Monitoring the international publishing scene

From The New Publishing Standard:

Monitoring the international publishing scene can be depressing at times. A lot of times.

Because even in the 2020s a common theme being touted by events organisers, culture ministers, publishing execs and other authoritative figures that really should know better is that young people are not reading because they are too busy with their mobile phones, wasting time on social media when they could be reading a dry, dull-as-possible, micro-font text book written for a 1950s audience.

What is up with the youth of today? Don’t they understand that reading is something you have to do – a daily chore – not something you choose to do because it is pleasurable?

It’s no coincidence that this nonsense is being perpetuated in the least dynamic book markets, while conversely the dynamic book markets openly embrace social media, digital reading and the accessibility of mobile devices to expand reading.

This past week a useful survey from the UK Publishers Association (it happens!) took in the opinions of over 2,000 16-25 year olds (the so-called Generation Z) and confirmed what most of us in the western book markets are already acutely aware of – that social media drives reading and drives book sales.

The focus here was on the social media platform BookTok. Here’s what the PA survey concluded:

  • 59% of 16-25 year olds say that BookTok or book influencers have helped them discover a passion for reading.
  • 55% turn to BookTok for recommendations
  • 66% say that BookTok has inspired them to read a book that they would have never considered otherwise.

And bricks & mortar booksellers need not worry this is only drving digital book sales. From the press release:

The good news is that Booktok can also have a positive impact on physical bookshops, with nearly half (49%) of respondents visiting a physical bookshop to buy a book they have seen on BookTok. 

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG notes the OP is based on a research project conducted by the UK Publishers Association and includes a link to the press release describing that research project.

How Ukraine’s artists are taking on Putin’s Russia

From The Guardian:

When I meet him, artist Oleksiy Sai, along with his wife and son, have slept the night in their studio, a warren of rooms tucked behind an unassuming courtyard in central Kyiv. It’s on the ground floor, and with good walls, so they reckon it’s reasonably safe from Russian rockets. Safer, that is, than their apartment: the previous day they were woken by the juddering scream-boom of cruise missile strikes, one cratering a children’s playground a block from their flat. Somehow, their windows survived, though the glass was blown out of most of the nearby buildings. Now, the whole family is busy making work: his son Vasyl is at a screen editing videos; his wife, Svitlana Ratoshnyuk, is making folksy textiles embroidered with “Fuck Putin” in Ukrainian.

Before the war, Sai – slim, intense, wearing a black hoodie – used to make colourful works, based on Excel software, that wryly commented on “office life and global culture”. But when the Russians invaded on 24 February, he says, “I forgot about art completely, I forgot all my plans and started working for the war.” First, he began rolling out designs for protest posters. “I know how to do it fast,” Sai says; he honed the skill nearly a decade ago, during the 2013 Maidan Square protests against the pro-Russian then president, Viktor Yanukovych. Sai’s banner designs have been seen on the streets of London, New York and Berlin. They are not subtle. “Unilever! Quit Russia!” reads one, the familiar corporate logo rendered as a U-shaped spatter of blood. Another depicts a line of Russian medals “For torture”, “For looting” and “For the genocide of the Ukrainian people”.

Later, Sai made a video work. He shows it to me on his computer. Brutal images march across the screen in a grim procession: shattered and broken bodies, twisted and collapsed buildings, the full Goya-esque horror of war. The raw material for the piece was 7,000 photographs from the conflict’s barbaric heart – gathered from journalists, but also from photographers he knew who had signed up as combatants and taken pictures deep amid the raw carnage. “My goal is to terrify people,” he says. “To show that the war is total. To show that it’s fucking serious.” The work has been shown at the Nato headquarters, at the European parliament. Its sound consists of radio intercepts of Russian soldiers talking to their mothers or girlfriends, along with a sort of dull metronomic beat that gives the whole work a “zombified” feel, as Sai puts it. “It’s too scary for news,” he says. “But for art, it’s possible.” None of the images is captioned, there’s no contextual information; it’s designed to cut to the marrow. It’s certainly not intended to be journalism. As an artwork, “it gives you a deeper emotional connection, and a deeper knowledge”, he says. He calls it “propaganda” before checking himself: “It’s not propaganda. It’s not the stuff I want to do, it’s the stuff I need to do.” He adds: “It is practical and useful, and people changed their minds about the war. It worked.” In the resistance against the Russian invasion, Sai’s art is his weapon.

The work is distressing; after a few moments, to my relief, he pauses the video. I can’t help wondering what it was like to live among these images, studying them, editing them together in his small dark studio. “It was three weeks of hell. I dreamed about them. They got into my head,” he says. He developed a nervous tic, started scratching himself obsessively. For relief, he has been making what he calls his Smoke series of drawings – swirls of black that recall the clouds rising from the site of missile strikes. After Russian attacks, Ukrainian outlets show footage not of the affected buildings, but only the smoke – so as not to reveal whether the intended target was hit. There’s a stack of these Smoke works at the back of the studio; he’s given lots away so they can be sold to raise money for the war effort. “I’m lucky to get to edit in this comfortable place, smoking and eating,” he says. “I won’t lose my leg doing it. It’s easier than firing a gun.”

. . . .

Where to begin a story of war? Every war teems with stories: stories of survival and violence, of resistance and compliance, of struggle and terror. They go together: many of the oldest stories that survive (the Iliad, the Odyssey) are stories of war and its aftermath. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a war full of stories but also a war about a story, about the accepted facts, about the prevailing narrative. Vladimir Putin’s “special operation”, as he calls it, seems to have been intended to provide a spectacle, a kind of war movie, for domestic consumption, drawing the Russians together against what he hopes to frame as a common enemy – described variously as Nazis, terrorists or even, bizarrely, as the forces of Satan. At the same time, the war’s false justification has its own disturbing narrative, its own warped internal logic. Underlying Putin’s military aggression, as his speeches and essays have for years made clear, is his assertion that Ukraine has no distinct existence – that it can be seen only as an adjunct to Russia. In such a war on a nation’s culture, identity and history, it is artists and cultural figures who find themselves the crack troops of the resistance. The war is on one level about borders, and it is being fought with shells, Himars rocket launchers and Shahed-136 drones. But it is, on a deeper level, about culture. And, desperately holding the line, fighting on the cultural front, weaponising their work, are Ukraine’s artists.

. . . .

What happens to art when a war appears as an unwelcome guest in your country? In the short term, war ruptures language and meaning; art seems pointless. No one I speak to in Ukraine can forget the shock of the first day of the invasion – a day that is sealed into people’s memories as surely as a fly trapped in amber, to borrow an image from Maksym Kurochkin, a Kyiv-based playwright turned soldier. Musicians tell me how they seemed to fall deaf, in those early days; novelists, how they started to muddle languages they’d never confused before. Art is no use against rockets or guns. “You could not protect your family from a rifle with your poems,” as Oleksandr Mykhed, a writer I meet at a book festival in Lviv, puts it. Everything collapsed in on itself, in those early days.

The best use of words, as the invasion began, was not to arrange them into elegant poetic forms, but to use them to send a message to your friends that you were alive, or to help someone stay safe. Mykhed speaks of a backpack his wife, Olena, has put together, containing equipment to use in the event of a nuclear attack, along with directions. “If the backpack survives, then we have a piece of nonfiction with instructions for restoring life,” he says. On 23 February, the day before the invasion, he finished writing a book. As the tanks rolled in, he volunteered for the military. On the fifth day of the war he was sleeping in barracks. On the seventh, his home was shelled to destruction. In such a way, war renders a life unrecognisable, over the course of a single week.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

More than half of young readers credit BookTok with sparking passion for reading

From The Bookseller:

A poll conducted by the Publishers Association has found more than half of young readers credit BookTok, a subcommunity on the social media platform TikTok focused on books and literature, with helping them discover a passion for reading.

Of 2,001 16–25-year-olds surveyed by the organisation in October, 59% said that BookTok or book influencers had “helped them discover a passion for reading”, while more than half (55%) said they turn to BookTok for recommendations. Moreover, 68% said BookTok had inspired them to read a book that they would have never considered otherwise.

The research also saw 38% of young people say they turn to BookTok for recommendations ahead of family and friends, while nearly one in five (19%) reported that following the Booktok hashtag helped them find a community. Another 16% reported that they had made new friends through BookTok.

Dan Conway, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said: “It’s great to see that the BookTok phenomenon is igniting a love of reading for young people. Reading can be so beneficial to health and happiness and is a way for all ages to connect over common interests.”

Findings suggest a boost for bookshops, too, with nearly half (49%) of respondents visiting a physical bookshop to buy a book they have seen on BookTok. Book Bar, an independent bookshop and wine bar in London, is among a number of bookshops aiming to cater for this audience.

Due to trends driven by BookTok, the shop now stocks more contemporary books which cater to a broader demographic. Chrissy Ryan, the owner of Book Bar, said: “Launching in the pandemic was challenging but BookTok has been really helpful in driving customers into our store. More and more we are seeing young people come to the shop asking for books they discovered on TikTok.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Nicola Sturgeon on the push for another Scottish referendum

From The Economist:

When I wrote previously for this publication, back in 2015, it would have been all but impossible to predict the course which global events have since taken. We have witnessed Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the United States and its toxic legacy, a global pandemic, the return of war to the European continent with Russia’s brutal, illegal invasion of Ukraine—and, in the United Kingdom, a cost-of-living and general economic crisis on a scale unseen in many decades.

Any one of these things would have the capacity to be unsettling. Taken together, though, these events have thrown the world around us into a state of flux of a kind rarely seen in modern times.

In Scotland, the government I lead is doing its utmost to protect people in the face of the severe economic challenges we face. However, those challenges have been exacerbated by the reckless actions of the British government, whose policies have sent sterling plummeting to record lows against the dollar, while prompting central-bank interventions to prop up the economy and leading to surging interest rates which are having a punitive impact on ordinary citizens at a time when inflation had already risen to its highest level in around 40 years.

Against such a challenging backdrop, some may ask why the Scottish government is committed to giving the people of our country the choice of becoming an independent nation. The answer, quite simply, is that Scotland cannot afford not to seize the opportunity of independence given the current circumstances.

When people last voted on the issue, back in 2014, they were told by the British government of the day that the only way to protect Scotland’s place in the European Union was to reject independence.

That pledge, like so many other promises of the No campaign in 2014, has proved to be empty. Scotland has been taken out of the eu against our will and removed from the world’s largest single market—a market around seven times bigger than Britain’s.

No one can now seriously claim, given the chaotic nature of British governance in recent times, and especially in light of the turmoil of recent months, that Scotland’s future is in safe hands for as long as we remain subject to rule from Westminster. The fact that the uk is now predicted to have the slowest growth of any G20 economy in 2023, with the exception of sanctions-hit Russia, is further proof.

At the time of writing, Scotland’s ability to hold a referendum without agreement from Westminster—in line with the overwhelming democratic mandate for one secured in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election—is in the hands of the UK Supreme Court. The court is having to rule at all only because the British government is seeking to block that electoral mandate.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that the author of the OP is Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland.

While having Scottish and English ancestry, PG and his forbearers have lived in the United States for quite a long time, so PG is not in any position to comment on an internal matter of the UK.

PG realizes that UK internal politics are not the usual subjects for TPV, he will note that the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, extending through the weekend, puts a lot of US book talk on hold, so he ranges farther afield than usual.

How “offshore journalists” challenge Vladimir Putin’s empire of lies

From The Economist:

The Kremlin banned them, branded them “foreign agents”, criminalised them and chased them out of the country. It cut off their finances and tried to isolate them from their audiences. But they have regrouped, rebuilt and come back stronger. Never in the past 30 years have Russian journalists been under such assault and never have they fought back with such vigour, calling out the Kremlin’s lies, exposing its corruption and unearthing evidence of its war crimes.

Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship does not leave much scope for street protests, but independent reporters have formed a virtual resistance movement, lobbing explosive stories at his war machine and supplying news and opinions to those who look for them. Most are doing so from outside Russia, something they call “offshore journalism”. At least 500 journalists have left Russia since the invasion, according to Proekt Media, an investigative outlet.

Scattered across Europe, in cities such as Riga, Tbilisi, Vilnius, Berlin and Amsterdam, such journalists reach a large audience, most of them under the age of 40. “Our job today is to survive and not let our readers suffocate,” says Ivan Kolpakov, the editor-in-chief of Meduza, a news website.

Meduza has reported on the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, and the extraordinary number of convicts being pressed to join Wagner, a mercenary group run by a crony of Mr Putin. Mediazona, an online outlet founded by two members of Pussy Riot, a punk band, is trying to count the true number of Russian casualties. It has also found an ingenious way to work out how many Russians have been conscripted, by analysing open-source data on the unusually high number of marriages since mobilisation began. (Draftees are allowed to register their marriage on the same day as they are enlisted, and often do, since they don’t know when they will see their partners again.) Mediazona estimates that half a million people have already been drafted—far more than the 300,000 the Kremlin said would be.

For the Kremlin, suppressing real news is an important part of its war effort. Some outlets remain in Russia that are not propaganda organs, such as Kommersant, a private newspaper. But they are highly constrained—they cannot call the war a war, for example. Since Mr Putin invaded Ukraine he has muzzled most independent voices, lest they sow doubt among citizens or induce a split within the elite.

tv Rain, Russia’s best known independent television channel, went dark eight days after the war started. Echo of Moscow, a radio station with 5m listeners, went silent on the same day. Soon after that Novaya Gazeta, the most outspoken newspaper, stopped printing. Alexei Venediktov, the editor of Echo, and Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel prize-winning editor of Novaya Gazeta, stayed in Russia while some of their former colleagues set up operations offshore. tv Rain is back on air, now based in Latvia and broadcasting via YouTube to 20m viewers a month, most of them inside Russia. Echo is in Berlin, streaming news and talk-shows live via a new smartphone app, which the Kremlin tried but failed to block.

A dozen new digital outlets, most of them set up since Mr Putin first started grabbing chunks of Ukraine in 2014, are publishing investigative journalism. A recent probe by The Insider, an online outlet, working with Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence group, unmasked dozens of engineers and programmers who have been directing Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities. “Investigative journalism, which is declining in many countries, is flourishing in Russia,” says Roman Dobrokhotov, who runs The Insider. “There is plenty of demand for it, there are people who know how to do it and there is no shortage of subjects to investigate.”

Russians find real news via apps and virtual private network (vpn) services, which can help them bypass censorship. Before the war Russia was the 40th-largest user of vpns; now it is the largest in the world. Nearly half of young Russians use one, according to gwi, a market-research firm. Most are well-educated urbanites. But even in rural areas, a fifth of people use vpns.

Remote working during covid was a good preparation for offshore journalism. “I am physically located in Berlin, but I live in the Russian information field,” says Maxim Kurnikov, the editor of Echo.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Paramount scraps deal to sell Simon & Schuster to Penguin after weeks after judge rejected merger

From CNBC:

Paramount Global said Monday it scrapped its $2.2 billion deal to sell book publisher Simon & Schuster to rival Penguin Random House, weeks after a federal judge rejected the merger.

Penguin, which is owned by German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, said it still believes Simon & Schuster is a good fit for its business, but that it accepted Paramount’s decision.

“We believe the judge’s ruling is wrong and planned to appeal the decision, confident we could make a compelling and persuasive argument to reverse the lower court ruling on appeal,” Penguin said in a statement Monday afternoon. “However, we have to accept Paramount’s decision not to move forward.”

Paramount’s decision to pull the plug on the deal came more than a year after the Justice Department sued to block the deal, saying it would hurt competition for books in the publishing world. On Halloween, after a trial that included testimony from bestselling horror author Stephen King, U.S. District Court Judge Florence Y. Pan on Halloween ruled against the deal, delivering a major victory for the Biden administration’s antitrust agenda.

King, who writes books for Simon & Schuster, said he was “delighted” by the ruling. “The proposed merger was never about readers and writers; it was about preserving (and growing) PRH’s market share. In other words: $$$,” he tweeted.

In its announcement Monday, Paramount said Penguin is on the hook for a $200 million termination fee.

Paramount also indicated that it would still seek to unload Simon & Schuster.

Link to the rest at CNBC and thanks to J. for the tip.


Part 1: Yes, this is the actual CNBC headline. PG checked it on Grammarly, expecting a mild digital uproar over the two “afters”, but Grammarly simply suggested that “judge” and “merger” needed appropriate articles.

Part 2: PG wonders if either side of this deal has decided to move to a different law firm, at least for antitrust matters. In PG’s enormously outsized opinion, this deal screamed of antitrust problems from the first time he read about it and the screaming never stopped until the District Judge put an arrow in its heart.

Of course, there’s no appeal because each party finally consulted adult antitrust lawyers, who likely delivered the news that the case was a loser up and down the legal line and had been since the start.

Part 3: If PG had a financial interest in Penguin, PG would scream bloody murder over a $200 million termination fee. Which officer of Penguin approved this provision? Did the board of directors actually vote to put Penguin on the hook for a busted deal that was dodgy from the very beginning?

Part 4: PG assumes that someone at Bertelsmann, the sole owner of Penguin, approved this transaction. Surely, someone in Gütersloh or several someones in this small German city will be sending out the German equivalent to resumes, résumés or resumés to the entire world.

(PG just learned that the German word for this sort of document is Lebenslauf. Apparently Lebenslauf doesn’t have versions with accent marks.)

Part 5: How are the Mohn family and the managers of various Mohn stiftungs that really own and control Bertlesmann feeling these days? PG doesn’t know whether $200 million is pocket change for these folks or not. He hasn’t looked up the German translation for “You’re Fired!” but expect there is an equivalent term. (He did learn that the German term for “Hit the road!” is Sich auf den Weg machen! or simply, Losfahren!)

(PG apologizes if there is supposed to be an upside-down exclamation point anywhere in all this German. He wasn’t exactly certain how to look that up.)

In Real Life Arranged Marriage is No Joke

From Electric Lit:

How do you discuss something so intimate and uncomfortable as finding a spouse, without laughing or crying or cringing in embarrassment or fear? How do you talk about it without using the L-word? As in Luck. As in, you can plan and strategize as much as you want to, you can prepare as if you’re preparing for battle, you can organize and plan for all contingencies. There is still a certain amount of luck involved.

More on that later.

Frequently it is a different L-word. As in Laugh. It’s a laughing matter — as in when you see it on TV or the silver screen, you end up laughing at either the future groom or the bride, or perhaps both, for all of the misunderstandings and all of the foibles. Sometimes you’re laughing out of relief: As in “Thank god that isn’t happening to me.” Sometimes you’re laughing in recognition: “Been there, done that!”

There is a romantic presumption of happily ever after, of marital bliss. There are the underlying assumptions that maybe your family does know what’s best for you, that perhaps it’s not just two people getting married but two families and two communities coming together. Perhaps it shouldn’t be left to the young and inexperienced to figure out for themselves. Think We Are Lady Parts. Think Indian Matchmaking.

Then there’s the comedy of errors when the groom or bride deviates from the chosen path that is meant to make us laugh, to ease the cringing and the uncomfortable moments. Think of Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick or Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

But in real life, arranged marriage is no joke. 

. . . .

It is an accepted practice around the world. Most of the time, in my experience with my family and friends and acquaintances, marriages are arranged with good intentions.

In India, where my ancestral family originates, it is complicated. Here is a nation famous for worshiping female deities such as Durga and Kali, tongues out, weapons in hand. And India had its first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, decades before the purported democratic ideal, The United States, fielded Kamala D. Harris to the nation’s second highest position. Still, India and the subcontinent remain in the news — so much violence and oppression against women. Child marriage, yes, but also dowry deaths and female infanticide and sexual assault. 

But I digress, again. 

Arranged marriage ultimately becomes something borne out of a visual medium: think picture brides. Someone posing, unsmiling, that is supposed to symbolize a potential bride or groom’s merits and seriousness. There are many stories and books about that concept  — famously, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s short story collection, Arranged Marriage, and The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka which vividly depicts the lives of Japanese picture brides emigrating to the United States and making their way in the years before World War II. Kiran Desai’s debut novel, Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard, has one of the best descriptions of the expectations of and for a daughter-in-law that I’ve ever read, and I chuckle every time I have a moment to revisit it.

For as long as I can remember the dominant American culture has looked upon arranged marriage in eastern cultures or non-English speaking parts of the world as something backward or something that was to be treated as abusive or suspicious. Of course everything in the world is a circle/cycle and there are now healthy numbers of Americans  on eHarmony or Matchdotcom or something similar trying out a more modern version of arrangement and the institution of marriage. 

My family and my husband’s family hail from similar backgrounds. We are both academic brats, children of college professors. In fact we were both raised in the U.S., Bengali in origin — and our parents are friends. Yes, we were introduced but as we are fond of saying, “We got married despite our parents and not because of them.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Canada’s CBC Books Names Five Finalists for Its 2022 Poetry Prize

From Publishing Perspectives:

Like its annual show and competition Canada Reads, the CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Poetry Prize program is another enviable example of the public services performed by CBC Books.

That program’s literary prizes include not only this poetry competition, but also one in nonfiction and one in short stories. In the case of the Poetry Prize, most of the five finalists announced today (November 17) have considerable experience and are professionally published writers, although the rules for entering the competition requires that an entry be “an original, unpublished poem or collection of poems up to 600 words in length (with no minimum words limit). The program, then, highlights previously unpublished content.

CBC Poetry Prize 2022 Finalists

Links for each finalist’s work are to CBC’s write-ups on the writers selected. On those writers’ pages, you’ll find all or part of each al

  • From the Mouth by Rachel Lachmansingh (Toronto)

Lachmansingh is a Guyanese Canadian writer from Toronto. She’s been published in Minola Review, Grain, the Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, The Puritan and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing her bachelor of arts degree in creative writing at the University of Victoria. Lachmansingh was also longlisted for the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize for The Window of a Stranger’s House.

  • To the Astronaut Who Hopes Life on Another Planet Will Be More Bearable by Brad Aaron Modlin (Guelph, Ontario)

Modlin is a creative writing professor and poet. His work has been used for orchestral scores, an art exhibition in New York, and has been featured on The Slowdown with U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón and Poetry Unbound from public radio’s On Being Studios. His book Everyone at This Party Has Two Names won the Cowles Poetry Prize.

  • Mouth Prayers by Luka Poljak (Vancouver)

Poljak is a Croatian Canadian poet currently in the bachelor of fine arts degree program at the University of British Columbia. He’s a board member of the nonprofit YouthCO and is currently working on his first chapbook of poetry.

  • Grief White by Kerry Ryan (Winnipeg)

Ryan has published two books of poetry: The Sleeping Life and Vs., which was a finalist for the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. Her third poetry collection, Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children, is to be released in the spring. Ryan was previously longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2020 for Driver’s Seat & Grief Knot. 

  • Spell World Backwards by Bren Simmers (Charlottetown)

Simmers is the author of four books, including the wilderness memoir Pivot Point and Hastings-Sunrise, which was a finalist for the Vancouver Book Award. Her most recent collection of poetry is If, When. She was previously longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2013 for I Blame MASH For My Addiction To MLS and in 2012 for Science Lessons.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

While PG is something of a snob about poetry (he hasn’t seen much written after the mid-20th century that he’s liked very well), he wishes the best for each of the Canadian poets listed above.

At what age do they take people to Ukraine?

From The Economist:

In late September, soon after Vladimir Putin announced that there would be nationwide conscription in Russia, I overheard my 14-year-old student ask his father about it. “At what age do they take people to Ukraine?” the boy said, anxiously. His father wrapped him in a hug, reassuring him that he was too young. In all the months I’d been the family’s live-in tutor, I’d never seen my boss display so much affection to his children.

The boy used to be a lot more gung-ho. When the “special military operation” in Ukraine first started in February he would sternly repeat the government line to me (Russia was strong and good, Ukraine wasn’t a real country). At school he and his friends would tell patriotic jokes. Recently, though, I’d noticed that the memes he forwarded weren’t all pro-Russian – some had even come from the Ukrainian side. The other day he made me watch a TikTok of Ukrainian soldiers imitating characters from a popular video game, followed by more clips of him and his friends trying to recreate their moves. I asked him if they realised it was Ukrainian soldiers they were emulating. He shrugged.

A more serious message seems to be cutting through the jumble of social-media posts. When we were going through his homework shortly after the hug I witnessed, my student abruptly said: “I think Russia is losing the war.” I asked why he thought that. “That’s just what I heard. I think nobody wants to fight there.” We moved on, but the gravity of what he’d said lingered.

. . . .

This teenager is not the only one whose patriotic certainty has faded since the war’s early days. A giant “Z” – the symbol of support for Putin’s invasion – that someone had painted across the front of a building in the city has now gone. People make snide remarks about Russia’s progress on the battlefield, and they go unchallenged. The draft has changed the atmosphere.

Men are becoming less visible in Russia: hundreds of thousands have been conscripted and many more are fleeing conscription. At a café I recently overheard a table of women gossiping about their boyfriends in Turkey. The army isn’t held in much esteem these days (“Russian soldiers are supposed to be the second-best in the world but I think my husband is only third or fourth,” runs one joke) so little shame is attached to draft-dodging.

Some women I know whose partners have left the country are discovering new reserves of toughness. One friend is doing two jobs so that she can send money to her boyfriend, who is lying low in Turkey without an income. She’s so relieved he’s safe from the draft that she doesn’t even seem to register how tired she is. Another is doing the same for her boyfriend. “He supported me for ten years, now it’s my turn,” she says.

. . . .

Others left behind are distraught. One friend called me in tears to say her half-brother had received his summons and was going to Ukraine at the end of October. “He is terrified. He cried with my father when he got the letter. He is too young,” she said. She is convinced he is going to die.

I don’t know any men who have gone to fight, but my boss’s bodyguard, a fit man in his early 30s, is clearly expecting the summons. In the days following the announcement he kept going off to take phone calls in private. We recently found ourselves alone together and I asked him what he was planning to do. “I am stuck here. We don’t speak English,” he said. “My job here is great. In Turkey, what can I do?” He hopes he will at least have a chance to get his wife pregnant before he’s called up.

Link to the rest at The Economist

International Bestsellers, October 2022

From Publishing Trends:

Every month, Publishing Trends runs fiction international bestsellers lists from four territories–France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. This month, our four regular territories are joined by two more: Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. Those books that have been published in English are listed with their official English-language title. All others are translated as literally as possible from the original. Where applicable, the US publisher is listed after the local publisher, separated by a “/”. The lists are taken from major newspapers or national retailers, which are noted at the bottom of each list.

. . . .

Link to the rest at Publishing Trends

Why This Poet Declared War on Her Own Book

From The Walrus:

THEY KILL THE WOMEN and the children first. This is the most cost-effective decision. The captain knows by heart the commodity value of a child, knows the women will be worth less than the men at the auction block. So he picks the obvious choices: he orders the crew to push them, the women and the children, through the cabin windows and into the Atlantic.

It’s September 1781, and having departed the Guinea Coast for a sugar port in Jamaica, the Zong is overloaded with enslaved Africans. Because the captain lacks navigational and command experience, the voyage will take eighteen weeks instead of the usual six; the ship will run low on drinking water; slaves and crew members will take ill and die; the captain will become desperate. Soon enough, he will compensate for his mediocrity with quick and murderous calculations. Over the course of ten days, to conserve resources, he and his crew will sacrifice Africans to the sea—according to some sources, it may have been as many as 150. When the ship docks in Jamaica, the captain will file an insurance claim for the loss of his “cargo.”

Here is how a massacre enters history: as a story of property destruction.

In 2008, the Toronto-based writer M. NourbeSe Philip published a dizzying, fragmented book-length poem entitled Zong!: As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, a seven-year archival project that bears witness to those atrocities and attempts, as the author says, to “defend the dead.” She composed and rearranged the text using words sourced exclusively from the two-page legal case report of the insurance claim she tracked down in the University of Toronto’s law library. In time, Zong! became a widely studied work of contemporary literature, performed dozens of times in at least nine countries and excerpted in arts galleries globally. Critics have described it as a masterpiece.

In early 2016, Philip received an enthusiastic email from a woman called Renata Morresi, a translator and poet who teaches American literature at the University of Padua in Italy. Morresi wanted to translate Zong! into Italian. Her academic research focused on, among other subjects, “slavery and its ‘unconventional’ representations,” and she had been recently awarded Italy’s national prize for translation. She thought Zong! could be valuable to Italians who were striving to make sense of their own contemporary crisis. That year alone, CNN reported, an estimated ninety migrants from North Africa and other Arab countries were drowning every week in the Mediterranean in their bid to escape violence, poverty, persecution, and war. Morresi did not, at the time, have a publisher for the translation or a contract or anything in the way of a plan, and Philip felt the emails gave the enterprise the feel of an unserious project. She advised Morresi to contact Wesleyan University Press, the book’s American publisher, which owned rights to Zong!

“I don’t know whether you speak Italian,” Morresi wrote to Philip, “but if you feel like we can discuss the drafts (it would certainly be an invaluable help for me).”

The next time Philip heard from anyone about the Italian translation of Zong! was five years later, when a small Italian publisher called Benway Series emailed the proofs with an invitation to the book’s online launch. It came as a surprise. Neither Morresi nor Wesleyan had informed her that a formal agreement was signed and subsidiary rights to her book transferred. By then, two other translators had joined the project. The translation was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, a public funder that serves Canadian artists and arts organizations, but the $13,350 it paid Benway Series had likewise changed hands without the artist’s knowledge. (Part of the CCA’s literary translation program serves international publishers.)

The lack of transparency confused her: it’s professional practice to involve the poet in any translation work. She emailed Suzanna Tamminen, the director and editor-in-chief at WUP, to confirm a contract had been signed, before congratulating the translators on their hard work. “I am honoured,” she wrote to Benway. “It is so important that this work reach European countries, many of which are the ground zero of the trauma that is ongoing.”

And then she saw what they had done to her book.

LITERARY TRANSLATION is an unforgiving balancing act. The Italian saying “traduttoretraditore”—or, “translator, traitor”—captures how any translation is destined to obfuscate the true meaning of the original, sealing the fate of what Miguel de Cervantes in the seventeenth century called a work’s “original luster.” The consequence is both reader and author are betrayed. Vladimir Nabokov famously translated his own novels into Russian to avoid seeing them “degraded and botched by vulgar paraphrases.” He was deeply contemptuous of Constance Garnett, a translator who basically brought Russian literature to the English-speaking world, because by favouring readability, she often elided an author’s idiosyncrasies. If translators seem inclined to fatalism, in other words, it’s because they’re tortured by the idea that their aptitude will be measured by how invisible they can make themselves.

The translator’s presence in Zong!, though, was not quite the object of Philip’s distress; Philip is not a Nabokovian purist. Translators have worked on her books before, with her approval. The problem was of another nature. Among the myriad reasons Zong! has become such a widely studied work are its disjunctive, distinctive visual qualities—a kinetic form charged with spiritual intent. The poetry sweeps across 180 pages in the manner of vocal jazz or a disordered musical constellation. As if carried off by waves, words float away from each other, swirl around, casting off letters like articles of clothing; syllables gurgle or stutter, refuse meaning. Isolated phrases, seemingly at random, tilt into cursive or italics. Submerged at the bottom of each page are imagined African names for the drowned, whose deaths were originally recorded as “negroe man” or “negroe woman.”

It had taken Philip years to find this form. It wasn’t until after a 2006 sojourn to Ghana, the departure point of the slave ship, that the book’s organizational principle began to slowly reveal itself. That principle became associated with a figure she called Setaey Adamu Boateng, who represented the ancestral voices she believed were speaking through the pattern she was painstakingly creating on the page. “Every word or word cluster,” she wrote in the book’s closing essay, “is seeking a space directly above within which to fit itself.” Those spaces are critical for Philip, because they are intended to represent the very air the enslaved were denied as they sank. “The text is attempting to revivify and recuperate what was lost in those last breaths,” Philip told me. “That, for me, is nonnegotiable.”

When Benway Series sent her the proofs in June 2021, the first thing Philip noticed was that this nonnegotiable rule had been broken. The PDF on her computer screen felt cluttered and claustrophobic. The Italian phrases often nearly grazed the lines beneath them. The formal protocols she had painstakingly established to turn Zong! into what she called a “mourning song” had not been respected. Morresi had attempted to capture the poetry’s pictorial shape, but the translator not only missed the logic behind why the text had been arranged that way, she also failed to consider how that arrangement might need to change when adapted into a foreign language. “What I am committed to is that it’s a dynamic action,” said Philip, referring to Zong! ’s form. “The words have to be positioned in such a way that they breathe.”

When Philip raised these concerns in an email to Benway Series, she was rebuffed. Morresi, wrote the book’s editors, was “extremely skilled and multi-award-winning,” and a first draft of the translation had been anonymously peer reviewed “in very positive terms.” WUP’s head emailed to say it wasn’t part of the normal process to send authors permission updates about their books, and that, anyway, “expanding the critical discourse on the book in this way helps to ensure [it] remains on reading lists for years to come.” Morresi emailed to note that any differences between the source text and its translation were attributable to Italian’s cumbersome morphology: the words inevitably run longer, which made it difficult to adhere to Philip’s unique spacing rules. She would have reached out directly to ask questions, Morresi said, but she assumed Philip wasn’t interested, and she didn’t want to disturb her.

. . . .

After weeks of fruitless discussions, as it became obvious Philip would not consent to the translation, Benway Series went ahead with publication. In late August 2021, when Philip received word that the press was preparing to distribute the book, she demanded the publisher destroy it and scrub all mention of the title from their website. WUP’s Tamminen, now swayed by Philip’s concerns, supported the request. Benway Series refused. In an email signed by two editors, the press argued they had done everything according to the letter of the law. Philip went public on social media and drew the support of more than 1,200 people—among them, poets, editors, scholars, publishers, translators, and readers—who petitioned to have the “flawed” translation recalled and destroyed.

Benway posted a rebuttal on its website, in Italian, that described Philip’s demands as reminiscent “of authoritarian and fundamentalist regimes around the world” and said her accusations of racism were “offensive, not so much to us . . . as much as for all the victims of that gruesome violence.”

It seemed to Philip that Benway Series expected her to be grateful for their attention, that the virtuousness of a small Italian press ought to be celebrated rather than contested. But she couldn’t understand why nobody there thought to contact her about the translation. “Even if there weren’t those underpinning spiritual, historical reasons why the structure of Zong! is important,” she said, “as an artist and as a poet, surely my work must be respected.”

. . . .

Moral rights stem from the Berne Convention, the leading international copyright treaty which states that even if an artist cedes economic rights to their work, they retain the legal grounds to “object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification” done to that work. One option, therefore, might have seen Philip file a lawsuit against Benway Series in Canada and, if she won, go to an Italian court to help enforce it. Neither of these actions would have been easy to pull off.

While Italy appears to provide substantial legal protections to writers and artists, there’s very little Canadian case law on the subject, even though the Snow ruling raised the bar for moral rights infringement. “What it did was set a precedent that in order to win in a case of moral rights, you had to prove that it damaged the honour and reputation of the artist,” said Martha Rans, a Vancouver-based lawyer who specializes in copyright law. But there’s a caveat: you need a reputation big enough that any damage to it can be quantified. “It becomes very difficult to mount a case,” said Rans, “because Canada doesn’t have a lot of what might be considered high-profile artists.”

Link to the rest at The Walrus

PG notes that he was unable to find anything in the OP which indicated that Ms. Philip registered her book in any nation’s copyright office.

The publisher of the original book, Wesleyan University Press, is mentioned only in passing in the OP.

For those not familiar with the institution, Wesleyan University is a very expensive private institution located in Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan is one of a small group of similar institutions that are sometimes called the “Little Ivies.”

PG wonders if Wesleyan Press actually granted translation rights to the Italian press or not. Small university presses don’t usually have piles of money sitting around, but, if it did not grant a license for an Italian translation of the book in question, one might think that it might think about raising a fuss about the Italian translation.

Here’s a fuzzy copy of the copyright page for the book.

Observant readers will note that Ms. Philip is listed as the owner of the copyright.

Here’s a list of various organizations that helped fund the creation of Zong.

There are a lot of wealthy organizations mentioned in these acknowledgements. The OP didn’t mention whether Ms. Philip sought the help of Wesleyan University or any of her funding organizations for help in this copyright dispute.

Perhaps he missed the copyright registration sentence in the OP, but, suffice to say, as a general proposition, registering a copyright with any western nation’s copyright office increases the options for enforcing the copyright in many other western nations, most certainly including Italy.

See here for a layperson’s explanation of the benefits of registering a copyright in the United States.


This whole situation seemed weird, so PG dug deeper and searched the United States Copyright Office for Zong.

Here’s what he found:

Registration Number / Date:
TX0007043340 / 2008-10-09

Copyright Claimant: Wesleyan University Press, Transfer: Written Contract.

What is a “Copyright Claimant”?

The US Copyright Office helpfully provides a definition:

Please identify all known copyright claimant(s) in this work. The author may always be named as a claimant, even if the author has transferred rights in the work to another person or entity.

The claimant may also be a person or entity that has obtained ownership of the copyright in the work. But to be named as a claimant, a person or organization must own all rights in the work; ownership of only some of the rights is not sufficient. In addition, a claimant must own the copyright in all of the authorship covered by this registration.

PG then searched Canada’s online copyright records (which are, on the whole, easier to access and understand than those in the US copyright office). PG was not able to find any copyright application for Ms. Philips or her book.

Under various copyright conventions and treaties, a registration of a copyright in one signatory nation is automatically recognized on the registration date in all the other signatories to the convention and/or treaty.

Thus, a registration in the US in 2008 would effectively offer backdated protection in all the other countries bound by the convention/treaty. PG is happy to be proven wrong, but he would think that a registration for Zong by Ms. Philips in Italy would be deemed to have been filed in 2008, the date of registration in the US should she wish to push for a shutdown of the illegal translation of her book.

Circling back around to Wesleyan University Press, it appears in that organization’s copyright registration for Zong that Ms. Philips may have signed over her rights under her copyright to the book to Wesleyan University Press.

However, the copyright page of the book shows Ms. Philips as the copyright owner.

PG isn’t certain if the book’s copyright attribution of the copyright to Ms. Philips was simply recognizing her as the author, but that’s not what the copyright page says.

Wesleyan Press, on the other hand, may have screwed up the copyright filing. Small university presses are not generally known as centers of copyright knowledge.

In PG’s mind, it’s possible that somebody at Wesleyan Press who registers a copyright once every 2-3 months max, may have registered the copyright for Zong “the way we’ve always done it,” and failed to change the Presses boilerplate to register the copyright in Ms. Phillips name as is implied by the book’s copyright page.

If any visitor to TPV has actually read down to the end of this quite lengthy post and has any knowledge concerning what actually happened with Ms. Philips and Wesleyan University Press, PG would appreciate any comments to clarify this apparent mess.

Small Nations, Big Feelings

From Public Books:

In March 1930, American author Marcia Davenport arrived at Prague’s Woodrow Wilson Station. She knew not a single Czech word or person, yet she “fell in love” with this newly formed European state. She cherished the ritualistic performance of village festivals, the cautious drives through city streets barely wide enough for cars, the echoing chatter of women in marketplaces, even the smell—“a rich compound of coal smoke, roasting coffee, beer, smoked pork, and frying onions.” For the next twenty years, Davenport returned to Czechoslovakia almost annually, each time amassing more knowledge and friends. During World War II, she worked tirelessly from the US to raise funds for the invaded state and disseminate accurate information about Czechoslovakia on the American airwaves. Her involvement became so intense that she even struck up a romantic (and ultimately tragic) affair with the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk. A faraway place truly became this New Yorker’s “second mother country.”

We often think of those dramatic decades leading up to World War II as a kind of battle between instinctive nationalism and stubborn isolation on the one hand, and a highfalutin universalism and abstract international idealism on the other. The reality, however—at least for Davenport—was less binary. She found her way into international engagement not by walking the halls of the League of Nations but by embracing the intimacy of daily life in a foreign nation. Reminders of a shared human experience and universal political ideologies have their place. But exposure to the particularities of domestic life within nations can cultivate an international perspective.

Feeling patriotism for a foreign country is, when you think about it, odd. Usually our love for country is for our own country, and we roll our eyes at any student who returns from study abroad still wearing a beret. Of course, we care when wars or disasters beset other countries. But we usually do so because of universalistic values, because we care for humanity wherever it may lie. The sort of fervor we feel for our own country typically stops at the border. It’s therefore hard to recall a recent time when many Americans have waved flags for a country that isn’t their own, or with which they didn’t have a diasporic connection. Then this February, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

Already in March, the president of the National Flag Company, Artie Schaller III, spoke to the New York Times on the skyrocketing demand for Ukrainian flags in the US. “This would be the biggest increase in volume for another nation’s flag that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Schaller observed. “I can only compare it to—in my time—9/11, for just how quickly people are willing to show support and are using a flag to do that.” American enthusiasm for Ukraine extended beyond flags: for months, Instagram feeds have filled with recipes for traditional borscht; choirs for Kyiv have appeared on Saturday Night Live; and a small town in upstate New York has loyally followed the daily trials and tribulations of one Ukrainian man through his column for their local newspaper.

It seems most Americans have rejected Putin’s effort to present the war in Ukraine as an ideological proxy battle between East and West. Instead, they have elected to support Ukraine in a way that looks more like Davenport’s: an embrace of the intimate, the local, the very, very national.

. . . .

Although today’s uptick in foreign-flag purchases may be the biggest that Mr. Schaller has seen, it is not entirely without precedent. In the years of crises clustering around World War II, passionate attachment to a foreign nation became prevalent among internationally minded Americans. The fates of the world’s “small powers,” often referred to as “small nations”—including China (especially the Manchurian region), Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia), Poland, Yugoslavia, and yes, Czechoslovakia—all interested America’s burgeoning cosmopolitans. The attention showered upon these seemingly provincial places did not derive only from the state’s relative position in a broader geopolitical calculation. It came from a fascination—as Davenport experienced in Prague—with the components of a state that give it claim to nationhood: internal complexities, culture, and traditions.

. . . .

Davenport’s fascination with a small European state might have remained a private eccentricity, had it not been for the rapidly unfolding catastrophe of World War II. The infamous Munich Agreement in 1938 gave her personal affair with Czechoslovakia a political hue. Increasingly, she came to see Czechoslovakia not only as a place she loved in and of itself but also as a stand-in for her growing international vision and commitments. When reflecting on the war years, Davenport recalled that “the fate of the small country became common cause with every man and woman who stood up to be counted against Hitler.” She volunteered for Czechoslovak-specific relief organizations and also for groups with more global aims, including The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which lobbied the US government to join in the global fight against fascists. In this way, personal affection for the particularities of a people evolved into a commitment to international ideals.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG doesn’t know if the American habit described in the OP has counterparts in other nations, but one factor that may trigger this in the United States is that a very large portion of the current population is descended from ancestors who were born and lived in other nations.

Plus, PG thinks its fairly common in many places for people to instinctively have or develop an emotional attachment to the underdog — the David who is confronting Goliath, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, etc. Even the Three Little Pigs and Little Read Riding Hood vs. the Big Bad Wolf are examples.

Music That Transcends Everything but His Circumstance

From Electric Lit:

Jai Chakrabarti’s “Prodigal Son” begins as Jonah arrives in Kolkata on his way to visit his guru. Jonah is an American, a white man, and like most American tourists, he is obsessed with proving he isn’t one. When he suspects the taxi driver will take advantage of him, he uses Bengali slang to “convince the driver of his adopted roots.” The possible oxymoron of the statement is lost on him—can roots be adopted? 

For fifteen years, Jonah has been visiting Guruji and his family—his wife Suparna and his son Karna. Jonah considers himself Guruji’s most devoted student and believes Guruji thinks of him as a second son. Which, maybe he does.

Guruji is a skilled flutist, and Karna—now an adolescent boy, or in some lights, a young man—is developing a skill to match his father’s. Jonah is technically proficient but not a natural; the transference Jonah hopes to achieve is not complete. The plan for this trip, which Jonah promised his wife would be his last, is to record Guruji’s first album. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Genres for War: Writers in Ukraine on Literature

From The Paris Review:

I was almost done with a draft of my novel when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Amid the destruction and devastation that followed, continuing with my novel felt impossible; I turned toward journalism, which had always been a part-time job for me. For seven months, I have been working as a war correspondent in Ukraine. I have found that I can only read war reports: I am constantly turning to On the Front Line by Marie Colvin. I have wondered about the role of literature, especially in wartime: Are we simply supposed to let documentaries and daily news take over? Or do we find—and provide—an escape from the unbearable?

I began to ask other writers these questions and was surprised by the variability of their answers. Five Ukrainian writers from the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions—the areas devastated by the war—spoke to me about the genres they have been reading and writing during the war. In Kharkiv, a literature professor told me about his rare books being burned in the stove by the Russian military. He also told me about a Ukrainian officer seeking reading recommendations the day before being killed at the front. “I think that an epic work of literature will not come until after the war is over,” writes Serhiy Zhadan. On the other hand, says Lyuba Yakimchuk, “The task of poets is to put the unspeakable feelings in words.” Olga Kryaziach, whose apartment and books were also burned by the Russians, reads and writes on her iPad, taking notes for a different future.

Iya Kiva

I have started to become spatially disoriented because of the war. Once, as I was getting back to a rented apartment, I couldn’t figure out where I was or how I got there for hours. I lived in a Soviet project-style block of flats called khrushchyovka surrounded by identical buildings, and I couldn’t understand which one of those khrushchyovkaswas my home these days; I was shaking and I couldn’t breathe. In another one of my rented apartments, I was always hitting my head while entering. At home, I needed to turn left after entering, but in this new space I had to turn right.

Can I write? Yes and no. On the one hand, I prefer that my story and the stories of my loved ones are not told by others, like the Russian authors who started writing poems during the first weeks of the invasion. But I have been forcing myself to write rather than feeling an inner need; even short diary notes are incredibly tiring. I have also noticed that all my poems are about the inability to speak. This is true both on the thematic and architectonic levels, including pauses and a rather restricted range of ideas. The way I write now feels like a score of silence.

During the first months of the full-scale invasion, reading was similar to learning a new language. Not Ukrainian, Polish, or English, but language as is—as the ability to understand the meaning of particular words, to combine them, make phrases and sentences, to correlate what you’ve just read with your experience. Sometime in March I realized, with surprise, that if merely one word from a page of text aroused associations in my mind, then that was good. It meant I hadn’t unlearned how to think yet.

The only book that I have managed to read from the beginning to the end since February 24 is I Blame Auschwitz by Mikołaj Grynberg. Importantly, I read it in the original Polish. I have noticed that reading comes more easily in foreign languages now. It’s like I am tuning the radio of war to other frequencies.

Serhiy Zhadan

I think that an epic work of literature will not come until after the war is over. For now, there is only enough space and time for direct reflections. Everything else—novels and poems—everything that requires continuity in time—will emerge later. But humor is a completely different matter. It seems to me that even under the circumstances, Ukrainians have no problems with their sense of humor or irony. I think it is evidence of the power of faith, and I am saying this as an agnostic.

I am rereading Bruno Schulz, strange as it may seem. I am reading him despite the fact that he didn’t write about war—but maybe that’s exactly why. I want to continue translating Paul Celan, and I think I will get to it after our victory. But I am not reading him now. For me, Celan’s poems always had an “afterwar” feeling to them. It is unlikely that they could be written in the thirties. During war, there are no poets or non-poets; there are those who are ready to fight and those who are not.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Planning a book event for 2023? Go hybrid

From The Bookseller:

Hybrid festivals are here to stay – that’s what disabled and chronically ill authors want, after having access to online literary festivals and events during the pandemic. Increasingly the whole writing community is backing that call. That’s why team #KeepFestivalsHybrid and team Inklusion have joined forces to create an online guide to 2023 hybrid literary festivals – and we need festival organisers to tell us their plans.

As co-founder of the #KeepFestivalsHybrid campaign along with publisher Clare Christian, I’ve spoken to so many DCI authors for whom online access has transformed their lives and careers, giving them opportunities to network with other authors, and speak at and attend events. One such writer, Chloe Timms, author of The Seawomen, commented: “I love in-person events as much as anyone but virtual events throughout the pandemic made the literary world more accessible. There’s no reason not to have the best of both worlds for readers and writers.”

This year has seen a clarion call for hybrid events across the publishing profession. Cryptic Arts has published Being Hybrid, a guide to what hybrid events are, their benefits and basic technology for hosting them. Director Jamie Hale describes the guide as explaining “the cheapest and fastest way of offering online as well as offline access to events.” 

. . . .

 “Access should be an integrated, organic framework – the skeleton around which event provision is built, rather than a peripheral facet or last-minute add-on. We want to see event organisers using the guide, taking the onus off disabled authors and audience members. We hope the Inklusion Guide will help make good access the norm.”

A report from The Audience Agency in September 2021, called Focus on Disability, concluded that when it comes to arts activities, “disabled people have been more engaged with digital and look likely to be into the future, but this is in substantial part due to the barriers faced with in-person attendance.” The Agency says the report “highlights the importance of continuing digital channels, since removing these would compound the injustice.” But how can literary festivals market their hybrid events to their target audiences?

It’s not easy for a potential festival-goer to find out whether their local literary festival has a hybrid element, or to discover others that do.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

While reading the OP, it occurred that a someone watching the digital side of a hybrid book festival saw something about a book which attracted her/him and wanted to buy that book, by far the easiest thing to do would be to purchase it online instead of traveling to a local physical bookstore only to find it didn’t have any copies of the book.

The Forgotten Sisters Who Pioneered the Historical Novel

From Smithsonian Magazine:

If one were to pinpoint the precise moment the Porter sisters experienced the pinnacle of literary fame, it would likely be the year 1814. By then, Jane and Anna Maria Porter were in their late 30s and living together outside London. They’d published 17 books, including several international bestsellers, and gained reputations as two very different paragons of feminine talent. Jane’s looks and personality proved a tall, dark and serious contrast to Maria’s, as light, bright and sparkling. With no more than a charity-school education, the sisters had grown up nurturing each other’s ambitions, editing each other’s writing and turning themselves into household names.

The Misses Porter (as they were sometimes called) arguably created the modern historical novel, weaving fascinating, romantic tales out of facts and events culled from history books. The sisters were certainly the first to achieve critical acclaim and bestseller status with such novels, starting with Jane’s Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), Maria’s The Hungarian Brothers (1807) and Jane’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810). Their protagonists—a mix of historical figures and invented characters—participated in bloody conflicts on past battlefields, then faced domestic hardships at home and abroad. Both sisters used compelling flourishes, and an undercurrent of clear moralism, to bring history’s heroes and despots to life.

It’s no accident that Jane and Maria made these contributions to literature during the Napoleonic Wars, when the threat loomed of a despot’s global domination. Their novels about liberty and independence, set in threatened nations of decades and centuries past, couldn’t help but shed light on the situation near at hand. Indeed, Napoleon himself understood the dangers the sisters’ books posed to him: He banned Jane’s novels from publication in France, presumably because they might encourage popular uprisings. The narrator of Thaddeus of Warsaw describes the hero’s thinking in a way no tyrant would have approved of: “He well knew the difference between a defender of his own country and the invader of another’s.”

When Jane died in 1850, she was called “one of the most distinguished novelists which England has produced” and “the first who introduced that beautiful kind of fiction, the historical romance.” The Porter sisters’ careers ended just as the Brontë sisters were getting started in the early Victorian period. And over the next century, as the Brontës became literary history’s most visible sisters, the Porters were gradually—and then almost entirely—forgotten.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

European Publishers Hear of a ‘Perfect Storm’ Ahead

From Publishing Perspectives:

Publishers in Europe may be facing a proverbial “perfect storm” of resurgent demand, bottlenecks in supply, rising paper costs, and the energy crisis.

At the Federation of European Publishers’ (FEP) overview of the European market before and during the still-ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Enrico Turrin, deputy director of the federation, warned “We don’t know what the full impact of this ‘perfect storm’ will be, but it is coming.”

His overview of the market contained good, bad, and good-again news. “The pandemic was good for book sales overall,” he said, “perhaps because people rediscovered reading.”

. . . .

Not surprisingly, sales in bookstores fell from 50 percent in 2019 to 43.6 percent in 2021 as so many stores were forced to close. He also noted that print sales overall in Europe hadn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Latvian Literature at Frankfurt: When Introversion is a Bold Choice

From Publishing Perspectives:

To be internationally recognized for its award-winning #IAmIntrovert campaign, Latvian literature—and its platform of that name—will be touting some distinctly extroverted success at Frankfurter Buchmesse.

. . . .

The state-supported platform is designed not only to promote international recognition for Latvian writings and talents but also to offer translation grants to publishers and translators; present cultural programming abroad; lead Latvia’s participation at international book fairs and trade shows; and organize literary visits to Riga.

But with almost poetic irony, all this friendly outreach and sociable interaction with world markets is now buoyed on the internationally popular #IAmIntrovert dynamic.

To quote from the ‘#IAmIntrovert manifest’: “Latvians can feel deeply confused when kissed on both cheeks or when suddenly talked to on a public bus or tram. If someone compliments a Latvian, he will turn red-white-red,” a subtle reference to the colors of the Latvian flag. “Latvia is one of the world’s most introverted nations and so are our writers, of course. And we’re proud of that. We allow our books to speak for us, since literature is the perfect world for introverts.”

Latvian Literature’s representative Ildze Jansone tells Publishing Perspectives, “When the #IAmIntrovert campaign was launched in 2016, it mainly targeted UK publishers, audiences, and media prior to the London Book Fair of 2018,” at which the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were the show’s combined Market Focus.

“Now the ongoing campaign,” she says, “targets  anyone who loves literature. Our initial marketing campaign has become the strongest brand for promoting Latvian literature.”

And as it turns out, Jansone says, genuine cultural context underlies the success of the brand.

One upshot of the durable popularity of #IAmIntrovert is that Latvia’s writers and illustrators aren’t the only ones receiving accolades for their work—so is the campaign itself and the platform.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Why Art Was Such a Powerful Tool for England’s Tudor Monarchs

From Smithsonian Magazine:

In a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, paintings of a father and daughter hang face to face. Larger than life, the monumental portraits present competing conceptions of royal power. The father, Henry VIII, looks directly at the viewer, conveying aggression through his wide stance, bulging leg muscles and excessively padded clothing. The daughter, Elizabeth I, is more coy, refusing to meet the viewer’s gaze and relying on layers of symbolism to allude to the strength of her rule.

Painted decades apart by artists of different generations, Elizabeth’s likeness is clearly in conversation with Henry’s. “Her whole body has been padded and shaped to create a silhouette that echoes … her father’s, and she’s actually wearing a series of ‘truelove’ buttons that she inherited from [him],” says Adam Eaker, a curator in the Met’s European paintings department. “She’s working within a very different idiom as an unmarried, childless woman to create an iconography that will position her as the heir to her father’s throne.”

Both of these works—a portrait of Henry by the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger and Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth—testify to the rapidly evolving artistic landscape of Tudor England. From Henry VII’s usurpation of the throne in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth in 1603, Tudor monarchs relied on paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other art forms to legitimize their nascent dynasty. “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England,” on view at the Met through January 2023, showcases this opulent era through more than 100 objects, including a Holbein sketch of Anne Boleyn and an intimate portrait miniature of one of Elizabeth’s favorite courtiers.

“The highest caliber of artistry is being acquired and shared in the Tudor courts,” says Elizabeth Cleland, a decorative arts curator at the Met. “[It was] really this wonderful moment when they are soaking up as much as they possibly can, from travel and trade going to Europe and beyond.”

. . . .

Co-curated by Cleland and Eaker, “The Tudors” doesn’t simply provide a visual “who’s who” of 16th-century England. Instead, the show examines how the eponymous rulers strategically used art to shape their image both at home and abroad. From Henry VIII’s attempts to outdo French king Francis I, whose court boasted such renowned artists as Leonardo da Vinci, to Elizabeth I’s development of portraits that asserted feminine authority in a male-dominated world, the Tudor period’s culture was inextricable from its political intrigue.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Here’s a link to the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ page for this exhibit.

PG notes that the Met not only provides lovely photos of the individual works on its page, it also includes both written and audio discussions of each painting in the exhibit.

What Comes after #NameTheTranslator?

From Words Without Borders:

I have been thinking lately about the infamous “three percent problem” of the publishing landscape, the notion that only three percent of books published in the United States are books in translation. This figure has done a lot of work as a rallying cry among translators and publishers—statistics are good for that—but I can’t help feeling that the statistic actually masks more than it reveals. So here are some further statistics worth pondering: a cursory glimpse at the data from the translation database established by Chad Post of Open Letter and now maintained by Publishers Weekly reveals that, between 2018 and 2022, 58% of books published in translation came from French, Spanish, German, or Italian. To my shock, this figure has only increased over time: between 2008 and 2017, for instance, 48% of translated books were translated from these Big Four languages. I remain astonished that the diversity of books published in translation seems to be diminishing, rather than growing. And yet, it is not surprising: as large publishers attempt to consolidate monopolies, “risk aversion becomes systemic,” preventing smaller publishers from taking chances on new kinds of works.

And so when we celebrate the increasing visibility of translation, we should also ask about what languages and literatures—and, consequently, what human experiences—are afforded visibility. If translated literature still makes up only three percent of the market in the United States, what does it say about the state of publishing that literature from thousands of languages beyond the Big Four has been relegated to a single, dwindling percentage point? How can translators from “lesser” translated languages garner visibility when the Big Four languages have only increased their share of the translation market over time? What good is a World Literature that privileges western languages, that reproduces existing global hierarchies, that retrenches European hegemony over cultural production? Why are publishers increasingly consolidating around these Big Four languages and increasingly excluding all others? The crucial work ahead lies in the hands of publishers and editors, to diversify their catalogs with braver acquisitions and more critical awareness of the inequities they perpetrate. Diversifying catalogs would mean greater opportunities for emerging translators, translators of color, and translators beyond North America and Europe. Championing linguistic diversity would stave off the reduction of any and all publishing decisions to mere actuarial science, and it would challenge the corporatization of literature itself. We deserve more than three percent, of course, but we also deserve a World Literature that represents more than the Big Four languages.

—Translator Nicholas Glastonbury

A really great question, in terms of what should be the next priority for the translation community. There are so many things that I still think need to be addressed, but if I had to choose one or two, I would say royalties from the first book sold should be standard practice for every publisher. The times this has happened with me, it’s been tremendously rewarding in every sense of the word. I also find that for translators to access publishers and editors, to get their work in front of them, still remains very much a game of “who knows who” or “who knows you.” If you don’t know the right individuals, you can’t get your work seen by the right pair of eyes. This needs to change.

—Translator Sawad Hussain

Link to the rest at Words Without Borders

Annie Ernaux wins the Nobel prize in literature for 2022

From The Economist:

Annie Ernaux is surely the only winner of the Nobel prize in literature to have written nostalgically—even ecstatically—about the London suburb of North Finchley. Her book of 2016, “A Girl’s Story”, is typical of the French writer’s approach. As the author recounts formative late-teenage experiences in Normandy and as an au pair in London, she blends deeply personal memoir with social and historical insight. Decades later, she returns to the city for a literary event; while her fellow delegates consume culture, she takes the Tube and plunges “back into my past life”. As she writes, “the only thing that matters to me is to seize life and time, understand, and take pleasure.”

Ms Ernaux’s forensic but lyrical French prose has been seizing life and time, and mining literary pleasure from even the most harrowing memories, for almost half a century. On October 6th the Swedish Academy chose her as its Nobel laureate for 2022 “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”. She is a prose poet of everyday hopes and fears; she probes how change and conflict affect the most “ordinary” of folk, especially women of supposedly low status. Many of her books channel the life she has led not around Left Bank cafés and salons, but in Cergy-Pontoise, a new and unglamorous suburban town north-west of Paris.

Born in Normandy in 1940, Ms Ernaux’s parents ran a café-grocery. She studied in Rouen and Bordeaux, taught in secondary schools and then, for 23 years, worked for a French distance-learning university, cned. Her shelf of two-dozen books began with fiction (“Cleaned Out” in 1974) but soon moved into a form of creative autobiography in which rigorous, unsparing accounts of private life enter the flow of shared social experience.

“A Woman’s Story” (1987), a searing account of her mother’s life and death from Alzheimer’s, helped secure her reputation in France. The injustices of class, gender and background loom large in her work, but never as political abstractions. This is history felt on the body, not just processed by the intellect. “I believe that desire, frustration and social and cultural inequality are reflected in the way we examine the contents of our shopping trolley or in the words we use to order a cut of beef,” she has said.

Desire, shame, sickness, loneliness and depression may brand her own and other lives. But, within and behind the most intimate feelings, she traces the marks of a whole culture and an epoch. This unique angle of vision broadened into “The Years” (2008), the book that ranks as her masterpiece. Its autobiographical trajectory widens into a collective psycho-social history of France between the 1940s and the turn of the millennium. Decades, governments and attitudes pass, but adverts, catchphrases and fads lodge in the collective memory as much as big ideas or great events. Translated by Alison Strayer, it won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019 (of which your correspondent was a judge): to date, one of Ms Ernaux’s few honours in the Anglosphere. In France, her many awards include the Prix de la langue française and the Prix Marguerite-Yourcenar, both for the entire body of her work

Link to the rest at The Economist

Waterstones warehouse system ‘now stable and effective’ as chain tackles backlog of books

From The Bookseller:

Waterstones’ new warehouse system is now “stable and effective” but the chain needs to clear a backlog of orders before the “painful process” is over, chief operating officer Kate Skipper has said.

The retailer has been battling problems since July, when it upgraded its stock distribution technology. Although it initially said it aimed to resolve the issues by the end of August, problems have persisted, causing a build-up of orders to bookshops that have left authors, customers and publishers frustrated.

Waterstones said it has been working with Blue Yonder, the company providing the new system, to resolve the problems after installation. In an email seen by The Bookseller, Skipper apologised and thanked clients for their “forbearance and support”, and said the company believes it is now on the “home stretch” in terms of resuming normal service. However, she said “a significant volume of unfulfilled orders needs to be worked through” and excessive levels of stock in the chain’s Hub are “hampering efficient operations”.

“We are now processing significant volumes, both inbound and outbound, with the level at about that we would normally expect for this time of year,” clients were told. “The backlog, however, both requires that we achieve higher levels and simultaneously hampers our ability to achieve this. In consequence we remain some way from getting our stock, both in the Hub and in the shops, back to normal and for this to be supported by a regular flow of stock from the Hub.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that James Daunt, the CEO of Waterstones, is also the CEO of Barnes & Noble.

Sponsored ads and Stores launches in Egypt

From Amazon Ads:

What launched?

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Link to the rest at Amazon Ads

A Detective Poet, and an Empire in Revolt

From Public Books:

In 1857, the largest rebellion against the British East India Company took place. It spread across the subcontinent and among people of different religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. The city of Delhi, as the seat of the Mughal emperor, held special significance among the rebellion’s many centers. The previous year, the Company had annexed the neighboring state of Awadh and exiled its ruler in a particularly venal move. It shattered the last illusions that the Company’s political ambitions would be limited by even an appearance of what was lawful. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was to become the last Mughal emperor, feared for his remaining authority, which did not really extend beyond the city of Shahjahanabad, the walled enclave of political power in Delhi. And it is the powder keg of Shahjahanabad that is threatened with ignition by a murder in Raza Mir’s historical mystery, Murder at the MushairaThat is, unless Mirza Ghalib—a real-world poet in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor—can solve the mystery in time.

As required by their profession, detectives in Indian historical mysteries in English routinely and expertly transgress boundaries created by the socialization of the encounters between native and colonial hierarchies. In Mir’s novel, the process of this socialization comes to a head, with battle lines being drawn not only between the British and the rebels, but between rebels with different understandings of history, and between domestic and public spheres, as well as between different systems of political and cultural patronage.

At the center of these many oppositions is Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. In his novel, Mir casts one of 19th-century Delhi’s most illustrious residents as his detective.

Ghalib was born in 1797, six years before the East India Company captured Delhi from the Maratha Confederacy. His first collection of poems was written when he was 19, followed by decades of poetic compositions in Persian and a Persianized Urdu. Most of his now-famous Urdu ghazals, written later in life, were under the patronage of Bahadur Shah, himself a poet. Mir portrays Ghalib, as he was in real life, beleaguered by debt and familial conflict, painfully aware of each slight to his prodigious talent—in this case a reluctant detective who would rather write poems than solve crimes. Unlike many historical-mystery writers whose characters are taken from real history, Mir makes little to no changes to Ghalib’s character and temperament for the sake of fiction, for which there is sufficient documentation. His family being at the receiving end of both Mughal and Company patronage, his employment by the British in the role of a “cultural expert,” a native informant, to solve the mystery also rings true. It is of course a role that is then overwhelmed by the happenings of 1857, when, as Ghalib wrote in a letter a year later, “so many friends died that now when I die, there won’t even be anyone left to mourn for me.”1

In Murder at the Mushaira, Mirza Ghalib, blessed with uncommon insight and nearing the end of his life, is chief witness to the dying of his world. The novel itself is a satisfying read, paradoxically perhaps, because it so often divests its energies from genre conventions that are beloved by fans, and it gives itself over to the uncertainty and devastation of this moment in the history of India.

Mystery and crime fiction, even when not ostensibly historical, depend on the past, however recent, being available as a tantalizingly difficult object of investigation. Historical mysteries not only reinforce this rewarding pastness of the past by placing it at a greater distance, but they also analogize the detective’s queries within the narrative to the reader’s curiosity about the past itself. So what does it mean when Indian historical mysteries concentrate on the period of colonial rule? How does the solution of the crime figure against the collective inheritances of colonial pasts?

These novels have understandably capitalized on the romance of the Raj—the British colonial regime that lasted until 1947—which, in turn, is often connected to the decline of colonial rule. In fact, quite a few of these series are set in the 1920s, corresponding to the so-called golden age of detective fiction, when the likes of Agatha Christie started publishing.

The 1920s as a cultural idiom have powerfully affected writers of historical mysteries. But in choosing to set their mysteries in India of the 1920s, a decade that saw an upswell both in anticolonial movements and in their brutal repression, these writers produce interesting results.

Christie’s novels frequent the drawing rooms and parties of the English upper and middle classes. At times, these elites are shielded from the economic downturn in Britain in the early 20th century, often benefiting from colonial wealth. Christie’s crime fiction is mostly classified as cozy mysteries, indicating their underlying sense of comfort and the conviction that nothing really bad happens, which is a product of the novels’ spatial and economic logics.

However, the spaces that contain and arrange Christie’s characters—manor houses, seaside resorts, golfing hotels, and even sleepy hamlets—all replicate the logics of empire, their coziness inextricably tied to the latter’s political, ideological, and economic cohesion. Even when Christie mocks superior senses of Britishness that would brook no criticism, whether in person or in organization, the lasting impression of these spaces’ comfort is still linked to that Britishness that has resulted from centuries of imperial self-affirmation.

The factors behind the coziness in Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry novels are a little different. Here the coziness is afforded by the detective’s upper-class Anglicized Parsi community of Bombay, whose monetary and social capital was a product of the colonial economy. Modeled after the first female lawyer of modern India, Cornelia Sorabji, Mistry’s exclusion from the larger professional field of law owing to her gender is calibrated against the affluent spaces that open up for her due to her class. In the first novel of Abir Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series, the blame for the murder of a British official is at first falsely laid on Indian nationalists, but finally is brought home to the inner rot of the colonial administration. One also has to read his novels vis-à-vis the origins of modern policing in India, which had less to do with solving individual crimes than with the management of colonized spaces and peoples, and often the protection of the interests of religious caste majorities. Besides Mukherjee and Massey, Barbara Cleverly, Brian Stoddart, and Harini Nagendra also set their mysteries in the 1920s.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Modern depiction of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

PG notes that the book described is apparently only available as a hardback on Amazon. Evidently, the publisher didn’t permit Look Inside to be activated for the book. The Share button also appears to be unusable as well.

Breaking into English

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 2016, MEXICAN ESSAYIST Mariana Oliver released her debut collection, Aves migratorias. In March 2017, she read a fragment of the book on a podcast, catching the attention of the literary translator Julia Sanches. At the time, Sanches, a former literary agent, had just quit her job and moved to Rhode Island, where she was debating her next professional steps. She ordered a copy of Aves migratorias, waited the seeming eternity it can often take for a book to cross national borders, and, after reading the collection, began to translate an excerpt. She submitted the resulting English-language essay to several journals, but had no luck until Charlotte Whittle, a fellow translator and Oliver fan, included it in her pitch for an issue of the international literary magazine Words Without Borders focusing on women essayists from Mexico — an issue that eventually came out in May 2020. Adam Levy, one of the founding editors of the Oakland-based publisher Transit Books, read the essay and reached out to Sanches, and, as she told me, “the rest is history.” Migratory Birds came out from Transit a year later and went on to win the 2022 PEN Translation Prize.

This years-long story is not, in the world of translation, uncommonly slow. If anything, six years between the publication of the original text and its English translation is rather speedy, especially for a literary work whose author is not a known quantity in the United States. Books like Oliver’s often take a long time to appear in English, finding publishers only through intense effort and great patience on their translators’ part. Indeed, translators frequently double — or, really, quadruple — as literary agents, scouts, and tastemakers. So do the editors who make a point of working with them. It is telling that Sanches first published her translation of Oliver’s work in a journal that rarely prints creative works written originally in English; telling, too, that Levy runs a press that specializes in translation. Increasingly, translated literature in the United States exists in its own ecosystem, one that Eric Becker, digital director and senior editor at Words Without Borders, says “grew out of necessity.” The journal was founded in 2003, he told me, to “address the fact that there wasn’t much work being published in translation.” Twenty years later, the translation landscape is growing, and the magazine has expanded its mission, striving not only to publish translated works but also to “reach people who may not even know they’re interested in international literature” and to advocate for the translators and critics who help that work enter the American literary conversation.

Of course, the question of what constitutes advocacy in the literary world is a complex one. For Words Without Borders, Becker told me, it means crediting translators, paying writers and translators equally, and actively seeking to launch new writers’ and translators’ careers. The magazine has published some 3,000 poems, stories, and essays by authors from over 140 countries, giving many — including every writer mentioned in this essay — their first English-language exposure or helping their work grab the attention of agents who can further their careers. Crucially, that exposure is readily available to anyone with an internet connection: unlike many print-only or print-focused literary journals, which tend to rely on a subscription model, Words Without Borders is free.

But free isn’t always a good thing. Many translators, myself included, are exhaustingly familiar with the expectation that we should work for little or no pay. One way to resist that idea is simply to expose it; another, for many translators, is cooperative action. Translators’ collectives are abundant; online and in industry groups like the American Literary Translators Association, translators offer each other information and support that can be vital in the often opaque publishing industry. Asked about the effect of her agenting past on her translation present, including her role as the chair of the Authors Guild’s Translation Group, Sanches said that this insider knowledge “makes me a better advocate for myself and my peers.” She then highlighted the Authors Guild’s model translation contract, which is heavily annotated and includes the explicit statement that “a large number of U.S. translators are being paid rates that make it difficult, if not impossible, to earn a living, so we continue urging translators to ask for fair compensation and publishers to provide it.” Arguably, fair compensation is the bedrock on which any other politics of translation must rest; as Jhumpa Lahiri writes in the introduction to her 2022 essay collection Translating Myself and Others, it’s hard to perform the “essential aesthetic and political mission of opening linguistic and cultural borders” without being able to make the rent.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Death by Machine Translation?

From Slate:

Imagine you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and your small child unexpectedly starts to have a fever seizure. You take them to the hospital, and the doctors use an online translator to let you know that your kid is going to be OK. But “your child is having a seizure” accidentally comes up in your mother tongue is “your child is dead.”

This specific example is a very real possibility, according to a 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal about the limited usefulness of AI-powered machine translation in communications between patients and doctors. (Because it’s a British publication, the actual hypothetical quote was “your child is fitting.” Sometimes we need American-British translation, too.)

Machine translation tools like Google Translate can be super handy, and Big Tech often promotes them as accurate and accessible tools that’ll break down many intra-linguistic barriers in the modern world. But the truth is that things can go awfully wrong. Misplaced trust in these MT tools’ ability is already leading to their misuse by authorities in high-stake situations, according to experts—ordering a coffee in a foreign country or translating lyrics can only do so much harm, but think about emergency situations involving firefighters, police, border patrol, or immigration. And without proper regulation and clear guidelines, it could get worse.

Machine translation systems such as Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, and those embedded in platforms like Skype and Twitter are some of the most challenging tasks in data processing. Training a big model can produce as much CO2 as a trans-Atlantic flight. For the training, an algorithm or a combination of algorithms is fed a specific dataset of translations. The algorithms save words and their relative positions as probabilities that they may occur together, creating a statistical estimate as to what other translations of similar sentences might be. The algorithmic system, therefore, doesn’t interpret the meaning, context, and intention of words, like a human translator would. It takes an educated guess—one that isn’t necessarily accurate.

In South Korea, a young man used a Chinese-to-Korean translation app to tell his female co-worker’s Korean husband they should all hang out together again soon. A mistranslation resulted in him erroneously referring to the woman as a nightlife establishment worker, resulting in a violent fistfight between the two in which the husband was killed, the Korea Herald reported in May. In Israel, a young man captioned a photo of himself leaning on a bulldozer with the Arabic caption “يصبحهم,” or “good morning,” but the social media’s AI translation rendered it as “hurt them” in English or “attack them” in Hebrew. This led the man, a construction worker, to being arrested and questioned by police, according to the Guardian in October 2017. Something similar happened in Denmark, where, the Copenhagen Post Online reported in September 2012, police erroneously confronted a Kurdish man for financing terrorism because of a mistranslated text message. In 2017, a cop in Kansas used Google Translate to ask a Spanish-speaker if they could search their car for drugs. But the translation was inaccurate and the driver did not fully understand what he had agreed to given the lack of accuracy in the translation. The case was thrown out of court, according to state legal documents.

These examples are no surprise. Accuracy of translation can vary widely within a single language—according to language complexity factors such as syntax, sentence length, or the technical domain—as well as between languages and language pairs, depending on how well the models have been developed and trained. A 2019 study showed that, in medical settings, hospital discharge instructions translated with Google Translate into Spanish and Chinese are getting better over the years, with between 81 percent and 92 percent overall accuracy. But the study also found that up to 8 percent of mistranslations actually have potential for significant harm. A pragmatic assessment of Google Translate for emergency department instructions from 2021 showed that the overall meaning was retained for 82.5 percent of 400 translations using Spanish, Armenian, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, and Farsi. But while translations in Spanish and Tagalog are accurate more than 90 percent of the time, there’s a 45 percent chance that they’ll be wrong when it comes to languages like Armenian. Not all errors in machine translation are of the same severity, but quality evaluations always find some critical accuracy errors, according to this June paper.

The good news is that Big Tech companies are fully aware of this, and their algorithms are constantly improving. Year after year, their BLEU scores—which measure how similar machine-translated text is to a bunch of high quality human translations—get consistently better. Just recently, Microsoft replaced some of its translation systems with a more efficient class of AI model. Software programs are also updated to include more languages, even those often described as “low-resource languages” because they are less common or harder to work with; that includes most non-European languages, even widely used ones like Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, to small community languages, like Sardinian and Pitkern. For example, Google has been building a practical machine translation system for more than 1,000 languages. Meta has just released the No Language Left Behind project, which attempts to deploy high-quality translations directly between 200 languages, including languages like Asturian, Luganda, and Urdu, accompanied by data about how improved the translations were overall.

However, the errors that lead to consequential mistakes—like the construction worker experienced—tend to be random, subjective, and different for each platform and each language. So cataloging them is only superfluously helpful in figuring out how to improve MT, says Félix Do Carmo, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey. What we need to talk about instead, he says, is “How are these tools integrated into society?” Most critically, we have to be realistic about what MT can and cannot do for people right now. This involves understanding the role machine translation can have in everyday life, when and where it can be used, and how it is perceived by the people using it. “We have seen discussions about errors in every generation of machine translation. There is always this expectation that it will get better,” says Do Carmo. “We have to find human-scale solutions for human problems.”

And that means understanding the role human translators still need to play. Even as medications have gotten massively better over the decades, there still is a need for a doctor to prescribe them. Similarly, in many translation use cases, there is no need to totally cut out the human mediator, says Sabine Braun, director of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey. One way to take advantage of increasingly sophisticated technology while guarding against errors is something called machine translation followed by post-editing, or MT+PE, in which a human reviews and refines the translation.

Link to the rest at Slate

Longest single-volume book in the world goes on sale – and is impossible to read

From The Guardian:

A limited edition single volume of the long-running manga One Piece is being billed as the longest book in existence.

At 21,450 pages, it is physically impossible to read, making it less of a book and more of a sculpture.

Priced at €1,900 (£1,640), the book isn’t credited to Eiichiro Oda, the writer and artist behind One Piece, which has been serialised in Japanese magazine Shōnen Jump every week since 1997. It is being sold instead as the work of Ilan Manouach, the multidisciplinary artist who has designed the limited edition volume, which is titled ONEPIECE.

Manouach printed out the Japanese digital edition of One Piece and bound it together, treating the comic not as a book but as “sculptural material”, according to the book/ artwork’s French publisher JBE.

A spokesperson for JBE told the Guardian that ONEPIECE is an “unreadable sculpture that takes the shape of a book – the largest one to date in page numbers and spine width – that materialises the ecosystem of online dissemination of comics.” Whatever it is classed as, there certainly seems to be a market for ONEPIECE – the limited edition run of 50 copies sold out within days of its release on 7 September.

Manouach’s piece came about because of the “profusion of available online content and the rampant digitisation of the comics industry” which “challenges the state-of-the-art of comics craftsmanship”, according to his publisher. “Ilan Manouach’s ONEPIECE proposes to shift the understanding of digital comics from a qualitative examination of the formal possibilities of digital comics to a quantitative reappraisal of ‘comics as Big Data’.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

There are photos of the book at the link.

Twelve Writers Bring Back Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

From Smithsonian Magazine:

In 1927, with the publication of her short story “The Tuesday Night Club,” Agatha Christie debuted a new and instantly iconic character: Miss Jane Marple, an elderly woman from a small British village, whose twee penchants for knitting and local gossip belie a cunning ability to crack killer crimes.

Christie did not expect Miss Marple to rival the popularity of Hercule Poirot, her meticulous Belgian detective who put his little grey cells to good work in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the novel that had catapulted Christie to literary fame the previous year. But readers loved the “fussy and spinsterish” Marple, whom Christie would go on to feature in 12 novels and 20 short stories. The detective made her final appearance in 1976’s Sleeping Murder, published the same year as Christie’s death.

But now, Miss Marple is making a comeback. As Sarah Shaffi of the Guardian reports, a new collection of short stories, sanctioned by the Christie estate, features 12 new Marple tales penned by a diverse lineup of contemporary women writers.

Simply titled Marple, the collection includes contributions by seasoned crime authors, like Val McDermid and Dreda Say Mitchell. But it also features stories by those who typically work in other genres, like the historical writers Kate Mosse and Natalie Haynes, and the fantasy author Leigh Bardugo.

The writers were asked to follow a set of guidelines. They had to set their stories within the time period in which Miss Marple exists in Christie’s work, and refrain from inventing new backstories for the detective. They were able to incorporate characters and events from the canon of Marple stories, but they were asked not to draw on plot points from other Christie books.

The project came with pressure to live up to the legacies of the “Queen of Crime” and one of her most beloved characters. “The greatest challenge was knowing that if I didn’t do this well, I would enrage many, many fans,” Jean Kwok tells Emily Burack of Town & Country.

But the new stories transcend mere emulations of Christie’s writing, with each author leaving her unique fingerprints on the narratives. Mitchell, for example, tells the Guardian that she is personally interested in the contributions of Caribbean women during the world wars, and thus has Miss Marple collaborate with Miss Bella, “a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force whom Miss Marple met in an air raid shelter.” Kwok used to read Christie’s novels as “a poverty-stricken first-generation immigrant” who had moved to New York City from Hong Kong; she has her Miss Marple travel to Hong Kong on a cruise ship—with an “untimely death aboard,” of course.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Why Britons love to queue

From The Economist:

Hundreds of thousands of Britons have responded to the death of Queen Elizabeth II in a very British way: by queuing. A line to see the queen lying in state started to form on September 12th, two days before viewings in Westminster Hall began. By the afternoon of September 15th the estimated waiting time in London was over eight hours. It will continue, day and night, until 6.30am on September 19th, the morning of her funeral. As the line snaked for miles along the Thames, observers reacted appreciatively. One tweet called The Queue “the greatest bit of British performance art that has ever happened”. But is queuing the best way to do things?

Organisers needed a way to allocate scarce resources, or in this case, limited slots to file through Westminster Hall past the coffin. An ideal system would give spots to those who value them the most, with everyone having an equal shot at securing one. A queue effectively rations out the spots to those who turn up first—and who are willing to wait. An alternative might have been a lottery, with spots randomly allocated to a subset of those who applied, as was deployed for a concert to mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June. Or even perhaps some kind of market, with prices for each time slot set high enough to balance supply and demand. To visit Buckingham Palace, for example, one must buy a ticket.

As a rationing mechanism, a queue has some advantages. Participating in a line that could stretch overnight, or at least several hours, is a strong signal of one’s eagerness. It also reduces the risk that those who cannot afford to pay for the privilege are shut out. But it has drawbacks. Although participants are not paying money for their spot, they are paying in time and comfort. Economists fret that a queue such as this favours those without much else to do and excludes those who cannot, for example, afford to skip work. Others, such as the frail and the sick, might not be able to access the queue at all.

The alternatives reduce the inefficiency of long waits. But they have their own disadvantages. A lottery system risks those who feel very strongly about seeing the queen losing out to someone lucky who does not care very much. A market-based system will allocate spots based on who values the experience—and who is also most able to pay. That would seem distasteful and unfair. A study published in 1977, by Martin Weitzman, then of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that, in cases where needs were more equally distributed or where income was more unequally distributed, rationing (of which queuing is one form) outperformed pricing in its ability to allocate things to whoever needed them most.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Flowers of Orwell

From The Dublin Review of Books:

The Brazilian rubber tapper, labour activist and environmentalist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated by a rancher in the Amazon in 1988, reportedly once said that “ecology without class struggle is just gardening”. The aphorism is often deployed to remind less radical environmentalists that questions of social and economic justice have to be at the centre of their concerns. Gardening, a hobby seen as the preserve of the relatively privileged few, becomes a slur in this context, typifying a tendency of the green movement to value nature primarily as a space for merely private contemplation or spiritual nourishment, a refuge rather than a battleground.

One of the effects of climate breakdown is that it is gradually and irreversibly rendering all politics climate politics, whether we like it or not. This is a disorienting situation, to say the least. It means that traditional, much cherished conceptions of nature as something separate from society, and from the sinful humans who would do it harm, become obsolete. What we call nature is no Garden of Eden – it is not a paradise and we were never cast out of it. Instead it is a collaboration between human and nonhuman beings seeking mutually enriching coexistence on a finite planet. But perhaps this shift in our thinking about nature also means reassessing the politics of gardens. This is what Rebecca Solnit suggests through a series of fascinatingly digressive and wide-ranging reflections on the roses George Orwell planted in the garden of his cottage in Hertfordshire in the spring of 1936.

This period marked the key turning point in Orwell’s life, when he went from being what Solnit describes as a partly successful novelist with a curmudgeonly affection for old-fashioned English ways, to a fierce political essayist and prophet of dystopia. The transformative event was the Civil War in Spain, for which he departed at the age of thirty-three in the winter after he’d planted those roses. His experiences among the communists fighting Franco, recorded in his book Homage to Catalonia, marked him indelibly. He emerged from the war a committed revolutionary socialist with a hatred for all forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, whether right-wing or left-wing, having witnessed at first hand Stalinist repression of supposed Trotskyists in the Spanish trenches. An already-existing hostility to ideological rigidity and officialdom was intensified in the writer.

Solnit, a leading American cultural critic, feminist and environmental activist, is less interested in dissecting Orwell’s political consciousness than in asking where his love of roses and gardening fit into it. Despite his decades-long influence on her work, she encounters Orwell anew through his horticultural efforts, of which he kept a charmingly straightforward diary that Solnit returns to again and again. Through this and other avenues, she seeks out an Orwell very different from the one most of us know — an Orwell who could bore you to tears with his detailed knowledge of shrubs and the superiority of sixpenny Woolworths roses, an Orwell of wheelbarrows and well-earned cups of tea, who lamented the loss of common English names for flowers to the fancy Greek nomenclatures of science. Solnit observes how her second book, the superb Savage Dreams from 1994, which documented a grassroots campaign against nuclear weapons testing in the deserts of Nevada, echoes Homage to Catalonia in how it interweaves a personal and subjective narrative with a bigger historical one. The two Orwells, she argues, come together in this precarious balancing of the private and the personal – even the seemingly apolitical – against the crushing weight of history and its techniques of power. To love a sixpenny rose, or the wild roses of northeastern Nevada’s Shoshone territory, hardly seems a political act, but it becomes so within a larger social and historical story.

At the same time, Solnit avers, “love of nature is no guarantor of virtue”. This is certainly true, as Stalin’s curious dream of growing lemon trees inside the Arctic Circle demonstrates. But this is where the book becomes somewhat evasive. Solnit addresses the colonial nostalgia implicit (and sometimes explicit) in idealising portrayals of the English countryside, but she largely glosses over how all of this is connected to Orwell’s own sentimental anglophilia and his faith in the common folk. During the 1941 Blitz, he wrote in a famous essay that the English

are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official …

Solnit refers to the passage but does not critique its cultural nativism or the ridiculous claim made in the essay that the plain people of England would never allow totalitarianism to take root in their land precisely because of their natural immunity against the official culture of states and flags and military uniforms, the British empire notwithstanding.

Link to the rest at The Dublin Review of Books

For the first time, a Uyghur novel is translated into English

From The Economist:

Perhat Tursun was a precocious teenager.

He published his first poem when he was 11 years old and started university in Beijing at the age of 14. Back then, in 1983, few books by foreign authors were available in Uyghur, his native tongue. So Mr Tursun mastered Mandarin and gained access to troves of translated foreign works. He devoured the writings of Camus, Dostoyevsky, Joyce and Kafka. When other Uyghurs arrived in the capital to study, he advised them to do the same.

Through reading, young Uyghurs could explore a world that was off-limits. As members of the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority, acquiring a passport was difficult and they faced bitter prejudice in Beijing, a city dominated by ethnic-Han Chinese. Despite these obstacles, the group of Uyghurs nurtured a passion for literature and philosophy and would go on to become some of the leading intellectuals of their generation. Mr Tursun made a name for himself as one of the most influential modernist writers in the Uyghur language. He chafed against convention and despised obsequiousness, recalls Tahir Hamut Izgil, a renowned Uyghur writer and film-maker living in exile in America, who was among the students Mr Tursun mentored.

Years later, in 2006, Mr Tursun finished writing “The Backstreets”, a book which echoes his life. The narrator is a nameless Uyghur from rural Xinjiang, a region in the far west of China, who is hired by a company in Urumqi, the regional capital, to fill their diversity quota. The protagonist grapples with racist superiors and callous strangers while searching for a place to live. Published in America and Britain on September 13th, “The Backstreets” is the first Uyghur-language novel to be translated into English.

Written as a stream of consciousness, the book exemplifies Mr Tursun’s unconventional use of form and style. At one point the Uyghur narrator imagines the murderous rage of a Han bystander and the page is filled with 215 consecutive repetitions of the word “chop”. Visceral and often disorientating, “The Backstreets” illustrates the painful effects of racism and exclusion. It is a strange and devastating novel, a portrait of what it means to become a second-class citizen in your homeland.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, discovered the novel while conducting fieldwork on Uyghur migration in 2014 and felt it “deserved a broader audience”. To decode the book’s dense language and cultural references, he relied on his co-translator, a Uyghur migrant living in Urumqi, credited only as Anonymous. They met daily in a teahouse, often in the company of friends—and, they suspected, informants.

Link to the rest at The Economist

In search of Agatha Christie. Misperception and mystery cling to the life of the elusive novelist

From The Guardian:

If Agatha Christie remains elusive, it’s not for the want of those trying to find her. Janet Morgan’s official biography of 1984 and Laura Thompson’s equally detailed but ultimately more impressionistic portrait of 2007 have both been updated and reissued; and there are numerous other analyses that try to understand how the woman who routinely described herself as a housewife became Britain’s bestselling novelist of all time. Enter historian Lucy Worsley, whose declared intention is to rescue Christie, who died in 1976 at the age of 85, from the misperceptions that cling to her life and her works of fiction.

In service of the former, she revisits the most notorious episode of Christie’s life: her disappearance for 11 days in December 1926, prompting blanket media coverage, an extensive police search and, after she had resurfaced at a hydropathic hotel in Harrogate, widespread suspicion that her tale of memory loss was an elaborate publicity stunt. In terms of the novels, Worsley’s focus is on debunking the assumption that Christie invented and epitomised what has become known as “cosy” crime fiction, pointing to the darker elements of her work, its modernity, and its increasing interest in psychological themes.

Is she convincing? Up to a point. These ways of thinking about Christie are not entirely new or unfamiliar, and although Worsley has evidently done due diligence among her subject’s correspondence and personal records, there are no major revelations. It’s more, perhaps, that she brings a clear-eyed empathy that allows her to acknowledge Christie’s limitations and prejudices without consigning her to the silos of mass-market populist and absentee mother.

Sometimes, this is a stretch. Worsley is correct to argue that dismissing the books as formulaic – algebraic, indeed – is a way of diminishing Christie’s power to graft an apparently impenetrable mystery on to an evocatively imagined and interestingly peopled setting, and to repeat the trick over and over again; such reductive ways of characterising the work of popular writers are still very much in evidence. Her gift for dialogue and for manipulating social stereotypes, as Worsley demonstrates, was formidable, keenly attuned to the proliferating class anxieties of the 20th century; numerous characters are, interestingly, transitional or dispossessed in some way, at odds with one view of her as a writer of the country-house elite. (This approach gets only so far when it comes to discussing her reliance on racist tropes, and particularly antisemitic slurs, on which Worsley maintains that we must accept her as a product of her class and time, but also that we must squarely face the reality of what she writes and not try to excuse it. The issue here is that, fundamentally, the circle cannot be squared and rests largely on whether one believes bigotry is, at some level, historically inescapable.)

This doesn’t quite amount to the claims made in one eyebrow-raising passage in the biography, in which Worsley appears to argue that Christie has common ground with the modernists whose defining moment came as her first novels were published: “What if the middlebrow and the modernist could actually be the same thing?” she writes. “A more inclusive definition of modernism might mean that you can also find it in works that don’t necessarily bludgeon you in the face with the shock of the new in the manner of Ulysses.” If you are going to rescue one writer from misunderstanding, it’s as well not to visit the same ignominy on another. And as much as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’s ingenuity relies on the disruption of accepted narrative convention, I don’t think it has a lot in common with Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Once again, PG notes that the publisher, Pegasus Books, has a release date of September 8, but makes it impossible for enthusiastic readers to look inside the book.

Book trade’s next generation fear burnout and low pay will force their departure

From The Bookseller:

Young people in the book trade are experiencing widespread burnout and dissatisfaction about pay and progression, a survey by The Bookseller has revealed. The results also indicated that more needs to be done to make the industry accessible and that, though most respondents are largely satisfied in their current roles and hoping to stay in the industry, retention is a rising concern.  

The bulk of the 238 people who completed the survey, which was aimed at book trade staff aged 25 and under, worked in publishing (86.5%), with agents accounting for just over 10% of respondents and booksellers accounting for just over 2%. The remainder hailed from the distribution, library and freelance sectors. When asked why they pursued a job in the industry, the vast majority cited a love of books and a desire to work in a creative field. Others highlighted the opportunity to make a cultural impact, with one distribution worker wanting to “be part of making a change with [regards to] diversity in the book world”. 

In terms of entering the industry, more than half of the survey respondents found it “fairly easy” to find out information about the trade and the job roles available, but more than 40% had found this either “fairly” or “very” difficult. Furthermore, it was “fairly” or “very” difficult for over 80% to actually get a job in the book world. Common reasons for this included: huge competition for vacancies, unrealistically high expectations for “entry-level” roles, a lack of transparency about the industry, geographical constraints and the pandemic. 

One respondent shared: “Even when you have transferable experience, you could be applying to entry-level, low-paid roles and hearing nothing back for well over a year… It can feel impossible.” The pandemic compounded this, as some companies paused hiring or internship schemes, while competition increased as experienced candidates who had been made redundant were also going for junior positions. 

The first step

Several responses highlighted that “entry-level” roles regularly require applicants to have extensive work experience. According to one agent, publishers “expect more and more every year—now, even for junior positions, you often have to do two interviews and time-intensive tasks”. One publishing staffer felt that “the job hunt is harder than the job itself”, which was echoed by someone with a Masters in Publishing who confessed of their qualification: “I don’t need this to do my job at all in practical terms, it just adds to my CV.”  

Several comments suggested that the barriers to entry are even higher for those who are working class, not white, not British, disabled and/or living outside of London. An agent described it as “near impossible” to find a good job outside London. One publisher who entered the trade via a dedicated scheme said they would have “struggled to get a job through a CV and cover letter, having no connections to the industry and not knowing what to highlight”. “The publishing industry is riddled with classism,” wrote another respondent, who felt judged for being working-class. A couple of answers touched on the application process for immigrants, with one person feeling they “had to jump through even more hoops to show my commitment” compared to British candidates. 

. . . .

Reflecting on how their experiences within the industry have differed from their expectations, many found it friendlier than anticipated, but also less forward-thinking and glamorous. One person said: “Working for a large publisher was more corporate than I expected… I moved into working for smaller independents and I have really enjoyed that.” An agent was surprised by how “gossipy” the industry is and also by “the sheer amount of extra work people do outside of working hours and how this is very openly expected”. 

Meanwhile, a Big Five publishing staffer had found that “in many ways, it’s been better” than their preconceptions, as “overwhelmingly, staff are kind, generous and super-creative”. However, they noted low morale in more senior colleagues, expanding: “Low pay, over-working, slow or no progression seem to be common themes. I’m at the very start of my publishing career and it makes me nervous for the future.” 

This was echoed in the survey results, with similar topics arising in answer to a question about the key issues young workers face in their jobs. Many argued that they could not afford to live comfortably in London, with a Big Five staffer sharing: “Sometimes I have to skip meals to pay my bills.” Others confessed that they would not be able to support themselves without a secondary income or partner’s financial help.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Trade bodies warn new data mining copyright exception will have ‘severe negative impact’

From The Bookseller:

Trade bodies including the Publishers Association have warned the government that its decision to introduce a new copyright exception will “seriously undermine the UK’s intellectual property framework”. 

Text and data mining encompasses techniques used for computer-based analysis of large amounts of data, and is often used in AI. The exception, announced in June following a consultation, would allow any entity, based anywhere in the world, to mine copyrighted text and data for free, for commercial use. 

In a letter addressed to secretary of state Kwasi Kwarteng, signatories including Publishers’ Licensing Services, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers and the Independent Publishers Guild warn “the government’s decision to create a broad copyright exception will seriously undermine the UK’s intellectual property framework, conflict with international law, and… unintentionally provide international rightsholders and non-UK based research organisations with a competitive advantage.”

It continues that the proposed exception would “have a severe negative impact on UK rightsholders” and create an unfairness that benefits those using content for text and data mining.

“The immediate consequences of the exception will be that, without the ability to licence and receive payment for the use of their data and content, certain businesses will have no choice but to exit the UK market or apply paywalls where access to content is currently free,” it says. 

“The UK’s world-leading copyright framework is fundamental to the success of the UK publishing industry, as well as the wider creative economy. It empowers people and businesses from across the country to invest in and create a wealth of different products, from novels to academic journals, from databases to newspapers.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Friend of Contingency

From the Sydney Review of Books:

The release of John Keane’s brief history took place between the Australian federal election, the war in Ukraine, and China’s ‘security’ agreement with the Solomon Islands. So, within a few weeks of its publication, The Shortest History of Democracy achieved dramatic salience. Not quite prepared for this new chapter, its tone addressed an earlier Zeitgeist, in which many were disengaged from democracy by Trumpian politics and EU in-fighting.

One of a series of ‘Shortest Histories’ from Black Inc, it follows the format of an amiably-written generalist’s book from a scholarly author – John Keane is professor of politics at Sydney University. At times it is admirably succinct. ‘Democracy heightens awareness of what is arguably the paramount political problem: how to prevent rule by the few, who act as if they are mighty immortals born to rule?’, he writes.

What Keane calls the problem of titanism – ‘rule by pretended giants’– threatens democracy even in peacetime. It’s hard to watch the populace in the Philippines vote in the son of a tyrant; or, in the Solomons, the four-times Prime Minister take his country close to tyranny to shore up his own hold on power.

Democracy has always had rival methods of distributing power. From monarchy and empire to tyranny and despotism, history in Keane’s account is a litany of successive political arrangements. None except democracy retain at heart a principle of egalitarian rule. He writes that ‘democracy is exceptional in requiring people to see that everything is built on the shifting sands of time and place, and so, in order not to give themselves over to monarchs, emperors and despots, they need to live openly and flexibly.’

Democracy, Keane tells us, is the friend of contingency. He provides in 240 pages an instructive taxonomy – from ‘assembly’ to ‘electoral’ and ‘monitory’ democracy, each arrangement a response to different contingency.

Keane writes eloquently of democracy’s beginnings. Early forms of assembly democracy, with public gatherings of citizens debating and deciding matters for themselves, appear first in Syria-Mesopotamia and move east to the Indian subcontinent and west to Phoenician cities. Democracy settles famously in Athens. There, assembly democracy allowed for a direct form of self-government, and citizens made an artform of speaking to the assembly, striving for a political consensus. But Athens, notably, didn’t enfranchise everyone. Women and slaves underpinned the freedom of Athenian citizens without sharing in it. And perhaps this foundational injustice led to the anti-democratic impulse that was Athens’ eventual undoing, according to Keane – the building of Empire. When the Macedonians finally defeated Athens in 260 BCE, they dismantled its democratic ideals and institutions, which had become fatally tainted by the lure of imperial wealth and its attendant militarisation of political life.

Democracy caught on in the Atlantic regions from the twelfth century, as a more ‘electoral’ form of democracy emerged. Church governance and early forms of parliament were seen from Spain to Iceland, instituting the choice of delegates from a constituency who were empowered to make decisions on its behalf. In each case, a solution short of violence was found for sorting different interests and for moderating power.

The electoral method of democracy differed from the assembly method by allowing for the adjustment of differences rather than the determination of consensus. In this lay a great virtue of democracy: the peaceful resolution of conflict while sustaining pluralism. For all the talk of ‘the People’, no such unified will existed in practice. Keane shows that, despite the rhetoric of the People’s sovereignty, the new strength of electoral democracy was in its capacity for finding vectors out of division through power-sharing.

It took until the twentieth century for the theory and practice of electoral democracy to mature and flourish, but after the Second World War it reached a high watermark in the governance of nations, as Keane outlines. There was an explicit belief in the possibility that the democratic form of government, taken as a global precept, could protect the world from the catastrophe of war in an age of weapons of mass destruction.

Ukraine, a modern European democracy, was invaded by its imperialist autocratic neighbour in February this year. It came as a dramatic existential shock to the globalised West, even as Putin had massed troops on the border for months, and even in the wake of earlier aggression like the annexing of Crimea and the fighting in Donbas.

In Europe, the horrible face of war had been shrouded for eighty years. Despite hiding in plain sight, shown nightly on television ­– ‘and a warning this footage contains images of war’; in no particular order, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Georgia, Syria – it took the conflict in Ukraine for Europe to look its ravaged visage in the eye. People one day sitting in cafes drinking coffee, their children playing on swings in playgrounds, their ageing parents sitting in apartment lounge rooms with the TV on. The next, huge holes blown in those apartments, tearing the windows out, exposing the décor like so many dolls’ houses. Playgrounds dismembered by exploded shells now lying on the ground beside the play equipment.

People shown wearing familiar brand names on their sweatshirts or on their backpacks, in puffer jackets, scrambling onto trains and buses, clasping shopping bags and wheelie suitcases of what possessions they could grab as they run from their homes. Running for their lives. Or worse, unable to leave, stranded in basement bomb shelters and underground railway stations without food and water and power, let alone clean clothes, hot showers, fresh air and creature comforts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a forcible reminder that the long years of peace following the world wars were not a global default position. There is no ‘end of history’, despite Francis Fukuyama and other political theorists who trumpeted a tale of ‘how the West won’ in the wake of the Cold War.

. . . .

Scepticism and cynicism about democracy arise from the evil of centralised and despotic power to the other extreme, the scattering of political will in exaggerated diversity, he argues. In defence of monitory democracy, against the ‘morbid critics’ of democracy no less than the cynical promoters of ‘phantom democracy’, Keane recommends it as the form of government devised for the safeguarding of contingency.

. . . .

Keane reflects on a despondency and loss of faith in democracy, especially by younger people and especially in India and South America, as shown in several global studies. He points to the development of an unhealthy ‘managed democracy’ in many places, where corporate industry interests seize control of government with the help of commercial media and demobilise and shepherd the citizenry.

It is obvious to Keane that democracy, at least in the West, has been disfigured by the triumphant power of business, banking and conservative neo-liberal policy. He writes: ‘State policies of “saving capitalism“ have weakened trade unions, promoted deregulation of public services and spread the culture of consumption fuelled by private credit and the belief in the sanctity of the unobliged individual.’

His critique goes further, toward what he warns is a ‘new despotism’. Monitory democracies are facing a new global competitor: the regimes in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and China ‘with top-down political architecture and the capacity to win the loyalty of their subjects using methods unlike anything known to the earlier modern world.’

Link to the rest at the Sydney Review of Books

PG didn’t include parts of the review that objected to capitalism and glorified trade unions, many of which, at least in the United States, are more than a little corrupt and as deeply entrenched in their business niche as any corrupts capitalist.

In the UK: 16,000 Books for Young Ukrainian Refugees

From Publishing Perspectives:

Another effort in getting books to refugee children being displaced in Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, the United Kingdom’s Publishers Licensing Services (PLS) collective licensing agency Publishers’ Licensing Services (PLS) and the printing firm Halstan have announced a partnership to pay for and produce 16,000 Ukrainian-language books for young readers in the UK.

And among the many “without borders” operations in the international sphere, one called “Books Without Borders” has been organized by the Ukrainian embassy in London to engage in these efforts, with Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, as its patron.

An event was held Thursday (August 11) at the British Library to recognize the effort, in which Ukrainian publishers provided layouts and permission for 16 picture books and novels for ages 3 to 17.

England’s Halstan did the printing in the UK because much of Ukraine’s printing capability has been halted. Zelenska made a digital appearance during that program by remote video, doing a bit of a reading for some of her country’s displaced children in the course of the meeting.

Such efforts as these, as our readers know, have been replicated across many parts of Europe, most recently in our reportage in Germany, Poland, and Italy.

In this case, production of the books was funded through substantial donations by Publishers Licensing Services (formerly Publishers Licensing Society) and Halstan, with additional material support provided by Canon Commercial Print Division and Premier Paper.

. . . .

In her comments on the program’s work, Zelenska said, “Books not only entertain and educate us. They also unite us and bring us back to a feeling of home. This project is our victory on the cultural front, and it brings our primary victory closer.

‘We can bring the homeland to Ukrainian children in the form of books. We called this project ‘Books Without Borders’ as Ukrainian books can travel with Ukrainians to any country where they’re needed. The embassy of Ukraine to the UK, together with Halstan, Publishers’ Licensing Service, and other benefactors, have printed 16,000 books.

“I’m grateful to everyone who has contributed to this project. Displaced Ukrainian children will now be able to enjoy a mini-library at home.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Oxford University Press Is Migrating Its Catalogue to Its Online Platform

From Publishing Perspectives:

A migration of Oxford University Press‘ books as well as journals to the online platform Oxford Academic announced Wednesday (August 3) is expected to “further streamline access to high-quality scholarly content,” according to media messaging.

At this point, the company writes, more than 42,000 books and more than 500,000 chapters have been uploaded to the site, which already hosts some 500 journals and roughly 3 million articles.

Last month’s migrations included books from Oxford Scholarship OnlineUniversity Press Scholarship OnlineOxford Handbooks OnlineOxford Medicine OnlineOxford Clinical Psychology, the AMA Manual of Style, and Very Short Introductions.

. . . .

While it may seem something that a company as prominent as this in academic publishing would have done before now, the rationale for the move is one that makes sense: the ability to create a one-stop point of access and search for a broad base of high-profile and disparate content.

“By collating core research books and journals onto one online platform,” Oxford’s media messaging says, “Oxford University Press is better enabling its users to rapidly share and seamlessly connect ideas that advance research.

“This will continue a cycle of scholarship that furthers the press’ mission to create world-class academic and educational resources and to make them available as widely as possible. The platform will be further expanded and updated over time to provide the most effective and accessible service for users and customers.”

David Clark, for the nearly five years the managing director of Oxford Academic, is quoted, saying, “Scholarly publishing is becoming increasingly digital and this migration is an important step in realizing our potential as a digital-first publisher.

“By implementing new digital tools to access and share research faster, we’re increasing our reach as a publisher … I look forward to seeing the impact of the new Oxford Academic platform for authors, librarians and, of course, readers.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes this item would be deemed not newsworthy anywhere except in academic publishing.

England’s National Centre for Writing: Emerging Translator Mentorships

From Publishers Weekly:

In the United Kingdom, the National Centre for Writing in Norwich has today announced (July 22) the available languages and mentors in its Emerging Translator Mentorships program for the 2022-2023 cycle.

In its 13th year, the program is intended to encourage “successive new cohorts of literary translators into English, particularly for languages the literature of which is under-represented in English translation.”

Languages and Mentors Named
  • Arabic – mentored by Sawad Hussain
  • Danish – mentored by Paul Russell Garrett
  • Hindi (The Saroj Lal Mentorship) – mentored by Daisy Rockwell
  • Indonesian (Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize) – mentored by Khairani Barokka
  • Italian – mentored by Howard Curtis
  • Japanese – mentored by Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Korean – mentored by Anton Hur
  • Norwegian – mentored by Rosie Hedger
  • Polish – mentored by Sean Gasper Bye
  • Québec French or First Nations languages – mentored by Sarah Ardizzone
  • Swedish – mentored by Nichola Smalley
  • Ukrainian – mentored by Nina Murray
  • Visible communities – mentored by Meena Kandasamy

As to the reference to “visible communities,” it’s “a mentorship open to UK-based literary translators who are either Black, Asian and ethnically diverse, or working from heritage, diaspora, and community languages of the United Kingdom.”

The slot for mentoring in Québec French or First Nations languages is open to literary translators working from either one or more of the following languages: Québecois French, Algonquin, Atikamekw, Cree, Innu, Inuktitut, Micmac, Mohawk, or Naskapi.

In a prepared statement, the center’s program manager, Rebecca DeWald, is quoted, saying, “‘We’re looking forward to offering 13 promising literary translators the opportunity to work with an experienced translator to hone their skills and expertise and build their confidence as key players in international literature.

“The selection of languages we’re supporting this year spans many Asian, European, and Afro-Asian languages, as well as, for the first time, First Nations languages spoken in Québec. In addition, we’re pleased to be able to offer a dedicated Ukrainian mentorship this year, and to feature Hindi for the second time, thanks to the Saroj Lal mentorship. We’re also excited to continue our biannual partnership with publisher Harvill Secker for this year’s Young Translators’ Prize in Indonesian.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Don’t Blame Dostoyevsky

From The Atlantic:

Culture, too, is a casualty of war. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Ukrainian writers called for a boycott of Russian music, films, and books. Others have all but accused Russian literature of complicity in the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. The entire culture, they say, is imperialist, and this military aggression reveals the moral bankruptcy of Russia’s so-called civilization. The road to Bucha, they argue, runs through Russian literature.

Terrible crimes, I agree, are being committed in the name of my people, in the name of my country, in my name. I can see how this war has turned the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy into the language of war criminals and murderers. What does the world see of “Russian culture” today but bombs falling on maternity hospitals and mutilated corpses on the streets of Kyiv’s suburbs?

It hurts to be Russian right now. What can I say when I hear that a Pushkin monument is being dismantled in Ukraine? I just keep quiet and feel penitent. And hope that perhaps a Ukrainian poet will speak up for Pushkin.

The Putin regime has dealt Russian culture a crushing blow, just as the Russian state has done to its artists, musicians, and writers so many times before. People in the arts are forced to sing patriotic songs or emigrate. The regime has in effect “canceled” culture in my country. Recently a young protester faced arrest for holding a placard that bore a quote from Tolstoy.

Russian culture has always had reason to fear the Russian state. In the saying commonly attributed to the great 19th-century thinker and writer Alexander Herzen, who was sent into internal exile for his anti-czarist sentiments—and reading “forbidden books,” as he put it—“The state in Russia has set itself up like an occupying army.” The Russian system of political power has remained unchanged and unchanging down the centuries—a pyramid of slaves worshipping the supreme khan. That’s how it was during the Golden Horde, that’s how it was in Stalin’s time, that’s how it is today under Vladimir Putin.

The world is surprised at the quiescence of the Russian people, the lack of opposition to the war. But this has been their survival strategy for generations—as the last line of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov puts it, “The people are silent.” Silence is safer. Whoever is in power is always right, and you have to obey whatever order comes. And whoever disagrees ends up in jail or worse. And as Russians know only too well from bitter historical experience, never say, This is the worst. As the popular adage has it: “One should not wish death on a bad czar.” For who knows what the next one will be like?

Only words can undo this silence. This is why poetry was always more than poetry in Russia. Former Soviet prisoners are said to have attested that Russian classics saved their lives in the labor camps when they retold the novels of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky to other inmates. Russian literature could not prevent the Gulags, but it did help prisoners survive them.

The Russian state has no use for Russian culture unless it can be made to serve the state. Soviet power wanted to give itself an air of humanity and righteousness, so it built monuments to Russian writers. “Pushkin, our be-all and end-all!” rang out from stages in 1937, during the Great Purge, when even the executioners trembled with fear. The regime needs culture as a human mask—or as combat camouflage. That’s why Stalin needed Dmitri Shostakovich and Putin needs Valery Gergiev.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

In the United Kingdom, TikTok Announces Its Own Book Club

From Publishing Perspectives:

There may be something in the British water supply driving people to start Book Clubs. Less than a week after London’s Booker Prize Foundation announced its new “Booker Prize Book Club Challenge”—devised to draw social-media attention to its shortlist—TikTok has announced a TikTok Book Club, capitalizing on the success of its #BookTok channel.

According to the company’s announcement, posted on Monday (July 18) to its United Kingdom news page, BookTok has had nearly 65 million views. “As one of our most active communities on TikTok,” the announcement reads, “BookTok has become the place to find #readingrecs and #readinginspo, share reviews and tap into fan culture, super-charging book discovery, and having a real-world impact on book sales globally.”

The club is to “serve as a virtual space for the TikTok community to discuss new titles together,” an interesting move by the platform to formalize its burgeoning book-fan channel and a potential new outlet to which publishers can present their upcoming releases for consideration.

The format is to involve a new title, announced monthly, “and we’re inviting fellow-booklovers to read along and come together in-app to share their experiences. There will also be a #Book Club hub in app, so users can easily find out about the month’s title, and start creating and sharing their own reviews, book aesthetics, or newest literary crush.”

. . . .

Book industry pros will note that in the BookTok world, “discussing new titles together” can mean chatting about a 205-year-old book. However, Netflix’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion directed by Carrie Cracknell is very new, indeed, just released on Friday (July 15). And that’s the prompt for the choice of Persuasion. It would be intriguing to have the new TikTok Book Club survey its participants at the end of the month to find out how many actually read the Austen and how many only watched the film, which has a screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, and has been produced by Andrew Lazar and Christina Weiss.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The writer of “The Crown” takes on Putin and the oligarchs

From The Economist:

In retrospect, would Boris Berezovsky agree that the Russian privatisation scheme of the mid-1990s was unfair? The questioner had in mind the way a few insiders took over vast industrial assets for a song, a giant scam that helped discredit markets and democracy among their struggling compatriots. Absolutely it was unfair, replied Berezovsky, who in 2000 had sought refuge in Britain, where the exchange took place: Mikhail Khodorkovsky got more than he did.

Mr Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, spent a decade in prison before his release into exile in 2013; Berezovsky died in contested circumstances in the same year. Both numbered among the original Russian oligarchs: a small cadre of men who grew up in the Soviet era and in the bare-knuckle 1990s became more rich, more quickly than almost anyone ever had. They brought their feuds to London, along with their wealth, in some cases eventually losing much of it. They lived many lives in one, all of them dramatic. Now Peter Morgan has written a version of that drama.

The star turn, though, is Will Keen as Putin. The stage is shaped like a nightclub bar, and for a while Putin sits on a low stool, unnoticed, before—literally and symbolically—Berezovsky yanks him up and into the action. Mr Keen mimics the snarl and seething menace of a hangdog who wants to be top dog. During his traceless rise from deputy mayor of St Petersburg to fsb boss, prime minister and then the presidency, Putin’s nervy strut becomes a swagger, the posture hardens inside his better-cut suits. The heart dies.

It didn’t have to be this way. That is one message of “Patriots” (in which, for almost everyone, patriotism and self-interest are fused). Cornered on press night, Mr Morgan said the tragedy of his play lay not in Berezovsky’s fate but in the miscalculation he made in elevating Putin, a mistake with still-spiralling consequences. Live and organic, theatre is the perfect art form to capture this feeling of contingency, the vertiginous sense that history turns on moments and decisions that might have gone differently.

Link to the rest at The Economist

How to Read English in India

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

AS SOMEONE WHO grew up in India in the early 2000s, after the once-colonized country had opened itself to the global economy, one thing was clear to me. Aspiration and English were synonymous. Both were essential. This lesson was drilled into me at my missionary-run English-medium high school in New Delhi. Whether we dreamed of becoming doctors or engineers or corporate hotshots, we were repeatedly told that we needed to have English. Students were penalized for speaking in any language other than English, and our pronunciations were disciplined in preparation for roles no one doubted we would take on. Away from the institutional ear, my peers and I still cherished our other languages, to varying degrees. But, for the most part, we learned to joke, dream, rebel, and obey in English.

Everyone agreed that English was A Good Thing to Have. I heard similar ideas about the importance of English at home as well. My father, raising daughters in a country that did not value women, encouraged my sister and me to speak in English, and beamed with pride when we did. This expectation felt awkward — absurd, even — because English was not a language the other women in our family shared. My grandmother and mother both spoke in Hindi. I remember once, while tidying the house, my grandmother asked my sister if she needed the scrap of paper she had just thrown on the floor. No, my sister replied. But isn’t it important? It says something in English, it has your name. My grandmother was confused as my sister rolled her eyes. I remember feeling curious about how my grandmother, who I was sure didn’t know English, must have memorized the visual shape of the Roman script that traced her firstborn grandchild’s name. I remember wondering if she could read my name in English.

More recently, working on a book on the English language in postcolonial India, I was moved by my grandmother’s instinct to save a piece of paper scribbled over in English. A Good Thing to Have. It made me curious about how the material life of English in India overlapped with its literary life. What else had my grandmother read in English visually like this? I was also struck by how scenes of speaking and reading in English at school and at home — our most intimate and ordinary experiences — were rehearsals of caste and class positions. Each scene unfolded a different register of the meaning of English, drawing from and moving beyond it as the language of transnational capitalism and as a dubious legacy of British colonialism. With each case, to paraphrase Rebecca Walkowitz, English became both more than and less than a language. English was the promise of social mobility and feminist progress. It was a correct(ed) pronunciation and a scrap of paper.

The story of English in India toggles between the conceptions of the language as an idea and as an object. Scholars of postcolonial literatures have often looked to its colonial formation as the source of its meaning. But English has always been a language that has looked ahead to the future. Forged multiply in the crucible of caste, class, gender, and ethnic politics, English has found roots in India as a language that erases itself in the hope of what it could be. As a nation, we are obsessed with correcting each other’s grammar. Just look to Twitter. We shame celebrities for speaking “wrong” English, whatever we think that is. The memes and jokes about Indian English write themselves, filling up a billion-people-sized cloud storage on the internet and spilling out of WhatsApp groups. But this preoccupation with linguistic propriety is not about English at all. It stems, in fact, from a desire to claim English — either as a marker of class and caste authority or as its rejection. It stems from the lush possibilities associated with English — what it could be made to mean, what it could be made to do, what one could do in it.

. . . .

Amid bloody protests in non-Hindi-speaking parts of India, the Indian Constitution enlisted English for its potential to be something other than a language of slavery. English, the reasoning went, was equally foreign to all in India and thus politically neutral. Through translational projects, English could help create a governmental vocabulary in Hindi and mediate language conflicts. First temporarily in 1949 and then permanently in 1963, English was legislated as the associate official language, with Sanskritized Hindi as the official language of India. This practical concession to the monolingual aspirations of a newly formed nation would ensure that Hindi developed in relation to English. Hindi and English together would enhance the postcolonial Indian state’s democratic, secular, and modern character, while also leaving the undemocratic and communally charged Sanskritization of Hindi unchallenged. On several occasions, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, referred to English as a key to world knowledges, as a unifying cement to hold together the country’s linguistic diversity, and as a technology of progress to lead it into the future. The possibilities of English in the world’s largest democracy lend the language an outsize symbolic presence. But instrumentalized as a supplement and a prop to Hindi — as national cement — English also seems to shrink into something less than a language.

But perhaps “shrink” is not the right word. For this same English — instrumentalized as the supplementary language of democracy — also expands political worlds. Dalit thinkers and writers have leveraged the scientific rationalism and the linguistic medium of British colonial rule to challenge upper-caste authority. Key Dalit leaders like B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, and the education reformers Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule often wrote in and praised English, invoking its potential as a weapon in the struggle against the caste system. Writing in English helped reach a wider Anglophone audience and find global allies. English also offered an alternative medium of expression to the caste-marked Indian languages. Most playfully and provocatively, in 2010, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer-activist of libertarian leanings, paid tribute to the promise of English by calling the language a Dalit goddess and building a temple for it. He mounted the idol of this goddess on a computer-shaped pedestal, putting the bilingual (Hindi and English) Indian Constitution in one of its hands and a pen in the other. This iconography equated the English language with liberty itself, promising that literacy and technology would guarantee freedom and democratic inclusion. Its devotees — many of whom can neither read nor write English — worship the Dalit goddess English for delivering them from centuries of caste oppression. English as goddess derives its power from technology and invokes the democratic potential inscribed in the Indian Constitution to contest the casteist state.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

The Norwegian library with unreadable books

From The BBC:

One recent Sunday morning, in a forest north of Oslo in Norway, more than 200 people gathered to watch a ceremony. They had walked in a procession ­– some with their dogs, others their children – along gravel trails, directed by arrows on the ground made from sprinkled wood shavings. The air carried a scent of pine needles, burnt logs and strong Norwegian coffee.

At their destination ­– a recently planted forest – the people sat or crouched on a slope dotted with spruce trees. Each tree was still only around 1m (3ft) tall, but one day, when the spruces are more than 20-30 times the size, they will provide the paper for a special collection of books. Everyone there knew they would not live to see that happen, nor would they ever get to read the books.

This was the 2022 Future Library ceremony, a 100-year art project created to expand people’s perspectives of time, and their duty to posterity. Every year since 2014, the Scottish artist Katie Paterson – along with her Norwegian counterpart Anne Beate Hovind and a group of trustees – has invited a prominent writer to submit a manuscript, and the commissioning will continue until 2113. Then, a century after the project began, they will all finally be published.

It began with the author Margaret Atwood, who wrote a story called Scribbler Moon, and since then the library has solicited submissions from all over the world, with works by English novelist David Mitchell, the Icelandic poet Sjón, Turkey’s Elif Shafak, Han Kang from South Korea, and Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong.

This year, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to the forest to hand over their stories (along with returning authors Mitchell and Sjón). Forbidden from revealing the content of their work, they could only share the titles: Dangarembga named hers Narini and Her Donkey – Narini derives from a Zimbabwean word for “infinity” – while Knausgaard submitted a more enigmatic title, simply: Blind Book.

All the manuscripts will be stored for almost a century inside locked glass drawers in a hidden corner of Oslo’s main public library, within a small, wooden repository called the Silent Room. In 2114, the drawers will be unlocked, and the trees chopped down – and 100 stories hidden for a century will finally be published in one go.

The authors ­– and everyone else who was in Oslo that Sunday – knew they would almost certainly not live to see that happen. “It’s a project that’s not only thinking about us now, but about those who are not born,” explains Paterson. In fact, she adds, “most of the authors are not even born yet”.

So, why build a library where no-one today can read the books? And what might be learnt from its story so far?

. . . .

The Future Library is not the first of Paterson’s artworks to tackle the human relationship with long-term time. She traces her fascination with the theme back to her early 20s, when she worked as a chambermaid in Iceland, and was struck by the extraordinary landscape around her. “You could almost read time in the strata, you could feel the midnight Sun and the energy of the Earth,” she says. “It just was a very beautiful, sublime, awakening landscape to be around.”

This led to one of her first works, Vatnajokull (the sound of): a phone number that anyone could call to listen to an Icelandic glacier melting. Dial the number, and you’d be routed to a microphone beneath the water in the Jökulsárlón lagoon on Iceland’s south coast, where blue-tinged icebergs calve away and float towards the sea.

Since then, Paterson has explored deeper timescales from various angles, geologically, astronomically, humanistically: a glitterball that projects nearly every known solar eclipse in history onto the walls, the “colour” of the Universe throughout its existence, the aroma of Earth’s first trees, or a necklace carved from 170 ancient fossils marking each stage of life.

One of her most recent exhibitions in Edinburgh, Requiem at Ingleby Gallery, featured 364 vials of crushed dust, each one representing a different moment in deep time. Vial #1 was a sample of presolar grains older than the Sun, followed by powdered four-billion-year-old rocks, corals from prehistoric seas, and other traces of the distant past.

A few visitors were invited to pour one of the vials into a central urn: when I was there in June, I poured #227, a four-million-year-old Asteroidea fossil, a kind of sea star. Later in time, the vials represent the age of humanity, capturing human accomplishment – Greek pottery or a Mayan figurine – but also darker moments: the bright blue grains of phosphorus fertiliser, microplastic from the deepest part of the ocean, or an irradiated tree-branch from Hiroshima. When your art deals in deep time, there’s no ignoring the onset of the Anthropocene, the age shaped by humans.

. . . .

The Future Library project is one of many artistic projects I’ve encountered in recent years that seeks to foster longer-term thinking. Over the past few years, I’ve been writing my own book called The Long View, which is about why the world needs to transform its perspective of time. Along the way, I’ve heard a musical composition that will play for 1,000 years, read an endless poem being embedded in a Dutch street one letter at a time, and acquired a framed invitation to a party in the year 2269. 

Link to the rest at The BBC

PG is likely a cretin, but none of these projects are likely to appear on his must-see list.

The OP does include lots of photos of trees and pleasant-looking Norwegians, however.

Inspector Morse Books in Order

From PBS:

The cerebral TV detective Endeavour Morse first materialized in the bestselling crime novels by Colin Dexter. Morse was a fascinating new sort of cop, a sensitive soul in love with opera and poetry, not stereotypically weary and hard drinking. Inspector Morse proceeded to hook U.S. television audiences from 1988–2001, generated the sequel Inspector Lewis (2006–2016), and the prequel Endeavour (2012–) with Shaun Evans as the young Morse.

Here are all 13 titles as published, with commentary from two crime fiction aficionados who knew Dexter.

. . . .

Last Bus to Woodstock (1975) Dexter first began writing in 1972, creating a police detective who’s passionate about the arts and whose intellect may be wasted in his position. Morse and partner DS Lewis explore the death of a girl beaten outside an Oxford pub. The author “struggled to refine [this debut book] into a form he found pleasing,” says Forshaw. That said, “it demonstrated at a stroke that Dexter was an effortless master of the crime novel.”

Last Seen Wearing (1976) Like most Morse stories, this one centers on a puzzle. “Someone is dead, but not exactly dead,” says Gulli. In fact, the deceased is sending letters. Dexter’s second novel “firmly set his name as a writer who’d one day be the crime fiction heir to Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr,” Gulli adds. “Though his works can be described as literary puzzles, Dexter was more concerned with the ultimate riddle—the motivations of the human mind.”

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977) Like his character Nicholas Quinn, Dexter became a school administrator after losing his hearing. Here, Quinn joins an ad-hoc university committee where his profound deafness actually leads him to unearth a conspiracy. A prologue provides readers with clues Morse and Lewis don’t have as they investigate Quinn’s murder. “With all the books I’ve written, I’ve always known what’s going to happen…I suppose I must be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than the kind who concentrates on the motivation of crime,” Dexter told Gulli for The Strand.

Service of All the Dead (1979) The novel is presented in four parts, each taken from a book of the Bible. Dexter addresses moral questions from personal responsibility to protecting one’s reputation. “The formula with Dexter in his [writing] was that there was no formula,” says Gulli. “This is one of my favorites—steeped with Gothic atmosphere, treachery, and murder. And not only a good book, but instructional for aspiring writers.” The UK’s Crime Writers Association awarded Dexter’s fourth novel its Silver Dagger prize.

Link to the rest at PBS

China Bestsellers in May: Emotion and Promotion

From Publishing Perspectives:

In our look at the April bestseller charts in China, we focused on an interesting inflection point in which consumers seem to be waiting for new “online literature” to take to their hearts in book form.

In May, our associates at Beijing OpenBook saw the role of what they interpret to be emotional attraction and canny promotions.

As examples, Yu Hua’s Cries in the Drizzle (Beijing October Art & Literature Publishing House) entered the fiction chart at No. 22 and Crystal Spiral (Nan Hai Publishing) by Keigo Higashino arrived at N0. 29, having just been published in April (Nan Hai Publishing).

As our associates point out, Yu Hua’s To Live (at No. 10 in May in a new edition from Beijing October Art & Literature Publishing House) had benefited in 2018 by an endorsement from film star Yi YangQian Xi.

This year, e-commerce pr0motions began well before the June 1 to 18 shopping promotional period, so that by May book sales pros were approaching the annual “618” promotions as a chance to push Yu Hua’s book.

And the ability of Crystal Spiral to appear so quickly in China’s relatively slow-moving market rankings reinforces the fascination that the prolific Japanese author Higashino has for so many Chinese readers.

The key to Higashino’s work, OpenBook’s Wendy Pan points out to us, is his work’s high levels of emotional content. “Crystal Spiral is a detective work full of emotion,” Pan says.

“The work makes people feel that the detective element is less important than the emotional ties in it.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Empress and the English Doctor

From The Wall Street Journal:

What a cursed kind of privilege it is to be the physician in charge of the life of a world leader. In April 2020, stories circulated about doctors from the intensive-care unit of London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital texting the Downing Street communications team when Covid-suffering Boris Johnson, as the prime minister himself would later put it, “could have gone either way.” If the virus took a lethal turn, his doctors and PR flacks wondered, who would say what, when? Scenes from the film “The Death of Stalin” flashed by: the body, the indecision, the panic.

How much worse it must have been for the 56-year-old Thomas Dimsdale, in his dark suit and curled wig, drawn from the comfort of his farmhouse in Hertfordshire, England, to travel a grueling 1,700 miles overland in a carriage to St. Petersburg. Dimsdale had been summoned by Catherine the Great to inoculate not only the empress herself but also her 13-year-old heir, the Grand Duke Paul. Catherine sought protection from smallpox, that scourge of the world that, through the ingenuity of science and social persuasion, became the first—and still the only—disease to have been eradicated by the interventions of mankind.

The smallpox pandemic makes Covid seem like a scene-stealing extra: More lethal and more contagious, it rolled through society in wave after devastating wave. In London in 1752, it was responsible for one out of every seven deaths. Uncertainty followed fever and pustules. The remedy in itself was ineffective and miserable: bleeding, puncturing to release the pus, and sweating in blankets. It was a course of treatment determined by a lingering belief in the four vital humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile—whose balance supposedly dictated health. (One of Dimsdale’s contributions to the march of medical history seems to have been his insistence on opening the window.)

As Lucy Ward dramatically relates in “The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus,” Catherine’s invitation was a high-stakes affair, a testament to Dimsdale’s writings on the methodology of smallpox inoculation and his reputation for solicitous care. His Quaker upbringing had encouraged a brand of outcome- rather than ego-led practice.

Inoculation preceded vaccination. The approach was initially brought to Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had first noted the practice in Constantinople. She insisted on having her own children inoculated, and convinced the Hanoverian court to follow suit, led by the future Queen Caroline, whose children, too, were subjected to the procedure.

The disease followed a heartbreaking trajectory, killing children and the young, disfiguring women and destroying their prospects for marriage even if they survived. An incredible “five reigning monarchs were dethroned by smallpox in the eighteenth century,” we are told, including Peter the Great’s grandson, the child Emperor Peter II. In Vienna, Empress Maria Theresa lost her son, two daughters and two daughters-in-law. Survival rates in Russia were particularly low. No wonder Catherine wanted to try her luck with science.

As devastating as smallpox was, for the empress herself and the grand duke who would succeed her to personally undergo inoculation was a risk to both patient and doctor. On the success side stood immunity from the disease, an almost holy example for Catherine’s people, and as-yet-untold riches for her nervous doctor. On the other side, not only the fact that all Russia would refuse the treatment if their “Little Mother” died, but also a disaster for Dimsdale and the son who had accompanied him. Geopolitics came into play too—if things went wrong, some would interpret it as a foreign assassination.

All the descriptions of lancet cuts and pus are one thing—it is the experimentation on impoverished children that makes for painful reading. Young army cadets are experimented on; a 6-year-old, “small as a bug,” according to Catherine, supplies the viral matter to his empress, who is prepared with “five grains of the mercurial powder” and purged with “calomel, crabs’ claws and antimony.” Then she waits it out at Tsarskoe Selo, her summer palace, in the hope of a desirable progression: outbreak, recovery.

With a happy result for her and her less-robust son, Catherine sets about publicizing the success. Dimsdale receives the equivalent of more than $20 million and a barony.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

William Dimsdale
Catherine II on a balcony of the Winter Palace on 9 July 1762, the day of the coup that placed her in power

A brief summary of the history of Catherine the Great, whose life was substantially extended by Dr. Dimsdale:

  • She was born in Prussia as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg.
  • Prussian king Frederick the Great took an active part in promoting the future Catherine (then Princess Sophie) as an ideal spouse for a likely future tsar of Russia.
  • Sophie arrived in Russia in 1744 and aggressively worked to ingratiate herself with the reigning ruler, Empress Elizabeth and with the Russian people. She learned to speak, read and write Russian, rising at night and walking about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made the decision then to do whatever was necessary and to profess to believe whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown. 
  • She became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and received a new name, Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) 
  • The following day, she married the man who would become Peter III. Catherine was 16 at the time.
  • Peter was an eccentric idiot when she married him and after he ascended to the Russian throne.
  • Upon the death of his mother, Peter ascended to the throne.
  • Catherine organized a coup to overthrow her husband. Six months after Peter became tsar, Catherine had Peter arrested and he signed a written abdication of the throne in favor of his wife.
  • Shortly thereafter, Peter died. There were rumors that he had been assassinated, but after an autopsy, the official cause of death was found to be a severe attack of haemorrhoidal colic and an apoplexy stroke.
  • Catherine ascended to the throne. Her crown weighed over five pounds and contained 75 pearls and 4,936 Indian diamonds forming laurel and oak leaves, the symbols of power and strength, and was surmounted by a 398.62-carat ruby spinel that previously belonged to the Empress Elizabeth, and a diamond cross.  A photo of the crown and orb taken in 1896 is inserted at the bottom of this post.
  • Catherine reigned as monarch for well over thirty years, from 1762–1796.
  • During her reign, Catherine extended by some 520,000 square kilometres (200,000 sq mi – an area a little smaller the State of Texas and about the size of present-day France ) the borders of the Russian Empire, absorbing New Russia, Crimea, Northern Caucasus, Right-bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Courland at the expense, mainly, of two powers—the Ottoman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Copyright and Coronavirus

From Publishing Perspectives:

One of the most interesting results of this year’s sessions of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights last month at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva (WIPO) is a new report, The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Creative Industries, Cultural Institutions, Education, and Research.

The world of international policy organizations is intensely fond of its acronyms, and the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights is referred to simply as “SCCR.” The International Publishers Association (IPA), also based in Geneva, is the book-publishing body that represents the world industry at this sequence of discussions. So, in non-governmental organization (NGO) parlance, the IPA goes to WIPO’s SCCR as the NGO for publishing.

As you may recall, the SCCR meetings bring together the views and perceived pressure points of international delegates on copyright, not only as it pertains to books and publishing but also to broadcast, archives, libraries, theatrical production, and more. It’s a kind of summit of international stakeholders in industries in which copyright is important.

. . . .

Several points made in the contextual analysis on Pages 5 and 6 of the SCCR report are especially useful.

One of them–as unhappy as it makes us to read it–has to do with the potential for unfinished business relative to the current pandemic: “Far from being an imminent or emerging crisis, it is a sustained crisis: it can last for months or years, over a very long crisis existence phase, and also [be a] cyclical crisis as well because of the different contagious waves.”

The element that publishers are most familiar with, in SCCR terms, is this: “If on one hand, COVID-19 disrupted the market and business ecosystems we traditionally know, on the other hand it has accelerated innovation, introducing the so-called ‘imposed service innovation.’” In publishing, of course, we’ve used the common term “digital acceleration” for this–an “imposed” (indeed) need to muster digital alternatives most particularly in book retail in all formats, but also, for many, in distribution where ebook and audiobook formats were less well established.

And there’s the upbeat part of that digital acceleration: “This specific crisis created a change of mindset and stimulated business opportunities that would never have been considered under normal circumstances.”

. . . .

What Publishing Perspectives readers may find interesting in the report is the look at effects on the audiovisual sector, the music sector, visual arts, museums, and libraries–”nearby” creative industries, each of which has had its own path, to first understanding and then trying to respond to the impact of this protracted emergency. In so many ways, those sister industries’ struggles ran parallel to those of the book business. As bookstores closed, so did art galleries, museums, and auction houses. This, as the roughly half of the music industry’s business was shuttered, as concerts, festivals, tours, and solo performances were cancelled.

Copyright issues in audiovisual abruptly intensified surfaced as the drive toward digitally distributed entertainment in Africa suffered what’s estimated to have been at least a 50-percent loss in potential revenue, the report says, because of “illegal exploitation of creative audiovisual content”–piracy.

Not surprisingly, a line in the report’s conclusion reads, “More attention should be paid to developing e-resources that should respect copyright as a whole, including facilitating uses through licensing, of material in educational and research settings. This could limit piracy damages in crisis times and support the development of local industries while paying attention to creators.”

. . . .

In terms of the piracy issues that plague many of the world’s publishing markets–often with limited and lackluster efforts from law enforcement to help–Al Qasimi called for effective enforcement of copyright protections to shield publishers from “physical and online piracy and to boost the publication of indigenous educational resources and ‘homegrown’ authors.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG would love to know how many authors from various nations were included among the NGO’s, foundations, large corporations and government agencies attending and, more importantly, speaking at this conference.

Old Truths and New Cliches

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘A Yiddish writer in America is an unseen entity,” Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “almost a ghost.” He offered this comment to explain why he felt inclined in his fables and fictions “to search for what is hidden from the eye.”

It could be said that an important dimension of the acclaimed Yiddish novelist and short-story writer has until now been hidden from the eye of many readers. “Old Truths and New Clichés,” a collection of 19 prose articles, most appearing in English for the first time, reveals that Singer was as consummate an essayist as he was a teller of tales. “To this day,” David Stromberg writes in his intelligent introduction, “few critics deal seriously with Singer’s essayistic writings.”

Mr. Stromberg, who serves as editor to the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust, has rescued these articles from the author’s archives at the University of Texas in Austin. The collection distills the convictions that informed Singer’s art and rounds out a literary self-portrait. Singer proves to be equally at home in a range of themes and registers, from casual observation to philosophical musing. In one essay he ponders what it is to seek a God who is “eternally in love . . . with his creations.” In another, in a satirical spirit, he considers how the Ten Commandments would be received—and misread—were they issued today.

Singer liked to say that when he was born in a Polish shtetl, his mother asked the midwife, “Is it a boy or a girl?” The midwife answered, “A writer.” The quip, repeated in a short piece here, wouldn’t have amused Singer’s pious parents. For them, a writer was someone inevitably subject to secular temptations.

In “Why I Write as I Do,” Singer describes the religious atmosphere that pervaded—in his memory, stifled—his childhood home in Warsaw. Yet it was there, he writes, that he learned “to transform inhibition into a method of creativity, to recognize in inhibition a friendly power instead of a hostile one.” The son and grandson of rabbis, he waged a “private war against the Almighty,” as he puts it, and replaced orthodox faith with “a sort of kasha of mysticism, deism, and skepticism.” Even so, long after he removed his black gabardine and yarmulka, Singer believed—as he says in another essay—that “it is impossible to write truthfully about human beings without having faith in something higher than human beings.”

Singer had the good sense to leave Poland for New York City in 1935, before Europe’s descent into barbarity and Poland’s dismemberment by Nazi and Soviet occupiers. Other writer-immigrants, like Joseph Conrad (Poland) and Vladimir Nabokov (Russia), switched to English upon arriving in English-speaking lands. Singer refused to do so. Having left behind—one might say, having betrayed—his religious past, his first wife and his 5-year-old son, he remained faithful to his native language, a language without a homeland. As he eked out a living writing under several pseudonyms for the Yiddish daily Forward, he felt comforted by what he calls “the language of exile.” In another essay, he contends that “journalism exerts a beneficial influence upon literary creativity.”

. . . .

The breakthrough came when “Gimpel the Fool,” the tale of a pure-souled simpleton, appeared in Saul Bellow’s propulsive translation in 1953. Singer’s short novels “Satan in Goray” in 1955 and “The Magician of Lublin” in 1960 brought him to a wider American audience. His mischievous narratives, teeming with demons and dybbuks and false messiahs, soon migrated from the pages of small magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary to glossier outlets like Playboy, Esquire and the New Yorker.

An earlier generation of Yiddish writers—led by I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim—had perfected a plain-spoken and pathos-laden mode of storytelling. Singer inherited that legacy but also subverted it, by introducing notes of irony and carnality. Not everyone was pleased. In her novella “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” Cynthia Ozick depicted Singer’s detractors, who didn’t merely resent the American fame of a writer they saw as a careerist but, as Ms. Ozick writes, “raged against his subject matter, which was insanely sexual, pornographic, paranoid, freakish.” Singer reports that the editor who published his first stories at a journal in Warsaw had asked: “Why write about thieves and whores when there were so many decent Jewish men and devoted Jewish wives?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?

From The BBC:

You’re a typical American in 1870. You live on a rural farm. If you’re a man, you likely began a lifetime of manual labour as a teen, which will end when you’re disabled or dead. If you’re a woman, you spend your time on labour-intensive housework. If you’re Black or any other minority, life is even harder.

You’re isolated from the world, with no telephone or postal service. When night falls, you live by candlelight. You defecate in an outhouse.

One day, you fall asleep and wake up in 1940. Life is totally different. Your home is “networked” – you have electricity, gas, telephone, water, and sewer connections. You marvel at new forms of entertainment, like the phonograph, radio, and motion picture. The Empire State Building looms over New York, surrounded by other impossibly tall buildings. You might own a car, and if you don’t, you have met people who do. Some of the wealthiest people you encounter have even flown in a plane.

These transformations, documented in the economic historian Robert Gordon’s 2016 book, The Rise and Fall of American Growthemerged thanks to a “special century” of unusually high economic growth between 1870 and 1970. And it wasn’t just a US story – the industrialised nations experienced dizzying transformations during the early 20th Century.

. . . .

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

. . . .

One of the first ways to understand the progress studies movement is to understand its fears. Over the past few years, a number of researchers and economists have raised concerns that scientific and technological progress could be slowing down, which they worry will cause economic growth to stagnate.

To illustrate this more tangibly, Gordon invites his readers to reflect on the rate of progress between the mid-late 20th Century and 2020s. Imagine after that first nap as a typical American, you had taken a second one in 1940, waking up in the 2020s. Your fridge now has a freezer, and your new microwave lets you reheat your leftovers. You are refreshed by air conditioning. You are far more likely to own a car now, and it’s safer and easier to drive. You have a computer, TV, and smartphone. These are impressive inventions, and some seem like magic, but over time, you realise that your living standards haven’t transformed quite as much as when you woke up in 1940.

. . . .

Gordon claims that the staggering changes in the US of 1870-1970 were built on transformative, one-time innovations, and therefore Americans can’t expect similar levels of growth to return anytime soon, if ever. The remarkable thing is “not that growth is slowing down but that it was so rapid for so long”, he writes. In Gordon’s view, this slowdown isn’t anyone’s fault: “American growth slowed down after 1970 not because inventors had lost their spark or were devoid of new ideas, but because the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by then already been achieved along so many dimensions.”

Gordon builds on fears made famous by economist Tyler Cowen in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation. Cowen similarly argues that the US ate most of the “low-hanging fruit” that enabled consistent growth in American median incomes, and that the country can’t expect to grow like it used to.

So, have all the low-hanging fruit gone? Are “ideas” getting harder to find? A team of economists from Stanford and MIT posed this exact question in a 2020 paper. They found that research and development efforts have significantly increased, while per-researcher productivity has declined. In other words, we’re getting less for our time and money. A lot less. They estimate that each doubling of technological advancement requires four-times as much research effort as the previous doubling.

. . . .

Why? Some from the progress community point to sclerotic funding bureaucracies, which eat nearly half of researcher time and create perverse incentives. This may explain some of the drop-off, but the paper authors found that US research productivity has declined more than 40 times since the 1930s. Is it plausible that US scientific funding became that much less efficient?

Instead, the authors favour Gordon and Cowen’s low-hanging fruit arguments: we’ve found the easy discoveries and now put more effort towards what remains. For instance, compare the insights that Albert Einstein made as a patent clerk, or that Marie Curie unlocked in a rudimentary lab, to multibillion-dollar megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider or James Webb Space Telescope.

We have partially compensated for this decline by increasing the share of the population going towards research, but this, of course, can’t go on forever. Global population growth may help, but this is expected to slow and then reverse before the end of the century. It’s also possible that artificial intelligence (AI) could help reverse the decline – or even initiate a new era of explosive growth – but some researchers fear that superintelligent AI could bring other risks that harm progress, or worse.

. . . .

The origin of progress studies

Around 2016, Cowen received an out-of-the-blue email from Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, who was interested in his book, The Great Stagnation. A few years earlier, Collison had cofounded the online payments company Stripe and now wanted to talk about bigger issues. The pair had a few dinners together in San Francisco and hit it off.

Both Cowen and Collison are infovores. Collison has posted his entire nearly 800-volume bookshelf to his personal site (though he admits he’s only read about half of them). Cowen’s practice of ruthlessly scouring books for the information value they contain and abandoning them – sometimes after five minutes – may make some completionists shudder.

Cowen’s information-production is nearly as prolific as his consumption. The 60-year-old economist has authored nearly 20 books, 40 papers, six years of Bloomberg columns, over 150 episodes of his podcast, and nearly 20 years of blog posts on his popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. During our conversation, Cowen’s voice was hoarse from the marathon of interviews he conducted to promote his most recent book. In 2020, Cowen ranked 17th on a list of the top 100 most influential economists.

Collison, nearly three decades younger and running the fourth-most valuable private startup in the world, has written less, but still found time to publish collections of links on topics like air pollution, culture, growth, Silicon Valley history, and, of course, progress. Stripe’s nearly $100bn (£83bn/€95bn) valuation puts Collison’s net worth north of $11bn (£9bn/€10.5bn). The online payments company combines the lofty “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups with the mundane, competent pipes-building of an infrastructure company.

During the pair’s meetings, Cowen tells me, “we were both talking about the ideas, finding we had common ideas, and somehow hit upon the notion of an article”. So, in 2019, they co-authored an essay in The Atlantic, which argued for “a new science of progress”.

“There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study,” they wrote. “We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘progress studies.'”

Link to the rest at The BBC

PG is reminded of a conversation he had at an annual meeting of The American Bar Association in the 1990’s (he thinks).

It was a fascinating discussion of Future Studies which sounded then to PG a little like Progress Studies as described in the OP. The guy PG spoke with (PG apologizes for not recalling his name) was the head (and, PG suspected the only employee) of something called The Future Studies Project at Harvard University. The last time PG checked, there was a Department or an equivalent entity that was involved in future studies.

There’s even a Wikipedia entry for Future Studies.

The idea of Future Studies and Progress Studies is that we need to think about and make plans regarding Progress and the Future.

While PG finds nothing inherently bad about this class of endeavors, he thinks that chance and ideas/forces coming out of left field will continue to affect the future and progress to a greater extent than academic studies of those topics.

There are also unexpected political and leadership factors that, as the West considers Russia, China, Ukraine, etc., cause or allow a variety of startling events.

PG would love to know whether any Russia/Communist/Asian/Eastern European/etc. experts predicted the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. This event doesn’t seem like something Progress Studies or Future Studies would predict other than on a level so general that the predictions would be of any value before the event took place.

Far be it from the English to use the subjunctive

From The Economist

It is often bemoaned in Britain that English is going to pieces—and Americans are generally to blame. Whether you call it decline or not, the moaners are on to something: America has indeed produced many of the innovations that have made their way into global (and British) English, for better or worse.

Bucking that trend is an intricate feature of old-fashioned English grammar that has not only survived in America but made a comeback in Britain, thanks to the unwitting preservation efforts of the Americans: the subjunctive. British commentators seem flummoxed by the unusual situation of Americans being more conservative than the mother country in this aspect of grammar.

The subjunctive in question is the present one, which can be distinguished by the lack of the usual –s on first- and third-person singular verbs, as in take instead of takes. (The subjunctive of to be is be.) Everyone knows a host of fixed phrases using it, even if they don’t realise they are subjunctives. Far be it from me. Heaven forbid. So be it. These are not declarations but a sort of wish, equivalent to May it be far from me. May heaven forbid. May it be so. Britain and America even have distinctive national refrains with a subjunctive: God save the queen and God bless America. These look a bit like imperatives, but they are not; the faithful do not order the creator of the universe around.

The transatlantic difference is that, in America, the subjunctive remained what linguists call “productive”, meaning that people use it in sentences never uttered before. Americans naturally write or say things like It is essential that every parent remain supportive or She suggested that he talk to someone else.

In Britain, the subjunctive had a very different 20th century. In 1906 the Fowler brothers, co-authors of “The King’s English”, a venerable usage guide, thought the subjunctive would not last another generation, a disappearance they approved of. But it did not disappear. An article in the Observer in 1936 referred to “the most remarkable phenomenon in modern American syntax, viz., the pedantic revival of the subjunctive”.

By the middle of the century, revered usage writers in Britain such as Eric Partridge and Ernest Gowers were warning of the subjunctive as “a hallmark of officialese” which had “a formal, even pedantic air”. Another British commentator, Catherine Nesbitt, feared the return of the subjunctive was “now spreading so rapidly that, if left unchecked, it will do real damage to the structure of the language”. By the end of the 20th century it was firmly associated with Americans who, wrote Kingsley Amis, a novelist, “often indulge in subjunctive forms”.

What a strange fate. The subjunctive was common in the classic writings of the early-modern English period, particularly in the King James Bible—as in “hallowed be thy name” or “before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice”. By the 1990s it was being treated by Amis and others as a vice a writer or speaker might “indulge” in. But such warnings were issued precisely because British scribblers were, in fact, indulging: use of the subjunctive increased markedly in the 20th century in Britain.

Link to the rest at The Economist