Monday, 27 September 2010

Books, Libraries and Taylor Mali

So, the 2010 edition of the Gothenburg Book Fair is over and done with. Next week, I will talk about that for a bit, but time and a post-Fair fatigue prevent me from getting right down to business this week. Instead, I thought I would fittingly (given that the Swedish name of the Fair is actually Bok- och bilbioteksmässan, i.e. The Book and Library Fair/Exhibit/Convention) leave you with some enjoyable words by master word-smith Taylor Mali (whom I have talked about on two other occasions).

I give you: "I'll Fight You for the Library."

Monday, 20 September 2010

A Brief History of Fantasy in Sweden and the Future of Swedish Fantasy

Fantasy, science fiction and horror have an interesting history in Sweden. They have clearly interested reading audiences throughout the years, and certain subgenres (mostly of the mainstream variety) of the genres have found their way over here in translation. But for the most part, there has been little to no home-grown writers within these fields making their mark within both the genres and the Swedish language (which is somewhat odd considering the huge mark left by Astrid Lindgren, not to mention a great tradition of folk tales and the like). Also, due to a certain amount of what could probably be described as understandable cowardice on the part of publishers, the genres seem to have been present mostly in their more generic or typical representations; we have had the Eddings, the Jordans, etc, yet little of (for instance) giant Michael Moorcock (despite some brave paperbacks from the role-playing game company Äventyrsspel back in the day). These two factors may, of course, be somewhat related.

Now, there have been those who have made it their business to improve conditions. The aforementioned Äventyrsspel and other role-playing game companies have made attempts at this, but writers like Andreas Roman and Niklas Krog (who should be mentioned in this context) have seemingly always existed in a paperback ghetto, away from regular publishing (and consequently, perhaps, have not had such a strong impact). Even the coming of Järnringen (who while still doubling within the field of role-playing games at least made an effort to publish hard cover books) in 2002 seemed to have little impact on the literary scene in Sweden.

Needless to say, expectations were high late in 2004 when it was announced that some of the people behind the successful book store Science Fiction Bokhandeln (which at the time had one store in Stockholm and one in Göteborg, and have since opened a third store in Malmö, thus covering Sweden's three largest cities) were starting a publishing house in the following year. The result was Förlaget Onsdag, which did publish a bunch of titles (none of which I have read admittedly, although an anthology sits on my shelves) before seemingly just fading away. Many (if not all) of these books showed a very poor understanding of the book as an artefact, sporting less than stellar covers and being littered with poor page layouts, etc, which really had me put down more than one of their books extremely fast (if I even picked it up in the first place).

Around the same time, however, the horror genre took a great leap forward as John Ajvide Lindqvist published his debut novel Låt den rätte komma in (Eng. Let the Right One In), which showed once and for all that it was A) possible to write horror in Swedish, and B) do it extremely well. While admittedly horror has always been the somewhat privileged of the three genres referred to here, I cannot help to think that that gigantic leap did open some eyes as to the possibilities of what else could be achieved in the realms of the fantastic.

The publisher Ersatz, with its focus on German, Eastern European and Russian literature (and a great sense of a book's value as an artefact), opened more doors in 2006 when they began publishing Russian author Nick Perumov's epic fantasy tale The Keeper of the Swords – a series of originally eight books in Russian, planned to be released as twelve books in Swedish (of which seven books have been published thus far). While I have not read Perumov (who incidentally is highly under-represented in English – I could only find Godsdoom: The Book of Hagen in English at Amazon (UK)), I have heard very good things about his epic saga, and also had the pleasure of listening to the man himself at last year's Göteborg Book Fair. Ersatz also decided to publish Dmitry Glukhovsky's (alt. spelling: Dmitrij Gluchovskij) Metro 2033 (also available in English) in 2009, and has as of this year started a fantasy imprint, Coltso, to which they have moved their publishing of both Glukhovsky and Perumov (also including the upcoming publication of the latter's somewhat controversial trilogy Ring of Darkness, which is a free and unauthorised follow up to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings), as well as having added Russian authors Max Frei (a pseudonym for Svetlana Yuryevna Martynchik) and Sergei Lukyanenko (alt. spelling Sergej Lukjanenko), as well as Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski to their roster. Needless to say, this enriches the Swedish fantasy scene (in particular by breaking the seeming stranglehold of Anglo-American influence on the genre in the market place), but it is also obvious that Coltso follows the basic parameters of its mother company and (as such) does not seem a likely candidate to bring forth any home-grown Swedish fantasy, science fiction or horror (the publication of Peter Bergting's The Portent notwithstanding).

Still, Ersatz was not the only Swedish publisher to start a fantasy imprint this year. Kabusa Böcker (another publisher with a great sense of a book's value as an artefact) had the same idea and thus gave birth to Styxx Fantasy, which started out with two titles in May: Danish author Lise Bidstrup's Spiralportens Vogter (Sw. title Spiralportens väktare; Eng. trans. Watcher of the Spiral Gate) and, perhaps most importantly, Swedish author Nene Ormes debut novel Udda verklighet (Eng. trans. Odd Reality, or perhaps, Udda's Reality, depending on how one decides to interpret the title). Ormes' book (which I have reviewed in Swedish) belongs to the genre of urban fantasy, set in Malmö and involves the entrance of the main character, the young woman Udda, into a fantastic reality which is somehow both in our own reality and just beside it (a world full of gifted people – shape-shifters and others). It is a strong book on oh so many levels; not the least of which is the fact that is a debut (more or less, at the very least) of an entire subgenre on the Swedish literary scene. And as such, it has also been a smash hit, staying in the number one spot on Science Fiction Bokhandeln's best-selling list for three months in a row (and quite possibly still counting). If this is the future of true Swedish fantasy, I foresee a very bright future indeed. And I truly hope this fine piece of work gets translated into English as well.

As for Styxx Fantasy, their next outing will be a long overdue Swedish translation of Richard Matheson's classic vampire novel I Am Legend (to be released in October this year with the Swedish title Legend). It might be worth noting that an older translation of this novel was published back in 1975, but that it was reputedly far from a satisfactory translation... to put it mildly.

For anyone interested, it is also worth noting that Kabusa Böcker and its imprint Styxx Fantasy will be present at the Göteborg Book Fair 23–26 September at exhibition stand B06:39 (early copies of Legend will be available to a special Book Fair price, according to their websites). Ormes will be there to sign her book on Saturday 14:00–14:30 and Sunday 12:00–12:30 (with additional opportunities at Science Fiction Bokhandeln's exhibition stand, A02:42, Saturday 15:00–15:30).

For those Book Fair visitors who happen to have a seminar card, I would also like to mention that Ormes will be participating in two mini seminars on the Saturday. The first one, "Kick-ass chick-litt fantasy" (I don't think a translation is necessary), between 11:00–11:20, is organised by Science Fiction Bokhandeln, and here she and Karin Waller (manager of the Malmö store) will be talking about kick-ass chic lit fantasy (as if there was any doubt about that). The second one, between 13:00–13:20, is organised by Styxx Fantasy and will feature a discussion between Ormes and her publisher, Anna Henriksson, on the topic of writing fantasy in Swedish. Both of these seminars will take place in room J2 at the Book Fair.

Maybe I will bump into some of you there. Who knows, eh?

Monday, 13 September 2010

On Adaptation

In March, I wrote about what constitutes a medium. At the time, I fully intended to follow up (quite shortly) with a post on adaptation, but (as so often happens) other topics of interest popped up, and the post was delayed and postponed. Until now, that is.

Later this week, I will be speaking on the topic of adaptation at the City Library here in Göteborg as an introduction to a screening of the animated film How To Train Your Dragon aimed at school teachers. As the film (as oh so many others, including the three others that are screened this autumn) is an adaptation (of Cressida Cowell's book How to Train Your Dragon), this subject will be the topic of my introduction. And needless to say, perhaps, I figured I would put some words down on the subject in here as well, while I have it fresh in my mind anyway.

In my March post, I differentiated between material and non-material mediation, and counted media like music, literature, comics and film as non-material in that they function more like languages (with a particular sort of grammar, which definitely serves to create medium specific boundaries of possibilities for these categories) while nevertheless depending on other, material media to express themselves. In short, the argument was, and is, that it is often possible to mediate non-material media through more than one material medium (e.g. the medium of film can be expressed or accessed via celluloid film, video tape, digital video, etc; the medium of music can be expressed or accessed via vinyl discs, cassette tapes, CDs, etc). This is, of course, not to suggest that the move from one material medium to another cannot affect the content at any given time, or even that it cannot affect a non-material medium itself. Clearly developments of new material media have had huge impacts on the medium of film, but these impacts and effects differ from whatever happens when content moves between non-material media.

For the sake of clarity, I suggested that we apply the term re-mediation (which I am sure we will talk more about at some point in the future) to the transfer of content or material between material media, and that we use the term adaptation to address the transfer or translation between non-material media.

In a much earlier post from last year (while discussing the fact that comics are a medium and not a genre), I briefly brought up adaptation theorist Brian McFarlane, and it would seem appropriate to return to him here, albeit a bit more in-depth than last time. McFarlane makes a useful distinction between what he calls transfer and adaptation proper. Transfer refers to all elements in a narrative that are medium non-specific. In simple narratological terms (something which we will definitely be returning to in the future), this would be elements of story. Here we could place things like character, plot, setting, other rather basic information; in other words, the raw components of any narrative. For instance, there is nothing about the character of a blue-eyed man in shorts, who is always angry, that cannot be captured equally well in film, comics or literature (which is of course not to say that such perfect transfer always happens – and we will return to that shortly). However, as soon as these elements get told and consequently embedded in any given narrative, there will arise new elements that are medium specific. These more often than not have to with how a story is told; not just the structural organisation of it but, for instance, the difference between how a film can show the audience an entire landscape in a single shot while a novel requires extended narration with specific focus given to details at any given time (or, vice versa: how a novel through verbal narration can bring story time to a complete halt and discuss a single detail in the tapestry in-depth while a film will more or less have to resort to freeze frames and metafictional devices to emulate the same, or perhaps more aptly a similar, effect).

The narrative elements that are medium specific cannot be transferred in McFarlane's terminology; they require to be somehow translated from one language to another. This act of translation is what he means by adaptation proper.

Now, it is not unimportant in this context to note that adaptation theory and theorists have moved away from questions of fidelity (questions that admittedly are still ever of interest, e.g., whenever someone watches the film version of a beloved book). The argument here is that any film (or any type of adaptation, really) has more than one intertext. That is, like any other text, an adaptation is tied to a number of cultural texts and stories, with which it interacts on a variety of levels. This is an interesting and useful argument (no doubt about it), especially since it allows us to look more deeply into processes of multiple adaptations of the same text (i.e. how such an adaptation often ends up not only referencing the source text but also commenting the preceding sequence of adaptations) or how an adaptation often ends up referencing its own contextual (historical and cultural) time frame while relating to the source text. In short, I find that this idea definitely has its merits.

But— (there is always a but is there not?) the argument also has a weak spot, in my humble opinion. The fact is that while an adaptation has several intertexts (just as any other text), it is equally true that one of these intertexts has been put in the spotlight and given an added focus. It is a truism that there is no necessary equality between intertexts in an text, but in an adaptation there is a given notion that the source text has a privileged position. If it did not, if the source text was in fact merely one of many intertexts, why would we single it out and call the adaptation an adaptation in the first place?

This is where McFarlane's distinction becomes of the essence. After all, it is an undeniable fact that there are (more often than not) changes and differences between a source text and an adaptation. While questions of fidelity in themselves are not necessarily of (at the very least) academic interest, I would argue that the reasons for why things change are of interest both for academics and the general public. Using McFarlane's distinction we can consider which of the differences between any given source text and its adaptation(s) have been susceptible to transfer and which have required adaptation proper. With this knowledge in hand, we can then consider matters of translation inherent in adaptation proper – have these acts of translation been successful, artistic, inventive, clumsy, brilliant, missed the mark, hit the spot, etc.? At the same time, we can note differences in material that could have been transferred (because let us face it, far from all the differences in adaptations stem from adaptation proper) and consider what has caused these changes.

For instance, film is a notoriously expensive artistic medium (most likely the most expensive one we have around – thus far at least). Therefore financial factors will at least affect any adaptation into film. Then we have the question of cultural context. If a source text is produced in one culture and adapted into another, this too will mark the adaptation and quite likely be responsible for at least some of the differences. The passage of time (as in the adaptation of a historical source text) will also be a possible, and quite likely, factor to consider. Then we have issues of format (which includes length) and intended audience. The list goes on, of course, but I would like to add artistic ego as a last but not least category.

Needless to say, artistic endeavours do entail a fair amount of artistic ego, but in adaptations this is a factor which is a very double-edged sword. It can be the difference between an adapter wanting to use his or her creative energies to transfer as much as can possibly be transferred from the source text and properly adapt in as faithful a manner possible that which cannot be transferred and an adapter wanting to "fix" things in the source text, to be more artistic than the original artist or put his or her fingerprints all over the place. Do not get me wrong, there are great adapters out there, many of whom have made their marks on the finished product while remaining very true to their source text; but mostly I think the ones who manage that are those who aim to do a good job. Few if any people (in whatever medium) have ever made a mark by aiming to make a mark. But in all honesty, this point seems to be heading into a completely different area, which we may well return to on a different occasion.

To wrap things up today, I would just like to say that there are many valid reasons for changes in an adaptation to occur. Some changes are necessitated by the shift between media; as McFarlane points out, some medium specific elements require to be translated. Other changes come about from other types of necessities (e.g. getting an 800 pages novel into a 2–3 hours film will, most likely, require subplots being cut, some supporting or minor characters being cut or in some cases amalgamated, etc., in order to get a watchable film), and some will come out of no necessity at all. Surely it is not unreasonable to discuss and delineate such categories of change? If nothing else than to determine which factors alters (if only ever so subtly) the contents of any given story in an adaptation.

Monday, 6 September 2010

A Quick Recommendation: Common Errors in English Usage

It is a busy, busy time at the moment, what with the autumn term starting up and all; so I will keep it very brief this time. I will however use this short space to post a fitting recommendation: the site Common Errors in English Usage, which I warmly recommend to anyone interested in furthering their knowledge of English usage, and what errors to avoid.

The man behind the site, Emeritus Professor of English Paul Brians (Washington State University), has also produced a book version (with an updated second edition from 2009), which can be found and bought both on and Amazon (UK).

That will have to be it for this week. Next week, if all goes according to plan, our topic of interest will be adaptation. So stay tuned, gentle readers!