The link below is to an article that takes a look at Chinese advances in Artificial Intelligence, with the use of Author Avatars in audiobooks.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at a French traveling bookstore.
Although the fact of its ownership is muted, Hazlitt magazine and the new “indie” Strange Light are both owned by Penguin Random House. Penguin and Random merged in 2013 to become Canada’s largest book publisher and the world’s largest trade book publisher. Seventy-five per cent of the shares of Penguin Random House are owned by Bertelsmann, a German multinational media corporation.
Instead of its corporate identity, the magazine’s mission emphasizes its open, experimental, creator- and reader-driven environment.
“Hazlitt is a home for writers and artists to tell the best stories about the things that matter most to them … Hazlitt is … humane, diverse and committed to stories and writers not heard anywhere else.”
Random House Canada launched Hazlitt as part of its digital strategy in 2012. According to Brad Martin, then president of the company, the goal was to use websites for more than just the traditional purposes of sales and marketing.
In 2012, digital self-publishing ventures such as Amazon Kindle Direct loomed large. As Canadian journalist John Barber noted in an article on Hazlitt in 2012, Random House Canada’s forays into digital publishing constituted an effort to stay relevant — and profitable — at the edge of a “frontier pioneered by innovative outsiders.”
The publishing sector has only grown in size since then, as the previously unthinkable success of startups such as Canada’s Wattpad attests.
This year, Penguin Random House Canada launched the Hazlitt imprint Strange Light, a project dedicated to the work of “unpredictable, innovative authors telling personal and provocative and experimental stories, even — and especially –– those that defy easy categorization.”
Strange Light’s debut title, Sara Peters’s I Become a Delight to My Enemies, mixes poetry and prose. In a literary field utterly dominated by prose fiction — the novel — this is indeed “innovative” and “experimental.”
The embrace of generic diversification at Penguin Random House can only be a good thing. Regarding this embrace, however, we might hold our collective breath.
Strange Light plans to release two memoirs, a work of literary non-fiction, and a novel in 2020. Where is the poetry? The prose poem? The graphic novel?
Book buyers in Canada choose novels over poetry. According to Book Net Canada’s statistics, fiction represented just under 30 per cent of all unit sales of books in Canada in 2016. By contrast, poetry represented less than one percent.
Yet even if it could make Canadians read more poetry and mixed genre work, would Strange Light work to serve the diversification of Canada’s literary field, as its mission statement suggests?
When thinking about how to introduce experimental stories and diverse points of view to readers in Canada, the primary issue is not one of genre or form. It is also not exclusively a question of publishing writers from a diversity of cultural backgrounds. Both of these factors matter, but they relate to a larger one.
The main issue is a question of ownership. According to the Book Net Canada statistics for 2016, 95 per cent of fiction, non-fiction (including poetry), young adult and juvenile books sold in Canada were published by foreign-owned publishers.
Penguin Random House Canada is the biggest of these, followed by HarperCollins Canada. Together, these two companies dominate literary publishing in Canada. According to investigative journalist Elaine Dewar, Penguin Random House Canada had cornered 32 per cent of the Canadian trade book market in 2016.
We do not have a diverse literary ecosystem in Canada; its diversity has shrunk rapidly in the past two decades. Two recent accounts amply demonstrate a narrowing of Canada’s publishing activity: Rowland Lorimer’s Ultra Libris analyzes the role of cultural policy in this process, while Elaine Dewar’s The Handover, reveals how “The Canadian Publisher” McClelland & Stewart was sold to Random House despite foreign investment rules that should have prevented it.
Resilience of small houses
Since at least the early 1970s and the introduction of the Canada Council’s block grants to Canadian-owned publishers who are actively producing and marketing Canadian books, a modest small-press ecology has managed to survive in this country.
Publishers such as Kentville, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press; Windsor, Ontario’s Biblioasis; and Penticton, British Columbia’s Theytus Books bring Canadians books that would not otherwise see the light of day.
Although now fairly well known as Michael Onddatje’s first publisher, Toronto’s Coach House Books might also be remembered for its early forms of experimentation. The house made its mark in 1967 with b.p.nichol’s Journeying & the Returns, a slim volume in a blue and purple cardboard case that also contained assorted objects to be experienced alongside the poems, including a thumb-flip poem the size of a stack of sticky notes.
More recently, Québec’s Mémoire d’encrier offers us the unique poetry of Joséphine Bacon: French and Innu-aimun sit on each twinned page, giving the reader access to a language few in Canada have any opportunity to encounter.
Perhaps there is room for many different kinds of initiatives committed to boundary-pushing books in Canada’s literary field.
I hope that is the case. But do not be fooled: despite its rhetoric of innovation and experimentation, the indie-style imprint Strange Light is brought to us by a company that is already dominating the country’s literary space and that is clearly not indie.
This is one more sign of the desertification of our media ecology, not its diversification.
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Email has become so prevalent in our lives that I felt compelled to write about it for a Bloomsbury series called “Object Lessons” that examines “the hidden lives of ordinary things.”
Perhaps I chose this topic because I wanted to be surprised by what I would learn. Email had always evoked the image of my energy, attention and intelligence being sucked away, byte by byte, in a deadening tsunami of ill-composed blather, bland formalities and corporate groupthink. But I hoped my literary training could help me unearth some diamonds in the rough, some redeeming rhetorical force.
It turns out my chief discovery was how much richer old-fashioned letters are. An email is like a letter shorn of almost everything people liked about letters: the feel and smell of stationery, the confident authority of letterhead, the art of penmanship, the closing signature in the writer’s hand.
On paper, lives were lived, trysts arranged, manifestos mailed and wars waged; the shift from “communication” to “.com” has stripped away all of this historical and social value.
The satisfaction of a letter ‘done and signed’
Literacy rates jumped globally in tandem with the invention and expansion of mail service. People composed their letters with effort and pride, perhaps understanding that well-written correspondence wouldn’t be thrown in the trash.
The song “Letters,” from Dave Malloy’s 2012 musical “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” extols the joy and satisfaction of letter-writing: “We put down in writing what is happening in our minds.” Once it’s on the paper “we feel better – it’s like some kind of clarity when the letter’s done and signed.”
Email is certainly convenient. But will there ever be an electronic equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the literary correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell or the epistolary passion between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok?
Émile Zola’s “J’Accuse!” was a letter – an open letter – to the French president, castigating the army for unlawfully jailing a Jewish officer. The letter traveled the world, inspiring others who sought to challenge those in power.
Is there such a genre as an “open email”? The only thing that comes to mind is accidentally hitting reply-all.
Letters changed storytelling: In Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary adventure, “Pamela; or, Virture Rewarded,” a 16-year-old servant named Pamela Andrews details her boss’s sexual harassment in letters to her parents. Today it’s considered the first novel.
The value letters possess is perhaps reflected in their price.
“This boat is giant in size and fitted up like a palatial hotel,” a man named Alexander Holverson wrote from the Titanic the day before it sank. “If all goes well we will arrive in New York Wednesday AM.” His letter sold for six figures in 2017.
And after President Abraham Lincoln received a petition from children asking him to free the slaves, he responded with a letter: “Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy.” It brought in US$3.4 million at a 2008 auction.
Empty, ephemeral email
“There is no standard nowadays of elegant letter writing, as there used to be in our time,” grumbled a woman at the turn of the 20th century. “It is a sort of go-as-you-please development, and the result is atrocious.”
This complaint was prompted not by email but by the growing fad of sending postcards, which were popularized at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Short, informal and comprised of dubiously grammatical prose, postcards, some feared, imperiled epistolary eloquence.
Still, email seems particularly reductive. Nearly 300 billion are sent each day, but I wonder if there will ever be a truly valuable email, a famous email or a celebrated email.
Even when a presidential election turned on a collection of home-brew email – tens of thousands from Hillary Clinton’s ignominious private server and another leaked batch from her campaign chair John Podesta – what information did they contain?
In one, senior Clinton Foundation official Peter Huffman writes:
“Question: why do I use a ¼ or ½ cup of stock at a time? Why can’t you just add 1 or 2 cups of stock at a time b/c the arborio rice will eventually absorb it anyway, right?”
Podesta responds (with no time to edit, possibly because he is so busy losing an election):
“Yes it with absorb the liquid, but no that’s not what you want to do. The slower add process and stirring causes the rice to give up it’s starch which gives the risotto it’s creamy consistency.”
Email is ultimately a paltry and often disappointing piece of text – grammatically challenged, disheveled and ephemeral. Often ignored or deleted, it ricochets through cyberspace in search of validation. Dealing with a cluttered inbox is a chore; emails that require a response loom.
It’s surprising how banal email is, given how intricately interwoven it is with our existence. Or maybe it’s not surprising at all. Maybe it’s just the mirror held up to life, and we are precisely as trite as our email suggests.
When journalist Brian Toohey began researching his book Secret: The Makings of Australia’s Security State, he could not have foreseen publication would coincide with real-time overreach by government agencies of their security responsibilities.
Contemporary examples of such overreach include: a raid on a Canberra journalist’s apartment in search of evidence of who might have leaked top-secret information about the government’s surveillance plans; pursuit of a former intelligence officer and his lawyer over revelations Australian agents had bugged presidential offices of Australia’s weakest neighbour; and intrusions into ABC offices to gather evidence of sources of information about alleged Special Air Service war crimes in Afghanistan.
Laws that are antagonistic to journalist inquiry in pursuit of wrongdoing have been hustled through the Australian parliament in the past several years. Toohey writes:
No major party seems bothered by the use of new surveillance technology that allows governments to detect contact between journalists and their sources, effectively denying whistle-blowers the opportunity to reveal abuses of power and criminal behaviour.
If this was simply a matter of constraining journalists’ attempts to expose government secrets, it would be one thing. But it has become an assault more broadly on the public’s right to know about the seamier aspects of government behaviour.
Governments have taken advantage of the war on terror to strengthen their ability to suppress unwelcome disclosure. In the process, they have raised the stakes for whistle-blowers whose conscience dictates that activities that skirt – or break – the law should be exposed.
The Labor opposition has baulked at its responsibilities to push back against some of the more expansive powers accorded under the security legislation.
Labor’s weakness is not least a consequence of its worries about being wedged on national security issues. In this regard, governments of the day have taken advantage of legitimate concerns about multiple security threats.
All this is well described in Toohey’s sprawling account of the history of the Australian security state. It stretches from the early fumbling days of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), whose activities would not have been out of place in the Keystone Cops.
Based on a lifetime of reporting for various publications, including The Australian Financial Review and the National Times, Toohey provides behind-the-scenes snapshots of the Central Intelligence Agency’s anxieties about threats posed by the Whitlam government to American spy stations on Australian soil. He also examines the role of senior public servants in manipulating governments of the day and intelligence blunders that led to the Iraq war.
The list is long, and reflects poorly on the individuals and agencies involved.
Media organisations have realised too late the threats the new security legislation poses to journalistic inquiry. Proprietors and the industry itself, for that matter, have underestimated the determination of government to pursue journalists and whistleblowers under both existing statutes and the new legislation.
In the absence of explicit freedom of speech protections in the Constitution, Australian journalists find themselves at the mercy of a vastly expanded security state.
No government, Labor or conservative, is likely to reverse course.
The June 2018 Espionage Act is one case of Orwellian overreach. It makes it an offence to receive
information of any kind, whether true or false and whether in a material form or not, and includes (a) an opinion; and (b) a report of a conversation.
How this provision made its way through a democratically-elected legislature is confounding.
Apart from a description about threats posed to reasonable disclosure of information about government activities in the public interest, the rub of Toohey’s book lies in its telling of the sort of relationship that has evolved between Australia and its security guarantor.
This will be regarded by readers and critics as the most controversial element of Secret. Not everyone will agree with the author’s observations about risks to Australian sovereignty posed by its security relationship with the United States allied with a potentially damaging antagonism towards China in the national security establishment.
But his arguments are well made and deserve attention. This is especially so in view of our involvement in Iraq 2003, where the principal justification post facto has been that Australia needed to continue making regular down-payments on its security arrangements with the United States.
This is what Toohey describes as Australia being “chained to the chariot wheels of the Pentagon”. He writes:
The British monarchy has no say in Australian government decisions. It’s a different story with the head of the American Republic. A US president presides over a military-industrial complex with a huge say in whether the Australian government goes to war, buy particular weapons, host US-run military intelligence bases and ban trade with certain countries. The upshot is that Australia has now surrendered much of its sovereignty to the US.
In this context, Toohey quotes an off-key contribution to the debate about the power of a military-industrial complex. In 2016, former Australian ambassador in Washington, Kim Beazley, in his capacity as a board member in Australia of Lockheed Martin, gave a speech in which he described himself as a member of a “benign deep state” where the real power is “a military/intelligence phalanx”.
It is not clear whether he was joking, but the fact is he has long associated himself with an uncompromising pro-American viewpoint.
Beazley, now governor of Western Australia, remains influential in Labor security policy-making.
Toohey’s concluding chapters offer some fairly pungent criticism of Australia’s national security establishment. It refuses, he says, to welcome China’s rise. Instead, it agitates for an increased US military presence in the region, it advocates a confrontational approach to Beijing and a strategy aimed at damaging the Chinese economy, never mind that this will have negative consequences for Australia itself.
At the same time, it lobbies for an ever-closer security relationship with the US summed up by Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 in which he said Australia is militarily “joined at the hip to the US”.
Toohey argues that rather than being “joined the hip”, Australia has more scope for individual initiative, and, in extreme circumstances, the capacity to deter and defend itself.
This book is the work of a contrarian. It should be read.