I want to be read

One of the major frustrations of my life as a writer has to do with something very basic — getting read.

When I write something, I do it with the understanding that it will eventually be read and that what I am producing something that will find its way to someone who will read it. Pretty simple, no?

But for a large part of the entertainment industry, that is not what a writer does. In Mumbai for example, many people who define themselves as writers are not writing to be read. They are writing things that will be read by a small group of people before being translated into a product for the visual medium. They are writing scripts, screenplays, brand videos, YouTube vlog monologues, advertisements… you get the drift. They are not writing things that will reach their eventual audience as reading material.

Many of these writers are wonderful at their jobs. Their work goes into the making of great video content, both fiction and non-fiction. But the kind of thing that I have always thought of as “writing” is far from being the default value in entertainment circles.

Writers like me want to be read. But most work opportunities for writers these days put middlemen between them and readers. Even when I write a comic book script, the only person who reads it is the artist and only about a third of the actual words I pen down reach the reader in the form of dialogues and text on the page. When I write a screenplay or the script for a video, it is read by those who will make the video and then translated into a final product that will be seen and not read.

Again, I have nothing against these mediums. I am merely pointing out that these are not a writer’s mediums. They belong to the director, the producer, and the penciller. The writer is only one of the cogs in the machine that makes visual media possible.

Of course, writers can still write directly for readers in magazines, print publications, and websites. But stories -- at least the ones that dominate pop culture these days -- are seen, not read.

I was recently plotting out the future of my 1hourstory project and realised that some things I have planned for 2021 will depend, for their success, on the publishing industry going in a certain direction. I will have to see if the present-day "pivot-to-video" movement keeps going. In the last five years, a lot of publications (that used to focus on the written word) have devalued readers in order to make way for viewers. And because of this, they have devalued writers to make way for producers. I don't know if I can say it is something generally bad, but there certainly are demerits to making the internet a zero-effort paradise. Video is easier to access sure, but that does not mean reading as a measure of accessibility should be removed.

I have nothing against audio-visual storytelling. And perhaps this is just frustration talking. But you have heard (just as many writers regularly hear) that people don’t read anymore. And while that is definitely an exaggeration, it does point to a certain contemporary truth. When it comes to processing media, we prefer the lazier options. Options that keep our interest by using colour and action (comics) and options that do not need anything from us in order to proceed (video). I have always preferred to read. And it is not only because I am a writer. I find that you understand concepts better when you read. Some people find this hard to believe but pictures are not always worth a thousand words.

A smart person wrote an essay once called “Always Bet On Text”.

In it, the author says:

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, when there’s a picture to match what you’re trying to say. But let’s hit the random button on Wikipedia and pick a sentence, see if you can draw a picture to convey it, mm? Here:

“Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour, and are regularly protected as legal rights in national and international law.”

Not a chance. Text can convey ideas with a precisely controlled level of ambiguity and precision, implied context and elaborated content, unmatched by anything else. It is not a coincidence that all of literature and poetry, history and philosophy, mathematics, logic, programming and engineering rely on textual encodings for their ideas.

Reading takes more effort, but it is also more rewarding. And the rewards that come as a result of reading are things that are getting lost in our culture’s “pivot to video”.

Only a small part of why I am typing this rant has to do with me being the kind of writer who wants to be read (as opposed to being comicked or videoed). It’s just that I am reminded of this gap every time someone asks me why I haven’t written a comic book since Ravanayan or why I don’t do screenwriting. There are talented writers working in the entertainment industry right now who honestly admit that they are not prose writers and that they cannot do anything other than writing scripts and screenplays. In much the same way, I freely admit that visual storytelling is not my weapon of choice. I don’t mind it (in fact, I do it for a living when I write comic books), but it is not the sword I choose to take into battle.