Should Babette’s creator have been expected to ask for permission to be a writer?

Drawing by Sascha Juritz

Drawing by Sascha Juritz

Dear Reader, our wish for a Happy New Year comes in the spirit of the lovebird mentioned here, in this set of advance instructions:

When a baby budgerigar died in a cage adjacent to the lovebird’s the latter grieved horribly for three days. She sat on her perch with her eyes squeezed tightly shut and ignored all attempts to communicate with her. She ate meagrely — but after three days, she put the matter firmly behind her and would entertain no reminders. She had returned to her usual vivacious self. So there you are, the animals are ahead of us. Humans are always uncertain about the policy in any situation, but animals …possess an answer to all problems.

The witty, magisterial line of Sascha Juritz, about whom we posted earlier this year, accompanies those thoughts of ACB’s, an ardent admirer of feathered creatures, whose flashing communication about an iris we recently recorded in this spot.

What came to mind when we revisited Sascha’s sketch yesterday was the title of a short story, ‘The Old Chevalier,’ from the Seven Gothic Tales of Isak Dinesen, to whose incomparable oeuvre post-Gutenberg was introduced by that same ACB — one of the two most significant forces in our existence — to whom we had no choice but to say a final good-bye last week.

Reflecting on her life, we find ourselves thinking often about Dinesen’s ideas about redemption through literature and art for all those who feel more thwarted than not; who can justify seeing themselves as victims of implacable, virtually lifelong, opposition to their hopes, dreams and plans.

Our woolgathering inevitably led us to Google, where we found, first, an appreciation by Susan Hardy Aiken of the most famous Dinesen story, ‘Babette’s Feast,’ whose theme the critic considers a reprise of another tale by the same genius, ‘The Supper at Elsinore’ — ‘a story of failed flight, of “all the betrayed and broken hearts of the world, all the sufferings of weak and dumb creatures, all injustice and despair on earth” …’ …

Of the later story, Aiken tells us:

… [T]he haunting presence … is … a revolutionary woman. At once ‘beggar’ and ‘conqueror’, benignly maternal and bewitchingly seductive, a festive, unclessifiable figure who makes ‘righteousness and bliss kiss one another’, Babette is also … a ‘great artist’ with ‘the gift of tongues’ whose concoctions can transcend and transform the confinements of culture and the misdirections of history. … Writing ‘Babette’s Feast’ in her old age, at a time when her own body was consumed by incurable illness, Dinesen would enact her artistic transcendence of that carnal confinement, offering her readers a ‘celestial’ feast of words, a ‘blissful’ feminine Eucharist able to redeem those who are failed or thwarted …

Then we found, in Susan Brantly’s book about Dinesen, a reminder of the reason why this author was first published outside her Danish homeland:

Dinesen’s reception in the United States was enthusiastic beyond all expectation [ … but her… ] misgivings about how the Danish audience would receive her book proved to be well founded … [Her] imaginative tales set in the previous century were quite different from what most Danes were reading. Svend Borberg described Dinesen as a flamingo-red orchid in a cabbage patch … The most notorious of the Danish reviews accused Dinesen of ‘snobbism, the fantastic, and perversity.’ The negative Danish reviews upset Dinesen. Svend Borberg, with a good dose of irony, suggested one reason for Dinesen’s being subjected to such a beating by the Danish critics: ‘It was naturally very cheeky, not to say brash, of Isak Dinesen — alias Baroness Karen Blixen — to conquer the world first with her book Seven Gothic Tales and then come to Denmark with it. As a Danish author she should have felt obligated to ask here at home first if she was worth anything.’

Ah, gatekeepers … We have posted about these beings before, when we considered Samuel Beckett’s opinions of them in a post here last winter. No doubt we will revisit the subject in 2013, if we can keep this blog going.

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.

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?

Howard Rheingold, the ‘smart mob’ and ‘virtual community’ man, hardly needs a gatekeeper

Conventional publishers do not know enough to act as omniscient filters for manuscripts. The 70 per cent royalty is paying to indie writers publishing their own e-books brings hope of fair compensation — at last — for the struggles of brilliant authors like Howard Rheingold.

Prescience and vision are not easily transmitted between minds – any more than an ear for music is, or a gifted wine-taster’s palate. This makes the tradition of gatekeepers deciding which texts are published absurd, and increasingly so. Once, big publishers and book agents were often literature-loving animals with weaker or stronger business instincts. Now, they are almost exclusively – proudly – spread sheet-driven beasts. The most successful of them, in their terms, are pragmatists too narrowly educated to know or care about ideas. It is hardly surprising that they are incapable of vetting them for either soundness or significance.

Consider Howard Rheingold and his thoughts about the technological future. He foresaw the lightning coordination – owed to what a time traveller from the ‘70s would perceive as plastic matchboxes – of the protests in the Arab spring, and the British riots. His term for the phenomenon has its own entry in the Wikipedia. It was the title for the book he published about it in 2002: Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.

Howard Rheingold in his garden

Howard's garden Ganesh, the 'remover of obstacles' -- for instance, gatekeepers

Pearl and Lulu, ready for their walk

In recent weeks, Howard has been putting the finishing touches to Net Smart – his book about ‘everything you need to know to thrive on the internet’ – downloadable to e-book readers next spring. I expect him to have a lot to tell us that we do not already know, as he has a startling record for accurate guessing about how technology is about to transform our lives, yet again. He predicted, for instance, the online fellowship we are nearly all part of, now, in his 1993 book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (downloadable here, on one of his sites, for payment by the honour system.)

The famous names in trade publishing dithered about how much support they were willing to commit to the writing of Net Smart, in spite of the monumental proof of Howard’s wizardly foresight.

‘I’m five, ten, years ahead of what they can see or understand,’ he mumbled in an embarrassed aside, when I joined him on his hour-long daily constitutional last week. He flapped an exasperated hand in the air as he said that, marching at a cracking pace around a tree stump, and through California coastal scrub and brush near his house in the peaceful, ex-hippie town of Mill Valley, where Jack Kerouac once perched for a while.

Instead of a mainstream publisher, for a book about technological survival for us ordinary people, Howard is working with the MIT Press – associated with the great Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I have been considering, for a parallel, an author with a string of successful books anticipating how aeroplanes would globalise food, clothes and the sexual revolution, who must now rely, for a green light, on a gatekeeper specialised in vetting texts on aeronautical engineering. This seems ridiculous, even if the gatekeeper — in this case — enjoys prestigious straying outside strict academic bounds.

Who do I think Net Smart’s publisher ought to be? Howard himself.

Yesterday, there was yet another sign that indie publishing in taking off at top speed. In New York, the Perseus Books Group launched a distribution and marketing arm for authors publishing their own books – following (in which I am a sub-microscopic shareholder) in giving authors of e-books who use the service a royalty rate of 70 per cent, as opposed to the traditional 10-15 per cent that has long been standard in print publishing. This percentage is a more honest reflection of what publishers have been doing for most authors for decades, except that it is hard to believe that Perseus will actually do much marketing for any author not writing reliable best-sellers. Publishers have long expected writers to do nearly all the marketing themselves.

Certainly for writers angry about the unfairness of the usual split between author and publisher, this alteration is at least as important as the French Revolution. Better, in fact, since it has no disagreeable spectacles involving people-butchers lopping off aristocratic heads as crowds cheer madly.

Howard said that he was strongly tempted to go indie with this book, but decided that he wanted a traditional book advance one last time. I met him in the mid-1980s, when a mutual friend sent me to him for advice about whether I could survive as a writer outside captivity – leaving the large magazine that employed me. He could not have been more encouraging, but warned me that to pay the bills for the most simple life, I would have to work around the clock as he did, with almost no play time, not even at weekends. His wife Judy nodded in confirmation (gosh, were they right.) She, too, was working punishing long days, cutting and styling hair, proving her faith in his vocation.

Why must Howard, who has always understood the importance of both his own best perceptions and those of many a scientist and academic working in obscurity – and made an ever-wider market for them – continue to give away most of the revenue from his books to mere text-packagers?

He is and has always been too busy to rail against injustice. While he waits for Net Smart’s debut, he is supplementing his income from writing with exhausting expeditions to lecture at Berkeley and Stanford, as he had done for years. One of his projects involves pioneering the ‘co-teaching’ – through collaboration with his students — of online journalism, and the effective use of social media. On Twitter last month, he was advertising his new, all-online university, Rheingold U, specialising in ‘the literacy of cooperation’:

The term “collective action” may be dry, but the mysterious magic that enabled homo sapiens to use symbols to organize group activities like hunting or agriculture is what distinguished our ancestors from the other scrawny primates on the savannah […] Although this might seem far removed from the questions posed by digital networks, our species might be in for another leap into an entirely different level of complexity and way of life, depending on how we use digital networks to collaborate in new ways and on new levels.

When I have read Net Smart in a few months, I shall have a bit more to say about Howard – and hope that he will, by then, have made the leap into the next, entirely different phase in the evolution of publishing.