I’m focusing only on cables where “literature” or “literary” is used in the sense of short stories, essays, the humanities, etc. So I’m mostly ignoring cables mentioning literature as in, say, campaign literature, or the medical literature for a malady (unless the cable mentions one of Oliver Sacks‘s highly literary case studies, you see?). Given the importance of intellectual property (or lack thereof) to free speech and the Internet, copyright and copyleft issues will be included as well. Literary Cablegate blog posts will feature about 8 cables each, starting from the most recently written cable. I’ll take on the 403 cable hits for “literary” first.
The United States maintains an annual “Special 301 Report” that, in the words of the United States Trade Representative, reviews “the global state of intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and enforcement” and “reflects the Administration’s resolve to encourage and maintain effective IPR protection and enforcement worldwide.” The Report lists nations perceived as threats to copyright interests. Some nations wind up on the Watch List, and others on the more severe Priority Watch List. In a cable dated February 2010, the US Embassy in La Paz said Bolivia’s laws granted powerful intellectual property rights:
the existing copyright law does protect literary, artistic, and scientific works for the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. Bolivian copyright protection includes the exclusive right to copy or reproduce works; to revise, adapt, or prepare derivative works; to distribute copies of works; and to publicly communicate works. Although the exclusive right to translate works is not explicitly granted, the law does prevent unauthorized adaptation, transformation, modification, and editing. The law also provides protection for software and databases.
Regardless of Bolivian law, the US Embassy noted, copyright was so laxly enforced in Bolivia that their
Video, music, and software piracy rates are among the highest in Latin America, with the International Intellectual Property Alliance estimating that piracy levels have reached 100% for motion pictures and over 90% for recorded music. There are no legal sources of audio-visual materials in most of the country, since it would be impossible to compete with pirated products prices: in the capital of La Paz there is only one store that sells legal CDs. Bootleg CDs, DVDs, computer software, pharmaceutical products, and other goods are sold on street corners and in stores across the country.
The Embassy blames the rampant piracy on Bolivia’s lack of human and financial resources to enforce copyright, and says pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to file patents in Bolivia due to fears of trade secret theft and counterfeiting. Despite all the piracy, the US Embassy suggests keeping Bolivia only on the Special 301 Report’s Watch List and not its Priority Watch List just so as not to frustrate Bolivia and thereby damage the copyright interests’ outreach efforts. In 2010 and 2011 Bolivia did remain on the ordinary Special 301 Watch List.
A February 2010 cable from Baghdad discusses the membership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), formed in October 2009 as, according to the cable, “a nationalist, non-sectarian political” group. The cable identifies Hassan Sunayd as one “key figure” of SLA, describing him as
SLA candidate 4 in Dhi Qar. A well-known poet and literary figure in Iraq, Sunayd has been in Da’wa’s political bureau since the late 1980’s. A member of the previous COR’s Security and Defense Committee, he is Maliki’s closest friend, one of his security advisors and liaison to the KRG leadership. Having survived physical torture during the Saddam regime, he has used his position as spokesman for the SLA to rail against the threat of resurgent Ba’athism and was critical of purported U.S. efforts to interfere in the de-Ba’athification process.
A somewhat substantial search of Google’s various resources as well as academic journals and US newspaper archives turned up no discussion of Hassan Sunayd’s literary background, with one minor exception. (Sometimes his first name is transliterated as Hasan, sometimes his last name as al-Sunayd.) According to an April 14, 2008 BBC transcript, Sunayd recited a poem at a ceremony held in Baghdad to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the martyrdom of Islamic scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Sunayd is mentioned with some frequency as a spokesperson for the Iraqi government.
Professor Hanan Hammad at the TCU History Department told me Sunayd used the pen name “Jawad Jamil (could be Jawwad Gamil). he lived in Iran in early eights along with members of al-Da’wa Islamist Party. his sister Balqis is also a poet, but with the Communist party. nothing indicate that he’s a great poet/ intellectual.” My searches for his pen name turn up nothing.
The US State Department maintains an annual Trafficking in Persons Report to “engage foreign governments on human trafficking” and as a resource for “governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.” In a February 2010 cable, the first of three parts (part 2, part 3), the US Embassy in Paris gave its input for the tenth annual report. The cable notes “France prosecutes French nationals who travel abroad to engage in child sexual tourism” and goes on to say
Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand faced criticism during the reporting period related to his 2005 literary work, which included depictions of sexual tourism in Asia. In “The Bad Life,” Mitterrand details the experiences of an unnamed protagonist with so-called “boys” in the brothels of Thailand. Facing pressure to resign for engaging in sexual tourism before he joined the government, Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand stated during an October 8, 2009 television interview that he had never had sex with a minor. “Each time I was with people who were my age, or were five years younger,” the 62 year-old Mitterrand said, adding: “I condemn sexual tourism, which is a disgrace. I condemn pedophilia in which I have never participated in any way.”
The Guardian extends Miterrand’s quote a sentence: “The book is in no way an apology for sex tourism, even if one chapter is a journey through that hell, with all the fascination that hell can inspire.” The BBC termed Mitterrand’s book an “autobiographical novel” and said the scandal would have brought him down in other countries, “not because he is gay, but because there is an inconsistency between a government committed to fighting sex tourism and a minister who has been a sex tourist. But in France, where a belief in the right to privacy and a liberal view on sex are both near sacrosanct, many believe it would be hypocritical to hound Frederic Mitterrand from office.”
The cable says France prosecutes child sex tourism, and Mitterand claims he was involved with people basically his age. More importantly, the book is, autobiographically based or not, a work of fiction. How much of it is true to Mitterrand’s life is therefore hard to evaluate beyond educated guessing. Mother Jones, reviewing the book, says the French right wing targetted Mitterand by quoting the book out of context. The Mother Jones reviewer makes the book sound pretty good:
The Bad Life is a stunningly candid and beautiful book. Described by its author as an “autobiography which is half real and half dreamed,” it recounts his life as a child of privilege born into Paris’s haut bourgeois sixteenth arrondissement, his experience of homosexuality, and a number of deeply felt personal relationships. Much of this is set in a social milieu of movie stars, politicians, renowned artists, and other public figures. […]
The Bad Life is an intimate, courageous memoir in which Mitterrand is brutally honest not only about himself, but with himself. If it includes a few sordid accounts of a homosexual underworld that some would rather not be asked to consider, it does so within a larger portrait of one man’s life and desires, a nuanced collection of affecting incidents examined with an unsparing eye.
The entire scandal was complicated by Mitterrand’s defending Roman Polanski shortly beforehand, demanding the director be released after arrest in Switzerland over his US conviction for sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Yet again, the publisher calls The Bad Life a “novel inspired by autobiography.” You don’t take Philip K. Dick’s autobiographical novel VALIS as definitive proof of anything, do you? Or Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead. Writers build off their own experience, but don’t exactly replicate it in fiction. No crime was shown here. Mitterrand is still in office.
A February 2010 cable from the Consulate Shenyang US Embassy in China noted traffic across the border between China and North Korea. “For all the talk about frozen trade between the DPRK [North Korea] and China,” the cable says, the Consulate General Office noted people crossing the border talking business and culture. For example,
At the train station many different groups of North Koreans were seen waiting to take the train up to Shenyang [China]. On board, a middle-aged North Korean female trader was reading a Sino-Korean literary journal and a Dandong business weekly.
The apparent significance for the Office is the interest North Koreans show in the Chinese, as evidenced in part by the Sino-Korean literary journal. One wonders which journal the woman was reading. In the United States, “literary journal” tends to mean a venue for highbrow literary work, as opposed to a “magazine,” which can run the gamut of literary taste classifications.
A February 2010 cable from Berlin discusses German copyright law in the context of foreign investment in Germany.
Germany is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Germany is also a party to the major international intellectual property protection agreements: the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, the Universal Copyright Convention, the Geneva Phonograms Convention, the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Brussels Satellite Convention, and the Treaty of Rome on Neighboring Rights. […]
Germany has signed the WIPO Internet treaties and ratified them in 2003. Foreign and German rights holders, however, remain critical of provisions in the German Copyright Act that allow exceptions for private copies of copyrighted works. Most rights holder organizations regard German authorities’ enforcement of intellectual property protections as sufficient, although problems persist due to lenient court rulings in some cases and the difficulty of combating piracy of copyrighted works on the Internet.
The Berne Convention — spelled Bern or Berne — was instigated by the writer Victor Hugo in the late 19th century. It says copyright is established when the creator puts the work into fixed form, bypassing the need for registration. The Berne Convention also establishes a minimum term of 50 years after the author’s death for written works. Cory Doctorow talks a bit about the Berne Convention in this Guardian article.
A February 2010 cable from Geneva and the US Trade Representative discusses January 2010’s 7th Working Party meeting on Yemen’s Accession to the World Trade Organization, the in-progress effort to enter Yemen into the WTO. In a section about trading rights, the cable noted
The US and EU had additional concerns about certain requirements that only Yemeni nationals could be granted the technical clearance needed to import medicines, medical equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, books, newspapers, audiovisual and other artistic literary works, and requested that the Trading Rights Action Plan be updated to include information on these technical clearance requirements.
I suspect the technical clearance for Yemeni nationals who regulate the import of “artistic literary works” involves Yemen’s prohibition against the import of “Any item offensive to Muslim culture.” (Yemen’s population is 98% Muslim.) Reporters Without Borders ranks Yemen within the bottom 10 of all nations for press freedom. This might or might not be relevant: a May 25, 2009 piece in the Yemen Times by Dr. A. K. Sharma said if “a nation has to import and export not only goods and commodities but also knowledge and skills, it has got to have an army of well-equipped and professionally competent translators.” Currently Yemen isn’t a member of the WTO.
Another February cable discussing the climate for foreign investment, this time from the Colombo embassy, notes Sri Lanka is a party to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (discussed above). Original literary works are protected under a 2003 Sri Lanka copyright law that was “intended to meet both U.S.-Sri Lanka bilateral IPR agreement and TRIPS obligations to a great extent.” In a January 2003 article for Daily Variety, an entertainment-industry trade magazine, Bryan Pearson said the new law aimed to crack down on piracy; pirating software was “not illegal in Sri Lanka,” Pearson wrote, and the island was a “paradise for fraudulent imports.”
Through my interest in and use of the social micropayment service Flattr I came across Aelius Blythe (Website: cheapassfiction.com; Twitter: @CheapassFiction) who also writes free fiction you can Flattr some cash toward. She curates a list of fiction writers who use Flattr, too. After a guilty two months or three of just reading her blog & Twitter feed, I finally downloaded her short story collection Stories About Things. I’ve been reluctant to read fiction on a screen, but given her (and my) supportfor piracy, it seemed the proper way to read hers. I was also reluctant to read her fiction because even if writers are cool people, their fiction usually sucks — and then I’m all disappointed.
But I’m really glad to have read Stories About Things. That’s my standard: “Was reading this a worthwhile expenditure of my time?” And it was. (Who needs fancier criteria?) Aelius seems really at ease writing fiction, happy doing it and if you don’t like it you can go read something else.
I don’t like AmyHempel. Hempel writes these “miniaturist” stories where nothing happens and you’re supposed to feel awakened by the beautiful comma placement (and other sentence-level things). One of her fans, a friend of mine, wrote in the course of praising Hempel that “style becomes the writer’s morality.” Really? Your ethical theory is predicated on the placement of commas? The fan meant something more like voice or authenticity. All the same I like Aelius’s perspective better:
If [WebFiction] gets in the way of enjoyment, put the book down and go enjoy something else.
But before you judge to harshly, remember one thing: You are reading the literary version of graffiti art You may not want to stand in line for $20 tickets to a gallery opening for it. But somewhere in the scrawled mess of spray paint there may be a picture that sticks with you. And it gives you something better than a brick wall to stare at while you’re waiting for the gallery to open.
Stories About Things put Hempel in mind because Aelius’s stories are similarly short. Except I enjoy Stories About Things. And in the same way I enjoy The Police. Really talented and thankfully more interested in being enjoyable and rewarding than in being aesthetically elite. Here’s a good excerpt from Aelius’s collection:
Sal’s grandmother always warned him like this when she caught him looking. His mother said this was silly, and he was old enough not to be scared by fairy stories. If he looked into the sun, she told him, he would go blind, and that was that.
He never understood how someone could say that — “Don’t look at it.” People looked. If they could, they did. Sometimes, Sal thought, if he wasn’t paying attention he could turn off his hearing so when the lawnmower was going while he was reading he wouldn’t even notice. He could turn off his nose too by breathing through his mouth. Touch was a sense that everyone ignored unless it was too bad or too good. Taste was the same. But he could only turn off his sight by closing his eyes, and he couldn’t go around like that. He had to look. He didn’t know how not to. If he could see something, he would.
The flower has brown eyes, a bright brown, almost-red. They smile. They don’t shine in the sun. They shine at the sun.
In describing webfiction, (something distinct from fanfiction), Aelius lists a bunch of fiction “errors” — starting a story with weather descriptions, or the white rooms the characters are in, or making tpyos, etc. — and considers them all good, because who’s counting?
Part of the reason why I turned to web fiction was because of a sort of disillusionment with regular fiction in which I find many distractions (repetitive plot patterns, dull characters, predictable everything) that just happen to be dressed up better. I wondered for several years why I couldn’t find books that I liked, even though I read so many. But then when I started writing seriously myself and studying writing, I realized that there are certain styles that are institutionalized in writing — it’s how people are taught and styles change slowly so you get so much of the same thing. I think that’s why I can ignore the flaws in web fiction. Because I needed something DIFFERENT, and web fiction is different.
Charles Darwin’s quote (also paraphrased by Bradley Manning) describes webfiction well: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
As for setting some stories on the Internet, Aelius writes that her collection Brave New World (which I haven’t read yet) is
a collection of stories about the natural world. Not the natural world that Whitman or Thoreau wrote about, but the world that comes just as naturally to my generation as sky and woods did to theirs. Our world is made of more than that. It’s made of computer screens and wifi and endless libraries of information all at the tip of our fingers. This is our Nature, or part of it anyway.
I think she has more courage to do what comes naturally to her than I do. Following her on Twitter, where she often remarks about her fiction-writing, inspires me to write more.
(Perhaps I should cut myself more slack. My life right now primarily consists of divorcing, moving in to a new place, a knee injury, and figuring out my budget + wacky streams of income. But I haven’t ever particularly believed in cutting myself slack.)
One of the really interesting things Aelius is doing is writing authors letters to ask if they know about, if they approve of, their publishers suing their fans over piracy. (I like this exchange she got into.)
So webfiction is the opposite of National Endowment for the Arts writers who want to write comma-perfect books at taxpayer expense, and then charge taxpayers to read them, too! Sharing culture freely is better and artists need to deal with changing technological mediums instead of whining about it and suing people over it.
I feel as if I should say something critical in a token effort at Neutral Point of View. Aelius, don’t start so many sentences with conjunctions, especially “But” and “Yet” — conjunctions kick in readers’ logic modules and thereby reduce emotion. It’s fiction, not Boolean! (Unless you want it to be more logic-y.) Really in a way I don’t want to post any of this, because talking about good things sometimes interferes with them, and she certainly should just continue what she’s doing and not listen to anyone.
This week WikiLeaks published thousands more US diplomatic cables as part of its Cablegate operation. Among many other items, Cablegate has confirmed or revealed the following:
Referring to the United States’ secret air strikes in Yemen, Yemen’s president promised US general David Petraeus that “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” (Original Cable, Salon, BBC.)
Though Canada publicly claimed opposition to the Iraq war “for domestic political reasons and out of a deep-seated Canadian commitment to multilateralism,” it secretly told the United States it was “prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins,” using Canadian naval and air forces “discreetly” on behalf of the US. (Original Cable, CBC News.)
The United States ordered American diplomats to secretly and illegally collect top United Nations officials and others’ credit card numbers, biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, DNA), passwords, and more. (Original Cable, NYT, Guardian.)
In 2009 U.S. Senator John McCain promised Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi some American military hardware. (Original Cable, Politico.)
I restricted my work to this most recent batch of cables. Here are the search results, and the total number of hits when I first searched, for: literature (665); literary (334); … wow! This is going to take more than one post.
Reading the below, one should bear in mind EvgenyMorozov‘s astute critique of Internet-centrism, a lazy perspective that ignores the importance of local cultures when interpreting material and instead focuses faith on technology. I’m not at all an expert on foreign countries, etc. I can only fish out cables with some literary significance in the hope others might benefit from them.
In April 2006, a few months after gun-firing Chinese police in Dongzhou subdued villagers protesting land confiscations (WaPo), the American consulate in Guangzhou invoked a metaphor of Lu Xun‘s (“China’s most prominent modern author”): the Chinese sense, in the area, of rapid economic growth is that it “eats people.” From the cable (my link):
in his “Diary of a Madman” short story […] the supposedly mentally deranged narrator has looked at the whole of Chinese history and found its grandeur and power to be founded on the eating of people
The cable claims
there is a conscious attempt led in part by Guangzhou’s most progressive and highly influential magazine, the “Nanfengchuang” (the “South Wind Window”), to revive the spirit of the New Culture Movement of the 1920s of which Lu was a key figure
The cable goes on to advocate for increased injections of humanities programs to teach core American democratic values. These, the cable argues, will make rapid economic growth in the area more humane. After all, the cable says,
there is a very large audience for American literature and thought. American literature specialist Ernesto Suarez, our Fulbright Scholar at Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University, is in demand not only at Zhongshan but also at other institutions every weekend throughout China. Recently, the Shantou University English Language Department approached the Consulate about strengthening the American literature component of its program in line with the desire of students to learn not merely the language but also the values of the American people speaking that language.
The Cold War-style argument that humanities talks and courses (apparently) alone can sufficiently soften the steamroll of global economics makes one worry (especially in light of other cables).
A 2007 cable from the Beijing Embassy summarizes a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference that included China’s suggestion that the US State Department study up on its Confucius.
Spokesperson Qin Gang said at the March 8 regular press briefing that the Human Rights Record of the United States in 2006 issued today by China’s State Council Information Office serves as “a mirror for United States to view its own human rights condition” and “understand why it has no right to use double standards in criticizing other countries.” Qin continued, saying the MFA would give the State Department copies of the “Four Books and Five Classics” of Chinese literature as a guide to good governance. Asked if the report constituted a double standard on China’s part by interfering in the domestic affairs of the United States, Qin referred the reporter to his previous statement.
A 2008 cable from Taiwan noted growth in the market for simplified-character Chinese books as government restrictions on the products loosened and more translations of foreign books into Chinese were imported from mainland China.
A survey done by local book dealers in 2006 showed that 50 percent of simplified-character Chinese books sold in Taiwan are on literature, history, and philosophy; 10 percent on social science, law, politics, and the military; 10 percent on Chinese medicine and art; 10 percent on education, finance and engineering; with the remainder on tourism and other topics. As for the consumers, Chu Fu-ming, head of the Eslite flagship bookstore’s simplified-character Chinese book section, told AIT, “those who buy simplified-character Chinese books are mostly intellectuals and academics. Only 20 percent of the buyers are in their twenties, while 40 percent are in their thirties and forties, and the remaining 40 percent are over 50 years old. Older people are especially noticeable because they come in the mornings and spend a long time poring carefully over selections,” Wu observed, with “history books being the most popular.”
The cable worries about simplified-character textbooks supplanting US textbooks more and more, since Chinese college professors were finding the former less expensive and easier to assign.
In the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, readers of Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Pearl Buck (Mike Wallace interview; Nobel write-up), who spent much of her time in China, worried, according to a 2008 cable, that Buck wasn’t getting enough attention in the United States.
Comment: Zhenjiang’s fervor for its long-ago American “daughter” points to possibilities for the upcoming celebrations of the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China relations.
A 2003 cable cited “the latest Human Development Report on the Arab states” as noting
The economic, political, artistic, and literary creativity of the Arab states are being stifled by the exclusion of women, among other factors. As an example, the report notes that Turkey alone published more works of creative literature over the past year than the entire Arab world combined.
A 2003 cable said although “European public opinion may be skeptical about the politics of GOT joining the European Union, […] civil society has shown that sharing space with Turkey in the
cultural realm is as natural as can be.” The cable cited the European popularity of Istanbul-born novelist Orhan Pamuk as evidence of Turkey’s “de facto integration into European cultural life.”
His recent novel “My Name is Red” won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003; this award was the latest in a series of European honors dating back to his 1991 Prix de la Decouverte Europeenne for the French translation of his second novel, “Sessiz_Ev” (“The Quiet House”).
With a 2005 cable, the American embassy in Tel Aviv took note of an editorial referencing Egyptian playwright Ali Salem:
“We have already seen that both Israel and Egypt generally obey when there is an American scolding…. Why not initiate, for example, the award of an honorary doctorate by an American university to Ali Salem for his contribution to peace between the peoples?”
According to a 2006 cable, staff from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General’s office “held misperceptions” about the World Digital Library, “a project to put rare and remote items on the web.” The staff worried over Google’s involvement, saying it troubled European nations, and that the countries might be more receptive to a UNESCO label.
Thus far I’ve come away with the impression that the United States strongly believes spreading American culture is an effective way to spread its core democratic values, but other countries often see this as hypocritical given the States’ frequent disregard of those values. If you’re interested in reading more about that, I recommend Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion. Another observation: writers and their work do make more of an impact in international politics than you might suspect.
My first day as a clinical teacher went very well. Except: I’m exhausted!
Right now the coordinating teacher and I are together in the same classroom throughout the day. She’s running the reins, and I’m just observing, sitting at the side. Eventually I’ll be able to lead some activities. I’ve done that before when I’ve substituted for the same groups of students across a continuous week or so, but this would be more serious, especially as it’s long-term.
The day began quite early; my alarms blasted off at about 4:30am. I showered & got ready, and Wifely Kate cooked breakfast:
iPhone pic by me, public domain for you. Food by Kate!
How awesome is that? The coffee was ready and everything. I was able to write fiction for about an hour and fifteen minutes — quickly revising (line-editing) an older, completed story so I can re-submit it; didn’t quite finish, since I’m having to fact-check some details — and then I headed to campus, the lunch Kate packed me in tow. At noon-ish I discovered she’d left a note in my lunchbox. The note talked about how proud she is of me. I got teary-eyed!
The coordinating teacher uses a Promothean ActivBoard (I’m not sure if the link points to the exact same model) in some very effective ways. For one portion of the classes, she shows multiple-choice math questions on the ‘Board, then the students record their answers using controllers — all students have one on their desks. The coordinating teacher shows the results on the ‘Board — as a bar graph; looks like something off Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and uses them not just to motivate the class (the students love the video game-y vibe), but also to hone in on the students’ misunderstandings of the material in order to explain it again. Good real-time assessment.
Weirdly, one of the few TV shows I really like
The ‘Board can even export the collected data, so at a later time, we can analyze the answer statistics more precisely to spot recurring troubles. Totally something out of a Tim O’Reilly project.
Since I was mostly only observing — catching up to speed on this campus’s schedule, rules, etc. — I focused on watching one student at a time. (I’ve blogged before about developing observationskills. As for characterization, can a writer quickly notice in real-life what makes another person absolutely unique?) I noticed a boy whom I think might need glasses. Squinting, tilting his head to see better, putting his face inches from his paper. There’s a school program to address vision issues, but I’m not sure how prompt it is. Watching how in need and at risk students are can be upsetting. I’ve seen it before, substituting.
This particular student is enthusiastic, often raising and waving his hand even before the teacher asks another question. His enthusiasm hasn’t been disruptive. He seems to be a bit in his own world — smiling to himself, thinking his own thoughts. Good kid.
I have to confess I’m bewildered about the relationships between my roles as a writer, teacher, newbie activist, blogger, and tweep (Twitter person). For example, working as an activist differs from volunteering for a political campaign (as I did for Bill White), from working for one in an official capacity, from blogging reportage or opinion about it, from incorporating observations of a campaign into a fiction project, etc. It’s a bit unnerving when you’re sitting there with a few people talking local politics and you’re trying to figure out which hat you’re wearing, so to speak. I have no real idea how to resolve these mini-conflicts, and there’s no one right answer.
The convention for blogs to be frequently updated conflicts with my personal preference for long-form or at least mucho-revised writing; and, when I’ve tried to blog long-form writing in the past, it’s often come off as too complex (Latinate, twisted syntax…) and hasn’t been revised well enough — a bad compromise between careful long-form writing and a quick blog post. Really, if you’re blogging long-form pieces, you’re essentially writing e-books. Since I consider myself a non-commercial writer (i.e. my goal isn’t profit; that possibility is a fringe benefit; I don’t mean that I consider myself highbrow — I try not to think in those terms), I’m not against the idea of eventually releasing more of my creativewriting (fiction and otherwise) under CreativeCommons licenses, but I sense that right now, I still need the bigger bullhorns and reputation-build of established venues (i.e. magazines, publishing houses).
Vika covers Metallica’s Orion
The increasing online success of vkgoeswild (Vika Yermolyeva) has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I thought she was cool before she joinedforces with Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione (Hipstercultural capital snobby-stupid FTW! =p). Vika supports herself by receiving online tips and selling customized transcriptions online. Other artists and bloggers have figured out similar business models (search through Boing Boing for many examples and discussions). But for creative writing, I just don’t excel at the very short, very quickly written form, which seems to be necessary to any feasible online business model I can actually think up for right now.
Thanks to Cynthia’s review, Wifely and I both read the novel, and we found it so worthwhile, the book has since become something of a touchstone in some of our conversations.
Now with the kindnesses out of the way, here’s my quarrel, or really, quibble jumping-off point. In the course of otherwise spot-on praise for Yates’ novel, Cynthia gives the following as a thought on the book:
The novel is flawlessly structured, three acts, and eminently filmable.
Confirming what I thought, my OS X dictionary gives the following definition for “eminently”:
used to emphasize the presence of a positive quality
Maybe Cynthia wasn’t using the word so specifically, but regardless of authorial intent…and setting aside commerce, writers upping their audience — i.e., considering aesthetics alone — why is it a positive (or a negative) quality for a book to be filmable? We don’t say: “That’s a great sculpture; after all, it’d make a fantastic piece of photography” or “That’s a great painting; after all, it’d make an excellent symphonic work.”
Connections between artistic content remixed into another art form can be worth pursuing and elaborating and evaluating, but I don’t see any basis for using as a criterion of aesthetic appraisal the ease with which an artistic piece can be remixed to another art form.
By the way, one of my favorite remixes of artistic subjects is Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead Op. 29, composed in the early 20th century and then recorded with Rachmaninoff himself conducting. And yes, it’s “beginner’s classical,” shut up. Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead inspired Rachmaninoff’s piece — apparently the black-and-white version:
Here’s the color version:
And the music, low-fi and split into two parts due to copyright and YouTube limitations:
Anyway, the (wrongheaded!) idea of using as a criterion of qualitative judgment an artwork’s capability to be transformed from one art form to another got me to thinking: what can a novel do that no other art form can do? The closest (non-textual) art forms are probably plays (in performance) and movies (“movies,” not “films”; I don’t screen films, I watch movies). What can novels do that those art forms can’t do? I’ll not consider plays, as I haven’t thought much about them. So: movies.
In my tentative answers I’m going to put aside style, too, since sentence-level quality, I think, is a) not obligatory for a novel to be good, and b) not inherently novelistic. So, my first tentative answer: maybe novels can represent time, the workings of memory, changing perspectives, and the inner experience of emotions and thoughts better than any other form. As an example of what I mean (UPDATE: screenhead.com’s list of the hardest novels to film), Theodore Sturgeon’s excellent short story The Man Who Lost the Sea (legal full text at link) — warning, spoiler in the third quoted paragraph:
Say you’re a kid, and one dark night you’re running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you’re too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn’t a toy, it’s a model. You tell him look here, here’s something most people don’t know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won’t listen. He doesn’t want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away. […]
His head isn’t working right. But he knows clearly that it isn’t working right, which is a strange thing that happens to people in shock sometimes. Say you were that kid, you could say how it was, because once you woke up lying in the gym office in high school and asked what had happened. They explained how you tried something on the parallel bars and fell on your head. You understood exactly, though you couldn’t remember falling. Then a minute later you asked again what had happened and they told you. You understood it. And a minute later . . . forty-one times they told you, and you understood. It was just that no matter how many times they pushed it into your head, it wouldn’t stick there; but all the while you knew that your head would start working again in time. And in time it did. . . . Of course, if you were that kid, always explaining things to people and to yourself, you wouldn’t want to bother the sick man with it now. […]
Say you were that kid: say, instead, at last, that you are the sick man, for they are the same; surely then you can understand why of all things, even while shattered, shocked, sick with radiation calculated (leaving) radiation computed (arriving) and radiation past all bearing (lying in the wreckage of Delta) you would want to think of the sea. For no farmer who fingers the soil with love and knowledge, no poet who sings of it, artist, contractor, engineer, even child bursting into tears at the inexpressible beauty of a field of daffodils—none of these is as intimate with Earth as those who live on, live with, breathe and drift in its seas. So of these things you must think; with these you must dwell until you are less sick and more ready to face the truth.
(Oddly for a science fiction story originally published in a straight-up “genre” magazine — The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction — “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was selected for the 1960 edition of The Best American Short Stories.)
I’m not sure a play or a movie could represent the Sturgeon story, its workings of time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience as well and as concisely — or even at all. But that’s a huge disjunction: are plays and movies able to represent the Sturgeon story — just not concisely or well — or is there something inherent to the story that cannot be translated to another art form? I think that depends on how inherent an aspect of an artwork has to be for it to be considered inherent. ;-) And, how good does the movie have to be? The movie could voice-over or crawl tons of text to get closer to the original fiction format, but that (probably) would become annoying. You never know, however; artists are always figuring out new techniques. All the same, because representing time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience is at least a huge strength of fiction (and especially the novel), more and more I try to emphasize those qualities in my own writing.
I said first tentative answer, so how about this second one, which I can describe best in a metaphorical way? Novels are like multicharacter, revised, organized daydreams — or, imagine being a kid and playing with dolls or figurines, making up stories. That’s basically what novels are, I think, but not so much created daydreams worlds as the daydream-y experience of personal identity as a network of multiple narratives, comprised of images, emotions, etc., and stuck into the context of particular settings and social histories/influences and so forth. Sorta sounds like Bakhtin’s account of polyphony in Dostoevsky. But I haven’t read enough Bakhtin yet to say much; besides, his name sounds like Bactine.
Please don’t DMCA-takedown me, Bayer
This way of looking at what’s unique to novelistic form doesn’t seem to strongly entail the memory rumination or time aspects or changing perspectives I mentioned earlier, but yeah, I think fiction — especially when it avoids too much exposition and abstraction — stages a vehicle for experiencing a daydream related to identity and traveling in a specific historical or social context. Yet in “When Narrative Fails,” an article in May 2004’s Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, J. Melvin Woody makes an interesting case that other forms of art can do this, too:
“Why […] should we limit our understanding of the constitution of the self to the narrative? Indeed, why limit ourselves to language? Do not music and dance often articulate our passions more eloquently than any literary form?”
Nevertheless I think my second answer is pretty strong, and pertinent to why reading fiction is not just another hobby or preference, but something people who have the ability and resources and time to read it really should do so.
Whoa, I just earned actual money by writing and self-publishing fiction without an agent or a publisher or an editor or an acquisitions editor. Without any other gatekeeper. The point of this post isn’t the handful (or less) of euros, but another anecdote supporting the march toward what might well be a new paradigm for publishing.
I’ve received fan mail for the story; again, this is not to brag, but to point out that netizens actually read and enjoyed the piece without mediators between them and me. (Artistically, critiquers helped me, of course; and, there are Dreamhost and Flattr and other web companies/organizations, plus the overhead cost of running this website. So in a very loose sense there are, if not mediators, connectors.)
The license allows readers to share (copy) and remix (adapt; e.g., translate) the story so long as they do so on a noncommercial basis, give my name and my story attribution & linkage, and license any remix/adaptation they make similarly. In other words, share the story all you want, freely, and do something cool with it, unless it involves plagiarism or making money. (If you’re Hollywood, email me.)
Yeah, download the short story, the whole thing, and toss a few coins in the tip jar on my digital street corner here where I’m being your bard.
I think magazines and publishing houses are still very necessary. They provide authors with infrastructure for, say, interviews and book tours, among other functions. (After all, most artist types aren’t the greatest biz folk at promoting themselves.) Houses help readers choose between fiction based on reputation. They connect authors with communities and with editors — though tons of editors are already freelancing outside the umbrellas of publishing houses. AND magazines and publishers still have bigger bullhorns than many websites (including mine), bigger wallets than micro-donaters, and they typically bestow more credibility (for opportunities such as speaking gigs) than self-publications. So, sure, I definitely still want to get a bunch of stories past gatekeepers. They’re not all bad or anything!
But the bottom line: in order to connect with readers and score some pocket change, I won’t have to have gatekeepers’ approval. Not anymore. Score one for the Internet.
The Gibson event was, like all Gaul, divided into three parts: a reading (pictured above), a Q&A session (pictured below), and signings (pictured way below). There were maybe 75 people there, some with phones and laptops in constant use during the event, which seemed to me fittingly Gibson-esque.
The Q&A Portion
Notes from the Q&A, things Gibson said. Everything in quotation marks is pretty darn close to what he said; stuff without quotation marks is my paraphrase. Any mistakes are mine, of course.
“In the 20th century I seemed to be a futurist writing about the 21st century; in the 21st century I seem to be some sort of naturalist with a science fiction toolkit.”
“When you get to the real future, it doesn’t have any capital F; it’s just ‘today.'”
He has “trouble with villains.” He said, “As a grown-up, I sort of don’t believe in villainy in the same way I might have done as when I was younger and as our folk culture encourages us to. The bad guys in my books tend to have way too much money and time on their hands, and in my early, sort of further-future fiction, they tended to live way too long, which gave them even more time on their hands […] The real antagonist in all my work is the way the world is — and that’s what undoes the good guys and the bad guys in these books […] and the way people are, or the way I see the world or I see people as being.”
I asked Gibson about Wikileaks, and he said he doesn’t have a position on the organization; he said he needs to think about it in more detail. I encouraged him to blog on the subject. :-p (A lot of people are curious as to what he thinks on the issue.)
Gibson did say “when [Wikileaks] announced and hinted about the link [to the Afghan War Collateral Murder video], I thought, ‘ahh, here it comes, I could have done with this not happening for a few more years.'” I take that last not as a commentary on Wikileaks content, but rather — since Gibson has mentioned the inevitability of radical transparency or at least something approximating it — a remark meaning Wikileaks and any similar organizations are going to be such game-changers that we and the world at large will have to seriously and quite stressfully adapt. Here’s my post about Wikileaks.
In the course of praising the movie Inception, he said: “If you’ve been doing your job right and doing it long enough, you digest all your influences. So when you’re younger there’s like lumps of gristle in your work and it’s not attractive and you realize you should have airbrushed those lumps a bit before you put [the early work] out.”
His debut novel Neuromancer doesn’t make it obvious, but he thought of that one as set in approximately 2035.
One great question someone asked was: Overall, do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? Gibson replied, “Actually I think I’m quite optimistic. People said Neuromancer was oh, this grim dystopian vision of large cities with poor people dealing drugs, where could this have come from, this young man’s imagination is too much! [laughter]
“I think today, there’s any number of people in, for instance, Africa, who would migrate to the Sprawl [the above-mentioned fictional setting in Neuromancer] in an instant, and they’d be way better off. The Sprawl looked dystopian if you were really, really better off […] When I wrote Neuromancer, any rational, well-informed individual knew the world could end at any second [due to nuclear holocaust]. [For understanding the] second half of the 20th century, the great historical secret: people my age grew up knowing the world could end at any minute. It wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it almost did [end] a few times, and nobody knew. There was a Russian radar operator / missle man who didn’t launch [missles] when he saw the American bombers coming, and they were coming accidently. Those are the real nodal points [of history]. [The bombers] got called back, and they’d gotten past the point where the guy was supposed to push the button, and the guy was on the phone with the Kremlin saying there was something wrong, ‘I don’t want to shoot.’ I hope this guy got a medal. Everybody should give that man a medal.
“Coming from a world with that stuff going on I thought I was pretty optimistic to write about a world with people in it! In Neuromancer the big corproations decided nuclear war was bad for business anyway.”
The Signing Portion
During the signing portion of the event, I got four books signed, two (Spook Country and Zero History) for me, one (Pattern Recognition) for Wifely, and one (Idoru) for a friend. I was near the back of the at-least-fifty-something-people line, so when I got to the table, I didn’t want to pester him with any additional questions. :) Instead, I blabbled a bit about Wifely and the friend for whom he was signing — I got the books autographed to our Twitter user names, by the way. If I could go back in time, I’d have just said: “I feel like I’m supposed to be saying something, but I’m really happy, so I’m just going to stand here and beam.” Yeah, it was totally worth the drive from DFW to Austin and back (each trip in the same day!). The event definitely made my week.