When books become Bondmobiles, I expect that writers will be trans-textual getaway artists cobbling together scribbles, recorded music, spoken words, . . . moving and still pictures – some of all that newly minted, and the rest borrowed, licensed or filched.
Bondmobiles – who dat? You’ll know exactly what I mean if, like me, you hadn’t grasped the powers of special effects when you gasped, the first time you saw 007’s getaway wheels leave the ground — or dive into water and speed away serenely, just as the baddies close in on the Prince of Suaveness.
But what will scribes of the future escape through technologically assisted shape-shifting? I mean, aside from poverty – if they are lucky, and the audiences for mixed media creations prove larger than for old, purist forms. Perhaps they will evade the years of concentrated effort it takes to get good enough at any one craft – for instance, writing — to justify sacrificing the rest of your life at its altar. Yesterday I saw that early research by one Anders Ericsson and colleagues at a university in Florida suggests that it takes an average of ten years or 10,000 hours of ‘persistent, focused training and experience’ to reach the threshold of ‘world-class expertise in any discipline – music, sports, chess, science . . .’.
What I’m trying to say – the long way around — is that the push from computerised tools towards media scrambling in the arts could well mean that virtually all the great literature there will ever be has already been written. When most works of art are blends of several forms, why should anyone strive to outdo the old masters of any one form?
I recognise this as prejudiced thinking. But there’s no alternative to it since, as some of our youngest (twentysomething) comrades were recently complaining on this site, professional writers have lagged behind other creators in investigating the possibilities of mixed media. That means that there is hardly any basis for comparison. Some bloggers are heavy users of graphics and sound clips, but I’ve yet to see an established, serious, literary writer with a site like that – posting long-ish texts up to his or her mark.
I’d suggest two reasons for this:
The fear of artistry interruptus – losing the seductive powers of unified form, development and close attention.
In an essay I’ve posted in another part of this site, Robert Frost mentions ‘the figure a poem makes’. Works in all the art forms we’re used to have a shape and a progression – which are present even when deliberately subverted, so that our brains reflexively reassemble one of Picasso’s beauties with an eyeball in her cheek and luscious lips in an ear lobe to give us a fair idea of what his model looked like, in life.
‘No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place,’ Frost said of the shape of a poem, in one of the most beautiful sentences ever written. A poem ‘assumes direction with the first line laid down . . . has denouement . . . has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood … ’.
As for poetry, so for other kinds of literature. Wouldn’t bloggers who have posted literary fiction on the net want us readers to be utterly absorbed by the structures they have chosen for those stories or novels – whether loose or tight, classic, modernist or post-modernist? Some of these dear comrades have been complaining about writers not incorporating at the very least, music, into their works.
But if music or, say, striking images were spliced into texts, wouldn’t that steal both attention and the tension of their unfolding – and in the end, amount to the artistic equivalent of coitus interruptus? . . . It’s different with, for instance, cinema, which has always been a more diffuse and inclusive medium, blending elements of theatre, painting, sculpture, music and literature — at least, for the lifespan of anyone blogging here. Looking backwards at early mixed-media objects, I can’t think of any part of the text of an illuminated manuscript that a language-lover would quote with as much pleasure as, say, ‘Consider the lilies of the field,’ from a book not intended to share creative effort or concentration with pictures.
The lack of a ‘killer-app’ for the textual revolution – so far.
. . . for instance, microwave ovens – the accidental discovery of an engineer working with radar in the 1940s – never took off as substitutes for conventional ovens, for most people. These gadgets only found customers when presented as accelerated reheaters and defrosters of food, the ‘killer applications’ of this particular invention.
I’m guessing that media scrambling by writers won’t happen in any significant way until it meets a vital need that has so far gone unmet, or has yet to be invented . . . I’m thinking, for instance, of a scaling-up of a relatively trivial proposition I posted almost exactly two years ago. It was in a discussion of translating Don Quixote, on another site – and I was suggesting a way of making the literary heirlooms of other cultures less impenetrable, and of giving foreigners deeper insight into what makes them great.
I reposted those thoughts a few days later on a blog about digital publishing on the same site by Chris Meade, the head of an organisation — Bookfutures— that has been using public funds to look into what comes after print. He liked the idea well enough to come below the line to suggest getting in touch with him to discuss it in detail. I’m pasting in some of the original posts below, and putting a more complete record of our conversation about multimedia translation in the Long Posts section of this site.
Everyone who hates the idea will please spell out exactly why, being as insulting as you like. If it’s a flightless bird, I’d like to know that as soon as possible and free the mental patch it’s been occupying for other (far madder) uses.
03 Mar 07, 11:57am
Maybe it is enjoyable for me because I am reading it in Portuguese translation (he’s pronounced key-SHO-chee in Brazilian Portuguese – I hear much 16th/17th-century Castilian pronunciation is closer to Portuguese than modern Spanish) as my limited Spanish would make it too laborious. Perhaps the humour, historical assumptions and other bases for the humour, the funny turns of phrase etc aren’t as e asily translatable in English as into languages closer to Castilian.
[. . .]
07 Mar 07, 6:28pm
[…] The passion of a reader much closer than I am to the original language of a book could make up for the chief annoyance of translations, not being able to hear the language and harmonies (or dissonance) that the author chose. . . [W]ouldn’t it be wonderful if each of the great classics could have its own web site, with experts or lovers of the original language on hand to answer questions and help foreigners struggling with uninspired and stodgy renderings into their mother tongues? To cheer that foreign reader through longueurs – if only with an excellent chat?
The site I have in mind would also make it possible to highlight a passage, and then listen to a beautiful reading of it in the original, to get the kind of feeling for the language that bypasses a literal understanding of it. It’s already possible to do this at the movies, when you can stop reading the subtitles in, say, a film by Almodovar (surely another Spanish artist indebted to Cervantes, as maybe Dali was, too) and just listen for a while.
07 Mar 07, 7:16pm
It’s a good idea wordnerd. Some works really lend themselves to that kind of treatment. Some kind of English site with a direct per-chapter linkage to the Spanish site could be a starter. [. . .]
. . . I didn’t take Chris Meade up on his invitation. Government-funded organisations tend to substitute endless meetings and white paper-drafting for action – and I like to move fast (as some of us did in a a flash blogging experiment organised by @ISA a few weeks ago). Yes, another kind of prejudice, I’ll admit. The explosively irate reaction of a few fellow-bloggers to Meade and his blog (see Long Posts) didn’t help matters.
But there you have it: one miniature case study of the obstacles to textual or indeed any other kind of innovation – an example of a low-grade Bondmobile blueprint that found some support but still got nowhere.
. . . It’s not hard to imagine laughing at myself, some day, for the reservations I’ve expressed about artistic hybrids replacing _all_ today’s pure forms – not just supplementing them, as in a captivating YouTube video I recently mentioned. Just as I smiled at reading, the other day, about Samuel Beckett’s disgust with a venerable media hybrid in which it takes effort for the rest of us to perceive aesthetic miscegenation. ‘It is precisely because music has a subordinate part in it that ballet annoys me,’ he said. ‘For serious music cannot be of use.’
The 20th century’s greatest playwright was being a grump: No one can really hold that the medium should be static and stand still in one place.