Notes from the post-print transition, 2: astonishing confirmation — from medicine — that cooperatives fit the 21st-century’s zeitgeist
Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 23.22.56

Media resisting the unavoidable bow to the democratic future of media ownership are being shown up in Britain by, of all people, the bean-counters of medicine — the traditionally conservative, cautious and slow-moving top managers of the country’s most cherished public institution, the roughly £100 billion ($171 billion) National Health Service.

The pinch-me-I’m-dreaming headline at the top of The Independent’s home page on Monday read: ‘New government policy for the NHS could allow doctors and nurses to “own” hospitals’.

Before we get to the reasoning behind that proposal, let us quickly say that inviting readers and commenters – reader-commenters — to become part-owners of media organisations through subscriptions that would also be financial shares — making them small-scale co-owners – is an actual need in this sector, though not in British medicine. The flow of cash into the NHS is assured. It comes from taxpayers. But, as last week’s entry in this blog noted, the advertising revenue on which print journalism depends to pay its bills looks increasingly shaky as a supreme cash cow for online publishing, as it elbows print out of the way.

Moving towards co-ownership — or ‘mutualisation’ — is the one step that the boldest experimenters with new media structures are resisting. Declining to go that far, we pointed out last month, is the single disappointment in the otherwise wildly impressive reports about De Correspondent – the new Dutch publishing enterprise putting commenters at front and centre-stage in its publishing scheme. Nick Denton, the serial online media entrepreneur – most famous for co-founding Gawker in 2003 with Elizabeth Spiers – has perfectly expressed what we also believe, in describing his many excellent adventures in media redesign to Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:

“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers. … And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”

These smartest readers are most likely to devote all the time they can to the success of an online publishing enterprise – whether a startup or a famous name in the news business ‘flipping’ co-ownership of a part or the whole of its web site to commenters – if they can justify that to themselves with the hope of sharing in its financial success, some day. Denton’s schemes allow reader-commenters to share the stage with professional writers and journalists. They are designed to make readers feel part of a larger family or club, and – as in the De Correspondent plan — to improve the quality of information disseminated on his sites, and the range of expertise on which it draws.

Giving performance and efficiency a gigantic boost is the ambition behind the remarkable news about the proposal for British medicine:

Ministers are drawing up plans to allow doctors and nurses to own and run the hospitals they work in as part of a radical blueprint to change the way the NHS is run.

Under proposals to be floated tomorrow, staff could be able to take over hospitals and other NHS responsibilities and run them as new mutual companies in the style of the department store chain John Lewis.

Staff would then become “shareholders” in the new company with the power to dismiss the chief executive and board members as well as set policy and targets for the new organisation.

Ministers are not ruling out the possibility that staff could even be given a financial stake in the organisations for which they work – sharing bonuses if their hospital makes a profit on NHS work. The new policy comes after an independent review, led by the independent think-tank the King’s Fund, found what it described as “compelling evidence” that NHS organisations with high levels of staff engagement delivered better quality care. […] Ministers have been particularly taken by the success of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, which had been losing £10m a year and had very low levels of patient satisfaction until taken over by the private provider Circle, which manages it for the NHS. Circle is owned jointly by the staff who work for it and private-equity funders.

… We hope that the people in charge of making the rules for the ‘mutualised’ British hospitals will take care to head off any possibility of repeating one grave mistake in American medicine — allowing doctors to invest in medical testing laboratories, rightly blamed for countless unnecessary tests ordered by many of those doctors. These are notoriously a large part of the explanation for America’s expensive and inefficient health care.

The chief fear for the democratic redesign of media is that it will lead to the collapse of cultural standards; that it will usher in a depressing age of mediocrity. Again, the right rules have to be drafted to ensure that this does not happen. Who says that any such effort would lack supporters? Who says that the least talented co-owners of a media enterprise will not wish to celebrate and promote their most talented comrades, attracting honour, fame and new members?

A few weeks ago, there was news of opera-lovers panicking about performances in some places accompanied not by live musicians but digital recordings. A New York Times reader said, in a letter to the editor:

Live music is being performed by an ever-shrinking elite corps of musicians. This trend cannot be reversed. But it will bottom out. There will always be a market for elite musicians … On some level we want to see humans demonstrating their mastery.

 Who would disagree?

What should a writer’s position be on the battle between Amazon and the Hachette publishing conglomerate? Let’s have some basic information, for a start


– photograph by MIL22

As print publishing firms competing with digital rivals have less than ever to give the majority of writers – who have no record as best-sellers — where should scribblers’ sympathies lie in the fight between the Hachette publishing empire and Amazon?

The essential details of what they are quarrelling about are being hidden from us on grounds of commercial secrecy — as noted in one report after another**. These are negotiations conducted down dark alleys. Without those details, we can only puzzle over the tones of ringing certainty in which newspaper commentators have unanimously been denouncing Amazon – although the bookselling giant was plainly wrong to punish Hachette and its authors in these ways noted by The Los Angeles Times:

Amazon is subjecting many books from Hachette to artificial purchase delays. Books that had been available for next-day delivery now take 2-5 weeks to ship. Some titles don’t surface in search as they should. … As a result, Hachette will sell fewer books.

Strangely absent from coverage of the war is an eye-popping point for writers made by a sharp-eyed reader of The New York Times:

To the Editor:

Neither Amazon nor the publishers are pure of heart. Amazon is facing serious pressure on the profitability front from investors, so it is looking to increase margins and reduce costs.

The publishers see e-books as their largest profit area. A Publisher’s Lunch article last year showed the profit breakdown for HarperCollins:A $27.99 hardcover provides a $5.67 profit to the publisher and a $4.20 royalty to the author; a $14.99 e-book provides a $7.87 profit to the publisher and a $2.62 royalty to the author.

While the publishers are making a claim to a noble struggle against Amazon’s efforts to devalue publishing, they are also seeking to protect their higher profits on e-books, not higher royalties for writers. While Amazon claims to want to offer readers the best pricing, Amazon has no qualms about using its powerful market leverage to get what it seeks while inflicting collateral pain on readers to boost its profits.

The two players that are suffering in this situation are the authors (book sales delayed or prevented, dramatically lower royalties) and the consumers, many of whom have invested heavily in the Kindle-based environment.


Barrington, R.I., May 31, 2014

For authors to extract a bigger share of e-royalties, we are guessing that more scribblers with market power ranging from middling to great will have to start publishing e-books on their own, and do well at it. What advantages of being conventionally published do they give up, when they take the indie road? Fewer and fewer. Many more authors who have tried both the old route to being published and the new say exactly what this Guardian reader did last month, reacting in the comments section of a blog post about self-publishing:


29 May 2014

I’m not a fan of self-publishing, but I don’t think this article addresses some of the salient reasons for its rise. Nothing is mentioned of the radical shift in traditional publishing to put marketing efforts into nothing but established writers with blockbuster track records, or its abandonment of a good editorial process.

Having been one of those writers who did get published by a major publisher, it quickly became obvious that it was a waste of time and financially costly. The royalty rates offered (especially on electronic sales) are, frankly, laughable. There is no effort at marketing. As a new author, you are expected to do all the publicity and marketing for yourself anyway. The least one might expect was a decent line edit, but the book I published through a major house was published with typographical errors aplenty. So, exactly how does it benefit new writers to even consider submitting to a traditional publisher?

Forget the money. What about the cultural landscape? Are publishers are lining up to publish radically new forms of narrative? No. In fact, the chances of you getting a publishing deal for your book depends, most notably, on how much it resembles another book that’s done well.

And if a writer opts for self-publishing and does well with it, there is a far better chance of having a major publisher will pick you up, republish your work, offer far better terms, better editors and some marketing – now that you no longer need it.

… [T]he disdain in this article for the self-published work doesn’t take into account what is driving many authors to circumvent the publishing apparatus altogether.

The Independent noted,

At least one author, Barry Eisler, is standing up for Amazon, saying: “More people are buying more books than ever and more people are making a living by writing them. Why do millionaire authors want to destroy the one company that’s made this all possible?”

The problem for many in publishing is that the dominance of this one company, with its Kindle store, keeps growing. It is estimated that e-book sales will soar to almost $9bn this year in America, while print book sales fall below $20bn, down from $26bn in 2010.

Yes, it’s clear from those numbers that Amazon has too much power in e-publishing. But to see what can be done about it, let’s have some more information about precisely what terms it was arguing about with Hachette.

Transparency, please.

** For instance, although The Los Angeles Times’s handy summary of the dispute is highlighted as an instance of ‘an unusually public battle’ — in ‘Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps,’ — its step 6 says:

Amazon has not commented to The Times regarding this dispute other than to point us to a message-board posting in the Kindle discussion forums on its site. There, it explained that Hachette was one of its 70,000 suppliers and that the two had been unable to reach acceptable terms (without disclosing what was being negotiated).

for 1. 1. 2014: Charles Dickens, implacable foe of the witless ‘information wants to be free’ movement

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Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 am, 31.12.2013 - photographs by MIL22

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 pm, 31. 12. 2013
- photographs by MIL22

1.1.2014 - postgutenberg[at]

1. 1. 2014 begins
- postgutenberg[at]

[ re-posting 'for 1. 1. 2014' entry, now that there are finally a few minutes to add the clips originally intended for this space ]

The anger of Charles Dickens about greed and hypocrisy —  which extended to copyright scoffers, we recently discovered — was the fire that lit his genius. This fact is strangely forgotten by critics of his ‘mawkish sentimentality,’ possibly because too many of them crumble before the challenge of long sentences fizzing with wit to have read him in the original.

Anyone can understand Dickens’s fury about book pirates driving him to write about how much copyright could mean to an author scraping by on earnings from literary craft and the exercise of imagination — as he had himself, before he was famous. But who could guess that in 1838 and ‘39, when he was publishing The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby as a serial, he specifically addressed copyright opponents intent on smashing the concept of artistic ownership – with exactly the same perverted notion of ‘democracy’ as leaders of today’s ‘information wants to be free’ movement?

For a representative of those opponents, in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens chose a Member of Parliament,  a Mr. Gregsbury, ‘a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.’

This oaf’s rhinoceros hide makes it easy for him to blow off the demand by a delegation of his constituents that he resign immediately, even though they have presented him with proof of several acts of blatant corruption. This happens just before Nicholas’s interview with him for the post of secretary – an offer he is obliged to reject, though desperate to find work and emaciated from lack of food. The insultingly tiny salary is for duties the M.P. outlines that include serving as office clerk, speech-writer, researcher, PR-man, outsourced brain, and late-night attendant at parliamentary sessions.

In that job interview, the pontificator turns to the subject of copyright:

‘With regard to such questions as are not political,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; ‘and which one can’t be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?—I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among THE PEOPLE,—you understand?—that the creations of the pocket, being man’s, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God’s, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large—and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation OF posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can’t be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either—do you see?’

‘I see that, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘You must always bear in mind, in such cases as this, where our interests are not affected,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘to put it very strong about the people, because it comes out very well at election-time; and you could be as funny as you liked about the authors; because I believe the greater part of them live in lodgings, and are not voters.

… Dickens, who would make an excellent patron saint for the Occupy movement, also sounds bang-up-to-the-minute topical – in the same novel – in a scene in which an unsuccessful, small-time crook cringingly addresses one routinely getting away with larceny on a grand scale:

I left you—long after that time, remember—and, for some poor trickery that came within the law, but was nothing to what you money-makers daily practise just outside its bounds, was sent away a convict for seven years.

Why is the smaller snippet worth adding, there? Because, as we were on our way to this post, we caught sight of a blog title on the site of The New York Review of Books:

The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?

The answer by the blogger, Jed S. Rakoff, in part:

One possibility […] is that no fraud was committed. This possibility should not be discounted. Every case is different, and I, for one, have no opinion about whether criminal fraud was committed in any given instance.

But the stated opinion of those government entities asked to examine the financial crisis overall is not that no fraud was committed. Quite the contrary. For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior.

… Fairness in the copyright debate. Progress from mere rhetoric to forcing reforms in keeping with the Occupiers’ aims.  How wonderful if these should prove to be defining features of 2014. Too much change for a single year? Ah, but this is the centenary of the start of a single war that re-drew the boundaries of the countries of Europe, in the course of which both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires vanished.

Anything is possible. ‘Candles, flowers and hope in a new beginning,’ reflected our MIL22 — whose peerless images from an impulsive New Year’s Eve visit to the medieval Sant’Ambrogio begin 2014 for post-Gutenberg.

One hundred posts, but many more kudos to Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott for a post-print work of genius focused on Italy

giac b+w title

<i>Girlfriend in a Coma</i> encourages viewers to join its creators in knocking down and neutralising ‘Bad Italy’ – a podgy monster, in Phoebe Boswell’s conception of it

Girlfriend in a Coma urges viewers to join its creators in neutralising ‘Bad Italy’ – a podgy monster, in Phoebe Boswell’s conception

Phoebe Boswell

Phoebe Boswell
photograph by Sky Arts

[…an inadvertently belated appreciation...]

Our 100th post-Gutenberg entry amounts to a standing ovation for two old media journalists — one Italian, the other English —  who have unzipped their imaginations to create a model of transmedia fence-jumping, using digital tools to communicate subtler and more penetrating information than can be transmitted through either conventional opinion journalism or documentary film-making.

The key to realising their extraordinary ambitions for their collaborative video production, Girlfriend in a Coma, was the free hand they gave a hair-raisingly original and gifted young British artist and animator, the Kenyan-born Phoebe Boswell. Hers is a talent that had us scribbling the names of the manically brilliant English cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, his ghoulish American kindred spirits, Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, the Alice in Wonderland illustrator Tenniel, and Salvador Dali, as we ruminated about influences.

Girlfriend is based loosely on Good Italy, Bad Italy (2012), a contemporary portrait in a book by Bill Emmott, The Economist’s editor from 1993 to 2006. He is listed in the video’s credits as co-writer and co-director with Annalisa Piras, credited as director, and the prime mover behind the project. She is about ten years younger than Bill, who happens to be a former colleague of p-G’s remembered for true and exemplary collegiality. This makes it not in the least surprising that – as well as he plays his part as the video’s unassuming narrator, and as much as the narrative is technically filtered through his memories of Italy, his thoughts, and his feelings about Europe’s high-heeled boot — the production is saturated with a wildness and emotional intensity so unlike him that they could only have been conjured by his collaborators. Bill is clearly a first-rate encourager.

Annalisa (as referring to Bill as Emmott feels awkward, we’ll dispense with surnames) has explained how she sketched Girlfriend’s essential requirements for Phoebe and Jenny Lewis, Phoebe’s partner in animating her drawings and imaginings: ‘the Italian characters — the Good Italy, based on the female image since Roman times, the Bad Italy, a thug wearing a “Pulcinella” mask from the Commedia dell’Arte — and the ideas I wanted to convey, and they ran with it.’

Actually, they flew. Annalisa stayed closely involved: frame by frame, they flew together. (See updated Q & A about ‘the making of …’ here.) The result made p-G, a jaded lifelong observer of Italy, sit up and marvel, as if for the first time, about the paradox of a country easily seen as a screaming basket case — as far as economics and politics go — somehow managing to hold its place, for decades, among the world’s leading economies. If this trans-documentary has a single flaw, it is that it fails to offer an adequate explanation for the Italy that, against long odds, has not merely survived but often prospered mightily in modern times. But this is beside the point for Girlfriend — mistakenly slated by some critics for a lack of balance. It is a call to arms. It is a manifesto for the reform of a deeply marvellous but also staggeringly corrupt, inefficient, uncaring and misogynistic society.

Not that anything as dreary as ‘consciousness-raising’ remotely describes its tone. This is set by Phoebe’s surreal, dreamlike imagery, briskly intercut with footage frequently shot from clever camera angles that recalls the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially Blowup, and micro-clips from interviews – the interviewees as diverse as high-ranking politicians, Mafia prosecutors, all-too-understandably outraged feminists, top industrialists, historians, political theorists, the irresistible novelist-philosopher Umberto Eco, workers and inmates in a home for the disabled – that justify the video’s charming frame.

And what is that?

Italy is presented to us as a girl with whom Bill fell helplessly in love as a tourist in his student days. Not any old girl but an ethereal and languorous jeune fille who happens to be a touch eccentric, neurotic to the core, and assailed by homicidal inner demons – encapsulated in the figure of the mega-ogre with the Pulcinella mask. She has, for him, come to fit the skin-crawling title of a pop song by the Smiths; a girl so severely afflicted as to end up, virtually, on artificial life support.

No wonder Girlfriend was financed as an indie project – by Annalisa’s own company, Springshot Productions. Though her potted biography mentions her education in Rome in history, politics and cinematography, and two decades of shooting documentaries while she also served as the London correspondent of L’Espresso, we cannot imagine any part of the old media establishment backing such a commendably outlandish project.

That does say something disappointing in the extreme about the reluctance of our dominant communicators to get to grips with the future. Fear of the unfamiliar in other quarters – among arts reviewers – could also explain why p-G is writing about Girlfriend nearly a year after its release in Europe.

We learnt of its existence by accident, last month – having been mostly cut off from news about arts-and-letters at the time of its launch last November. Online searches show that though it did indeed cause the intended stir in Italy, at the loftiest levels, and was shown in art cinemas and nominated for awards in European cities, it has so far failed to be noticed for the right reasons. Though it has had some laudatory reviews in the Anglosphere, including a rave here and there, these have mostly been short (a single glowing paragraph in The Financial Times, for instance). Where, we have been wondering, are the lavish allocations of column-inches that this trans-documentary deserves? The colour photo-spreads? The probing investigations on the front pages of arts sections of how Annalisa, Bill and Phoebe came to be the pioneer-collaborators they are? The questions about their insights into the evolution of post-print media?

Funny, to say the least, that no one apparently saw plenty to write home about in watching the calm, gently reasonable ex-editor of a well-known magazine drifting in silhouette through shadowy stone arches, up and down dark stairways that evoke dungeons — sequences near the start of his narration that evoke both the vicious underside of Italy that includes the Mafia, and our narrator’s own unconscious mind.

Are we being invited, in this segment, to believe that Italy is where Bill’s muse or — from one perspective in psychological theory — anima, in the form of this Girlfriend, resides? Later in the video, one of the readings from Dante Alighieri that interrupt the narrative periodically goes, ‘O lady, you in whom my hope gains strength.’  This is stimulating allusiveness. In the hands of Girlfriend’s creative quartet, it hugely enhances all the information it packs in – is sophisticated, successful sugar-coating for the flow of statistics, miniature history lessons and political science lectures that barely register as anything so dull.

Some highlights (not necessarily in the right sequence):

• Blisteringly incisive insight and commentary in clips from interviews with Roberto Saviano, a (now) 34 year-old investigative journalist and novelist obliged to live in hiding, under police protection, from Mafiosi infuriated by his revelations. His handsome shaved head, winglike black eyebrows and dark eyes shot in stygian gloom are in perfect harmony with the sinister animation sequences.

• Bill talks to the intellectual and left-leaning Canadian-Italian industrialist, Sergio Marchionne, who made his name by restoring the fortunes of Fiat; who hopes that we will see the evolution of a healthier form of capitalism, and says that ‘People who engineer the free market have a responsibility to keep it clean.’ His point is underlined by the words of Dante – reaching us by way of the disembodied voice of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch – to which we listen looking at a panorama of industrial sprawl, probably Turin: ‘[Y]our avarice afflicts the world:/ it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.’

• Maurizio Viroli, a slender, elfin professor of political theory at Princeton sits at a dining table talking to us over the remains of what appears to have been a simple, vinous meal all the more delicious for its informality. He points out that the three main leaders of the 19th-century Risorgimento or ‘resurgence’ that created modern Italy – Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi — ‘had a deep religiosity inspired by currents of Protestanism – Jansenism.’ He adds that ‘all three were critical of the Catholic attitude of making deals with those who are powerful,’ and he mainly blames the Catholic Church for the besetting national flaws, ‘sloth and moral weakness’.

• Sad, wraithlike, girlish figures sketched by Phoebe rise from Lake Pellicone, a dramatic expanse of blue set in a rock-walled canyon. Dante’s lines, here: ‘This miserable way / is taken by the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise. / They now commingle with the coward angels, / the company of those who were not rebels / nor faithful to their God, but stood apart. /’ In the rocks above the water, in another superimposed animation, the demonic ogre bashes Bill’s girlfriend.

• Bill cycles around a deserted, sparkling Ferrero chocolate factory, dressed in one of a succession of dapper outfits, many in brilliant colours that recall swinging ‘60s London. The ghastly, thankfully deposed Silvio Berlusconi, three times Italy’s prime minister – who did not keep his promise to appear in the film — was apparently thinking of Bill’s appearance as well as his politics in nicknaming him ‘Lenin,’ yet the cumulative impression he makes is a hybrid of Agatha Christie’s brainy Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and Amélie’s beloved globe-trotting garden ornament in the film by that name.

Not many experimenters with post-Gutenberg communication will have either the funds or connections to match the excellence of the musical sound track, or engage the likes of Cumberbatch for poetry recitations. What any of us can still learn from Girlfriend is the importance of re-conceiving from scratch our presentation of what we want to say; of not merely pouring well-worn forms and conventions for shaping information into new-media bottles, but grabbing the chance to communicate what was virtually impossible to communicate before about non-fictional places, events and people.

As far as we can tell, Girlfriend is as scrupulously factual as the finest old-fashioned print journalism. But it exploits special capacities of moving pictures to show us how the facts about its subject impress and affect its chief observer and fact-gatherer, Bill, drawing us beneath the surface of hard reality into psyche – with the animation sequences drawn and directed by Phoebe ensuring a clear demarcation of the boundary between the actual and the strictly impressionistic. One parallel for such innovativeness that we mentioned in a recent post is Carl Djerassi’s revisiting, re-sifting, and powerful re-enlivening of the mental preoccupations and lives of pre-war intellectuals in his Four Jews on Parnassus – by recasting them as dialogue; as a spikily argumentative conversation.

This appreciation of Girlfriend will end with a whiff of the uncanny. A day or so after we first watched it, we kept thinking of Blowup, and wondering why. After we had tapped a tentative explanation into a keyboard, we went to the Wikipedia looking for the year of the film’s release – 1966, and there was a New York Times arts correspondent attributing part of critics’ reaction to this ‘stunning picture’ to the way it is ‘beautifully built up with glowing images and color compositions that get us into the feelings of our man,’ its photographer-protagonist. No, there was nothing uncanny about that discovery. The spine-prickling came from being told something we never knew, in the same Wiki entry. Antonioni had used as the backdrop for Blowup’s carnivalesque opening scene (below) the plaza of a London office building — part of a streaky-concrete-and-glass specimen of Brutalist architecture — where we had once toiled long past sunset, years after we had forgotten details of the film. … And that was the office where, bizarrely, we once worked with Bill.

Did Girlfriend’s collaborators have Blowup in mind when they were mulling over the look and feel they wanted for their project? We must remember to ask.

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The message from ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ about blogging’s future status is encouraging. As for its transformation of computer (in)security – bah!

One lovely child of flawed software: poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern,

One lovely child of flawed software:
poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern,

Seven years ago, Elinor Ostrom — a winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for economics — cited an article on computer unreliability in a paper on knowledge-sharing that she wrote with Charlotte Hess. The angry essay they mentioned ran in late 2000 in an e-zine, the online magazine Salon. Their thirty-nine citations included only one other in a general-interest publication, a decades-old New Yorker piece by E. B. White.

More on that in a moment …

Long before print journalists shrank from crediting or citing blogs as sources of good ideas and information, they refused to acknowledge debts to e-zines and other online-only publications. If they gave them any credit at all, it was for being brave enough to dip their toes in the digital future – in which, from print’s Olympian perch, it seemed as if these pioneers were bound to fail. Their cold-shouldering will soon have to end, thanks to the example set by unprejudiced, fair-minded thinkers.

In post-Gutenberg’s experience, intellectual greatness is in direct proportion to the trouble a powerful brain worker takes over acknowledging useful information or inspiration found absolutely anywhere – whether or not the source meets old-fashioned, conventional criteria for respectability. Only shallow snobs care about labels.

With a quotation of just three words about a growing ‘culture of carelessness,’ Ostrom and Hess directed readers of their paper about obstacles to sharing research findings to the Salon article — ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ (‘HTMOS’) — whose subject has been making front-page headlines, lately.

For instance, yesterday’s ‘Chinese Hackers Resume Attacks on U.S. Targets’ followed by only a few weeks a long profile in the same newspaper about the über-Cassandra on this topic, an octogenarian computer scientist called Peter Neumann who is leading a team of researchers trying to make computers less vulnerable to security breaches. His interviewer noted that

… the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy. The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security …

We would name the newspaper we have quoted in linking to it, as we usually do, except that we are trying to make a point about the churlishness of print journalists’ tendency to – shall we say, forget to credit e-zines and blogs as sources. In April, the same daily ran an opinion piece by a hacker-turned-security-consultant, Marc Maiffret, who made our eyes pop in one paragraph (our italics):

The unspoken truth is that for the most part, large software companies are not motivated to make software secure. It’s a question of investment priorities: they care more about … developing the latest features and functions that consumers and businesses are looking to buy.

Unspoken, eh?

‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ certainly spoke, twelve years ago:

A culture of carelessness seems to have taken over in high-tech America. The personal computer is a shining model of unreliability because the high-tech industry today actually exalts sloppiness as a modus operandi.


American companies accept “good enough” quality for the sake of speed. Being first to market with new products is exalted as the highest goal here, and companies fall back on huge technical support and customer service staffs to cope with their many errors of commission and omission.

“Don’t worry, be crappy,” was how Silicon Valley veteran and pundit Guy Kawasaki expressed the same idea two years ago, in a speech that won him a standing ovation.

Programmers, hackers, and technologists of every stripe were incensed by the Salon essay. After a link to it was posted in the week of its publication on — then the most popular computerists’ chat-forum – they swarmed aboard, so furious that at least a third of the posts denounced the author of ‘HTMOS’ as ‘he,’ in spite of her unambiguously female name. The explosion was partly owed to the genius of Andrew Leonard, the Salon editor on the job, who barely scratched the piece’s text but wrote its headline and dreamt up a standfirst borrowing none of its actual words, which read,

Computer companies specialize in giving consumers lousy products — it’s the American way of techno-capitalism.

Maiffret and his editors might simply have failed to check the antecedents for his condemnation of Silicon Valley’s lack of interest in safe computing. A lone editor from the print world, Simon Caulkin – renowned in British journalism not just for his talent but peerless integrity (and a former colleaugue of the Salon contributor) – did cite ‘HTMOS’ in one of his Observer columns on management, titled, ‘Software must stop bugging us’.

For the most part, it is in books and university curricula that the essay has been marked for attention. Even if the world is still a long way from curing computers of their flaws, the citations that come up on the first page of Google results for the essay’s title are in, for instance:

Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Sue Roaf, David Crichton and Fergus Nicol, Routledge, 2012

Why Programs Fail – A Guide to Systematic Debugging, Andreas Zeller, Elsevier, 2009 [also a Google e-book]

Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice, Pearson Education, 2007

Quality software project management, Robert T. Futrell, Donald F. Shafer and Linda Isabell Shafer, Prentice Hall Professional, 2002

‘HTMOS’ also continues to find its way into arguments between technophiles, as in 2007, on the site of the ‘Central West End Linux Users Group’ – where it was used to slap down a debater who declared airily, ‘Every OS [operating system] has its faults. Pick your poison.’

That Ostrom-Hess paper with which this post began was, as it happens, about tribalism getting in the way of sharing information critical to human life – in microbiology research. The authors noted, in their abstract, that ‘there are many, diverse participants in producing and consuming information who often have conflicting interests …’.

Conflicting interests indeed. It is obvious from the rarity with which print journalism acknowledges good work published online in e-zines and blogs that its workers are afraid of their new competitors. And then, of course, programmers are not particularly fond of that article. We at post-Gutenberg are not much interested in conspiracy theories, but could not help smiling when we noticed that someone at both The Observer and Salon appeared to have gone to pains to make it harder to find ‘HTMOS’ and the Caulkin column on flawed software. The London newspaper misclassifies his eloquent jeremiad with the work of a political writer, Madeleine Bunting. And for years, the Salon essay has been indexed not with its collections of pieces on computers, software or Silicon Valley but under ‘AUTO INDUSTRY, ENTERTAINMENT NEWS’.

Of course we imply no conspiracy… the culprit could only be a dear little sloppiness gremlin piling up overtime hours.

Bloggers’ rights, and blogging vs. traditional journalism: let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend

'Let a hundred schools of thought contend'

‘Let a hundred schools of thought contend’

'Let a hundred bloggers bloom'

‘Let a hundred bloggers bloom’

Blogging as one of our rights to free expression was the subject of an important and excellent ARTICLE 19 paper published earlier this month. ARTICLE 19 ‘is an international human rights organisation, founded in 1986, which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.’

Highlights — to some of which we have added extra emphasis, in italics:

Who is a blogger?

In the most basic sense, a blogger is any person who writes entries for, adds materials to, or maintains a ‘blog’ – a web log published on the Internet. Blogs allow anyone to self-publish online without prior editing or commissioning by an intermediary (e.g. someone like a newspaper editor). They can be immediate and also anonymous if the blogger so desires.

What matters most about the right to blog?

Blogging plays an invaluable role in the free flow of information worldwide. It enables a true exchange of information in ways that traditional media did not in the past. It also allows an immediate sharing of information with its audience and immediate feedback. It represents a valuable form of alternative journalism and is an example of the Internet’s ‘democratisation of publishing.’

In the 21st century, many bloggers will take their place as watchdogs, alongside traditional media. The international community and individual states must develop protection for bloggers, just as they have developed protection for traditional media, despite the many constraints. Throughout history, the traditional media have obtained protection as a group although, at the individual level, many members of the media are not concerned with advancing public interest. Similar protection must be provided to bloggers.

How are bloggers different from journalists?

ARTICLE 19 has long argued that ‘journalism’ and ‘journalists’ should not be defined by reference to some recognised body of training, or by affiliation with a media entity or professional body.5 We have argued that journalism is an activity that can be exercised by anyone, and that it is important that any legal standards and principles applicable to the activity should reflect this.

In particular, the definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

At the same time, any person who seeks to publish information on matters of public interest should benefit from the same protection and privileges given to professional journalists under existing case law, including prohibiting any requirement for journalists to be registered, requiring the authorities to investigate attacks on them, and protecting their sources.

Key recommendations

– Relevant legal standards should reflect the fact that ‘journalism’ consists

of disseminating information and ideas to the public by any means of communication. As such, it is an activity which can be exercised by anyone.

– Any definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad, to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

– Bloggers should never be required to obtain a licence to blog.

– Bloggers should never be required to register with the government or other

official bodies.

– Accreditation schemes must meet international freedom of expression standards and should ensure that:

– all applicants, including bloggers, who meet the minimum requirements defined in the law should be automatically issued with a ‘press’ facilitation card;

– press cards should only be required to get access to events or premises where there is a clear need to limit attendance based on limited space or the potential for disruption;

– the conditions for obtaining a press card should be based on the overall public interest and not on considerations such as affiliation with a professional association or degree in journalism.

– Legal commentators, including bloggers, should be allowed to use social media from court rooms if the hearings are open to the public.

– To the extent that they are engaged in journalistic activity, bloggers should be able to rely on the right to protect their sources.

– Any request to disclose sources should be strictly limited to the most serious cases. It should be approved only by an independent judge in a fair and public hearing with a possibility of an appeal.

– State authorities must guarantee the safety of bloggers using a variety of measures, including the prohibition of crimes against freedom of expression in their domestic laws.

– States must take reasonable steps to protect bloggers and other individuals actively engaged in online communities when they know or ought to know of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified blogger as a result of the criminal acts of a third party;

– State authorities must carry out independent, speedy and effective investigations into threats or violent attacks against bloggers or other individuals engaged in journalistic activity online.

– The laws governing the liability of bloggers, including defamation law, incitement and other speech-related offences, must comply with international freedom of expression standards.

– As a general rule, bloggers should not be held liable for comments made by third parties on their blogs in circumstances where they have not intervened or modified those comments.

– For certain types of content, for example content that is defamatory or infringes copyright, consideration should be given to adopting ‘notice-and-notice’ approaches whereby bloggers would be required to pass the complaint to the original maker of the statement at issue, without removing the material upon notice.

– The term ‘duties and responsibilities’ in Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the European Convention must be interpreted flexibly to take into account the particular situation of the blogger in question.

– Bloggers should not be forced to abide by the ethical codes or codes of conduct developed by traditional media and should not be coerced or given an incentive to join self-regulatory bodies for traditional media.

– Bloggers may decide to follow the ethical standards of traditional media of their own accord. They can also develop their own code of practice either for their own blogs or for associations they voluntarily join. Alternative dispute resolution systems should also be encouraged.

– When bloggers produce a piece for a traditional newspaper, they should be subject to the newspaper’s editorial control, and abide by the ethical standards of journalists.

Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?

Might co-ops help to correct Rupert Murdoch’s delusional prediction and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

Might co-ops end the reign of press barons like Rupert Murdoch and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

It began as a lament about the disposal of a mountain of spring weeds, the conversation that got us thinking about the new Vatican leader’s inaugural promise to ‘embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest,’ and his wish expressed elsewhere to see ‘a church that is poor and for the poor.’ He sounds remarkably like someone on an Occupy soapbox. But unlike members of that well-meaning but chaotic movement, he has a massive organisation behind him to help point followers in the right direction.

We have been astounded by the evidence search engines supply of wide interest in a Christian spiritual figure among so many typically secular intellectual institutions – The New Yorker, for instance — and stretching as far as blogs like one called Non-Prophet Status declaring, ‘Why this atheist is (tentatively) optimistic about Pope Francis’. Soon, he could win a popularity contest with the Dalai Lama, among non-believers.

There was even a surprise for us close to home. Though there have been no Catholics among our blood relations for three generations, one scrupulously apolitical member of our family about the same age as the pontiff, and paying close attention, insisted last week that the papal mission was doomed. ‘Because,’ he explained, ‘most of the world is poor and always will be. As he won’t be able to make any difference to the impoverished far outnumbering everyone else, why choose certain failure?’

While we considered that opinion, a question occurred to us: what single lever could Pope Francis choose to concentrate on, to prove the pessimists wrong? What might be his equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet?

Unexpectedly, an answer suggested itself not long after we heard from a grizzled, kindly Greenlander living on the edge of San Francisco about his reason for being incensed by an argument with his local garbage collector. This rubbish-disposal engineer, on his weekly round, had haughtily spurned, then left behind, several giant plastic bags into which the Greenlander’s neighbours had taken pains to squeeze a towering weed-pile. No bags, he said. Nothing but greenery.

When the Greenlander appealed for mercy — an exception made for neighbours who were still newcomers, the haul-away man said it was time that they learnt the rules.  No, the Greenlander said later, shaking his head, the smelliness of the work did not excuse the man’s unfeeling intransigence. ‘Don’t you know how much money these garbage guys make? A fortune!’

The next person to enter the conversation filled in some fascinating details. He said that the average income of a rubbish collector working for Recology, the dominant garbage company in the region, is $80,000 – or roughly twice the salary of the average American schoolteacher or policeman. Though we have not, so far, been able to check the precise accuracy of that number, we suspect that it is correct, or nearly so, because it was part of a case handled by our informant, a lawyer with a good memory.

We thought this salary fair, and said as much. Imagine the stench for mile after mile, working on a trash-collecting truck in summer heat! But then came a bigger – and even more welcome – shock. Recology is entirely employee-owned. Historically, its workers had ancestry in common with Pope Francis. This cooperative’s website says :

Our company’s roots have always been in recycling and employee ownership.


The original Bay Area garbage men, or “scavengers”, came to San Francisco from Italy in the late 19th century. At that time, scavenging in San Francisco was a disorderly and inefficient business. Hundreds of independent collectors competed for business. The 1906 earthquake and fire temporarily improved business, but did little to bring order to the chaos of garbage collection.

The website boasts that Recology has an outstanding record for innovation, and one item on the list it offers as proof suggests a startling interest in the radical 1960s Arte Povera (art from poverty) movement in Italy:

The world-renowned Artist in Residence Program in 1990 allowing local artists to find materials in our processing facilities to create art.

… Anyway, we were, as we said, reminded by this chat of Pope Francis committing himself to helping not merely the indigent but ‘the weakest, the least important, …’. Could there be a better salve for the lowly status of garbage-collecting than a bank balance honestly earned through joint ownership?

Post-Gutenberg began as a spinoff of a paper setting out a detailed proposal for saving journalism from the machinations of press barons like Rupert Murdoch through a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ – owned by workers and customers.

Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, a member of the religious order famous, for centuries, for being frighteningly intelligent, would know about the remarkable success of huge cooperatives in, for instance, Switzerland. He would certainly stand a far better chance of pushing a new cooperative movement than any blink-and-you-miss-it blog like ours, or any of the pundits making the case for employee ownership on newspaper sites often, but to little avail – so far.

Of an orange pig, a wolf, and using literary clips to rescue literature from hyperinflated praise

'Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori' photograph by MIL22

‘Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori’
photograph by MIL22

When the currency of literary praise has been so debased as to be all but worthless, returning to a form of barter is long overdue.

What are we saying?

Before some wily genius invented money – which too often earns its reputation as the root of all evil — people traded in actual things other people wanted, not in symbolic representations of the value of those things. So many of us are fed up of being misled by book jacket hyperbole and dishonest reviews dressing up mediocre or shoddy work as ‘brilliant,’ ‘masterly,’ ‘luminous,’ and ‘stunning’ that it is time to melt down the defunct adjectival coinage, shelve it, and return to the actual substance of literature. We mean that we would love to see a trend for favouring clips of the writer’s own arrangements of words, in drawing attention to works of literature — over the encomiums of word-floggers and other tricksters.

Still making our slow – savouring — way through Storm DamageJohn A. A. Logan’s collection of short stories mentioned on this blog in January — we came across one accorded the rare distinction, in our reading over the years, of being read more than twice by us.

Like our photograph in honour of early spring – a gift of the eyes of generous MIL22 – this story, ‘The Orange Pig,’ is the work of an artist interested in satisfying nothing but exacting, deeply interior aesthetic standards. And if that sounds too serious – well, this is a tale that had us shaking with amusement as often as it left us rapt from the recognition of wisdom dextrously confected as a soufflé.

Without further ado we leave you, dear reader, to consider these extracts chosen to avoid giving away too much – and to let you marvel at a publishing revolution that makes it possible to acquire the thoughts that link them together on your e-reader almost instantaneously. All for no more than what it would take to put a frothing coffee into your hands.

‘I only want to walk to the top of the hill,’ said the orange pig.

‘No-one is stopping you,’ said the wolf. ‘But surely you can see that we can’t let incidents like these go unexamined or unreported. I assume you are from the farm.’

‘Where I am from is my own business.’

‘I understand,’ said the wolf, ‘but …’

The wolf waved a paw in the direction of the dead bird.

‘In circumstances like this,’ said the wolf, ‘we all must account for ourselves, our actions, our motives. It may be in the next world we will all be free to move where we wish like phantoms in the mist, but you are from a farm. You know the meaning of a fence, or a gate, a sty or a barn, a wall or a door. Do not pretend to be naïve. I find you here, and then I find this. What am I to think?’

‘The only time is now,’ said the wolf.

‘It is very late.’

‘Not so very,’ said the wolf.

They walked past the dogs like ghosted whispers and soon they were beyond the limits of the farm, their legs working hard against the steep hill’s power.

‘Under the moon there is no market day,’ said a deep, bass voice from further to the orange pig’s left than his thick neck could twist to let him see. ‘No lorry to take us away, no slaughterhouse, no scheduled death.’

‘For scheduled death is dishonour,’ said the black wolf.

‘Amen,’ said all the wolves in a clear chorus.

Somehow, though, the orange pig’s personality had not attracted fame, only a non-profitable cache of oddity. Good enough to bring a few of the farmer’s friends around the orange pig’s sty to stare at him awhile, but nothing solid to build a business on. The newspapers had come once, and taken photographs, but interest had not been ignited in the public.

‘To hell with farms and farmers,’ said a bitter voice the pig had not heard before.

Amen,’ said the wolves.

‘It is here in the moonlight things are shown truly,’ said a quiet voice from among the sea of silver heads. ‘With the sun in the morning comes all the illusions and divisions. Here in the silver shining, we are our truest selves, is it not so my brothers?’

‘Amen,’ said a strong chorus.

‘No farm could ever be thought of or established in the moonlight. It is an idea of the day, born of heat and dazzle.’

‘I told this pig I would take him another night to wash in the salt of the sea,’ said the long wolf.

‘The waters of the sea are great, its waves caress and cool us,’ said the quiet voice.

‘That pig’s legs are too short to run with you to the sea,’ said a voice.

‘We will all go,’ said the black wolf. ‘We will go to the sea another night and we will go at his pace. There are thoughts that come when we stand in the sea and feel the waves lap at our legs that can come in no other way. It is time we did go to the sea again.’

[ … continues …]

How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media

Diccon Bewes, a member of's five-man Public Council

Diccon Bewes, a member of’s five-man Public Council

Swiss Watching NEW ED

Naked hiking is alarmingly popular, even in winter … Public nudity is not a trauma in Switzerland. Many Swiss bathing areas have FKK (Freikörper-kultur or free body culture; that is, nudist) sections … It’s still not on the German scale, where you never know when the next naked person might appear. Have a picnic in the wrong section of Munich’s English Garden and you’ll never eat another Scotch egg.

Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and MoneyDiccon Bewes, (2010)

The dispenser of advice on hazardous unclothing, Diccon Bewes, has written the wittiest, most elegantly informative and indispensable manual on today’s Switzerland for English-speaking foreigners. His whirling outline of Swiss history at the start of his book is spliced into an account of a winding walk chosen for historical associations, which gives a reader mnemonic imagery for its highlights. Bewes knows better than to frighten the Swiss, restraining what the glowing review in the Zurich paper Tages-Anzeiger called ‘typically black English humour.’

Yet encoded in his skipping prose is the style of such unforgettable thought-capsules, in 1066 and All That — the unsurpassed (1930) parody of history text-books – as, ‘[King] Alfred noticed that the Danes had very long ships, so he built a great many more much longer ones, thus cleverly founding the British Navy.’ This is specially admirable in a practical guide so astute at gauging what outsiders need to know to survive in a place where English is missing even from multilingual train announcements and museum placards, that every new visitor touching down on a Swiss tarmac could use a Bewes-on-CH (Confoederatio Helvetica) mobile app spun off from Swiss Watching.

Our overview of the visible talents of Diccon Bewes is not offered from any interest in boosting Swiss tourism, or encouraging expatriation to the Alps. He has caught our attention for an entirely unrelated reason. What we outside CH most need from him is a detailed, step-by-step education by an insider in how the Swiss make extreme democracy work, or what Beppe Grillo and the Occupy movements must do to realise their dreams. Specifically, it is media of the Gutenberg era baffled by — and resisting the transition to — post-Gutenberg inclusiveness who most need his assistance. As we have said before –

Techno-optimists are sure that our egalitarian internet that brought you to this blog will flatten power structures in organisations, both online and offline, and usher in an age of extreme democracy. Cynics say that they are wrong. Whisper to them tentatively about, for instance, reorganising the media to make readers and viewers part-owners and managers, and they will roar at you, “Ridiculous! Disastrous! It could never work!’

You must then reply in calming tones, ‘True, if you do it like California, but not if you copy Switzerland.’

So, how exactly do you copy CH? Few English-speakers have either Bewes’s hands-on experience of working with Swiss colleagues inside Switzerland – his home for the last eight years – or gift for cross-cultural explanation, backed by a degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

What would make his counsel particularly valuable to future-focused media people is his experience as the English-language specialist on the five-man Publikumsrat or Public Council of – the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999 that specialises in news about, and of special interest to the Swiss, and crisply-written features that illuminate foreigners. All this, every day, is translated into ten languages.

The style of government that makes Switzerland the world’s most democratic democracy is replicated in organisations of every size and kind in CH – including its many businesses run as cooperatives, two of which make the list of the world’s top twenty-five in sales.

The Publikumsrat gives Swissinfo’s editors and journalists detailed feedback on their choice of subjects as well as on the way these are tackled. It makes suggestions for new topics. It also defends Swissinfo from its detractors.  More than once, in the last ten years, it has led  campaigns to protect it from accountants wielding budget-slashing axes – inspiring ‘Save Swissinfo!’ petitions from as far away as New South Wales, in Australia.

Post-Gutenberg has been browsing on the Swissinfo site for three years. The experience of reading there has been hugely surprising – nothing like the teasing love-letter to CH that Swiss Watching’s tone suggests, but equipping Swiss-bashers with ammunition. Its coverage of the most embarrassing, even humiliating, topics for the Swiss is frank enough to suggest that, more than a mere pastime, nude hiking in glacial cold could be a metaphor for … well, the naked honesty in the conversational style of the Schweizerdeutsch, the German-speaking Swiss who dominate the population. In our experience, they express themselves freely and with graphic precision on almost any subject, even chatting to strangers (unless these are identified as journalists, a reviled profession in CH), as long as they respect basic standards for civility and friendliness.

Part of the reason why Swissinfo’s coverage of topics is startlingly direct is that there is no room for subtle and idiomatic expression in any text that has to scan as well, in the language of its composition, as in its Portuguese, Chinese and Russian versions. Of course, this is also true of the work of the BBC World Service – but the unflinching Schweizer style does seem to make for extra-bluntness.

Readers of this blog can wander over to and see for themselves. We have been stunned by some reports there on the Nazi Gold scandal – in part of which Swiss banks were accused of conspiring to deny descendants of Holocaust victims access to their families’ Swiss bank accounts, or about academic studies blaming lax gun control policies for Switzerland ranking, with America, at the top of the statistics for gun-related suicides. Far from any cover-up, there is a relentless succession of articles quoting critics of gun ownership. This is especially brave in a country in which every referendum on the subject shows the Swiss refusing to be weaned off weapons ownership. (We cannot conceive of a cowardly Swissinfo blackout of news about press reform, if this had the attention of Swiss government leaders.)

Forthrightness – and audience involvement, through the Publikumusrat — could make Swissinfo a model for news coverage in the UK and US, where, as one poll after another shows, public trust in the media has never been lower.

Until recently, the point of having Swissinfo was to help Swiss nationals living abroad stay sufficiently well-informed to make the best possible decisions when they vote remotely in referendums and elections. This part of its charter is no longer as important as demystifying Switzerland for foreigners, because free online editions of so many Swiss newspapers give Swiss expatriates the facts they need.

But doing a good job of serving Swiss voters abroad meant that the information the site supplied had to be politically neutral, or carefully balanced across the spectrum of political opinions. That this approach has not changed, even after Swissinfo’s staff and budget were each cut back last year by roughly a third, only adds to the attractions of the site – since, as this blog has underlined in the past, the reading public prefers to be served news undistorted by politics.

The British press ignores this preference. Both during and since the Leveson hearings on press ethics, one editor after another insisted – invoking  time-hallowed tradition as frantically as the Catholic Church fighting for respect, in recent weeks —  that political slanting has always been part of its lifeblood.

Though mockers of the Occupy movements keep insisting that extreme democracy could never be either practical or realistic, Switzerland, the über-democracy, is proof to the contrary. With its tiny population of not quite 8 million, CH can boast of being not just one of the world’s richest countries but the one at the very top of economists’ table for individual wealth – per (adult) capita.

Here is some food for meditation from Swiss Watching’s chapter titled ‘Ask the audience’:

Walking through the centre of Bern means running the gauntlet of clipboard-thrusting pen holders wanting your name. These aren’t charity muggers desperate for your cash … And the papers are not futile petitions that will be delivered to the government without any prospect of anyone taking notice. This is not Britain. This is Switzerland, where the people have power, and they use it. Collecting signatures is the first step towards a referendum, the basic tool of the direct democracy system. Don’t like a government decision? Then collect names to change it. Want to create a new law? Then collect names to initiate it. Hate minarets? Then collect signatures to ban them [ … ]

For outsiders, it’s hard to imagine how a country can function if every law and government action is subject to a government vote. For the Swiss, it’s hard to understand how any country can be run without just that. […] The Swiss people can initiate legislation or destroy it; they can force the government into new policies or reject decisions it’s already made. No one person or party ever has complete control – the people do. Forget China and North Korea; if any country deserves to be called a People’s Republic, it is Switzerland.

Swisscellany 300 dpi for web

Note at a publishing crossroads: is it time for Ian Rankin to move over and let younger Scots writers take his place?

They’d said it would take me 105 days to get to Mars in Unicorn One. I’d only been going for eight days. The window was facing away from the sun but a glint of refracted light must have found its way through the thick quartz glass. I saw my image reflected amongst the stars. My hair looked terrible.

Now, who on earth could that be?

Ah, … the main character in a delectable short story, ‘Unicorn One’, in a collection titled Storm Damage. Any reader who tests works of fiction by sampling random paragraphs is immediately compelled by this e-work to scroll back a few pages to learn that

 … within ten years of standing on that hill with Tommy, I would be selected as Scotland’s first astronaut. Not the first Scot to go into space, of course, but the first one to be chosen for Scotland’s Independent Space Program. The world’s media had regarded our endeavour as a joke. Too long had we been seen as England’s or America’s poodle. The German press had shown photographs of our most dilapidated, forsaken housing estate ghettoes and asked what kind of people would begin a Space Program with this kind of poverty rampant in their back yard.


Even within the Space Program, I had not been a popular choice for first astronaut. They had turned down pilots and scientists, Marines and arctic explorers, mountaineers and deep sea divers, only to choose me, a hairdresser from a remote Scottish town.

‘It’s necessary nowadays,’ they had told me, ‘to find people the public can relate to …

When we reached that sentence, at post-Gutenberg, we were not simply shaken out of a mood best described as chiaroscuro-verging-on-dark. Soon, we were reading all the way back from the beginning – an opening that we would have found just as irresistible, had we started where most people do:

There was a beautiful bird on the branch, singing. It was small with brown wings and perfect white chest feathers. Its tone was too shrill and its eyes darted. Its whole manner was erratic. The sunlight was salmon-pink among the trees and I knew something was wrong, something was going to happen. I didn’t hear a sound, except the bird singing, until the shot went off and chips of wood sprang towards my cheek from the tree I was standing near …

To think that in the old days of traditional print publishing, we might never have had the luck of reading John A. A. Logan — a marvellous writer happily undaunted by chronic cold-shouldering by literary gatekeepers. His success in e-publishing turned him into a lodestar for anyone publishing unmediated e-books as independently as Virginia Woolf once released her own experimental novels in print.

When we wrote about him and other young literary Lochinvars a few weeks ago, we did not mention that we had been thinking of how wonderful it would be if Ian Rankin could only award John his latest monster advance from his publisher in recognition of the e-book writer’s infinitely fresher perspective and fizzing imagination. The once-unique Rankin creation, the boozy, crusty and jaded police detective, John Rebus, has suffered, in recent years, from his inventor’s all too-obvious irritation and boredom with being forced to spin yet another tired yarn about him.

In November, this trend earned poor Ian Rankin the gimlet-eyed attention of a contributor to Private Eye’s books section (issue no: 1328) reviewing his latest novel – described as

full of reliable Scots wisecracking and people saying ‘Back in the day’, and … clearly written at one hell of a lick. Like many a previous Rebus outing, its final effect is to call the whole basis of Ian Rankin’s career into serious question.

Ouch. The Eye did not mince its words, fingering the culprit for this apparently lazy and self-indulgent offering by a writer who has by now grown accustomed to having an overstuffed piggy bank:

Brought to a waiting world amid a flourish of publishers’ trumpets, attended by wall-to-wall publicity … Standing in Another Man’s Grave can be marked down as a triumph for the old-style trade-book model …

Of course old-fashioned publishers are still capable of surprising and thrilling us with new discoveries, but at today’s publishing crossroads, you would have to be a fool to look only in their direction for the best new work.

Book publishing’s future: a distinguished Spanglish record of a catastrophe foretold

 Giorgio De Chirico, the founder of the Metaphysical school of painting -- a forerunner of Surrealism -- created this sculptural work, 'The Mysterious Baths,' in 1973 -- when he was eighty-five. Photograph by MIL22

Giorgio De Chirico, the founder of the Metaphysical school of painting — a forerunner of Surrealism — created this sculptural work, ‘Fontana dei Bagni Misteriosi’ (‘The Mysterious Baths,’) in 1973 (aged 85).
Photograph by MIL22

A dig through papers stored in cardboard boxes on a freezing day in silver January light yielded a forgotten scrap of treasure. Who would deny that there is a touch of divine Borgesian surrealism about the circular below, from July, 1994?

Two years ago, we found ourselves arguing with a handsome Swiss nineteen year-old, the son of a novelist, who haughtily condemned the efforts of Google Translate — and was impervious to any suggestion that the translator-robot might be better than nothing, and improving steadily. What, we wonder, would that Adonis make of our vintage circular from the Spanish publisher of the likes of Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino? This relic, though unsigned, was clearly the work of one of those gentlemanly, perfectionist luminaries of the old print-book publishing world who could — at the drop of a sombrero — have summoned any number of helpers capable of a more straightforward rendering of Spanish thoughts into English.

It is astonishing to read this author complaining about excessive haste — the hurried new tempo being born, for people in his trade — even though no literary proletarian of the time was obliged to answer email around the clock, or multi-task, or check thought-streams in social media.

Still, we are delighted with our discovery. No text we have read, for days, has lifted our spirits to quite the same degree. This is not so much because it reminded us of the high comedy of our own inept attempts to communicate in, say, rusty French. It is the writer’s gung-ho, embrace-the-future-or-perish sentiments about the future of publishing — and eagerness to join forces across cultural borders, for the transition — that we find both moving and endearing.



the 5th July from 10.00 to 13.30 hours
at the Museum of Science (Museu de la Ciència de la Fundaciò de ‘la Caixa’)

The perplexity of the publisher at the end of the century
Proposal for a debate

Our starting point is the fact that we have been living, on last years, great, swift changes which depthly affects the habits in publishing within the field in which we usually work, which is essentially the literary one, under whichever its forms. I think that all of us, now and then and in one way or another, have plunged into perplexity when faced to some of these changes, sometimes rude. From a special way of working, in which time was that of reading and the mechanisms of making contracts, of production, distribution, advertising and selling were relatively clear and simple, we have gone over to a new way of working, mastered by a hurried tempo and increasingly more complex mechanisms. This has often been generating into us doubts and hesitations concerning the future of our very activity as literary publishers and editors, whose activity, fundamentally based on risk, is to discover and experiment, both of them functions which need most of all, at first sight, different manners and time from those of an uniformised and accelerated production, distribution, advertising and selling. I suppose that this approach is valid, although very different nuances, whatever might be the kind of company in which usually works a literary publisher or editor, either an independent one, or a national or multinational group.

Therefore I suggest to divide our contributions into two interacted blocks:

1. Considerations on the present situation and analysis — avoiding as far as possible useless nostalgias — of those aspects from the past which we consider indispensable to safeguard, and even to fight for and maintain, and which complement or come into conflict with the steps each of us has been taking to grapple with the changes of these last years.

2. Reflections on how and what could be done in forthcoming years for the survival of this vocationally cultural activity, intact in its original purpose and spirit, but integrated into the new habits of both publishing and new reading communities, which already became unavoidable and are a part, like it or not, of our everyday task.

The contributions and the debate will be held either in English, French or Spanish, and we’ll have at our disposal, whenever needed, a simultaneous translation service to and from the three languages.


lee to cb

Post-Gutenberg literary dilemmas: trick or treat?

Photograph by Mark Barron

Halloween is not part of our tradition at post-Gutenberg. Never mind, we feel uniquely privileged, posting this text and image sent to us as unsought bounty – yes, a surprise, in each case.

What are the most interesting arguments about literature’s transition to the post-print world? The extract from Sean McNulty’s Twentieth Century Transmissions – the novel he has just completed — came in email with shades of one debate for a preface:

I’ve attached the opening pages but FYI have taken out of copyright works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others and remixed them into my own story, pretty much as China Miéville was talking about here just as I was finishing the novel:

The language of Sean’s text struck our inner ear as exceptionally fine — suggesting that the pessimism in our last post might not be entirely warranted. We found his manuscript original in the best way, as well as acutely disturbing. As a Halloween offering, it is the equivalent of the original Grimm’s fairy tales – galaxies removed from the sanitised, saccharine revisions commissioned to protect the tender psyches of 20th- and 21st-century children.

Before we leave you to read it, we have a message for regular readers here who have admired our clip, two posts ago, from The AdorataThat was by Sean Murray, a pen name Sean McNulty says he was forced to use when he wrote that first novel – to avoid upsetting his employer at the time. As we have never met either Sean in person, we can only take him at his word.

Perhaps Halloween will in the future be celebrated as commemorating not just ghosts but the remembrance of indecipherable pseudonyms past.

Twentieth Century Transmissions

A novel based on works by

Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others.

Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad.

Jorge Luis Borges

We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

Samuel Beckett

Bad Friday

Lenny’s Austin followed the Moray Cycling Club, the same half mile behind it had kept all morning. He watched through the windscreen’s muck as the Great Comet rose pale blue over the mountains, half earthly, half heavenly banners with slits of blued snow in the peaks. It felt almost supernatural, this world about to end.

The Club’s fanatics were allowing themselves one last ride before the Comet hit. A blonde woman brought up their rear, ringing her bell and grinning till she caught her reflection in a farmhouse window. She’d glimpsed fine enough features there but they were also red with lack of breath and gaudier than they ever were, the features that had shed those masks – Maglemosian, Egyptian, Greek, Spanish, all the way down to this last reality, the final mortal mask of the thing now called Maggie Guthrie.

Well, nothing endures, does it? Without this Comet Pessaria business, without big Lenny to kill her off and send her on to pastures new, she doubted she could have faced more masking on this Earth and not felt sick to the pit. Once it had been wearying to think of yet more years of masks of skin and bone keeping hidden her essentials, but now with the Great Collision here at last she wasn’t sick or sorry, not sad at all, just too much time to think as she pumped away at these pedals.

With the sun the Comet went on rising through the sky, one going southward from the east, the other northward from the southwest trailing its colossal tail. And now Maggie’s bike slowed as she caught her breath and took in the sights around her. Roadside birds swerved up when they heard gunfire in the direction of Kingussie, then swooped back down and sat silent on the trees and fence-posts, highly conscious of one thing or another. For some it was wild flowers or stalks of grass casting double-shadows, their sun-shadow and their Comet-shadow. For others it was dewdrops with the entire sun or Comet trapped inside.

Other birds sang in the warming sunshine. They sang on the twigs of bushes and perched in trees’ upper branches, letting the chirps and whistles burst out of them. Their eyes bulged and their claws gripped twigs and they sang to the Comet as though releasing all the pressures of its long Approach.

When the cyclists got off for a break Lenny’s exhausted head began to revolve slowly, rhythmically, and to hum at his bruised temples. As he parked the car something moved into his line of sight. In her sweat-soaked vest and shorts Maggie’s figure was the glamorous thing that attracted all the morning light, casting curving shadows left and right. She walked her bike into a wood. He left the car and followed.

His head blazed as he plodded between the trees. He saw her wipe mud from her bike and legs, leaves’ double-shadows dancing on her hair and skin, woodchips littered beneath her like splashed light. A pulse passed through his bruises and he ran toward her.

She let her bike fall and backed away. Her foot caught on a root, then she went down backward and her spine thudded against a stump.

He got his knees on her chest, pressed her chin back over the stump’s edge and with the base of his palm shoved it hard. She wheezed out, ‘Nothing endures.’

As he kept on kneeling there and shoving, everything blurred for a moment and became a painted film-set, the blue Comet and golden sun its glaring spotlights. Memories came of Maggie with his father, Maggie desecrating his dead mother, Maggie sneering as he came. He wondered how his contorting face might look on camera.

Though the base of his palm pressing at that upturned chin, that woman wheezing there and gurgling – that wasn’t acting. He heard a little cluck and crunch and his head turned to vapour as convulsions shook her body. The limbs twitched and sprawled and blood brimmed from the nostrils, hesitated and ran back into her dead eyes. That was fine. That was as it should be.

He found himself brushing leaves off the body as it lay with a strip of Comet light along the chest. He sat beside it, surprised that the leaves were glittering and the woodchips reflected blue. In the glare he imagined he saw the glowing hair of his murdered wife.

He looked around and tried to remember where he was. Not a film-set. He got on Maggie’s bike and rode it along the nearest path. A doe, a moving bit of reflected light, went running through the shade. Lenny, transfixed by it, went crashing into a tree and fell.

He stayed there on the ground with his temples throbbing, his mind busy with delirium. His mouth was dry and hard and blood was darting in his head. There was something knocking. Trees and other greenery, streaks of weird light across the ground, something knocking. He saw something creep up a treetrunk, a whistling bird that rapped on the trunk and then ran out of the shadow, its head bobbing and its white legs twinkling. Its build was neat, compact. Well, that’s birdlife for you, Lenny thought.

So I have done it, he thought. I have murdered Maggie Guthrie.

A kind of wonder came on him, followed by low animal exultation at that cluck and crunch and those sprawling, twitching convulsions. A little grief came too, but it was all right, he told himself, it wasn’t really Maggie. That dead husk with blood pooled in its eyes wasn’t Maggie and never had been. Whatever dark spark constituted Maggie Guthrie, it wasn’t that. And he wasn’t really Lenny Uath either. Wasn’t that what she always told him?

Something scuffled and he sat up and watched a squirrel run in bounds over the ground. It flew at another squirrel and they chased each other until he had a coughing fit and sent them up a tree. One peered round at him halfway up a trunk, clinging to the bark.

Darkness fell like a shutter. He had killed Maggie as she said he would and the Comet was here at last. He was arriving on the real dark bottom but it was all fine, fine.

He thought he saw lightning flutter around the rippling, shimmering Comet and visions came of tonight’s Collision and the last few minutes he’d now have to face, priests and ministers gazing upward and wailing psalms, some tearing off their clothes and sending up curses or hallelujahs, some scourging their backs bloody and collapsing on the ground in fits, prostitutes flicking tongues and blowing the Comet kisses, tramps gossiping about last-minute escape rockets and rescues by Archangels. The delirium went on and on, his mind flickering like the lightning.

Then a hunt for water, and surges of now pointless hate for Maggie. Then moments of calm and ease and his father’s voice somewhere, approving of her murder: ‘Fine, boy, fine.’

His brain was flaming with thirst. There the Cairngorm mountains ranged across the pale edge of the sky, double-shadowed and solid with blue snowy markings. He was twisting in a paroxysm on the grass.

His thoughts had split from him. There was also the clog of his body, another splitting thing. He was dividing. There was maybe some connection between the different parts, or maybe not. Either way all the shapes were going. Pale blue rays were drilling through their bonds.

The year was 1943. So was the Comet real? Was Maggie real?

These are not simple questions. Others who’ll tell this story may answer them conclusively, but for now we’ll just say this. Certain events, entities, things, lack what might be called precision. They’re too large to be contained by the world of facts, and occur partly to find out if that world can bear them. Think of those strange gaps in the history of your own world, those Marie Celestes and Tunguskas that manifested and then quickly faded.

Normal events are strung along time like carriages on a railtrack. They have their causes and their effects, pushing and pulling one another forward and forming all our stories. But what about events too large for that railtrack, that maybe need a different gauge? Well, time has many parallel tracks, my friend, and the fact is that down certain secret tracks these larger events await us all. And in this sense they are real.

We must come to terms with the Great Comet. We must come to terms with Maggie Guthrie. We must not let their reality embarrass us into silence.

Och for God’s sake, let’s shut up and get started.

The Broadcast  


The Reverend Don Uath’s next ministry after the Western Front was in the Shaugh, the village of his birth. His family made the flit from Tomintoul in carts. Lenny was two years old.

The going was wild the night they set out, and several times they skidded badly in drifts of sleet before the horses brought them to the hills. Don watched his wife Willa in her nook in the leading cart with Lenny at the breast, her skin cold and blueing and strands of her red-gold hair draped into the light of the swinging lantern. When the horses skidded again she held off Lenny with milk dripping creamily from his lips.

Don called out to her, ‘We’d better get beds at the next village and not try the hills in this weather.’

But Willa called out at that, ‘Beds? Think we’re made of money?’

‘No,’ Don answered, ‘but maybe we’ll skid again and all die this night.’

A bellow arose where old horse Mo had halted, tail to the wind and refusing to pull his cart any further into the hills and sleet. Willa laid Lenny on his back and climbed down and went past the head of Mo, and there she uncoiled the length of hide she used as a whip. It crackled through the sleet and made the hair rise across Mo’s back, and he began to neigh and fall into a trot, the younger horse Tod following after, slipping and sprawling on his hooves.

So, creaking and bending beneath their loads, the carts plodded into motion again, full of gear and furnishings for the manse the family would occupy in the Shaugh. Head down to the wind went the horses in the moonlight, in this mile and that Don calling, ‘Fine, you two, fine. Come on then, boys.’

The road kept winding up and sometimes he sat huddled in his nook as the sleet went past in the darkness, and sometimes he climbed down and walked beside Tod and watched the lights across the moors where folk lay dry and warm. Then the road would swerve and the wind would be at him again and he’d climb back on the cart with freezing feet and hands, urging Tod on to their new home.

In a few hours the carts had cleared the hills and through the sleet Don saw the Shaugh’s scattered points of light. Willa stood on her cart holding Lenny and took in the nearby lochs, where night fishermen in cockleshell boats were braving the weather and casting out their nets. On the banks others carried baskets full of flapping catch and looked up at the northern sky.

Tiny smears swirled and floated up there among the sleet, an enormous flock of swallows. The scene looked like some old fresco, full of birds not intended for the Moray sky in the depth of winter, criss-crossing it in graceful climbs and swoops.

A few hundred roofs stood out clear below them, and yews around a steepled church and manse set round with gravestones and grass in tufts that a fox slunk through shedding sleet.

Maggie Guthrie watched the same scene from the standing stones, then rode down toward it on her bike.


Private Eye on the death of literary culture

How long before literature in print begins to seem as mysterious as cave paintings – its preoccupations and the culture around it approachable only by conjecture?

Readers who do not drop in here regularly – and some that do – might have read the last two entries on this blog with exasperated harrumphing and disbelief.

Professional book reviewers deserve to be going the way of the dodoGet away with you! Publishing houses have been declining to publish manuscripts lauded by their own editors, that have even excited film consultants with a proven instinct for spotting bestselling and screen-friendly material? Codswallop! (That would be bull dookey, for Texans.)

O sceptics, here is substantiation from a source whose remorseless objectivity about its own world of print publishing and journalism has been praised by no less than Lord Justice Leveson, of the Inquiry – and which is not notably a lover of online publishing, even though it is organised and run in ways we think the best digital publishers will approximate closely in the future .

The extract is from a review of the memoir of a London book editor, Miriam Gross, An Almost English Life, Literary and not so Literary Recollections, in a late September issue of Private Eye (no. 1323) that we have only just seen, owing to one thing and another.

At any time over the past half-century it has been possible to earn a few pounds by writing an article on ‘the death of the novel’.

Just lately, what with the rise of the internet reviewers, E. L. James and celebrity memoirs, more alert commentators have been able to expand this topic to accommodate the death of literary culture per se.


The really surprising thing, in these circumstances, is the torrent of books about literary culture that continues to spring from the nation’s printing presses. Publishers from Tom Maschler down pop up to regale us with memories of their time in the trade.


Ms Gross, it has to be said, is the grande dame of her profession: a Jerusalem-born bluestocking, who arrived in England in 1947, married the late and very much lamented John Gross first time around, […] and was successively arts editor of the Torygraph [Texan trans.: The Daily Telegraph, traditionally the upmarket Tory paper] and books editor of its Sunday sister. […] On the other hand, to call this elfin volume – bulked out to 200 pages by the inclusion of some old Observer interviews – ‘the remarkable story of one of the great observers of our time’, as Alain de Botton does on the cover, is ever so slightly pushing it.


[O]f what, on this admittedly partial evidence, does ‘literary culture’ actually consist? Dare one say that the whole thing eventually betrays itself as a delightful private club, where all the members are simply wonderful and incompetence is habitually excused on the grounds that the defaulter is one of us: sad to contemplate here on its downward spiral … but, really, impossible to mourn.


Testimonial to the curious state of commercial publishing: literary young Lochinvars locked out despite high praise from gatekeepers

John A. A. Logan poised to evoke the touch of evil in The Survival of Thomas Ford – and below, less alarmingly, with his mother, Agnes Logan
Photographs by Alasdair Allen (above) and

‘We sly women are the world’s only hope,’ said Jan, ‘And not just any old sly women either. You can forget about yer Jews and Protestants for starters. And of course any woman who dabbles in atheism.’

‘You get them, man,’ said Bathsheba. ‘It happens.’


‘Still in deep denial about the Counter-Reformation, yer Prods.’ Bathsheba beeped the horn again. ‘The most comically perplexed souls of all time, poor things.’ Beebeep. ‘The ne plus ultra of human… Of human whit? Thingummibob. Whit’s the word? Cartoonishness? Am I toasty warm? Get us the thesaurus.’

Jan found it in the glove compartment and gave it over.

The Adorata, Sean Murray

What is the point of thrillers – the noir kind, especially?

Er, … entertainment, do you suppose? you suggest drily, stifling a sardonic ‘D’oh!

To which post-Gutenberg’s answer would be, but what is the point of this sub-genre of entertainment?

Yes, yes … we know, an absurdly ambitious question for a funny little blog.

But this hardly rules out suggesting a line of enquiry for an answer: might the point of blood-and-gore electrified by crackling suspense be to fight horror with horror? That is, neutralise real-life horror, shock and sadness, with the imagined and invented kind? Nothing supplies temporary relief for the agony of witnessing the suffering of someone beloved in extremis – helpless to do much to relieve it – as well as a story so powerful that it takes control of your brain and entire nervous system, whether read in snatches or all the way through.

Events of recent weeks have shown us that a well-written thriller violent and gripping in direct proportion to the unbearable, in actual life, works better than any other literary form – particularly for a reader who loathes violent films and literature, and often resents the manipulations of narrative suspense.

The book is set aside, and the reader feels inexplicably stronger and ready to face down the monsters again. Some process less akin to catharsis than to Freud’s idea of displacement is surely at work – which, in a Wikipedia definition,

operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety …

The book – or rather, e-book — that worked this strange magic for us is The Survival of Thomas Ford, about which we learnt from a Twitter link by its author, John A. A. Logan, to a detailed history of the manuscript’s long string of rejections that we would call staggeringly unbelievable and absurd if we did not know it to be an impeccably accurate record of the state of conventional publishing in 2012. We began to watch John’s tweet stream after we found ourselves on the same side in an online debate about copyright in the age of the net; among the not-terribly-popular lobbyists for paying artists and writers for work in the age of e-pirating.

Soon, we were reading arresting sentences and sequences like these:

 Jimmy sipped Coke and watched Robert out of an eye’s sly edge.

 Robert believed that it was sometimes possible for the universe to overlook certain misdeeds, even serious ones. He had believed from an early age that the universe made errors, usually errors of omission. He believed, in fact, that Jimmy’s very existence was evidence of such an error.

  If Jimmy was a vacuum, then Robert had been sucked in.

We registered something indefinably Scottish in the observations, the styles of expression, and marvelled at the absence of the too-familiar props in mass-market thriller-writing – glamourising brand names and settings – and clichéd ‘middle-class’ attitudes to people on less fortunate social rungs, or the reverse. A hospital cleaner, finding herself for the first time in an urban garden thinks,

This garden was like a machine for escaping the city.

After weeks of reading in tiny sips, for a lack of time, we reached a scene in which a father punishes his adult son for mistreating immigrant Polish bricklayers by flinging him into the mud with a feral twist that all but breaks his neck. Soon, there are characters bleeding from kitchen knives stuck in their sides and … For fear of the spoiler effect, we’ll stop there and say that we usually go to extremes to avoid sustained violence in any form, and were able to endure no more than a half-hour of The Silence of the Lambs. But we could not stop reading Survival.

John Logan is certainly not trying to be Muriel Spark, the grand priestess of modern Scottish literature, but as real life trouble intensified and spun out of control for us, we grew increasingly impatient with audio recordings of still gritty but tired recent books by Ian Rankin to which we had turned – because they were sitting on our library re-shelving cart – to make sure that we stayed fully alert on long driving expeditions on featureless roads. We longed to listen instead to the fresher writing voice and inspiration of the next chapter of the Logan thriller with its endlessly surprising perspectives and frequently excellent prose.

That last attribute is something John’s work has in common with other young Scots writers, too many of them unpublished, or self-published and unnoticed because of hair-raisingly nonsensical sagas of rejection – like his. The extract from a modernist — Barthian, Bellowish, (William) Burroughsian – novel by Sean Murray in the epigraph for this post came from a discussion of misogyny in the work of male novelists on Donkeyshott and Xuitlacoche, the domain of a blogger, Philip Hall, who has a head crammed with stimulating, cosmopolitan ideas. The guest-post on his blog spotlighting the Adorata remarked, ‘If your life depended on it, could you imagine Mailer creating a female character with a thesaurus stored in her car?’

In disembodied cyberspace, post-Gutenberg has had more than one encounter with these Scottish scribes — whose energy and dauntlessness recall ‘O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west/Through all the wide Border his steed was the best …’. We have been honoured by bracing and uplifting encouragement from them – which might make our motives for writing this post suspect. Fear not. We have … ahem … credibility to protect, as obscure as we are, in this patch of the net.

Before we leave you to read a clip from John’s account of his well-deserved — but hard-won — success with publishing Survival as an e-book, we have a question. Can we — those of us who care about the absurdity of neither John nor Sean Murray finding a conventional publisher with conventional marketing muscle — do something to finance the efforts of writers suffering from the disappearance of editors capable of nurturing unpublished writers? Or sustaining the efforts of those who already have stellar publishing credits, but have run afoul of the salespeople promoted to über-gatekeepers at some of the most famous literary imprints?

We have made suggestions before, about how this might be done – using micropayments, something better than Kickstarter and a new way of organising publishing as a massively inclusive, subscriber-based ‘co-owned’ medium.

That post-Gutenberg — thousands of miles from Scotland, with no real-life acquaintance with any of these scarcely-known Scottish scribblers — should care so much about helping them find support surely means that something can be done, and soon.

Over, now, to John himself – although you will want to read his entire record of the death of common sense. The last page of Survival says that John has been published by Picador, Vintage and Chapman – all in the loftiest tier of the serious end of the book business.

… In December 2010, the literary agent phoned me for 90 minutes, to tell me he was sure a major publishing house’s editors had wanted to take my book, but then at the meeting with the sales dept the sales folk for this publishing house had said that I “reminded them of someone they had had high hopes for two years earlier but then had lost money on”. And that ended that house’s interest in the book.

A little later, the senior commissioning editor at another major UK publishing house wrote to say “I think John Logan is a hugely talented writer. I love books like this that have the pace and excitement of a thriller but the voice and emotional depth of a literary novel”. But again when it came right down to it, no sale!

Then my agent passed the book to a film consultant who worked with him. She told him my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was the best book she had read in that literary agency in the last 4 years. This was taken very seriously, as this film consultant had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript and was responsible for it getting developed into a film …

Harry Potter Politics for Dummies — or why professional book critics forced Joanne Rowling to write The Casual Vacancy

Mystery portraitist: write to for credit, please

Once upon a time, a few decades ago, no self-respecting novelist or aspiring or actual literary star spoke of writing book reviews except as work dashed off to pay the grocer, replenish a wine cellar, or finance the abortions of a careless mistress. Editors doled out book reviewing assignments to support writers they believed in, who got drunk in the same watering holes or clubs, or had long ago been cricket or baseball-playing mates.

Some book reviews might have been incisive and elegant enough to be described as lapidary, but what mattered infinitely more than fairness to the book and writer under inspection was showing off well. Showing off about what? The speed at which a charming prose confection was constructed – the ideal result being the literary equivalent of iron claws in a velvet glove; an attack on a book that every chatterer who cared about remaining a member of the chattering classes was obliged to buy, boosting the circulations of book-reviewing publications. Complaints by authors about mistaken characterisations of their books, misquoting, abysmal incomprehension of them or other consequences of arrogant or desperate skim-reading, were treated as unsporting and ungrateful.

Now, that was book reviewing in the glory days of literary print culture, when its power was at its zenith. It has not lost all its sway yet. There is still a literary establishment and, as the example we will soon supply demonstrates, it was sufficiently self-confident a decade ago to imagine that its judgments would pass unchallenged.

That establishment is feeling rather insecure these days, as anyone following the spate of recent attacks on ‘citizen-reviewers’ and blogging book critics will have noticed.

Some of its arguments are eye-popping in their hollowness. We quote, for illustration, the tack of one of the most likeable old print pundits – Robert McCrum, the former literary editor of The Observer, who has endeared himself to many a commenter by replying politely to ferocious attacks on his credibility, even when addressed as ‘McCrumble’. Imagine post-Gutenberg’s astonishment at reading on the books-blogging site of a newspaper, last week, this McCrumbly description of a professional book review:

Before publication, it will be subjected to a prolonged and intense process of subediting. Crucially, it will be signed, and usually paid for. Compared with the raw material of your average blog, it has been refined and distilled to within an inch of its life.

None of this guarantees that such a review will not be savage, destructive, ad hominem or partisan, but it will be considered, …

Considered? … Really? That would mean putting the actual reading of subjects of reviews, and pondering, weighing and reflecting, above dashing off – cloddish clog-dancing by comparison with the impeccably executed, once-over-lightly pirouette still sanctioned in many a respectable home for print.

… Which brings us to the subject of Joanne Rowling, who has just published The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults, to deafening fanfare. The print literary establishment, discovering that she has, in spite of her success, written a better than respectable novel campaigning fiercely for have-nots, might have been a lot less astounded if its members had gone to the trouble of reading the books that made her famous. Because so many of them only deigned to notice her at all when she became odoriferously rich, they fell into the error of confusing her work with dim and, or, absurd mega-bestsellers, like the one built around a witless ‘code’ poor old Da Vinci would have choked on – which could only have been invented to make Dan Brown the agreeably tweedy and self-deprecating fat cat author he has become.

By contrast, any actual — adult — reader of the Harry Potter series might, like post-Gutenberg, have been most amused not by either the wizards or monsters but the social commentary at the edges of J. K. Rowling’s picture. Could any Londoner who has ever visited, say, the Department of Industry in Victoria Street, fail to explode in laughter, meeting its perfect fictional twin in Rowling’s Ministry of Magic – not just because of her descriptions of its atmosphere, its corridors and the attitudes and work ethic of the dispirited bureaucrats shuffling down them, but because of the delicious wheeze of including such an institution in this particular story?

At the start of the Harry Potter mania, one book-reviewing journalist and essayist, Pico Iyer, was given enough space in The New York Times to hang himself comprehensively – having managed, somehow, to read Rowling’s cod obvious political sympathies back-to-front. The most obvious point of his contribution in the dashed-off tradition was boasting about his educational pedigree. In his eagerness to use a consideration of Harry Potter’s success as a peg and excuse, he forgot to check that the parallels he drew were justified by any part of the boy magician’s adventures, or their framing.

As a boy, I went for many years to the Dragon School in Oxford. The rooms in which we lived were called ”Leviathan” and ”Pterodactyl” and ”Ichthyosaurus”


I mention all this because, as Harry Potter’s adventures conquer the nation … readers on this side of the Atlantic may not appreciate how much there is of realism, as well as magic, in the exotic tales of young sorcerers being trained at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The classical boarding-school process favored by the English middle classes is esoteric […]and Friday nights would find us bouncing up and down in our pajamas, reciting the principal parts of Greek irregular verbs. Every Sunday night, in our flowing black robes (we were known as ”tugs”), we would gather in a classroom dating from 1441 to sing hymns in Latin …


When I was at school, it was always assumed that all the years of quasi-military training (”Hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me,” the Hogwarts caretaker says) were meant to teach us how to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.

Well done, you!  the weary reader of that extended exercise in feather-fluffing is liable to have exclaimed, as it ran on … and on. To the credit of the NY Times – never mind that it failed to vet Iyer’s reflections on Rowling the way Robert McCrum claims professional book reviews do — it promptly published, the following week, this deflating reaction:

October 31, 1999

To the Editor:

In his essay ”The Playing Fields of Hogwarts” (Oct. 10), Pico Iyer reveals a blinkered — i.e., thoroughly Mugglesian — misreading of J. K. Rowling’s intentions. Her Harry Potter books don’t ”recast” the elitist English boarding school experience ”in a positive light”; they are gloriously subversive.

Whereas English public schools have traditionally subjected their pupils to lives of Spartan deprivation, the food at Hogwarts is delicious and abundant. Students sleep in four-poster beds hung with velvet curtains. More telling than these details is that Hogwarts resembles a conservatory or any other meritocratic school for gifted children, not an establishment designed to train the children of the elite ”to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.”

Belonging to old magical families confers no special advantage on Hogwarts pupils; only talent counts. Both Harry and Hermione, one of his two best friends, receive letters inviting them to attend the school — and are plucked out of Muggles families because their innate talent for wizardry has mysteriously been discerned by Hogwarts administrators.

The prodigiously gifted J. K. Rowling is doing a great deal more than tweaking Iyer’s Etonian experience ”in a magical direction.” Contrary to his assertion, her theme is absolutely universal. She tells about both the vulnerability and the protective insulation that come with artistic talent, about the escape route that an imagination offers from the horrors of real life. To say that the charm of the Harry Potter books lies in ”their fidelity to the way things really are” is to grievously shortchange Rowling’s brilliance.

The writer of that old-fashioned, mediated citizen-review known as a ‘reader’s letter to the editor’ – the only chance a member of the public once had to draw the same reading audience’s attention to mistakes or idiocy inflicted on it – has scrupulously avoided becoming a professional assessor of books.

We could not agree more with Robert McCrum, pronouncing,

[T]he citizen journalist’s review is not the same as the professional critic’s.

Indeed not. As the woman who brought Potter to life said, in a BBC interview on her reasons for writing The Casual Vacancy:

Ultimately, the people who have read the book, who are not paid to have an opinion, are generally the best benchmark of whether you have done what you set out to do.

Untranslatable poetry, part 2: show, don’t lecture

Painting of a Bengali beauty by Jamini Roy (1887-1972)

part 1 is here

Dance with the language. There’s a saying that “The English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors.” Those ancient storytellers were drunk on words. … For encouragement, I would naturally suggest you look to Irish examples.

Frank Delaney, Irish novelist, in the Word Craft column of The Wall Street Journal, March 2012  

A. A. — not the do-gooder organisation but a poet of rare gifts and post-Gutenberg’s most supremely articulate friend — emailed this reply to a request for his reaction to last week’s excerpts from a debate about poetry in translation:

I feel disinclined to join this fray, going on at least since the Battle of Hastings (more archers!), where, it could be argued, The Translation Question first enters history on English soil. For the record, though, I am, I suppose, innately suspicious of what we might call The Proprietary Position, always couched in some preposterous notion of accuracy, or worse, fidelity, that any real artist would find objectionable. All poetry is inaccurate, in a sense, to begin with — its bewitching power of distortion, revealing deeper truths by traducing apparent ones, being the very reason for which Plato denied poets a place in his Republic: their ability to undermine by subversion and misrepresentation.

In any case, no poet worth his reduced sodium could forget that even the word translate is a metaphor: carried across. So, if “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle … ” is carried across, delivering something like, “When you are old and grey, and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire…”, I’ll sign for the package.

We answered that we did not disagree with him,

… except on the question of who is guilty of bullying from the Proprietary Position. It’s the self-appointed Authorities in academia and other parts of the literary establishment, like C.A. …  There is such a thing as direct translation … ‘La plume de ma tante,’ … no ambiguity whatsoever about an object belonging to an ink-stained aunt. … If literary translation could be universally understood as galaxies removed from that straightforwardness and even better, if it were to renamed, called something like ‘approximation,’ that would be the infinitely preferable truth.

In a perfect world, poetry would never be taught – we mean, garotted — in any classroom. There might be poets on tap, willing to supplement published appreciations — as opposed to academic deconstructions — by answering questions from, say, a reader intrigued by the difference between Shakespearean blank verse and John Donne’s (controversial) version of it in one of his masterpieces, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. But there would be no one laying down laws for interpretation, no pompous pontificators on language as idiosyncratic and – as A.A. says – subversive, as poetry.

Anyone seeking to introduce a poet across cultural borders could stimulate an instinctive and intuitive grasp of a poem’s intentions by interweaving, rather than explaining – that is, showing its lines threaded into a reader’s stream-of-consciousness. It is the happy fate of all the best verse to become woven, subconsciously and unconsciously, into our depths. But who can demonstrate this special capacity of the form? Do it, for instance, for the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore – about whom, as our last entry demonstrated, critical opinion in the English-speaking world is still divided, a whole century after the Swedes gave him their famous literary prize?

A good novelist might be up to the task — a wordsmith capable of transcending the language gap. For instance, Sunetra Gupta, writing in English in Memories of Rain (1992) about the doomed love affair of Moni, a young Bengali woman, and Anthony, an Englishman visiting Calcutta that her brother introduces into their family circle. In a scene that made post-Gutenberg wish Satyajit Ray were alive to adapt the book for the screen, her brother embarrasses her with a halting reading to their guest of impromptu translations of his own short stories, through a long night rent by relentless monsoon winds and rain. Years later, in England, where she is now unhappily married to Anthony, who is besotted by his new English lover, her recollection of Tagore is enlaced with remembered details of their romance’s first chapter:

… From such a land Anthony had rescued her, a land where the rain poured from the skies not to purify the earth, but to spite it, to churn the parched fields into festering wounds, rinse the choked city sewers onto the streets, sprinkle the pillows with the nausea of mould, and yet the poet had pleaded with the deep green shadows of the rain clouds not to abandon him, the very same poet who wrote,

You, who stand before my door in the darkness

What is it that you seek?

It has been many years since that spring day, when there came a young wanderer

And immersed my parched soul in an endless sea of joy;

Today I sit in the rain-filled darkness, in my crumbling shack

A wet wind snuffs my candle, I sit alone, awake;

Oh, unknown visitor, your song fills me with sweet awe

I feel I will follow you to the depths of uncharted dark.

But it was not this song, not yet, that ran through her rain-ravaged mind as the grandfather clock in the living room struck two, interrupting the awkward flow of her brother’s translation, the grammatical mistakes she shivered at, why was his English so terrible, and she stood in the bathroom, splashed icy cold water out of the drum onto her feet, she caught a ghost of herself in the cracked mirror, and a sudden embarrassment overcame her, she switched on the lights and took in the cracked plaster, the dilapidated water closet, long since choked with lime, suspended over the Turkish toilet, the cracked mirror, the shelf cluttered with bottles of coconut oil, toothpaste tubes, rusty razor blades, and she compared it to the bathroom at Amrita’s, where she knew Anthony was staying, marbled to the ceiling, with Western commodes and bathtubs, he cannot be used to any of this, she thought …

Tagore on rain again, in a later passage, in which Moni wakes from a dream about death and marigolds – and in this one, his lines taker her soaring above earth-bound domesticity:

… [H]ere she found a deeper silence than even the quiet before a tropical storm,  the still rushes, the frightened birds, once, she had lingered, in a field of mustard, in the windless core of a storm, in such an hour, a dark village maiden had lifted her ebony eyes to the poet,

like black clouds gathering at the corners of a May sky

like soft black shadows descending upon June forests,

in this way the mirth of a July evening fades suddenly away.

The rain whipped around her as she fought her way back to her aunt’s house, inside, rivulets of water forced their way through closed shutters, trickled through the whitewash to collect in chalky puddles on the floor. She watched the heavy hips of her aunt as she bent down to mop up the rainwater  … And, shivering with sweet sorrow on that fateful winter morning, Moni had wondered, as she studied the wooden grace of her aunt’s arm sweeping in complicated arcs across the red floor, what she had gained by leaving a home, an indifferent husband, a cruel mother-in-law, to live alone, among the blunt banyans, to sit in her bamboo rocking chair on her veranda and read endless novels, did she not, on some still summer evening, lift her eyes to a glorious sunset, and feel, like the poet

If you did not give me love

Why paint the dawn sky with such song

Why thread garlands of stars

Why make a field of flowers my bed

Why does the south wind whisper secrets in my ear?

If you did not give poetry to my soul

Why does the sky stare like that upon my face

And why do sudden fits of madness grip my heart?

I set sail upon seas whose shores I know not.

Sunetra Gupta’s prose veers frequently into shades of deepest purple, but her emotional intensity, dial turned up all the way, perfectly fits Tagore’s. This really is quintessentially Bengali. In cultures that prefer strict emotional continence, this form of extremism is often frowned on as a sign of stupidity – of giving irrationality permission to take over.

But intense emotionality and exemplary analytical intelligence are hardly mutually exclusive. Consider what this novelist does today, in addition to writing fiction. She is a professor of Epidemiology at Oxford, where she describes her work on the site of the Department of Zoology.

My main area of interest is the evolution of diversity in pathogens, with particular reference to the infectious disease agents that are responsible for malaria, influenza and bacterial meningitis. I use simple mathematical models to generate new hypotheses regarding the processes that determine the population structure of these pathogens. I work closely with laboratory and field scientists both to develop these hypotheses and to test them.

Post-Gutenberg did not know that she existed until a postman delivered in the mid-‘90s a catalogue of remaindered books whose offerings included  Memories of Rain. Why has this author had less attention than other writers of Indian origin — Salman Rushdie, Anita or Kiran Desai, or Jhumpa Lahiri? We suspect, for part of the explanation, that she writes first to please her own sensibility, rather than Western literary tastes. See an earlier entry on this blog: ‘Gatekeepers I: in defence of Rachel Cusk — let cross-cultural flowers bloom in simultaneous international e-publishing’.

For gatekeepers alarmed about so-called ‘multi-culti’ — appreciating foreign cultural traditions — corrupting the mother-culture, does enjoying the Gupta-Tagore duets by this novelist diminish in the smallest degree a passion for the great works in the English canon? Of course not. Here is John Donne feeling exactly as Moni does, by the end of Memories:

Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite ;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love, can love no more.

A boatload of words, part 2: new media experiments suggest how lost languages might be saved

‘L’Arsouille’, Rennes, Brittany
Photographs by Mark Barron

Owing to chronic disruptions beyond our control, our usual timetable for new posts – roughly every six to seven days – must regrettably be abandoned for a while. ]

[ part 1 of ‘A boatload of words …’ is here ]

We are experimenting again — this time, with 21st-century ways of long-distance literary exploration. We are doing this in a multi-media collage — additions to some lines of poetry that we featured here last month.

Suppose that you discovered a beguiling poem that was a call to arms on behalf of an endangered language — lines saturated with the emphatically anti-glamorising spirit of a place, and adding up to a sort of love letter to its culture? Suppose that this place was Brittany, and that before you found the poem, you had only ever read the same clichés about its resilient, courageous, resourceful and fiercely independent people and been served, ad nauseam, the same images of its rugged coastline, its boats, its mizzling North Atlantic skies — without ever having heard a Breton speak?

Language arguably is culture.

Its sounds contain revelations inaccessible except by listening — a thought that came to mind playing back a recording of Roy Eales’s exemplary, playful-yet-serious reading of his own poem in its English original, then hearing his friend Fañch Peru recite his translation of it into his native Breton in ringing tones that are somehow both gritty and embracing. You can almost feel the inhospitable roughness of rock on your skin and taste acrid brine, halfway through the Breton version.

Beneath audio clips that any visitor to this blog can compare is the Breton text of Peru himself, a scholarly authority on the language – offered for listeners curious enough to read along. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

( … The audio files that follow work on some machines; not on others. … We are still digging to get to the bottom of the mystery. )

Roy Eales reads ‘A boatload of words:

Fañch Peru reading his translation of the poem into Breton:

Near relations of ours were in Brittany earlier this summer, and to one of them we are indebted for the photographs at the start of this post. They were taken in Rennes, where the native people speak not Breton but Gallo, the other regional language of Brittany, but whose look and mien — in the images we were lucky enough to receive — do fit Roy Eales’s descriptions of the preference for substance over style in the culture of this province.

The correspondences between sound and meaning in Breton are so unexpected, to these post-Gutenberg ears, so captivating, that we consider ourselves enlisted in the cause of saving a language we have never heard in its own home – ‘virtual’ allies. In our last post about Breton and ‘A boatload, …’, we proudly displayed a drawing by the artist Sascha Juritz, another foreign campaigner, but one who considered Brittany a home for years before he died in 2003. It has taken a while for the photograph of him that we requested to reach us, but here it is – an image well worth waiting for:

Portrait of Sascha Juritz by Ursula Leipold

The Wikipedia entry for this region – Europe’s northwestern corner — says, in part:

In 1956, Brittany was legally reconstituted as the Region of Brittany, although the region excluded the ducal capital of Nantes and the surrounding area. Over this period the Breton language declined precipitously. Children were not allowed to speak Breton at school, and were punished by teachers if they did. Famously, signs in schools read: “It is forbidden to speak Breton and to spit on the floor” (“Il est interdit de parler breton et de cracher par terre”). As a result, a generation of native Breton speakers were made to feel ashamed of their language and avoided speaking it or teaching it to their children.

Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), who had a Breton mother he adored, unfortunately identified with the French capital’s prejudice against the place. As one of his biographers, Graham Robb, has explained:

According to Hugo, … his mother was a half-wild royalist Amazon, chased through the Breton undergrowth by republican soldiers, risking her life to rescue persecuted priests. Brittany itself, in Hugo’s Parisian view of the country, was an antediluvian land inhabited by hairy, tattooed peasants, squatting in their cottages or holes in the ground, surviving on milk and chestnuts, fanatically loyal to King and Church, their worldview bounded by the horizons of the ancient forests in which they hid, bristling with Druidic superstition and mindless animosity — a contrast, in Hugo’s personal mythology, to the mountain-born genius. Only the `wash-basin’ of the Atlantic Ocean was equal to the filth of Brittany, he wrote on a visit in 1836.

Oh, the obtuse pointlessness of prejudice … Here, two centuries after Hugo was born, is an extract from a Breton poem – Fañch Peru’s rendering into English of his eulogy for Sascha Juritz:

The black knight of summer

Every summer

The black knight

Came galloping to our country.

In clothes of velvet corduroy

And leather boots

He rode his white horse

Along green paths,


To meet friends

And talk together

With fervour and passion

Of art,

Of poetry,

Of the force of words,

Of Brittany, its language,

Of black and of white,

His chosen colours,

Of the wide world

Which turns the wrong way.


And we were happy.

[… continues in What matters most is what you make ]

En ur porzh-mor kozh e Breizh un den, ur gasketenn martolod gantañ war e benn harpet war e c’har zehou a selle pizh ouzh un dra bennak a bouez bras.

Treiñ a reas e benn hag ober a reas un hanter tro war e c’har gleiz evit cheñch plas hag e chomas aze war e c’har zehou adarre.

Tanañ a reas e gorn ha kontañ a reas ur marvailh. Setu petra ’ oa c’hoarvezet.

Ur beurevezh yen er goañv en hevelep porzh-mor e kludas un evn mor du war e skoaz hag e kontas dezhañ e brezhoneg penaos ul lestr bras tre ruilhet ha diruilhet e-maez da Vreizh war ur Mor Atlantel rust a reas peñse abalamour d’un taoldispac’h -eus e lestrad – ur sammad gerioù, e gwirionez, holl c’heriaoueg yezh ar ro.

Richanañ a rae an evn du en ur ziskleriañ penaos ar gerioù a oa da vezañ diskarget er mor, ul lev vat er-maez e seier du krouget start merket warne e ruz: DIEZHOMM dre urzh Ministrerezh ar C’hontrollerezh Diharz.

Evel-just ne voe ket laouen ar gerioù gant se. Bet e oant trec’het kent met biskoazh ken gwazh kinnig marv n’o doa bet.

En ur brezegenn nerzhus, Gwendal, e-penn al lestrad gerioù a c’houlennas digante sevel da stourm. Ijinañ a reas ur mod d’en em zifenn. Dieubiñ an holl a rafe an ampartañ gerioù, kas al lestr d’ar strad a rafe ar re bounnerañ. Goude e tistrofe an holl c’herioù war-varin d’o bro c’henidik.

Evned mor o nijal a – us d’al lestr a glevas dre guzh komz eus difennerezh ar gerioù. Goulenn a reas ar re-mañ digante skignañ buan ha buan kemennadoù e brezhoneg e touez ar bobl.

Evel-se e voe embannet prim ar c’heleier a-dreuz ar vro ha prestik holl aodoù Breizh a virvilh, beuzet a don hag a son hag a dud o koroll hag o kanañ dirak ar mor hag al lestr o vont d’ar strad en dremmwel.

Hag o tont davete ul liñsel eonenn gwenn war ar mor, un eonenn gerioù, yezh ar vro en he fezh a voe charreet gant lorc’h betek an aod gant ar gwagennoù evel un harozez.

Adalek an deiz-se e touas ar bobl ne lezfe biken ken he yezh he-unan da rentañpenn da n’eus forzh peseurt degouezh arvarus war ar mor pe e-lec’h all.

Translation, English to Breton : Fañch Peru, Breton poet and professor of the Breton language. From the book, What matters most is what you make … 

A poetic boatload of words and a foretaste of e-publishing as bringer of light and joy

Cover drawing by Sascha Juritz
What matters most is what you make
Roy Eales
Blackbird Editions, Pawel Pan Presse, 2004

Sit up and pay attention, all you change-resistant bookworms who see no good in e-publishing; nothing but the prospect of avaricious conventional publishers charging readers more than once for the same text repackaged in different media – and witless self-publishing writers drowning us in e-drivel.

This week, post-Gutenberg offers word nerds everywhere an example of the littérature-sans-frontières that the net could – will – soon give us as a matter of course. Undeniably, no e-book could replicate the pleasure of handling the slender volume printed on luscious, textured paper from which our extract comes. Never mind, read on. See proof in many dimensions of how the net could – conceivably — help to save literary culture.

These poetic, fanciful lines with something critical to tell us about real life are introduced by their writer, Roy Eales. In his book What matters most is what you make (2004), they appear translated into Breton – the language of the French province of Brittany – as well as in French and German, alongside the English original. (Only the second translation is reproduced here, but we hope to find time to transcribe the other two.)

Roy is a fine, original, unpredictable and unclassifiable English writer and poet living in Brittany who was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by official France in 2004. He is that rare scribe not born a ‘digital native’ who has leapt from print-only to blending literature with other art in readings of his work interwoven with musical performances by members of his group. A selection of his poems in five languages has been recorded on a CD, ‘Just in Case’ by Roy Eales and his friends (2010), with original music by artists in Brittany and Wales.

Beneath Boatload, on this page, is another excerpt from the same book– the first verse of a wicked, delicious, posthumous tribute to Sascha Juritz, the artist and friend whose drawings accompany Roy’s poems, prose meditations and vignettes.




A note from Roy Eales:


A boatload of words came to me in the middle of a night sometime in late 2003. Legend, mythology, mystery abound in Brittany, Bretons and their literature, and I searched for something satirical in which I could use these elements to castigate the French, heavily, for their stern, backward attitude towards other languages in their national space, and to challenge the Bretons, lightly, for not fighting back enough.

[ from the book’s introduction: ]

Boatload and the other poems in this book were dedicated to Sascha Juritz, brilliant artist, my friend and publisher of this and other books over the years. He died in 2003 as this book with his exquisite drawings was being published. He saw Brittany as a twin for Lausitz, his own Slav country locked into the Czech and Polish borders and colonized by Germany some centuries ago as independent Brittany was by the French. Like the Bretons, the people of Lausitz have sought to protect their culture and language despite the inevitable forces to conform to the ‘master’ French and German cultures and languages. 


[ If you are reading this on the blog's 'front page,' please click on the title of this post to be taken to its own separate part of the site to read the following words set out as they are meant to be. WordPress's automated layout software tends to destroy certain types of special formatting, such as spacing for poetry. ]


A boatload of words: a fable for Brittany


At an old port in Brittany a man wearing a peaked black cap was

leaning on his right leg staring capital in the face.


He turned his head and swivelled on his left leg to an alternative

position, and rested there on his right leg again.


He lit his pipe and told a tale. This is what happened.


One cold winter morning at the same port a black seabird

perched on his shoulder and told him in Breton that a huge boat

heaving off Brittany on a strong Atlantic sea had been wrecked

by a mutiny – of its cargo – a boatload of words, in fact, the entire



The black bird twittered, in revealing that the words were to be

dumped at sea, three miles out, in black stranglehold sacks stamped in

red: SUPERFLUOUS, by order of the Ministry of Absolute Control.


Naturally, the words didn’t like this. They had been beaten before,

but never, so overtly, threatened with extinction.


In a mighty speech, Gwendal, their leader calls for a rebellion, and

draws up a plan. The cleverest words would free everyone, and the

heaviest words would sink the boat. Then all the words would float

back to their homeland.


Seabirds flying over the boat learnt secretly of the plan from the words,

who asked them to speed messages in Breton back to the people.


So the news spread quickly across Brittany, and soon all the shoreland

bristled full of music and people, dancing and singing, facing the sea

and the sinking ship on the horizon.


And coming towards them a sheet of white foam on the sea, a foam of

words, as the entire language was carried proudly ashore by the waves

like a hero.


From that day on the people vowed never again would they leave their

language alone to save itself from any perils at sea, or wherever they

may be.


Roy Eales, 2003 



Une cargaison de mots: fable pour la Bretagne


Sur un vieux port breton, un homme portant une casquette de marin

noire s’appuyait sur sa jambe droite, fixant du regard un point d’une

importance capitale.


It tourna la tête et pivota sa jambe gauche pour changer de position

et se tint là de nouveau sur sa jambe droite. It alluma sa pipe et raconta

une histoire. Voici ce qui s’était passé.


Un froid matin d’hiver sur ce même port un oiseau marin se percha

sur son épaule et lui raconta en Breton qu’un énorme navire se soulevant

au large de la Bretagne sur une forte mer atlantique avait fait naufrage à

cause d’une mutinerie – de sa cargaison – une cargaison de mots, en

fait tout le vocabulaire de la langue du pays.


L’oiseau noir gazouillait, alors qu’il révélait que les mots devaient être

jetés à la mer à trois miles au large, étranglés dans les sacs noirs sur

lesquels était tamponné en rouge: SUPERFLU, sur ordre du Ministère

du Contrôle Absolu.


Naturellement, les mots ne furent pas contents. Ils avaient déjà été

battus, mais jamais, si ouvertement, menacés d’extinction.


Dans un vibrant discours, Gwendal, leur chef appelle à la rébellion

et établit un plan. Les mots les plus habiles libéreraient tout le monde,

et les plus lourds couleraient le navire. Puis tous reviendraient en

flottant jusqu’à leur terre.


Des oiseaux marins volant au-dessus du navire furent en secret mis au

courant du plan des mots, qui leur demandèrent de faire rapidement

passer un message en breton au peuple.


Ainsi les nouvelles se répandirent vite à travers le pays, et bientôt

tout le littoral grouillait, repli de musique et de gens qui dansaient

et chantaient, face à la mer et un bateau coulant à l’horizon.


Et venant vers eux, drap d’écume blanche sur la mer, une écume de

mots, toute la langue du pays, était portée fièrement au rivage par les

vagues, comme un héros.


Depuis ce jour le peuple fit serment de ne jamais plus laisser sa langue

toute seule faire face aux périls en mer, ou n’importe où ailleurs.


Roy Eales, 2003

Translated into French by Nanda Troadeg and Susan Eales ]


And here is a snippet of Roy’s tribute to Sascha Juritz, ‘Don’t Overdrive, my dear‘ … you can read the rest in your own copy of What matters most is what you make:


This time

Is there only the reality?

.  So don’t overdrive, my dear.

Where this genius is concerned

reality is irrationality.

The black lines

send off the normality

and poetry is just

.  a little shit

after which you feel better

and lose a bit of yourself.

.  It doesn’t matter, my dear.

.  They hear nothing

.  Say nothing

.  See nothing — scheisser — .

But every man is always

.  a Grand Poète,

has something to say,

. a small bird in the head.


[ ... continues ... ]



Might audience jealousy of artists explain why copyright is being officially destroyed on the internet?

Do artists deserve to eat?
Photograph by Mark Barron

In a March post, post-Gutenberg asked,

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?


So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for [...] experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers [...]

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

For people working in the arts, the grim news last week – ‘European Parliament Kills Controversial ACTA’ — marked surging public support for depriving them of any protection from online piracy:

The European Parliament rejected the controversial global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in a crucial vote on Wednesday. […] ACTA, abbreviation for Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, mandated that signatory countries implement legislation to criminalize certain types of downloading content such as music and movies, from sites not sanctioned by rights owners …

ACTA was killed by a vast online social network expressly formed to oppose paying creative artists for downloading copies of their work. There were some eye-popping attempts at justifying this European vote in the comments section of a furious protest against ACTA’s defeat by the Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison: ‘Throwing out Acta will not bring a free internet, but cultural disaster’.

To study that thread is to pick up a persistent undercurrent of jealous resentment – whose real target is not, as so many of those commenters claimed sanctimoniously, the ‘content conglomerates’ or multinational music publishers and film studios charging inflated prices for CDs and DVDs. It is the musicians, actors, and other ‘content-producers’.

One commenter seemed to speak for many in this post:


Culture is shared and owned by everyone.

Floggin plastic discs, is a business, and nothing to do with culture.

A flurry of comments belaboured the point that artists must simply accept that technological change has made it difficult or impossible to prevent people from helping themselves to art free of charge.

At post-Gutenberg, we wondered why these stalwart defenders of freeloading have yet to form a movement against paying farmers for food. As tillers of the soil use air, earth, and knowledge of crop-growing ‘owned by everyone’, why not risk arrest and imprisonment by ganging up to pirate vegetables, eggs, milk and poultry from fields and farms unprotected by fences or other low- or high-tech barriers?

As heatedly as they insisted on freedom for themselves, the commenters crowing about ACTA’s defeat demanded that artists – especially musicians – work on their terms. These go beyond requiring musicians to ‘share’ recordings of their work for nothing. Never mind if they are brilliant composers with crippling stage-fright, or who would simply prefer not to perform live, these audience members know what is best for them … and some wrote strings of posts making essentially the same demands:


The world has changed, and it has been changing for well over a decade now. A generation have grown up expecting free music and it’s nothing to do with being ‘radical’ or ‘hip’, it’s just the norm.

I suggest becoming a renowned performer rather than relying on CD sales.

To put it bluntly : adapt or die.


This little rant is of course based on the assumption that the grotesque wealth that has, in recent history, accompanied success in music or acting or writing is in any way desirable. 


Pirating is wrong, but […] maybe the artists need to perform more. Those “used to be musicians” might still be if they’d got out of the studio and into the pubs and clubs like their predecessors did.


So music will once again be about artists performing live, instead of corporate fatcats presiding over billion dollar industries.

What a tragedy. 


Most of the people you are talking about and their businesses, those in the creative industries, willingly use and exploit the free internet to give a wider audience a taste of what they are about and to use its capacity as free advertising for their events. The bonus of this is that live events which had been dying have now been invigorated.



[Musical artists must] do what most musicians have always done, flip burgers during the week and live for the gigs on Friday and Saturday night.



… [U]nregulated web will lead to musos having to play guitar solo on street corners for thrown coins. can’t see anything wrong there. 



If you create something outstanding and expect to live off the work for the rest of your life, and your family for 70 years after your death, then you must charge a sufficient amount to invest the proceeds and live off the investment income.

Otherwise you need to continually produce new works, or perform existing works.

We did not have more than a few minutes to test our impression of artist-envy in a search engine trawl. Two results – not enough to prove anything, but admirably frank, and revealing:

From a post titled ‘Why we are insanely jealous of artists’ on Jason Kallsen’s Vinethinking blog:

At a certain point, usually in our youth … we stand alone in front of the mirror with thumb raised and sing along to a song that is pounding out of the stereo.  And during our dream sequence, we see thousands of screaming fans before us, cheering us on.  Yes, deep down, at some point, we all want to be that person.


We love artists, and we are jealous of them for two reasons: they live their life doing what they want to do without permission or apology, and their career creates legacy projects naturally. [his bold type]

From Momus’s click opera blog:

I’m jealous of artists especially when a shiny new copy of ARTFORUM arrives. I flick through the pages looking at the ads.

It’s important to be jealous, without rejecting. Jealous and full of desire.


I’m jealous of the super-elite art tribe who ride the global flow from one biennial to the next.

And I’m ultimately jealous of the fact that our society has evolved to such a level that we indulge people as if they were children, and let them act out the whims and games of children in public, and pay them for it. It seems that being an artist — in the West, or in China — is the ultimate evolutionary point of the individual. Perhaps it’s a point we’ll recede from as times get tougher later this century, but a world without these selfish, clever, silly children isn’t a better one.

Jason Kallsen points the way to the right solution – which is most definitely not to deprive artists of copyright:

[W]e can all live fuller lives than we probably do.  Even if you are chained to a desk (for now) find an outlet that allows you to creatively do whatever the hell you want to do.  A painting class, doing more personal writing, visiting museums more often, taking the camera around town on a daily mission to make one great photo, etc.

It is only a small leap from there to the reason why this post-Gutenberg blog was started last September – to campaign for changing the ownership structure of media to let members of the audience become co-owners, and give them the chance to perform and publish themselves. See, for instance: ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …‘.

Julia Hobsbawm and a few more reasons to be wary of social networking

The New Yorker explains the ‘structural holes’ theory of social networking.
21 November 2005.

We are indebted to Ian Jack, writing in his latest Guardian column, for justifying our extreme suspicion of coercive social networking — and especially, of academic theorising about the value of something people have always done supposedly being on the verge of dominating everything else that we do.  (See footnotes for links to earlier entries on aspects of this alarming subject.)

Reflecting on a speech by Julia Hobsbawm, the new Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at the Cass Business School at London’s City University – in which she pronounced ‘Facebook and Twitter … de facto, the new water cooler,’ but warned that extra-powerful networking takes place in ‘grassroots, lateral, face-to-face networks,’ — he noted,

The better people were connected, she said, the more they flourished. At the bottom end of the scale, “the completely un-networked” were often the unemployed. At the top end, networking away like barn dancers, were people who gathered at places such as Davos for the global events Hobsbawm always found “hugely stimulating and enjoyable” but regrettably confined to the same old elite. As I understood her talk, which may not be perfectly, the trick was somehow to open up these conclaves to less privileged people. Thus “social and intellectual plurality” would lead to “social and professional mobility”.

He came to this sad conclusion:

The Cass Business School should adopt a motto and paint it over the entrance: non quae sed quem cognoscis, not what you know but who. And thereby recognise the return of this unfortunate reality.

The New York Times, just as sceptical in its report of Julia Hobsbawm’s inaugural lecture, also emphasised her own splendid family and social connections as the key to her success – that she is the daughter of an eminent Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, and was once the business partner of the wife of a former British prime minister in a public relations company.

Why do social networking theorists like her make their ideas so hard to understand?

Like Ian Jack, the New York paper quoted tiny snippets of her talk to convey deep bafflement – but post-Gutenberg did not really grasp what they were hinting at until we followed a link to a recording of exactly what she said. This longer segment of her lecture makes it easier to see why they found her — erm, ‘meta-concepts,’ is the way she and her fellow-theorists would probably put it, so elusive. We hope we have punctuated her words correctly in this transcript: it is not easy to decide how that should be done when struggling to make the ideas themselves fit together. After asking whether knowledge might be ‘more valuable when it is loose rather than tight,’ she continued,

The global workplace is itself becoming looser. Our graduate children are shadow-boxing hidden counterparts and hidden competitors on other continents. The Silicon Roundabout worker in London must be mobile and fluid because they may end up in Silicon Valley or someone from Silicon Valley may pinch their job. The garment producer in Mumbai may come from Mombasa. That’s because knowledge moves in a kind of diaspora now, uprooting from a fixed position and travelling. In fact, The Economist – again – noted in an article about diaspora networks last year that there are 215 million diaspora migrants in the world now. That’s the equivalent of 3 per cent of the world’s population taking ideas from over there back home. China’s growth may have more to do with the fact that over 500,000 people have studied abroad and returned, mostly within a single decade, bringing a huge brain surge through the ranks of think tanks and government.

The best expression of very loose knowledge that I can find is the sociologist Ronald S. Burt’s term ‘structural holes’. He describes the way ideas often form between formal [her emphasis] network nodes than in them. As Burt put it, and I quote, ‘Structural holes are the empty spaces in social structure. The value potential of structural holes is that they separate non-redundant sources of information, sources that are more additive than overlapping.’ And I’m minded to quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she describes freedom as coming from ‘the blank white spaces on the edge of the print.’

‘Loose knowledge’, it would seem, is a stunning sequence of non sequiturs that could sink anyone listening for too long in a bottomless black hole.

Or, we might simply say, to encapsulate our yokelish incomprehension of the Hobsbawm networking spiel, very Swedish chef  … – in the hope that a few readers have come across this sublime Muppet Show character whose recipes could kill you, if you followed them – but that would call for understanding his directions.


How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?

Google, bowing to social media, is letting down tomorrow’s Samuel Becketts

The Muppet Show’s Swedish chef in a meditative pause between utterances.

Advice for Lord Justice Leveson from Lao Tse: how to shape the afterlife of the 4th Estate and assist the birth of its successor

[ On 10 July 2012, The Independent, a ‘liberal’ London newspaper, declined to publish a comment on press reform linked to this post. That polite comment is here. ]

Niklaus Manuel’s ‘Dance of Death’ (‘Totentanz’, 1516-1519) was a hugely popular theme as Gutenberg presses proliferated and the Renaissance was in full sway. It could have symbolised a coming-to-terms not just with death but the dying of old ways.

Presiding over an Inquiry whose conclusions will shape the afterlife of the British press – doomed to extinction by digital media and the new voices of the 5th Estate – Lord Justice Leveson keeps reminding us of the contradiction in the difficult job he has been given. What mechanisms can he recommend to the government for the enforcement of ethical behaviour by the 4th Estate without ‘imperilling the freedom of expression or our free press’? – as he put it during Tony Blair’s testimony in late May.

Post-Gutenberg would like to recommend a fragment of ancient Chinese philosophy as a frame for thinking about a solution to his quandary. Lao Tse reportedly said, in the 6th century BCE,

If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.

Lao Tse

Rule-making can be seen as a sort of compression – in the sense of limiting, constraining and controlling. It is too soon for anyone, even the admirably wise men at the summit of Britain’s judiciary today, to draft rules for media being turned inside-out by the digital revolution. As perspicacious witnesses have pointed out, any new regulations that minutely specify what the 4th Estate can and cannot do must inevitably pronounce on who should be considered a journalist. How can that be done when the profession’s boundaries are being obliterated by the arrival of the 5th Estate?

It would be disastrous if the Inquiry were to lead to any blocking or impeding of this successor to the 4th Estate. What the arrival of the 5th Estate means for the press is that it has to share the megaphone it has so far had all to itself.  This succession is directly in line with the evolution and improvement of democracy – something that people everywhere want dearly, a yearning that events like the Arab Spring have dramatised.

To watch the Leveson hearings is to see the presiding judge agonise over too many details that an unimpeded 5th Estate will soon make irrelevant or outdated. They take up too much of his time, even when he understandably declines to deal with them in an Inquiry being criticised for taking on too much. As Dan Sabbagh noted in a good summing-up in The Guardian last week,

Leveson has so far showed little apparent desire to get into the question of the ownership structures of newspapers: when invited … to set a cross-media ownership limit that would force a Murdoch sale of the Sun or the Times, Leveson fought shy, “because that involves all sorts of competition issues which would require quite detailed analysis”.

Instead, Leveson went elsewhere to debate some practical solutions. The judge has been surprisingly consistent in the views he has espoused, taking the approach of testing out ideas periodically with witnesses he likes. Leveson is clearly sceptical of the PCC [Press Complaints Commission], telling Financial Times editor Lionel Barber in January that the body was not “really a regulator” but a “complaints mechanism” – and that it needed to be supplemented by another body, a new kind of court, “some sort of arbitral system” to cover libel and privacy claims – an imagined body that the judge said would be designed to be low cost – or to use a phrase he repeated many times “not make extra work for lawyers”. Its nearest analogue would be the industrial tribunals, or the arbitration system used in the construction industry. 

Post-Gutenberg likes the way the judge is thinking about  a replacement for the defunct and essentially toothless Press Complaints  Commission. We would also be happy to see the criminalisation of a small set of completely unacceptable infractions, such as extraordinary invasions of privacy by phone hacking and other underhand means.

But instead of pointless brain-cudgelling about precisely what percentage of which communication medium newspaper conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s should be allowed to own, Lord Justice Leveson’s highest priority should be to open the way to the largest number of competitors for the 4th Estate.

In other words, expand, don’t compress should be the principle guiding his recommendations to the government in September.

Check bad behaviour on the part of today’s media elite by maximising  opportunities for the outsiders of the 5th Estate to offer alternative presentations of facts and unfamiliar opinions, and to challenge and expose the biases and mistakes of every sort of media, new and old.

There is no shortage of good ideas for the democratic licensing of access to sensitive information by both professional and non-professional disseminators of facts. In a post a few months ago  on the blog of the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM), Hugh Tomlinson QC made an excellent suggestion about ‘benefits for public interest journalism of creating a category of “accredited journalists”’.  These would be …

… a sub-category of those writing for publication [who] should be given specific privileges to assist them in their work. […] [P]rivileges should not be granted to journalists simply because they are employed to write or because they work for a media organisation.  Neither should the privileges be granted to any “citizen journalist” who claims to be writing public interest stories. Rather, the privileges should be made available to those who pass through a gateway policed by a voluntary independent regulatory body and sign up to an enforceable code of responsibility. [post-G’s ital.]

There are new ways of organising and financing journalism that could use Lord Justice Leveson’s support – even if that only means he will be careful not to hobble the reorganisation of the media as, for instance, a set of cooperatives in which readers and viewers could be offered the chance to become co-owners. In recent months, proposals for setting up and running these have been increasingly detailed and specific. (See, for instance, the mention of Paul Smalera’s suggestions in ‘Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media …’.)

The mere existence of the Leveson Inquiry has already had salutary effects. To give a small but critical example, the moderation of comments in The Guardian’s popular comments sections has become far less trigger-happy. Commenters are not being censored quite so reflexively for opinions or factual posts that conflict with that newspaper’s views and political positions, or criticise its friends. Last weekend, it was heartening to see a post about the Inquiry itself opened for comments after months of prohibition on grounds that made no sense – and to be able to read contributions to the debate about Ian Jack’s illuminating comparison of Leveson with an earlier government investigation of press practices.

As for the Leveson hearings, per se, their radical transparency — with a presiding judge confident enough to muse aloud and react spontaneously to testimony —  goes far beyond what many of us could even have imagined as a model of open government. (The best demonstration came an hour after this post: here). American lawyer friends looking on in awe tell us that nothing in the US system would permit Americans to copy the form of these proceedings.

Most amazing has been the discovery that the conduct of the Inquiry is characteristic of an exceptionally progressive judiciary. Utterly unlike the notoriously slow-moving and stodgy legal system wickedly satirised in Dickens’s creation, Jarndyce and Jarndyce — a court case that grinds on for generations – Britain’s top judges are not just acknowledging the implications of new communications media and adjusting to them, but doing so faster than the professionally nimble 4th Estate.

Post-Gutenberg only recently came across a news report from the spring of last year about a speech in Israel by the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Igor Judge, who put Sir Brian Leveson in charge of this indescribably gratifying investigation into press culture and practices. He explained that in Malta, where he was born, one of his grandfathers owned and edited a tiny newspaper. His sympathy for the press’s problems is, in a sense, inbred. But he favours the transparency and inclusion that are more the defining characteristics of the 5th than the 4th Estate – even for keeping his own legal system honest:

His “fervent hope” was that new technology would make it easier for the media to be “present” in court, reporting the proceedings, and “the present trend of fewer and fewer reporters in every court would come to an end”.

In an apparent reference to “virtual” courts based on video-conferencing, Judge insisted that justice should be done “in a public forum to which the public, or the media, has access”.

He continued: “Technology must not lead to justice done in secret, or some form of hole-in-the-corner justice.

Post-Gutenberg wishes to offer just more one scrap of advice to Lord Justice Leveson – who has invited everyone, however obscure, to contribute thoughts to his hearings: please do not allow political partisanship by the press to be conflated with press freedom. As we observed in a recent post in this spot, sanctioning political one-sidedness means licensing powerful media owners to be king-makers, with all the compromising wheeling and dealing that goes with that. It means condoning the skewed reporting of the facts so essential to the functioning of a genuinely democratic government.

With a fully licensed 5th Estate in full cry, media conglomerates trying to run Britain, with lots of help from British prime ministers – or what the Economist appears to dismiss nonchalantly as the inevitable ‘proprietor problem’ —  should be shown their proper place. And where would that be? If not oblivion, then as far below the salt as possible.

Gatekeepers II:  why not learn, like Bill Gates — so as not to dismiss subjects like intellectual India from blind ignorance?

‘The Indian Genius’: watch the menu at the top of the home page for a forthcoming compilation of articles on subcontinental topics.
Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling out and walling in …

‘Mending Wall’, Robert Frost, 1914

Gatekeepers would get more respect in this sceptical internet age if they could only acknowledge the vastness of what they – like the rest of us – do not know. The assumption of omniscience is inevitably a curiosity-killer. Satisfying deep curiosity – as even the most hopeless pilgrim on the road to wisdom knows – calls for humility, and for moving out of your zone of comfort in more than one sense. So it was that soon after Bill Gates stepped out into 44°C heat in the northern Indian city of Lucknow a few days ago, he went on Twitter to send out a link to a new post on his blog, — a preview of a video report about this latest expedition to the subcontinent:

His entries about the trip are what you would expect to see in the online diary of the world’s most prominent philanthropist. He explores slums. He calls on chief ministers of Indian states. He visits medical research laboratories to check on progress in developing new vaccines. At the end of the short video clip, he gives his chief reason for travelling to this part of Asia: ‘Most of all, I go to learn.’

It was not subcontinental weaknesses and poverty but India’s strengths that originally put this country on his radar screen, when Bill was still running Microsoft. About a decade ago – and before he and his wife Melinda assumed control of their charitable foundation – he acknowledged Microsoft’s extraordinary dependence on Indian engineers for its operation and continued success. (See, for instance,  ‘Gates goes gaga over India’s developers, education system,’ The Economic Times, 14 November 2002).

As everyone in Silicon Valley is well aware, whereas the Chinese shine most brightly in computer hardware research and design, software is where Indians excel. This is not accidental. Cultural traditions going far back into antiquity supply highly plausible explanations for the difference. But you would be hard-pressed to find any book-length accounting for it.


Because book publishers in both the UK and US do not believe that readers have any interest in the subject – even though many thinking people, not just technologists and tech-entrepreneurs, know …

  • … that in the late 1990s, help from Indian programmers was crucial to averting the Year 2000 (Y2K) crisis that could have been disastrous for people using computers everywhere – however indirectly, as in digital telephone networks and computerised banking. Their energetic re-programming corrected the error that had left most computer software with no means of recognising, or independently adjusting its time-keeping for, the start of a new millennium.
  • … that, as much of a shock as it was for many Westerners to have to turn to the land of bullock carts and yogis for help with computers, the Year 2000 work was relatively trivial by comparison with evidence of the Indian aptitude for software design and development at the most sophisticated levels. That is why the loftiest rungs of research and management at Google, Microsoft, Adobe and other technology leaders are thickly populated by professionals of Indian origin.

In 2003 and early 2004, a book proposal and essay discussing the reasons for these phenomena were shopped to more than one newspaper and magazine – before a letter about the project landed on the desk of David Goodhart, the founding editor of the British magazine Prospect (whose charter, at its 1995 launch, called for it to succeed as a cross between the vanished Encounter and The New Yorker.) His unusual curiosity, easily the equal of Bill Gates’s, led over the years to him coaxing contributions to his magazine out of Francis Fukuyama, Margaret Atwood, and J.M. Coetzee, among other provocative intellectuals.

An article accepted and edited by David, setting out a hypothesis about Indian excellence in software and titled ‘The Indian Genius,’ ran in the April 2004 edition of Prospect. Its writer was invited to address a seminar in Paris at the French Senate on India’s transformation by globalisation, and gave a paper that had an exceptionally enthusiastic reception.

None of this changed the minds of our gatekeepers in Western publishing or led them to delve into the question of whether there was indeed an audience for a cultural and historical explanation for India’s competitive advantages in software, and how the West should react to them. Did they make any effort to fill gaps in their knowledge of Asia — if only as a gesture towards matching the depth and breadth of Indian interest and immersion in the Western cultural corpus? Apparently not.

What is to be done about this? Paul Kiparsky, a professor of computational linguistics at Stanford University, also a Sanskrit scholar, does not believe that the project will find the support it deserves until a sufficient number of wealthy Californian entrepreneurs of Indian origin are not just ploughing their money into new technology ventures and alleviating poverty in India, but turning their attention to Indian culture, scholarship and art.

While we await that happy day, post-Gutenberg will — as time and stubborn formatting gremlins permit — compile a small archive of essays and articles related to Indian intellectual contributions. Our first post will be the original version of the Prospect piece on India and software, truncated as the magazine was going to press, to make room for a reaction to train bombings by terrorists in Madrid.

In searching for links to post here for readers, we found that British Library Direct has begun to charge close to £ 20 for access to the article’s edited version. This, oddly enough, is being done without the permission of the author, or an offer to share any part of the proceeds – but its being offered on that site is additional confirmation that there is a readership for the subject.

If book publishing’s gatekeepers were less incurious, would the ascendance of China and India have come as such a shock to the West?

The answer is, unfortunately, all too obvious.

Gatekeepers I: in defence of Rachel Cusk — let cross-cultural flowers bloom in simultaneous international e-publishing

‘Brobdingnag o Lilliput': the net has room for radically opposed perspectives and taste
in art and literature (see nearly invisible figures at base of shop windows).
Photograph by MIL22

Readers, all three of you, know that this blog could be one of the greatest fans Private Eye** has ever had – not just for its satire in direct descent from Jonathan Swift and other upholders of the grotesque tradition in English literature; not only for its unique compendium of whistleblowing about misused power and authority in Britain published every fortnight, but also for the futuristic modus operandi that makes these offerings possible.

This means that it is with excruciating reluctance that we at post-Gutenberg ask why the Eye keeps savaging the novelist and memoirist Rachel Cusk, who is capable of dystopian flights of prose of this calibre –

Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine in the seaside town where I live, the gulls screaming in the early dawn, a glittering agitation everywhere, the water a vista of smashed light. I could no longer sleep; my consciousness filled up with the lumber of dreams, of broken-edged sections of the past heaving and stirring in the undertow.

It reminded us of …

She listened … there was only the sound of the sea. … She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her … but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotized, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea …

… lines by another good writer, about whom we’ll have a bit more to say in a moment.

The first passage is an extract from Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, published this spring by Faber and Faber, today’s most prestigious literary imprint in Britain. With such a backer, she certainly did well with the gatekeepers in the sense in which the term is being used now – to refer to the old print media mafia of literary agents and editors deciding whose manuscripts will be lifted out of the slough of rejection, then promoted energetically, or left there to rot.

‘Gatekeeper’ could reasonably be used more widely, to include the reading public of a particular place either giving scribblers permission to think, feel and write in the ways that come most naturally to them – or attacking them or otherwise discouraging them from doing so.

That sanction has so far largely been denied to Rachel Cusk in Britain – for her divorce memoir. The Eye is far from her only excoriating mocker. Other British newspapers and innumerable citizen-commenters on reviews and articles about her have lambasted her eidetic, intelligent and ferociously self-critical account of this sad passage in her life. She has been denounced for solipsism, wallowing in dark emotions and imagery, and wrecking her own family’s privacy. For any objective witness to this battering – watching a long way from literary London – the last criticism is the most puzzling. Not once does she name her ex-husband or make it possible to identify him by his occupation, which has anyway changed since their divorce. Nor are her children easily identifiable, since they have no Christian names in her story, and presumably the surname of their father.

Yes, some of these facts can indeed be discovered online, but not by her choice – only, you suspect, because of the snippets of real life information extracted from her in publicity interviews on which book publishers insist, brooking no compromise.

You wonder why the anger about the baseless accusations of privacy invasion are never directed at ‘luvvie’ newspaper columnists, bloggers and social media networkers who never have to open the kimono, apparently delighted to live with it flapping high above their heads in a permanent hurricane of disclosure about themselves and their near and dear.

Cusk’s actual mistake was in violating the unwritten and unspoken rule for English writing in England – one that tends to make Americans uncomfortable. It decrees that sustained introspection and emotional intensity – when tending to chiaroscuro, if not outright melancholy – must be undercut by wit, poking fun at oneself, or some form of outrageousness like the scatological riffs and downright nastiness in some of Philip Larkin’s poetry. Admitting to admiring the lyrics of Leonard Cohen is asking to be sent to an aesthetic Siberia in most social circles. That makes no difference to those of us who marvel at the way sounds marry words in his contributions to music – even if we do believe the world’s greatest literary tradition to be English, inevitably: it shaped our taste.

But that is not the same as thinking that English aesthetic preferences should be used as a universal yardstick.

North America has crept into this scrap of wondering because Cusk’s writing style has partly been shaped by the years she spent there as a child. Her Mood Indigo prose in this memoir – I look forward to reading the others, and her novels – is strongly reminiscent of Joan Didion’s.

If Aftermath had been published simultaneously as an e-book in Britain and America – instead of in the UK alone – she would surely have elicited a more sympathetic or certainly, balanced, reaction from a cross-cultural audience. 

As sharp-eyed lit-critters have already guessed, the writer of the second extract quoted in this post is none other than Virginia Woolf – in To the Lighthouse. Much of her oeuvre consists of narcissistic, depressive, long-drawn-out exercises in introspection. Yet expert and non-expert British readers grant her genius status. Does a female writer have to be a victim of incest, and mentally ill, and finally, a suicide, to be allowed to say what she wants to as she sees most fit?

In a special editorial, no less, about Cusk, not long after Aftermath was published, The Guardian asked whether children can ‘really be counted as acceptable collateral damage in the self-styled vocation of the artist’ — without a substantiating word or phrase for the accusation. … Well! Should literary critics include in evaluations of the works of Virginia Woolf the question of whether it was right or fair that Leonard Woolf should have been obliged to interrupt his literary career, chronically, to serve as his wife’s psychiatric nurse? A nonsensical question, yes, but no more so than the one about damaging children.

The Guardian feels justified in lashing poor Rachel Cusk for writing a book that ‘plunges headfirst into the phenomenology of pain, which she wraps in a beautifying prose.’ Note the use of beautifying rather than beautiful – the compliment her sentences amply deserve – hinting that her writing so well must be reckoned another crime against decency; lipstick on a pig.

Time and the net will, we suspect, deliver the respect she deserves – for giving us, for instance:

We too came by car, along the motorway and then on smaller roads that took us through countryside and villages, little redbrick places that reminded me of the village where I used to visit my grandmother as a child. We lived in America then, and that English village, so damp and miniature-seeming, so full of twists and turns and cavities, constituted my education in the country of my parents, where soon I would come to live for good. In California I wasn’t quite sure who I was: large pieces of the jigsaw were missing, and it seemed that the missing pieces were here, in this rain-darkened place. I half-recognised them, the antiquity and the expressive weather, the hedgerows with their mysterious convoluted interiors, the sense of a solid provenance that underlay the surface movements of life like wood beneath the burnish: they were part of me and yet they lay outside me. … I was an onlooker, though I didn’t want to be. I wanted to live in the moment instead of always being lifted out of it into awareness, like a child lifted out of its warm bed half-asleep in the thick of night.

Brava! Rachel Cusk. Carry on scribbling, don’t let the Mini-Englander mentality get you down and in future, insist on simultaneous international publication.


** Feeling a bit low?  antidote: ‘Never too old’, a new love story by Dame Silvie Krin

The lost wisdom of co-ops: a conversation about the key to future creative freedom for artists and inventors of every stripe

All artists now want to work on terms they co-determine.
Photograph by MIL22.

Post-Gutenberg will occasionally be letting visitors eavesdrop on discussions between our colleagues – starting with the pseudonymous and gender-free Escargot and Mustrun, who are not quite ready to divulge any personal details, except in warning about their tendency to be over-earnest, humourless, and on occasion, dull. Not the best qualifications for bloggers, we agree, but we make do with what we have – or rather, who.

Mustrun: I see that on Sunday we linked to The Observer — to a sharp John Naughton column about the Facebook hype falling flat on Wall Street. Someone here dropped into a comment there a link to our Valentine’s Day post about snubbing Facebook and re-inventing social networking sites as co-ops.

Escargot: So that’s why our traffic numbers have gone zooming into outer space. We’re not used to thundering herds of visitors shattering the monastic silence in these parts.

Mustrun: Right. Co-op promoters are the slave trade-killers of tomorrow.

Escargot: Trying to be aphoristic again, are we? Don’t. That one’s as clear as mud.

Mustrun: Just saying. All the clever people were sure for over two millennia that slavery would always be with us. Anyone trying to abolish it was written off as a lunatic or idealistic fool.

Escargot: Oh. Quite. Last week that lovely Leveson Inquiry judge, more owly than we are, was asking eminent witnesses to suggest how to make the British press behave in the future, and be less hopeless at holding politicians to account. No one mentioned redesigning media organisations as co-ops, but it’s surely a solution whose day has come. Not to mention dead relevant.

Mustrun: You’re thinking of the Harvard journalism lab experiment? Something to do with an Indian tree that looks like a multi-limbed goddess on steroids?

Escargot: The Banyan Project, yes. It’s been building a prototype for doing online journalism as a cooperative enterprise, focusing on local news. The man behind it, Tom Stites, has exactly the right idea. We’ve quoted him on post-Gutenberg before.

Mustrun: We have? Well, you know me. Any subject not mentioned in a post header, or that I didn’t write about myself, does not register.

Escargot: [sighing inaudibly] So as usual, you want me to urp up what he said, to fill you in?

Mustrun: Leopard, spots; all in the hard-wiring – yes? … If you would, please, Scargo.

Escargot: [reads through imperceptibly gritted teeth] ‘A significant source of co-ops’ strength is the trustworthiness inherent in their democratic and accountable structure. … This is also an era of rampant mistrust of journalism, so co-op news sites’ trustworthiness has the potential to add value to what they publish. Further, the co-op form allows, or rather demands, that news coverage decisions arise from what a community’s people need … The web is inherently collaborative — just as co-ops are — and at the local level this creates the potential for civic synergy — ’.

Mustrun: Translation: co-ops and the internet were made for each other. Spot-on, in that long-winded Murrican way. He might add that it’s strange but true that large parts of the internet sit on top of ‘peer-to-peer computing’. But this Justice Leveson, … how is he supposed to go from applauding a fine example like Banyan – assuming he does any such thing – to persuading the media to try out co-ops? He’s hardly going to order them to alter what we’re supposed to call their ‘business model’.

Escargot: Right. Britain is not a dictatorship. But he might recommend that the government offer old or new media organisations tax breaks for setting up co-ops – in the oldies’ case, by reinventing themselves, or parts of their operations, as co-operative outfits.

Mustrun: You think journos would sign on? Remember that the majority so detest the idea of any change that they can’t even bring themselves to report that Nick Davies — the journo hero of the phone hacking saga — told Leveson that the press cannot be trusted to regulate itself.

Escargot: Mmmm. Some of them will sign on, certainly. More will as the idea loses its strangeness, I suspect. There are editors and journalists who’d leap at the chance co-ops could give them to set rules and policies collaboratively. Mainly, I suspect, the craft-focused ones — hoping, like artists and writers everywhere, that this net revolution really will get rid of hierarchies and gatekeepers.

You saw the Tom Friedman column celebrating some of that on the New York Times site yesterday — yes?… But then of course, many journos live not so much for the craft as for the clubbiness in the profession. And sort of think of themselves as football teams – the women just as much as the men.

Mustrun: Clipped Friedman for skimming, later. Journos are petrified of more democratic media organisations, especially of any plan that involves making room for outsiders — for more varied contributors and voices. I’m always asked the same nervous-Nellie question about posts on here like ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …’. It’s this: will working in a media co-op mean that trained journalists get paid the same as bloggers and citizen-journalists?

Escargot: Oh, I’m asked that. All the time. No matter how many times we explain that the way a co-op works will depend on the particular set of rules its owner-members agree on, the journos and media managers revert to projecting their most paranoid fears onto any mention of  co-operatives.

Mustrun: Someone ought to re-publish that superb Tom Lester article about co-ops in the disintegrating copy of Management Today you once disinterred from our archive. It’d make a terrific contribution to the new e-publishing collections of long-form journalism – with an introduction setting it in context, of course, and updated facts. Remind me of the year it was published?

Escargot: Imagine you proposing anything in long form, Musto. The owner of the world’s most attenuated attention span. The Lester piece — the cover date for the magazine says February 1979 — deserves every last gram of your praise.

Mustrun: Even text-grazers like me have to stop for a real meal, now and then. What he pulled off in that article is amazing. His subject was the failure of the Kirkby Co-operative in a depressed manufacturing town near Liverpool. Yet by the end of his dissection of how Kirkby was done in by badly-designed rules, you somehow feel hugely optimistic about a well-designed co-op’s chances of succeeding.

Escargot: Yes, yes, and yes. The piece partly answers the question of how journalists might be paid in relation to bloggers – not that we existed, then — by explaining the rules for profit-sharing in one of the world’s biggest and most brilliant co-ops. Mondragon, in the Basque country of northern Spain.

Mustrun: ‘Mondragon’ sounds like something in Lord of the Rings. Lester uses its exotic history — it was started by a Catholic priest in the desperate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War — to create a riveting context for a step-by-explanation of exactly how an individual could join a co-op and help run it.

Escargot: [ swipes over to scanned copy of the article in a tablet computer ] The ratios may have changed, but in 1979, Lester said that at least 30 per cent of a Mondragon co-op’s profits had to be put away in the collective reserve funds. Then, ‘the other 70 per cent is divided up among the members of the co-op according to a points system reflecting job status.’ … And of course, every member could help to decide the status of one job in relation to another.

Mustrun: But in addition to practical, nitty-gritty details like that, he tells about some of the lunacy that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the passionate idealism behind co-ops of the past.

Escargot: Mmmm. ‘No shortage of idealism,’ he says about Mondragon, ‘…but mixed with hard-headed realism.’

Mustrun: Yes, but noisy idealism has been the biggest enemy of co-ops. Makes sensible people mistrustful.

Escargot: Quite. If only people who believe in them and have the right skills – extroverts, unlike us – would just get on with setting them up with no fuss. The way, for instance, Tim Berners-Lee quietly invented this World Wide Web. What could be more idealistic than a way of communicating as powerful as this one, connecting the whole planet –  but given away, free? A scientist silently beavers away in a lab in Geneva and without any self-advertisement, no speechifying whatsoever, changes the world.

Mustrun: Well, I really must, … you know …

Escargot: Right. Off you go, then.

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Lord Justice Leveson interrogating Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief.

Why is this blog keeping a close eye on the progress of the Leveson Inquiry? Not because of minutiae about Rupert Murdoch and his henchwoman Rebekah Brooks jumping in and out of bed with British prime ministers, metaphorically speaking – as important as those shenanigans are to grasping the extent to which the governing of Britian has been infested by parasitical media magnates.

Under his Inquiry’s terms of reference, Lord Justice Leveson will have to make recommendations about the future of press regulation in Britain. These are bound to influence the debate about policy in other parts of the world. The expectation about the effect of his prescriptions that we at post-Gutenberg find most exciting is in this advice the judge has received:

…[I]f you do get the regulatory framework right for print journalism, I think that will have a profound effect on the way the Internet develops. […] What I think is happening is that we’re going to end up in a position where there has to be a redefinition essentially of what a journalist is.  … [I]t would be absurd to expect you to have regulation for every single person who is on Facebook and Twitter because then you’re not far off from saying we have to regulate the content of text messaging and so forth. [...] So I think there has to be a definition of what a journalist is, what a media organisation is, and [though] this is where I have some sympathy for the print industry, it’s not just about the print industry.

That was part of yesterday’s testimony by Alastair Campbell, the much-reviled political strategist and press adviser to Tony Blair. Further justifying this blog’s praise for his contribution at an earlier hearing a few months ago,  Campbell has proved to be incontestably the clearest and best-informed thinker among those assisting the Inquiry.

Lord Justice Leveson’s obvious grasp of the most subtle aspects of what Campbell told him was particularly welcome after undercurrents at last week’s hearings suggested that perhaps David Cameron’s government – even though it commissioned this Inquiry – had been warning the judiciary, off-stage, about excessive zealousness.

The presiding judge’s unfailing good humour had up to then been as striking as his scrupulously fair treatment of all witnesses. But a newspaper quoted him as having said, last Thursday, with unprecedented irritability, that he was impatient to reach the end of the hearings and get back to ‘productive judicial work’. As this followed his rejection, the week before, of the government’s request for privileged ‘core participant’ status in the proceedings, it seems most likely that friction between the executive and judicial overseers of our democracy played some part in darkening his mood.

There were other apparent reactions to unpleasant, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – as in the somewhat tortured and meandering summing-up by the chief interrogator, Counsel Robert Jay, of the chief issues raised by the hearings. Formally addressing the Lord Chief Justice, he delivered a sort of pre-mastication of findings from witness testimony to date. In this, he partly echoed quixotic attempts by the media to justify a partisan press – of which the most bizarre has been an argument offered by The Economist, dissected in an earlier post on this blog.

‘The fearlessness and vibrancy of our press is something of which we should be enormously proud,’ Counsel Jay, usually a model of calm rationality, said in a rare rhetorical passage. He also said:

Newspapers are entitled to be partisan in a democracy, to campaign in favour of causes, policies and political parties; and were the State to legislate otherwise that would be undemocratic, as well as, under our current settlement, an abrogation of human rights.

This paean clashed with his clear understanding – obvious from his thinly veiled outrage, in one interrogation after another – of the damage done by partisanship.  On Friday, grilling Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, he sought to underline that the payoff for newspapers, for pushing the agenda of their chosen political parties, is the ability to influence policy — and that this seriously undermines democracy. A New York Times report spotlighted his repeated insistence to Brooks that

…. media executives and editors were ‘unelected forces’ influencing policy by exercising power over governments …

Post-Gutenberg wondered, watching a video feed from Leveson:  since when has the concept of press partisanship been warped by being treated as an essential component of press freedom?  Not everyone is taken in by this Orwellian obfuscation. Gus O’Donnell – a Whitehall mandarin who has served three governments as cabinet secretary —  testified just before Alastair Campbell yesterday. In his written statement submitted to the Inquiry in advance, he said unequivocally,

Newspapers can and do actively support political parties, meaning it can be difficult to obtain objective information from them …

… then, in his live testimony, added:

 … [I]t’s in their strong interests for politicians to talk to newspaper editors and proprietors to try and explain their policies, try and explain why that newspaper should support them.  That’s been going on and continues to go on and that’s the structure we have.  And as long as you have newspapers which are allowed to strongly support and come out very overtly in favour of political parties, that relationship is going to continue.

Where I would like to see a change, perhaps, is […] if you contrast the newspapers, say, in the United States with the United Kingdom, you’ll find in the United States newspapers in general tend to separate out opinion and news much more.  So you’ll get a page of opinion, which basically says, “We strongly     support this politician or this set of policies”, in a very kind of almost propaganda-ish way, and then you’ll get the news columns, which tend to be pretty straight.

I think if you looked at our newspapers, where they differ is that you’ll find that you get all the opinion in the same way but in the news stories. [my ital.]

… Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present — the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in what O’Donnell characterised earlier in the day as ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

Alastair Campbell noted:

Because Murdoch’s the biggest figure and because the phone hacking has led to this Inquiry, there’s been a huge amount of focus on him, but this goes right across the media panoply.  I mean, I was in charge of Tony Blair’s  media operation and we had strategies for all of these papers and we had approaches out to all of these papers.

Let us hope that Lord Justice Leveson, when he sits down to write his report, proposes a regulatory framework that puts an end to the toxic mutual manipulation that goes with press partisanship. Let us hope that he can resist the huge pressure being brought to bear on him to stop citizen journalists and other outsiders from breaking up the exclusionary symbiosis of old media and government.

One thoughtful witness after another has recommended greater transparency and accountability in press dealings with the government and politicians. Excellent and essential ideas, yes. But the Lord Justice should, in addition, do all he can to let the new technologies at our disposal open the way to many more disseminators of facts, and to challengers of media warping or omitting inconvenient facts.

New voices must be heard from – in whatever framework he advocates — on equal terms with today’s media powerhouses, even as the lights dim in these institutions, and they bow before the force of the onrushing 5th Estate.

Murdoch’s end shows why the 4th Estate needs competition, power-sharing, and watchdogs as astute as Lord Justice Leveson — on permanent duty

Rupert the piteously wronged: it should not have taken 30 years to see him flushed down the sewer of history

Questions that came to mind, watching segments of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony last week at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press:

Why did it take over three decades — the lifespan of some loyal readers here — for the outing of Rupert Murdoch as the most pernicious influence on British journalism for at least a century?

Max Hastings, who was for some years the editor of The Daily Telegraph — but has voted for both Labour and the Tories, in different elections — is almost the last man standing at the profession’s summit who deserves deepest respect. His account of competing with Murdoch and his newspapers in a memoir published ten years ago, Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers, reveals why the man went unchallenged for so long, and offered a deft portrait of him:

… Murdoch, as always when I encountered him, cut a curiously joyless figure. He appeared to have no life beyond his business, no cultural or aesthetic interests. [… He] will leave this planet having added precious little to the store of decency, culture, humanity …


One of the most sensitive issues for many British newspapers is that of how they treat their rivals in print. There is a shameless, self-serving compact between companies, that the personal embarrassments of newspaper owners are not reported by competitors. Anyone who attempts to write about Rupert Murdoch’s or his family’s domestic arrangements for another publication is likely to receive  a call (or, more likely, his editor or managing director will do so) from one of the great tycoon’s senior stooges at News International, drawing attention to the proprietors’ pact, and warning without much subtlety about the inevitability of retaliation if the convention is breached. The preposterous Barclay brothers ruthlessly assert their right to be spared personal publicity of any kind, even about the fortress they have constructed in the Channel Islands, and even though they have chosen to become newspaper owners.

It always seems pretty rich, that titles which derive most of their income from laying bare the private lives of others should show no embarrassment about protecting their own proprietors from scrutiny, through what amounts to a system of social nuclear deterrence.

All that being known on Fleet Street, why are none of the newspaper chieftains conceding, as they analyse the implications of Murdoch’s toppling, that he and they were all in the same club? … Why are none of them explaining the wider consequences of that to their readers? … For instance, that staffers on their papers were as entangled with politicians as Murdoch and his lieutenants were – so much so, that the two most important scoops of the last decade about power in Britain came not from staffers but freelance journalists?

As far as I can tell, there has been just one noble exception to this selective blindness. An Observer columnist, Henry Porter, wrote at the weekend:

The point of regulations and institutions is to defend the relatively fragile democratic process from people like Murdoch. The fact that none of the safeguards worked and we came within a whisker of allowing his near total dominance of the marketplace further erodes our faith in the political class to act in the interests of the public. Let’s not forget that it was largely accident, and the dedication of a very few journalists, that exposed the cover-up, of which Murdoch now claims, with eye-watering hypocrisy, that he was a victim.

Actually, it was one dogged and intuitive reporter – Nick Davies, working as an outside contributor to a broadsheet newspaper, who was able to capitalise on the ‘accident’ that exposed the extent of phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions.

Why did staff journalists anywhere fail to publish that ugliness hidden in plain sight, or break the political horror story of 2009, the MPs’ expenses scandal – the revelations about members of parliament misusing allowances and expense accounts to pay for pornography and cleaning their castle moats, among other fraudulent acts?

This scoop was also the triumph of a freelance journalist, Heather Brooke – operating outside the cosy club in which the country’s leading parliamentary correspondents wined and cuddled politicians.

The inescapable conclusion?

The club walls need tearing down. It is time for the long reign of 4th Estate journalism to give way to the 5th Estate, in which new rules and conventions will allow for the full participation of outsiders, including citizen-journalists.

Like everyone else who cares about making democracy work, David Puttnam, a genuinely idealistic politician and activist who is also a hugely successful film producer – of Chariots of Fire, for one – perceives a clear need for media reform:

In the House of Lords and elsewhere, I have repeatedly called for a comprehensive cross-media impact study – so far to no avail. At the end of his session with Lord Justice Leveson, Rupert Murdoch described the digital landscape, which we have now entered, as one in which tablets and GPS-enabled smartphones are displacing newsprint. The potential of this technology to engender even greater competitive diversity in an intelligently regulated democracy ought to be very welcome. It should result in a broadening of the lens through which we see the world, not a narrowing of it.

But that requires a clear regulatory framework that encourages, in fact enables, media plurality to flourish. We cannot, for example, legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained.

There were some hostile early reactions to the Leveson Inquiry from the 4th Estate — when it was not ignoring it altogether — like this bit of ludicrous exaggeration by the Guardian columnist and former editor of two newspapers, Simon Jenkins: ‘As with a military occupation, the longer Leveson’s tanks stay on Fleet Street’s lawn, the less benign they seem.’  But lately, some leaders there have apparently begun to hope that the judiciary’s interest in their doings might be used to protect them from being overrun by the 5th Estate.

A Guardian editorial last week adopted a surprising new tone:

The other revealing moment in Murdoch’s testimony last week was when he launched into an incoherent rant about – and against – the internet. […] As Murdoch rambled, waving his arms despairingly and pounding the table, it was difficult to determine what point he was trying to make, other than the unfairness of governments regulating newspapers while the wild west web remains untamed. Was it just that he senses his powers ebbing away, flowing towards the new masters of the digital universe – the Sergey Brins, Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world?

Will they turn out to be any better than the media moguls who preceded them? And who will play Lord Justice Leveson’s role if they don’t?

As this blog pointed out, when newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were doing their best to ignore the judicial probe, the two-man team of Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay has been giving us an astonishing demonstration of judicial skill and insight. This is British justice at its dazzling best.

David Cameron would do well to put these same men at the head of the organisation that replaces the disgraced Press Complaints Commission – at least, for the first few years of its existence.

Above all, let us hope that in his recommendations at the Inquiry’s end, this Lord Justice spotlights the need for the media to adapt for the future, in a reinvention guided by maximising inclusiveness and transparency – through, for instance, co-ownership. See:

(for an explanation of why the old order has to give way to the new: )

Good Guardian, bad Guardian, and two more censored comments


Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media

Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission? Dear writers: some publishers were aiming for totalitarian rule of the book business

Writers forever scooter-riders, while publishers travel in limousines? Photograph by MIL22.

Not many writers visit the book fair. ‘It’d be like bringing a cow for a stroll around a meat market,’ said one editor.

report on the London Book Fair by Patrick Barkham, 18 April 2012

[ the date is what matters most, here: ]… Publishing is moving towards a crisis. One should expect to see a number of respected publishing houses quietly exit the scene.  […]  Authors’ incomes are low for an embarrassingly simple reason: publishers do not sell enough copies of their books. […] For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder – a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim.

– Leonard Shatzkin, In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, 1982

Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant that something new was being born.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 2011

Writers are deeply confused by e-publishing and its implications. They are mistaking friends for enemies, and embracing their most shameless exploiters – for centuries – like Little Red Riding Hood hugging the beast tricked out as her granny.

I read with eyes popping in disbelief a veteran publisher, Dan Cafaro, advising young writers to ‘mentally prepare to endure as a starving artist.’ He said that last October. Then, referring to the digital revolution, he suggested that they ‘carve out a patchwork career in the creative arts by complying with the behaviours of this new paradigm of publishing’.

How could he have come by the wisdom in his second pronouncement without understanding that the ‘paradigm’ taking shape represents the best chance that has come along – ever – to change the meek acceptance of hunger and suffering as inevitably the lot of scribes? … Yes, thank you, I have read my history. I know that this has been thoroughly conventional wisdom for a long time. But why not consider that for aeons, everywhere, the wisest heads once saw the fates of kulaks, their poorer fellow-peasants, and Hindu caste untouchables, as equally immutable – until these social doormats seized their chance for rebellion?

I would like writers who care about being able to make a reasonable living some day to get just two things right: (i) Amazon is their true friend, as this blog has explained before, and not members of the old print club, like the five publishers fined by the U.S. justice department on the 11th — with Apple — for collusive price-fixing.  (ii) Far from gobbling up book publishing on every continent and turning everyone else in the business into a forelock-tugging serf, the giant retailer could just let us rewrite the sad story of writers and their wages into a far happier narrative.

Scott Turow, the president of the American Authors’ Guild, is simply wrong to say that the antitrust suit risks ‘killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.’

Consider these arguments by one of the few voices of sanity in the hullabaloo over Amazon’s well-deserved victory over the price-fixers. What Eduardo Porter said in his ‘Economic Scene’ column in the New York Times last week is not merely true. It correctly puts the welfare of writers — the workers without whom there would be neither books nor e-texts — at the centre of the picture.

To believe publishers and authors, the government just handed Amazon a monopoly over the book market: The price-fixing suit against Apple and the nation’s top publishers […] will free Amazon to offer ruinous discounts in the booming new market of electronic books, drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of existence and kill off publishers’ lucrative business of ink on paper.


Yet there is a different reading to this story. Publishing companies — like bookstores — fear they are on the losing end of a technological whirlwind of digital distribution that will make much of what they do obsolete. They would like to stop it. But though publishers may be happy to subvert competition to protect their business, this can entail a heavy cost for the rest of society.

Why have none of the hysterical media commentators Porter contradicted in his analysis – for instance, David Carr, writing for the same newspaper – met a journalist’s obligation to state the whole truth, which is that Amazon’s share of e-book sales has fallen dramatically over the last two years? As Porter says,

While Amazon remains dominant, its share of the e-book market has fallen to about 60 percent from 90 percent.

Carr dug out a law professor in New York to say, for his column: ‘It is not clear that lower prices are necessarily in the long-term interests of the public at large.’ He found a New York lawyer for a gloomy summing-up: ‘The book business is both hermetic and dwindling. There is not a drop of new capital coming into this business … The margins are low and there is almost no growth …’.

The only trouble with orchestrating this condemnation of Amazon is that the same mournful dirge was being played for book publishers thirty years ago. Then, there were no e-books or gigantic e-booksellers. E-publishing existed exclusively in the misty visions of futurists.

In In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, Leonard Shatzkin, a respected senior executive in the New York book business, wrote three decades ago:

There is no longer very much doubt that trade book publishing is suffering from more than its share of our present economic malaise … The immediate future for … book publishing in general is bleak …’. [his ital.]

A number-cruncher at heart, Shatzkin diagnosed poor sales forecasting and inefficient stocking and inventory management as the chief cause of book business woes. He dreamt up complex mathematical formulae for calculating the ideal size of a publisher’s sales force, and techniques of regression analysis for projecting book sales.

Though it is clear throughout his book that he was a civilised man who cared about readers, sound editorial policies, and publishing’s ‘contribution to the health of our democratic culture’, only one of his sixteen chapters was devoted to writers: ‘Don’t Forget the Author’. Who does his book treat as the lead characters in the business? Publishers, book distributors, and booksellers.

Encapsulating his recommendations for curing publishing of its ills, he advocated precisely the reverse of what actually happened after Amazon entered the scene about ten years later – that publishers aim at complete control of the book business by wresting power from book distributors:

It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that some of the larger publishers will some day make publisher control of inventory a condition for doing business with a book retailer. […] The introduction of rational, publisher-controlled and publisher-responsible distribution implies other desirable consequences. […] Distribution controlled by the publisher will reduce the shameful waste resulting from the present need to guess how many copies will be needed on publication day …

And what was the happiest result he foresaw? It is hair-raisingly ironic for anyone listening to the raving by Amazon’s critics about the steady decline in book prices that it has brought about:

The reduction in production waste and in the waste of handling and processing of returns […] and all the activities concerned with distribution, should lead to a reduction in the retail price of books. Even at half their present levels, book prices will give publishers much greater margins than they now enjoy.


So, was Leonard Shatzkin – who died ten years ago — a lone, batty eccentric, mostly ignored by his cohorts when he wrote his book? Very much to the contrary, In Cold Type’s publisher, Boston-based Houghton-Mifflin – one of the most blue-blooded imprints in the U.S. – inserted an extraordinary note into the copyright page, which read in part:

It is not often that Houghton Mifflin adds a statement to a book it has published …[W]hen a publisher presents a book containing strong opinions about … American trade publishing, it may be thought that such a book represents, in some measure the philosophy of the publisher as well as that of the author.

Instead of publishers devouring the book chain, as Shatzkin and Houghton hoped, the panic in 2012 is about the chain – or rather, one member of it – making a meal of all publishing.

From the perspective of writers who care most about their craft and the particular manuscript they happen to be working on today, the fight is about as interesting as competition between football teams for someone whose game is boules. Yes,  certainly, who wins – and how – will have crucial consequences for their ability to make ends meet. But to survive financially, writers are better off ignoring the memory-loss endemic among Amazon’s critics and thinking flexibly, like Eduardo Porter, about a universe of possibilities lying before us:

For sure, if brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear, browsing will die with them. But writers and publishers will have plenty of other ways — think Amazon, Facebook or Google — of letting readers know about their books. E-books, moreover, can be profitable. […]  And even if every existing publisher were driven out of business, reading would probably survive. Without the middlemen, publishers might even pay higher royalties to creators.

Let us toast that prospect — make mine a two-shot latte, please.

The Kickstarter-kicking has begun: don’t let crowd-funding of pigs-in-pokes ruin the promise of micropayments

Looking for an image of a pig in a poke led to this preliminary sketch by Victor Juhasz, on his site showing visitors how he makes decisions about directing his delectable line.

This post-Gutenberg blog typically takes the giraffe-necked – that is, very long – view. It hardly expects instant gratification for recommendations about the future of publishing, or suggestions for its evolution. That made it both unsurprising and shocking to find the gist of these cautions about micropayments and crowd-funding prove justified in less than a month:

  • Could crowd-funding art with cash advances amassed from micropayments be less helpful than getting artists decent compensation from micropayments collected for finished work?
  • … [Artists] transferring the balance of cash-gathering sweat to work that has yet to be done is surely a bad idea …
  • There is some danger that disappointment with microfunding could lead to disenchantment with micropayments of every kind. That could delay the shift from conventional ways of selling art (through publishers, galleries and so on) to the liberating alternatives that new technological inventions have begun to bring us.

Only six months ago, Gizmodo, one of the most influential technology-watching sites on the web – it counted Steve Jobs among its avid readers – was raving about the prospects of online fundraising for new projects of every sort, from new-fangled gizmos like iPad stands to artistic schemes, inventions, and gigs. Its enthusiasm was concentrated on Kickstarter, the most prominent go-between for creators and the random collections of small-scale investors contributing to ‘crowd-funding’ creative toil:

10 November 2011

Kickstarter is full of awful, ill conceived, downright dumb ideas. So is the internet. So is the universe. But it’s also festooned with crazy-good thinking, ingenuity, and imagination. It’s fun and unfettered.


Kickstarter is the only viable place any average Jonny Internet can take a decent idea and stand a chance of making it real. No venture capital vampires, no hype …

The recommendations of old print media usually follow in Gizmodo’s wake, but in January, The Economist appeared to boast about leading the applause:

This newspaper has written about Kickstarter several times in the past two years, including an overview of how crowdfunding works after the firm had raised about $15m in its first year. At the time, it was unclear whether such crowdfunding (also called micropatronage) was a passing fad or a rising alternative to conventional starter financing for creative media.

Kickstarter’s performance in 2011 bolsters the latter case.

Though that ancient cosmopolite’s bible did mention the odd disappointment for both fund-seekers and micro-patrons, it has yet to regret its championship of crowd-funding. But for Gizmodo – far more closely in touch with thinking among the twentysomethings who dominate online innovation – it was time for sackcloth and ashes a fortnight ago. In a piece headed, ‘We’re done with Kickstarter,’ Gizmodo explained:

29 March 2012

We look at hundreds of products every week. Sometimes thousands. At first all of us were pretty stoked about Kickstarter, because it seemed like a genuine font of unfettered innovation—the hive mind coming up with products that we truly needed but had never even thought of before. And maybe it was. But it’s not anymore. It’s a sea of bad videos, bad renderings, and poorly made prototypes. Some might be good. Many are poorly made. And some are downright fraudulent, taking peoples’ money without delivering the promised rewards. This has happened to me.


Hopefully Kickstarter will evolve into something a little more trustworthy that we can feel comfortable sharing with you. Because in this game, a source you can’t trust is a source you can’t use.

In comments on its lamentation, readers railed at Gizmodo in posts like this one from @anamnet:

Giz introduced me to Kickstarter and now they are the first who’re sick of it. Makes them sound like a teenage girl who’s getting over a fad.

Actually, Gizmodo deserves to be congratulated for its forthright mea culpa. Next, it would be wonderful to find on that site a piece weighing all the reasons given here for preferring post-production micropayments – especially for artists and writers, starting with this one:

Seeking and accepting money in advance can constrain creativity. Anticipating prospective backers’ anxiety about squandering even small sums on inconsequential, pig-in-a-poke projects, artists are puffing up their planned works and divulging details of visions that have yet to meet the challenge of execution. How much room for creative manoeuvring and play – or simply changing their minds – will they have when, to reward their micro-investors’ trust, they feel that they must treat proposals as promises?

… Gizmodo’s helpful admission about reading the tea leaves incorrectly on crowd-funding is not just admirable in itself but made a salutary contrast, in my week’s reading, with an older publication’s delusion that it  comprehends what readers want in post-Gutenberg publishing. An extract from a mesmerising report in the latest Private Eye:

‘Last weekend we did something extraordinary.’ That was the verdict of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on his ‘Open Weekend’ … at which readers descended on the paper’s offices to gawp at [Guardian journalists].

Never mind that the newspaper is losing money galore. The bring-your-readers-to-work idea represented the way forward for ‘Open Journalism’ – apparently something to do with internet clouds, killer apps, crowd-sourcing and trouser-presses.

Many hacks in the building looked on the jamboree with jaundiced eyes […] but were assured that this is the way forward for Journalism 4.0 as the Guardian set off on its exciting transformation from newspaper to online events organiser.

Alas! The ‘new paradigm’ seems no more profitable than the old one. After totting up the figures, Grauniad beancounters have discovered that the self-styled ‘festival of readers and reasonableness’ – attended by 5,000 people paying between  £60 and £70 – made a net loss of £150,000.

Dear Grauniad, your ‘Open Weekend’ is surely the daftest idea anyone has heard for reshaping publishing. No, your sensible readers do not wish to crowd-fund your survival. Nor do they want to pay to peer at your writers, or throw peanuts through the bars of their cages. How about showing some glimmer of grasping what this post-Gutenberg revolution is really all about? See:

Wanted: a brave newspaper for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders … & … Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media — and how about saying, ‘an exaltation of bloggers’?

Micro-funded advances for artists is good news: micropayments for finished work — like paying for mobile apps — would be better

The tall droid was originally a female bimbo. Photograph:

Creativity needs flexibility, as I was reminded through the demise of someone who had a hand in creating robots who inhabit a patch of my dreams.

R2D2 is the fictional character of the last hundred years I would choose to give the run of my house – in an eye-blink – although I would settle for his Star Wars comrade, C3PO.  A domestic cleaner-robot with charm is my only hope of indoor snow – of experiencing inside my house the supreme happiness of watching frozen H2O blanket everything messy and unsightly in a landscape and turn it into a serene Japanese garden. Yes, reader, untidiness is one of my besetting sins. I like the idea of being pandered to by a droid whose raison d’être is serving humans, and it hardly matters that Threepio’s responsibilities in the George Lucas series are protocol, etiquette and translation (from ‘six million forms of communication’ – really, just look up his wiki). He is programmable. He is sophisticated. Being so much more intelligent, he would sail over the hurdle before which I always collapse – I mean, work out how to de-clutter my existence without hobbling my attempts to do the few things that justify it. He would strap his frilly apron in place and get on with it, expecting me to do no more than keep his antivirus software up-to-date.

But Threepio might never have found his way onto cinema screens. If not for a sort of creative miscarriage, he would not have been born, and this relates to a question I have been weighing since last week’s post about micropayments. Could crowd-funding art with cash advances amassed from micropayments be less helpful than getting artists decent compensation from micropayments collected for finished work?

Let me explain.

You can pay a carpenter an advance on a set of kitchen shelves, agree on a design and choice of wood, and receive more or less what you thought you would. Though the best carpenters are unquestionably artists of a kind, they rarely derail expectations comprehensively – delivering, say, a four-poster bed in pine instead of the birch shelving grid promised for your heirloom pots and pans. Things are rather less predictable in the arts – even in the most extroverted and collaborative branches, like film-making for mass audiences. Capricious flitting about is of the essence of imagining.

C3PO, you see, was originally a woman – not just an anyone with breasts, but ‘a tall, elegant, expression-less Art Decoesque golden female robot’. I made this discovery a few days ago in a New York Times obituary for Ralph McQuarrie,  an artist who served as a sort of medium for directors of science-fiction and fantasy films. He rendered in gouache detailed externalisations, through  interpretation, of their vague imaginative stirrings about characters – a skill he acquired as a technical illustrator and from some years spent at an animation company. The obituary records that his help was crucial to the success of George Lucas’s quest for the financial backing he needed to make Star Wars – to

… persuading the board of directors of 20th Century Fox to finance the first film in the series, and to distribute the others …

“These paintings helped George get the movie approved by Fox because it gave them something to visualize, instead of just a script,” said Steve Sansweet, the author of 16 “Star Wars” books and until recently the director of fan relations for Lucasfilm.

Now, I reckon that those producers made no fuss about a sex-change operation on what is, for some of us, one of the most endearing characters in the series (not Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia or Darth Vader, who are merely archetypes of the hero, heroine and villain as old as mankind). Hollywood has always worked the way small towns do – like publishing does in London or New York. Those producers would have known quite a lot about George Lucas before they invested in him. I could be mistaken, but am guessing that clubbiness would have given him the creative license of a friend who was once so well-connected in literary New York that her publisher made no protest when she used the advance paid for a non-fiction book about wild animals giving birth to submit, instead, a romantic novel involving safaris and social justice.

A cautiously optimistic report last Saturday by Patricia Cohen, an author and arts & culture editor at the NYT, noted surging interest in online backing for artistic projects by small-scale investors being given credit for betting on and supporting talent. Many – if not most of these actual or prospective micro-investors — do not seem to know the artists they are helping.

Some consequences and implications of this particular route to aiding struggling artists are bothering me:

● Seeking and accepting money in advance can constrain creativity. Anticipating prospective backers’ anxiety about squandering even small sums on inconsequential, pig-in-a-poke projects, artists are puffing up their planned works and divulging details of visions that have yet to meet the challenge of execution. How much room for creative manoeuvring and play – or simply changing their minds – will they have when, to reward their micro-investors’ trust, they feel that they must treat proposals as promises?

● Whereas George Lucas had Ralph McQuarrie toiling over the supply of his mock-ups, artists are being diverted from their own work to create elaborate sales pitches – like the multi-media presentations of a bold new British book-funding and publishing site, Unbound. (See, for instance, this lively appeal by five women historians for their planned collaboration on Our Reigning Queens.)

● The clarity and precision required to design and deliver an investment pitch do not fit the fuzzy, dreamlike state that neuroscience is revealing to be ideal for creativity – as Jonah Lehrer has shown in his new book on the subject.  Yes, the fund-raising part of a creator’s life can be separated more or less from doing the actual work, but there is arguably too much inimical to the right frame of mind claiming our attention already — even for people keeping their distance from social media. As Lehrer puts it, ‘… we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine’, even though this bias of the zeitgeist ‘can inhibit the imagination’.

● People are confusing micro-advances for art and literature with micropayments for  work that has been completed independently and put up for sale – like the small sums that authors of short e-books or long e-essays have begun to ask for, both independently and through conventional publishers.

Of course payments ‘upfront’ and for finished work are not mutually exclusive. But transferring the balance of cash-gathering sweat to work that has yet to be done is surely a bad idea.

There is some danger that disappointment with microfunding could lead to disenchantment with micropayments of every kind. That could delay the shift from conventional ways of selling art (through publishers, galleries and so on) to the liberating alternatives that new technological inventions have begun to bring us.

I am thinking once again of Threepio’s trans-gender leap. What if one of George Lucas’s backers for a Star Wars script financed by micro-investors had been an ardent feminist who contributed $500 for the pleasure of introducing audiences to a female robot in a key supporting role – and then had to confront  the horror — oh, the horror!  — of a gender re-programming?

… I say, let’s focus on using micropayments to make it easy for painters, film-makers, sculptors, writers, musicians and their kin to be paid for their ‘products’ — as easy as for developers of software apps for our portable electrovices. ( Sorry, that was meant to read, electronic devices.)

The market for apps has been booming. Why should someone who can afford to pay €3.47 — or its equivalent — for an electronic game app not part as readily with the same amount for a short story by an up-and-coming Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and be drawn inexorably, blissfully and unforgettably into an opening like this one, for GGM’s ‘Maria Dos Prazeres’:

The man from the undertaking establishment was so punctual that Maria dos Prazeres was still in her bathrobe, with her hair in curlers, and she just had time to put a red rose behind her ear to keep from looking as unattractive as she felt …

Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support ‘lyric perception’?

Photograph by MIL22

This helpless thing, lyric perception, is an authentic response to the world’s impossible contradictions which seem to resolve themselves, finally, as beauty. In fact, I believe that lyricism represents a form of courage, for it is the only response as thoroughly vulnerable as the jeopardized world itself is.

Patricia Hampl,  Spillville,  1987

'1 2 3 4 QUARTETTO b' MIL22

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?

By micropayments I mean fractions of €10 or $10 notes – or their equivalent – paid through a transactional service like Kachingle or Flattr to look at an image or video, read a text, or listen to a musical performance or composition. These are payments so minuscule that they barely register with our pocketbooks, but do earn their creators some measurable income in the aggregate.

Popular writers and artists would still far out-earn rivals who cater to more specialised tastes, but some of those appreciated by smaller audiences might be able to retain more of the earnings that they must give away, at present, to middlemen they cannot really afford to pay at all – intermediaries who rarely have the time or inclination to spend much time promoting their work.

So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for micro-transactions. Their complaints about feeling cheated by corporate middlemen in the music business, when obliged to pay for the pleasure of  ‘sharing’ a song, are not completely incomprehensible.

But why are they so unenthusiastic about experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers?

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise  fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

If more Millennials come to see themselves as artists, writers and musicians in years to come – using the democratic new publishing tools – will they become less unsympathetic?

Now, net-shunning Private Eye outranks even The Economist as Britain’s most popular current affairs magazine

Ian Hislop, who has been Private Eye's editor since 1986

Private Eye cover, 12 April 2008

All hail Private Eye, whose circulation grew by more than ten per cent last year, when so many famous names linked to old media were — are — howling about print meeting its doom.

All hail Private Eye, not least because, as far as I can tell, no one in mainstream media has, on this occasion. There have been no laurel wreaths from its rivals, no adulatory editorials or delving into the reasons for its astonishing success since the Audit Bureau of Circulations released the latest figures in mid-February – although the media section of one broadsheet did carry brief news items on the subject.

All hail Private Eye because, in spite of its (affectionate) marginalisation as a ‘satirical magazine,’ it looks as if it could be becoming Britons’ most reliable source of printed information about what is happening in the UK — or close to that. The trade publication Media Week anointed it ‘the leading news and current affairs magazine by issue in the country, nearly 18,000 copies ahead of The Economist,’ with the minor qualifier that ‘its rival title is published weekly.’ (That qualifier is probably meaningless, since I reckon that most subscribers would be delighted to buy it once a week.)

There is no reason to disagree with the Eye’s managing director, Sheila Molnar, who explained two years ago that ‘People always turn to us in times of trouble because they trust us. With the MPs’ expenses row and the banks, people trust Private Eye and what they read in it.’

Though the Eye has no digital edition and is virtually ignoring the internet, its pages are saturated with the fearless, irreverent, outsider ethos of the web and blogging world – most obvious in its ‘Street of Shame’ column. There, as its editor Ian Hislop told Lord Justice Leveson in January at the official Inquiry into press culture and standards, his writers concentrate on the foibles of the 4th Estate — on

… stories about

journalists misbehaving. It tends to be anything from

making up stories, drunkenness, stealing stories from

each other, printing things that are totally and utterly

untrue, promoting each other for reasons that aren’t

terribly ethical, sucking up to their proprietors, being

told what to do by their proprietors, running stories

because their proprietors insist on it, marshalling the

facts towards a conclusion that they’ve already decided


Private Eye’s robustness confirms these suspicions at post-Gutenberg about the secrets of media thriving in the transition to the 5th Estate – in its case, with only token contributions to its operating budget from advertisers, which is why it cannot afford to give away its contents on the net:

It is strictly non-partisan

The political left, right and centre are all flayed with equal relish. As noted here last month, highly-placed apologists for a worrying shift in 4th Estate practices feel that there is nothing wrong with abandoning political neutrality – but a reader poll on the site of The Economist shows that this is, overwhelmingly, the very opposite of what the public wants.

It is – without fear or favour – supplying the uncomfortable, true facts indispensable to government by the people, or what we call democracy

It might just as well be called The Whistleblower Wire. It tackles malfeasance as no other publication does, across a staggering breadth of public life. A small sample: ‘Called to Ordure’ (parliamentary proceedings); ‘Medicine Balls’ (mainly, the National Health Service); ‘Signal Failures’ (the railway network); ‘The Agri Brigade’ (farming and food policies); ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (local government); ‘Music and Musicians’; ‘Keeping the Lights On’ (the law and lawyers); ‘Books and Bookmen’ (cronyism in book publishing).

It relies on its readers for its peerless investigative reporting

… and did so long before the internet came along with its promise of building reader ‘communities’.  As Ian Hislop said in his Leveson evidence, his magazine

operates as a sort of club where people not only buy the

magazine, they write a lot of it, which is the principle

we work on. Broadly, the sources come from people

inside their professions, so the medical column, the

column about energy, the pieces in the back, a lot of

those are given by people directly involved.

None of its content is influenced by advertising

As it does not run on the advertising-centred business model for publishing — unlike virtually every other great name in print journalism — it has no need to court or bow to corporate panjandrums and satraps, and its articles are not distorted by their manipulations.

Its success underlines the undesirability of concentrated media ownership, as it has the extreme editorial independence only possible when a publication is not beholden to any single media mogul or proprietor trading favours, buying influence, or vulnerable to manipulation or blackmail

In some ways, Private Eye can be seen as an early prototype of the ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ a model for post-Gutenberg publishing  in which sites are co-owned with clubs of reader-contributors. Its Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than seventeen shareholders, and says that the magazine has never disclosed exactly who has contributed what to its capitalization and upkeep.

What is an instance of this magazine’s uniqueness and indispensability? The other day, when all the broadsheets reported that the education secretary, Michael Gove, had condemned the Leveson Inquiry for its ‘chilling effect’ on the media, they failed to explain why he was complaining so bitterly about an investigation initiated by his own leader, David Cameron, and in the same tirade, lauding Rupert’s Murdoch’s launch of the Sun on Sunday. They also offered not a single example of what noble journalism the Inquiry has supposedly been inhibiting — just as he failed to do.

Mystification over all that was beginning to make me feel mildly unhinged when the latest Eye arrived. There I discovered that the education secretary is married to  — well, well, well, a journalist on the Times. And who owns the Times? Let us say, a certain Australian-born media mogul.

And, returning briefly to the subject of ownership … As diligent use of both inductive and deductive logic has yet to yield incontrovertible proof of his existence, I must reluctantly dismiss as speculation all hints to the effect that Private Eye does in fact have a proprietor — a reclusive individual writing occasionally under the rubric, ‘A Message From Lord Gnome’. The same goes for any suggestion that he is simply too shy or coy to (a) scotch rumours that his life’s ambition is to be more elusive than the putative Higgs boson particle, and (b), admit that he has no help from ghostwriters in recording his sublime meditations, as on the subject of the recent fate of bankers:

[W]here, we must ask, will this witchhunt end? Which other leading figures in the economic life of our country will be next to be hunted down, to be publicly humiliated, as their names are execrated across the land?

Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media — and how about saying, ‘an exaltation of bloggers’?

Parallel and convergent thinking about co-ownership

What’s in a name?

A lot, I suspect, when the subject is cooperatives.

Writers delete or tear up drafts, painters scrape paint off canvases that refuse to match the visions of a mind’s eye – and versions of co-owned enterprises, surely hundreds of thousands of them over the years, have ended up on some equivalent of the cutting-room floor.

But associations with failures of the past should hardly be allowed to stain the excellent solution cooperatives could be. Certainly not now, when – as noted on post-Gutenberg last week in a post about Facebook – the World Wide Web is proving to be a matchless engine for running them, and getting around the classic banes of collaborative ownership and administration.

What if our name for these organisations has become the chief enemy of their promise? Should we call them something else? Say, leaps – as in a leap of leopards, to convey a  jump in the right direction for co-ownership and co-action? Peer-to-peer pods, anyone? Straightforwardly, collaboratives? Or just flats, perhaps, as shorthand emphasising that these are anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian and decentralised structures.

The next few years should see the evolution of specialised terms for variations of such online organisations – or simply net-related groupings – that meet different needs. I have for some time been fondly considering an exaltation of bloggers for our key-tapping multitude, in a nod to the seductive title of James Lipton’s book about collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks.

Since last week, search engines have led me to others who think that Facebook should be turned into a cooperative – although there was little open support for this suggestion when it was first proposed under the screen name ‘postgutenberg’ last September in a comment beneath David Mitchell’s semi-serious call for the ‘nationalisation’ of the social mega-network. (That comment, too, was inexplicably censored by The Guardian, but I have a copy of the page as it was before the axe descended.)

A writer for Reuters, Paul Smalera, carefully set out the reasons why a collaboratively owned and run Facebook makes sense:

Why not share the company itself? It’s fine to talk about technology’s power to change the world if you’re the one who’s going to profit from it. But this isn’t really a change […] it should become a nearly one-of-a-kind company for the technology sector: a co-op.


Facebook wouldn’t be forgoing its fundraising if it abandoned its IPO and became a co-op. [...] In Facebook’s virtual community, its 845 million users could easily pay a small sum — say $5 in the U.S. and some locally adjusted equivalent in other countries — to become an owner. Some of that money would be used to buy out existing stock owners and set up the new management model — it would still have Zuckerberg as CEO with a management team, but with the same one vote that every other member has. Over time, if Facebook’s owners keep the cost of becoming a member as low as possible without in any way starving the site for cash, Facebook could even become the world’s first trillion-dollar company — just in a way no one has ever previously imagined.

He went on to give even more specific suggestions for how it might operate:

Facebook already offers voting tools, organization pages, recommendation links, polling, etc. With the help of a management team and committee structure, it would be pretty easy to let members assign themselves to committees and shape Facebook into the community they want it to be.


[T]hink of a sample proposal. Say a user wants Facebook to give 10 percent of its income to charity.

1. She creates a new page and persuades her friends to follow it. The page holds the pro and con discussions of the proposal.

2. After hitting a certain threshold of followers, the page makes the Revenue Committee agenda, where a subcommittee is assigned to study its feasibility and write a summary about the proposal’s impact on Facebook, including how it would affect the bottom line.

3. The committee then votes on the summary — if it’s approved, it goes into a general Facebook meeting, where the entire user base gets to vote. […]

Commenters on the Smalera piece were understandably pessimistic about the chances of Mark Zuckerberg handing over Facebook to its members. So was a colleague of his, Edward Hadas, in a critical but beautifully balanced consideration of his arguments a few days later. He concluded on an encouraging note:

[T]he limited success of the cooperative movement does not equate to a resounding triumph for its ideological opposite – the shareholder value cult. If profits were all that mattered for the economy, then more than a quarter of all American workers would not be employed by enterprises that function, often quite well, without profit motive – 17 percent by governments and another 11 percent by private, not-for-profit, organisations.


In organising the economy, greedy schemers and utopian dreamers are not the only alternatives. Like well-run government agencies and prudent shareholder-owned companies, well-designed cooperatives can be efficient servants of the common good.

The expectation of resistance to a pure cooperative explains why the keirestu-cooperative — first proposed two years ago for the evolution of publishing – does not entail starting a co-owned enterprise from scratch.

It lays out, instead, a scheme that amounts to a halfway house for old print media moving into the future. A newspaper publisher could experiment with sharing ownership of a segment of its site with readers paying small sums for their subscriptions or shares. This section would ideally be one in which readers already contribute most of the content today, in their role as commenters.

As part of the experiment, the co-owners would share any profits from advertising attracted to the trial site, which would give them an extra incentive to lure more readers and part-owners to it.

Setting up such a site – starting with software design and registering co-owners – would cost money. A newspaper publisher could share that, and the expense of site administration, by entering simultaneously into a funding partnership with, say, a book publisher catering to essentially the same audience.

That would make for a collaboration resembling the loose affiliations between firms that the Japanese call a keiretsu.

People who reject that word as too exotic need to know that it is easy to say – ky-ret-su – and should remember that there was a time when we were just as frightened of the word karaoke, which has since become as unremarkable as pizza.

The scheme is all. A keiretsu-cooperative by any other name would be fine by me – as long as someone, I mean, some few, are brave enough to try it out.

A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind

‘Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.’ When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat … [E]motionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs.’

Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,’

Michaeleen Doucleff,  The Wall Street Journal, 11 February 2012

Digesting a grisly dissection of the bio-chemical effects of romance set to music in a financial newspaper told me that February the 14th can only become a more diabolical conspiracy between commercial and scientific calculation.

No sooner had I slogged through the neuroscientific perspective on l’amour than I found an email message from Hewlett-Packard offering me a 50 per cent discount on printer ink with the coupon code ‘HPLOVE20’. The promotion was not stingy with fake sentiment: ‘Our adoration for you is lasting – this offer is not.’

And there you have the reasons why would rather dedicate today not to courtship or its consequences but to the perfect potential marriage of means and ends that we have in the World Wide Web — for redesigning the way companies make money from social networking.

The plan for this Alternative Valentine’s Day was inspired by reading Deborah Orr’s thoughtful anti-Facebook protest in The Guardian last week:

“While the US was extolling the virtues of neoliberal corporatism […] Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the world wide web, and gifting it to the planet, for people like Mark Zuckerberg to exploit.”

And to make sure no one had missed the significance of what she said, commenters on her piece underlined its essence:

Not sure how many will realise that what Deborah is saying amounts to this:

(i) Tim Berners-Lee, while working as a research scientist in Geneva, gave us all the World Wide Web for nothing

(ii) Facebook users are giving the world information about themselves for nothing

(iii) Mark Zuckerberg came along and used Tim’s and everyone else’s generosity to everyone else to make a pile for himself.

1 extremely remarkable member of the 1% indeed.

When will the average Facebook user catch on?

That users are beginning to grasp the dimensions of the Facebook heist – in plain sight and with the full cooperation of its victims – is clear from  newspaper articles elsewhere:

Facebook Users Ask, ‘Where’s Our Cut?

Nick Bilton

The New York Times

February 5, 2012, 11:00 am

SAN FRANCISCO — By my calculation, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owes me about $50.

Without me, and the other 844,999,999 people poking, liking and sharing on the site, Facebook would look like a scene from the postapocalyptic movie “The Day After Tomorrow”: bleak, desolate and really quite sad. (Or MySpace, if that is easier to imagine.) Facebook surely would never be valued at anything close to $100 billion, which it very well could be in its coming initial public offering.

So all this leaves me with a question: Where’s my cut? I helped build this thing, too. Facebook laid the foundation of the house and put in the plumbing, but we put up the walls, picked out the furniture, painted and hung photos, and invited everyone over for dinner parties.

Some of Deborah Orr’s commenters – or at least one – thought the remedy for this injustice obvious:

[ lightly edited for repetition ]

[W]e need to start a movement to turn Facebook into a giant cooperative — in which the users make up the rules, and personal information is not sold to anyone.


Alternatively, …I have heard that a new, improved Mark Zuckerberg wants to be perceived as a force for good in society — and that he is clashing with the strictly business-oriented senior executives in his company over this…. If he’s serious, why not acknowledge that Facebook’s users supply the personal information about themselves that he has exploited to get rich — as Deborah Orr says — and that this is deeply wrong, …and flip ownership of his company over to Facebook’s members?

Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods that were hard to find anywhere else. Sometimes, those hairy hippies operated cafés where you could eat earnest, do-gooder sandwiches fringed with medicinal bean sprouts and tasting like specially aged damp sawdust.

Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.

For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise.  The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. And, as the same commenter said.

To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work on this very site.

Consider, please:

‘the scheme of social organisation which places the means of production of wealth and the distribution of that wealth into the hands of the community.’

That is a dictionary definition (Chambers) of what became a dirty word for many of us, because the idea was so corrupted in its execution. Yes, I mean, socialism.

But that was before this means of communicating and transparent  decision-making was invented.

A hybrid between socialism and capitalism is what we need as a transitional scheme, and you can download a no-holds-barred exchange on that subject here (a free download: see the comments and response to them at the end, if in a hurry): The Keiretsu-Cooperative: a Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing

Well alright, I’ll admit that those comments closely echo sentiments expressed on this blog. They might even have been made by the same tiresome blogger.

Cooperatives sound embarrassingly utopian. But they are the finest examples of socialism in action that we have. An earlier entry in this spot quoted an authority on the subject saying that in the U.S., capitalism’s Mecca, 13 million American already work for these organisations.

Some people react to philosophical nudges in that direction with a silence in which you can almost hear them thinking, ‘But who are you to propose evolutionary possibilities for business?

Actually, nobody. But Albert Einstein anticipated this little difficulty. In a 1949 essay, ‘Why Socialism?’,  he reached far back into history to analyse people’s reluctance to break out of well-established patterns, noting:

The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But, as he said in his conclusion,

[W]e should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Where is it engraved in stone that Facebook has to be owned by a wealthy 1 per cent enriched by the 99 per cent sharing their private information as unquestioningly as feudal serfs?

Publishing and the gatekeepers’ understandable fear of the penalty: what if we vetted and corrected people before they could speak?

Imagine that you were an editor at a London publishing house, circa 1930 — effectively a gatekeeper at the sacred portal of literature. Would you give these lines an up or down vote?

Extract 1    [ from a poem sent to Thomas McGreevy, 4 November 1932 ]

see-saw she is blurred in sleep

she is fat she is half dead the rest is freewheeling

past the black shag the pelt

is ashen woad

snarl and howl in the wood wake all the birds

hound the whores out of the ferns

this damnfool twilight threshing in the brake

bleating to be bloodied

this crapulent hush

tear its heart out …

Extract 2    [ from a poem sent to Thomas McGreevy, 13 May 1933 ]

Donabate sad swans of Turvey Swords

pounding along in three ratios like a sonata

like a reiter [for ritter] with pummeled scrotum atra cura on

the step

Botticelli from the fork down pestling the transmission

tires bleeding voiding zeep the high road

all heaven in my sphincter

müüüüüüde now

potwalloping now through the promenaders

this trusty all-steel this super-real

bound for home like a good boy

where I was born with a clunk with the green of the larches

oh to be back in the caul now with no trusts

no fingers no spoilt loves

belting along in the meantime clutching the bike …

I found those parts of drafts of Samuel Beckett’s poetry (included in his magnificent collected letters) invigorating, even when they were not forcing bursts of oxygen from uncontrollable laughter into my lungs. My fingers danced, typing out thought-streams nearly eighty years old. Yet it is strange to consider that even now, they would earn their author, as a writer still unknown, a long string of rejections.

Because modernism was well established decades before most readers of this blog and I were born, you might take it as a foregone conclusion that Beckett’s wordy jiggle-juggling would delight any lover of literature. But in literary chat forums on the net these last few years, I have been surprised to find that too many arbiters in high positions in publishing or the teaching of literature still dismiss rambunctious free verse very like that – when unattached to any famous name – as nonsensical, pretentious or illiterate (or all three).

Why they do that would take a conversation of several pots of coffee to sort out. All I will say, for the moment, is that every day, it becomes more absurd to think of anyone being paid to decide what collections of words and thoughts should be admitted to the public domain and backed with large or small sums of money, and marketing sweat.

Pity the poor gatekeepers. They must decide which texts meet the prevailing literary standards. They must both cater to contemporary taste and anticipate its evolution. They risk becoming Frank Sinatra mocked for pontificating that ‘Rock ‘n’ roll has no future.’

What if people’s accents, intonation, vocabulary and grammar were vetted and corrected every time we opened our mouths to speak? … Well! Now that everyone can tap out unmediated texts in some form all day long, that is exactly how absurd the gatekeeping enterprise in publishing will soon seem — in a future so close that it is very nearly our present.

In addition, only fools setting up as publishers will presume to decide what is appropriate reading matter for whom. This has been on my mind since I read the following paragraph on the New York Times site yesterday:

In 1962, when “A Wrinkle in Time,” after 26 rejections, was acquired by John Farrar at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, science fiction by women and aimed at female readers was a rarity. The genre was thought to be down-market and not up to the standards of children’s literature — the stuff of pulp and comic books for errant schoolboys. Even today, girls and grown women are not generally fans. Half of 18- to 24-year-old men say that science fiction is their favorite type of book, compared with only one-fourth of young women, according to a 2010 study by the Codex Group, a consulting firm to the publishing industry. And while a sizable portion of men continue to read science fiction throughout their lives, women don’t. Thirty-two percent of adult male book buyers are science-fiction fans compared with only 12 percent of women. When Joanna Russ, one of the few successful female science-fiction writers, died last year, her obituary in The New York Times referred to her as a writer who helped “deliver science fiction into the hands of the most alien creatures the genre had yet seen — women.”

A Wrinkle in Time is a children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle that went on to win more than one literary prize. It has never been out of print.

Yes, stories like this are tediously familiar. Why should anyone but the author of a text be asked to bet on whether it can defy stereotypical reader choices?