Jul 23rd 2015

Dazzled in Istanbul - On Writers and Publishing

by Alan Skinner

After a career that has spanned threecontinents and has included television, theatre, freelance writing, corporate consultancy and even a decade as a senior executive in one of the world’sleading banks, Alan Skinner has now dedicated his efforts to writing full-time. Todate, he has three novels, a children’s picture-storybook and a play, Daisy Chain (which premiered in Melbourne in 2010) to his credit. As if he didn’t have enough to do, he was also co-inventor, designer and producer of Cinematique,a film-based board game launched in 2006.

We are a society which, as a rule, prefers good order to bad, desires sensible laws to prevail over anarchy and proposes for all just the right amount of liberality to allow us to feel free without the inconvenience of actually being so. We understand that censorship is evil, and should on no account be inflicted on us except when it curbs the excesses and fallibilities of others. The sensible among us (which, of course, if you ask them, is almost everyone) abhor racial or religious prejudice and hatred on the grounds that it is ill-mannered and that such intolerance and ignorance should be saved for politics, where it has proved utterly indispensable.

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then politics is surely the first and there is nothing so conducive to an ordered society than to know that all the scoundrels have been herded into one place where we can keep an eye on them. We marvel - modestly, of course - at how clever we have been devising our parliaments, for they are the only prisons that the inmates will actually pay vast amounts of money for the privilege to be incarcerated in, and will fight tooth and nail not to escape. Our seats of government are much like giant pillories; through our newspapers and occasionally by loitering in groups in the surrounding streets and nearby balconies, we are free to throw as much rotten fruit and insults at them as we like. Of course, it costs a great deal to keep these people confined to parliament (or congress, or whatever name the ostensible seat of government goes by in your particular region) but given what it would cost us were we to let them loose in commerce with the other misfits and malcontents, it's undoubtedly a small price to pay.

By now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with writing, or writers. If you are not wondering that, and have already made the connection, you can stop reading now; in the absence of revelation you will find hereafter only mild amusement. For all others, the answer is “Quite a lot”, for one of the prerequisites of such an orderly society is an orderly frame of mind, and nothing so threatens an orderly frame of mind as literature. Accordingly, we are doing our best to tame it. We have learnt our lessons from the distant and uncivilised past, when a book was just a book and judged on no criteria except its character; and if any doubt existed that it might be harmful should it get into the wrong hands and minds, it was immediately banned (a practice that was guaranteed to deliver it into the hands of those we thought most needed protection from it) or, more effectively, praised as being highly literary and brave (a practice that was practically guaranteed to deliver it into the dark vaults of obscurity.)

I have no doubt that I have read books that have done me considerable harm and I have learned that the only way to repair that harm is to find another just as dangerous and read it as well. They have made me yearn for things I have little hope of achieving; they have made me think of things I have little hope of understanding; and they have made me see the nakedness of people who go about fully clothed, and see the clothing on those whom we have made invisible. I have seen the grime and poverty in the alleys of London and the misery and rejection in the laneways of New York; the tigers stalking in silence on the outskirts of a village in India; and stood atop the Blue Mosque to watch the sun turn the bright waters of the Bosphorus into a dazzling prism. More often than not, these things happened as I ventured into the unknown; a great part of the adventure is not knowing quite what you’ll find, of being surprised and, occasionally, disappointed. We get more out of books – or, at least, what we get, stays with us more deeply and lasts longer - that are unfamiliar and unpredictable than those we can rely on to give us more of the same as last time. And the time before that. And the time before the time before. There’s security in that, at least.

Joining a need for security with a natural inclination to a level of industriousness that a beaver would envy, we woke one day to the realisation that we lead very busy lives. Our existence is full of stress and hardship of the kind that would have been unimaginable to a poor peasant several hundred years ago, eking out a meagre living on someone else's soil, smug in the knowledge that this miserable existence would only have to be endured for a mere forty years or so; unimaginable too, to the scruffy town urchin who hadn't a care in the world beyond the mud and sewage of city gutters and knew with a cavalier certainty that either a disease she couldn't spell or the rattling wheels of an lumbering coach and four would take her to oblivion well before her grey hair could cause her personal embarrassment or an emotionally debilitating lack of self-esteem.

In order to cope with our busy and stressful life, we need reassurance that if we are going to the trouble of buying something, we need to know exactly what it is we're buying. We made the manufacturers of our food stuffs put, in great detail, every ingredient that went into their product (except, of course, the occasional mouse or cockroach). Not content with labelling what goes into our bodies, we decided we just had to know what would be going into our minds. (Undoubtedly, also, to ensure we didn't repeat the experience of our education.) And so we came to develop the obsession with categorising our books. Not just developing genres, but creating sub-categories of genres and sub-categories of sub-categories. A precise description of what we are about to digest. E numbers for books.

As happens to publishers, both self- and selfless-, I recently found myself preparing yet another set of metadata. And that, of course, entails selecting appropriate BIC (or BISAC) codes. And once again I quailed. Although I have done this at least three times before (counting the Nielsen metadata for the print editions), it still consumes me with panic to see the list scroll endlessly down the page. I had no idea that there was a category Juvenile Fiction/Animals/Hippos & Rhinos (JUV002330) and another for Juvenile Fiction/Animals/Giraffes (JUV002320) but nary a one for Hippos and Hyenas (not that I needed one). It's a lesson to all writers on the wisdom of taking great care when pairing animals. Imagine the difficulty poor Mr Rudyard Kipling would have had had he been forced to make such decisions for his Just So stories.

Now, in a bookstore, I am all for having one set of shelves for children (for them to browse, not to display them) and another for adults; it saves one from stepping on them when you're trying to get a copy of Finnegan's Wake or Fifty Shades of Mediocrity from the top shelf. And I am absolutely sure that the children prefer to do their browsing free of the moral guidance of parents who care too much about what is proper for their children read and not enough about what is good for them. But the endless categorisation and refining is getting out of hand and often makes no sense. Many of the so-called children's books, in the teen and YA categories, at least, are read just as avidly by adults. Which is the way it used to be. Books without horizons; readers without limits.

It rather kills some of the joy of reading. Knowing to such a granular level a book's apparent type does eliminate some of the joy of discovery. Do we really want to trade that off against certainty that either you or, heaven forbid, a child, will read the wrong sort of book? A 12-year old's sensibilities are better served and protected by The Story of O or Portnoy's Complaint than by Hollowland or Twilight. I doubt that they'd get past page four of either O or Portnoy but if they did, then another quiet little chat to make sure they didn't misunderstand anything the first time you had The Talk would be preferable to stealing their book and replacing it with something you thought they ought to like. If they do get past the first chapter then we should rejoice that our adolescent has, if not intelligence and acuity, at least considerable stamina.

And what is the wrong book for an adult? Or, more practically, what is the price for reading a book you don’t like? Are we really too busy, or too used to everything being a commodity, that we have to have our books so described before we buy? I quite like the idea of books in plain covers, no blurb, just a title. Readers would have to rely on word of mouth, reviews and a little common sense.  I can think of a lot more wrong choices with considerably greater consequences than buying Animal Farm thinking it must be the sequel to Babe.

Even if we can’t bear to bring a little anarchy and chaos into the other parts of our lives, we should at least introduce them to our reading. Reading should be an adventure, a foray into untamed territory. The reader who is an explorer rather than a coloniser travels farther and discovers much more. Once in a while it is good to retreat to the familiar but, by and large, I'd much rather be dazzled in Istanbul than snug in Smallville.

For Alan Skinner's twitter account, please click here.



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