Do Blogs Harm Literature?

“Books bloggers are harming literature” says Peter Stothard.  He is Chair of the Booker Prize, and editor of the Times Literary Supplement.  I am reminded of the comments of Helen Mirren and Andrew Marr, who have both previously complained about how the Internet is sending culture to the dogs.

From my vantage point, working on the edge of the literary sector, I don’t think Stothard’s analysis is true.  There is indeed a mass of blogged criticism online, just as there is a large amount of self-published literature.  However, authors and publishers of every size still seek reviews and approval from the prestigious literary journals like the London Review of Books and Stothard’s TLS.  An approving quote from a broadsheet critic will find its way onto the cover of the book; a similarly gushing endorsement from an individual blogger will not.  An essay in the established press will provoke a conversation and a public debate.  An piece of writing that is similarly erudite, but published on someone’s personal website will not have the same reach, nor puncture the public consciousness, in the same manner.  This is simply a question of reach and brand.

Of course, a few blogs transcend their medium and become credible sources for literary criticism:  Dovegreyreader springs to mind.  But this rise to credibility and influence is as a result of the quality of the literary criticism.  That is a good thing for literature – The poacher always turns gamekeeper, so-to-speak.  Contrast this to newspapers or some literary magazines, kept afloat as a loss-leader by rich patrons or media groups.  In such cases, their influence has effectively been bought, and their critics are more susceptible to the influence of the market and the quest for commerical readability.  It is this segment of the literary criticism ecosystem that should concern Mr Stothard.

In fact, in the niche of genre-literature, it is the bloggers who catalyse the art-form.  For example, the Pornokitsch website that puts out much more quality literary criticism than the Guardian, which can only muster a single monthly round-up of the latest sci-fi.  Who is doing more for that kind of literature?

Perhaps Stothard is actually conflating bloggers with the reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere, who often write batshit crazy reviews, giving five stars or one star, without having read the book.  This is indeed a problem, as it ruins the Amazon product review system.  However, I doubt that the few people who find such comments credible have much in common with those who read the TLS or the LRB.  More to the point, I can’t believe that the product reviews on e-commerce sites have provoked a single authors into changing the way they write, or what they choose to write about.

 

xkcd: Native Internet Art

xkcd is an online comic strip that has gained a cult following. Penned by Randall Munroe, it presents naif, stick-like figures doing strange, wonderful and weird things. There is a strong geek element to the cartoons, with physics jokes, science fiction references, and spin-off comic What If? which seeks to answer absurd questions with mathematical precision.

I love the sentiment which imbues the comics. Its wistful, and has an appropriate sense of awe at humanity, the world, and the universe.  However, I can see how others might find it whimsical, precious or twee.

xkcd: Click and drag - opening panels

The latest cartoon in the series, Click and Drag, is really something.  A man clutching a balloon drifts over the landscape.  “From the stories, I expected the world to be sad, and it was. And I expected it to be wonderful.  And it was. I just didn’t expect it to be so big.”

Underneath this is a large panel with a cartoon landscape.  The reader can click and drag to reveal more of the image, and see little vignettes featuring other stick figures, pop-culture references, and rendering of architectural structures and geological features.  Its a huge image in total, approximately 160,000 pixels wide, and so clicking and dragging takes a long time!

Why is this so good?  Commenter Pochacco has a good, simple analysis on the NeoGAF meesage boards:

I have a feeling the author is trying to troll us.
It’s so “big” that you can’t see it all. You will miss some parts and it will haunt you. Just like life.

I suspect this is right.

But there’s more: This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare.  While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online.  The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.  Users on the NeoGAF board are busy trying to download the entire panorama in its entirety, but doing that is a mistake that spoils enjoyment of the cartoon – that you can only see a small part of the image at any one time, and that you may miss something, is precsiely the point.

The Underground Project

A fascinating link that has been doing the rounds recently is the Live London Tube Map by Matthew SomervilleThe link is meant to be here, but at present (24/6/2010) it is not active… probably because so many people re-tweeted it and I guess it makes pretty heavy demands on the servers of Transport For London, who provide the raw location data.

I know many people share a fascination for watching or listening to events and processes that happen in real-time.  During the shuttle missions, I like to listen to the communications between the astronauts and Houston; ATC audio holds the same fascination, as does FlightRadar’s graphical representations of live air traffic around Europe.  Chris Heathcote has created a page of TFL cams, showing live images from London’s roads; and subscribers to the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project are just as keen to watch each other via CCTV as they are to watch actual programmes.

The appearance of Matt’s tube page inspires me to post a short concept for an urban game that I wrote a few years ago, uploaded to a wiki, and then failed to develop much further.  It is reproduced below.  I sense that Foursquare may actually perform many similar functions, though I haven’t used that platform yet.  Either way, it would be great to get some input from people like those who run LiveFiction and Hide&Seek.
Continue reading “The Underground Project”

Behzti is no longer taboo

Liberty Central Logo

While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech.  Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments.  As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.


Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.

Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.

However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.

The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.

Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.

Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.

Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.

Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.

Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.

For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.

No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?

Behzti, a play about sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple, was cancelled in 2004 after the Sikh community stormed the theatre. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Fear of Offending

Last week we learned that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have suffered death-threats on an Islamist site, after they attempted to depict the Prophet Mohammed in South Park.  Contributors to site called Revolutionmuslim.com warned they might be killed, like the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.  The Revolutionmuslim site is now down, but their threats are cached by Google:

We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.

The post also contained a link to a Huffington Post article which describes where Stone and Parker live.  The group later presented a ‘clarification’ on SlideShare, which is still live, and which repeats the threat:

As for the Islamic ruling on the situation, then this is clear. There is no difference of opinion from those with any degree of a reputation that the punishment is death.  For one example, Ibn Taymiyyah the great scholar of Islam says, “Whoever curses the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) – a Muslim or a non Muslim- then he must be killed…” and this is the opinion of the general body of Islamic  scholars.

… This shows that taking this stance is virtually obligatory, but it does not mean that our taking this stance is in some way an absolute call toward the requirement that the creators of South Park must be killed, nor a deliberate attempt at incitement, it is only to declare the truth regardless of consequence and to offer an awareness in the mind of Westerners when they proceed forward with even more of the same.

Quite chilling. In the end, Mohammed was shown on South Park in a bear suit, and then underneath a big black ‘censored’ box, with references to his name bleeped out. Producers at Comedy Central made clear that it was they, and not Stone/Parker, that inserted this censorship.  In the second of the two part episode, the man in the suit was revealed to be Father Christmas, not Mohammed.

What is odd about all this is that, before the Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark, South Park quite happily featured Mohammed, unveiled, uncloaked, and unbearsuited.  The episode freely circulates in repeats and on DVD, and can be viewed in this short Boing Boing interview with Parker and Stone:

This week, the saga took a strang twist, when cartoonist Molly Norris published and circulated a cartoon entitled ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day‘, highlighting the ridiculous outcome of the South Park situation, where drawing anything can be taboo if it is labelled ‘Mohammed’:

The images and the idea were dedicated to Parker and Stone, but their heritage can be traced back clearly to the beginnings of conceptual art: René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images‘ (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), perhaps? Norris ‘Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor’ label was quickly taken to be a real movement (it was not), and the ‘day’ assumed to be a proper publicity drive (which it wasn’t). Norris quickly removed her image, and made clear that she was not attempting to disrespect religion herself.

This entire episode marks a continuation, rather than a departure, from the frustrating discourse around blasphemy and ‘offence’.  Since the Rushdie affair, and especially since more recent examples such as the Theo Van Gogh murder, the ideal and right of free expression has been on the back foot.  Matt Stone’s quote in the video above highlights the sorry state of affairs:

Now that’s the new normal.  We lost. Something that was OK is now not OK.

When people like Stone and Parker do attempt to take this on, they are foiled by their own network.  Cartoonists like Molly Norris back away from any controversy.  In the UK, the recent production of Behud by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti reminds us that no-one is brave enough to put on Behzti, her controversial play set in a Sikh Temple.   Even the board of the illustrious Index on Censorship backed away from publishing a Mohammed cartoon earlier this year.

We are living in one of two worlds.  Either

  • the fears of all these people are justified, in which case, we have actually descended into a sort of fascist dystopia;  Or
  • we are being over-cautious, and self-censoring unnecessarily

My personal sense is that it is the latter state of affairs is where we are at.  The Revolution Muslim group seem tiny, pathetic and are easily dealt with using existing laws against threatening behaviour.  Likewise with other protesting groups in both the USA and the UK, who can be easily countered if free speech activists and artists co-ordinate properly.  Moreover, public opinion is certainly with free speech, and against those who think that blasphemy is a legitimate reason to censor.

Those with a personal connection to Theo Van Gogh, or Hitoshi Igarashi (Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator) may disagree over the nature of the threat.  Crucially, however, either situation is untenable and an assault on democracy, and cannot be allowed to stand.

My feeling is that political leadership is required.  Only political leaders can guarantee police and legal protection for those who push the boundaries of satire… and the companies that facilitate this.  We don’t have this at the moment, and artists seem to be swimming in uncertainty, lost and scared.

A Jeremiad on UK Visas

Goldsmiths
The view from the panel

Last Monday night I spoke on behalf of English PEN alongside Tony Benn at a meeting a Goldsmiths College Student Union, on the problem of the UK’s new points-based visa system.  The system has caused hundreds of writers and artists to be refused entry to the UK, even for short-term visits such as a one-off gig or book launch.  Academics and university support staff are particularly concerned with how the system affects relationships with their students:  The system places new monitoring requirements on professors to log attendance at individual lectures and inform the UK Border Agency of any ‘suspicious behaviour’.

It was clear that, at Goldsmiths at least, neither staff nor students support the new measures.  The general mood is that staff should boycott any extra tasks that the UKBA demands they perform.  Many were frustrated that such a boycott is not already in operation.  However, co-ordinating such action – which really amounts to a simple work-to-rule action, because there is nothing about surveillance of students in any staff contract – nevertheless requires organisation and a sense of momentum.

From the floor, we heard the story of a student who has been harassed and harried at every turn in her bid to stay and study at the college.  She has spend over £2,600 in legal costs and ‘fees’ for processing various immigration applications.  The university cannot give her much help, since they do not want to “act as solicitors”, and she even had to represent herself and an immigration tribunal.  The ‘helpline’ she has been given to assist with her problems costs £1.20 per minute to call… and she is frequently put on hold whenver she calls.

Belle Ribeiro, the NUS Black Students officer, said that in general, international students do not get enough support when they come to study in the UK, despite contributing a huge amount in fees.  The new rules that insist that foreign student carry an ID card will mean that BME students are likely to be disproportionately hassled to identify and justify themselves.  And when ID card fraud inevitably occurs, it will be the overseas students who suffer.

My own speech was a jeremiad (hat-tip James Fallows for that word) on how this country was sending itself into a horrible cultural decline.  The approximate text, corrected for grammar and general semantic sense, is reproduced below.   You can check it against an recording.  The Rt. Hon. Tony Benn was also on the panel:  I’ve put an MP3 of his remarks online too. Continue reading “A Jeremiad on UK Visas”

Sweet Fanny Adams in Hyperspace Eden

Andrew Haydon asks why theatre is not addressing the world of cyberspace:

But there is a lot of scope left for potential experiment. Just as the internet has opened up whole new avenues of investigation and activity, creating thousands of jobs and revolutionising the way that we consume music, watch films and conduct commerce, so should theatre be finding a new visual and literary language to reflect modern lives which are increasingly lived online inside the belly of a machine.

Haydon’s post gives me an excuse to formally announce the launch of our Internet film project, Sweet Fanny Adams in Hypersapce Eden. Produced by my company Fifty Nine Productions, and joint funded by the Scottish Arts Council and Arts Council England (Yorkshire), the project brings Judith Adams’ play back to its original home on the Internet.

When Judith was commisisoned by Stellar Quines Theatre Company to write a play to be performed in the Scottish Plant Collectors garden, we helped her devise a unique method of writing the text – through HTML. The non-linear nature of web-pages allowed her to create scenes that would overlap and reference each other, and also inspired her to create scenes where one character’s thoughts were echoed, or overheard, in the words of another character. My essay explains the project in much more detail, but my conclusion is that the text is quinessentially of its time and of its medium – the Internet.

Most online films are very short, but this is an early attempt to create something feature length. By December we will have posted over two and a half hours of footage, shot against blue-screen, given CGI make-over, and podcasted on a daily basis.

Haydon’s quote resonates, and not only because this project is an attempt to develop a new “visual and literary language”: Our characters are caged and watched inside the sinister Showman’s Garden, a reality he has constructed to observe and subjugate the other inhabitants. The fiesty Lily and her friends are, in some ways, in the “belly of a machine.” Can they escape?

Read my essay, or simply get started by watching “The Story of Fanny”. You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or your favourite pod-cast catching site. Then, let me know what you think…