The Bookseller of Kabul

Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian author, has been successfully sued in Norway over her book Bookseller of Kabul.  It is a fictionalised account of her time staying with a family in Afghanistan, and much of the family’s private life is laid bare for the reader in unflattering detail.

On Comment is Free, journalist Conor Foley lays in to Seierstad, outlining the social faux pas she has committed:

Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.

Indeed.  But being stung, criticised and discredited for failing to respect cultural norms should not be punished in a civil or criminal court.   Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, explains in the Independent why this development is a worry:

That’s not to say that Seierstad has not broken an unwritten code of hospitality, or that the Rais family has not faced problems as a result of the book’s publication. Although Rais himself continues to operate a successful business out of Kabul, his first wife has sought asylum in Canada and other members of the family are now living in Pakistan. But is this discrepancy in the fates of the male and female members of the family the fault of a Norwegian journalist – or Afghan society? Is it appropriate for a Norwegian court to punish the messenger? Is a court of law the place to determine how a book treats the “honour” of an entire society?

The example that such cases set is a very bad one.  What happens when an investigative journalist wants to deliberately abuse the hospitality of an Afghan businessman, in order to expose corruption?  What if an Afghani journalist wants to make similar, off-message commentary about his countrymen.  Seierstad should certainly suffer the reputational and social hit of her insensitivity, but dragging this sort of roman a clef into the court-room is a terrible precedent for free expression.

Mieville on Teleporting

At the event on Tuesday night, I remarked that China Mieville and Cory Doctorow share an irritating trait, which is to lathe my own ideas into science fiction books, many years before I even have the thought for the first time!

One example of this is on the important science-fiction problem of teleporting, and the possibility of transferring of one’s mind between matter.  I scribbled some concerns about this earlier this year, but now I find that Mieville got there first, in Kraken (p.221):

This is why I wouldn’t travel that way,” Dane said.  “This is my point.  For a piece of rock or clothes or something dead, who cares?  But take something living and do that?  Beam it up?  What you done is ripped a man apart then stuck his bits back together and made them walk around.  He died.  Get me?  The man’s dead.  And the man at the other end only thinks he is the same man. He ain’t. He only just got born.  He’s got the other’s memories, yeah, but he’s newborn.  That Enterprise, they keep killing themselves and replacing themselves with clones of dead people.  That is some macabre shit.  That ship’s full of Xerox copies for people who died.”

I love this kind of esoteric debate.  Teleportation might never become a reality, but the questions raised by science fiction are essential when we consider the nature of the mind and artificial intelligence.

Teleport road sign. Photo by mercurialn on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Teleport road sign. Photo by mercurialn on Flickr. Creative Commons.


Neither of my Twitter followers would have been in any doubt as to what I was up to on Tuesday evening – interviewing sci-fi authors China Mieville and Cory Doctorow for Clerkenwell Tales book shop.  I had relentlessly plugged the event and solicited questions.
Here is Dougal Wallace’s Flickr photoset for the event.

Tom Baynham will put up an audio podcast soon, and I will certainly write some afterthoughts on the discussion… including Mieville’s well-reasoned worry that blogging means we now have very few unpublished thoughts.

Multi-Signature Letter on Azerbaijan

Eynulla Fatullayev is deemed a Prisoner of Conscience by PEN and Amnesty International.
Eynulla Fatullayev is deemed a Prisoner of Conscience by PEN and Amnesty International.

This lunchtime, English PEN will be demonstrating for Eynullah Fatullayev, the imprisoned Azerbaijani editor now on hunger-strike.  Its a joint action with Amnesty UK, Article 19 and Index on Censorship.  Our call for support was printed on the Guardian letters page this morning:

Today at 12 noon, free speech campaigners will protest outside the Azerbaijani embassy in London, calling for an end to the persecution of jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev. We urge all Guardian readers who believe in free speech to join us.

Newspaper editor Fatullayev is serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence based on trumped-up charges of terrorism and defamation. In April this year the European court of human rights ruled that he had been wrongfully imprisoned and called for his immediate release.

Fatullayev is now on trial on a new accusation of possessing illegal drugs – a charge widely believed to have been fabricated in order to keep him in prison.

Freedom of expression is the bedrock of human rights, without which other abuses go unheralded and unchecked. Those of us who can speak out must stand up for those to whom free speech is denied.

Kate Allen Director, Amnesty International UK, Agnès Callamard Executive director, Article 19, Lisa Appignanesi President, English PEN, Carole Seymour-Jones Chair, Writers in Prison Committee, English PEN, John Kampfner Index on Censorship, Alan Ayckbourn Playwright, William Boyd Author, Philip Pullman Author

I will be there taking photos which I will post to the English PEN Flickr stream later today.

The letter in The Guardian is an example of a multi-signatory letter, an age old tactic for all types of political campaigner.  The prominent names (of which we have many at PEN) make the letter newsworthy and ensure its publication at the most timely point.  Other recent examples include our complaint about the UK visa system in The Times, our appeal about Jaballa Matar in the same paper, and more than one complaint about the new law on criminals’ memoirs.

However, opposite our multi-signatory letter is this complaint from Mohsin Khan of Wadham College:

While there have been several timely and crucial multi-signatory letters, we must bear in mind that MPs, celebrities, and chief executives have the contacts and means to get together and compose a press release. If the issue is then deemed important by the national media, it will be picked up in the news section of papers. The joy of the Guardian letters page is that it lets individuals contribute to national discussions when they would otherwise be ignored – and we must safeguard this space.

Guilty as charged, I’m afraid.  I do not think this is a tactic that activists will abandon any time soon, so Mohsin must rely on the good judgement of the letters page editors to keep the debate eclectic, and too keep the diverse voices prominent.

Harper Lee on the Modern World

In The Times, Ben MacIntyre quotes Harper Lee, in one of her very few public utterances since 1964:

Today, aged 84, the author of one of the bestselling novels of the last century lives as she has always lived, with her older sister, in Monroeville, surrounded by books. In one of the very few quotable things she has said in the past 40 years, she remarked: “In an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”

I am tired of this lazy shortcut, which equates using technology with stupidity of having an ’empty mind’.  Clay Shirky’s essay on ‘Cognitive Surplus’ (which I believe is the topic of an entire book to be published next week) dismantles this idea.  What do Lee and the other smug detractors of the Internet think we are doing with all this technology?  We are consuming ideas.  We are thinking, collectively more deeper and with more eclecticism than ever before.  Such technology liberates us from the (admittedly) homogenizing forces of mass media, and instead allows us to seek out a greater spread of ideas, art forms and entertainment.  When people sneer at this,I think it is just a form of elitism: The “laptops, cellphones and iPods” allow anyone access to the world’s information, not just those who can afford the money and space to store tons of bound paper on shelves (aesthetically pleasing though that is…).

See also: Kafka would have had a twitter feed


As flights resume following the Eyjafjallajokull erruption, Europe is left counting the economic cost of a genuine, real-life, bona fide Act of God.  I was at the London Book Fair this week, with English PEN, and saw first hand the effect that cancelled travel plans can have on commerce, and indeed, the free flow of ideas.  Below is my Flickr photoset ‘Fallout’, showing the forlorn empty trade stands at the fair.

Blog Burning

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post – ‘Write A Blog, Kill Your Career‘, about the possibility of bloggers going into politics and the trouble that their archives might cause them.  I linked to a marvellous cartoon by XKCD, Fuck That Shit, which summed up my attitude to the worry of self-censorship.

This week, that piece is looking prescient.  On Monday, Ellie Gellard, the activist/tweeter/blogger who launched Labour’s Election Manifesto, was ‘exposed‘ as having called for Gordon Brown’s resignation… two years ago.  Then on Wednesday, Chris Mounsey a.k.a. Devil’s Kitchen came a cropper on The Politics Show, flummoxed when some of his more colourful language was thrown back at him by Andrew Neil.  Mark Thompson has a good analysis:

I had hoped for a spirited and libertarian defence of his right to have an on-line persona that is close to the knuckle and still be involved in active politics.

Indeed.  It is actually quite disconcerting to see Mounsey, who has built a following out of his frustration with the way politicians obfuscate and blather, having to take a similar tone to many of his hate-figures.  Had he told Andrew Neil to “fuck off” the YouTube hits would have doubled by a couple of orders of magnitude, and it probably wouldn’t have done the membership figures for the fledgeling Libertarian Party any damage either.

Instead, he has done this:

It is very difficult to delete anything on the internet and I am not going to pretend that I can do so. However, gradually the caches will fade away, and those parts of The Devil’s Kitchen that are most damaging—the incredibly violent (though fantastical) demises of various politicos and their grubby little hangers-on—will fade away eventually. … And so, here we are—with The Devil starting with a clean slate.

Now, I disagree with most of Mounsey’s output.  I think his libertarian philosophy is based on some false conceptions at its very heart, and I find his climate-change skepticism very odd.  On the other hand, I feel an unlikely kinship – as part of the Edinburgh blogging ‘scene’ back in the ‘6 we had plenty of banter, and I once had a beer with him during the festival.  Crucially, his blog contatined denunciations of me and my ridiculous views, driving traffic to my site.  For all these reasons, his decision to remove his blog archive from the internet makes me uncomfortable.  As I said before, deleting a blog feels like a book-burning.  Its an unlikely form of self-censorship, and feels very wrong.

Photo by pcorreia on Flickr
Photo by pcorreia on Flickr

Judging a Book by its Cover

An event report I wrote for the English PEN website.

Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.
Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.

I’ll admit, I judged this event by its cover.

I assumed that an discussion titled ‘Judging a book by its cover’ would be about book jacket design, rich and fertile ground for ideas on culture and mass marketing.  I expected to hear bookseller Rick Gekoski wax about the beauty of a hardback first edition, and hear Joanna Prior explain how Penguin’s mass market paperbacks have become an iconic design in themselves.  I expected to hear how the large publishers are stifling creativity by homogenising the book design process.

And in fact, I did hear about all those things. However, I expected them to be within a discussion that was essentially about aesthetics. I did not expect to be faced, instead, with a more philosophical question: what is a book? Is it the paper, the cover and the binding? Or is it the words on the page? Continue reading “Judging a Book by its Cover”

Borgesian Blogging?

There is an online trend towards giving an idea away for free.  A journalist or a thinker comes up with a great idea, but rather than implement it too see if it works in practice, they just ask someone else to do it for them.  Recent examples include Jay Rosen’s ‘A Simple Fix for the Messed Up Sunday Shows‘ and Michael Skoler’s ‘Hot New Revenue For News‘.  To be clear, this attitude is something I applaud:  It is the business equivalent of giving your photos an extremely permissive Creative Commons licence.

It is also in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges.  He would to write reviews of books he wanted other people to write, of near-impossible novels he imagined.  The danger, of course, is that we all end up writing the reviews, coming up with new ideas… and no-one puts them into practice.  Rosen’s fact-checking idea for the Sunday Shows has become a popular intervention in the discussion around the future of News… but has anyone actually implemented it yet?