Reading and writing are social acts

‘One of the things that’s most annoyed me about the present debate [in publishing is that] it’s boiled down to one between techno-evangelists and technophobes,’ says Mark Davis Associate Professor (University of Melbourne) and non-fiction writer (Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism). ‘We get caught up in that divide all the time and it doesn’t get us anywhere.’ While the neon light on top of the tallest building in town heralds e-books and digital media as the big challenges in publishing, Davis reminds us that the sector was in a state of crisis before these came along. ‘In Australia [that] oriented around questions of pricing, questions of distribution, battles for market share and how they play out,’ he says.


In his keynote presentation at the Independent Publishers Conference Davis will draw on his research at Melbourne University to consider the various issues that have flowed from the last few years of ‘absolute doom and gloom’ in the publishing industry. ‘Everyone seems to think that it’s all over [in publishing] – it doesn’t matter which side of the digital divide they’re on,’ he says. Davis is interested in that notion, but encourages us to expand our thinking.

‘All the talk has been about the economic side of publishing [but] reading is a social act,’ Davis tells me. What we write in long form is tied to a human need to communicate and debate ideas, be they personal, cultural, historical, political and so on. We can discuss delivery and distribution of writing from an economic or commercial perspective. But we must also consider how changes in delivery and communications help or hinder society.

It’s a timely reminder in a week when US citizens are deciding their next president – many on the basis of information and opinions they have gleaned from a wider socio-political debate (to which writing, and long form have contributed). Of all the questions that circulate around publishing, and the future of publishing, the one that engages Davis is how to create (or maintain) a sense of polity and democratic purpose for society in a new media galaxy.

‘One of the things that interests me about the post-digital transformation is the de-professionalisation of writing,’ says Davis. It puts power in the hands of many and provides forms of access. But it’s a double-edged sword, ‘At the same time it completely fragments audiences and the notion of a polity,’ he says.

‘All of our traditional models of intellectual culture are around print,’ says Davis. Given this we need to ask ourselves how intellectual cultures operate in a digital world. ‘Do we need intellectuals? Do we want intellectuals? Are they just elites that we could do without anyway? Or did they have something to offer? If so, what did they have to offer and how was it presented?’ Davis asks. Oftentimes, he says, it is presented via long form non-fiction.

Long form has been central to the whole idea of modernity and democracy. A downturn in the numbers of readers for long form may well be perceived as a commercial issue for writers and publishers. But Davis says the bigger issue is understanding, ‘what that social compact [of modernity and democracy] looks like if people aren’t really interested in long form.’

Technical, commercial and economic disruptions in the publishing industry need to be considered. But a greater concern for long form writers and readers may be finding a ‘social common purpose’ in a fragmented world. ‘[That’s] what long form’s always been about… exposing ideas, exposing wrongs and saying, “This is something that should be on our social agenda and it isn’t,”’ Davis says.

Speaking with Davis takes my outlook above the mechanics of delivering long form. ‘[A] commercial model might work or might fail. But who cares?’ he argues. Though the future for long form is in immediate terms uncertain, he says that, ‘where social problems are deep and acknowledged, and where they require thinking, there’ll always be a place for that sustained argument and that complicated, sophisticated approach.’

Mark Davis will be presenting a keynote speech, ‘Publishing in End Times’ at the Independent Publishers Conference 3.30pm, Thursday 8 November at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.