D.D. Johnston discusses what authors can learn from a brief (and somewhat ill-informed) charge through 10,000 years of writing
Video transcript follows below:
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s tips for writing was to ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense,’ he said. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever read.
Too many writers seem to think that their role is to set the reader a riddle or to withhold the facts. I read a lot of unpublished writing, and when I complain that I don’t know whether the characters are in a living room in Tunbridge Wells, or on the North Face of the Eiger, the author often retorts that he or she wanted the setting to be ambiguous. Or, even worse, the author says that they’re going to reveal all at the end – actually, it will transpire in the final paragraph that the characters are dead and are at the gates of hell. If I can’t tell whether the narrator is male or female, that’s not a good thing. And it’s an awful thing if in the last paragraph it’s going to transpire that the narrator’s actually a polar bear.
It’s worth remembering that writing is a highly advanced and complex communication system. It’s a complex technology, and, in historical terms, it’s a very recent one.
Put it this way. Our last common ancestor with chimpanzees – this little guy – lived about 7 million years ago, and the earliest representative art we’ve discovered dates from as recently as about 40,000 years ago. For instance, this wee venus statue found in a cave in Germany. By 17,000 years ago we were starting to tell stories through pictures – this cave painting discovered in France may depict something that happened during a hunt, or it may depict something else. Nobody’s really very sure.
Writing didn’t begin until a mere 9000 years ago, and it developed with Sumerian counting tokens. As civilizations grew more complex, people wanted to keep records of who had lent whom what. Rather than drawing endless pictures of sheep, they used a token with a cross on it to represent a sheep and a triangular token to represent bread. I guess making the tokens must have been an awful chore, so when someone worked out they could imprint the tokens into clay, it was probably like the ancient equivalent of the iphone. I like that a lot of these early accounting tablets were to do with the production and distribution of beer. Indeed, the Sumerians drank so much beer that they needed to evolve their beer symbol into something simpler. That weird wedge-shaped writing existed in parallel to Egyptian hieroglyphics, which died out but may have influenced Proto-Sinaitic script, which in turn may have influenced the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenicians wrote in sounds and probably developed the first proper alphabet. Although writing originated independently in many different places – for instance, in China and the Americas (where there were several different forms of writing long before the Europeans showed up and killed everyone) – most modern alphabets are derived from the Phoenician one. See, the Phoenicians were great traders and sailors and they had prized commodities such as a purple dye that came from sea snails. The Greeks loved that stuff – it was like candy to them. And not only did they buy the Phoenician dye, they picked up their alphabet too. And of course the Roman alphabet was derived from the Greek alphabet, and that’s the alphabet we still use today.
Now, I concede that an ancient clay accounting tablet is very different from the writing we’re talking about now, so there’s another story of evolution to consider. The first piece of writing that might deserve to be called literature is probably ‘The Instructions of Shuruppak’, which dates from c2600 BCE. It contains such salient advice as ‘Do not answer back against your father.’ ‘Do not commit rape upon a man’s daughter; the courtyard will learn of it.’ And, especially sage, ‘Do not buy an ass that brays too much.’ Soon after that some epic poems were written down, among the most famous of which are The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey. But we don’t see much in the way of prose fiction until we enter the Common Era, with books such as Metamorphoses. After that, for a thousand years or so, everybody was too busy building or burning monasteries to worry much about writing. And although there are some medieval precursors, most scholars accept that the novel is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Arguably the first novel in English is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and even after that we still had to go through the epistolary period, romanticism, realism, modernism, and postmodernism to get where we are today. What comes next? Well, maybe that’s up to you. But only if you remember how it all began – communication.
Writing – from counting tokens to postmodern novels – has always been about communicating information concisely and accurately. Writing may also be beautiful – as in the case of Egyptian hieroglyphics or the flowing prose of Vladimir Nabokov – but first and foremost it is an amazing technology that allows us to communicate information across time and space.
Transmitting ideas across time and space isn’t easy: the meaning is often lost along the way.
There’s no point carving the record of a loan and not recording how much of what crop was leant for how long and to whom. And there’s no point writing a conversation and not telling us where it takes place and who’s speaking.
Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.