A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
When an average writer, or even a below average writer, receives huge compliments on their writing or social media posts, from an audience who lack a cultural background and adequate knowledge, then we know we are in a true dilemma.
Such a writer seeks recognition by directing their writing at a mass audience through social media. They look for an acknowledgment that they have not received from critics or the highly educated or individuals who have a deep knowledge and cultural awareness. Instead, it comes from the general public, which gives the writer a sense of satisfaction; but it carries a dark future for literature. One of the problems is that public taste is shaped by many factors, including fame and personal relationships, which could destroy genuine creativity, and give rise to under-developed writers with semi-creative works.
Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche predicted the deterioration of writing quality due to the vast publication movement and the ease of using communication tools. He believed that the industrial age would give a chance to many half writers to publish, which would affect the art of writing negatively.
More than a century separates Nietzsche’s time and ours, and here we see his prophecy turning into a reality.
A hundred years later, Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco noticed how social media sites are taking poor quality content to large communities, while distinguished materials remains under-exposed. “Tools such as Twitter and Facebook give the right of speech to legions of idiots, who used to chatter in bars only without causing harm to society and would be silenced immediately, but now they have the same right to speak to the public as Noble prize holders. It’s an invasion by the fool”, he said.
Over a hundred years separate Nietzsche and Eco. The first predicted it and the second lived the prophecy as reality, as social media and similar sites work on lowering the taste of nations and reducing the artistic levels of literature, poetry, novels and writing in general.
Therefore, it seems this age we live in is not an age of populism in politics only, but has many parallels at the cultural and intellectual levels.
Social media sites today have an ability to impose their ways of writing on writers, telling the writer what they want from them and forcing others to work by their standards. Any writer able to work without this influence is a true writer, truly dedicated to their work, and trained to do the work for its own sake, away from the pressure of chasing bright lights.
In the midst of this unhealthy climate, the writer forgets that the admiring audience actually consists of people who lack the least comprehension of how to assess its quality. The writer collects praise and moves on happy, thinking that their work is of high quality and innovation. If someone educated, with real interest and knowledge, decided to present an actual critique of that writing, they would collide with the writer’s ego, which is bloated by getting thousands of likes, unable to differentiate between empty praise and actual critique, which would contribute to improving the writing.
Due to the easy process of publishing on those sites, the writer forgets the journey of prolonged effort and suffering that used to be required for the process of writing, editing and proofreading, in order to obtain satisfaction from the publisher and interest from the reader in the times before social media. This is why I think publishing establishments have been filled with novels and other books that do not get attention from readers.
Social media sites have produced thousands of writers and novelists. But in reality, recent years have not offered writers of the stature we saw in the twentieth century, when we saw hundreds of global authors and a huge collection of classic literary works.
We stop at names like Marquis, Yusa, Saramago, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hess, Virginia Woolf, Proust, Andre Gide, Hemingway, Taha Hussein, and many European, American and Arab names, but it seems that the age of social media is not able to give us new names with equal greatness and lasting literature, such as that produced by those great names.
Little by little, literature, and novels in particular, lose their ability to detect, predict, anticipate and diagnose life in its complexity. It is turning this space into a media space, like any other, looking for the satisfaction of a quick and fleeting audience and for a flow of likes based on different motives, not on quality.
Mohammed al-Alimi is a Yemeni author and holder of a Master’s degree in literature. He is a founding member of the Arab Forum for Studies and Research and a member of Bab al-Mandab Center for Strategies.