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Strandbeest

Strandbeest

I have to thank Sean Williams for alerting me to this video about the astonishingly beautiful work of Dutch sculptor, Theo Jansen. Called Strandbeest (Stranbeests? Strandbeesten?) they are crafted from plastic piping and walk and move using systems of sails to harness the wind.

Even on video they’re extraordinary things: marvellously intricate, improbable, strangely weightless, but what really fascinates me about them is the quality Jansen himself is alert to, which is the way their motion and delicate skeletal structures seem to elide the boundary between the biological and the mechanical. Nor is this just a matter of appearance: Jansen designs them using  a computer program that utilises genetic algorithms to improve their design and selectively “breeds” them to improve their performance. Little wonder that as they shimmer along the beach it’s so easy to believe you’re seeing some form of alien life possessed of its own presence and purpose.

This quality is also present in many of the creations of roboticists at places like M.I.T. (or this robotic pack mule designed for use in Afghanistan and other mountainous areas (and indeed drones like the ones featured in the final moments of the same video)), and, in rather different form in the work of artists such as Patricia Piccinini (whose bizarre Skywhale has been hovering over Canberra for the past week or so) and Miyo Ando’s beautiful work with bioluminescence, all of which seek to grapple with the way the once clear divisions between life and non-life, biological and artificial are breaking down (interestingly Jansen’s creatures are created from plastic tubing, itself, and artificial substance made from organic compounds). These are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, partly because the novel I’m working on is set across the next century, and is very much concerned with many of these questions and the intersecting notion of the Anthropocene (as was my Aurealis Award-shortlisted story, ‘Visitors’), partly because I’m hoping to write something rather longer on the subject later in the year. But in the meantime you should take the time to watch the videos below, and to visit Jansen’s website, which has more information about him and the project.

Angelmaker

I’ve got reviews of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker and John Lanchester’s Capital in this morning’s papers. You can read the Lanchester piece unpaywalled at The Weekend Australian, but because the Harkaway isn’t on the Sydney Morning Herald site I’ve posted it over on my Writing Page.

If you’re interested you can also read my review of Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, but in the meantime I thought I might post the first couple of paragraphs, which touch on some ideas about the way changing cultures of reading are transforming literary culture I’ll be exploring further in the not too distant future:

“I sometimes wonder whether the real transformative force in contemporary writing isn’t digitization but fandom, and more particularly the technologies that underpin it. For while digitization is transforming the publishing landscape, the internet is breeding not just a new breed of highly engaged readers deeply invested in their particular area of interest, but also a new hierarchy of taste, founded not in traditional literary verities but in ideas of delight and generic awareness.

“Fandom’s rising power is visible in phenomena as seemingly unconnected as the hegemony of the superhero movie and the influence writers such as Neil Gaiman wield on Twitter. Yet it’s also visible in the rise of a new kind of fiction, one whose playfulness and generic promiscuity might once have seen it labelled post-modern, yet which more effectively elides the boundaries between high and low culture and art and entertainment than the writers of the 1980s could ever have dreamed of doing.” Read more …

Morris Lessmore and the cult of literary nostalgia

Some of you may have seen The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, which yesterday won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, or if you haven’t you may have encountered the iPad app based on the film.

With its nods to The Wizard of Oz and other works it’s pleasingly smart and literate, and while the iPad app is a bit cutesy for my taste, it’s a nice example of the things the medium can achieve (and my five year-old daughter loves it, so what do I know).

More interesting to me is the way the film embodies the growing vogue for literary nostalgia. Like the endless films featuring dancing books and films such as Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (which is interestingly engaged with the ways in which technology affects the imagination), it’s part of a growing tendency to sentimentalise and fetishise the physical book and the material culture surrounding it.

I don’t think the reasons for this sort of nostalgia are particularly difficult to discern. Literary culture in all its forms is in the midst of a series of changes that are fundamentally altering what we read, how we read it and the ways we access and trade in words and ideas. Unsurprisingly this process generates intense cultural anxiety, at least some of which is expressed in a desire for the certainties of the past.

It’s possible to see these effusions as harmless. Certainly the idea of an iPad app celebrating the magic and mystery of the physical book in the way Morris Lessmore does is so absurd it’s almost funny. But it’s difficult not to wonder whether this nostalgia is at least a little unhealthy.

Part of this stems from the way this culture of nostalgia focusses on celebrating books from the past. Its makers might be reading Franzen and Egan and Bolano but the books they namecheck are Dickens and Melville and Poe. Obviously I’m not averse to people celebrating the classics (hell, I think half our problem is we don’t celebrate them enough) but as the choice of them indicates (A Tale of Two Cities over Copperfield? ‘The Raven’ over Emily Dickinson?) they’re mostly celebrating books people (or at least Americans) are likely to have read at High School and College.

Again this wouldn’t be a problem if what was being celebrated was the books themselves, but I suspect what’s actually being celebrated is the idea of the books themselves. Nobody’s suggesting we actually engage with Poe or Dickens or Melville, they’re just suggesting we feel a quick inner glow at the thought of them.

Coupled with the fetishisation of the technology of the physical book and the library it’s a strangely pernicious brew. Because if we want books and reading to survive and continue to thrive the single worst thing we can do is turn them into Hallmark card symbols of past certainty. What we need to be doing is emphasising the energy and ambition of contemporary writers, and developing new cultures of reading. And call me cranky, but I find it difficult to see how sentimentalising the past does that.

Are books dead?

Many of you will have already read the condensed version of Ewan Morrison’s talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which was published in The Guardian on Monday. If you haven’t, you should: it provides a bracingly unsentimental account of the difficulties facing publishing in general and authors in particular as the print economy transitions to digital. Central to Morrison’s argument is an assumption the transition to ebooks will be rapid, that the same pressures from piracy and consumer behaviour that have reshaped the economics of other industries will drive book prices down to levels which are incapable of supporting authors, and that this in turn will lead to the fairly rapid collapse of the economy of advances and royalties that has sustained professional writers.

It’s unlikely to come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I largely agree with Morrison’s arguments. One of the odder aspects of the discussion of the challenges facing the publishing industry over the past few years is the collective delusion that somehow publishing will be shielded from the disruption experienced by industries such as the music industry. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say things like “people will always want books”, “there’s something special about browsing in a bookshop” or “my seven year-old loves reading, therefore there’s no crisis”. All those things might well be true, but it’s not going to hold back a tide of change driven by a fundamental shift in the economics of the industry.

All that said, I think Morrison’s article should be read as much as provocation as thesis. There’s little doubt it’s framed within a well-founded unease about the increasing cultural power of behemoths such as Amazon, Google and Apple, or that it wants individuals and governments to at least question our assumption that we have no capacity to manage this transition (Robert Darnton has been making  similar argument in his campaign against the Google Book Settlement).

I’m with Morrison on this. Governments need to understand the interests of citizens and corporations are not the same thing, especially when it comes to the control of culture. But I also think Morrison’s provocations cause him to if not overreach, then certainly to assume the future will be neater than I think it probably will be.

The first thing that’s worth saying is that while I think Morrison is right in arguing that the attachment of older readers to the codex book is unlikely to be replicated in younger readers, I think he’s wrong in assuming this will mean an end of the book altogether. Certainly it’s worth noting that parallel to the rise in digital formats has been a rise in print-on-demand and bespoke publishing. How big the market for these will be is unclear, but I suspect what we’re really looking at is a generational change in the material economy of the book, which will see it move from being a low-cost (or relatively low-cost) consumer good to being a more exclusive, prestige object.

Of course even if I’m right about this, that’s unlikely to make a big difference to either the large-scale economics of publishing or the bottom lines of authors. That difference has to be found in the digital economy, which will, as Morrison suggests, probably supplant the current print economy within a decade.

Morrison’s argument is that piracy will dramatically undercut the economics of publishing in the same way it did in the music industry, and that in the process it will drive a change in consumer attitudes. I suspect he’s part-right on both scores: piracy is an issue, and will become a bigger one in years to come. And the demand for lower and lower prices is real and increasing, as the spats around authors and publishers stressing the fixed costs of book production show.

But Morrison neglects what seems to me the other big lesson of the music industry, which is that as the success of the iTunes Store demonstrates consumers are prepared to pay for content if it’s easily available and priced competitively.

The next question is, of course, whether consumers are prepared to pay enough to support something that looks like the publishing industry as it currently exists. I’m not going to pretend I have an answer to this, but my feeling is the answer is yes and no. The past couple of years have been pretty ugly for a lot of publishers, with a bad Christmas last year and rapidly declining sales in the first half of this year. The figures are complicated by the rise in digital sales, but in Australia while the volume of physical book sales has held up because of the sell-offs of stock by Redgroup, value has fallen, fiction is down 10% and sales of the top 10 books are down by as much as 50% (some publishers speak privately of declines in sales of 25 and 30% across the board). Although at least some of this decline can be attributed to the exceptional circumstances such as the recession and the collapse of Redgroup in Australia and Borders in the US, they’re not the whole story, and if profits keep falling it won’t be long before publishers start having to restructure their operations.

That bland term, “restructuring” is really code for layoffs, reduced commissioning and cancellation of projects. And as such it can’t help but hurt both the people who work in the industry and writers. Morrison correctly asserts the “advance economy” is under siege (“10k is the new 50k”), arguing this economy has enabled a generation of writers to develop their craft. I think he’s attributing too much importance to advances, and that it’s actually the system of royalties underpinned by copyright that enable writers to work, but he’s not entirely wrong, and as advances disappear it will be increasingly difficult for many authors, especially literary authors, to make a living wage.

Obviously this is bad news for many writers and publishers. But again I’d argue the real lesson of the music industry is that as the initial disruption passed other business models began to appear, from Spotify to Bandcamp, as creators and publishers found new ways of reaching audiences. Some involve disintermediating the music labels and selling direct, others use quite different business models. But what they do demonstrate is that in the right circumstances consumers will pay for content, and that there are alternative distribution mechanisms to the Amazon/Apple/Google monopolies.

I’m not going to pretend I know what these mechanisms will be. I have some ideas, but I think one thing we can safely assume is that there will be many more of them than we’re currently used to, and each will serve different markets in different ways. Whether these new models will be capable of sustaining writers in the way the old system did seems to me to be an open question. I suspect the truth will be, as it’s always been, that not many writers will make a lot from their work, but I also suspect it’s going to get a lot harder quite quickly, especially for writers such as myself. But writers and publishers who are prepared to adapt and experiment will succeed.

Which brings me to the last two things I want to say. The first is that I think one counterweight to the general bleakness of Morrison’s argument is that the experience of the music industry has been that the decline of the traditional models has allowed much greater diversity to emerge, alongside a boom in things like music festivals, and my guess is the breakdown in traditional models is already engendering something similar in publishing. The hegemony of the poem/short story/novel division is already under siege, with publishers launching projects such as Pan Macmillan’s digital-only Momentum imprint, which will publish novellas and works not suited to print, and it’s quite clear there’s a hugely energetic community of writers and artists creating works which don’t fit into traditional categories all around us.

The other is that I think Morrison is right, and it is vital we stop assuming we are unable to use these processes to benefit the public as well as corporations. It is possible to find ways of supporting creators, whether that’s through traditional mechanisms such as direct grants or less traditional systems of licensing such as that administered in Australia by the Copyright Agency. And that governments need to be very wary of the agglomerating strategies of Google and others. Once again there’s unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution, but I’m not sure there ever has been, either in business or for writers.

Totally Hip Book Reviews

I’m a little muzzy this morning from last night’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Party (oh yes, the writer’s life is a fabulous one) but one thing I definitely remember from last night was a conversation in which I was recommending Ron Charles’ hilarious video reviews to somebody. Since that person’s identity has now fled my mind, I thought I might use that conversation as an excuse to post his rather fabulous review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Unfortunately Ron’s taking a breather from producing them for a while, but if you’d like to see more you can visit The Washington Post’s Totally Hip Book Review page or Ron’s Youtube Channel. In the meantime, enjoy!

The Uncanny X-book: ebooks, design and digital possibility

Think for a moment about the silly page-turning animations ereaders insist on inserting: aren’t they really the textual equivalent of curtains on a television? Indeed why do we need to retain the notion of the “page” at all? Why can’t text just continue down as we read, like a scroll? And if it did, what would this do to the metaphors and devices we use to shape and organise information, the chapters and sections of the analog world?

Read more

Goodbye New Matilda

Given the turmoil of the last 36 hours, I’m guessing more than a few of you will have missed the fact that today marks the passing of one of Australia’s pioneering new media ventures, New Matilda.

Six years ago, when it began, I was pretty dismissive of New Matilda. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was a place for a left-of-centre online magazine, but the early issues always seemed depressingly worthy to me. Whether I’d make the same judgement now I don’t know; what I do know is that over the last couple of years the magazine has really come into its own. Certainly if one wanted a demonstration of the way in which new media now consistently outclasses the old in terms of analysis and commentary, you couldn’t find a better example than Ben Eltham, a writer whose pieces have been distinguished by their clarity, intelligence and grasp of detail for some time. I’d say something similar about Jason Wilson, whose astringent commentary on media and politics has grown steadily sharper over the last couple of years.

That’s not to say I think the magazine was perfect. Charles Firth’s epitaph, ‘Why I Never Liked New Matilda’, overplays its hand, but he’s right to home in on how old-fashioned its model seems in 2010. It’s simply not possible for a website focussed on news and commentary to be as static as New Matilda. The continuing success of Crikey! demonstrates that it’s still possible to make the idea of discrete issues work, but Crikey! comes out daily, not weekly, and in the last couple of years their site has become a highly effective aggregator of other people’s content.

The problem is money. As Margaret Simons pointed out in a sobering piece on Crikey!, when it comes to converting eyes into dollars and cents new media suffers from precisely the same problems as old media. New media’s advocates tend to sneer derisively about the business model of the newspapers being broke, but the fact is we don’t have one to replace it.

That’s not to say there aren’t models out there. In the US several independent news outlets have developed viable businesses, some through mixtures of subscription and advertising, others by employing more innovative schemes (you’ll find a good precis of the situation in the US in Michael Massing’s pieces ‘The News About the Internet’ and ‘A New Horizon for the News’, both of which appeared in The New York Review of Books last year). And locally Crikey! seems to go from strength to strength. But the brutal reality is that we still don’t know how to make online media pay well enough to underwrite either quality or quantity.

It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by Australia’s relatively small population. Independent media outfits in the US have access to a market of close to 300 million people, to say nothing of the many in other countries who take interest in American affairs. Independent media in Australia has access to less than 10% of that number. That means that while costs are likely to be similar, potential revenue from advertising and other sources is only ever going to be a fraction of that available to similar operations overseas.

One solution might be to give away the notion that writers and commentators should be paid. Obviously I have a vested interest in this question, but I think there are good reasons not to give away the notion that writers should be paid for their work. That’s not to say the traditional nexus between word count and fee needs to be maintained. Indeed I’d suggest that by its nature a lot of what goes on in new media is better suited to payment on retainer.

The question then is one of revenue, or more accurately, funding. Like literary magazines, independent media, both online and in print, is usually at least partly underwritten by institutional and private benefactors. But that sort of money only goes so far, and beyond that the same old questions begin to intrude.

New Matilda’s editor, Marni Cordell, is making brave noises about rebuilding the magazine’s financial model from the ground up. I hope she succeeds. In the meantime I’d just like to salute her and her team for their work over the past few years, and say they’ll be missed.


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