Tag Archives: publishing

Why we shouldn’t care about author intentions: some disorganised musings

Recently the Guardian ran an article about fiction writer Polly Courtney, who is dropping her publisher because of the apparently misleading covers they inflicted on her books. Courtney cites frustration at the ‘pink, fluffy packaging’ Harper Collins imprint Avon has wrapped around her books, and has indicated she’ll be going back to self-publishing to take back control.

In other news, Julian Assange is in a fight with publishers Conongate who have printed an incongruously titled ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the apostle of free speech. It’s reported that Julian accepted a hefty advance and produced 70,000 words of memoir with ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan before giving up the project and spending the advance. Canongate have, rather understandably, decided to recoup their losses through the path of least resistance – publishing the autobiography without the approval of the ‘author’.

Finally, a story from closer to home, for which I have and offer no evidence or assurances of truth. I recently heard about an academic whose book suddenly appeared on Google Books without his permission. On his contacting Google he was, supposedly, paid some form of royalty and told that company policy was to deal with authors as they got in touch. The take home message of this story was meant to be ‘how evil is Google’, but I wasn’t really convinced.

So, three stories about cranky authors, angry at ‘unauthorised’ tampering with their work. The book historian in me wants to say so what? After all it was ever thus.

Lets start with the issue of packaging and marketing. In the medieval world of scribal reproduction an author would have had less than nothing to do with what physical form their work took. Those decisions were made by the individuals who commissioned the reproduction of a text – usually wealthy individuals or religious groups. Even after the introduction of print, sheets were sold unbound and without decoration, so that purchasers could choose the bindings and rubrication for themselves.

Of course binding isn’t the only important part of a book’s physical form: size, typography, paper and other factors were meaning-laden well beyond the medieval period – indicating that the intended audience was wealthy or poor, pious or a bit deviant (see for example Jerome McGann’s discussion of Byron’s Don Juan in “Theory of Texts”, London Review of Books, 1988). Given the clear importance of format on reader experience it’s important to ask who chose it. The answer varies, but the author almost never figures.

What, then, about cases of a text being published without the author’s knowledge or even in spite of their explicit wishes? The juiciest examples come from cases of posthumous publication. A 2009 article in Time surveyed some famous cases of posthumous publication, from Machiavelli to Mark Twain, Jane Austen to Steig Larsson. Perhaps the most illustrative are those cases where an author has died leaving instructions that all their scribblings be destroyed. As Twain explained in a letter to Orion and Mollie Clemens, 19 and 20 October 1865

You had better shove this in the stove … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.

If wishes like these hadn’t been ignored the literary canon would be without major works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka among others. Just imagine how many PhDs would have remained unwritten.

The three parables at the start of these musings miss another important field of unauthorised modification, though. This includes reworkings, adaptations and other creative reimagining of literary works. William Shakespeare could never have imagined that his complete works would eventually be published 140 characters at a time on an internet microblogging site called Twitter, by a bot called ‘Willy Shakes’ (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE). Without explicit authorisation, then, should we denounce this as unacceptable piracy? What about cinematic adaptation of a dead author’s work – a la Lord of the Rings? Or the countless anthologies that rip and mix works, in the best tradition of medieval miscellanies.

These examples all demonstrate the myriad ways in which our culture accepts and engages in unauthorised modification and use of literary works. This is the practice of the last millenia and the stories at the top show that it continues to be common practice. The question remains, should we care? How acceptable is all of this repackaging, unauthorised publication and creative reworking?

I think there are two issues that need to be unpacked here. The first is commercial (who is and who should be making money out of a literary work), while the second is cultural (how can a work be used and influenced by subsequent individuals). Both of these issues are covered by copyright, but blanket protection and lock-down is not necessarily an ideal situation.

Generally, if anyone is making money out of a literary work, and if the author as primary creator is still around, then they have a right to a fair share in that profit.

In the academic world, such as in the example quoted above, things are a little more complicated. When an academic produces work on a salary at least partially funded by the general public, do they then have the right to charge the public for access to that work? Put like that it seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Of course most academics get little to no profit out of a publication, so it’s the academic publishers who are milking the system. That’s a debate for another day though.

So, finally we consider post-author influence on and use of a piece of writing. There is a primary right that should always be respected – the right of attribution. If one person’s work has been used by another, that legacy should be clearly stated.

There is a limit though. Does an author have an unassailable right to control every reading of their work, down to look, feel and format? Should they be able to control (given the impossibility that they could foresee) how their work will be used, adapted, reworked and otherwise interpreted? In my opinion the answer to both of these questions is no. It’s neither practical nor desirable for the figure of an author to take on that level of power. Exalting one creative individual to this level ignores the fundamental fact that all writers come after – they have all been influenced, and those with enough talent and luck will influence in their turn.

It’s the work, not the intentions, that we should care about with authors. Recognising the legacy and, where appropriate, paying for the product are one thing. Allowing the figure of the author to have tyrannical control over a text is undesirable and unrealistic.

digest one

Andrew and I spent last weekend in Amsterdam. The trip and city were great, if a little soggy, and through the rain we discovered a beautiful and very sophisticated city. It’s a place that I’m sure we’ll return to – although we’ll definitely be aiming for summer next time!

Anyway a few days away from my subscriptions on Google Reader gave me a serious back-log to work through. I’ve been chipping away at the articles and posts over the last few days, flirting with the ‘mark all as read’ button. In the end I persevered and caught up, and I thought I’d share some of the best in a little digest.

My subscriptions are mostly related to digital humanities, academia, new media etc – and that’s the focus of the list below.

When eating I like to save the most delicious morsel for last, but in reading I take the opposite tack. Accordingly I’m going to start with the best, most original, piece that turned up in my reader this week – a piece that happens to be over a decade old.

Douglas Adams on the internet:

Via an article on the Australian if:book site I found this article written by Douglas Adams in 1999. It’s called How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet and displays all of the usual insight and wit that make Adams one of my favourite authors.

This is particularly gorgeous and apt:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

His comments on interactivity and the ‘aberration’ of twentieth-century mass-media in the history of cultural creation also seem spot on to this budding historian.

Other bits and pieces I enjoyed reading:

This article on ‘blurbing’ (the provision by eminent figures of positive quotes to adorn book covers). This is an inside view and will make you think twice before trusting those juicy quotes again.

Over on HASTAC there is an interview with Prof. Kathleen Fitzpatrick on e-books and the imperative of open academic publishing. Kirkpatrick’s recent book Planned Obsolescence is particularly worth looking at because it is built on an innovative (and open acess) digital publishing platform called Comment Press. You can read Planned Obsolescence here and find out more about Comment Press here.

Finally, two things that have been added to the ‘to read’ list this week:

The first is yet another future of the book book, but this time from the perspective of authors. It’s called The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books and caught my eye because of the creative take some of the authors appear to have taken on the issue. Read more about this at Google Books or check out the introduction at The Millions.

Last but not least, something a bit more academic: Jenna Newman, ‘The Google Books Settlement: A Private Contract in the Absence of Adequate Copyright Law’ in Scholarly and Research Communication. Vol 2.1. Open access.

Well that’s the first digest – I hope to make this a semi-regular feature here – not least because it really helps me sort through the mountains of stuff I read on a daily basis!


barbarians at the gate

I read a lot of articles on the effect of new media on culture and society. One of the best I’ve read in a while turned up this week at The New Yorker, and I wanted to shares some highlights from it.

In ‘The Information: How the Internet gets inside us’, Adam Gopnik offers a clear-sighted analysis of the current state of the debate. The article is a useful re-cap of where the main strategic positions are, and I particularly like his categorisations of the main contributors as either ‘Never-Betters’, ‘Better-Nevers’, or ‘Ever-Wasers’. He defines these groups as follows:

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Prominent Never-Betters include Clay Shirky and John Tooby. Better-Nevers with recent publications are Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), William Powers, (Hamlet’s BlackBerry) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together).

Ann Blair is cited as the ‘most ambitious’ of the Ever-Wasers. Gopnik reviews the main points in her recent book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, which examines the techniques through which earlier generations of scholars, from the middle ages onwards, complained about and dealt with their own information overload. It sounds interesting and is now on my ‘to read’ list.

Gopnik finds that his hopes rest with the Never-Betters, his head with the Ever-Wasers and his heart with the Better-Nevers. The arguments of the latter also prompt the greatest fear, because if we become complacent Ever-Wasers we could end up overrun before we know it. Gopnik provides this parable to explain the point:

“Oh, they always say that about the barbarians, but every generation has its barbarians, and every generation assimilates them,” one Roman reassured another when the Vandals were at the gates, and next thing you knew there wasn’t a hot bath or a good book for another thousand years.

I have to say that I find the Better-Nevers much less appealing than Gopnik, and for me the Better-Nevers are more endearing, if only because they offer hope rather than endless prophecies of doom  ­̶  but that’s probably more about my natural optimism and experiences as a ‘digital native’ than any objective reaction to the debate.

One of the most interesting points in the article is Gopnik’s comparison between television and the internet. Gopnik notes that ‘everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television’. Times and opinions have changed, and television never caused the kind of moral and social apocalypse that some commentators from the seventies predicted. For Gopnik ‘what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something.’ To force the same impotency on the internet, Gopnik suggests, we can start by simply walking away from the computer once in a while, if only to prove that we can.

You can read the rest of Gopnik’s article on the New Yorker’s website, and because I can’t help myself the full citation for the article is:

Gopnik, Adam. ‘The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us.’ The New Yorker, February 14, 2011. Online edition, accessed 14 February 2011.