Time-travelling email to Tolstoy re: reminders, in the transition to post-print publishing, of you emancipating your serfs in 19th-century Russia

Manuscript pages of revolutionary, democratically-minded aristocrats: Tolstoy’s fourth draft of Anna Karenina (above); De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (below)

Manuscript pages of revolutionary, democratically-minded aristocrats: Tolstoy’s fourth draft of Anna Karenina (above); De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (below)

tocqueville-manuscript-page-democracy-in-america

Zdrastvooytye Leo!

(Privyet! seems too much like hi for such a distinguished stranger)

You’ve had a century and a half to think about founding 13 schools for educating the children of peasants working on your estate, Yasnaia Poliana, in the 1870s, and your enthusiastic marrying of new agricultural technology to your attempts to share land-ownership with your serfs. You understood, as few of your fellow-aristocrats did, the late ripples through Russia of the implications of printing’s invention — that Tsar Alexander II’s orders for the emancipation of the serfs were part of what Michael Lynch has described as ‘a programme that included legal and administrative reform and the extension of press and university freedoms.’

Another aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who — a few decades earlier — had educated his French countrymen about the inevitability of the spread of American democracy to the rest of the world, would have said that you were a fine example of his belief that …

… almost all the democratic convulsions which have agitated the world have been directed by nobles.

A most interesting idea, that. What advice do you have for editors and media captains floundering, like so many, in this post-Gutenberg transition? If only time travel, for you — not just your thoughts — were possible, you might speak on the subject at a TED conference that the rest of us could watch on YouTube. We were reminded of your revolutionary ardour by chance, in re-reading and listening to an audio-recording of Anna Karenina — about which practically no non-expert thinks, in reflecting on agricultural reform.

Let us say, frankly, that although we could have no quarrel with Virginia Woolf’s pigeonholing of you as the greatest great novelist, virtually the estimations also of Joyce, Mann, Proust, Faulkner and Nabokov (according to the Wikipedia), you are not one of our favourite writers. We have always found your stories almost peerlessly depressing: there is often delicious humour in them, yes, but not nearly enough — as much in, say, the work of your hero, Charles Dickens. Certainly in English translations of your work, there is no leavening by evocative passages — as by the class of writers we called magician-scribes in a post here last month. You deliberately wrote as plainly as possible, with powerful descriptions of people and keen psychological perception, but with almost no sense of place; no ability to conjure you-are-here sensations. Surviving the horror of the truth about life is intolerable without some poetry in prose.

But your cold rolled realism, and your deep anti-romanticism, make you an ideal reporter on the obstacles to democratisation. We smiled in recognition at the passages in Anna Karenina in which you describe the struggles of Levin — standing in for yourself, in your story — to convince the change-resistant peasants tied to his family’s estate by Russian tradition about 200 years old, then, that the changes he was bent on introducing reflected his heart-felt good intentions for them. What did we recognise? The suspicion and resistance to change are so like the reactions to attempts at reform in the digital revolution in publishing — recently noted by us in a Q&A post and in one other, doing our bit to keep the historical record straight.

Beneath our signature, we will post extracts to show what we mean. Of course it is ironic — not to mention tragic — that the clever peasants’ mistrustful and cynical reactions to the new system were partly justified by events elsewhere in Russia. Michael Lynch has shown how the reforms meant to liberate them were subverted by the landowners

But! Eventually, as everyone knows, one of the world’s most famous revolutions corrected all that — in 1917 — and proved that there was no turning back of the democratic tide. This is surely the thought that media editors and proprietors need to keep at the front of their minds.

Yours in hope,

pG

… Levin continued the conversation with the gray-whiskered landowner, […who …] stuck to it that the Russian peasant is a swine and likes swinishness, and that to get him out of his swinishness one must have authority, and there is none; one must have the stick, and we have become so liberal that we have all of a sudden replaced the stick that served us for a thousand years by lawyers and model prisons, where the worthless, stinking peasant is fed on good soup and has a fixed allowance of cubic feet of air.

[…] The carrying out of Levin’s plan presented many difficulties; but he struggled on, doing his utmost, and attained a result which, though not what he desired, was enough to enable him, without self-deception, to believe that the attempt was worth the trouble. One of the chief difficulties was that the process of cultivating the land was in full swing, that it was impossible to stop everything and begin it all again from the beginning, and the machine had to be mended while in motion.

[…] As for the proposal made by Levin—to take a part as shareholder with his labourers in each agricultural undertaking … On beginning to talk to the peasants about it, and making a proposition to cede them the land on new terms, he came into collision with the same great difficulty that they were so much absorbed by the current work of the day, that they had not time to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed scheme.

[…] Another difficulty lay in the invincible disbelief of the peasant that a landowner’s object could be anything else than a desire to squeeze all he could out of them. They were firmly convinced that his real aim (whatever he might say to them) would always be in what he did not say to them. And they themselves, in giving their opinion, said a great deal but never said what was their real object. Moreover (Levin felt that the irascible landowner had been right) the peasants made their first and unalterable condition of any agreement whatever that they should not be forced to any new methods of tillage of any kind, nor to use new implements. They agreed that the modern plough ploughed better, that the scarifier did the work more quickly, but they found thousands of reasons that made it out of the question for them to use either of them; and though he had accepted the conviction that he would have to lower the standard of cultivation, he felt sorry to give up improved methods, the advantages of which were so obvious. But in spite of all these difficulties he got his way, and by autumn the system was working, or at least so it seemed to him.

[…] A distant part of the estate, a tract of waste land that had lain fallow for eight years, was with the help of the clever carpenter, Fyodor Ryezunov, taken by six families of peasants on new conditions of partnership, and the peasant Shuraev took the management of all the vegetable gardens on the same terms. The remainder of the land was still worked on the old system, but these three associated partnerships were the first step to a new organization of the whole, and they completely took up Levin’s time.

It is true that in the cattle-yard things went no better than before, and Ivan strenuously opposed warm housing for the cows and butter made of fresh cream, affirming that cows require less food if kept cold, and that butter is more profitable made from sour cream, and he asked for wages just as under the old system, and took not the slightest interest in the fact that the money he received was not wages but an advance out of his future share in the profits.

It is true that Fyodor Ryezunov’s company did not plough over the ground twice before sowing, as had been agreed, justifying themselves on the plea that the time was too short. It is true that the peasants of the same company, though they had agreed to work the land on new conditions, always spoke of the land, not as held in partnership, but as rented for half the crop, and more than once the peasants and Ryezunov himself said to Levin, “If you would take a rent for the land, it would save you trouble, and we should be more free.” Moreover the same peasants kept putting off, on various excuses, the building of a cattleyard and barn on the land as agreed upon, and delayed doing it till the winter.

[…] Often, too, talking to the peasants and explaining to them all the advantages of the plan, Levin felt that the peasants heard nothing but the sound of his voice, and were firmly resolved, whatever he might say, not to let themselves be taken in.

[…] But in spite of all this Levin thought the system worked, and that by keeping accounts strictly and insisting on his own way, he would prove to them in the future the advantages of the arrangement, and then the system would go of itself.

… At the end of September the timber had been carted for building the cattleyard on the land that had been allocated to the association of peasants, and the butter from the cows was sold and the profits divided. In practice the system worked capitally, or, at least, so it seemed to Levin. In order to work out the whole subject theoretically, … all that was left to do was to make a tour abroad, …

Fiddling with the true record of newspapers’ post-print struggles robs our first drafts of history of crucial lessons for media

Three editors: Lionel Barber of The Financial Times interviews http://video.ft.com/5113031401001/Lionel-Barber-discusses-future-of-media/Life-And-Arts Alan Rusbridger, who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes{{{CK SP}}}} of The Economist. The dark shape racing towards them looks like the chiefly Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

Lionel Barber (left) of The Financial Times interviews Alan Rusbridger (right), who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes (centre) of The Economist. The sinister dark mass behind them could be the Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

In the outline of his unfinished manuscript about the difficulties of constructing accurate history — partly scratched out as a prisoner of Germany in 1940-4 — the French historian and Résistance operative Marc Bloch wrote [ the italics are his, in all cases ] :

VI. EXPLANATION IN HISTORY

By way of introduction: the generation of skeptics (and scientists)

1. The idea of cause. The destruction of cause and of motive (the unconscious) [ … ]

2. The idea of chance.

3. The problem of the individual and his differential value. [ … ]

4. The problem of ‘determinant’ acts or facts.

Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, 1949 [ a posthumous work published in English in 1954 as The Historian’s Craft ]

All three versions of his manuscript ended with these words: ‘In history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for …’. If he were extending those notes today, we would propose:

5. The problem of the sound byte and tiny attention spans.

Explanations shrunk to sound bytes can wreak havoc with historical truth. That would account for the hair-raising contrast between our analysis — two posts ago — of why The Guardian’s economic model of giving everyone free access to its website is unsustainable, and the answer to virtually the same question by the architect of its strategy, Alan Rusbridger. That prospective revolution failed because it was halted halfway, as if lacking the courage of the convictions that got it rolling — including the editor’s enthusiasm for the advent of ‘participatory journalism’. But he and his managerial colleagues did not go far enough. For old media in transition, free access can only make economic sense — some day — in combination with building in some version of the audience participation or collaboration that defines social media. Recently, the post-Rusbridger Guardian made a stunning turn in the wrong direction. As we noted on this blog last month, relying on the accuracy of a report by Private Eye, the paper’s present leaders decided — unbelievably — against allowing its new class of readers paying £5 a month for ‘membership’ privileges to elect a representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (‘Readers’ Knives,’ Private Eye No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016)

You would glean none of that from Rusbridger’s reply in an interview with the editor of The Financial Times — at this newspaper’s first ‘live’ festival in London earlier this month — to a question about the explosion in readership after the launch of his content-is-free business model:

Lionel Barber: Under your editorship The Guardian became incredibly successful in terms of developing a global audience. You went from 300,000 in the UK to literally millions. Can you make money out of that audience?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the answer to that changes from year to year. At the time I left, we were just about managing sustainability and then everything changed — not through anybody’s fault. Except that Facebook came along and this behemoth started taking 85 cents out of every dollar in terms of the advertising revenues that came in. And that’s a completely changed environment. There’s no point whingeing about it, it’s a brilliant company. Google’s a brilliant company. But it does mean you have to adapt your business model not only in light of things that may change from year to year but from month to month.

The facts called for giving the FT editor a different sound byte altogether. But that would have put the former Guardian chief, who stepped down last year, in the awkward position of criticising his change-resistant former colleagues for their inability to understand, as he did, digital technology’s inversion of the pyramid they were used to — with journalists at the top and their audience members squeezed together, powerlessly, at its base. He could have given a colourful, entertaining account of, for instance, the shattered egos of senior journalists and columnists subjected for the first time to criticism by readers in comments sections — and to competition from blogs. Instead, he expressed himself eloquently on the perceptions that made him a Moses who lost most of his followers, because they lacked any glimmer about the Promised Land to which he was trying to lead them:

I felt that my job was to try and understand the technology, not because it was technology but because it signified a completely different social shift. It was the biggest thing since Gutenberg — not the technology of printing but the democratisation of reading and of thought. And we’re moving from a vertical world in which the people with the knowledge used to drip it down to something in which it’s much more widely dispersed. And as editors, you can’t afford to ignore that.

In their joint interview, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the practical editor of The Economist, described a survival strategy pegged to pushing for the replacement of advertising revenue by expanded circulation and subscriptions. This could succeed, for the special reason why publications focused on finance and economics are virtually the only big names in journalism that are doing well behind the paywall or subscription barrier. Her plan represents a different recognition that success will entail some kind of financial reward for the reader-participants in publishing’s future. The economic model that we have advocated on this blog would give readers small monetary stakes in media organisations. That would be just right for the communal-minded, left-leaning progressives said to dominate The Guardian’s audience. By contrast, readers are willing to pay for old-fashioned subscriptions to The Economist — or The Wall Street Journal or FT — in the hope of learning what they can to protect their piggy banks from disaster. (See ‘The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co’.)

Surely a sound byte encapsulating some of that would have been a more useful guide for editors coping with the digital transition than implying that the Guardian‘s huge economic losses are simply the fault of Facebook, which came along and devoured old media’s future.

Can literary, bacon-scented flies teetering on the brink of greatness — by 2016 standards — compete with a passage in, say, Orwell’s Burmese Days?

The seductive power of images can be tremendous, with the right image-maker, but they rarely tell us enough about being in the places they depict. Photographs: MIL22 (above); postgutenberg@gmail.com (below).

The seductive power of images can be tremendous, with the right image-maker, but they rarely tell us enough about being in the places they depict. Photographs: MIL22 (above); postgutenberg@gmail.com (below).

Sunset fm BigVM postgutenberg@gmail.com

Conjuring the sensations of actually being there in telling about sights, scents, flavours, and the effects of a place on its observer’s mood may interest only the dwindling ranks of magician-scribes — writers’ writers — in the 21st century. For evocation, most people seem content with receiving still and moving images anyone can capture — with no need to struggle with complicated camera-buying decisions because cameras come with go-everywhere telephones the way glove compartments do with cars. Fewer and fewer of us know what we are missing. Many have never known or forgotten how much deeper or how unforgettably a word picture can take a reader into the same scene whose story the most captivating photograph can only tell incompletely. Of course the most inspired literary description lacks what is uniquely in photography’s power to record. We have been taught that a picture is worth a thousand words. But it would be hard to accept a picture in place of those many words without a lot of questions and conditions. Which words, chosen and arranged exactly how? At post-Gutenberg we have been mulling over comparisons between our own records constructed from the alphabet and confections from light and pixels, tackling the same subjects.

If we were to prefer a particular passage of text to a picture, to what degree would our taste coincide with the preferences of those of us brought up entirely on description-lite contemporary prose, in this post-print Age of the Image? A startling fragment of praise in a recent Sunday book review in the New York Times was not encouraging. The critic applauded the author’s …

 … keen sense of visceral detail (“The air smelled like bacon from the flies that sizzled in the overhead lights”) that borders on sublime. 

We reread that fragment several times in the same browsing session, a few days ago, and have returned to it more than once since. Beyond our bafflement by the reviewer’s bedazzlement, we have been asking practical questions. Do flies, as small as they are, smell strongly enough of where they have been perching lately for human noses to detect that? Or would you need one especially acute nose, like this author’s? Or are flies being cured nowadays, the way pig-parts are? No, that cannot be right — if they were sizzling in overhead lights, they were partially alive and in the process of extinction. But could the passage mean to imply that they were partially cured, like chickens still running around post-decapitation? Fly bacon, for consumption by whom? … Hard to say. We shall return to that review — to which we are not linking, here, because it’s not really the author or book by which we have been mesmerised but the 21st-century reviewer’s taste and conception of what borders on sublime. We are determined to read that snippet over and over again and surely one day, with the right degrees of determination and open-mindedness, will see exactly what the literary critic wanted us to know.

In the meanwhile, mystification sent us running to our bookshelves, and lunging for a text, any text, that we think borders on sublime. We picked a paperback from the George Orwell shelf — a fair comparison, because this writer never accused of being flowery or prolix has long been considered a master of lean, spare, modern prose; is famous for his ‘style of no style’ far closer to contemporary taste than the surpassing descriptions of, say, Dickens.

From Burmese Days (1934):

He acclimatised himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year, from February to May, the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hopscotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them — honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of peardrops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valley like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmese went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and parched with cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wildernesses, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun.

… What album of photographs could hope to compete with those not quite four hundred Orwellian word-choices?