Hi all. Once again I have been encountering a noticeable decline in my health, so will be taking a ‘preventative break’ over the next week or so. There will be no posts until Saturday the 25th of September 2021 or thereabouts.
Every year since 1996, one of the most heralded of awards for women writing in English is announced annually. The prize formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Orange Broadband Prize, and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, has – since 2018 – been anonymously supported by a “family” of sponsors, and known simply as the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And the 2021 winner is Susanna Clarke, with her second novel Piranesi.
Clarke’s latest book was described by this year’s chair of judges and former Booker winner, Bernardine Evaristo, as a book that “would have a lasting impact”. It comes 17 years after Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which blends historical fiction with imaginative fantasy.
Every year, there is some discussion in parts of the press, and on social media, on the point of a prize for women writers. After all, the argument goes, Anglophone women writers have won such awards as the Booker – Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood, for example, while many of those shortlisted are also women. Meanwhile, Doris Lessing and Alice Munro have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Do we need an award specifically for women?
Ever since the prize was first mooted in the early 1990s, many have wondered whether the prize is necessary, patronising, or even fair. A common position amongst its detractors is that the prize is sexist and discriminatory. English journalist and novelist, Auberon Waugh, (the eldest son of the novelist Evelyn Waugh) famously called it the Lemon Prize.
These debates about women writers have their origin, however, in the longstanding concerns and debates about the relationship between women, reading and writing: debates which are nearly as old as the history of the novel in English.
The dismissal of women writers
For example, the poet and priest Thomas Gisborne’s 1797 conduct manual, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, recommends to every woman “the habit of regularly allotting to improving books a portion of each day”. But Gisborne does not include novels among his “improving books” – like many of those who have written on the possible dangers of reading fiction for women.
This policing of the woman reader – and it is a short skip and jump here to the woman writer – is far from an isolated occurrence. In January 1855, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher that, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash – and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed”. Hawthorne was concerned with the subject matter of women writers – quite simply, it was not to his taste.
This dismissal of women writers continues today. In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society in 2011, the British writer, V.S. Naipaul, was asked if he considers any woman writer his match, to which he replied “I don’t think so”. He claimed that he could “read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not”. Naipaul was clear that part of this recognition was because writing by women is “unequal” to him and his writing. Key to this is that the subject matter of women’s writing is often perceived as frivolous and unimportant.
Separation and segregation
This separation or segregation of women’s writing should be understood as part of the patriarchal control of what and who matters – and, historically, women have not. The Women’s Prize for Fiction was set up in response to the Booker Prize of 1991 when none of the six shortlisted books were by women, despite 60% of the novels published that year by women writers.
Not all potential entrants welcomed the new prize. A.S. Byatt (winner of the 1990 Man Booker Prize) refused to have her fiction submitted for consideration for the new award, and trivialised the Women’s Prize for the assumption that there is something that might be grouped together as a “feminine subject matter”. But it is an indisputable fact that women have often been excluded from or dismissed by the literary establishment, by reviewers, and by the prize system.
This is not to say all women’s writing experiences are the same. There are challenges to the notion of awards for women’s writing – since they can still discriminate against different races, ages, types of education, classes, disability and trans women,among others. But what cannot be disputed is that all women (writers or not) are united by living in global and local societies that value, promulgate and prioritise the voice, identities and experiences of men over women.
The positions offered by Gisborne, Hawthorne and Naipaul are indicative of the expectations placed upon women in the literary marketplace and are very much tied to issues around the relationship between worth, taste and power. Who decides what text has “worth”, and how this worth has been arrived at, are questions that we might think are something for English literature students to grapple with at university.
But these are important questions for us all to consider. The humanities is broadly the study of what it is to be human and reading is a key marker of being human. We tell stories to ourselves, about ourselves, over and over again. We have entire industries built on reading, and on storytelling (whether books, films, games or more). We all need to think about who reads, and whose stories are told and re-told. The Women’s Prize for Fiction is one way of ensuring that women’s stories are among those that are told and re-told.
When Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago, on Sept. 14, 1321, he had just put his final flourishes on the “Divine Comedy,” a monumental poem that would inspire readers for centuries.
The “Divine Comedy” follows the journey of a pilgrim across the three realms of the Christian afterlife – hell, purgatory and paradise. There, he encounters a variety of characters, many of whom are based on real people Dante had met or heard of during his life.
One of them is a woman named Sapia Salvani. Sapia meets Dante and his first guide, Virgil, on the second terrace of purgatory. She tells the two how her fate in the afterlife was sealed – how she stood at the window of her family’s castle and, with troops gathering in the distance, prayed for her own city, Siena, to fall. Despite their advantage, the Sienese were slaughtered – including Sapia’s nephew, whose head was paraded around Siena on a pike.
Sapia, however, felt triumphant. According to Dante and medieval theologians, she had fallen prey to one of the seven capital vices, “invidia,” or envy.
The portrayal of Sapia in the “Divine Comedy” is imbued with political implications, many of which boil down to the fact that Dante blamed the violence of his time on those who turned against their communities out of arrogance and greed.
But the real Sapia was even more interesting than Dante would have you believe. Documentary sources reveal that she was a committed philanthropist: With her husband, she founded a hospice for the poor on the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route to Rome. Five years after witnessing the fall of Siena, she donated all her assets to this hospice.
Sapia is one among many characters from the “Divine Comedy” that deserve to be known beyond – and not just because of – what Dante decided to say about them in his poem. With my students at Wellesley College, I’m reviving the real stories behind the characters of Dante’s masterpiece and making them available to everyone on Wikipedia. And it was especially important for us to start with his female characters.
Among the 600 characters appearing in the “Divine Comedy,” women are the least likely to appear in the historical record. Medieval authors tended to write biased accounts of women’s lives, motives and aspirations – if not ignore them altogether. As a result, the “Divine Comedy” is often the only accessible source of information on these women.
At the same time, Dante’s treatment of women isn’t free from misogyny. Scholars such as Victoria Kirkham, Marianne Shapiro and Teodolinda Barolini have shown that Dante relished turning women into metaphors, from pious maidens to villainesses capable of bringing dynasties to their knees.
For this reason, fuller pictures of Dante’s women have been elusive. As a researcher, you’re lucky if you can come across a contemporary who supported or built upon Dante’s tangled reinvention, or documents in which the woman in question is mentioned as mother, wife or daughter.
Putting together the pieces on Wikipedia
The more my students asked me about the women in the poem, the more I wondered: What if we found a way to tell everyone their stories? So I approached Wiki Education, a nonprofit that fosters the collaboration between higher education and Wikipedia, to see if they would partner with me and my students. They agreed.
The recipe behind Wikipedia’s two decades of success is its stunning simplicity: an open encyclopedia written and maintained by a worldwide community of volunteers who draft, edit and monitor its free content.
Wikipedia’s status as a crowdsourced work is one of its greatest strengths, but it’s also its greatest weakness in that it reflects the world’s systemic flaws: The vast majority of Wikipedia contributors identify as male.
In 2014, only 15.5% of Wikipedia’s biographies in English were about women. By 2021, that number had risen to 18.1%, but that was after more than six years of sustained efforts aimed at bolstering the representation of women on Wikipedia by creating new entries and referencing scholarship authored by women.
Knowledge as advocacy
For my students, researching and composing Wikipedia entries on Dante’s characters doubled as advocacy.
Writing for Wikipedia is different from writing an essay. You must be unbiased, avoid personal flourishes and always back your statements with external references. Rather than producing an argument, you offer readers the tools to build an argument of their own.
And yet the very act of writing an entry about a person does advance a specific argument: that their life is worth being the focus of attention, rather than an easily forgettable name in the backdrop of a grand narrative. This choice is a radical one. It’s an affirmation that someone possesses historical value beyond the fact that they provided a spark of inspiration to an author.
Pursuing this goal was not without challenges; it could be difficult to maintain an unbiased tone while telling stories of violence and abuse.
That was the case with Ghisolabella Caccianemico, a young woman from Bologna sold into sexual slavery by her brother, Venèdico, who hoped to form an alliance with a neighboring marquis. Dante told his readers a “filthy tale” that would make them indignant. In it, Ghisolabella is a silent victim surrounded by men.
However, we turned Ghisolabella into the subject of her story, threading the fine line between giving a starkly objective account of the violence she suffered and preserving her dignity.
“Ghisolabella’s extramarital relation[s] with the marquis, though against her will, was ruinous to her status,” wrote my student, citing early 20th-century scholars who canvassed the archives of Bologna for evidence on Ghisolabella.
“Dante’s inclusion of Ghisolabella,” she added, “eternalizes Venèdico’s sin.”
Turning the tables on Dante
Researching these women also turned into an opportunity to upend Dante’s personal views.
Take Beatrice d’Este, a noblewoman Dante criticizes for marrying again after her first husband died. Dante was outraged by widows who dared to remarry instead of remaining forever faithful to their late spouses. Not everyone, however, agreed with his defamation of Beatrice.
To tell Beatrice’s story, my student just needed to look into the right places – namely, an exceptional article by Deborah W. Parker, who put Dante’s treatment of Beatrice into context.
Parker explains how Beatrice was likely pressured into her second marriage and tried to negotiate her place in a world that subjected her to slander. By having the family crests of her two husbands carved side by side on her tomb, she made a pregnant statement about her identity and allegiances.
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Thanks to our work, in addition to Ghisolabella and Beatrice d’Este, there are now over a dozen biographies of these women on Wikipedia: Alagia Fieschi, Cianghella della Tosa, Constance of Sicily, Cunizza da Romano, Gaia da Camino, Giovanna da Montefeltro, Gualdrada Berti, Joanna of Gallura, Matelda, Nella Donati, Pia de’ Tolomei, Piccarda Donati and Sapia Salvani. They join Beatrice Portinari and Francesca da Rimini, the only two historical women from the “Divine Comedy” who had acceptable entries on Wikipedia prior to our work.
As feminist theorist Sara Ahmed writes in “Living a Feminist Life,” “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings.”
One brick at a time – one page, revision or added reference at a time – Wikipedians can broaden our understanding of the past, centering women’s stories in a world that has long edited them out.
It’s been in existence since the 1500s but the Kaaps language, synonymous with Cape Town in South Africa, has never had a dictionary until now. The Trilingual Dictionary of Kaaps has been launched by a collective of academic and community stakeholders – the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at the University of the Western Cape along with the hip hop-driven community NGO Heal the Hood Project. The dictionary – in Kaaps, English and Afrikaans – holds the promise of being a powerful democratic resource. Adam Haupt, director of the Centre for Film & Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, is involved in the project and tells us more.
What is Kaaps and who uses the language?
Kaaps or Afrikaaps is a language created in settler colonial South Africa, developed by the 1500s. It took shape as a language during encounters between indigenous African (Khoi and San), South-East Asian, Dutch, Portuguese and English people. It could be argued that Kaaps predates the emergence of an early form of Kaaps-Hollands (the South African variety of Dutch that would help shape Afrikaans). Traders and sailors would have passed through this region well before formal colonisation commenced. Also consider migration and movement on the African continent itself. Every intercultural engagement would have created an opportunity for linguistic exchange and the negotiation of new meaning.
Today, Kaaps is most commonly used by largely working class speakers on the Cape Flats, an area in Cape Town where many disenfranchised people were forcibly moved by the apartheid government. It’s used across all online and offline contexts of socialisation, learning, commerce, politics and religion. And, because of language contact and the temporary and seasonal migration of speakers from the Western Cape, it is written and spoken across South Africa and beyond its borders.
It is important to acknowledge the agency of people from the global South in developing Kaaps – for example, the language was first taught in madrassahs (Islamic schools) and was written in Arabic script. This acknowledgement is imperative especially because Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps in later years.
For a great discussion of Kaaps and explanation of examples of words and phrases from this language, listen to this conversation between academic Quentin Williams and journalist Lester Kiewit.
How did the dictionary come about?
The dictionary project, which is still in its launch phase, is the result of ongoing collaborative work between a few key people. You might say it’s one outcome of our interest in hip hop art, activism and education. We are drawn to hip hop’s desire to validate black modes of speech. In a sense, this is what a dictionary will do for Kaaps.
Quentin Williams, a sociolinguist, leads the project. Emile Jansen, Tanswell Jansen and Shaquile Southgate serve on the editorial board on behalf of Heal the Hood Project, which is an NGO that employs hip hop education in youth development initiatives. Emile also worked with hip hop and theatre practitioners on a production called Afrikaaps, which affirmed Kaaps and narrated some of its history. Anthropologist H. Samy Alim is the founding director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Language at Stanford University and has assisted in funding the dictionary, with the Western Cape’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport.
We’re in the process of training the core editorial board in the scientific area of lexicography, translation and transcription. This includes the archiving of the initial, structured corpus for the dictionary. We will write down definitions and determine meanings of old and new Kaaps words. This process will be subjected to a rigorous review and editing and stylistic process of the Kaaps words we will enter in the dictionary. The entries will include their history of origin, use and uptake. There will also be a translation from standard Afrikaans and English.
Who will use the dictionary?
It will be a resource for its speakers and valuable to educators, students and researchers. It will impact the ways in which institutions, as loci of power, engage speakers of Kaaps. It would also be useful to journalists, publishers and editors keen to learn more about how to engage Kaaps speakers.
A Kaaps dictionary will validate it as a language in its own right. And it will validate the identities of the people who speak it. It will also assist in making visible the diverse cultural, linguistic, geographical and historical tributaries that contributed to the evolution of this language.
Kaaps was relegated to a slang status of Afrikaans?
Acknowledgement of Kaaps is imperative especially because Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans. A ‘suiwer’ or ‘pure’ version, claiming a strong Dutch influence, Afrikaans was formally recognised as an official language of South Africa in 1925. This was part of the efforts to construct white Afrikaner identity, which shaped apartheid based on a belief in white supremacy.
For example, think about the Kaaps tradition of koesiesters – fried dough confectionery – which was appropriated (taken without acknowledgement) and the treats were named koeksisters by white Afrikaners. They were claimed as a white Afrikaner tradition. The appropriation of Kaaps reveals a great deal about the extent to which race is socially and politically constructed. As I have said elsewhere, cultural appropriation is both an expression of unequal relations of power and is enabled by them.
When people think about Kaaps, they often think about it as ‘mixed’ or ‘impure’ (‘onsuiwer’). This relates to the ways in which they think about ‘racial’ identity. They often think about coloured identity as ‘mixed’, which implies that black and white identities are ‘pure’ and bounded; that they only become ‘mixed’ in ‘inter-racial’ sexual encounters. This mode of thinking is biologically essentialist.
Of course, geneticists now know that there is not sufficient genetic variation between the ‘races’ to justify biologically essentialist understandings. Enter cultural racism to reinforce the concept of ‘race’. It polices culture and insists on standard language varieties by denigrating often black modes of speech as ‘slang’ or marginal dialects.
Can a dictionary help overturn stereotypes?
Visibility and the politics of representation are key challenges for speakers of Kaaps – be it in the media, which has done a great job of lampooning and stereotyping speakers of Kaaps – or in these speakers’ engagement with governmental and educational institutions. If Kaaps is not recognised as a bona fide language, you will continue to see classroom scenarios where schoolkids are told explicitly that the way in which they speak is not ‘respectable’ and will not guarantee them success in their pursuit of careers.
This dictionary project, much like ones for other South African languages like isiXhosa, isiZulu or Sesotho, can be a great democratic resource for developing understanding in a country that continues to be racially divided and unequal.
It has been 10 years since E.L. James decided to self-publish her first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. The plot of the story centres on a college student who enters a relationship with a wealthy businessman involving BDSM practices — bondage, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism — and becomes his submissive.
The story was first developed as a fan-fiction project in 2009 based on the Twilight series, originally titled Master of the Universe. However, after being reprimanded for the mature content by the administrators of a fan fiction website, James decided to self-publish the book in 2011 with the help of an online publisher, The Writers’ Coffee Shop.
James’s book and its sequels — Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed — became a global sensation. The trilogy sold more than 65 million copies after James signed a contract with a traditional publisher, Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House.
Substantial cultural commentary and numerous studies addressed how the “infamous” novel influenced both readers and the publishing industry.
Some people critiqued the book for linking sex and violence without delving into the level of communication required to make BSDM safe and truly consentual. Others discussed how it harmed women’s already fragile role in a patriarchal world, or commended it for starting dialogue around BDSM — and enticing more authors to experiment with niche topics and self-publishing.
Role of gatekeepers has shifted
This is an interesting time in publishing and other areas of the cultural industries, because the roles of gatekeepers are changing. Today, it is much easier to appeal to a niche audience than it was 10 years ago. Self-publishing is here to stay.
Some people commend self-publishing as a great way to ensure that audiences can access a diversity of genres and voices that have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream publishers. Others condemn it because of the lack of gatekeepers to assess the content being produced. A few consider it a get-rich-quick-scheme.
However, these assumptions are based on a limited knowledge of contemporary self-publishing practices.
Self-publishing isn’t new
The phenomenon of self-publishing is often linked to online book production methods, which allow authors to produce an ebook with a few strokes of the keyboard, making their work available to a global audience. However, there is a much richer history of self-publishing that goes further back than its digital counterpart.
A number of prominent authors started off by privately printing their work. For instance, Jane Austen privately published Sense and Sensibility in 1811, and Mark Twain self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885. Although self-publishing might appear as the new buzzword, it is not a novel phenomenon in the publishing industry.
Even though self-publishing was a practice some authors adopted in the 18th and 19th centuries, the distribution methods and number of copies were often limited.
Amazon & self-publishing
In the past 10 years, the phenomenon of self-publishing grew massively with the help of Amazon, Wattpad and other online publishing tools.
The real game changer to self-publishing was Amazon when it introduced Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007. It became possible for authors to share their work worldwide through a convenient global distributor.
In 2012, a year after its publication, Fifty Shades of Grey was the best- and fastest-selling series ever on Kindle.
Self-publishing on the rise
It is difficult to trace the actual number of self-published books because platforms like Amazon assign their own classification, making the ISBN unnecessary. However, Bowker, a company that assesses and reports bibliographical information (such as ISBN data), provides reports showing that self-publishing has been on the rise.
In 2011, the company registered 148,424 printed self-published books with an additional 87,201 ebooks. Only six years later, in 2017, the registered number of self-published books was more than a million. The numbers kept rising the following year, with over 1.5 million self-published books registered in Bowker’s system.
In the past 10 plus years, self-publishing has kept growing as an industry potentially due to ebook adoption and online publishing companies, which indicates that it certainly has the possibility to have a permanent place in the publishing ecosystem.
Wattpad: virtual library of the future?
In 2006, Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired magazine, proposed the idea of “liquid books” all housed in a universal library, which anyone could access freely. A year after Kelly’s proposal, a platform emerged that made the idea of a universal library a viable possibility.
Wattpad was originally a start-up founded in Canada by Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen in 2007. Originally a website, the company launched a mobile app in 2008, which is now easily accessed from any hand-held device.
At first, the founders of the site uploaded books in the public domain to attract users. Once enough people became aware of Wattpad, writers started to upload their own stories to share with an online audience. Now Wattpad has a range of categories of books and stories for all types of readers, ranging from traditional romance and mystery to spiritual genres and the paranormal. A virtual library of user-generated content, both mainstream and niche, emerged that supported the self-publishing boom.
Wattpad takes prides in the fact that it presents its authors with opportunities to obtain worldwide recognition by working with global media companies. For instance, the self-published novel The Kissing Booth became a Netflix original movie after it found success and a loyal audience on Wattpad. Hence, Wattpad became a place for traditional industries to browse for new content.
Arguably, this signals that self-publishing isn’t going anywhere, and that traditional media companies are quick to take advantage of this new model of production.
After more than 10 years in the industry, Wattpad has developed ties to traditional media outlets that can potentially only get stronger.
Self-publishing could be a solution to a number of problems authors face — from trying to reach a niche market to producing controversial content, as was the case with the work of E.L. James.
Something else to keep in mind when evaluating the usefulness of self-publishing is the possibility of producing and purchasing books and ebooks from home during a pandemic.
Could the pandemic contribute to a shift that potentially makes self-publishing accepted as a viable and legitimate form of book production? Maybe we’ll get an answer in another 10 years.
Audiobook listening has been called a “silent revolution” in the publishing industry over the last decade. The US audiobook market is estimated to be worth US$1.1 billion annually and is growing at a rate of more than 10% each year. Industry insiders say this is a fresh market, with 37% of Australian audiobook listeners only taking up the habit in the last year.
Audiobook downloads (up 15% on the previous year) were part of a pandemic boost for publisher revenues. Some are read by the authors themselves or by famous actors including Elizabeth Moss and Tom Hanks.
But are listeners really reading? If we challenge what we think we know about reading, audiobooks can be seen as not just a cheat’s shortcut for catching up on classics and bestsellers, but a new way to engage more people with stories.
How reading aloud can be an act of seduction
From vinyl to digital
Audiobooks are not new. The term refers to any authored print book vocalised through a variety of technologies — from records through to cassette players, and CDs. Digitally downloaded or streamed audiobooks have added a new dimension to this heritage technology, traditionally viewed as a compensatory tool for visual impairment or reading difficulties such as dyslexia and the rarer condition of alexia.
The surge in audiobook sales is likely a halo effect of the huge popularity of podcasts. But audiobooks are single-voiced, immersive listening experiences. Audiobooks do not include book-length texts “read” by an automated voice.
Audible (owned by Amazon) dominates the audiobook market and is now getting into the “original audiobook” game, meaning they produce the audio version rather than a book publisher. Other services offer “born audio” productions. Storytel Originals bypass print as the starting point in the traditional book publishing cycle.
Librivox — a site dedicated to making “all books in the public domain available, narrated by real people and distributed for free” emerged from a group of friends reading aloud from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. It draws its 15,000 titles from Project Gutenburg’s 60,000 free ebooks.
Unlike the commercial services, with narration and soundscapes on par with radio drama productions, the quality of Librivox audiobooks is highly variable. There are excellent recordings and “readings that sound as if they come from your worst nightmare of community theatre — either monotone or way over the top”, according to one LA Times reviewer.
How we read
Reading is a complex process. Rather than a single cognitive act of decoding, we know from imaging technologies that reading engages several discrete actions within the brain’s visual region. When the reader encounters an irregular letter-sound relationship, neurologist Stanislas Dehaene tells us the auditory brain region fires up as well.
When reading, we engage a bundle of brain skills that have evolved over centuries if not millennia. A recent study used fMRI scans to show people generate word meaning in the same way whether they see it or hear it.
Though reading is still usually thought of as a stationary, silent and solo practice, there is a long tradition of reading communally and aloud. This is not only reading by adults to children, but also among adults.
Streamed audiobooks available through smartphones enable reading-as-listening while mobile. The kinetic dimension of reading-as-listening while moving through space, commuting, walking or while driving is yet to be fully understood.
New reading, old storytelling
Audiobooks challenge established practices and assumptions about reading, but also remind us of the oral cultures of storytelling from which print cultures developed.
In Australia, streamed audiobook listening might offer a 21st century way of celebrating the affective, imaginative and kinetic dimensions of the Indigenous songlines that criss-cross the continent, either by remediating print books or bypassing the written form altogether.
Listening to audiobooks may help to close the gender gap common with reading literature. The Reading the reader report from Macquarie University found that more than 60% of “frequent readers” are women. Of “non-readers”, three quarters are men. Yet, men and women are equally likely to consume digital format books such as ebooks and audiobooks. Audiobooks may inspire more male readers to participate in bookclubs, which traditionally involve more women than men.
Audiobooks could also be used more in higher education. Princeton University Press recently announced the release of their PUB audio series, signalling new educational formats for scholars and students.
Rather than being one act for one purpose, literacy researcher Sam Duncan argues reading is a bigger umbrella than we may have previously realised, under which sits a diversity of practices, involving different “skills, challenges and pleasures”.
Listening-as-reading to vocalisations of books enables a level of imaginative and affective engagement that should not be diminished by our traditional assumptions.
Here are three great books to listen to:
1. Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
The audiobook of Alexis Wright’s epic Carpentaria, is narrated by Noongar actor and dramaturg Isaac Drandich. Using a range of voices, he offers the reader-as-listener an enhanced experience.
2. Taboo by Kim Scott
Reading his own book, Kim Scott’s gentle voice animates his sparse prose style beautifully.
The novel dramatises a brutal past event and its present day reckoning.
3. The Odyssey by Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson.
Claire Danes’s vocalising of Emily Wilson’s translation brings this ancient text into the contemporary world through plain speaking and her emphasis on satellite characters.
Our writers nominate the TV series keeping them entertained during a time of COVID.
Imagine if you were locked down with a recalcitrant alcoholic who belligerently passed scorn upon anyone who came into his orbit. A man who bullied and cajoled the only other person locked in with him, gaining sadistic pleasure from psychological torture.
Well, this is who I am spending my pandemic with. Luckily, he is on the other side of the screen. His name is Bernard Black.
Running for three seasons from 2000 to 2004, the television series Black Books starred Dylan Moran as the perpetually drunk and surly bookseller Black, Bill Bailey as his innocent and naïve offsider Manny Bianco and Tamsin Greig as fellow red wine connoisseur and best friend, Fran Katzenjammer.
The main plot revolves around the misadventures of the three main characters, mostly instigated by Bernard’s misanthropic distaste for anyone who dares enter his bookstore or, indeed, the public at large. This includes any loose associations with people he refers to as “friends”.
Bernard spends most of his time in a bookshop he doesn’t want anyone to come into, with an assistant who annoys him with his constant desire to please. Fran is continually trying to improve Black’s attitude and behaviour to the outside world — and always failing dismally.
Come to think of it, Bernard would probably relish being in lockdown.
‘A death ship’
Moran, the series’ creator, told The Observer in 2000:
Running a second-hand bookshop is a guaranteed commercial failure. It’s a whole philosophy. There were bookshops that I frequented and I was always struck by the loneliness and doggedness of these men who piloted this death ship.
Bernard loathes going into the outside world. On the rare occasion when he does, things always turn out bad for him. He is the epitome of the stereotyped drunken Irish rogue who sees his bookshop as his castle of misery. Inside it, he subjugates anyone foolish enough to enter with belittling and insults.
In the hands of a lesser talent this would come across to an audience as boorish and puerile. But in the hands of Moran, with his clever word play and childlike antics, the character is almost charming and witty.
The fact that Bernard’s tantrums and bad behaviour always end up backfiring on him is central to the show’s success. He’s the one who suffers the most from his churlishness.
Still, Moran doesn’t get to steal every scene. He plays off against the seasoned performers Bailey and Greig, each with comedy chops as finely honed as Moran.
Usually, television comedies get better the longer they run, as the characters are fleshed out more and the actors get more comfortable with the material. Think how much better the later episodes of Friends or Seinfeld were compared to the earlier ones.
But Black Books doesn’t suffer from this slow start. The earlier episodes are as great as the later ones. And there are cameos from some of the best of British comedians: Martin Freeman, Simon Pegg, David Walliams from Little Britain and Academy Award winner Olivia Colman.
A comedy booster
It is a very British comedy, often leaning into the abstract and surreal in the tradition of The Young Ones, Father Ted and Monty Python.
Who can forget Bernard’s couch, which swallows children whole? Or when Manny is trapped in the bookstore overnight and roasts dead bees found on the window sill on a campfire spit?
In one episode, when Manny asks “Is space hot?”, Bernard replies,
Of course it is, where else do you think we get pineapples from.
It’s a shame Black Books didn’t run longer. It certainly wasn’t stale by the end of its third season. But British TV comedy shows are renowned for not wearing out their welcome.
Other major sitcoms of the same era like Spaced, Extras, The Mighty Boosh and even the immensely popular Little Britain and The Office only ran for two or three seasons.
Perhaps Black Books isn’t enough to see you through all of lockdown. But it is a much needed comedy booster shot (pardon the pun). At the very least, it will make you thankful you’re not locked up with Bernard Black.
Black Books is available on Netflix, Britbox and Apple TV.