Sunday, 31 October 2010

A Change of Publishing Pace

So, here comes a belated final October post, the topic of which ties in with its belatedness.

When I started Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem back in May 2009, I argued that "any type of good publication (electronic or otherwise) needs to be maintained continuously" and I still stand by that motto. Obviously, I have faltered on occasion (as this week would indicate at least slightly), but if anything, I am rather proud to say that this blog has become more regular over time, finding its publishing day and time (Mondays at noon CET), once a week, and pretty much sticking to that.

In that sense, the past week has obviously been something of an anomaly to the by now established norm, but it has also forced me to look ahead a bit and see if I could keep up with said publishing deadline or if the stumbling itself would be bound to become a new (and dare I say it, unwanted) norm. The truth is that I am heading into a period in which keeping the deadline and maintaining the level of content quality simply will not be feasible.

Because of this, I have decided to turn Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem into a bi-weekly blog, instead of a weekly one, until further notice. In doing so, I hope to re-affirm my own commitment to have a regular publishing continuity without losing quality or my own sanity in the process.

In short, my next post will be up on Monday November 8 at noon (sticking with the established publishing day and time at least) and will then be followed by another one on November 22. Hopefully, you will all still be around for it.

Longevity and bloom to you all!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Plagiarism, Imitation, Theft and Copyright

This past Saturday, I attended an interesting symposium on plagiarism hosted by ABF Göteborg, in the of wake of which I have been thinking a lot on this matter. Hence, I have decided to put down a few of those thoughts here.

Earlier this spring, I discussed the cult of originality and its role in art (whatever the art form). The ideas expressed in that post are components that are crucial to our current understanding of plagiarism, but they are certainly not the only ones. The concept of plagiarism requires a sense of originality, true, but it also requires the concept of copyright; and this is a legal concept. As such, while artistic ideas of originality must surely have been part of the context which could give birth to copyright, it would never have come to pass unless a lucrative market had not also arisen. The market is interested in keeping intellectual property intact because it generates revenue. Do not misunderstand me, this is not necessarily, in and of itself, an altogether bad thing (artists too need to earn their living); nor in fact is it in the end the only thing protected by copyright. Copyright secures the right of an artist to be given his/her due for work done (and while copyright mostly define this in financial terms, there are nevertheless other levels added as if by default).

Now, plagiarism can be many things; maybe not all of them bad. I doubt that many would argue with me about the wrongness of say, my taking a poem by Lord Byron and publishing it as my own (i.e. without referencing Byron and consequently making explicit or implicit claims of having "done the work" as it were). But what if I composed a new poem out of quotes from a longer poem by Byron, or perhaps several different ones? Copyright in literature implies that words can be the intellectual property of an individual, yet words are parts of language and have as such always been a mass of reiterations. The sentence "I love you" cannot be ascribed to a single individual, and while other sentences may (quite obviously) be sourced to specific people, there is nevertheless a possibility that these sentences too have been stolen from sources now lost to us (perhaps not even textual sources in the first place). There is even a possibility that the same words have been banded together in that very manner by somebody else without there even existing a connection between the two parties making this specific utterance (granted that this becomes less and less likely the longer a verbatim concordance runs).

Similarly, plot structure, character and many other narrative components have always been in circulation, and before copyright (and perhaps before a demand for originality), the art of imitation was often ranked highly, albeit, perhaps performed differently in different eras. There is, for instance, an interesting question as to how much of Shakespeare's work could have been written with our current copyright laws in effect.

As such, plagiarism per se needs not be an unproductive or inartistic approach. In fact, I would argue that it both can be and have been used very productively throughout history and still to this day. Returning briefly to my Byron example above, making a condensed new poem out of an old one or a collage poem out of several old ones would entail an artistic process. While such poems would certainly be made from stolen (or at the very least borrowed) goods, they would nevertheless constitute something new, if for nothing else than the fact that the combination of sentences on a higher text level also affects the content and meaning of those sentences on lower text levels. In short, any given passage does not necessarily mean the same thing in all contexts.

Still, on a moral note, there is something appealing in paying one's dues (if not financially, then at least ethically). Artists who work with these types of collages or borrowing often do not feel the need to hide it. In fact, the reverberation achieved by such allusions might be part of the effect these artists strive for. One way of paying one's dues in such cases might be an appended list of works used. Under current copyright laws, such a list may even be more or less prompted by law and require explicit permission from the copyright holder (often, in turn, requiring a fee for that permission; depending on the circumstances). The obvious counter-effect to this is that some artists may opt not to pay their dues explicitly in the hopes of circumventing the copyright machinery altogether.

It is also worth noting that a work may lose some of its impact if its potential sources are revealed too clearly and upfront; that is, that artistic or narrative effect may be sacrificed on the altar of copyright and intellectual property. Don't get me wrong here. I am not advocating that we do away with the concepts of copyright and intellectual property. As someone who writes, I think these are important advances in how we view such work, both in financial and ethical terms; but also I think it is important that we note that these rules are not always artistically or narratively productive; that there is something inherently counter-productive within those selfsame parameters.

At the end of the day (and returning to the ethical dimensions), there needs to be a middle-ground of sorts, where artists can borrow (and perhaps steal) to create something out of something else (as it were), but without stealing the claim of originality. Outside of legal and financial issues, this may well be the critical point to make. It may not be the borrowing or stealing itself that constitutes the ethical transgression, but rather the suggestion that such borrowing or stealing constitutes some sort of ex nihilo creation; in essence making the artist into an author-ity by deviously reciting someone else's, while simultaneously erasing that other in the process.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Nine Seminars, Five Mini Seminars, Ten Signed Books and Four Days: The Göteborg Book Fair 2010, Pt 2

So, time for part two of my report from this year's Book Fair.

Saturday opened with my third and final Africa-themed seminar: "Maktens språk och språkets makt" (Eng. trans. The Language of Power and the Power of Language) featuring a discussion between Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Professor Raoul J. Granqvist of Umeå University. The conversation focused on the importance of not depriving humans of their native languages through colonial or neo-colonial school systems. Ngũgĩ also spoke both of oriture (i.e. orality's equivalent of literacy's literature), stressing the connectivity between 0ral and textual language, and what he called cyborality/cyboriture. The latter of which, to my understanding, refers to the oral language impulses that the internet currently feeds directly back into written language; in essence generating texts that end up functioning much more like spoken language than written, in that it often tends towards a greater immediacy.

They also discussed the vicious circle of African publishing, that is, that there are few authors writing in African languages (Chinua Achebe's books for instance are not available in his native tongue, Igbo), which in turn leads to there being few publishers who publish books in African languages; which in turn... I guess, you get the picture. In this context, the importance of translation – of transferring important texts between smaller languages so as to not be overly dependent on bigger languages (i.e. the languages of the colonisers) – is of the essence.

The rest of the Saturday (four mini seminars and one more regular seminar) was coloured by the fantastic. This started with the mini seminar "Kick-ass chick-litt-fantasy" (I somehow think translation is somewhat superfluous here), in which Karin Waller ("Cap'n" of Science Fiction Bokhandeln's store in Malmö) and Nene Ormes (author and "crew") introduced the aforementioned fantasy subgenre which comes out of a combination of elements from chic lit (e.g. Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary), urban fantasy (e.g. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and Jim Butcher's Dresden Case Files series) and paranormal romance (e.g. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga). This heroine based genre includes romance but never allows this to be its sole plot purpose or drive. Rather than stumbling over the mouthful of joint nomenclatures, Waller and Ormes offered the hopefully more catchy and snappy "fantzy". We will have to wait and see if the name catches on, but if you are a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the seminar suggested that this might be your kind of genre (with titles such as Jaqueline Carey's Santa Olivia and Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series).

This seminar was followed by two short solo flights by Johan Theorin and John Ajvide Lindqvist respectively: "Mord på Öland" (Eng. trans. Murder on Öland) and "Med absolut gehör för skräck" (Eng. trans. With Perfect Pitch for Horror). Both authors were a lot of fun to listen to. I had attended seminars with Ajvide Lindqvist before, but Theorin was new to me, and he really made me interested in reading his books about Öland.

After this brief interlude, it was time to see more of Ormes, this time in a mini seminar entitled "Fantasy på svenska" (Eng. trans. Fantasy in Swedish). Here Ormes was interviewed by her publisher Anna Henriksson from Styxx Fantasy. The full seminar is available on YouTube (albeit in Swedish) and is highly recommended viewing.

Finally, Saturday's seminars ended with "Det magiska norden" (Eng. trans. The Magical North), in which four Nordic authors discussed elements of the fantastic in their fiction together with moderator Janina Orlov. The authors in question were Lene Kaaberbøl (Denmark), Jo Nesbø (Norway), Andri Snær Magnason (Iceland) and John Ajvide Lindqvist (Sweden). Finland should have been represented by Maria Turtschaninoff, who for some reason or another was not able to attend the Fair (although, I did pick up her book Underfors about a secret fantastic city underneath Helsinki). The discussion was interesting even though some of the question were a bit hit and miss. That being said, the questions that really hit home went down very well indeed, and really made it a worthwhile seminar to have attended.

The evening ended with a lovely dinner with some friends from Bookcrossing, all gathering in these glorified days of bookishness.

On Sunday, I only visited two seminars: the added seminar with Jan Lööf and "Livet, universum och allting" (Eng. trans. Life, the Universe and Everything). After having had the pleasure of listening to Jan Lööf in discussion with his sometimes-partner-in-crime Carl Johan deGeer last year, I jumped at the occasion for something of a repeat performance. Granted that his discussion with Kartago's Rolf Classon did not quite match that of the preceding year, but it was nevertheless an amusing and insightful seminar, and I have certainly no regrets for having spent my time on it.

The second one featured a panel debate between science fiction writer Peter F. Hamilton, publisher, journalist and writer Johan Ehrenberg, astroparticle physicist and blogger Anna Davour, and Glenn Petersen from Science Fiction Bokhandeln's Göteborg store. The panel was moderated by Math Claesson from Science Fiction Bokhandeln's Stockholm store. The discussion touched on questions of technology (and its theoretical limits), human norms and what it is that constantly drives us to wonder what is out there among the stars. All in all, a very good seminar with a lot of highlights, and earlier in the morning, I had also had the chance to buy Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained (the first two novels in Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga) and get them signed by the author.

The afternoon was spent mingling about a bit on the floor, meeting up with friends (both old and new) and also getting my copy of Karin Tidbeck's debut collection of short fiction, Vem är Arvid Pekon? (Eng. trans. Who Is Arvid Pekon?), signed. This book is not only very good and an extremely charming read, I would also dare to say that it is a book that is necessary on the Swedish literary scene. Writing in a tradition of short fiction that sports such names as Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Ray Bradbury, Philip José Farmer and Harlan Ellison, Tidbeck tells us stories which are unabashedly fantastic in nature, yet which adhere to no strict mainstream conventions of fantasy or science fiction (in particular as such definitions are understood on the Swedish literary market). I strongly doubt that this beautiful little book will match Nene Ormes' urban fantasy debut in terms of sales and audience (sadly), but it is a truism that short story collections sell worse as if by an unfortunate default setting, and the very fact which makes Tidbeck's contribution so necessary (even more so, perhaps, than Ormes' book, which I rate very highly) will most likely be part of the obstacles it (and she) will have to overcome. The fact that the book is out there, however, speaks well for the future of the fantastic in Swedish literature.

So, nine seminars, five mini seminars, ten signed books (and a few more bought) and four days of mingling, browsing, and having an awful lot of fun. I would not trade that away for the world.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Nine Seminars, Five Mini Seminars, Ten Signed Books and Four Days: The Göteborg Book Fair 2010, Pt 1

"... and a bad cold, one could add," was how I opened my first of two posts on last year's proceedings; and here we go again. In that respect, the Göteborg Book Fair delivers like a clockwork.

This year's Fair was held between September 23–26, and the theme this year was Africa. As stated already last year, this is an event of both national and international significance (obviously, given this year's main theme), and it is not aimed exclusively at the publishing world, libraries, education and the like, but is actually open to the general public (with all that that entails, for better or worse). Unlike last year, my schedule started out much less compact, perhaps because of having had less time to pour over the program than I have had the last few years, but also, I think, because of a weaker program. Do not get me wrong. I have enjoyed some mighty fine seminars this year, but there were way too many I decided to skip on. Now, one always has to skip some (need for food breaks and whatnot), but it was much more prominent than previous years. Still, quality over quantity is the ticket, right?

On Thursday, I went to two full seminars and one mini seminar. The first one out was "Sanningen om Röda armén" (Eng. trans. The Truth about the Red Army), in which historian Catherine Merridale spoke with my all time favourite moderator Peter Whitebrook (back after last year's absence for this one seminar) about her book Ivan's War: Inside The Red Army, 1939–45. It was an interesting and rewarding discussion about her interviews with old Russian war veterans and archival research, which certainly left me interested in Merridale's book.

After some time on the floor (Thursday being the best day for milling around down there), and a few accidental meetings (and subsequent socialising), I had the immense pleasure of being present at a brimful seminar with Sofi Oksanen: "Diktaturens formationer" (Eng. trans. The Formations of Dictatorship). The following day's paper stated that the venue, which swallowed 500 people, had not been big enough, and that many people had been unable to attend the seminar because of this. While I have not yet read her work (although I have heard many fine things about it), after hearing her talk about (in particular) her novel Purge, I have to say that this Finnish author of Estonian descent has definitely caught my full interest. The layers of narrative this novel appears to have intrigues me immensely and I will definitely be reading it in the not-too-distant future.

The concluding mini seminar of the day (after some more milling about on the floor and followed by some exhibit stand mingling as the day wound down), was "Verklighetsflykt eller verklighetsspegel" (Eng. trans. Escapism or a Mirror to Reality). In this seminar, children's books author Jo Salmson (whose first book about Tam, I bought at last year's Fair and really enjoyed) talked with Maths Claesson from Science Fiction Bokhandeln about gender and evil in fantasy literature, and whether the way these concepts can be and often are dealt with justifies the genre often being written off as mere escapism. An interesting point that was raised by Salmson was that some of the more social realist children's books around has an audience for which the themes (while somewhat gruesome) may nevertheless constitute a titillating exoticism, and that maybe we need to think twice about what we actually label escapism.

After the seminar, I had wished to buy the second book in her series Drakriddare (Eng. trans. Dragon Knights) about the young boy Tam, and get it signed. Alas, fate conspired against me as only the sixth and last book in the series had been brought along to be sold outside the seminar room. However, things worked out rather well on that account any way, as I opted to pick up books two through six in the publisher's exhibit stand the following day and a few moments later more or less stumbling over a signing session she had at Science Fiction Bokhandeln's exhibit stand, leaving me a happy customer with five signed books after a quick chat about the previous day's seminar.

Friday turned out to be my "theme day", as two out the three seminars I attended that day belonged to the Fair's African theme. The day opened up with an interesting seminar featuring Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah. With the publication of her debut collection of short fiction, An Elegy for Easterly, she has risen to the ranks of notoriety, yet she proved to be a humble and humorous woman. On discussing the issue of ethnicity and identity, she candidly said that she does not first and foremost define herself as a black African woman when she sees herself in the mirror; nor does she believe anyone else has that type of self-definition as their most basic one. One may of course argue that identity always becomes a matter of power (i.e. the age-old game of "you"); we may claim that we are anything, but unless we get someone to play along with us, our own definitions becomes somewhat moot. Gappah, however, responded to the moderator Anna Koblanck's query if it would be appropriate to view her as an African writer by the witty one-liner, "You can see me however you like — as long as you buy my book." Yet, wittiness aside, Gappah pointed to her writing as a serious business, chasing a sense of truth, refusing to subscribe to a positive view of Zimbabwe or Africa; the truth, as she noted, always being a bit more complex than simple positivity.

The second seminar of the day, "Kanske finns det en Magnoliagenre" (Eng. trans. Maybe There Is a Magnolia Genre) featured a discussion between moderator Immi Lundin (literary critic and scholar) and authors Kristina Hård and Gunnhild Øyehaug. Both authors have published books that could arguably belong to a genre which could be called the Magnolia genre, after writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia; that is, multiple stories about multiple "protagonists" making up the whole of the text (in some way, generating a sense of objectivity while nevertheless maintaining subjectivity). Hård's novel in this particular genre is Himalayabreven (Eng. trans. The Himalayan Letters), which is her second novel, and Øyehaug's is Vente, blinke (Eng. trans. Wait, Blink), her fourth book albeit her first novel (her previous outings having been poetry, short fiction and essays). Both authors caught my interest during the seminar and I consequently bought a copy of Øyehaug's book (which I got signed); Hård's two books already sitting on the shelves of my better half at home. (Incidentally, in the wake of the Book Fair, I have started reading Hård's first novel Alba, a fine science fiction novel, which I am sure I will have reason to talk about more later on.)

Friday closed (after a lot of scurrying about on the floor buying a bundle of books and comics, including a copy of Anders Fager's Svenska kulter (Eng. trans. Swedish Cults), which is supposedly Lovecraftian ideas subtly transposed into a Swedish setting – who could refuse such a thing, right? I also managed to get this book signed by the author, so there is that too), with the seminar "Out of Africa". This seminar was a panel debate between Ethopian-born author Maaza Mengiste, Nigerian author Chris Abani, Swedish-Portuguese author Miguel Gullander (who writes in Portuguese and has been working out of Cap Verde and Moçambique, and currently works out of Angola), Kenyan-American poet, performer and intellectual Shaijla Patel, Nigerian author Sefi Atta (first recipient of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature) and Sierra Leonean author Brian James; moderated by author and English professor Stefan Helgesson. While I ended up only attending three of the theme related seminars on the whole, the quality of the ones I did attend were very high and really raised my level of interest in the authors in question (I will definitely be picking something up by at least Abani, Patel, James, and most likely Atta as well). This particular seminar offered not only quality, but also quantity; both in terms of time (clocking in at a full hour as opposed to the regular 45 minutes) and the number of authors present. All in all, an absolutely perfect way to end the day.

Well, I think we would better stop here for now. I will tell you all about my Saturday and Sunday at the Book Fair in my next post.