Tag Archives: books

Why we shouldn’t care about author intentions: some disorganised musings

Recently the Guardian ran an article about fiction writer Polly Courtney, who is because of the apparently misleading covers they inflicted on her books. Courtney cites frustration at the ‘pink, fluffy packaging’ Harper Collins imprint Avon has wrapped around her books, and has indicated she’ll be going back to self-publishing to take back control.

In , Julian Assange is in a fight with publishers Conongate who have printed an incongruously titled ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the apostle of free speech. It’s reported that Julian accepted a hefty advance and produced 70,000 words of memoir with ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan before giving up the project and spending the advance. Canongate have, rather understandably, decided to recoup their losses through the path of least resistance – publishing the autobiography without the approval of the ‘author’.

Finally, a story from closer to home, for which I have and offer no evidence or assurances of truth. I recently heard about an academic whose book suddenly appeared on Google Books without his permission. On his contacting Google he was, supposedly, paid some form of royalty and told that company policy was to deal with authors as they got in touch. The take home message of this story was meant to be ‘how evil is Google’, but I wasn’t really convinced.

So, three stories about cranky authors, angry at ‘unauthorised’ tampering with their work. The book historian in me wants to say so what? After all it was ever thus.

Lets start with the issue of packaging and marketing. In the medieval world of scribal reproduction an author would have had less than nothing to do with what physical form their work took. Those decisions were made by the individuals who commissioned the reproduction of a text – usually wealthy individuals or religious groups. Even after the introduction of print, sheets were sold unbound and without decoration, so that purchasers could choose the bindings and rubrication for themselves.

Of course binding isn’t the only important part of a book’s physical form: size, typography, paper and other factors were meaning-laden well beyond the medieval period – indicating that the intended audience was wealthy or poor, pious or a bit deviant (see for example Jerome McGann’s discussion of Byron’s Don Juan in “Theory of Texts”, London Review of Books, 1988). Given the clear importance of format on reader experience it’s important to ask who chose it. The answer varies, but the author almost never figures.

What, then, about cases of a text being published without the author’s knowledge or even in spite of their explicit wishes? The juiciest examples come from cases of posthumous publication. A in Time surveyed some famous cases of posthumous publication, from Machiavelli to Mark Twain, Jane Austen to Steig Larsson. Perhaps the most illustrative are those cases where an author has died leaving instructions that all their scribblings be destroyed. As Twain explained in a letter to Orion and Mollie Clemens, 19 and 20 October 1865

You had better shove this in the stove … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.

If wishes like these hadn’t been ignored the literary canon would be without major works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka among others. Just imagine how many PhDs would have remained unwritten.

The three parables at the start of these musings miss another important field of unauthorised modification, though. This includes reworkings, adaptations and other creative reimagining of literary works. William Shakespeare could never have imagined that his complete works would eventually be published 140 characters at a time on an internet microblogging site called Twitter, by a bot called ‘Willy Shakes’ (). Without explicit authorisation, then, should we denounce this as unacceptable piracy? What about cinematic adaptation of a dead author’s work – a la Lord of the Rings? Or the countless anthologies that rip and mix works, in the best tradition of medieval miscellanies.

These examples all demonstrate the myriad ways in which our culture accepts and engages in unauthorised modification and use of literary works. This is the practice of the last millenia and the stories at the top show that it continues to be common practice. The question remains, should we care? How acceptable is all of this repackaging, unauthorised publication and creative reworking?

I think there are two issues that need to be unpacked here. The first is commercial (who is and who should be making money out of a literary work), while the second is cultural (how can a work be used and influenced by subsequent individuals). Both of these issues are covered by copyright, but blanket protection and lock-down is not necessarily an ideal situation.

Generally, if anyone is making money out of a literary work, and if the author as primary creator is still around, then they have a right to a fair share in that profit.

In the academic world, such as in the example quoted above, things are a little more complicated. When an academic produces work on a salary at least partially funded by the general public, do they then have the right to charge the public for access to that work? Put like that it seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Of course most academics get little to no profit out of a publication, so it’s the academic publishers who are milking the system. That’s a debate for another day though.

So, finally we consider post-author influence on and use of a piece of writing. There is a primary right that should always be respected – the right of attribution. If one person’s work has been used by another, that legacy should be clearly stated.

There is a limit though. Does an author have an unassailable right to control every reading of their work, down to look, feel and format? Should they be able to control (given the impossibility that they could foresee) how their work will be used, adapted, reworked and otherwise interpreted? In my opinion the answer to both of these questions is no. It’s neither practical nor desirable for the figure of an author to take on that level of power. Exalting one creative individual to this level ignores the fundamental fact that all writers come after – they have all been influenced, and those with enough talent and luck will influence in their turn.

It’s the work, not the intentions, that we should care about with authors. Recognising the legacy and, where appropriate, paying for the product are one thing. Allowing the figure of the author to have tyrannical control over a text is undesirable and unrealistic.

Inn Taverns and E-Pubs: Storytelling today

**I wrote this essay for the Meanland blog contest while in the middle of shifting from Europe back to Australia. I even wrote some of it in Heathrow Airport (remember how much I love Heathrow?) While I wasn’t successful in scoring a regular gig for the Meanland blog, I was excited to be involved (even glancingly) in such an innovative way to seek out good ideas and those who have them. The first of the winning essays has now been published and is a very good read. Check it out for yourself at . So without further ado, here is my essay on the topic of digital writing and oral storytelling.**

Have you ever heard someone tell a story in a tavern? For that matter, when was the last time you listened to someone telling a story—not about their weekend or their recent trip to Bali—a real story, a work of fiction.

If you’re anything like me you struggled with it, attention slipping, plotlines escaping, distractions getting the upper hand. In our fundamentally literary world, following an oral narrative can be hard work.

Oral storytelling (and story-listening) were central elements in ancient, medieval and early-modern popular culture. A cosy tavern on a cold northern night, filled with a community sharing stories, news or scandals is a quintessential image of medieval England.

Chaucer on his charger

The scenario is most famously depicted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a motley group of pilgrims compete in a storytelling competition situated in the taverns they stop in along their route. The pilgrims come from a range of social strata, and the stories they tell vary from pious sermons to lewd yarns that would make a footy-player blush. This variation in theme and style highlights an important aspect of oral storytelling traditions—their variety. It is impossible to speak of one cohesive popular culture today, and the same goes for the entertainments of the past.

That said, there were clearly themes that were likely to be well received by a tavern crowd. Both manuscripts and other sources, such as the Canterbury Tales, are evidence of the widespread popularity of the romance genre. Medieval romances were stories of courtly love, adventure and magic: More Lord of the Rings than Georgette Heyer.

Dragons are always popular

In the oral tradition, the romances were populated by a set of familiar characters and plot lines—King Arthur and the Holy Grail, Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristram and Isolde. As Nancy Bradbury argued in her book Writing Aloud, medieval storytelling involved ‘a set of infinitely recombinable ready-made narrative episodes’. Thus, each re/telling involved a combination of borrowing and invention. The storytelling tradition was ‘built up out of a common stock of tough but flexible structural units’ that facilitated the activity of storytelling and helped people all over Europe find and create entertainment.

So where is storytelling today? As in medieval Europe it’s all over the place in a number of different forms and genres: from video or podcasts, to theatre performances, book readings and even tweets (see for example the 2010 Royal Shakespeare Company/Mudlark project ).

Rather strikingly, stories involving high adventure, dashing heroes and a good dose of magic have also lost none of their popularity since Chaucer’s time. It seems that humans still have a ‘thirst for the otherworldy’, as Daniel Mackay put it.

On this quest to trace storytelling culture to its modern home, then, I followed the path of the otherworldly to a little-known address in an internet byway. Here you can find the Running Stag Inn, where Burke tends the bar and serves a particularly multiracial clientele, including humans, elves, drow and gnomes. Of course Burke is a work of fiction, one among the characters who inhabit the fantasy role-playing website .

This Inn (an e-Pub?) is a modern gathering place, where a community of like-minded, if far-flung, members come together to create and tell stories.

Faerun RP is one among many fantasy role-play (RP) websites active on the internet. The homepage on another site, Mizahar, provides an introduction to the activity as a whole, describing itself as: ‘a fantasy roleplay forum in which a dedicated, friendly, and free community of roleplayers and artists gather to spin epic-level tales via collaborative storytelling.’

The storytelling on these websites involves a number of multimedia elements—from character avatars, to theme music and scenic photographs—all used to complement and flesh out the written stories.

The structural units of this environment are even more visible than those of the medieval oral tradition. Some, such as Faerun RP and The Legends of Krynn, are based on ‘campaign settings’ published by the megalithic Wizards of the Coast as part of the Dungeons & Dragons universe. These are the same rule books used in ‘table-top’ RP games, but on the RP website the focus is most-often on the storytelling, with dice and scoring rarely, if ever, used.

Unlike the examples above, Mizahar is proud to assert that it does not ‘borrow from mainstream Tolkien fantasy’. Instead it has its own universe, complete with 20 distinct races, numerous religions and all the other necessary structural elements.

Just as in the medieval oral storytelling tradition, these frameworks provide much assistance to the modern storyteller. By setting a story in a pre-defined world and using characters whose basic attributes are already familiar to the audience, writers are able to get on with the real business of the day—telling a rip-roaring story.

The differences between this storytelling environment and that of the medieval troubadours are numerous. The role-play website is an asynchronous environment, where teller and listeners share neither spatial nor temporal location. As the Mizahar introduction also points out, the stories in a role-play website are multi-authored. Outside of the ‘in character’ story forums there is a buzz of activity on ‘out of character’ forums, where plotlines are formed under the guidance of a central storyteller (otherwise known as a Dungeon Master). The extent to which this situation differs from the oral tradition is difficult to say, as a tavern environment is impossible to reconstruct from the historical sources.

Of course the most fundamental, inescapable, difference between the medieval storytelling tradition and the website communities is in the form of the words they use. In the medieval tavern the words were spoken and listened to, in the Running Stag Inn the words are written and read.

But the fantasy role-play website doesn’t really fit in the world of literature—even the more formal (book-form) expressions of fantasy writing are often rejected by the literary world. In this instance it is clear that the material substance of the stories is not the most defining feature of the activity. Rather the key is the purpose of those involved—entertainment, play, the whiling away of an evening in the company of friends: In a word, storytelling.

My to read list …

So I usually just wander from one book to the next in a fairly haphazard pattern. More often than not my choices are made by what catches my eye in a second-hand book shop, as Moby Dick did just a few weeks ago in a book shop in Milan.

Yesterday I made a decision though – I absolutely must read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole next. It’s been on the list for years, but it hasn’t turned up in any op-shops yet and I don’t think it’s likely to.

Conviction, a plan, a firm direction – people who know me might suspect where this is going…

You see I then found out that Patrick Leigh Fermor has sadly died. His travel books have been high on my to read list for a long while. I started reading A Time of Gifts in Italy, but left before I got very far in. Ok, new top of the list, Dunces next.

But then I looked at twitter, and saw the Guardian’s link to their top 100 greatest non-fiction books. Disaster. I’m a huge fan of non-fiction writing and a peruse of that list has left me with another ton of must-read-immediately items. I really haven’t had such a lot of books added to the list in the space of 24 hours in a long time.

Some of the gems (that I haven’t yet read) on the Guardian list include these:

by Ryszard Kapuściński (1982)
The great Polish reporter tells the story of the last Shah of Iran

by Ibn Battuta (1355)
The Arab world’s greatest medieval traveller sets down his memories of journeys throughout the known world and beyond

by James Boswell (1791)
Boswell draws on his journals to create an affectionate portrait of the great lexicographer

by Robert Hughes (1980)
Hughes charts the story of modern art, from cubism to the avant garde

by Herodotus (c400 BC)
History begins with Herodotus’s account of the Greco-Persian war

I’ve wanted to read Herotodus since I read the wonderful Kapuściński book Travels with Herotodus, but the Ibn Battuta is new to me. The Life of Samuel Johnston has also lurked around in my intentions for a long while.

The list also included Patrick Leigh Fermor. As that also has the advantage of being on hand in my mum’s bookcase I think I’ll start with that. Dunces should come next, and I don’t think I could wait any longer to read another Kapuściński. After that I have firm intentions to read my way through the list above without delay.

So, that’s my story about the edited highlights of my reading list at the moment. I was trying to work out where to scribble these titles down, before I struck upon the idea of writing them up on here in the hopes that if I publish my intentions I might actually follow them through.

If I succeed I’ll report back, but if this is never mentioned again you can assume I’ve found something else interesting in the second-hand book shop. I’d like to invite you all to make more suggestions for me in the comments, but I really don’t need the distraction!

J

 

digest one

Andrew and I spent last weekend in Amsterdam. The trip and city were great, if a little soggy, and through the rain we discovered a beautiful and very sophisticated city. It’s a place that I’m sure we’ll return to – although we’ll definitely be aiming for summer next time!

Anyway a few days away from my subscriptions on Google Reader gave me a serious back-log to work through. I’ve been chipping away at the articles and posts over the last few days, flirting with the ‘mark all as read’ button. In the end I persevered and caught up, and I thought I’d share some of the best in a little digest.

My subscriptions are mostly related to digital humanities, academia, new media etc – and that’s the focus of the list below.

When eating I like to save the most delicious morsel for last, but in reading I take the opposite tack. Accordingly I’m going to start with the best, most original, piece that turned up in my reader this week – a piece that happens to be over a decade old.

Douglas Adams on the internet:

Via an article on the Australian site I found written by Douglas Adams in 1999. It’s called How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet and displays all of the usual insight and wit that make Adams one of my favourite authors.

This is particularly gorgeous and apt:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

His comments on interactivity and the ‘aberration’ of twentieth-century mass-media in the history of cultural creation also seem spot on to this budding historian.

Other bits and pieces I enjoyed reading:

on ‘blurbing’ (the provision by eminent figures of positive quotes to adorn book covers). This is an inside view and will make you think twice before trusting those juicy quotes again.

Over on there is an on e-books and the imperative of open academic publishing. Kirkpatrick’s recent book Planned Obsolescence is particularly worth looking at because it is built on an innovative (and open acess) digital publishing platform called Comment Press. You can read Planned Obsolescence and find out more about Comment Press .

Finally, two things that have been added to the ‘to read’ list this week:

The first is yet another future of the book book, but this time from the perspective of authors. It’s called The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books and caught my eye because of the creative take some of the authors appear to have taken on the issue. Read more about this at or check out the introduction at .

Last but not least, something a bit more academic: Jenna Newman, ‘’ in Scholarly and Research Communication. Vol 2.1. Open access.

Well that’s the first digest – I hope to make this a semi-regular feature here – not least because it really helps me sort through the mountains of stuff I read on a daily basis!

J