Kenneth Goldsmith thinks literature "is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time". In Uncreative Writing, he offers a spirited discussion of the tools and machines that writers and non-writers alike might use to clamber out of that rut. He builds the foundations for his argument in the introduction and first chapter, "Revenge of the Text". Two key premises guide the discussions that unfold across the rest of the book. The first is that "digital media has set the stage for a literary revolution". Goldsmith proposes that software innovations and the internet offer ways of mechanically reproducing text in a similar way to the challenge to the visual arts posed by the advent of photography. One can copy and paste, purchase or republish any number of texts - virtually any text - using a home computer hooked up to the internet. Although traditionalists will argue that, far from helping the creative writer, these innovations expose her to the threat of plagiarism, Goldsmith sees only opportunity: "While the writer today is challenged by having to 'go up' against a proliferation of words and compete for attention, she can use this proliferation in unexpected ways to create works that are as expressive and meaningful as works constructed in more traditional ways."
His second premise, which gets to the heart of why he sees the first premise in the way he does, is that the code in which digital media are written is a language that "foregrounds its materiality in ways that were hidden before". Paradoxically, although digital language has strict and complex rhetorical formulations, "the flip side of digital language is its malleability, language as putty, language to wrap your hands around, to caress, mold, strangle". It is this malleability that offers the "uncreative writer" opportunities to push the formal and interpretive meanings of literature to new and radical places.
Most of this book investigates various means of approaching writing as an "uncreative" act in which the writer interfaces with digital means of creating. That might mean inserting the text of a Shakespeare sonnet into the code of a jpg image of the Bard, or it might mean publishing in book form (as Goldsmith himself did) every single word of The New York Times from a particular day. Goldsmith also describes how his "uncreative writing" approach works on a practical intellectual level in his classroom at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ultimately, he wants literature to move "from assuming a readership to embracing a thinkership". He claims that by "relinquishing the burden of reading - and thereby a readership - we can begin to think of uncreative writing as having the potential to be a body of literature able to be understood by anyone". By anyone, or by no one? The difference matters. Much of what Goldsmith advocates in this intriguing discussion seems not quite as radical or avant garde as he thinks or claims it is, and the notion that the burden of reading has nothing to do with thinking deserves a vehement counterargument, as does much of what he claims in these pages. Nonetheless, Goldsmith achieves a very difficult feat with this book: he writes lucidly about complex and avant-garde ideas. As a result, he opens up a vital debate for anyone who cares about literature, between notions of traditional creative writing and the set of practices he labels "uncreative writing".
Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age
By Kenneth Goldsmith
Columbia University Press. 2pp, £46.50 and £15.95. ISBN 9780231149907 and 49914. Published 30 September 2011