Is publishing the true cultural engine of our time?

The release today of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamed’s brilliant novel, reminded me to post this article I wrote for InPrint, the magazine of the Society of Young Publishers.  It was published last month, in the issue timed to co-incide with the London Book Fair.

Who drives our culture? Conventional wisdom says it is Hollywood. After all, it is the film industry that produces the most highly paid artistes and the most visible ‘A listers’. Film is a visual medium and it churns out icons at a steady, lucrative rate. The four-hour Oscars telecast is beamed live around the world.
By contrast, the announcement of the Man Booker Prize does not even get its own TV slot in schedules. The announcement is allowed to interrupt the news broadcasts, but the analysis and reactions are made to wait until a scheduled bulletin and it’s never the lead story.
Film claims global relevance, whereas publishing is parochial. Film claims to be popular, whereas publishing is elitist. Continue reading “Is publishing the true cultural engine of our time?”

Interviewed on 2ser 107.3

A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression inside the 'market focus' area at the London Book Fair.  Photo by yrstrly.
A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression at the London Book Fair. Photo by yrstrly.

Both readers of my blog were subjected to a significant amount of London Book Fair comment and linkage last month.  I was asked to give opinions on the controversial China Market Focus programme.
During the Book Fair I gave an interview to an Australian radio station, 2ser 107.3, based in Sydney.  I’ve only just discovered the link to the archive of the interview – My contribution is the first segment of the show.  Hilariously, I was credited as John Sharp!

The Chinese Government, Modern Artists

The London Book Fair took place last week, amid controversy surrounding the decision to designate China as the ‘market focus’ country. China is the largest publisher in the world by volume, so it is understandable that one of the publishing industry’s biggest trade fairs should look East. However, the official presence of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the censorship body, raised hackles among those who want free expression in China.
During the fair, I spent much of the time in the ‘Market Focus’ section of Earls Court, and I found the atmosphere very odd. Dissidents from the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and the Tibet Society would periodically enter the space and stand with placards, silently demanding an end to Literary Censorship in China. Whenever they did so, GAPP employees would muster their pull-up conference banners and place them between the protesters and the events space, presumably to ensure no stray slogans found their way into official photographs. Unfortunately, these banners carried the offical market focus branding, with slogans about new ideas and cultural exchange. It was not a good look.
At one point, while reading aloud the work of imprisoned poets Zhu Yufu and Shi Tao, I was scolded by the security guards for standing on carpet that had been paid for by the GAPP delegation. The blue aisle carpet was fine, but we would be asked to leave if we persisted with standing on the red carpet. Suddenly, the Book Fair felt like a Fred Sandback installation, where subtle coloured threads demarcate a space. Who knew the Chinese government did conceptual art? (Video here)
A fact went unreported by the trade press was that Liu Binjie, the President of GAPP, failed to turn up for his keynote speech. Earlier that morning, he had come face to face with the exiled novelist Ma Jian, who had attempted to hand Binjie a copy of his celebrated novel Beijing Coma. Security guards hustled the author away, but clearly communist party officials feared that Lui Binjie would be embarrassed by further displays of literary freedom during his scheduled address. At the plenary session, The lackey who replaced him claimed that he had been called away on urgent business, but this was clearly nonsense – what could be more important than the speech he had travelled half way round the world to deliver? The substitute then proceeded to announce that for the next few minutes he would be a ‘puppet’ and, as activists silently held aloft more signs demanding free expression, he proceeded to read Binjie’s speech aloud… including the punctuation. It seems the Chinese government can do performance art as well. (Video here)
Contrast the dour and humourless approach of the official delegation with the rest of their compatriots. When excluded authors like Ma Jian and his fellow exiled author Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans) visited the English PEN Literary Café, it was pleasing to see the number of Chinese delegates who stopped to listen to them speak and take photographs. Chinese publishers and journalists also paused by our stand to talk about imprisoned writers like Lui Xiaobo and Shi Tao. The most fascinating conversation I had during the three days at Earls Court was with a correspondent for a Chinese media outlet, who described in detail the exasperating self-censorship she practices every day. It was depressing to learn the extent to which the Chinese censorship system works on a kind of auto-pilot, with individual writers making decisions about what not to write, rather than a formal censor moderating everything (although that kind of censorship happens too). However, it was also interesting to hear the distain that she felt for the system under which she operates, and her own frustration with others who enable the state to operate as it does. She was not a revolutionary, but her words exposed the made me hopeful that the current system is untenable, and will reform. Like the carpet borders and the wafer-thin pull-up banners, the foundations under which oppressive regimes operate are flimsy, and exist largely in the human mind.

Radio Interviews

A welcome side-effect of the new English PEN website is an increase in inquiries from journalists. There have been a couple of free speech moments in the past couple of weeks – Günter Grass, and China at the London Book Fair – and as such the media have been in touch with us. I was asked to speak on the radio on a couple of occasions.
Discussing Günter Grass on BBC World Have Your Say:

Discussing China at the London Book Fair on Monocle 24:

I also spoke to 2ser Radio in Sydney but haven’t heard the audio yet. (Update: here).
Its excruciating to hear all the “ahs” and “ums” and “you know” and “sort of” that pepper what feels, at the time, like normal fluent speech. The second clip is better than the first, which is because I had longer to prepare.
The audio is hosted on PodOmatic, which I’ve only just discovered. It is free to sign-up and has easy integration with iTunes. I would use AudioBoo but it limits the length of the audio clips to 3 minutes.

Filmic and Literary Activism

Its the London Book Fair this week, and China is the controversial ‘market focus’ country. To mark this, English PEN staged a day-long forum on Chinese literature and invited artists both from inside China and in exile.
One of the visitors was Ou Ning, who introduced his film about forced demolitions in Beijing, ahead of the 2008 Olympics. During the Q&A I asked Ou Ning about remix culture in china, and then followed with a rather loaded question about film vs literature. You can watch the event below or see my particular question on YouTube.

There wasn’t time for me to engage him in a debate, but I’m not sure I agree with Ou Ning’s assertion that film beats literature. Both are important. In the short term, I agree that film and video are superior in showing fellow Chinese people, and the rest of the world, what is actually happening. However, I’m not sure that providing that enhanced knowledge is sufficient to bring about lasting change. I think literature has an essential role in bringing about change, whether that is through an Arab Spring style uprising (a ‘Jasmine’ revolution?) or a kind of Chinese glasnost. A fundamental shift in mindset is required for either kind of reform, and I think the depth and nuance that long form literary work brings is essential to inspiring such a change.