Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Me old China

I recently finished reading China Mieville's Embassytown, which roughly coincided with his appearance at the Edinburgh World Writers' conference. His speech on the "future of the novel" (as trite a phrase as "the shock of the new") has been cherry-picked for suitably controversial gobbets, which is the normal way with a PR event whose purpose is to remind people that books still exist. As a marketing exercise, this is fundamentally no different to the recent eye-catching announcement that 50 Shades of Grey has sold more copies than the Highway Code. Given that many buyers appear to view the former as a user manual, this juxtaposition is less surprising than might appear at first sight.

The Mievillian prediction that appears to have done most to epater les bourgeois ecrivains appears to be the suggestion that the future novel may be crowd-sourced, thus finally dethroning the author, some 50 years after Roland Barthes called for his death. T'internet means that anyone can "shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on". Novelists will be "guerrilla editors", and novels will appears in multiple mixes. This is actually pretty old hat, particularly from an SF writer, and I can't help thinking his use of slightly last-decade terms such as "mashup" is a deliberate pisstake. Mieville's own style has a crowd-sourced feel to it: three adjectives where two would do; a cornucopia of ideas, many leading nowhere; wonderful incidental details and Dickensian characters. Of the two other books of his that I've read (a third of his adult oeuvre), The City and the City is the most completely thought-through. A resonant and engrossing vision of a social multiverse, it deserves comparison with Kafka and Dick. The Kraken, on the other hand, is an enormous McGuffin, a plot (and bland protagonist) that J K Rowling would have found serviceable, sprinkled with hilarious caricatures and farcical scenes that just about make it worthwhile.

In his wide-ranging speech Mielville makes a number of valuable points: that anti-piracy is hypocritical and ineffectual; that crowd-sourcing and the Internet serves translations and out-of-print well; that professional publishing houses output as much crap as self-publishing. His rudeboy challenge is to the parochialism and narrow perspectives of English literary fiction, and the attendant "Olympian simpering at the specialness of writers". The literary novel, and it's natural habitat in fogeyish bookshops, is a defence against modernity. But this charge is hardly new, nor is the underlying materialist critique: that the solitary author is a specific type (a subtype of the romantic artist) who evolved as part of the superstructure of classical liberalism and capitalism between the 17th and 20th centuries. While the superficial commentariat worry about changes in media, Mieville addresses the means of production, predicting a return to older, more collaborative forms of authorship, "the scrivener's edit, the monk's mashup". This has the whiff of steampunk nostalgia about it, as does his preference for estrangement over recognition (fantasy is older than realism), but at least it shows a degree of historical awareness.

Where he weakens his case is in suggesting that writers should get a salary, specifically the wage of a skilled worker, to counter the "de-monetisation" of crowd-sourcing. As proposed, this would be significantly higher than the average writer's income today. The reason this is objectionable is because it perpetuates the idea of specialness. A flowering of literature (i.e. a lot more crap but some more gems) would best be achieved through a guaranteed basic income for all. This would avoid the need for the bureaucracy of deciding who was or was not a valid writer, and would allow writers to write when they wanted to (give them a salary and they'd be obliged to produce quota). It would also help to break down the barriers between "litfic" and genre, which are, in the final analysis, nothing more than marketing categories, the "like that, like this" brutality of commodification.

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