Reading classic novels in an era of climate change

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Smoke rises over the city of Manchester in William Wyld’s painting Manchester from Kersal Moor.
Wikimedia commons

Philip Steer, Massey University

There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism. The Conversation

What might we now find if we look again at the literature of the 19th century? Although Victorian writers lacked our understanding of a warming planet, we can learn from their deep awareness of the rapid and far-reaching ways that their society was changing. In their hands, the novel became a powerful tool for thinking about the interconnections between individuals, society, economics, and the natural world.

North and South

One place to start thinking about such things might be Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), a classic example of the “industrial novel” genre that flourished in the middle decades of that century.

Most of the novel’s events take place in the industrial town of Milton-Northern (Manchester), the epicentre of Victorian coal-fired industrial production. Our protagonist, Margaret Hale, is forced to relocate there due to family circumstances, and her first numb impressions are that the environment, the economy, and the city’s urban geography have all been transformed by fossil fuel consumption:

For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay … Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.

Milton is covered in a thick layer of pollution as a result of the town’s industrialisation, as depicted in the BBC mini-series North and South (2004), which starred Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Gaskell brings her refined but impoverished heroine into contact with a forceful cotton-mill owner, John Thornton — imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set in a factory. Their love plot offers a symbolic means of restoring harmony to a nation disrupted by the new economy, as Margaret softens the edges of Thornton’s laissez faire practices and brings about improved relations with his workers. As he admits to one of his acquaintances, near the end of the novel,

My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’.

Thinking about this resolution in light of the fossil fuel economy, however, what comes into focus is how vulnerable this harmonious social vision is to wider social and environmental forces. By the novel’s conclusion, the global market — the source of raw materials, investors, and customers — proves to be so powerful and destabilising that the harmony of Thornton’s factory can provide only temporary solace at best, and he is bankrupted:

Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually… . Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure… . [F]rom the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer[.]

Looking back at North and South now, we can see how interconnected its vision of a fossil-fuelled society and the economy is, and how artificial the borders of the nation prove to be when faced with the instabilities that it causes.

The Time Machine

Australian author James Bradley suggests that writers today, grappling with how to represent climate change, have found genres such as science fiction more suited to the task than classic realism.

“In a way this is unsurprising,” he comments, because of those genres’ interest in “estrangement” from everyday circumstances, and their fascination with “experiences that exceed human scales of being.”

The last decades of the Victorian era were, like now, a stunning time of generic innovation, and prominent amongst those late-century innovations were the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells.

The Time Machine’s bleak view of humanity’s future (seen here in the 1960 film adaptation) is a chilling one.
George Pal Productions

In The Time Machine (1895) Wells found a narrative device that would allow him to think about social and environmental change over enormous spans of history. Near the end of the novel, the inventor of the machine undertakes a voyage to the very end of the planet’s history:

I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained… . I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct… .
From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over.

In imagining this bleak beach, Wells is taking up contemporary predictions that the law of entropy meant the inevitable “heat death” of the universe. Global cooling rather than global warming, then, but one thing that resonates now is how the novel views humanity as a species — and a finite one, at that — rather than from a more limited individual or even national perspective.

The Victorians were the first to stare into the abyss of geological deep time, and to confront the idea of natural history as a succession of mass extinctions.

As a result, Wells raises the idea of a future where even technology cannot overcome calamitous natural processes, and dares to imagine a planet without a human presence.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently described a “broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” arguing that the characteristics of the realist novel have made it resistant to representing those environmental and social complexities. Does the realist novel really have nothing to offer and nothing to say in an era of climate change?

The melting icebergs of Breidamerkurjokull’s Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland: is there a role for the realist novel in an era of climate change?
Ints Kalnins/Reuters

One place to look for an answer is another famously bleak Victorian text, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The plot is set in motion with Tess’s father’s discovery that his family name, Durbeyfield, is a corruption of D’Urberville, and they are in fact descended from an ancient family that once dominated the area. When they are ultimately thrown out of their home, the Durbeyfields end up seeking refuge at a church, amongst the graves of their ancestors:

They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct there was none so forcible as this spoliation.

A bit like our own era of increasingly constrained resources, Tess inhabits an exhausted present, and she moves amidst the ruins left by previous generations who have consumed the material wealth that once made life abundant.

Hardy is also deeply attuned to the ecological damage produced by increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture. Late in the novel, when Tess is abandoned by her lover, Angel Clare, she is forced to accept work on the vast and stony fields of Flintcomb-Ash farm.

She labours through a brutal winter, and endures the relentless demands imposed by a steam-powered threshing machine — “a portable repository of force” — that reduces the workers to automatons. Around the same time, Angel abandons England for Brazil, only to find that English bodies do not translate to tropical ecosystems:

He would see mothers from English farms trudging along with their infants in their arms, when the child would be stricken with fever and would die; the mother would pause to dig a hole in the loose earth with her bare hands, would bury the babe therein with the same natural grave-tools, shed one tear, and again trudge on.

Gemma Arterton as Tess in the 2008 mini series adaptation. Stuck on a farm, Tess seesk to make ethical choices despite overwhelming constraints in Hardy’s novel.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Both Tess and Angel — and the anonymous, sundered colonial families — seem to be climate refugees of a kind, caught between hostile climates and the environmental wreckage wrought by agribusiness.

What little Tess of the D’Urbervilles offers in the face of all this bleakness also centres on Tess. For one thing, she doesn’t just think of herself as an isolated individual, but sees herself as part of larger social and ecological collectives — her family, her fellow milkmaids, even the rural landscape.

She persists in her determination to care for those around her — including, most challengingly, the son she gives birth to after her rape — despite the weight of the moral and economic systems that bear down upon her. After her father refuses to let the parson visit, Tess chooses to baptise her dying son herself — naming him Sorrow — and then secures him a Christian burial:

In spite of the untoward surroundings … Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening … putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.

Tess refuses to abandon her project of care despite its futility, persisting with her fidelity in the midst of catastrophe.

Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew.

The Sydney Writers Festival will host a session on the rise and rise of Cli-Fi featuring James Bradley, Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay on Friday May 26.

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian copyright laws have questionable benefits

Beth Webster, Swinburne University of Technology and Mitchell Adams, Swinburne University of Technology

As the Australian Copyright Agency comes under pressure for appearing to use member royalties to enshrine self-serving copyright laws, it’s time to question the purpose of copyright. Some argue current laws ensure artists are fairly paid and make more local content. The evidence doesn’t support this idea. The Conversation

Copyright is primarily concerned with creative works.

Exploitation of copyright occurs when the author of a creative work excludes all others from reproducing or otherwise using their work for up to 70 years after their death, unless they, the authors, agree to authorise any such use (i.e. pay a fee or a royalty under voluntary or compulsory licences).

On the pro-copyright side, we have the global movie and music industry, many IP lawyers and prominent authors.

Opposing copyright, we have academics, economists and other public policy analysts.

Does copyright encourage more creative work?

The intention of copyright laws is to encourage people to create cultural products such as books, songs, movies and fine art etc. The argument goes that if the authors of these works (or their owners) can charge royalties to those who enjoy these works, then more people will decide to work as authors.

The author gets an income and can therefore spend more time creating works.

However, there are strong arguments that copyright may have gone too far. Royalties only go to a small amount of people, and they mostly prop up the incomes of “rent seekers”. Rent seeking is when income from copyright just makes existing creators wealthier and does not encourage more people to become creators.

The contra-copyright group see some advantage from copyright lasting a few decades, but not the current system, which grants copyright for life plus 70 years after death (there are some exceptions).

Royalties should not be paid beyond the point at which the income stream has an effect on decisions to create more now. Existing copyright laws (which can give control for over 100 years) are merely lining the pockets of movie houses and the heirs of dead authors, without having any effect on the current group of artists.

Australian culture will falter without copyright

The next argument in favour of copyright is that the true value of copyright is the ability for the owner to control the use of their work through licensing.

Given the ubiquity of the internet, it is now very easy to copy works and local authors will not be able to make a living from their work.

Hence, any time or effort they put into creations will be in their spare time after working elsewhere. Enabling authors to receive some royalties goes some way towards providing them with independent income.

But the contra-copyright group say the fact that most royalties go to very few authors, or go overseas to the big music and movies houses and publishers, means copyright does little for emerging and local artists.

In fact, the best way to encourage the local cultural sector might be to offer stipends or grants directly to local artists.

It is not to use copyright to overcharge the ordinary householder; prosecute those who illegally download movies; or to waste the time of students and school teachers filling in royalty forms.

A right to control your creation?

Another pro-copyright argument is that copyright is needed to ensure authors are credited for, and control, their work. This is also known as “moral rights”, and creates the obligation to attribute creators and treat their work with respect.

But we could question whether this is the role of copyright. Gifting moral rights does not necessarily mean the artist should be able to decide who can read or watch his or her work for the purpose of genuine enjoyment.

Authors should be paid for their contribution to society

The pro-copyright group claim that royalties are justified on fairness grounds. People should be rewarded according to their contribution to society and as royalties are linked to use (reading or watching), it is a clever way to link contributions.

However, in terms of value to society, a case can be made that primary school teachers, civil engineers or surgeons should be paid more. And as copyright only delivers a living wage to very few artists, we can question whether the current laws are a fair system.

Fair use

The Productivity Commission recently agreed with the Australian government to reform the education statutory licensing scheme, but commented that this decision was missing a recommendation to move to a “fair use” system of copyright exceptions.

Fair use allows for certain circumstances where people can use copyrighted material without the copyright holder’s permission.

Australia does not have a fair use exception. It only has a more limited “fair dealing” exception which means we can only avoid permission for uses that are on a list.

A fair use system would allow users such as schools and universities to use works in some situations without paying any royalties. Maybe, we should limit copyright to 20 years and increase our stipends to local artists instead.

Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology and Mitchell Adams, Research Fellow in Intellectual Property Law, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday essay: the feminist picture book revolution

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Sarah and Olive Kanake read one of the new breed of girl-power picture books.
Miriam Ackroyd from Life is Beautiful Photography

Sarah Kanake, University of the Sunshine Coast

A year and a half ago I gave birth to my first child. A girl named Olive. I’m a writer and a writing teacher so, naturally, our friends and family gave us books. The Conversation

One after another, we unwrapped picture books and added them to the slightly tattered collection salvaged from our own childhoods. In the early weeks of Olive’s life, I spent a lot of time looking through those pages and thinking about how I wanted to raise her and what ethics I felt strongly about passing on to her. Maybe because I was already asking myself these questions, I noticed something in those books.

Very few featured strong, empowering girl leads.

The same thing was noticed by the authors of a new book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (2017) and captured in an accompanying video that has since gone viral.

The video opens with a mother and daughter in a bookshop. Together they remove books from the shelf based on their representation of female characters. First, they remove the books with “zero male characters”. (Three). Then, they remove the books with “zero female characters”. (Seventy six).

Then, they remove the books where “females don’t speak” (One hundred and forty one).

Next they ask, do these characters have dreams or aspirations? They remove all the books where female characters are waiting for a prince. No number is provided for these. No number is needed. The shelf that was still pretty full is now virtually empty.

The video ends with the young girl turning to a bookseller off camera and asking,

I’m interested in Mars … do you have any books about that?

Princesses and rebels

I’m a feminist. I’m not what I’d call an anti-princess feminist. I see no reason to pit myself against the princess as a person. Princess is, after all, a job like King or Prime Minister. I know there are feminist representations of princess characters in books for children (I discuss a few below) but overall, I, like many feminists, object to the princess as a fictional construct.


Because the princess common to children’s literature is virtually always seen through the lens of her desirability, her romantic contribution and subsequent morality. She works best when she makes the prince his best possible self. When she fixes him. Over time, this princess may grow, new stuff gets added in and old sexist stuff gets carted out, but she’s still locked to her male counterpart. She’s defined by her “love” story. This construction is used as a way to package girlhood (and womanhood too), and in that packaging, the princess creates limits for real girls.

But girls are interested in Mars. Where are the books on Mars?

Halfway through the Rebel Girls video we are introduced to the authors of Good-Night Stories for Rebel Girls, co-founders of Timbuktu Labs, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. They say they wrote the book as a response to bedtime stories where the female characters had no agency. Its 100 stories are about real women who did extraordinary things.

There aren’t any pretty pink princesses in this book, but queens are represented. We read about Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Yaa Asaantewaa, and Elizabeth I. Inventors, olympians, activists, artists, spies, surgeons, scientists. There are women you would expect to see: Frida Khalo, Jane Goodall, Maya Angelou, and Rosa Parks.

There are women I’d never heard of like the Irish “pirate queen” Grace O’Malley, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and the 19th Century physician and feminist Mary Edwards Walker. There are also contemporary girls and women like gymnast Simone Biles, sailor Jessica Watson and dancer Misty Copeland.

Simone Biles with the Obamas at the White House last year: she features in Good-Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

There are a few women missing. I wanted to see feminist Gloria Steinem or former President of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri. I’d have liked an Australian woman included, like former Prime Minster, Julia Gillard, feminist writer Germaine Greer or author Miles Franklin.

But there’s still time and, no doubt, another edition on the horizon.

As a first step, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls accomplishes what it sets out to do. It takes the frame of the bedtime princess story and populates it with champions, thinkers, artists and activists, but as a social artefact, the book represents so much more. It was funded through Kickstarter to the tune of one million dollars, breaking Kickstarter’s record. Favilli and Cavallo originally set out to raise $400,000 to print 100 books but interest soon swelled.

Since Olive was born, I’ve spent countless hours scouring feminist picture book lists online, stalking A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls on Facebook for book recommendations, asking friends, booksellers, googling, and, overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number and quality of newish picture books out there for the budding feminist.

Here are some of my favourites…

Feminist princess picture books

I worked as a bookseller for almost 20 years and if there was one thing I heard daily from mothers, it was that they wanted something other than passive Disney princesses to give their daughters. In Don’t Kiss the Frog (2013) by Fiona Waters, Rapunzel would really like to cut off her locks and dye what’s left blue. In The Princess and the Peas (2013) by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton, “princess” is a phase, a disease. Ordinary girl, Lily-Rose will not eat her peas and so is diagnosed with “Princess-itus”. She gets sent to a castle where she trains and works – day in and day out – at being a princess.

Meanwhile, in Ian Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (2012), the fashionable, eccentric, Chanelesque Olivia questions what a princess actually is and why she’s always dressed in pink, tiaras and fairy wings. Olivia also confronts the “whiteness” of this aesthetic by dressing in princess costumes from around the world and asking why the default for princess isn’t one from India, or China. In the end, Olivia decides she doesn’t want to be a princess. She’ll be a queen instead.

Lots of other girls in contemporary picture books come to a similar conclusion as Olivia. Some don’t even see the argument as relevant, or part of the story. These girls are often inventors or scientists.

Feminist science and inventor picture books

The original Rosie the Riveter.

Leading the charge here are Rosie Revere Engineer (2013) and Ada Twist, Scientist (2016) by Andrea Beaty (illustrated by David Roberts). In Beaty and Roberts’s series, Rosie Revere is an aspiring inventor and niece of the real Rosie the Riveter. Her classmate, Ada Twist, is a gifted if somewhat mess-making scientist. Another notable book in this category is The Magnificent Thing (2014) by Ashley Spires.

These books position science and inventing as central to the story. The lesson of Rosie Revere Engineer is not that girls should invent, but that you should never let mistakes or failures keep you from inventing. The lesson of Ada Twist, Scientist is not that girls should be scientists, but that parents should accept their children for who they are, no matter how messy it is.

These books don’t argue that girls should be inventors and scientists: they suppose they already are.

Feminist activist picture books

The next category arming young girls with heroes are stories (mostly non-fiction) about activist girls, such as the unstoppable Malala Yousafzai. There’s Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education (2017) by Raphaele Frier and illustrated by Aurelia Fronty, Malala Yousafzai: Warrior of Words (2014) by Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by L.C Wheatley, and a bunch of others detailing her extraordinary story.

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, meeting Canadian president Justin Trudeau last month. Her story has inspired many books.
Chris Wattie/Reuters

Books about broader activism (such as conservation, segregation, the right to vote) featuring girls or women include One Plastic Bag; Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia (2015) by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunin and The Youngest Marcher; The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist (2017).

Feminist political picture books

There is power in the political picture book to reveal the marginalised stories of women in politics, but only space in this article to mention a few. So I’ll start (of course) with Hillary (2016) by Jonah Winter, a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Winter has had a number of political picture books published, including one about the work of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Hillary’s daughter Chelsea Clinton has also written a picture book called She Persisted. According to a recent tweet from Clinton, it is about “women who didn’t take no for an answer”.

Hillary Clinton.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

My favourite in this category is, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes her Mark (2016) by Debbie Levy and illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. I Dissent uses the Notorious RBG to introduce ideas around working mothers, persistence, shared domestic responsibilities and stay-at-home dads. The book explores the language of dissent while showing the (completely lovable) liberal US Supreme Court justice in her real life, thereby positing the girl with a voice as something special, but nonetheless natural.

We can’t talk about political picture books without also mentioning Madam President (2008) by Lane Smith. This book follows a little girl (in a flared pantsuit!) as she imagines how she would preside over her country and develops the qualities she will need for the job. Qualities like calmness and wisdom, diplomacy and humility.

Feminist non-fiction/history/biography books

One of my favourite picture books in this category is Amazing Babes (2013) by Eliza Sarlos, illustrated by Grace Lee. Each page introduces us to a famous woman from history with a line such as, “I want the vision of Miles Franklin” or the “compassion and commitment of Mama Shirl”. It also includes unusual women such as fashion blogger, Tavi Gevinson.

If you want to know more about any of the women in the book you can look them up in the index pages (Hedy Lamarr, I discovered, was an inventor!) This book speaks to a long history of women, and its framing device allows for a clear and deep reading of why each woman is important, and what modern girls can take from their lives. It only has one line per page/per illustration and uses repetition throughout, so it’s great for younger readers.

Another recent series Little People, Big Dreams, brings together a writer and illustrator to tell the story of a famous woman. There are six books in the collection – about Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Coco Chanel, Agatha Christie, Maya Angelou, and Amelia Earhart – with three more to be published later this year.

A few months ago, meanwhile, I stumbled across a list that introduced me to a treasure trove of recent biography picture books that amplified, uncovered or exposed the stories of women whose work had changed the world.

These include books about scientists like, Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer (2016) by Fiona Robinson, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clarke (2016) by Heather Lang, illustrated by Jordi Solano and Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (2014) by Laurie Lawlor, illustrated by Laura Beingessnerr. There are also several great collection books for older readers, such as Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (2016) by Rachel Ignotofsky, and Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World (2016) by Kate Pankhurst, a descendant of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

How does Australia fare?

Australia doesn’t have the same number of overt feminist picture books as, say, the US but that doesn’t mean we don’t have empowering books for girls, about girl characters.

My favourite 2017 CBCA shortlisted book The Patchwork Bike (2016) by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T. Rudd is a glorious picture book about a girl (and some other kids) living on the edge of the no-go desert. Together the kids build a bike from scraps, while Clarke and Rudd build a story about freedom and creativity and inventiveness.

Another favourite of mine is Molly and Mae (2016) by Freya Blackwood and Danny Parker. This is a story about two very different little girls who meet, become friends, and fall out during a long train ride. It’s a sincere and very realistic look at the often complex relationships and power dynamics between girls, set against a magnificent (moving) Australian backdrop.

My absolutely favourite girl picture book hero is Aaron Blabey’s Sunday Chutney. Stylish, outgoing, funny, resilient and creative, Sunday sometimes feels out of place, and struggles when she has to move and go to a new school. But Sunday has a powerful weapon in her confidence and wry sense of humour.

Finding your own rebel girl

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is not just a book. It’s a protest. We wanted it, we funded it, we saw the gap and refused to leave it alone. But the best part of the book, and what really sets it apart from the others I have mentioned, is the last two pages before the acknowledgements. One says “Write Your Story”, the other, “Draw Your Portrait”.

The book invites girls to write themselves into history. To be visible. To be seen. To have their wisdom heard.

I look forward to reading the story my daughter will write in this book one day, and seeing how she will represent herself. I won’t know what kind of rebel Olive will want to be for a few years yet, but until that day I’ll read her these stories, and urge every mother to do the same.

Sleep well, girls.

Sarah Kanake, Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scrounging for money: how the world’s great writers made a living

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William Faulkner’s typewriter in Mississippi. The writing life may sound idyllic, but it was often a furious battle to make ends meet.
Visit Mississippi/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

It’s a lean time for writers, as arts funding shrinks on all sides, journalists are laid off in droves, broadcasting budgets are slashed, and book publishing remains in a state of seemingly unceasing upheaval. The Conversation

It often seems as if the age of living by the pen may be brought to a close by an increasingly rapacious approach to human affairs, interested only in hard numbers and bottom lines. Australian writers Frank Moorhouse and Ben Eltham have recently proposed several schemes to give writers a living wage to support their work.

And so it’s timely to reflect on some of the strange, desperate and occasionally dangerous ways in which writers have historically lived, if not always by their pens, then at least on their wits. Here’s twelve ways in which classics of western literature were written.

1) Advertising

Unlike other activities, advertising continues to pay very well (though many writers fear they may be required to sell their soul).

English crime writer Dorothy Sayers had a top floor office at Benson’s advertising, where she invented the Mustard Club, a fictional mustard-loving entity with half a million real life subscribers in the UK, and also devised “Just think what Toucan do” for Guinness.

Dorothy Sayers, apart from her contribution to crime fiction, gave the world Guinness’ toucan campaign.
Ben Sutherland/Flickr, CC BY

Peter Carey devised roof-tiling company Monier’s well-known jingle, “Top Cat in Roof Tiles”. Salman Rushdie spent many happy years at Ogilvy & Mather where he came up with “Look into the Mirror tomorrow – you’ll like what you see” for the Daily Mirror. Don Delillo was also employed at Ogilvy & Mather’s New York office, but doesn’t talk about it much.

Even F. Scott Fitzgerald did time at Barron Collier’s. Not only did he give us The Great Gatsby, he also produced – for the Muscatine Steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa – “We keep you clean in Muscatine”.

2) Postal clerks

The postal service has provided a safe haven for many a writer. Anthony Trollope wrote his novels for three hours every morning before going off to his day job at the post office, which he kept for 33 years. Charles Bukowski also worked for the postal service, and kept his job for ten years. (His first novel was called Post Office and its protagonist was a postal clerk.)

William Faulkner was also a postmaster in Mississippi, but rather less good at holding his job. His resignation letter famously read,

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

Faulkner went on to work as a night manager in a power plant where he penned As I Lay Dying in six or eight weeks, writing between the hours of midnight and 4 am.

3) Janitors and pest exterminators

Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was inspired by CIA-backed mind control experiments.

Ken Kesey was a night cleaner in a mental hospital. He also volunteered to be an experimental guinea pig in a CIA-backed mind control study conducted under the auspices of a front organisation at the Menlo Park facility. This experience gave us One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Stephen King also did time as a janitor in a high school. William S. Burroughs worked as a pest exterminator in Chicago. Jack Kerouac’s resume includes stints as a cotton picker, a dishwasher, a night guard, and gas station attendant.

4) Music transcription

Desperate writers, it seems, will do just about anything. Rousseau, with his books banned, and patrons running scared, transcribed an estimated 9,000 pages of music at six sols per page between 1770 and his death in 1778.

5) Poaching

Jack London, oyster pirate, 1914.

Jack London was famously an oyster poacher, though he preferred to call himself an “oyster pirate”. There’s also an apocryphal tale that Shakespeare was forced to flee Stratford when he was nabbed for poaching deer on the nearby Lucy estate, leading to a life-long feud with the local lord.

There’s no doubt that Shakespeare was adept at turning a guinea where he could. The Earl of Rutland paid no less than four pounds and eight shillings to Shakespeare and his lead actor Richard Burbage (who also moonlighted as a painter) to create a shield and write a motto so that Rutland could appear well dressed at a tournament.

Shakespeare sent his money home to his very clever wife in Stratford, who slowly bought up lots of farmland and cornered much of the local grain trade.

6) Academic

Many writers teach, but few do it for a career. David Lodge was Professor of English, back in the day when academics didn’t worry too much about things like Excellence in Research evaluation, or applying for research council grants. JRR Tolkien was Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford, producing definitive editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Beowulf as well as his novels.

Robert Frost taught at Amherst and Vladimir Nabokov was Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell. But not everybody agreed this was a good idea. When Nabokov was up for a chair in literature at Harvard, the distinguished linguist Roman Jakobson protested, “What’s next? Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”

7) Butterfly curator

Nabokov’s first job on arrival in the United States was as the curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard. He stayed there for six years.

Butterflies collected by Vladimir Nabakov.

8) Propagandist

It’s surprising how many writers have ended up on the murky side of politics. John Buchan, perhaps most famously, earned 1,000 pounds a year as the Director of the Ministry of Information, closely aligned to the War Propaganda Bureau where H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.B. Priestly, and Ford Maddox Ford penned paid and unpaid articles, pamphlets and leaflets including Doyle’s To Arms! (1914) and Ford’s When Blood is Their Argument (1915). Arnold Bennett was head of British propaganda in France. Wells became Head of Enemy Propaganda until a strange series of events led to his spectacular resignation.

Orwell’s 1984 was inspired by his work as a propagandist.

George Orwell, who spent much of his life scraping money from wherever he could, was employed in the service of the Imperial Police in Burma, an institution he despised. On returning to London, he worked as a paid propagandist at the BBC, broadcasting to India. It was the psychic pain of the arch enemy of mindless patriotism serving as a wartime propagandist that gave us 1984.

9) Doctors, lawyers and clergymen

Some writers have known from the start that there are better ways to make a living. Henry Fielding was a Magistrate, but by “refusing to take a shilling from a man who would undoubtedly not have had another one left” halved his portion of what he called “the dirtiest money on earth”.

Jonathan Swift was the vicar of Laracor – his congregation of just 15 leaving him plenty of time to write, which he did, for the most part, in the glittering clubs of London.

Anton Chekov, Somerset Maugham and Williams Carlos Williams were doctors. So too was Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle set up a not very successful medical practice in Portsmouth and famously penned A Study in Scarlet during the interminable wait times between patients. He later set up an ophthalmologist in Upper Wimpole St, London, but claims that he never secured so much as a single patient.

10) Cinema impressario

James Joyce scraped a living by teaching English in Trieste, while dreaming up wild moneymaking schemes. With the help of Italian friends he opened the Cinematograph Volta in Dublin, on Mary St, but couldn’t stick to it for more than seven months. He then planned to import Irish tweed to Trieste.

Ulysses would never have been written without the support of feminist publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver, who, in February 1917, shortly after she published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in book form, gave Joyce an income of £200 a year to support his work. Later Weaver created a trust fund, the interest from which gave Joyce an income for life.

11) Airline ticketing clerk

Harper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC for more than eight years. This only changed in in 1956, when the Broadway composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy gave Lee a Christmas gift with a card that said, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” Lee produced the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird within 12 months.

Harper Lee being presented with a medal of freedom by President George W Bush in 2007.

12) Patronage

It’s hard to believe, but writers made nothing from their books until the invention of copyright in the 18th century. Instead, they relied on wealthy patrons to make a living.

This uneasy relationship led a frustrated Samuel Johnson to insert in 1755 a double-edged definition in his Dictionary. After the words, “Patron: One who countenances, supports and protects,” he added, “Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery.”

Shakespeare is said to have received an astonishing £1,000 for his flowery dedications to the Earl of Southampton (though it was more probably a still wildly generous £100). Hence he wrote, “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety.”

But choosing a patron could be dangerous. The Earl of Southampton was later imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I for his role in the Earl of Essex’s 1601 rebellion against the queen. Southampton had organised a special performance of Richard II. While there is no evidence Shakespeare was directly punished, he had good reason to be worried, with other writers tortured and even murdered in Elizabethan England.

Living by the pen

Of course, the preferred method of earning an income for writers has inevitably been journalism. Once patronage was replaced by the rise of the commercial press, writers were able to turn to the business of writing about real people. Samuel Richardson was a printer. Samuel Taylor Coleridge edited The Watchman and The Friend. Charles Dickens was a parliamentary reporter and then editor and publisher of Household Words.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work as a journalist allowed her to write, and support her entire family.

Indeed, writing for periodicals was what allowed many women in the 19th century to secure an independent income. Jane Austen calculated that the life-long return on her novels was a mere 84 pounds and 13 shillings (works that made millions in the centuries that followed).

But Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to become the sole income earner for her family, penning not just Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but periodicals, gift books, textbooks and popular annuals. Margaret Fuller became the first female editor of the New York Tribune, and their first female foreign correspondent covering the Italian revolutions.

Today, the problem is that not only writers but also perhaps journalists could use an arts council grant.

Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor of Writing, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: how the brain changes when we learn to read

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Learning to read is not actually that easy.

Nicola Bell, The University of Queensland

Right now, you are reading these words without much thought or conscious effort. In lightning-fast bursts, your eyes are darting from left to right across your screen, somehow making meaning from what would otherwise be a series of black squiggles. The Conversation

Reading for you is not just easy – it’s automatic. Looking at a word and not reading it is almost impossible, because the cogs of written language processing are set in motion as soon as skilled readers see print.

And yet, as tempting as it is to think of reading as hard-wired into us, don’t be fooled. Learning to read is not easy. It’s not even natural.

The first examples of written language date back to about 5,000 years ago, which is a small fraction of the 60,000 years or more that humans have spent using spoken language.

This means our species hasn’t had enough time to evolve brain networks that predispose us to learn literacy. It is only through years of practice and instruction that we have forged those connections for ourselves.

How the brain learns to read

Brains are constantly reorganising themselves. Any time we learn a new skill, connections between neurons that allow us to perform that skill become stronger. This flexibility is heightened during childhood, which is why so much learning gets crammed in before adolescence.

As a child becomes literate, there is no “reading centre” that magically materialises in the brain. Instead, a network of connections develops to link existing areas that weren’t previously linked. Reading becomes a way of accessing language by sight, which means it builds on architecture that is already used for recognising visual patterns and understanding spoken language.

Words and letters are initailly stored in the brain as symbols.

The journey of a word

When a skilled reader encounters a printed word, that information travels from their eyes to their occipital lobe (at the back of the brain), where it is processed like any other visual stimulus.

From there, it travels to the left fusiform gyrus, otherwise known as the brain’s “letterbox”. This is where the black squiggles are recognised as letters in a word. The letterbox is a special stopover on the word’s journey because it only develops as the result of learning to read. It doesn’t exist in very young children or illiterate adults, and it’s activated less in people with dyslexia, who have a biological difference in the way their brains process written text.

Words and letters are stored in the letterbox – not as individually memorised shapes or patterns, but as symbols. This is why a skilled reader can recognise a word quickly, regardless of font, cAsE, or typeface.

Information then travels from the letterbox to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, to work out word meaning and pronunciation. These same areas are activated when we hear a word, so they are specialised for language, rather than just reading and writing.

Because information can travel so quickly across the skilled reader’s synaptic highways, the entire journey takes less than half a second.

But what happens in the brain of a five-year-old child, whose highways are still under construction?

Learning to read takes a lot of effort.

The growing brain

For young children, the process of getting from print to meaning is slow and effortful. This is partly because beginning readers have not yet built up a store of familiar words that they can recognise by sight, so they must instead “sound out” each letter or letter sequence.

Every time children practise decoding words, they forge new connections between the visual and spoken language areas of the brain, gradually adding new letters and words to the brain’s all-important letterbox.

Remember, when a practised reader recognises a word by sight, they process the letters in that word, rather than its shape.

Literacy instruction can therefore support children’s learning by highlighting the symbolic nature of letters – in other words, by drawing attention to the relationships between letters and speech sounds.

Here, evidence from brain imaging research and educational research converge to show that early phonics instruction can help construct an efficient reading network in the brain.

What might the future hold for literacy development?

As technology evolves, so too must our definition of what it means to be “literate”. Young brains now need to adapt not only to written language, but also to the fast-paced media through which written language is presented.

Only time will tell how this affects the development of that mysterious beige sponge between our ears.

Nicola Bell, PhD student, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.