Seven Weeks to Madagascar

Saturday, May 27, 2000

I finally managed to pick up a copy yesterday of Deborah Tannen's latest book, The Argument Culture (only a couple of years after it was published—how up-to-date is that). I devoured her other general-audience linguistics books at an impressionable age (early 20s), and can safely say that half of what I know about diplomacy and avoiding misunderstandings (which may not be much, but hey) comes from her pages.

This new one looks similarly excellent, from what I've read so far (the first chapter). It's inspired by her discomfort with the adversarial nature of academic culture, which anyone who's sat through one too many seminars can sympathise with, but it branches out into wider society, politics, the legal system, and so on.

So what's this got to do with the web? (Isn't this supposed to be a weblog? Where are your links, man? Curse you, Ewins, I come here every day and all you do is write draft pieces for Stating the Obvious and drone on about Fiji.)

Well, sure enough, there's a Deborah Tannen page at her university's site (her own top-level directory and everything—you don't see that too often). It even contains an article based on the book, and others by her as well. If talking and arguing interest you, take a look.

(Of course, now I have yet another book to add to the Pile—it's not a pile, it's a Pile—next to my bed. And only a few weeks left to read them before they get sold or go into a box for X years. And all the while, this weblog calling me, 'Update, updaaattte...')

[ link this ]

It is f r i c k e n f r e e z i n around here.

[ link this ]

I've avoided the subject of Fiji in this blog for a few days because it's too depressing for words. It looks like my worst fears of Wednesday are being played out.

Speight has said that he and his supporters know that there will be 'heavy consequences' for their actions, such as trade bans, freezes on foreign aid, and sport sanctions, and that they're prepared for this because the end results matter to them...

... which kind of misses the point that the three quarters of a million other people living in Fiji haven't been asked whether they wanted their country turned into an international pariah and economic basket-case, destroying their own chances for personal prosperity and well-being for many years to come. (Well of course they weren't asked. That would involve some sort of democratic ballot. Can't have any of those.)

[ link this ]

The tickets are all booked; we fly out of Canberra on July 5th, via Sydney and Johannesburg, and arrive in Antananarivo on Saturday July 8th. So it's now six weeks to Madagascar.

[ link this ]

Friday, May 26, 2000

A reader has responded to yesterday's piece on online publishing with the comment that web-publishing could be to the book industry what Napster is to the music industry, because many authors 'just want to tell a story' the same way jazz musicians 'make music for the love of it'. Good points, and they've got me thinking some more.

I don't think that the web will mean the death of books (not on existing hardware, anyway), but it'll certainly have an effect, as writers who haven't yet 'made it' gravitate towards whatever's going to get their work out there. The effect won't be so much a drop in sales—which may not happen at all, just as CD sales have actually increased since Napster emerged—but of a splintering of the writing community, similar to the effect that movies and TV had on the theatre. Theatre isn't dead, but a lot of people who once would have trod the boards are now involved in those related but distinct artforms. Because of continuing population growth, theatre has been able to sustain an audience and a critical mass of activity, but how much bigger might it have been had motion pictures never been invented?

The web, then, stands in relation to print publishing in the same way as movies and TV do to theatre. It's not a simple replacement of one with the other. You can make a movie of a play (which is what most movies were before WWII), but most movies today are so much more than simply films of stage-plays. Similarly, you can put a novel on the web, but you can make it into something much more than it would be if it were words on a page.

To get personal again for a moment, that's what I did with mine. As well as the text (the novel), I incorporated a stack of illustrations, sounds and music, and (originally) links. I was thinking of it as a different kind of thing, a different artform (which I called a 'wobble'). The experience of creating that new thing out of an already-written novel was something like directing a movie of a book you had written—it wasn't just straight publishing of words. If it was published in print tomorrow, in some ways I would look on the book as something less than what The Stand-Up now is, because it would be missing the pictures, the soundtrack, and so on.

If I were someone from the traditional print media, I might find all this a bit threatening. But although it is a threat to some parts of the print industry in the short-term (just as movies killed vaudeville), in the long term it makes for a much more diverse and stimulating creative environment. Today, after all, many actors work in more than one form: movies and television, television and the stage. I expect we'll see authors crossing over between print and the web and back again, depending what they want to achieve with any particular work.

In fact, I shouldn't really cast this in future tense: we're already seeing this. But because the web is not yet smack bang in the mainstream (almost; almost, but not quite), its implications still strike those who haven't 'gotten it' as new and unusual.

And don't underestimate how many key people out there (the traditional gatekeepers, if you like) haven't yet 'gotten it'. When I finished putting my novel online, I sent around one last bunch of letters to publishers saying that they might like to have a look at it. Some of them wrote back saying they couldn't access the web, and asked if I could I print it out for them. This was in December 1999.

The really amazing thing about the web is that it has all these implications for every creative field: movies, TV, music, whatever. (OK, maybe not furniture design.) Just as it's shaking up publishing, the web is shaking up the music, film, and television industries. For now, they're worried that it will steal their artworks and give them nothing back. They should be more worried that it will steal their artists. Because it already is, and will do so more and more.

That's a problem if you make your living by selling other people's art in a particular form. But it need not be a problem if you're an artist. Even some of the biggest have already realised that. (No, it's not a link to David Bowie; and yes, in Europe he is very big indeed.)

[ link this ]

Thursday, May 25, 2000

Very occasionally I get an email from someone who has read all the way through The Stand-Up, my personal ode to following your dreams and, well, all sorts of things. I got one this morning that's made my day, and confirms to me that I was right to put it online, because if I'd left it in the bottom drawer it would be entertaining and inspiring precisely no-one.

It's made me think some more about a comment in this month's The Australian's Review of Books. Their fly-on-the-wall column about a reading group included some acid comments from one member about online fiction. 'Don't talk to me about the Internet,' she complains, 'it's a home for every bad unpublished novelist' (or words to that effect). Which, as someone with a whole novel sitting on the web, I can't help taking a little personally. 'It's also a home for every good unpublished novelist!' I want to shout, but that sounds just a little too defensive, and even arrogant. What I really want to say is a bit more complicated.

I started writing that novel when I was 24, and wrote it over four years. Like many first novels, it has autobiographical elements, but it's best understood as a sort of internal dialogue between the two sides of myself. One of its themes is striving to do something different with your life, and seeking recognition for your efforts. Although the path chosen by its main character is not the path I've taken, the very act of writing the story was effectively my own attempt to do the same thing.

I had high hopes for it, and if it had been published I can imagine my life would be very different today. I tried, of course, and had a couple of promising responses from publishers and agents, but none that translated into printed words on the page.

I also had some condescending replies to the effect that 'it ain't funny', which to me summed up the obstacles facing anyone trying to get their creative efforts noticed.

Sure, it ain't funny—to some people. This is where all my worst fears about the nature of publishing in Australia would come into play. Pitching a non-grunge (non-trendy) 20-something comic novel to middle-aged editors was always going to be an uphill battle, I figured, and when I read Mark Davis's Gangland I found plenty to agree with.

But looking at it more calmly, there are all sorts of different senses of humour in the world, and you can't expect everyone to laugh at your jokes. There are people who don't find much funny at all, or who think that being light-hearted means you don't take the problems of the world seriously (which shows how much they know).

That such people exist isn't the problem. The problem is that when they're the gatekeepers to something you want (publication, good marks, a job), all the rationalisation in the world about 'different strokes for different folks' doesn't do you a damn bit of good. You're still unpublished, out of work, whatever.

Thanks to corporate take-overs, there aren't as many publishers of fiction in Australia as there once were, so there are fewer gatekeepers, all of them being swamped with more manuscripts than ever before. So what happens when your MS is picked up by an editor with a different sense of humour (or a different view of the world) from yours? Into the SASE it goes.

Ultimately, it says nothing about the intrinsic worth of your work. All it says is that that particular editor doesn't think they can sell thousands of copies of it. There may well be an audience for your work, but the editor either doesn't know about them, or thinks that they won't buy your book. That's all.

There are various ways of responding to a rejection letter. Take it as a personal attack, and never write again. Take it as constructive criticism, and try to write something better. Take it as an opinion, and try to find another outlet for the work.

Enter the Internet. If you have access to a PC and the net, you can publish your work yourself at minimal cost. It takes a bit more money and effort if you want your own domain-name and an attractive site, but you can get it onto the web for free if you want: just chuck a text file on GeoCities and hand out the URL.

Literary snobs would call it vanity publishing, but it doesn't cost nearly as much as publishing a book yourself, and it avoids the pitfalls of the vanity publishing industry (where someone takes your MS and money, prints a thousand copies, and then does nothing with them). Yes, it's a form of self-publishing. Yes, it takes some hubris to think that anyone will want to read your words. But every journalist and print-published novelist has had to think those exact same thoughts, at least at the beginning.

The difference between web-publishing and vanity publishing is that it has the potential to remove the traditional gatekeepers. Vanity publishing pretends it does, but it really doesn't; you'll be mighty lucky if your book ever gets near a store and any actual readers.

With web-publishing, the traditional gatekeepers—editors, publishers, book-sellers—are out of the picture. You're out there. You're only a click away, or a URL away, from your potential readers.

But that distance can be daunting too, because it brings exactly the problems I wrote about in The Stand-Up: the problem of getting noticed for your efforts. In trying to get noticed, you meet new gatekeepers: portals, web directories, and everyone else who could potentially link to your site—all of them being swamped with more and more calls for attention (Hey! I like your site! Link to mine!). People like you, as often as not, trying to get noticed for their own efforts.

It can be depressing to contemplate: it's almost the same as the print world, where millions of new words are published every day. But the difference with the web is that the barrier to entry is gone. You don't have to demonstrate to anyone that you can persuade a thousand readers to part with ten or twenty bucks. Maybe you don't have a thousand potential readers; maybe you have only a hundred, or ten, or one. That's fine; you can get your work out there, and with a bit of luck, and a bit of effort on your part to spread the word, they'll find you.

And when they do, and when they read every single word you wrote and thank you for putting them there, you've succeeded just as much as if they had read them in print. (Perhaps a little more, if you accept that reading from the screen is more tiring than reading from the page.)

After all, why do you write? For yourself alone? Then you won't be interested in any form of publication, which is just fine. To make money? Don't give up your day-job, unless you're Stephen King.

To reach an audience? Someone who'll appreciate your thoughts, your insights, your sense of humour? To connect with a reader, the way you have felt connected as a reader to authors whose works you've read?


Thanks, Davey.

[ link this ]

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Okay, bear with me here. If I nominated just about any language in the world and asked what a doubling-up of a word implied, you'd say 'the same, but more of it'—yes? Like 'very, very hot'—that would be hotter than 'very hot'. Or 'froid, froid' (French for 'cold, cold')—you'd think that would mean pretty darned cold.

Well, to quote from James Yount's Guide to Communication, p. xxiv:

When part of a Malagasy word is doubled, particularly an adjective or adverb, it usually signifies a reduced intensity in meaning. For example, 'mafana' means 'hot', whereas 'mafanafana' means 'warm'.

Now that is strange strange. We're going to Opposite Land...

[ link this ]

On the desk next to me is a small book, 6x12cm and an inch thick, bound in green leather, with 470 thin pages set in tiny print. Stamped in gold on the cover and spine is 'Tari-dalam-Pifandraisana' (Guide to Communication). It's a Malagasy-French-English phrasebook, printed in Madagascar. It's brand new, but manages to look old by virtue of its slightly squashed edges and printing flaws.

The whole object speaks of a country where books are scarce commodities, literacy is uncommon, and the easy luxuries of Western life are unknown. It's about as far from the Internet Age as it's possible to get.

I ordered it online from a major US bookstore. It took only 15 days to reach Australia. Without the Internet I never even would have known it existed.

Welcome to the Twenty-First Century.

[ link this ]

So it actually is a military coup after all.

Given that the Great Council of Chiefs has now come out against it, the situation could turn very ugly indeed. Defence of the chiefly system is a major element of Fijian military ideology—indeed, it largely drove the 1987 coup. Now that one part of the military is challenging that ideology, the repercussions could be grim.

The 1987 coup was about much more than race: it was about the defence of a system of traditional authority that was believed to define the Fijian people. In the years since, some Fijians have questioned whether their chiefs adequately represent their aspirations in a fast-changing world. That questioning attitude is sustaining those who are supporting Speight to the extent of defying their chiefs.

But once the rationale of defending the chiefly system is removed from the picture, what remains? Only the promotion of one race over another. This coup, if it succeeds (and there is still a chance it will not), will be far more racist in its intent and outcome than the 1987 coup was (although that was bad enough). That is a tragedy for Fiji and the region.

One can only hope that Speight and his backers fail.

[ link this ]

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

I'm trying to keep the Fiji links to a select minimum so as not to overwhelm the general nature of this weblog (and there I was, worrying that there would be too many about Madagascar), but given my academic interests it's a bit hard. I should mention for those of you on AOL who can listen in to Out There's online radio show that there's an odds-on chance that I'll be talking about Fiji at around noon GMT today. (It might be a bit later... or it might not happen at all. It's all one big exciting gamble, isn't it?) [Update 24/5/00: Didn't happen. Bad luck. Sorry to all of you millions of AOL readers.]

There should be some resolution of events in Fiji by that hour, so with any luck I can get back to something a bit more serious in the next few days.

(I was being ironic. I'm like that.)

[ link this ]

Things aren't looking too good in Suva today.

[ link this ]

A good weblog with more links to current Fiji news than I've been able to manage. Events seem to be coming to a head there... all eyes are on the Great Council of Chiefs, which is meeting right now.

[ link this ]

Monday, May 22, 2000

Hey, hey, it's the Podsters! Yes, one of Australia's best musical comedy acts, Tripod, has a jape-filled website, and amusingly enough it's parked at LAUGH! at their holy war with the cast of Rove. SING! along to their Real Audio clips. CHECK! out the roadshow dates, and if they're near you, get along. (Not coming to Canberra, I see. Sniff.) We saw them at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in April and they were awesome. 'Second drawer down, second drawer down, everything goes in the second drawer downnnn.' Ahh, the memories. Scod, Yon, Gatesy—youse guys are grouse.

[ link this ]

Fiji latest: the SMH continues to feature good coverage each morning, but breaking news through the day is best seen at FijiLive (requires free registration) and the ABC.

President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara's refusal to talk to Speight until the hostages are released is admirable. If he maintains his resolve, it should go a long way to ensuring Speight's failure. Former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, though, seems to have undone several years of cultivating a multiracialist image in one stroke.

The waste of it all; a desperate man taking a whole country down with him. Whatever the outcome, there's no way a small economy like Fiji's, with tourism its number one revenue earner, can shrug off the impact of such events.

[ link this ]

When someone strongly believes that 'Toast is the very thread which holds together the uneasy seams of modern society,' who am I to disagree?

[ link this ]

Mefloquine can cause dizziness and insomnia... then again, so can staying up until dawn reading about it.

I dunno. How bad can it be? Alcohol can cause dizziness, and I took a few glasses of liqueur muscat on Saturday night. (Not as a malaria prophylactic, though.)

[ link this ]

It's autumn in Canberra, which means morning fog. Add this sound, and hanging out the washing turns into a scene from 'Jurassic Park'. (If you're wondering what goes 'reeaaarrrk' and hasn't been extinct for 65 million years, here's a photo.)

I'm going to miss that sound.

Why is it that smells and sounds can evoke such intense memories—even more than pictures? Have our visual memories been crowded out by photographs and television in a way that our other senses haven't? (But in that case, why haven't my birdsong memories been overwritten by all those hours of Triple J?)

The real explanation no doubt lies in the inner workings of the brain. John McCrone is a great read on that subject, both in print and at his comprehensive site.

[ link this ]

Previous Week - Seven Old Weeks

Seven Other Blogs
the junkbox
Strange Brew
Captain Cursor

About This Blog

Seven Seas of Speedysnail
The Stand-Up
Grinding Noises
The Textuary
The Cartoon Lounge
Rory Central


©2000 Rory Ewins

Powered by Blogger