Mr Miéville and the mix and mash book
In the final keynote speech to the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, China Miéville played Brutus when he should have played Antony. I don’t mind him trying to bury Caesar, even without the eulogy, but I don’t understand why he’d want to demonise him. Not content with seeing a future with new forms of literary creation, Mr Miéville seems compelled to belittle the old forms, dismissing them (tautologically) as “qlippoth husks”.
The genesis of Miéville’s arguments is tied to the popular technology zeitgeist and the enthusiasts who see the digital world as a embodying a revolution that will free humankind. Some of these arguments have nothing at all to do with writing but, in keeping with that enthusiasm, with a notion that we have entered an era of unprecedented possibilities (and capabilities) for democratic participation and collaboration. While this is true in many areas, it does not follow that it is either true or desirable in all. Rather than integrate those possibilities with human nature and the complex, intricate dynamics of free will, creativity and considerations of the tensions (and liberations) by the accommodation of the individual and the collective, they seek to overlay the possibilities of technology on to those complex dynamics and thus alter them. I applaud the motivation behind these wishes, but not either the goal nor the principle. Far from being revolutionary it is deeply reactionary when put in Miéville’s terms that this is “our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours”. Is this a call to rewind literature to an age before the printed book? Had Miéville been alive in the late 15th century, would he have railed against the printing press for stealing literature from the collective?
Progress, in the hands of the techno-Luddites who urge change because it reverses change, should take us back to the past, it seems.
For the moment, though, it is best to go straight to the specifics of what Miéville says, even though at times his language and expression are a bit hard to penetrate.
On translations: This is not a matter of technology and so far technology hasn’t been able to do anything that wasn’t built on human effort in bringing foreign works to our homes. The love he speaks of is the same love that has seen a great many traditional publishers (mostly small, struggling ones) invest large amounts of time and money in translation of works whose market success is at best highly speculative and at worst will never repay the financial investment. No degree of technological sophistication can overcome the first hurdle in making this happen, which is the human effort required for the translation.
The form of the novel: Miéville’s rightly acknowledges that the form of the novel has been under scrutiny ever since it emerged as a form. He then appears to lament the fact that it failed to morph into something else, despite worthy and brave efforts to re-design it. Its stubbornness, though, has as much to do with readers as it does writers – readers who have had generations of opportunity to choose from a crowded shelf of different forms but have chosen never to deviate too far from that of ‘lyrical realism’ or a linear narrative arc – or whatever irrelevant description one has to invent, ultimately to criticise it.
On distribution: Yes, distribution does have an impact on form – but not nearly as much as creative vision. Unfortunately, Mieville stops short of any real examination of the impact of distribution on form, and falls back on the simplest examination, which is that digital text has the capacity to be infinitely altered; that the ‘new book’ is not a closed form. He ignores half of the equation. Digital text may change possibilities but it cannot change the intent of creation. And no one, as yet, has come up with a way to harness the open access capabilities of digital text and preserve intent. Miéville makes no mention of the role and importance of the initiation of the writing, only that once written, it rises to a greater level when given over to the will of the public. Why that should be so escapes me.
The open text: I suspect that what Miéville wishes to see is that books become freed from the stultifying hold of copyright, and any person or group of people are free to mix, mash or re-write as they desire, rather than proposing that all literature be the fruit of collective effort. If that is the case, then I haven’t much of a beef with him on this one.
There is a consideration, though: there’s a price to be paid for this. Allowing a book to be constantly changed devalues the original not because it marks some undefinable betrayal of intent or undermines the notion that the work is somehow sacrosanct but because it destroys the communality of a work. Miéville thinks it a good thing that, in his future,
“asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but “which mix”, and why?”
In the world of the reader, that eliminates the common reference point for discussion, with no way of knowing how far one mix strays from any other mix. It limits the breadth of discussion: the reader of Mix A has no idea what Mix B is. And the why in the statement can relate only to the circumstances of the choice of one over the other rather than the work itself – unless both readers have read every available mix, which is nonsense and, in any case, possibly never constant.
Perhaps I missed something, but I’d be obliged if Mr Miéville would explain how he can justify the statement that
“The text is open. This should – could – be our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours.”
The emphasis is mine, by the way. Now, not only does he want the future to be based, apparently, on the past, but this is a particularly glib thing to say and I cannot fathom the justification of it, nor think of the evidence for it. If it is a reference to a collective cultural consciousness, then the statement is rather disingenuous and a non sequitur that has nothing to do with transforming literature from an individual pursuit to a collective hobby. Just because one person creates something out of their own imagination and which flows from that collective cultural consciousness doesn’t mean the creation is collective. All imagination is, in some way, compound and accretive. That doesn’t mean that either its stimulus or its best expression is collective.
Viewpoint is one of the most precious aspects of books. It is precious because it isn’t necessarily the community’s. It gives us something definite to agree or disagree with, a line in the sand we can decide for ourselves to cross or re-draw. The collective book will always struggle to have a coherence of vision or at worst, disintegrates into a muddle of opinions or perspectives. All in all, the cry for collective writing is a misguided application of some idea of a democratic or participation principle.
And why just writers? Why isn’t all art collective? It has always been possible to create collective paintings, for example. Any artist could hang a canvas in public, make a start on a painting and let passers-by make their contribution.
The reason, of course, is that individual and collective creativity are two separate things and produce different outcomes. What is the value in selling one to pay for the other?
We don’t have to be precious about writers to acknowledge that they can be special: not by virtue of being a writer but by what a very few have given us. From Homer, Aeschylus and Shakespeare to Twain, Joyce, and Ballard, they have often been able to say what the collective haven’t even thought to say, or been able to say in the right way or at all. Perhaps, in Miéville’s future, the collective will come up with literature equally as valuable to us. I doubt it; I think it is antithetical to the nature of creativity which is precisely why it doesn’t happen with other art forms except as an offshoot.
On bookshelves: There is also something offensive and blinkered in the way Miéville makes a wholesale condemnation of the literature of the past. The point about designer libraries has nothing to do with traditional novels and forms versus new ones. It is an old criticism of those who use books as a mark of status or character. To conflate that social inadequacy with value of the books themselves is a cheap and rather petty shot. The books we boast we read and have on our reading device serves the same purpose. The new form isn’t going to change that.
“Some anxieties are tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls, without the pretty qlippoth husks? A hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-décor a little needy.”
There was no need for the sly ‘qlippoth husks’. I am sure that Miéville doesn’t really believe that all literature of the past is valueless and dead, and deserves to be included with that collective perjorative. But that is what he does, and it is unworthy of him.
Nor does it take into account that a bookshelf full of traditional books may serve another purpose: it invites those who come into our homes the chance to share and enjoy, to stimulate them into reading a book they might not have seen. I might have 20,000 books on my device but that remains a personal collection, that I know can be shared, but which doesn’t invite sharing. The device is their cloak of invisibility.
On the market: Yes, the market is an imperfect system; it throws up more dross than we would wish and ignores more that is worthy of recognition. It is more ruthless in its censorship, for there is no state sanction nearly as absolute as market oblivion. I wish we could devise something new but that will only occur when the concept of the market applies universally, not just to books. One small start is to remove copyright from the hands of corporates and give it back to the creators.
Should writers be salaried? Let’s put aside the practical things that Miéville is only too well aware of (who decides who is a writer, who pays the salary, and so forth). The most compelling reason for not providing a salary for writers is that all remuneration – even through the market – entails some degree of censorship and of all the evils that assail writing, censorship is the worst. A salary opens the gate to censorship from the paymaster. It is unthinkable that that paymaster be the government. To hand it to the community is equally unthinkable and undemocratic. To hand it to private individuals is risky and undermines salary as remuneration. I’d rather the imperfect judgement of the market to the tyranny of public censure. So, do we pool all monies from all writers and distribute that equally? The problems with that are so manifest that it hardly bears any consideration.
Or let things stay as they are. Poverty inflicts its own censorships and it may literature’s only true process of Natural Selection.