Monday, 30 August 2010

To Swim or Not to Swim: Some Thoughts on Reading and Pierre Bayard

Swimming is first and foremost non-swimming. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong swimmers, the act of finding and diving into a body of water masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not finding and not diving into all the other bodies of water in the universe.

The paragraph above is a reworking of the following snippet from Pierre Bayard's book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Bayard's original text reads as follows:
Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.

So why did I change Bayard's focus on reading to a focus on swimming? Well, quite simply to prove the absurdity of Bayard's claim. Reading is, after all, above anything else the process of reading, that is, the imbibing of a text; in fact any text. If you are doing this, continuously (or at least somewhat continuously), then you are reading despite the fact that you are not reading everything. In fact, the notion that reading intrinsically should mean "reading everything" is ludicrous at best.

Now, before going any further, I want to state outright that I have not read Bayard's book. And that I nevertheless (perhaps against my own better judgement) have decided to discuss it anyway. I am a firm believer in the notion that in order to truly discuss a work in-depth (especially for reviewing purposes) one needs to read the whole (or view the whole; or hear the whole; since this does not only apply to books). Because without the whole, we cannot fully know the text, cannot claim that sort of intimacy with it. So why have I decided to speak about Bayard anyway then, you ask? Well, if nothing else, I seem to have his blessing to do so, since his (seemingly) quasi-intellectual writings suggest that I in fact do not have to read his book to talk about it.

And on some level, I do agree. But more on that later.

I have not read Bayard, but I did hear about his book a while back. I noted its existence and have to say that it did not make much of an impression on me. At least not an impression that had me quickly adding it to my ever-growing wish lists at Amazon (brimming with stuff to keep in mind for getting somewhere down the line; sooner or later, perhaps never, but still...). So, heard of, but almost forgotten (at least placed in the very back of my mind), and now today brought to the fore after having encountered the quote I remodelled into my opening via an acquaintance and fellow literary scholar.

In fact, when I first read the quote, I did not know its source, but a quick google search led me to a review of it by Tara over at Revish.

Tara waxes on about Bayard's book. She happily states that "[t]he terms 'read' and 'unread' are meaningless; one should speak of books in terms of Heard of, Skimmed, Forgotten, or Unknown." I take it that these "new" terms are Bayard's and I instinctively draw back from them. Do not get me wrong. There are naturally books that we have heard of even though we have not read them (and this was true way before Bayard thought of it, surely). We may even talk about such books in terms of their historical significance, their cultural context and their journey through the ages (depending on how far they have travelled thus far). Literary scholarship does in fact do this activity and have done so for a long time. This is not a critique against literary scholarship, because while the proper (if you will forgive my use of that word) discussion of a text's content does require that one, you know, reads said content (and preferably carefully), such a reading will never reveal any of the aforementioned categories (historical significance, cultural context and the journey of any work through the ages); the reason quite naturally being that none of these categories are intrinsic to the text itself, albeit tied, and thereby important, to it. We can thus discuss the importance of Shakespeare without reading Shakespeare, but we cannot fruitfully discuss the contents of Shakespeare's texts without reading them. This does not imply that it would be a downside to having read some of the texts for the former activity, just that it need not be a necessity (nor by default a help either, though I am quite certain it could not hurt).

So, Skimmed, Forgotten and Unknown... these categories also exist (and also pre-date Bayard), but I nevertheless still pull back. There seem to be categories missing. Is Bayard (at least in Tara's reading) suggesting that there is nothing between Skimming and Forgotten? There seems to be a vast gap filled with various degrees of in-depth readings, re-readings, more or less remembered texts – all of which Bayard and Tara seem to have perhaps Skimmed through and then Forgotten.

In her review, Tara writes:
Much as a mathematician can measure a splash, and without seeing the splash occur, can determine the size, weight and trajectory of the object that created it; one can know a book without reading it by observing the affect it has on society, listening (or reading) trusted opinions and probing its connection to other works you are familiar with. Talking about books is unrelated to reading books, which is unrelated to remembering the books that we have read. And here is the realization that alleviated years of unknown anxiety, no one has a perfect recollection of a book that they have read. You begin to forget even before you finish the page. And as each person is an organic entity and continues to change, even if you took meticulous notes, your interaction with a book today would be drastically different in one year, five years and in ten years.
But this is a false observation. The idea does not even hold water on its own premises. After all, Tara moves on to claim that "[w]hat matters, then, about reading, is the book's effect on you, and it's impact on your internal library, those books that you carry with you in your heart and mind, either because you believe their importance in the cultural collective library or because of your personal connection with them." I agree in full with this latter statement; but it is incompatible with her (and presumably Bayard's) mathematician's analogy. Mathematicians can calculate "the weight and trajectory of the object which created [the splash]," but if what truly matters about reading lies in its effect on its reader, on your personal experience of the book, then how can this effect be calculated mathematically without reading it? Especially given Tara's (and again presumably Bayard's) quite adequate notion that "your interaction with a book today would be drastically different in one year, five years and in ten years." For the sake of clarity, I would amend that "would be" to a "could be" if I were to subscribe to that fully. After all, change may be more or less continuous in any person's life, but I would argue that the degrees with which it is affected varies very much on an individual basis, and this would presumably very much play into the interactive process between text and reader.

Furthermore, there seems to be an extraordinary focus on "remembering the books that we have read," and even more precisely on the inadequate manner in which this remembering is performed. Tara (presumably acting as a ventriloquist's puppet for Bayard) claims that this act is, in fact, unrelated to reading. In a line of asinine quasi-intellectual thinking, that claim still has to be in the run for the title of one of the dumbest nuggets in the lot. The fact that memory itself is notoriously unreliable; that it is far from exact or even necessarily stable throughout time; is intrinsic to the very notion of memory itself. If we accept Bayard's premise that remembering books are unrelated to reading the books, we must by default also accept that anything we remember is entirely unrelated to that which we remember. Logically speaking, the fact that our memories are flawed does not equate there not being an actual origin to them. In order to remember a book we have read, we must first have read it, and that causality suggests a relation to me.

There seems to be an underlying tendency in Bayard's book that I do think is relevant; that is, that we should read what we want to read; that we should not worry too much about cultural expectations; that it is all right sometimes to know certain works more or less referentially (i.e. that we know a little about them without knowing them intimately); that there should be no cultural stigma in not having read this work or that... and thereby in essence be free to enjoy reading.

However, there is an overtone of fudging one's reading about the whole enterprise that I do not like. From the title and onwards, there is a rather nasty suggestion that we should need to talk about books that we have not read. Such a suggestion is by no means liberating the reader from cultural expectations, but rather asks the "reader" to fudge it, to pretend to having read certain books by talking about them (presumably in order to be part of the conversation). Needless to say, perhaps, such practices are nothing new. There is an entire industry of York Notes and whatnots allowing students to "cheat within reason," to get to know a text not through the text itself but through somebody else's reading of it. Depending on what one needs out of the work, such material may well provide the information needed for a specific discursive setting. All literary discussions, as I touched upon earlier, are not necessarily rooted in the text themselves. But there is a step between that and more or less suggesting that reading a work does not require actually reading it.

And there's the rub (to borrow from the Bard), because while we should feel free to read that which we want to read, and not to read that which we do not want (though in some cases, it may admittedly be beneficial for us to do so), the premise upon which we should base that argument should, I think, be that there is no shame in saying any of the phrases, "no, I have not read that;" "I actually do not know of that book;" or "I started on that, but found it dull and stopped reading it." There is a leap from moving away from the shame and the stigma of not having read, and pretending to know more than one does.

But hey, what do I know? After all, I have not actually read Bayard.

Monday, 23 August 2010

"What Teachers Make": Taylor Mali Revisited

In late June, I waxed on about my new-found appreciation for master word-smith Taylor Mali, and seeing as how schools are starting up for the autumn term (at least here in Sweden), I thought it fitting to return to master Mali for the following three minutes plus. Time very well spent in my humble opinion. I won't keep you from it any longer.

Gentle readers, "What Teachers Make" by Taylor Mali:

Monday, 16 August 2010

Freedom of Speech, Yet Again: Apropos of the Recent Verdict in Uppsala District Court, Sweden

I have discussed the idea of Freedom of Speech in here before, and it would seem that it is high time to do so yet again (although for a different reason this time). On June 30 this year in Uppsala District Court, Sweden, a man was found guilty of possessing child pornography. The man in question is a Japanese translator, and the images for which he was prosecuted and sentenced were manga, that is, Japanese comics. A combination of things that well and truly brings a lot of Freedom of Speech issues to the fore, no doubt; yet interestingly enough, it took more than a while for the Swedish media to react, and even when they finally did (and there have been many interesting defences of Freedom of Speech from those quarters since), the blogosphere has been surprisingly quiet – a blogosphere which was in a furious uproar earlier this year during the Lars Vilks debacle. It is obviously much easier to shout oneself hoarse for the right to offend some people on religious basis than to enter a discussion on the subject of child pornography. At least if the discussion is not altogether a condemnation of the phenomenon, and even something in any way related to the phenomenon.

The two preceding sentences can easily be read as a critique of some people that did not want a balanced discussion in the previous case, but while it is indeed in part intended as such, it is also honestly meant, in a nigh despairing fashion. For I would be a hypocrite not to note that the sentence was pronounced on June 30 and that it is now August 16, that is, some one and a half month later.

The reason for my own procrastination is quite simple: I spent a few years in my youth in Swedish Save the Children, actively propagating the Children’s Convention and working against child pornography. I am a huge fan of author, lawyer and children’s activist Andrew Vachss, and in particular of his brilliant little book Another Chance to Get It Right: A Children's Book for Adults, which has helped shaped a lot of the ideas on the importance of children’s rights in my mind. In short, I too cannot help to question the “need” for pornographic illustration of children to be made in the first place. And nevertheless...

I am certainly not naive enough to think Freedom of Speech absolute in any practical sense. Most judicial systems, even (dare I say it) the American, where Freedom of Speech is pretty high on the agenda, have (and quite rightly so) laws against libel and threatening people. But there is certainly something to be said for a Freedom of Speech that is much freer than it is shackled.

Do not get me wrong. Child pornography is wrong; it is vile; and it constitutes a crime. But exactly what is that crime? Many a year ago now, I read an article by Vachss (translated into Swedish, albeit specifically written for that occasion), where the sound argument was made that child pornography is photographic, or filmic, evidence of the sexual abuse of a child. As such, this evidence is an extension of that abuse, in fact, constituting a continued abuse of that specific child, in some sense. Similarly, I would argue that nude pictures of children (obviously not necessitating the same levels of abuse to exist) still falls within these parameters as they exploit these children’s nudity, and granted that the children themselves in the eyes of the law can hardly be deemed fit to make a decision about “willingly” being part of such pictures, nor necessarily agree with such pictures’ existence when they are old enough to understand that better.

(It is, I feel, at this point worth noting that the Swedish law has been very carefully formulated not to criminalise A) teenage couples photographing themselves and sharing those pictures with _each other_ (as long as the age difference is not substantial or the photographs taken against either party’s will), or B) people owning nude or sexual photographs (or films, I assume) of themselves (alone) even when adults. Basically this states that the presumed injured party cannot be found guilty of such possession. Although spreading such photos would obviously fall within the rules of distributing illegal material, and it would equally obviously be illegal for other parties to view them. Still, the detailed thinking vis-a-vis these questions are well worth noting, especially when we head into the topic at hand.)

In all cases I have brought up, the issue is not only that the images or films are offensive. The point is that they document and extend sexual abuse, that watching them makes any viewer guilty of furthering that abuse. And against this, hard laws are required. But, can a drawn image truly be said to do this? Can it be included in this argument? What I have just outlined above clearly does not apply. A drawn image does not require an act of abuse to exist in the real world. Nor does it depict a specific nude (or even fictionally abused) child. We might find these images offensive. We may well argue against such things being produced. But it is almost frightening how many times I have read comments on on-line articles where the commenters are arguing against child pornography itself on the basis that it is offensive. To me, this seems like pulling the teeth out of the proper definitions of child pornography, that is, as something a hundred times worse than merely being found offensive, simply by the fact that it is both a document and form of abuse.

If drawn images do not constitute such abuse, and granting that we do not easily legislate in matters of taste (and let us be honest, matters of offense are clearly linked to matters of taste), why should drawn images of nude children, or even children in sexually explicit acts, be deemed illegal? Now, here the reason cited is that such images may well incite paedophiles to commit sexual acts, or even (if we are to believe some assumptions) cause people to become paedophiles themselves. Surely, it is better to be overly cautious in such circumstances? Surely it is, as the saying goes, better to be safe than sorry? Or is it?

Now bear with me and please remember that I am by no means arguing in favour of such images, but as Neil Gaiman has pointed out, defending Freedom of Speech, also means defending such speech with which one does not necessarily agree oneself. I would in connection with this also like to bring up Peter Jones’s point that "[w]e may even fight shy of curtailing our conception of the non-legal rights of authors; we can criticise the use that people make of their rights without implying that they have no right to do what we criticise" (in Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie 321), which I have already drawn upon before. Following Jones’ judicial reasoning, we must be allowed to debate the usages of Freedom of Speech, to make moral and even aesthetic judgements about any and all utterances, without impeding the Freedom of Speech itself.

My main objection to the current Swedish law on the issue of these types of drawn images (and to laws formulated along those lines in other countries), is that is an arbitrary law. If we fear that such images may incite paedophiles to commit sexual acts (or even, though I honestly find this less likely, generate more paedophiles), why do we stop at images? If it is better to be safe than sorry, why should fictional texts be any different than drawn images? Surely they too must entail the same possibilities of incitement, must they not? And if explicit images (or texts) can do so much damage, surely the seeds of our destruction must also reside in any and all texts or images that even implicitly deal with paedophiles or children in sexual situations (without openly condemning these things three times over and every time they are mentioned, lest someone only reads selected passages). Along these lines, ought not Nabokov’s Lolita, where the narrator Humbert Humbert is trying to seduce the reader into sympathising with his own paedophiliac desires, also be deemed illegal? And before someone suddenly twists my words into being pro-censorship extraordinary: my point here is, of course, where do we stop? Where do we draw the lines in such an arbitrary quagmire?

The problem with this arbitrariness is that it allows us to feel good about ourselves, to feel vindicated for a moment or two. We have found something offensive and that which was found offensive has been punished accordingly. While I will certainly hold on to my right to vocally oppose things I find offensive, I also find this judicial arbitrariness unsettling, and cannot help but remember that old adage, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” For there are many levels to this quagmire. If we are truly worried about the sexualisation of children, why do we not attack (vocally if not legally) cultural phenomena like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, who in their wake have children dressing in an explicitly “sexy” fashion and dancing around in manners it would only be ludicrous to argue do not evoke sexual acts (whether or not the children themselves are aware of it)? These things are situated right in the pop cultural mainstream. Yet in a time, when we are so afraid of the possibility that drawn images might incite a paedophile to commit a crime, we do not even have a large on-going mainstream debate on this problem. Because if these things are not ways of sexualising children, and if such sexualisation is not a way of allowing children to be viewed as sexual objects, then in all honesty, I have no clue what would be.

In this sense, we need to legislate less against fictions and worry more about continually debating that which we find deplorable (we do have that option). Because at the end of the day, fictions do not constitute abuse, but that which could incite such abuse certainly does not, nor will it ever, be confined within the arbitrariness of our laws.

Monday, 9 August 2010

A New Wave of Swedish Comics Creators: Bergting, Skogäng and Andersson

Earlier this summer, I finally got around to reading a few Swedish comics I have had sitting on my shelf for a wee while now. The comics in question were Peter Bergting's The Portent: Duende (albeit in Swedish translation, The Portent: De dödas rike (2007) (see my review, in Swedish). It was originally released as a miniseries by Image Comics and collected in 2006), Kim W. Andersson's Love Hurts (see my review, in Swedish. It was collected in 2009, but much of it, if not all, was previously published in anthology comics, etc), and the two first instalments of Ola Skogäng's series Theos ockulta kuriositeter (Eng. Theo's Occult Curiosities), Mumiens blod (2008, Eng. The Blood of the Mummy (see my review, in Swedish)) and De förlorade sidornas bok (2010, Eng. The Book of the Lost Pages (see my review, in Swedish)).

What these three comics creators have in common is artistic capability and a very nice sense of visual storytelling. In the Swedish comics field, this is something of a rarity. Not that all Swedish comics artists are bad artists or that all Swedish comics writers (who for some reason more often than not are the same as the artists, leaving little room for collaborations between writers and artists that are not all that uncommon on the continent or in the Anglo-Saxon world), but most really good Swedish comics have tended to be within the comedic genres, e.g. satire or parody; and some of that is admittedly really, really good (e.g. Charlie Christensen's Arne Anka (Eng. Arne Duck) and Johan Wanloo's Örn Blammo (Eng. Eagle Blammo (though the inherent pun is lost in translation) and De äventyrliga karlakarlarna (Eng. The Adventurous Manly Men)). On the other hand, there has been, and perhaps still is, an overflow of black and white, autobiographical comics out there, many of which seem to embrace an aesthetic which is quite frankly ugly, and more often than not reminds me of images drawn by people who could not really draw if their lives depended on it.

Bergting, Andersson and Skogäng, to my mind, offer a new visual paradigm in Swedish comics, and also open up genre boundaries that mostly seem to have been closed here. This in spite of the fact that there has been a more or less continuous influx of translated comics both from Europe and the US for as long as I can remember, with Japan as a comparatively fresh, albeit by now well established, competitor as well. As such, it feels almost strange that it has taken this long for this to happen.

So what do these three bring to the table then? My reviews (linked above) wax on this, but as they are (unfortunately, for more than a few of readers) in Swedish, I will provide a few words in English here. Mostly because I think you should all keep an eye out for these comics creators on the international scene.

Bergting, of course, first published his The Portent: Duende in English, so that one is readily available. It is a very nicely drawn high fantasy series with a quest plot. While it could be argued that it is geared towards the US market, it nevertheless shows that Swedish comics creators are capable of creating wondrous realms of fantasy, both in terms of beautiful images and well-told tales. Bergting weaves a potent mythology that draws upon that which has gone before without being too repetitive of the old. The collected edition also includes a nice foreword by comics artist Michael William Kaluta.

Andersson, on the other hand, shows with great precision, in a day and age where (especially on the US comics market) never-ending story arcs seem to be the order of the day, that it is fully possible to tell nice and intriguing comics stories on no more than a couple of pages. Love Hurts is a great anthology concept that allows Andersson to tell short, short romantic horror stories with twists. I had not encountered his work before this collection, but was entirely won over by it. Visually, one can see clear influences from Peter Snejbjerg (of DC Vertigo's Books of Magic fame). In terms of writing, I am guessing that Andersson has been reading old DC classics like The House of Mystery and The House of Secrets (and quite possibly EC's horror comics from before that) as well as watching TV-series like Tales from the Crypt and films like Creepshow. As far as I have understood, his work has been published outside of Sweden, but I am not entirely sure in which languages or where.

Last, but certainly not least, we have Skogäng, whose combination of Hergé's la ligne claire tradition and influences from great American stylists like Mike Mignola is utterly compelling. Mignola is also a good point of reference, because one of the easiest (and most fitting) descriptions of Skogäng's series is that it is a Hellboy in Swedish (and in Sweden; Skogäng captures Stockholm beautifully in his images). Clearly, Skogäng shares Mignola's interest in and fascination for the occult, the mystical, the mythical and the fantastic, and his protagonist Theo (a man who has been trapped in the body of a brown bear since the 1920s or 1930s) does bring Hellboy to mind with his investigations into the occult. This, and the fact that Skogäng could easily, and very successfully, illustrate a Hellboy story for Mignola (of this I have no doubt whatsoever), could easily make one assume that Theos ockulta kuriositeter is simply a copycat series, but such an assumption would be flawed. It is a rather a case of commonalities, where the reader of one may very well appreciate the other. The first 200 pages volume, Mumiens blod, is also being serialised in French in a more traditional album format. The first album, Théo: Le vampire de Stockholm (Le sang de la momie #1), is available from Amazon (UK) for anyone interested (who also happens to read French, naturally).

So, for my own part, I am looking forward to see what these gentlemen will produce in the future. Not to mention what they will influence others to produce.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Return of John Byrne's Next Men

Okay, so some belated news to catch up with. Last Monday, after having posted my final segment on Adnan Mahmutović, I came across some of the best news with which a guy like me could start the week: John Byrne returns to his awesome creator-owned comic John Byrne's Next Men. Byrne has since a few years back now seemed to have found a creative home at IDW Publishing, where he has both helped bring Wayne Osborne's FX (see my review) to life and contributed to Angel: After the Fall – First Night (see my review), not to mention written and drawn Angel: Blood & Trenches (see my review), Star Trek: Assignment Earth (see my review) Star Trek: Crew, Star Trek: Romulans – Pawns of War and (forthcoming) Star Trek: Leonard McCoy – Frontier Doctor, as well as some assorted one-shots.

Byrne's association with IDW has also led to the simple fact that his previous work on JBNM is back in print and now available to a whole new audience, either in three colourful hard cover volumes – John Byrne's Next Men Premiere Collection Vol. 1, Vol. 2 and (soon to be published) Vol. 3 – or (my own preferred choice) two glorious black and white paperback editions – Compleat John Byrne's Next Men Vol. 1 (see my review) and Vol. 2 (see my review). While both options collect issues # 0–30 of the series, the b/w collections have the advantage of including the prequel 2112, originally published as a prestige format one-shot.

Now, as the series is about to start up again with issue # 31, I would heartily recommend anyone interested in either good superhero stories or good SF to check the series out. The available collections are well worth your money, to be very frank, and would allow you to catch up to the story so far. However, if you do not feel sure about it (heck, don't take my word for it, right?), you always have the option of picking up issue # 31 when it hits comic shops in December and see if you like it. And do not fret about being able to follow the story without having read the old stuff first. Byrne likes to follow the old school adage of every issue being somebody's first and he did, in fact, write the following over at the John Byrne Forum (post 23 on the linked page):

Trust me on this! And SPREAD THE WORD!
That being said, I do think a lot of you will want to pick up the collections. Not because you have to, but rather because they are that good.

Anyway, what are you waiting for? Off to your respective comic shops and reserve a copy for JBNM # 31!

P.S. If you feel like learning even more, First Comics News has an interview with Byrne up now, and it is all about the return of JBNM.