BBC Radio 4 – Front Row on crowd-funding

BBC Radio 4’s Front Row tonight featured an interesting segment on crowd-funding (mp3), with Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound) and Julian Gough (Kickstarter).

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Digital present and future in the TLS

The Times Literary Supplement reviewed three books of particular relevance to this blog last week.

The Edge of the Precipice, edited by Paul Socken, is collection of essays, and an elegy to what one contributor…

…Drew Nelles, calls “the perfect aloneness you feel” when buried in a book. Books offer respite and escape; they are getaways for the mind. Nelles, the editor of Maisonneuve magazine, deplores how so-called social reading and content sites’ auto-sharing – see what your friends are reading right now! – have “removed the last bit of resistance against the onslaught of constant dissemination” made possible by the internet.

This is very much the tone, also, of This is Not the End of the Book, by Eco and Carriere (not featured in the review)– here is Eco at his most assertive:

…there are technical innovations that do not change, such as the book. We could add the bicycle, and even spectacles. Not to mention the alphabet. Once perfection has been achieved it cannot be improved.

Second up was Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software by Vikram Chandra. This interested me, as a software developer who also writes and studies fiction.

Part memoir, part literary-historical criticism, part technical analysis, it is a lovely, surprising, sometimes arcane project that speaks both to the computer crowd and the literary one – and makes the point that they don’t have to be separate camps, just as the print/digital divide has begun to blur. Computers and digital texts have material presences, too; literary works operate by structural and grammatical rules that find counterparts in programming languages.

And it’s true. Code aspires to elegance. It wants to be made beautiful. Like a well-planned novel, It is spacial.

The novel is spacial because it describes a world of space, but it is also spacial in the shapes it weaves. Foreshadowings and reintegrations, recurring symbols, themes, rhythms and repetitions all reach across the linear left to right and top to bottom to form a sculptural whole.

Something similar happens when you negotiate elegant source code. This is a machine whose operations you only really see in your mind. Components are crafted to snap together and to negotiate inputs and outputs. You run a section of code, and you imagine these formless things in action, these boxes and pipes moving information around in a frictionless kind of dance.

In a cruder way than literature, but also in a satisfyingly kinetic fashion. Code wants to model the world and be purer than it at the same time. It wants to simplify complexity, and still rise to it. It wants to hide its compromises, its piping and its short cuts, behind clean façades.

But the elegance of a computer program is almost always hidden beneath the user interface — the web page, the smart phone app screen. Even other programmers often only see an API  — a set of convenient callable routines that simplify the system’s inner workings. A beautiful program may have a clunky user interface, or vice versa, making beautiful code a largely hidden aesthetic. Code…

…serves as “a mediating dialect between human and machine”; lays out basic principles of computing such as logic gates and Boolean algebra; and describes what makes code aesthetically pleasing and why so much ugly code runs the world, including the computers of the Pentagon. “Beautiful code is lucid, it is easy to read and understand”, he writes. “Each small part is coherent, singular in its purpose, and although all these small sections fit together like the pieces of a complex mosaic, they come apart easily when one element needs to be changed or replaced.” Over time, as software programs grow bigger and are tinkered with, lucidity gives way to murky workarounds. “If you’ve ever written code, the fact that so much software works so much of the time can seem profoundly miraculous”, Chandra says. “Software is complicated because it tries to model the irreducible complexity of the world.” One could say the same of literary fiction.

Finally: From Literature to Biterature by Peter Swirski. And the reader’s first job is presumably to forgive the author for such a clumsily ugly title. Not to mention the awful neologism in the following passage.

Inspired in part by the work of Stanisław Lem, Swirski analyses the prospects for “computhors” as he calls these imagined but (he believes) soon-to-be-real machine entities. His focus zigzags across the fields of artificial intelligence, computing history, cognitive science, narrative theory, the evolution of men and machines, and post-Turing attempts to figure out how to identify computer intelligence if (Swirski would say when) it arises. “Underlying my explorations is the premise that, at a certain point in the already foreseeable future, computers will be able to create works of literature in and of themselves”, he writes.

That’s right. Computhor. Let’s give that a beat.

OK. But it is a fascinating area. Not least because we explain ourselves to ourselves through story. So perhaps story is a useful way in to artificial intelligence.

And when the singularity finally occurs, maybe the next generation of machine-beings will be kinder to us thanks to an empathy for our fictions. Or perhaps this understanding will merely aid them in enslaving us.

Is Amazon evil?

The current raft of issues: Is Amazon a monopoly? (Probably not). Is it fixing to become one using a loss leader strategy? Is it strong-arming its suppliers to that end? (Hmmm). What are the implications of the Amazon versus Hachette dispute for writers, readers and publishers? I’m not going to be following this one too closely here beyond some basic tracking. With that in mind: at The Digital Reader Nate Hoffelder provides a good round up of the current state of the argument. The piece has a clear and unapologetic slant, but follow the links and make up your own mind.

Behaving badly: authors and reviewers on Goodreads

In a suspenseful piece in the Guardian about her relationship with a toxic anonymous reviewer, author Kathleen Hale touched upon some of the ways that authors and their readers relate online. Of course breaking down the boundaries between writer and reader is often a good thing. Writers benefit from an engaged fanbase, and readers get the kind of access that would have been a fantasy pre-internet. But access, the power to network and organise, and the lure of anonymity can combine to produce less desirable results.

After listening to me yammer on about the Goodreads review, my mother sent me a link to a website called stopthegrbullies.com, or STGRB. Blythe appeared on a page called Badly Behaving Goodreaders, an allusion to Badly Behaving Authors. BBAs, Athena Parker, a co-founder of STGRB, told me, are “usually authors who [have] unknowingly broken some ‘rule’”. Once an author is labelled a BBA, his or her book is unofficially blacklisted by the book-blogging community.

In my case, I became a BBA by writing about issues such as PTSD, sex and deer hunting without moralising on these topics. (Other authors have become BBAs for: doing nothing, tweeting their dislike of snarky reviews, supporting other BBAs.)

However inaccurate a review may be, even if it is part of a co-ordinated campaign, the writer’s only viable recourse is no recourse at all. In other words, to resist the temptation to respond. The Goodreads site is unequivocal about this:

At the bottom of the page, Goodreads had issued the following directive (if you are signed in as an author, it appears after every bad review of a book you’ve written): “We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer. If you think this review is against our Review Guidelines, please flag it to bring it to our attention. Keep in mind that if this is a review of the book, even one including factual errors, we generally will not remove it.

“If you still feel you must leave a comment, click ‘Accept and Continue’ below to proceed (but again, we don’t recommend it).”

According to STGRB, breaking this injunction can have very serious effects upon a writer’s public profile.

Patricia warned me that this was exactly what Blythe was waiting for – and Athena Parker agreed: “[GR Bullies] actually bait authors online to get them to say something, anything, that can be taken out of context.” The next step, she said, was for them to begin the “career-destroying” phase.

Fiction in an age of full disclosure

In an already much-linked piece in the New York Review of Books blog Tim Parks wrote about literature in a brightly lit world.

If fiction has often been a means of expressing the socially inexpressible, then what happens when nothing is unsayable, and in any case fewer and fewer transgressions can be hidden?

Love relationships and marriages are no longer conceived of as fortresses of propriety, such that every difficulty or infidelity must be strenuously denied. And in any event it’s becoming harder and harder to deny things. Everyone’s posting photographs on Facebook, everybody’s leaving traces of what they do or say on email and Twitter. Those who suffer abuse of any kind are more willing to speak up. With or without the NSA, the kind of collective reticence and sense of privacy that allowed Dickens to keep his young woman hidden from the public eye for so many years is a thing of the past.

Parks suggests that many modern novels manifest a change in motivation. Here he is speaking of David Lodge, and his growing interest in “fact-based writing”:

Again, as with Dyer, we have the sense that a situation that once made the novel extremely important, as space where difficult questions could be fielded with impunity, has now altered, such that the author brought up on this model is now bound to reflect on what to do with his ambition and creativity.

As well as Lodge and Dyer, Parks discusses Coetzee, and Roth — who present ambiguously fictional incarnations of themselves. He could also, of course, invoked Teju Cole and WG Sebald. The emphasis in this form of writing, he suggests has shifted from fiction as a vehicle for smuggling truth to the real presented in playful relation to fiction.

Such “confessions” would have been dangerous a hundred years ago. By calling these books novels you might say that Coetzee is holding onto a fig leaf. More interestingly, I suspect he is telling us that the word “fiction” was always a fig leaf, that literature can always be deconstructed to arrive at a play of forces that is essentially autobiographical, so that in a sense these more candidly autobiographical works are no more revealing than the fiction that came before them.

Two self-publishing stories

Publishers Weekly profiled Eileen Goudge this week. Goudge is an established traditionally-published author who, faced with falling sales and dissolving advances, has taken the independent route.

Once the 2008 recession hit and digital publishing revolutionized the industry, Goudge found her book sales declining and her career in trouble. “To my horror,” she says, “I found I was facing a major crisis as my career went into a death spiral.” Luckily, she found a solution. “For me, she says, “it was self-publish or perish.”

Unusually, this is not a story of untold riches and great fame. Goudge reports modest success.

While Goudge admits that her initial indie sales figures are nowhere near the figures she enjoyed at the height of her traditional publishing career, she notes that she’s playing the long game. “As my indie author friends keep reminding me,” she says, “this is a numbers game. The more books you publish, the better your numbers. Slow growth versus rapid growth.” The book has also received some positive mentions in places like Fresh Fiction and Judith Collins’s “Must Read Books” blog.

Of course, an established author will have a platform to build upon. Things are harder when you’re starting out — not least because the stigma of vanity publishing remains, and because it’s difficult to stand out amidst hundreds of thousands of poorly written, edited and designed self-published efforts.

The Bookseller this week highlighted one of the relatively few recent self-publishing success stories. W H Smith Travel have signed up to distribute Piers Alexander’s self-published first novel The Bitter Trade . You can look for his tale of the English Civil War at an airport near you (or far away from you, depending upon your travel itinerary).

Alexander is clearly not a complete outsider:

Alexander, who is represented by agent Meg Davis of the Ki Agency, said he had been close to securing a trade publishing deal for a while, but “felt strongly” that he “didn’t want to wait” for a traditional deal to be signed. He said: “I decided to invest in industry standard print rather than following a conventional self-publishing route.”

It seems there are two stories here then. Firstly there’s the distinction between Alexander’s ‘industry standard print’ and the alternative ‘conventional self-publishing route’, and secondly there’s the suggestion that new print distribution options for self-publishers are opening up.

A further question is the extent to which self-publishing (moderate or runaway) success stories illustrate or buck the true prevailing trends.