From time to time I’m asked whether the Sydney Review of Books has any plans to move into print. The answer is always an emphatic no and the rationale is usually practical. To print the Sydney Review of Books as a monthly or bimonthly journal would blow a gigantic hole in our budget. We’d have to pay printing and distribution costs, and we’d have to think carefully about sourcing and funding visual content. Then there would be the hassle of managing subscriber lists. We’d need a place to store back issues. And the way we work would necessarily be far less flexible. We’d have to stick to deadlines and hold our contributors to them too. Errors would be difficult to correct. Late submissions would be left out in the cold.

If the Sydney Review of Books went into print there would also be a cost for our readers, who can currently read everything we publish for free. Print would almost certainly mean fewer readers, and those readers would probably form a less diverse, less distributed group. Anyone in the world can read Sydney Review of Books  essays, and we have a growing international readership.

The question is posed, however, because print carries a strong inky smell of legitimacy. Being in print is a metric of writerly success that accrues greater recognition than merely being online. For all the perpetual brouhaha about the digital economy, websites are often seen as the poor cousins of glorious, prestigious, printed journals. The beauty of printed objects only goes so far to explain this hierarchy. The kudos accorded print publication also relies on the association of the relative ease of digital publication with sloppy editing and hasty writing. Print, by contrast, expensive and time-consuming to publish, benefits from assumptions about care, deliberation and durability. Even though there are bucketloads of examples that both uphold and debunk these stereotypes, they retain some traction.

I hope the writing we publish at the Sydney Review of Books speaks for itself. For us, digital publication frees up time and resources to commission and publish long, interesting and valuable essays by some of the best writers in the country. The essay is particularly well suited to online publication: essays aren’t too long to read on a screen, and they’re easy to share on social media. In short, the Sydney Review of Books is not going into print. Beyond the administrative advantages, then, are there formal possibilities that open up to essayists when they write for digital publication? What can writers do online that they can’t do in print?

Writers and readers are increasingly habituated to the multimodality of the digital writing. Social media users navigate text punctuated by image, video, audio and interactive media as a matter of course. Multimedia has been driving the transformation of news media online for more than a decade. Experimental writers working in electronic forms collaborate with software developers and media artists to create complex digital texts. There are of course degrees of wit and sophistication that separate such endeavours but they constitute the vernacular of our times. The question is, how should such new and ubiquitous forms of expression inflect the work undertaken by literary essayists, such as those published in the Sydney Review of Books?

There’s certainly a view that the essay as a form of deliberation should be shielded from the frippery of online tools, as if a door opened to multimedia will lead to a painful landing on a pile of memes, emojis and gifs. Such anxiety rides on a concern about the degradation of language, one that links certain registers and kinds of linguistic usage with careful thinking and writing. This contributes to a longer anxiety about vernacular language that is tied to new communication technologies, from Gutenberg’s press to the Stanhope press, from cinema to trashy television.

By my reckoning the essay is a sufficiently durable and flexible form to withstand technological change and experimentation, which is why the Sydney Review of Books is presenting a workshop on the ‘born digital’ essay at the Writing and Society Research Centre on 19 May. At the workshop I’ll be joined by Sydney Review of Books digital coordinator Ben Denham and writer Chris Rodley. It’s my hope that this will be the first in a series of conversations that scope and assess the way digital tools might shape the commissioning, composition, editing and publication of literary essays. 

Never in print: the born-digital literary essay
11 am, Friday 19 May
Writing and Society Research Centre, Bankstown campus, Western Sydney University.
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