Thursday, 9 June 2016

Cuttings: May 2016

Girl Up by Laura Bates: feminism shouldn’t be so nice - review by Helen Lewis in The Guardian. "Having met Bates a few times, and having followed her work with schools on sex education and with the British Transport police on sexual assault, I have no hesitation in declaring her to be A Good Thing. This book is not a memoir or a confessional ... but nonetheless it feels infused with the warmth of her personality.... Partly this is down to her fundamental decency, and partly it is about her willingness (or deliberate decision) to avoid those areas of feminism that are pock-marked with landmines. This book knows its audience: it has been written firmly in the register and vocabulary of contemporary online feminism.... There is so much that is good in this book that I am frustrated by its omissions. For example, although various role models are interviewed, ranging from Paris Lees to Mary Beard, there is no sense of feminism as an intellectual tradition. You could be forgiven for thinking that it sprang, fully formed, into life in about 2006.... This approach also means that there is no attempt to foster solidarity across the generations, or to relate the specific concerns of younger women to a larger ideological framework. There is little reference to pregnancy (except how to avoid it) and childcare, and none to other caring responsibilities. In this respect, the book is extremely in tune with online feminism, which can be acutely, even painfully, attentive to the needs of those who are 'agender, asexual, queer, intersex, gender fluid etc', while simultaneously giving not the tiniest of tiny shits about women over, say, the age of 50.... while I hope that Girl Up will be the first book on feminism many young women will read, I hope also that it is not the only one."

You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch: search engines can’t do everything - review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. "People have been complaining about the prevalence of mere 'dictionary and index learning' – effectively, pre-modern Googling – for a couple of centuries or more. But what is new may be our unwarranted confidence that what we find is the last word. As the literary scholar Jack Lynch argues: 'The information at our fingertips is more diverse than ever before, but in some ways it is more limited.'... Almost a meta-reference work in itself, You Could Look It Up provides potted biographies of 50 great reference works, from the very first extant legal codes, through manuals of botany and medicine, to the great dictionaries and encyclopedias.... Scattered throughout Lynch’s book are thoughts on his subject in the digital age, but he could perhaps have mounted a more sustained defence of the reference book even in our time, for the best reference books are still good books as well as simple repositories of facts. They have a literary value wholly absent from Wikipedia and its ilk.... What’s more, the effectively unlimited space online can militate against the concision and happy riffability of a well-edited single-volume reference. A reference book embodies what Lynch calls the art of 'distillation', which has always been the antidote to complaints throughout the ages of information overload. The serendipity of browsing [furthermore] has yet to be successfully recreated in electronic form."

Penny dreadfuls: the Victorian equivalent of video games - article by Kate Summerscale in The Guardian, relating to her book The Wicked Boy (Bloomsbury, 2016). "The prevalence of penny dreadfuls (as they were known in the press) or penny bloods (as they were known to shopkeepers and schoolboys) had by 1895 become a subject of great public concern. More than a million boys’ periodicals were being sold a week, most of them to working-class lads who had been taught to read in the state-funded schools set up over the previous two decades.... The new wave of literate children sought out cheap magazines as a diversion from the rote-learning and drill of the school curriculum, and then from the repetitive tasks of mechanised industry. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and – like movies, comics, video games and computer games in the century that followed – was held responsible for anything from petty theft to homicide. The dreadfuls were also implicated in social unrest. Since 1884, when the vote had been extended to most British men, the press had often pointed out that children raised on such literature would grow up to elect the rulers of the nation.... The dreadfuls gave a frightening intimation of the uses to which the labourers of Britain could put their literacy and newly won power: these fantasies of wealth and adventure might foster ambition, discontent, defiance, a spirit of insurgency. There was no knowing the consequences of enlarging the minds and dreams of the lower orders."

From Steve Reich to rock: why 1976 was a big year for minimal music - article by Gillian Moore in The Guardian. "The big story in British classical music was the death, at just 63, of Benjamin Britten, the most stellar British composer since Henry Purcell. But 1976 also saw the composition of a remarkable cluster of important works that could all be classified as minimalist, a term that Michael Nyman first applied to music in 1968 and which has remained useful, if contentious, ever since. Nyman himself told me recently that 1976 was the year that he 'became a composer again, after having been silent for 11 years, although somewhat noisy as a music critic'. ... Late in 1976 Nyman staged the first London performance of his friend Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, hot off the press, at London’s Southbank Centre.... Three months after Music for 18 Musicians was first performed in New York, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs’s Einstein on the Beach was premiered in Avignon.... The blast from these huge American pieces was felt even at the heart of the European avant garde in 1976, with György Ligeti pausing in the middle of writing his opera Le Grand Macabre to write a short piece for two pianos, Self Portrait with Reich and Riley (with Chopin in the Background).... Something was also happening in the Soviet bloc. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt had been silent for a number of years, in a creative crisis brought about by his alienation from the Soviet authorities, frustration with the European avant garde and attempts to reconcile his creativity with his religious faith. But in September 1976, he broke his silence with a tiny piano miniature, Für Alina, which signalled a huge change: this was a music that was pared down, spare, meditative and influenced by the chants and bells of the Gregorian Church...."

She takes a good picture: six forgotten female pioneers of photography - article by Sarah Crompton in The Guardian. "[Minna] Keene is one of six female photographers in the Tate show ['Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age'], included on merit for their relevance to the theme. With the exception of Julia Margaret Cameron, all are less recognised than their male counterparts. Yet in their day they were exhibited and acclaimed. ... In the late Victorian period, photography was an attractive option for women. Although most came from comfortable, well-to-do homes, the fact was that any woman with enough money to purchase the equipment and chemicals they needed could train themself and get started. It was much more difficult to take up painting."

Dreamsnake by Vonda N McIntyre - review by Eric Brown in The Guardian. "The heroine of Vonda N McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (Jo Fletcher, £9.99) is a healer named Snake, who travels a far-future post-apocalyptic Earth aiding the sick and dying of the world’s many tribes. Her three snakes have been genetically modified to provide vaccines and medicines, and when one of the creatures, the alien dreamsnake of the title, is killed, Snake embarks on a picaresque adventure in search of its replacement. The power of the story lies as much in the lucid, understated prose as the depiction of a future society split into a thousand schisms as Snake deals with love, prejudice and a host of moral and ethical dilemmas that characterise the fractured world. First published in 1978 and winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, Dreamsnake is a beautiful achievement."

Whatever next? How plot grips us, from Dickens to Line of Duty - article by John Mullan in The Guardian. "Plot is not just a sequence of connected events (in this sense, every TV drama or novel equally has a plot). It is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, 'What will happen next?' as, 'What has already happened?' The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her. Perhaps this is why such enjoyment has often been thought suspect.... Plot is what stops narrative being just one thing after another. Plotless stories threaten to be endless. So those American TV dramas that, if successful, are destined for box sets may have resounding endings but lack the capacity to fulfil a design. They are designed to be endless – or rather, to be ended when actors or producers become bored, or the appetite of viewers seems sated.... You can see why serious novelists became suspicious of plots: they subjugate reality to a plan; they require that the author be a trusted manipulator. Yet novel readers have never relinquished their delight in a good plot. Plot activates our confidence in design, our faith that the creator of a narrative knows what he or she is doing from the first moment. Which is why a carefully contrived plot is most satisfying when – as with Bleak House or The Killing – the material is darkest and the characters themselves most perplexed, and why that satisfaction can be as deep as any other response to fiction."

Philip Pullman: Why I love comics - interview by Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian. "Why are the British are so queasy about comics? 'I think it comes from Pope Gregory the Great in 580 something,' says Pullman unexpectedly. 'He said, what words are for the reader, pictures are for those who cannot read. But what that pronouncement did was to set up a hierarchy of esteem, so to speak: if you were clever you had words; if you’re not very clever you have pictures. That has remained almost unchanged for over 1,500 years.' That can’t be the whole story. After all, in the US, Japan and France graphic novels are popular, and even respectable. What’s our problem? Maybe the puritans had something to do with it, Pullman suggests. 'The iconoclasm and the destroying of the statues and stained glass. The sense that these are vain fripperies and we should go back to the purity of language without pictures. I’m just guessing.'”

Why the arrival, not the journey, matters - blog post by John Naughton, reproducing his talk to the launch of the Journal of Cyber Policy. "If, as now seems obvious, the Internet is a [General Purpose Technology], then our societies are only at the beginning of a journey of adaptation, not the end. And this may surprise some people because the Internet is actually rather old technology....So you’d have thought that our society would have figured out the significance of the network by now. Sadly, not. And that’s not because we’re short of information and data about it. On the contrary, we are awash with the stuff. Our problem is that we don’t, as a culture, seem to understand it. We remain in that blissful state that Manuel Castells calls “informed Bewilderment”. So a powerful force is loose in our societies and we don’t really understand it. Why is that?... Maybe [one] reason why we are taken aback by the rise of the Internet is because we have been so dazzled by the technology that we have been infected by the technological determinism that is the prevailing ideology in the reality distortion field known as Silicon Valley. The folks there really do believe that technology drives history... But technology is only one of the forces that drives history because it doesn’t exist — or come into being — in a vacuum. It exists in a social, cultural, political, economic and ideological context, and it is the resultant of these multifarious forces that determines the direction of travel.... Focussing exclusively on the technology creates other blind spots too. For example, it renders us insensitive to the extent to which the Internet — like all major technologies — was socially constructed. This is how, for example, surveillance became “the business model of the Internet” — as the security expert Bruce Schneier once put it. In this case the root cause was the interaction between a key affordance of the technology — the power of network effects — and Internet users’ pathological reluctance to pay for online services. Since the way to succeed commercially was to 'get big fast' and since the quickest way to do that was to offer ‘free’ services, the business model that emerged was one in which users’ personal data and their data-trails were harvested and auctioned to advertisers and ad-brokers."

Exhausted? It’s time to focus - column by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. "It’s been known for some time that people share things on social media – a lot – without reading them first.... The writer Alex Balk recently compared Facebook to 'the coffee table on which people placed their unread copies of Thomas Piketty’s Capital': when we share, we’re often really focused on promoting a certain image. But a new study goes further: apparently, sharing things, or just having the option to share, undermines the ability to digest and remember them. (Participants were twice as likely to make errors in a comprehension test.) When your attention is partly occupied by thoughts of how you’ll share or discuss what you’re reading, it’s a distraction from actually reading it – made worse, presumably, if your newsfeed’s also scrolling by in the corner of your eye. Social media is like belonging to a book club, but only ever reading novels while you’re at the book club, two glasses of cabernet the worse for wear."

What makes bad writing bad? - article by Toby Litt in The Guardian. "Bad writing is mainly boring writing. It can be boring because it is too confused or too logical, or boring because it is hysterical or lethargic, or boring because nothing really happens.... Bad writers continue to write badly because they have many reasons – in their view very good reasons – for writing in the way they do. Writers are bad because they cleave to the causes of writing badly. Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self. The person who will admire it first and last and most is the writer herself.... Bad writing is written defensively; good writing is a way of making the self as vulnerable as possible.... Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.... Your friends and family will love your tricks, because they love you. But try busking those tricks on the street. Try busking them alongside a magician who has been doing it for 10 years, earning their living. When they are watching a magician, people don’t want to say, 'Well done.' They want to say, 'Wow.'"

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