing composition’, this ‘distraction-free tool’ is designed in the vein of a classic typewriter but kitted out with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and so enabling users to back-up their masterpieces-in-the-making to the online Cloud. The device aims to revolutionise the way authors approach writing, steering them away from laptops—where the internet can tempt you away with infinite Buzzfeed quizzes and Youtube videos—and instead allowing users to dedicate their optimised powers of concentration to their work of art.


As far as I can see, the Hemingwrite will be a hit. I can imagine gangs of bearded hipsters in beenies hats slumped over their Hemingwrites in bohemian cafés and bars in London, New York and beyond, penning—although not quite literally—their post-post-modernist novels. That’s in between checking Twitter and Tumblr on their iPhone 7s for the latest on One Direction and Kim Kardashian’s backside. But perhaps that is just the cynic in me. The self-publishing market appears to be going from strength to strength and this device could well and truly provide the gunpowder for an explosion in self-publishing. Why not?


Yet it does seem rather too ironic that this device is named after an author who wrote in pencil and is known for his defining understated style. What Hemingway would have made of this device we’ll never know, but is this not a rather elaborate solution to a simple problem? Zadie Smith, in her rules for writers, advises simply working ‘on a computer that is disconnected from the internet’. Is that not enough? As well as being dubious about what need there is for such a device, I feel there might be more serious implications unforeseen by its creators. One of the key features of the Hemingwrite is that your work will be supposedly securely stored on the Cloud. Yet it was only recently that naked photos of powerful celebrities were leaked to the world via malicious hackers; is there not a possibility that this could happen with hotly anticipated novels? If so, could the Hemingwrite be bringing the publishing industry ever closer to the situation of the music industry, which continues to struggle with the issue of entire albums being leaked onto the Internet sometimes weeks before their official release date? It is a worrying thought, and it is something bibliophiles should watch with a keen eye in the months leading up to the Hemingwrite’s launch.


“What good were the words?”: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

With The Book Thief Zusak has achieved a rather charming novel which recounts the bittersweet struggle for humanity in provincial Nazi Germany.


It’s safe to say that Liesel Meminger, the novel’s dainty protagonist, isn’t granted the easiest of lives by its narrator. It’s 1939 and Liesel (LEE-zul) is just nine years old. Yet despite her tender age she has already witnessed the death of her six year old brother, has been torn away from her mother and re-established chez the Hubermann’s on Himmel Street, Molching, a small (fictitious) German town just beyond the outskirts of Munich. All she has to remind her of her previous life is a book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, surreptitiously amassed at her brother’s funeral. Despite her inability to read, this is the object to which she clings for safety and comfort as she settles into life on Himmel Street, and it is this book, the first of the book thief’s booty, which leads her on the path to her new life.


For me, the main strength of this novel is the panoply of characters who make Himmel Street it’s dynamic, intriguing and entertaining self. In the Hubermann household there is Papa, arguably the novel’s hero, an accordion-playing, story-telling, mischievous paternal charmer who teaches young Liesel to read during secretive 3am visits to her bedroom and thus revealing to her the power and beauty of literature and language, all the while bearing the brunt of his wife’s foul mouth. The cantankerous Mrs Hubermann is a woman with a big mouth but a bigger heart and despite the incessant train of Saumensch, Arschloch, and Saukerls which steam 100 miles per hour from her choppers, she never fails in her unwavering support and love for her family (often provided in the form of watery soups). Leisel’s acquires a lemon-haired local friend, Rudy, who adds the zest of youth with his passionate love of life which on many occasions leads to bouts of charming humour (in one such incident, he paints himself in mud and races down the local track in imitation of hero Jesse Owens, a stunt not appreciated by Aryan-idealising Nazi-supporting locals). These characters, plus a host of others including Max Vandenburg, Isla Hermann and Alex Steiner, give the street its great variety. But collectively what ties this eccentric gang together is essentially their innate humanity. Through his microscopic inspection of Molching, Zusak drills home the emotional complexities of human relationships and demonstrates that, despite being fooled by a man with a moustache, these people were human and such people must have existed among the dreadful monster that emerged from Germany between 1939 and 1945.

“Sometimes people are beautiful.
Not in looks.
Not in what they say.
Just in what they are.

Yet this is not the only uniting element. Every character contained in the novel is part of the thread that makes up the rope of the narrative, a narrative spun and dictated by its narrator. It seems fitting, then, that personified Death tells this tale and dictates the movement of the narrative’s rope. Yet Zusak’s personification of Death is by no means a traditional one and is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. This is no rapacious, black-hooded reaper trawling around seducing everybody with his scythe, and Death himself mocks this naïve conception of his persona by mankind. As the characters dwindle along their paths towards him, there is almost a melancholy in the tone of Death’s character, a melancholy that he too is forced to accept the inevitability of his own existence. An interesting alternative, which enriches the tragic sadness of the story. Even he is mesmerized by the power of humanity, tenderly collecting the victims of a man-made mess, and is forced to admit by the novel’s end that it is he who is “haunted by humans”.


I only really had two issues with the novel on the whole: the first is the occasional clichés in the language which, despite on the whole being well-written and is strong enough to support what is a winsome story, can fall into patterns of predictability and did not seem to arrest me or shock me at any point. It flowed along quite comfortably, which I suppose is what a novel of this genre should do. The second thing is a confusion in plot; throughout the novel we are pretty certain that it is Death narrating the story, yet towards the end we discover that actually Death picked up Liesel’s book, The Book Thief, which is what we are now reading. So in that case, did Liesel write her own life story from the perspective of a personified Death (quite advanced for a 13 year old…)? I understand why Zusak uses Death to narrate his story, and I can also understand why, for the story to be Liesel’s personal story, she would have had to have narrated it. It seems that the author perhaps couldn’t make his made up and thus this confusion arises. It doesn’t, of course, affect the novel’s poignant message, but I guess this is but a small detail and just me being pernickety! (My apologies…)


What will win over many a bibliophile in this novel, including myself, is the central theme of the power of literature as a source of empowerment during the bleakest moments of life, and indeed the bleakest periods of human history. Today, in a society where 63% of men rarely read, this may seem a tad hackneyed, far-fetched and ideological. Yet literature is the power which wakes our protagonist in the middle of the night, compels her to climb through windows to grab new material, gives her a direction and comfort in her new life, a new life which is eventually saved through writing a book (in more than one way) at the denouement of the book. With a message like that, surely there is only one thing you can do from here?


“Words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?”

Thanks for reading, give it a go and let me know what you think below!


Check out The Book Thief here

Check out Markus Zusak on Twitter