Category Archives: Book publishing

Bravo! for the new arbiters of art: us … and a commenters’ strike at The Guardian

Shawn Yu's Teaton Series

'Cavalier-Servant' -- Shawn Yu

Hello-and-goodbye, … unless, against long odds, you read on. Why so pessimistic? Though this is said to be the age of the image, people measuring attention spans have found that in ten seconds flat, an online video loses a fifth of its audience. How much less hope must there be for the seductive power of a mere text?

This new painting by Shawn Yu was still brightening my day on a part of my screen when I saw the report on video watching. It led me to marvel at how fast aesthetic attraction, not just dismissal, works on the net. Of how quickly we can recognise a certain je ne sais quoi in an artist’s work impossible to explain, even to ourselves, which guarantees that we will find that painter’s oeuvre consistently engaging – at the very least. As I’ve explained (see the second footnote here), it was a drawing Shawn made from a photograph of Bruce Chatwin that originally caught my eye as I was speed-skimming my way through images of that writer served up by search engines.

Every visit to Shawn’s site since has been rewarding. Lately, going there has been like popping into a magical gallery in which a wizard keeps putting up new paintings on the walls for an exhibition by a single artist, and on the same theme – in this case, kettles, teapots, jugs and coffee pots, of all things; some with and some without human companions. As someone who has always had trouble with collections of short stories, anthologies of poems, group shows by artists – or even a single artist displaying pieces on several themes in more than one style – the staggered presentation has felt so right that it might have been designed for me. Finding my way to it without any intermediary or other people’s interpretations of the pictures has only heightened the pleasure of looking at them.

I think Shawn is still a student but close to being hatched by his art school. There’s no saying whether he will or won’t stick with Surrealism. He does seem to me to have a very special feeling for that style. Some of his pictures have taken me back to standing in the Dali museum in Figuerres a few years ago, enjoying the expressions on the faces of other visitors as much as examining the exhibits. Like the great moustachioed one, Shawn’s blog shows that he can also be a fine realistic painter – impeccably accurate as an anatomist, just as Dali was. … But scrolling down his online exhibition, it has also occurred to me that Surrealism remains the only approach to depicting our world that captures the grain, the scent, the unending, stomach-churning topsy-turvyness of contemporary life.

Last week I was surprised to find – in another context – that Herbert Pothorn, a German architectural historian, thought that Surrealism had a precedent in a style that defined another age of uncertainty and chronic disruption:

The final phase of the Renaissance is known as Mannerism. In art history the term implies a highly personal mode of expression; it also indicates the adoption of the specific idiom or manner of a certain artist by others, or by a whole school. … [I]t also entails a love of exaggeration and artificiality, obtained by any means possible. Mannerism tends towards excess, towards distortion of perspective …It was the product of a spiritually uncertain age – an age caught between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, seeking for new certainties, and attempting to guide itself through all this insecurity with the help of fantasy […] Mannerist painting was … a forerunner of Surrealism, i.e. that trend or movement of ideas that aimed to re-establish the unconscious, freeing it from the tools and formulae of reason.

… Something paradoxical about the way we deal with people’s posts in the Blogosphere is that we’re as apt to dismiss some prematurely as we are to relentlessly monitor others for signs of behaviour we don’t approve of – scrutinising these post-writers’ beliefs and inconsistencies more often and minutely, from thousands of miles away, than we could have done from right next door in the past. Then there’s the fun of comparing our reactions with those of others – comparisons all the more exciting for our having no ties or obligations to our fellow blog watchers.

It seems as if lots of other visitors to the Guardian‘s site have been put off by that paper’s barbaric censorship policies; in particular, by its victimisation of Desmond Swords/Kevin Desmond (or HerMajesty here). You might imagine that the dramatic drop in the comments count for a weekly poetry blog there in recent weeks would have registered with the managers of that site as a protest against its suppression of free expression – and that they might have tried to make amends, or at least offer some form of apology. You might imagine that they’d have noticed that for several years, now, that blogger who refuses to accept being banned has been responsible for more lively debates and click count-boosting posts than anyone else. … You might imagine that they’d have noticed that without him, there is only word for the threads in that section: dull.

But no, they appear to be have decided to sit out what is virtually a commenters’ strike, and do nothing at all.

The reasons why so many of us are supporting Des are: (i) The Guardian’s site managers’ failure to understand that it is commenters, not their ‘above-the-line’ bloggers, who have made that spot on the web worth visiting – a fact that makes their obtuse and draconian censorship utterly counter-productive. (ii) He can be wonderfully witty and inventive in the way he undermines the stodgy, misguidedly technical and needlessly jargon-ridden introductions to the Poem-of-the-Week – by an author who has shown, when she posts in comments sections, that she is capable of being funny and lively, on occasion. [(iii) See addendum, below, which contains the most important part of the explanation.]

Yet above the line, week after week, she holds forth in her droning Voice of Authority – in a style of criticism I expect will come to be known as Early Debased – or Very Early and remarkably Debased (as someone said about a bell tower in a church in an English university town in the late nineteenth century that was referred to as the Meat Safe).

Why don’t people like her see what is happening to the presumption of literary authority? In my last post I mentioned keeping tabs on the staggering – and widening – gap between paid and unpaid critics’ assessments of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. On a trip to the page a few hours ago, I noticed that 579 of 660 readers of an exemplary review by ‘zashibis’ — who awarded the book a one-star rating — had marked it as helpful. Its opening establishes that zashibis is objective, and nurses no personal grudge against the much-fêted author:

Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.

I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years …

My impressions of the book from reading its first twenty five-odd pages have been confirmed, to the letter, by dozens of detailed descriptions of the rest of the mega-tome by lay assessors. ‘Taken in’ is exactly how I would have felt fifteen years ago, before there was an publishing extracts from new novels on its site – or offering instant access to hundreds of uncredentialled but obviously astute zashibises. I wouldn’t have been able to get a refund for the hefty price I’d have had to pay for Freedom, and I’d have had felt miserably and furiously isolated in my bafflement by the laurels the literary establishment had heaped on it.

Censors like the Guardian’s will have to take over the world to reverse the flood tide against pontificators who specialise in king- and queen-making in the arts. All hail, Canute!


Late addendum:

(iii) As Scott Adams recently said about his brilliant satirisation of corporate idiocy,

Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy.
In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)



Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Criticism, Poetry, The blogosphere, The Guardian

What will yours be, madam/sir? A Walter Kirn or an Ian McEwan?

A sequel to Anti-Atlanticism: the lynching of Ian McEwan and Tony Judt has been taking shape, but I won’t have time to write it for a day or three. In the meanwhile, …

You are lying beneath shimmering eucalyptus trees, breathing in the invigorating perfume of their leaves, eavesdropping on the shffffffffffrrr-shhhhrrr-shffffffffffrrr of their movements in the caressing breeze … A waiter approaches your deck chair with the e-reader that you have rented with your hotel room. ‘We’re offering our guests a choice of complimentary e-books,’ he says. ‘These are sample paragraphs to help you make your selection. Both novelists are tackling the flitting-about part of today’s work world, the endless airport terminals, the plane rides. . . I’ll be back in ten minutes, …’.


Planes and airports are where I feel at home. Everything fellows like you dislike about them – the dry, recycled air alive with viruses; the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil; the aura-sapping artificial lighting – has grown dear to me over the years, familiar, sweet. I love the Compass Club lounges in the terminals, especially the flagship Denver Club, with its digital juice dispenser and deep suede sofas and floor-to-ceiling views of taxiing aircraft. I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls. I even enjoy the suite hotels built within sight of the runways on the ring roads, which is sometimes as close as I get to the cities my job requires me to visit.

Up in the Air, Walter Kirn, 2001


Half an hour later, the Berlin flight was docked and he was fourth man off, towing his carry-on luggage, walking stiffly at speed, with unmanful little skips and hops (his knees, his body, indeed his mind, were no longer capable of simple running) down the sealed capillaries, the carpeted steel tubes that fed him through the airport’s innards towards the immigration hall. Far quicker to pound alongside the hundred-metre walkway than squeeze by the dreamy, motionless voyagers and their luggage blocking the runs. At least a dozen young men off his plane, hurrying more effectively, overtook him along this stretch, lean, crop-headed business types, raincoats flapping over their forearms, unhindered by their weighty shoulder bags, talking easily as they flew by. An avenue of ads for banking and office services, weakly humorous, effortfully eye-catching – clearly, advertising was an industry for third-raters – increased his irritation in the underventilated, overlit corridors.

Solar, Ian McEwan, 2010


Filed under Book publishing, Class and literature, Criticism

We few, we happy few … bloggers vs. The Guardian (which has a lesson to learn from computer geeks)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Dear Comrades
, including those of you who once blogged with me on the books site of The Guardian – whether or not we’re still on speaking terms,

…The signs point to a victory over Goliath. . . Yes, we few, we happy band of bloggers … have won, by refusing to let that newspaper shut us up — behaving just like Tony Benn resisting the BBC’s attempt to silence him in this riveting clip @Hazlitt posted here.

The incontrovertible proof of our triumph? That the moderators on that site can no longer openly ban us.

Because they couldn’t ban for instance, me, in the last half of August, they stooped to imitating Richard Nixon’s Dirty Tricks Department – remember Watergate? — to keep me out.

Why? Because we have taught the Guardian’s managers that a banned blogger quickly becomes a cause célèbre – not least because this site, with one or two others, initiated a tradition of publishing any comments censored by the newspaper’s trigger-happy moderators. (see Salvage Operation, part 1 and part 2.)

It would have been hard for The Guardian to ban me outright. Far from attacking or abusing anyone in my only two attempts at posting there as @wordnerd7 since last winter, I wrote a comment praising a piece on the newspaper’s site.

Before I tidy all that out of sight — and to ensure that the newspaper’s editors will never be able to dismiss the incidents as paranoid and imaginary — I’m summarising the sequence of happenings in this spot. On August 22, I had an automated message informing me that a comment warmly supporting an article by Aaron Akinyemi on the books blog had been siphoned off into ‘pre-moderation’. While I waited, mystified and with misgivings, I pasted in a draft of that comment on this site. On August 26, four days after it disappeared into the bowels of the online Guardian, it reappeared heavily edited – with links to two articles on this site agreeing with Aaron’s argument lopped off. Sentences of mine were slyly inserted under the screen name ‘@wordnerd’ – and not ‘@wordnerd7’, as they should have been. At the bottom of the butchered comment, a remark addressed to ‘@nuges’ was added to my words – a remark never made by me.

When I saw that on August 27, I immediately wrote a new comment, protesting about the censoring, blatant distortion and additions to my original comment — asking the Guardian’s moderators for an explanation. This attempt at posting also vanished into pre-moderation, never to be seen again. I put an exact replica of that post here.

Another wait. Then, on August 28, a comment of which I never wrote a single line appeared in the Akinyemi thread under ‘@wordnerd’. The post attributed to me amounts to a simple-minded and crass statement about racial differences at the furthest extreme from my own beliefs (……………as anyone interested will discover in reading these threads: Will Barack Obama bring back heroism? and A bit more on heroes: Barack Obama’s odyssey, part 2)

Just to be perfectly clear about what must be obvious, The Guardian has never answered my question about why the first post was censored and doctored – and it prevented my enquiry from ever appearing on its site. (I have a copy of the second pre-moderation notice.)

So that’s what I mean by ‘dirty tricks’, and I’m creating this careful record of the incidents for anyone else who might encounter the same behaviour by the authorities responsible for that site.

Now this, mark you, is a newspaper that has a whole segment of its website labelled Liberty Central, advertising the image it likes to project – and can sometimes justify, in other spheres – as a friend of freedom and the oppressed.

As I pointed out at the time, it’s clear that The Guardian is severely rattled by bloggers questioning its authority with substantive objections. There is other – constructive and heartening — proof of our arrows finding their mark. Over the last few weeks, there have been several articles on the Guardian’s books blog objecting to the commercialisation of book publishing – for instance, this one about promotional author-videos and another about Margaret Atwood.

They make a striking contrast with the prevailing opinion of the editors on that site two years ago, when they ran piece after piece endorsing book publishing’s increasing dominance by marketing executives (at the expense of literary quality) – starting with one titled Selling Yourself as a Writer. As recently as last November, strong – but politely worded — objections to that unbridled philistinism were deleted by Guardian moderators.

An entry in this blog spelling out those objections in detail seems to have been heeded: Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool?

In effectively banning me in late August, though, the authorities concerned appeared to have had a fit of acute irrationality – spiced with malice.

Arbitrary and punishing authoritarianism is out of temper with the times, dear Guardian. We know how difficult it must be for Old Media to adjust to online publishing, which needs new rules for all sorts of processes and procedures, including the correction of errors, as I demonstrated last month.

Look to the technocrats who gave us these magnificent new communication tools to see how you should be making every facet of your modus operandi more egalitarian. Power structures are flattening out. You don’t seem to have noticed, but they aren’t shaped like pyramids any more. Last March, Scott Rosenberg, who has just published a history of blogging, Say Everything, received a grant of $335,000 from the American Knight Foundation to explore a system for correcting errors in the media that mimics the cheerfully collaborative spirit in which coders of open-source software have debugged each other’s work for decades.

Instead of getting huffy and defensive about the mistakes they make when these are pointed out by readers, in Rosenberg’s vision, newspapers and other media will respond with a collegial graciousness. As he has explained, about his test site:

We’re a place on the Web (independent and not-for-profit) where you can bring specific errors, issues and problems you’ve found in media coverage in your community and try to get them fixed.


Q: Why should I bother?

A: Because you know that good public information is the lifeblood of democracy. And that journalists are human beings who sometimes make mistakes. And that they work for institutions that don’t always respond to criticism. Instead of posting an angry rant on your blog or just shrugging your shoulders, MediaBugs will give you and those journalists a chance to have civil exchanges about the inevitable errors and problems that crop up in their work.

… As for my fellow-bloggers, with whom I began. Make sure that you have your own blog. I’d have been beside myself if I’d had no way to expose the behaviour of the Guardian’s moderators over the last two weeks. Get your own site, and think hard about commenting on newspaper articles there, not on the newspapers’ sites – to ensure that you will always own the words you write, and can make up your own rules about what you can and can’t say.

Withhold your clicks from their sites, if necessary, and put your weight behind the thrilling new democracy that the new communication technologies have brought us. And do not doubt for a second that our words are being read where it matters.

. . . We few, we happy few, we band of bloggers;
For we today who save our clicks for freedom
Shall e’er be comrades; be we ne’er so vile
Our band shall speed the media revolution:
And Grauniad moderators in their cups
Shall cry themselves a river they were so foul,
And took for monkeys commenters loyal and fair
Who looked for thanks and justice, all in vain.


Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian, Visual art & artists

A serendipitous postscript to: Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

A good reporter thinking in what couldn’t be deemed his finest hour was complaining the other day that the net has killed serendipity. To that I say, stuff and nonsense. The fact is, it’s alive and well and has only done a bit of shape-shifting — just as Serendip, the inspiration for that gorgeous word, turned into Ceylon and then Sri Lanka.

After I’d posted my last entry here, I got curious about how posterity is treating Bruce Chatwin. Near the top of search engine offerings for my query, I found a surprising and highly original assessment of his work by a friend of his, the composer Kevin Volans.

No, that doesn’t count as an example of serendipity, but only the equivalent of a waiter appearing with poached eggs and a double espresso because I’d ordered — gosh!poached eggs and a double espresso. I was looking for other people’s opinions of the Chatwin oeuvre: that was what I got. What did signal serendipity was that the title of the Volans paper, written for last spring’s Oxford Literary Festival, was Some Japanese Influences on Style and Structure in Bruce Chatwin’s Writing. And as if that wasn’t sufficiently delectable on its own, he explains en passant that it was ‘the compositional structure of the books that first attracted me to Bruce’s work.’

Volans’ analysis justifies an obsession of mine — that we need much more of both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary criticism in the arts, because it’s in the perspectives of outsiders that the most illuminating insight is found disproportionately. That’s not something I can prove statistically or in any objective way, of course. But though I have no formal training in either classical music or poetry appreciation, this segment of the — rather disorganised, only it doesn’t matter — paper immediately leapt out as fresh and true:

In place of metaphor Chatwin tends to use a structure also found in haiku or its older form waka – an AB form in which the first part sets up an expectation, and the second part provides a resolution (which is often unexpected). The resonance created between the first and the second parts substitutes for metaphor. […] This is the basis of the structure of Japanese linked poetry which was developed from the 8th century onwards. According to Yuasa, ‘…each poem takes up the suggestion of the last poem and yet opens up a new world of its own, so that the reader is carried though the whole series as through the exquisitely arranged rooms of a building.’ I think this is what Bruce aspired to in his more ambitious moments.

An AB structure runs throughout Bruce’s late work in particular – the
form is so common as to almost be a personal cliché – and is used both on a small and a large scale. […]

A: “Mrs. Gandhi wore a green and white striped sari. And sat down to a breakfast
B: that never came.” [ What Am I Doing Here ]

A: “They set down the coffin with a show of reverence.
B: Then, attracted by the smell of hot bread from a bakery along the street, they strolled off to get breakfast…” [ Utz ]

A: “Olwen had kicked. The hoof caught him under the chin,
B: and the sparrows went on chattering.” [ On the Black Hill ]

I wondered what Volans would make of the Shawn Yu portrait of Chatwin that I was attracted to because it gets behind the shimmering, beguilingly fey persona that the writer created. This passage in the Volans critique led me to suspect that he just might understand my choice of image:

[Artistry] transcends ‘personality’. Personality is formed and assessed socially and is habitual […] Beethoven the personality may have driven Beethoven the artist, but it was the intellect, the intelligence and the imagination of the artist that created the realms of his music. […] I say all of this because with Bruce Chatwin it is easy to be sideswiped by the glamour of the personality and the life of the author. Indeed, I think that at times the artist and the persona in Bruce were at odds with each other.

Volans believes that Chatwin was deeply influenced by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North — particularly in the writing of his impressionistic, idiosyncratic, collage- and blog-like account of his Australian odyssey:

For me Bruce’s novel with the most interesting structure is The Songlines. In form it’s almost an exact parallel of Basho’s A Visit to Sarashina Village: first a prose narrative which gives way to a set of linked verse. Basho, in the company of a pupil, sets off to see Mount Obasute under a full moon. The piece becomes a meditation on the meaning of travel, and journeying as a metaphor for transience of life itself. The linked poems at the end are by Basho and his disciple Etsujin.


[The Songlines ] is, of course, primarily a meditation on walking, travelling and its meaning. And the notebooks at the end have links: Petrarch talks of sleeping in a different bed each night. This links to Rimbaud (asking what am I doing here) – to a sleepless night in an hotel in Brazil – to the names of 2 hotels in Cameroon, the Windsor and the anti-Windsor – which provide a link a the British ambassador in Kabul, whose contradictory initiative and insensitivity to local culture leads to a Moorish proverb on the value of men – which prompts a story of a little man who prospects for jewellery in sewers in Miami: “’It is not, I can assure you, sir’ he said, ‘ an unrewarding occupation.’” And so on. And of course, many of the notes are quotations from other people’s writings.

Another point on which Volans and I might be singing in perfect harmony is about the commercialisation of the arts — an affliction I’ve bewailed before in writing about the fate today of journalism and book publishing.

By starting his career with In Patagonia Chatwin ran into a problem: all the arts are now run by their arch enemy: Business – in this case the Book Industry. And industries love labels. Work must be classified into genres. Is it fact or fiction? Is it a novel or is it a travel book? I recall one of the judges of the Booker prize being almost more annoyed at the brevity of Utz than anything else. The book didn’t fit into his classification of a novel, and therefore he felt it didn’t belong in the competition! (Imagine Capability Brown’s apoplexy at the sight of a stone garden).

I see hyper-serendipity as one of the greatest treats the net serves up. I’d have rated my chances of stumbling on Volans’ thoughts about Chatwin before I came online at close to zero. I am unlikely to have thought of asking a reference librarian about parallels in exotic cultural traditions for Chatwin’s literary style, and as for what rhythms a composer might discern in it — no, again, not even in a dream.

Yes, I do have an extraordinary friend or two who might, out of the blue, volunteer observations from a Volans-like perspective — or opinions as penetrating from some other viewpoint entirely. But that would be serendipity, too — the old-fashioned, ante-net kind.

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Filed under Book publishing, Criticism, Music and words, Poetry, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

As goes blogging, so goes literature … or, … Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

Used with the permission of the artist:

Bruce Chatwin by Shawn Yu:

Mary Roach on Bill Streever‘s Cold in last Sunday’s lead review in The New York Times:

Streever himself is a scientist, both by degree and paycheck, but writing for journals hasn’t muddied his style. Phalaropes, he writes, “swim in tight circles, their heads bobbing as if connected to their feet.” […] He sculptures lucid explanations and fires them with fine writing.

A warning: This is a book only in that it has a cover. It’s structured more like a blog. There are chapters, but they aren’t united by easily discerned themes. One begins with a few pages about El Niño, followed by a section break and then “The moose is so well insulated that. . . .” I fought it for a chapter or two, and then I gave in. The book is so interesting it doesn’t matter.

Portraiture in the form of cheap snapshots became as blah-unremarkable as sneezing in the second half of the 20th century — at least for westerners –- and must have struck many an old-fashioned portrait painter in exactly the way blogs do serious writers today.

Old ideas about both the purpose of — and frame for — art have been smashed beyond repair. It isn’t just that artists are free to make art entirely on their own terms. Our uses for it are getting steadily more idiosyncratic.

Consider this:

We say that we take pictures of each other to make records of passages in our insignificant lives. But when I want to reconstitute the feelings, sensations and state of mind I link to living in a particular place – say, wordnerd7 in wc1e-7au — photographs of me outlined against Bloomsbury’s Georgian façades are next to useless. After all, I hardly ever saw myself like that – or indeed see myself anywhere I come and go at all. Nor does looking at anyone I was close to in those years against once-familiar backdrops work anything like the time machine I long for: instead, I instantly begin to think of all those people as they are today. Stupidly, it never occurred to me to create a pictorial archive of what I saw walking to work or the food shops or the newsagent’s or the Goodge Street or Russell Square tube stations.

But my lust for time travel means I’ve discovered a use for the sculptor Anthony Gormley’s prosaically wacky One & Other public art project being staged round the clock in Trafalgar Square.

In spite of my slightly slighting mention of it in my last post, I’ve found myself returning to its web site – an obsessiveness that puzzled me until I registered that my heart was skipping beats with every panning shot of the sky, or seeing the sheen of moisture on streets surrounding the plinth, or observing figures wreathed in silvery mist scurrying under umbrellas to get somewhere dry – or sunlight glinting off plane tree leaves. I remembered how intently and with what keen yearning to be out at sea or in the country I used to gaze beyond London rooftops. The webcam pointed skywards restores my own inimate, personal London to me more munificently than any device, including a passage in an A. S. Byatt novel set in the building where I, too, once occupied a rent-controlled flat.

In other words, for me, One & Other has simply been enabling a superior form of London-watching. Unlike the single fixed webcam trained on Trafalgar Square that I bookmarked in my browser two years ago, the ever-mutating Gormley installation has given me a focal point – if only rarely a wow! experience with a participant like LilacBonzai, the People’s Plinthess, a marvel of protean playfulness.

Gormley understands. Art is about audience participation, now. It’s about expertise going to bed with amateurism and staying there, not bothering to wash the sheets. Experts, whether they make a bow to classical conventions and standards or ignore them altogether, are inspired by what used to be called outsider-art, or merge their own ideas with those of outsider-artists who once had no audience not made up exclusively of family and friends. We, the audience, make what we choose to of the results — which can bear no resemblance to the artist’s stated intentions.

Digital media and digital networking on the internet have been hogging most of the credit for these changes but in fact, have only sped up the pace of the democratisation of the arts. In every branch, the direct pre-figuring of what we see and read today began more than a hundred years ago.

Henry Moore, who made Britain a power if not the ranking world power in modernist sculpture, was originally inspired in his choice of profession by Michelangelo. Later, as a quick Wikipedia check confirmed for me, it was primitive art like Mayan-Toltec carvings that helped him find his distinctive style – after he ‘became uncomfortable with classically derived ideals,’ and was also influenced by the work of Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and Frank Dobson (1888-1963).

In fiction, experimentation began early in the 20th century – unless you agree with those who think that Cervantes, who wrote the first novel, was also the first modernist. In non-fiction, I myself first admired Bruce Chatwin’s subversion of conventional structures for the contrast that this made with the elegant, sentence-by-sentence classicism of his prose.

Others will have their own candidates, but I was ready to nominate him the First Haut-Literary Blogger after I read the original memo on the manuscript of his first book, In Patagonia, by Susannah Clapp — the exemplary editor at Jonathan Cape whose help became indispensable to his work. She has described In Patagonia as ‘an attempt to give a “cubist” picture of that country.’ Her 1976 report on the manuscript said in part:

This is very extraordinary – and a possible problem. Basically, it’s a collage-like collection of impressions, memories, histories and stories about Patagonia loosely bound together by an intermittent first-person narrative, but mostly functioning more or less autonomously … I was impressed by each bit as I read, but didn’t feel impelled forward throughout the whole 350-odd pages. . . [I]f I weren’t so impressed by the matching of informativeness with intelligent description, I would say a sad no.

Her rare literary perspicacity can be deduced from her having discerned this author’s intentions so perfectly that his scribbling equivalent of cubism became even more so in the editing of his pages. She describes the book’s

angularity, its many small scenes and surfaces – one tilting away from another. The earliest manuscript was organised in this way; and in the process of editing – during which some sections went through as many as four versions – the book became still more angular.

I’ll know more when I have actually read it, but judging from the quotation with which I began this entry, I’m guessing that the reviewer, Mary Roach, is referring to a book written in the Chatwin mould.

In arts audiences everywhere, Chatwinesque fragmentariness and the Gormley style — which I nearly described as gormless, wondering whether One & Other is more an example of creative passivity or inclusiveness — have formalists and classicists tearing their hair out in disgust and despair. Against their insistence that ‘the rot’s set in well and truly, now’ – as one friend of mine put it grimly only last week, I’d suggest that it’s too soon to be pessimistic about artistic evolution in our time.

It’s a time of creative ferment. ‘To obtain perfection’ in growing a certain white wine in the district of Saumur, Isak Dinesen writes in one of her gem-like Seven Gothic Tales, the local inhabitants put off picking grapes until they ‘develop a peculiar condition which is called in the French pourriture noble, or in German, Edelfaule.’ That, she says, flavours the wine with what could turn out to be ‘the true odour of sanctity, or it may be the noble putrefaction, the royal corrodent rust of a strong and rare wine … or … both. . . ’.

That is what fermentation is. You cannot know which of its results are going to be bad or good – until you do.

Onward! the blogging revolution.


1. Only @exitbarnadine, posting until recently under the screen name @BaronCharlus, has so far come up with anything resembling a precedent for Harold Francis Bell’s sculpture of a woman in deep thought, Paulinewhich looks more and more as if it might be unique in the known history of western art. I recently encountered another self-portrait by a woman painter – the 17th-century Dutchwoman, Judith Leyster. Not as striking as @eb’s find, Artimesia Gentileschi, and not a patch on Bell’s thinker. In both self-portraits, self-consciousness unfortunately gets in the way of insight.

2. I sorted through all the choices Google Images offers for a portrait of Bruce Chatwin. Nothing appealed until I found the strikingly intelligent picture I’ve pasted in today. Quick sleuthing led me to the site of Shawn Yu –- who I was surprised to discover is only twenty-four years old. He’s a freelance artist.

Unlike all the other portraits of Chatwin I’ve seen, which celebrate his blond-god looks, Shawn’s drawing stresses his keen powers of observation and analytical turn of mind. I also seem to remember being told about Chatwin’s diminutive size, something that has somehow never been clear in other images of him.

I zapped the artist a note and was thrilled to receive permission to put his drawing here:

sure man, thank you for featuring my work.


Many thanks, Shawn, and best of luck with placing your work.


Filed under Book publishing, Editors and editing, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

Interactive – and shallow? — fiction spells contentious Vookworm

Let’s say that you’re a novelist a bit bored with yourself and by the usual plots, who feels like trying to put two characters into a gravity-smashing relationship with each other.

Why not, say, a woman who allows herself to be seduced by a much younger man? Would she necessarily have to look like Demi Moore or Francesca Annis for this romance to get off the ground – and with or without the alpha-to-omega knife work that made Demi the cheerful, landmark advertisement for plastic surgery that she is?

How do you demonstrate — believably — that there’s nothing seriously wrong with your male character when he chooses this love interest over internet porn depicting lovelies as dewy-eyed as fake or real twelve year-olds, or flesh-and-blood women his own age or younger? Would you necessarily have to make him as wild as Demi’s Ashton Kutcher or as gnomish and remote as Ralph Fiennes, Francesca’s ex-partner of something like a decade?

So you post a few pages of this story on your website, refreshed by stretching your imagination for a psychological high-wire act. But then in the comments section beneath your work-in-progress, you find a reader usually well-behaved and cooperative spitting nails. ‘Never!’ says the post. You ask, ‘Why not?’ And the outraged commenter types, ‘Because it’s not a relationship that’s going to go anywhere.’ [my ital.]

Time for me to admit, now, that I’ve borrowed most of that disagreement from real life – specifically, from Alexander McCall Smith‘s riveting piece in The Wall Street Journal of all places, about a fortnight ago. He explained that he’s been publishing a Scottish series of books with a fortysomething heroine and a lover fourteen years her junior – ‘considerably younger,’ he said. He got into the argument with a reader making the case for undefeatable gravity at a book signing in Australia. He told her that he thought that the romance ‘was going rather well.’

Again my reader lost no time in replying. “No, it isn’t,” she said emphatically.

That was me put in my place. After all, I was merely the author. As it happens, Isabel’s relationship with Jamie had not been my idea in the first place, but had come about because at an earlier stage in the series I came under attack from a journalist — another woman — for not allowing Isabel to become romantically involved with Jamie. I had originally intended that their friendship be platonic, but had been told in the course of an interview with this journalist that I really had to allow something closer to develop. “Your readers will expect it,” she said. “And it would be so empowering for them.”

Not one to stand between my readers and their empowerment, I had decided to let Isabel develop a romantic liaison, only to be taken to task later by my Sydney critics for exactly this.

And there you have one reason why I find it so hard to wax enthusiastic about the prospect of collaborative (and) (or) interactive fiction, as I told our Talleyrand of the blogosphere, @BaronCharlus – technically @exitbarnadine, now — on this very site. Writers working alone are already taxed by choosing from such a superabundance of imaginative possibilities – switching from one set to another, reversing themselves, arguing furiously against their own decisions – that some (for instance, John le Carré) notoriously lean heavily on editors to keep their own plots straight. And anyway, how can literary composition and decisions subsequently second-guessed, contorted and distorted by a nearly dialectical process, like the one McCall Smith endured, count as improving anything? Literary quality? Plausibility? Proof of the depth of an author’s understanding of his characters – or of life experience re-imagined or recollected in tranquillity?

Still, this post is actually an admission of defeat, since technological change – I refuse to equate it with progress, in this instance – is apparently pushing us in the direction of shallow literary conception-by-committee, willy-nilly.

The kind of multimedia book-as-Bondmobile recently considered in this space already has a name – a Vook, if the man who coined it is as influential as he hopes to be. He made a fortune in property and has established his own company specialising in the ‘author videos’ to which @Sean Murray has introduced us, and is also reported to have written a thriller all by himself. Here is the New York Times’ description of his Vook vision:

Plenty of authors dream of writing the great American novel.

Bradley Inman wants to create great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream — and then roll them all into a multimedia hybrid that is tailored to the rapidly growing number of digital reading devices.

Collaboration is naturally at the heart of the idea – as in his demonstration of a proto-Vook, built from his own novel, whose title doesn’t trip quite so lightly on tongues as his neologism. For The Right Way to Do Wrong, he

got TurnHere to film two dozen short videos with actors that augment the book’s main mystery.

If I had to settle for giving just one reason why I think that books really are going to be displaced by Vookishness – and sooner than we think – it’s the endemic distractibility, the death of concentration, that the same article mentions:

Even worse, on multipurpose reading devices like the iPhone, more immediately gratifying pastimes like video games are a click away for readers with short attention spans.

And this reasoning also struck me as sound:

“Publishers are going to be confronted with the idea that either the words on the page have to be completely compelling on their own, or they have to figure out a way to create new sorts of subliminal draws in the new medium,” said Sara Nelson, the former editor of Publishers Weekly and a publishing industry consultant.

Ms. Nelson has seen the Vook prototype and says it is intriguing, but the challenge is to avoid feeling gimmicky. “If you are going to put video in a book, it has to flow so naturally into the story that readers don’t even realize they are switching mediums,” she said.

…. Collaboration is seen by many as virtually the nervous system of the digital camels swaying lumpily into view (as in ‘horse designed by committee’), @BaronCharlus will be delighted to see — for instance:

WEBook, a venture-backed start-up in New York, allows people to collaborate on writing books and is working on new ways to let readers give writers real-time feedback on their work.

Perhaps one kind of novel-writing – though in the near future, I expect we’ll say, novel-direction – will simply become a branch of Civics, and we’ll forget that novels were ever about high aesthetics, or certainly inspiration from a single set of viscera. McCall Smith concluded from his experience with his dissenting readers, that

… the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent. . . . Stories … are part of our moral conversation as a society.


Filed under Book publishing, Social trends, The blogosphere, The sound of blogging

Do (real) writers lack a marketing gene?

Scott Adams on 'hidden persuaders'

Scott Adams on 'hidden persuaders'

O comrades, dear comrades, thank you for keeping this meeting-place alive in my absence – with special thanks to gentle @Suzan Abrams for her encouragement, and for the reappearance of two of you I’d given up for lost, @Captain Ned and @Hazlitt, with wonderfully thoughtful posts that set my head skipping.

I found those comments on my way to saying this: . . . that I’d bet anything on a hunch that only a smidgen of a fraction of a minority of you know who it was who said, ‘The more underdeveloped the country, the more overdeveloped the women,’ — and that ‘Being Ambassador to India is the nearest thing yet devised to a male chastity belt. But one can still gaze wistfully.’

That’s because members of our group share a love of language used well, and have far too much sense to look to an economist for proof of any such talent. But John Kenneth Galbraith — who served as the US ambassador in Delhi under Kennedy in the 1960s — was that rare economist who refused to take the secret vow I long ago guessed as the price of admission to the profession: to churn out only the flattest, most mind-bendingly dull and jargon-infested prose.

What reminded me of his existence was a scrap of paper that fell out of an old clippings file of mine last week. It said:

Artists who would once have sought patrons, writers who would once have sought readers, managers who were once primarily concerned with the production of goods and services, are now dedicated to shaping market response.

J.K.Galbraith in The Economics of Innocent Fraud

I marvelled, as I re-read that sentence, at how consistently a capacity for any form of high aesthetic accomplishment seems to go with contempt for the unbridled pursuit of mammon, and for setting this chase as the highest goal.

An economist, you might suppose, would be among those least likely to disagree with the ‘Marketing über alles’ creed of the MBA degree-holders who have rudely shoved literature-lovers out of the corridors of power in corporate publishing. But Galbraith, a fierce critic of corporate gigantism and capitalist excess, was an economist with the soul of an artist. Time rightly praised his Indian diary, when it was published in 1969, for its ‘first-rate prose’ – though when I was at university, it was for his complex, playfully verbose and quirky sentences on economics that I could have kissed his feet in gratitude.

The cartoonist and deadly critic of managerial obtuseness, Scott Adams, is someone else I’d put in Galbraith’s class: another illustration of how enslavement to mercantilist calculation — known as marketing — and true artistry appear to be mutually exclusive. Never mind if his talent has made him a kazillionaire. It’s clear from his work that that’s a lucky side-effect of his dedication to relentless mockery of corporate serfdom.

But why are artists so consistently disgusted with manipulation? Well, you might say, the work of ‘hidden persuaders’ – as Vance Packard labelled the media-manipulators known as advertisers – obviously conflicts with the highest aim implicit in all great art, which is revelation. Or, as the crotchety old – ‘famous but reclusive’ — painter in the 1991 Jacques Rivette film, La Belle Noiseuse, puts it, ‘We want the truth in painting. It’s cruel.’

With that question rattling around upstairs, I wondered about the possibility that neuroscience might supply the answer some day. That led to wondering whether true vocations will be found to correlate with particular brain structures, in the future – and, looking backwards, whether there might have been at least partially genetic components to occupational caste specialisations in very old civilisations like India’s and China’s. I jotted down on the back of an envelope, ‘Would caste divisions by profession map to brain structure – above the level of outcastes, who were simply people who happened to be powerless, therefore bullied?’ Then I looked at the note and scoffed, ‘What tripe!’

But in a break in the mindless and exhausting physical chores that have kept me from this site lately, there came a jaw-dropping coincidence. I stumbled on a headline from last Tuesday’s New York Times: ‘Single Gene Shapes the Toil of Ants’ Fighter and Forager Castes‘, which said in part’:

The new study is important because it shows how ants have developed a new use for the PKG gene, that of shaping the characteristic behavior of their different castes, said Gene Robinson, an expert on insect behavior at the University of Illinois. In fruit flies, a DNA difference in the gene changes behavior, but in ants it is a difference in the gene’s activity that makes the soldier caste fight and the foraging caste forage.

Now, no one should get too excited by that, since – far from being mutually exclusive — the ants’ caste specialisations are flexible . . .

because the foragers can recruit the soldiers to food gathering duties when they need extra help. When presented with a live meal worm, within a few minutes the foraging ants can induce the soldiers to help them cut the worm up and take it home.

Then, of course, not even the experts know the extent to which ant behaviour is useful as a guide to human beings. The article mentions medical research that has been inspired by findings in the ant kingdom, but that only amounts to legitimised speculation.

So all we’ve got is a train of woolgathering that some might find as interesting as I do and others will dismiss as undiluted bunk. Still, I’d be fascinated to learn what genetics and neuroscience could have to tell us about the biological differences between Ray Kroc, who made MacDonald’s the mega-monster it is, and the magnificent Jean Cocteau, who wrote:

Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.


Filed under Book publishing, Insight from neuroscience, Psychology