One of the wonderful things about Murasaki, both in the novel and in her diary, is that paper is so central to the world she describes. There are privacy screens made out of paper, paper fans, parts of clothing made of paper, but most of all the short messages on paper that were constantly being sent back and forth in Japanese courts. These weren’t all that different from our modern-day text messages. Courtiers would write short poems to one another, with all kinds of etiquette surrounding how long you waited to respond, and how you responded, and even what kind of paper you used for your response. I started to think of Murasaki’s world, really, as a paper world—it’s really that central to the life she portrays, and to The Tale of Genji itself.
As such, The Tale of Genji is a great example of something I write about in The Written World: how the mechanisms of writing itself influence an author’s process. Major technological shifts tend to change the way texts circulate, how they are read, and by whom they are read—which, in turn, always has an effect on the content of a literary work.
When Murasaki wrote, paper had become easier to produce and more abundant than ever, and held special cultural status in Japan. As a technology, paper transformed the way stories were told—even before print. It lowered the cost of writing, which led to this explosion of popular literature. (Arabian Nights is one example.) This allowed new readers to enter the marketplace for the first time. Ultimately, it also led to new approaches to high art, including the form we now term the novel.
Today, of course, we’re seeing technology bring about major shifts in the ways reader and writers are connected. As the internet allows more people to write and publish than ever before, you see a popularization and democratization of literature. It’s resulted in emerging new genres, like fan fiction or these hyper-specialized romances that proliferate on Amazon. Then, of course, there are blogs, and Twitter, and the many other new platforms. It’s too early to say whether any of them will have staying power, but there’s clearly a lot happening at the popular end of writing.
Historically, these major transformations tend to cause anxiety, too—just as the current moment is causing anxiety now. There’s always the fear that if the system of writing changes, something important changes in our culture. And often it does. One current concern, at least among librarians, is the obsolescence of formats. We really don’t know whether we’ll still have devices that can read whatever electronic format you happen to compose or store something in, even 20 years from now. Most librarians and archivists will say: If you really want to ensure that something will be legible in the future, print it out. There’s no replacement for a physical hard copy you can store in a box in the basement. At the same time, resources like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg provide incredible access to the canonical literature, and some uncanonical literature, from the last 4,000 years. In some ways, these texts are clearly more easily available than ever before.