Wednesday, 3 October 2012


So the LitFlow people held this convention about "next literature" and called it a think tank. It went over two days and I made the mistake of only going on one. Because yes, it was very inspiring. You can read some of the stuff that went on there at their website or listen to the actual presentations plus interviews, etc. at Litradio. And you really should, if you're interested in possible futures of the reading and writing world.

It's a little late for me to give you any proper description of what went on - Sarah Erhardt has done so at litaffin, as has a cynical Katharina Teutsch at the FAZ and Jamal Tuschick at the Book Fair blog. So all you're getting from me are impressions and musings. They are also too long. That's the blessing and the curse of the blog form.

What I missed was a discussion of "next literature" - ways in which the media we write for will change how we write. Which I suppose is speculative anyway. I did find a little of it in Kenneth Goldsmith's talk when I listened to it online, although I was frightened off a little by statements like "Everybody's been to the Musée d'Orsay." Um, no, actually. Also he said he thought Helene Hegemann's act of appropriating authenticity was fantastic but he wasn't going to read it because the future of reading is not reading. And he said that 140 characters is better than long blog posts. Which made me sigh a little because it seemed symptomatic of a failure to embrace diversity of form - if I have something I want to share, I don't want to have to limit it to 140 characters. Maybe I do have a very succinct point to make (or indeed maybe I want to draw attention to a longer point someone else has made), but maybe I want to explore and develop an idea of my own over more space. What it did make me realise though is that blogs and twitter and whatever comes next are in fact forms of "next literature" themselves, influencing the way we write now and in the future. Look at the rise of first-person journalism as an example! Yes, I know that's been said before. But perhaps the act of various individuals repeating ideas is now a way for them to become established, if indeed it wasn't beforehand.

What I appreciated was the industry professionals' viewpoints, most notably Rita Bollig of Bastei Lübbe Entertainment and Elisabeth Ruge of Hanser Berlin. These two women were passionate about the benefits of digital options for publishing, and not just for marketing purposes. Do look up what they had to say. Probably my favourite eventlet was the non-discussion between Bollig and Mathias Gatza. Gatza is a former editor and publisher and now a writer, who flatly refused to be drawn into a discussion on what authors could do to make use of digital possibilities in an effort to market their work. He quite pointedly distanced himself from Bastei Lübbe, which he seemed to feel was miles away from him as a writer of "literature literature literature". Yet as far as I understand, he's planning to set up a digital-only publishing house for "courageous writing" of the type established publishers don't want to print. And he hasn't thought about the wider opportunities that would offer?

Apparently they want to publish in German and English simultaneously. Which was another thing that wound me up slightly, because - as another project that was introduced, namely the Libroid, suggested - there seemed to be little awareness of the practical aspects of translation issues. I know, it's a niche subject. Maybe I should have got over my antipathy towards the individuals in question and just gone and told them - that there aren't many people out there who can translate, that it takes quite a long time, and that defining a unit for translation has to be much more flexible than a sentence-by-sentence basis. Or perhaps the "next author" will have to write differently so as to be more easily translatable. Which would make Tim Parks happy, at least.

But back to the subject of author participation in digital extras. Gatza seemed to be implying that serious literature stands for itself and doesn't need any digital help other than perhaps the eBook as a cheaper distribution medium. Or perhaps that extras - participatory opportunities, sound and flashing lights, whatever - are only suitable for less serious writing. There are two examples I want to give to prove him wrong.

First is a tiny project that I made myself with the barest minimum of effort and (you'll have noticed) technical savvy. Shadow Boxing Berlin is a Wordpress site that accompanies my translation of Inka Parei's novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman. A friend and I took photos of some of the novel's locations as they are now, not illustrating the writing but raising the issue of change in the city, one of the book's themes. It took two days in total and was part of my research while going about the translation. I'd like to think that writers who do similar research for their novels - perhaps visiting certain places or looking up historical details - could easily put together some kind of digital accompaniment to their work. Especially if they have the support of a publishing house.

On the other end of the scale is Will Self's digital essay Kafka's Wound. I've rarely seen such an ambitious project, featuring musical compositions, archive photography, specially filmed material, a translation discussion, sub-essays and more. The work of many hands, mainly at Brunel University, but all grouped around Self's essay - which is clearly still under his own sole authorship. And it also happens to be one of the most "literary literary literary" things I've seen come out of Britain in a while. It's about Kafka, for God's sake, by a professor of contemporary thought.

Having made that point, I'd like to rewind a little and say - but actually. Because despite all the opportunities and possibilities now available, I do think we have to allow writers to concentrate on the business of writing if that's what they want to do. Jane Friedman shared a lot of ideas about writers, publishing and marketing. For example:
The biggest problem that authors must solve for themselves, year after year, is (1) staying competitive, current, and discoverable in a shifting digital landscape (2) having the right tools to be effective and in touch with their readers, and (3) having a strong network of connections that helps them better market and promote. All of these things are well within a publisher’s ability to assist with, only they haven’t been putting any resource into providing such assistance.
I would tend to disagree. The biggest problem that authors must solve for themselves is writing. There are some who will happily do all the other stuff, investing their time in communicating directly with readers via whatever channels. But as an editor friend pointed out, it's publishers' job, still and even more so in future I suspect, to help readers find those writers who are only good at writing and not at promoting themselves. Ewan Morrison made a similar point well in the Guardian during the Edinburgh festival, rejecting the idea of spending 80% of his time on marketing as a self-published author. As an aside, by the way, there's nothing I like less than writers befriending me on Facebook, only to post nothing but boring stuff about their books. It's like if a plumber invited me out for a drink in an attempt to persuade me to get a new bathroom fitted.

All in all, then, LitFlow left me feeling rather old-fashioned, not least for my fogeyish embracing of vinyl culture (which Kathrin Passig rejected as an analogy for the possible development of p-versus-eBooks). Yes, I still want to read, I still want to read long-form writing, and I still want to read some of it on paper. I still want there to be publishers because I still believe that a division of labour is beneficial to writers and readers (writers do the writing, PR people do the PR, and so on). I have never been to the Musée d'Orsay. Nevertheless, I admired many of the ideas presented at LitFlow, especially a few projects - like Self's essay, incidentally - that were so wonderfully ambitious as to be financially inviable for any kind of for-profit enterprise.

My hope would be that as digital opportunities multiply, so does diversity. That the "next literature" is available on paper and as an on-call satellite projection onto the inside of our eyelids, that robots write weather reports and romantic novels, that 140 characters and 950 pages are equally respected, perhaps by different people. That we still have authorial authority but we have collaborative writing (and translation) too. That writing is done to make a fast buck and at great expense, be that in terms of self-exploitation or investment skimmed off the fast bucks. That the "next literature" is not, in other words, uniform and boring.

1 comment:

Sarah Ehrhardt said...

Schöner Bericht, und danke fürs Verlinken! War nett, dich - wenn auch nur kurz - bei litflow kennen gelernt zu haben!