Taking advantage of Potter-mania

Hooray! The final installment of the Harry Potter heptlogy has hit the shelves. Those who bought it at one minute past midnight are, by this time, deep into the plot, and might even have discovered which characters have met an unexpected death.

The commentary on the twenty-four hour news channels and interweb pages will come in waves: analysis, counter-analysis, and meta-analysis. Like the floods of previous weeks, these waves will take many days to subside.

So to all political parties out there, I offer this advice: Today is a good day to bury bad news.

Living With a Computer

Reading old articles, in which a journalist enthuses about a technology that is now obsolete, is always fun. Reading Jim Fallows, writing in 1982, describe what it is like Living With a Computer is no exception (via Daily Dish). There is plenty of discussion of how much memory to fork out for, and whether to buy a tape or floppy drive.

The system prints about thirty characters per second, which means it takes less than a minute per double-spaced page. When it has completed its work, I take the manuscript and start working it over with a pencil, just as I did in days of old. The difference is that after I’ve made my changes, I have only to type in the changes I have made and start the printer up again—rather than retype the whole mess.

This passage is echoed in an article by Umberto Eco, discussing how the process of drafting has changed with the advent of computers. Before, writers would compose one discrete draft after another until the thing was complete. Jim Fallows was following this same process in 1982. In these cases, the earlier drafts were actually on paper and might not be thrown away, leaving a resource for the author and researchers if required. Eco points out that these days, there are an indeterminate number of drafts and sub-drafts – “ghost drafts” he calls them – which are lost to the world.

It could be the case, though rare, that the author – narcissistic and fanatical about his own changes, and using some kind of special computer program – has kept somewhere, inside the memory of the machine, all these intermediate changes. But usually this does not happen. Those “ghost” copies have vanished; they are erased as soon as the work is finished.

And so the work of the philologists of the future will be based on conjecture, on what those “ghost” copies might have contained – and who knows how many great texts and other erudite publications will be born from that conjecture? To outsiders, they might seem like problems suited only for college exams. But the discussion shows that the use of mechanical systems for writing doesn’t necessarily simplify and thereby mechanise the creative activity, but rather can make it that much more shaded and complex.

Whenever I’m working on something creative, I do periodically make a copy of the document, especially when I’ve decided to purge a few paragraphs of verbosity. I don’t think this is particularly narcissistic, as Eco has it. It is just an insurance against changing your mind. Those thoughts that don’t make the cut might be useful for something else, later.

Update, 27th August

Matthew Kirschenbaum expands on this theme in The Chronicle Review.

What if we could use machine-learning algorithms to sift through vast textual archives and draw our attention to a portion of a manuscript manifesting an especially rich and unusual pattern of activity, the multiple layers of revision captured in different versions of the file creating a three-dimensional portrait of the writing process? What if these revisions could in turn be correlated with the content of a Web site that someone in the author’s MySpace network had blogged?

Rushdie diplomatic row escalates

Salman Rushdie, author

Salman Rushdie has been given a knighthood, causing much offence and effigy burining in Pakistan. Now the diplomatic row has intensified, with British ambassadors in Tehran and Islamabad receiving offical complaints. I am confident that the British Establishment won’t back down on this issue, and that Sir Salman will recieve his daubing from the Queen sometime soon. Proof that we are not sacrificing our values to an intolerant minority.

It seems to be fashionable to complain about what a smug bore Rushdie is. I can’t speak for the man himself, but I’ve always enjoyed reading his iconoclastic prose, his unreliable narrators. Midnight’s Children is very rewarding, as is Shame and even Grimus. I never really related to the satire in The Satanic Verses, although I might do now I appreciate just how stratospheric Bollywood actors can be.

However, I was not impressed when he turned out to be one of the few authors on OpenDemocracy.net who refused to let his work be licenced under the Creative Commons agreement. He did apologise though: “Sorry to be old-fashioned,” he said.

Cult footballers and followings

Dave Hill amusingly plugs his book 33 times over at Comment is Free. The novel is called The Adoption and is of course available online. I fear this plug may be too late for Christmas, however.

I do enjoy Dave’s blog – especially his thought on such slippery subjects as multiculturalism and political correctness – and I recommend his novel on this basis. It is interesting to see many others do the same: This is not merely a case of blogger-boys-club-back-scratching, but recommendations based on sincerely held beliefs about the quality of a writer’s output. Having said that, a novel is a very different type of writing than blogging, and there may not be a correlation between lengthy fiction, and pithy political opination.

Elsewhere, I hear that Highbury cult-figure Perry Groves’ autobiography is massively outselling Ashley Cole’s offering, due in no small part to the campaign for that very thing over at Arseblog. Dave Hill bemoans the focus in the book-trade in pushing a few bestsellers, leaving the less high profile authors to fend for themselves. The alternative model he suggests – that of bloggers bypassing the marketing hype and recommending alternatives – seems to be working in Groves’ favour, and at Cole’s expense.

Ashley now earns more in a week than Perry’s transfer fee to Arsenal twenty-years ago. He may be more famous at the moment, but will be remembered amongst the Arsenal fans for his involvement in the ‘tapping up‘ scandals, and being married to someone from Girls Aloud. In 2006, it seems an online campaign has snowballed, as readers come to realise that actually, Cole is a less interesting character than someone who has been out of the game for a decade.

To find that it is Perry Groves who has benefited from this phenomenon is unsurprising, as he was always a cult figure anyway. Often on the bench, he never reached the stratosphere of later stars such as Ian Wright and Tierry Henry, or even team-mates like Charlie Nicholas (for whom he set up the winning goal in Arsenal’s 1987 League Cup win). Nevertheless, Groves’ work ethic, bionic throw-ins, and an odd appearance (his nickname was ‘Tintin’ which is why I remember him so well) made him a Highbury favourite.

To come full circle: All this talk of cult figures (and of footballers marrying C-List celebrities) reminds me of the essay by digital artist Momus, which I quoted in my article on the Impact of Blogs for Writer’s News earlier this year. Momus’ point was that the new, digital media could allow people to by-pass the bottleneck of the mainstream outlets. The online world promised to be fertile territory for the unadulterated cult-figure. From my article:

Pandering to the lowest common denominator in the ‘mainstream’ can be a debilitating process … Through online publishing, an idiosyncratic writer can find viable target audiences, without diluting their work.

Attaining this niche-fame – a kind of cult following, perhaps – becomes increasingly attractive to the serious writer. As the digital artist Momus said: “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” We live in an era where mainstream celebrity seems entirely unrelated to talent. Finding a small, dedicated audience online may be a better measure of success, than C-list recognition in the mainstream.

Brevity

This week, brevity is all the rage. Labour MP Tom Watson finds that plenty of sites are issuing six word story challenges.

Meanwhile, over at The Sharpener, Bondwoman has posted her take on John Reid’s immigration policies in equation form.

One of the more famous short short-stories is by Augusto Monterroso:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”)

I always chuckle at that. What sordid goings on occurred the night before?

Book Jackets

Browsing the website of Irshad Manji, the ‘Muslim Refusnik’ who wrote The Trouble With Islam Today, it was interesting to note the variations (and similarities) between the book jacket designs in various countries worldwide.

My favourite is probably the image of the author’s mouth being censored (by the title), which appears in the French, Norwegian and USA editions. Finland, Belgium and Norway employ the same concept, but less effectively I think. By comparison, the English cover, depicting a group of Muslims at prayer, seems less imaginative, although the connotation with a phalanx of soldiers does convey one of the key concepts from the book:

Irshad Manji calls herself a Muslim refusenik. ‘That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim,’ she writes, ‘it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.’
(from the Amazon blurb)

The English cover stands out as being very different from all the others. It is fascinating to look at what different publishers thought would sell well in the respective countries, and what best communicated the concepts of the book. Several jackets depict stone walls, while several others choose a veiled woman instead of Manji, with her uncovered, spiky hair. The covers for India and Canada are purely typographic. I am reminded of an article by my colleague Leo Warner, who wrote:

if you want to see a culture describe itself at the most organic level, you should observe the design and not the art.