Archives for category: Writing

Tom Phillips says of his work “I do it, you know; you can’t really be interested in what you do” which I find to ring true. If I do it, then it’s just something people do. What on earth can be interesting in such ordinary activity?

What Tom Phillips does is obsessively edit the pages of an old book by painting over much of it and leaving a few selected words connected by little rivers, establishing a new text. Some of the pages are starkly geometric and abstract in their treatment, and others, like page 50, illustrated above, are impressively realistic. He’s been at it for 50 years, so he clearly enjoys it, and in one way that is enough. Obviously others want to enjoy it too, and Thames & Hudson has just come out with a sixth recension.

As his website puts itA Humument has been a work in progress since 1966 when Tom Phillips set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page by painting, collage and cut-up techniques to create an entirely new version. He found his threepenny novel in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, South London. This was an 1892 Victorian obscurity titled A Human Document by W.H. Mallock whose title was altered to A Humument [by folding the title page to exclude the letters in the middle] for the remade book. The earliest printed version took the form of sets of boxed pages issued by the Tetrad Press between 1971 and 1976. The first trade edition was published by Thames & Hudson in association with Hansjorg Mayer in 1980 and this was followed by revised editions in 1987, 1998, 2004 and 2012 before the sixth and final edition was published in 2016. Each edition contains at least 50 new pages which replace their earlier selves in a process whose goal is acheived in the final edition in which no page of the earliest version survives.”

I can see it would be fun to do, but I’m not sure that the resulting text has much to say to us really. It’s art, no doubt, but it mostly comes across to me as a bit obsessive — but I guess that’s art, isn’t it? Mr Phillips’ website includes a 2½ hour reading of the sixth version of the work. There’s also a generous selection of page images there too — I think it may be the complete book.

Jonathan Safran Foer has done an analogous, if non-graphic, job on Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. His version is called Tree of Codes and is printed as originally laid out with the excised words die-cut away (or omitted) so that you end up reading a layered text which must have been a nightmare to print and die-cut, as well as “write”. The publisher’s website shows some other sample pages, though this picture tells the story pretty well. They also have a brief video showing the printing and die-cutting process. No wonder the book is currently out of stock: it’s not an item you can reprint on demand. The book was perfect bound: trying to fold and gather die-cut sheets like that would have been almost impossible.

The Times Literary Supplement of 31 March reviews the latest iteration of A Humument. You’ll need a subscription to read more than the first few lines though. One reflection that strikes me is whether these books are “written” by Phillips and Foer, or by Mallock and Schultz? If I cut up The Heart of Darkness into single words and drop them at random around the streets of New York, is a text resulting from your happening along later and picking up a number of bits of paper a text by you, me, Joseph Conrad, the west wind, or nobody?


Grammar Girl, via The Passive Voice, brings us the news of a sensible change at Associated Press. The AP Style Manual now embraces a bit more gender neutrality:

singular they: The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.

The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

I see from the piece that it was 2011 already that AP decreed email should lose its hyphen. I will have to try to comply.

The big breakthrough in machine translation occurred when Google lead the way in abandoning a rules-based system and switching to a statistical-based system in 2007. By trawling through a trillion web pages they identified masses of pages which were translations of other pages. They trained their system on thousands of pages of parallel text thus enabling the computer to come up with a range of possible translations of any new text. These alternative texts are then run through a model of the target language, thus enabling the computer to select the most likely interpretation of any cruxes. The Economist‘s recent (7 January) supplement on language processing describes this research in Section 3, Machine Translation: Beyond Babel.

“The time is coming when machines will be better at transforming a text from one language into another than a human translator.” Jaap van der Meer tells us at the TAUS blog. Most of the voices in this post caution that we not allow our expectations to run away with us. Giving with the left hand while taking away with the right, Khalil Sima’an says “Some of the more exciting kinds of translation, for example high-end literature and poetry, might remain in the hands of a few gifted human translators for some time to come.” Might remain? For some time to come? Not a lot for the anxious translator to hang onto.

But, isn’t this great news? We don’t need to imagine downloading a digital text of Crime and Punishment into Google Translate, which overwhelming dump may never get to the level of digestibility, to envisage a vast freedom of access to foreign literature. If, as I have been intermittently playing around with, I sit down to make a translation of Jean Giono’s Un Roi sans divertissement, how much of a leg up would it not be to have the whole thing rough drafted at one click of the mouse? The translator would then be freed up to polish infelicities, and important in this case, to establish a stylistic distinction between multiple different narrators — but maybe Google Translate or son of Google Translate, because most of the discussants don’t see this happy day arriving till 20 long years have elapsed, will actually be able to do this stylistic sorting more easily than me. For many readers and purposes I dare say an unedited first cut of a translation might be enough. Some publishers will regard polishing as a matter of pride. But either way, are we not inevitably going to be getting a huge increase in the availability of translated literature from all languages?

As far as I can discover the use of the term “Conrad” to designate 800 words of writing at a sitting is private to Will Self — but, who knows, maybe his chums all talk in such units. Maybe they say a “Delderfield” to indicate the pinnacle of 10,000 allegedly reached daily by long-distance writer R. L. Delderfield, or a “London” for the 1,000 Jack London’s said to have generated daily. (Though this chart credits him with 1,500.)* On the street the word (apart of course from designating The Secret Agent‘s creator) appears to mean some kind of cool dude. Mr Self — can he really be content to be described as scabrous — is quoted at TeleRead as attributing regular morning Conrads for his success as a writer. He can dash off 500 words an hour in his journalism (and I’ve noted some over-hasty journalistic writing of his) but when working on a novel can only do 1.25 Conrads (i.e. a London) in a morning, which maybe we can assume to be four hours, and thus half his unbridled rate.

I dare say the rate is less important than the regularity. The more you can make your writing a regular process the less likely you are to succumb to distractions such as writer’s block. If you only write when you’re inspired — well, you have to sit around until inspiration descends upon you.


* I admit that the differences between the various sources merely indicates the stupidity of trying to measure such an obviously unmeasurable quantity; a quantity whose inherently variable value has in fact invariably no inherent value.

I think we can all agree that poetry is “a good thing”. The world would be a less interesting place without it. But just because we can all get behind the idea of poetry, that doesn’t mean that we need worry about pay rates for poets. Amanda Nadelberg at Literary Hub considers the “problem”. Establishing a fund to support indigent poets isn’t an idea you can characterize as “bad”, but it sounds unlikely to catch on and become part of many people’s charity planning.

I think most people’s image of poets doesn’t include riches. Not that poets deserve to be poor, but we don’t think of money as the motivator. I doubt if anyone ever went in for poetry for financial reasons. You rather assume that the garret is more likely that the stately home. I would imagine even Lord Byron was a bit surprised at how much money he could make from his verse.

T. S. Eliot may be guilty of loose writing when he states “modern poetry is supposed to be difficult”. What he means is that it’s reputed/said to be difficult, not that it ought to be difficult. Of course we tend to give the second, more conventional reading to the clause and wheel it out to bash modern poetry. When J. H. Prynne, having had one of his poems read to him, responded that he didn’t understand it either, he was probably expressing his disdain for the question and lack of interest in “explication” rather than a literal inability to understand what he’d written. Of course such hostages to fortune should probably not be given in a world where the whole concept of modernity, and its tendency to self-reflexivity is always subject to sallies from defenders of the “faith”.

The best-selling poet in America is apparently Rumi, whose poems have sold in the millions.* However waiting 800 years for the gravy train is not a really great strategy. This year’s Nobel Prize winning poet is Bob Dylan: quite a few copies of whose words have been bought by his hearers. Rap is poetry. And popular. We have to acknowledge that there are in fact quite a lot of people who are making surprisingly large sums from poetry. Here’s a story about three poets who can get $225 an hour for writing haikus at office parties and other events. Apart from minstrelsy, online poetry does seem to be the (financial) way to go. This Publishing Perspectives piece tells of poets who have leveraged their Instagram or Tumblr followings into 100,000 copy print runs for their books. Haiku does seem to be a favored form for these successful poets — maybe it’s something to do with immediacy of impact. But of course social media is the key factor. “Out of the 10 best selling poetry books in the U.S., three are by poets who built followings on social media, including Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur and Memories by Lang Leav.”

So, Ms. Nadelberg, the problem with poetry pay seems, surprise, surprise, to be exactly the same as the problem with fiction pay. Either you’re a Jasper Milvain or an Edwin Reardon. You pays your money and you makes your choice.

ENVOI.  Ms Nadelberg’s story contains a link to what she bills as The state of poetry in England. This piece takes publishers to task for abandoning poetry, citing specifically Oxford University Press’ closure of its poetry list in 1998. It really doesn’t matter what any government minister may have said, publishers have no obligations as bearers of culture. David Howarth was simply wrong when he “labelled the financial grounds of the decision ‘barbaric’ and argued that the dropping of the poetry list equated to an ‘erosion of standards’.” A university press has a more specific mission than a commercial press, whose obligation is merely to avoid squandering its shareholder’s money: a university press exists to further research and education as carried on in its parent institution. Poetry is no longer central to the mission of any university (if it ever was). OUP published poetry way beyond any date where to do so was justifiable. Losing money on their poetry list was just diverting money away from their proper activities. Sorry if this sounds harsh: but it’s true.


* Given my oft-stated opinions about translation, this is notable also for being in translation!

Robert Gottlieb, eminent editor, states in his memoir Avid Reader “. . . readers shouldn’t be made aware of editorial interventions . . . they have a right to feel that what they’re reading comes direct from the author to them.” He’s talking about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (and of course violates his dictum by its very statement).

Nobody, I imagine, thinks Gottlieb’s argument here is directed at declining to have the editor’s name appear on the title page — Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe with help by Maxwell Perkins — that’d just be stupid. But do we really have a “right to feel” that Harper Lee came up with the idea of ditching most of her manuscript and mining To Kill a Mockingbird out of it? For many years that just wasn’t a question in people’s minds of course, as the famously reticent Ms Lee wasn’t talking. When the news was broken at the time of publication of Go Set a Watchman (the mine from which the excavation took place), lots of readers expressed dismay at being forced to know this, and having to accept a different side of the hero. But a right?

Do we think any worse of Lee, or Raymond Carver, or Thomas Wolfe because we know that they got editorial help, than we do (or at least in my case, did up till now) of Heller? The book we have is the book we have, and the path by which it got there is almost irrelevant to all but the scholarly reader. Changes and deletions are made in manuscript and proof, often massively, but many of these are made by the author, some by the author at the suggestion of another reader, and some by a publisher’s editor. So? The book we know is the book we care about.

Poets notoriously revise their verse. An old (wo)man will want to express things differently than a youngster. My German teacher insisted we only read the early version of Goethe’s Willkommen und Abschied. Goethe obviously didn’t agree, but I’m with Mr Hammer in prefering the youthful expression. Luckily of course with poems by tinkerers who rewrite throughout their lives, we (usually) have both versions and can make a judgment. As Eliot Weinberger writes in the preface to 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, “Great poetry lives in a state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go”. There seems no reason why the right to make new translations should rest with readers only.

If you want to get back behind editorial changes (either by author or editor) in a novel you need to find the original manuscript, though of course scholarly careers have been founded on exactly what “original” might mean in this context. In the end, for almost all of us, the novel we read is the only novel there is. How many non-specialist readers pay any attention to the textual variants when reading a scholarly edition?

Not all editorial work (actually probably very little editorial work) involves actual rewriting and stylistic massage. Psychological support may be the most important gift from editor to author. The neatest trick of editorial intervention Gottlieb describes is his recognizing that the rather wooden characters in the manuscript of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain could be turned from disadvantage to advantage not by trying to liven them up, but almost the opposite: by looking at the book as a fictionalized documentary rather than as a documentary novel. Doubtless Mr Crichton feels grateful.

Gottlieb’s memoir is reviewed in The New York Review of Books.

life-and-fate_large   everythingflows_large   an-armenian-sketchbook_large   the-road_large

From the New York Review Books website:

Vasily Semyonovich Grossman was born on December 12, 1905, in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. In 1934 he published both “In the Town of Berdichev”—a short story that won the admiration of such diverse writers as Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Isaak Babel—and a novel, Glyukauf, about the life of the Donbass miners. During the Second World War, Grossman worked as a reporter for the army newspaper Red Star, covering nearly all of the most important battles from the defense of Moscow to the fall of Berlin. His vivid yet sober “The Hell of Treblinka” (late 1944), one of the first articles in any language about a Nazi death camp, was translated and used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials. His novel For a Just Cause (originally titled Stalingrad) was published to great acclaim in 1952 and then fiercely attacked. A new wave of purges—directed against the Jews—was about to begin; but for Stalin’s death, in March 1953, Grossman would almost certainly have been arrested himself. During the next few years Grossman, while enjoying public success, worked on his two masterpieces, neither of which was to be published in Russia until the late 1980s: Life and Fate and Everything Flows. The KGB confiscated the manuscript of Life and Fate in February 1961. Grossman was able, however, to continue working on Everything Flows, a novel even more critical of Soviet society than Life and Fate, until his last days in the hospital. He died on September 14, 1964, on the eve of the twenty-third anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Berdichev in which his mother had died.

Grossman’s translator, Robert Chandler here discusses Life and FateEverything Flows and The Road in four videos made for his British publisher, MacLehose Press.

The short story he discusses in the fourth video, “Mama” is included in The Road.

Publishing Perspectives also interviews Chandler about his translations of Grossman and other Russian writers. The NYRB site shows the range of his work.

At one point in the video interview Chandler says Life and Fate, although it’s a big volume which might initially look off-putting, is actually very easy to read. So, no excuses, please. Get to it. It really is worth it.


One hopes it never finds a place in e-books, but I guess for social media communication this expressive period/full stop might have a use. What about other punctuation marks? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to express themselves? Might this become the natural habitat of the interrobang?! (See Shady Characters here and here.)

Link via The Passive Voice

The Future Today Institute’s comprehensive forecast was forwarded by Digital Book World.

Apparently ha-ha predictions of automatic transmission from the brain of the author to the brain of the reader may be on their way to becoming less of a joke.


This slide from the Future Today Institute’s slide presentation is of course unreadable here. It is slide 53, if you want to go to the report via the link above. Alternatively, this is what it says under the heading Examples:

We don’t recognize it as such but we are actually living in an age of digital telepathy, where information can be transmitted via direct input. At the University of Washington’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, researchers have built a system allowing one person to transmit his thoughts directly to another person. Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, one researcher sent a brain signal to another person elsewhere on campus, using his finger to tap a keyboard. Scientists at Barcelona’s Starlab fitted a brain-computer interface on a man in Kerala, India and instructed him to simply imagine how he was moving his hands and feet. His thoughts were sent to a man in Strasbourg, France wearing a TMS robot, which delivered electrical pulses to his brain. When the man in India thought about moving his feet, the TMS caused the man in France to see light, even though his eyes were closed.

Under What’s Next they discuss medical applications to help victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury. These sorts of application are obviously likely to be first fruits. But can we resist the thought that with a few years of development we can achieve direct communication from an author’s brain to readers around the world? This sounds like it might be a bit exhausting for the author, so of course the communication will no doubt be with an author-brain-surrogate and the rest of us. What price publishers when we eventually achieve unmediated links between your brain and mine? I always thought that Isaac Asimov’s electronic books in The Foundation series were much too primitive to match the rest of the technology.

I did a rather puzzled post on this subject a year ago.

Machine reading, machine indexing, machine curation, machine writing: computers have accustomed us to all possible eventualities. I have joked before the imminent arrival of the book we don’t need to fuss over: written by machine and read by machine. Seems the only blemish in this picture is the time-line. Atlas Obscura brings us an account of this 1845 machine which would compose (single lines of) Latin hexameters.


It all looks a bit like a bicycle rack. Rather amazing that it worked.

In indexing this post I find I did one under the same title last year. It was about a different machine though.