The withdrawal of the Mandela book was nothing short of censorship



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Posters of various newspapers paying tribute after the death of former South African President Nelson in 2013.
Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Beth le Roux, University of Pretoria

“Mandela’s Last Years”, written by retired military doctor Vejay Ramlakan, has become a sought after commodity since the publisher, Penguin SA, withdrew it from the shelves in July. Ramlakan was the head of the medical team that looked after Nelson Mandela until his death in 2013.

The withdrawing and pulping of a book represents a huge expense for a publisher, as well as a source of some embarrassment. So why did the publisher do it?

Soon after the book was published, members of the Mandela family, led by his widow Graça Machel, threatened legal action. It must be admitted that the basis for any legal action wasn’t clear, although it was probably linked to defamation. The book, Machel argued, constituted “an assault on the trust and dignity” of her late husband.

Soon afterwards, the author’s employer, the South African National Defence Force, distanced itself from the book, suggesting that it may have contravened doctor-patient confidentiality.

The publisher bowed to this pressure and withdrew the book, stating that no further copies would be issued out of respect for the family. This is almost unprecedented, anywhere, and needs to be teased out more fully. After reading the book, I’ve considered how and why the publisher may have come to this decision.

Reasons for pulping a book

The decision making process for a publisher in a case like the Mandela book revolves around balancing the potential costs against reputational damage. The costs can be extensive – in publishing, all costs relating to editing, design, production, printing and distribution are made up front. It is relatively easy to make a decision to withdraw a book after publication when it may have contravened the law, mostly due to defamation of character.

Books may also be withdrawn after allegations of plagiarism, or because the accuracy of the content has been called into question. Publishers sometimes cancel contracts with their authors based on the standard waivers dealing with defamation and inaccuracies.

Publishers try to avoid these kinds of situations by performing due diligence to see if manuscripts contain anything defamatory or that breaches privacy. They employ fact checkers to avoid inaccuracy. And they require authors to warrant that their work is original and accurate.

This doesn’t mean that errors don’t sometimes slip through. But it is very unusual for a book to be withdrawn simply because it’s controversial. In fact, publishers usually support controversial titles because they create publicity, and publicity generally leads to sales.

So what happened in this particular case?

The first set of questions would relate to the credibility of the author, and the publisher’s relationship with him. Ramlakan was the head of Mandela’s medical team and had unique access to the former president over a long period of time. This means that he certainly had the access and authority to write the book, and as far as I know nobody is questioning its accuracy.

The cover of ‘Mandela’s Last Years’, which has been withdrawn.

This is important, because truthfulness is one of the main defences against defamation, as is the issue of public benefit or interest. It seems highly unlikely that a publisher would allow a nonfiction title to include material that is patently untrue or that would harm the reputation of a man like Mandela. Is there really still a need to protect the reputation of a man of such global stature?

Family permission

Linked to the question of authority is whether the work was authorised. The author has repeatedly claimed he wrote the memoir at the request of family members, and with their permission. In such a large family, it would be difficult to obtain permission from every family member, and it is quite common for family members to protest their treatment in a biography of a famous public figure.

Family members often argue that there has been a breach of privacy or that embarrassing private details have been made public. But the truth is that their authorisation is not actually necessary. Many authors write unauthorised biographies or memoirs, and while they may prove controversial, they certainly do not contravene the law. The broad variety of books already available on Mandela shows that there is ongoing public interest. It seems unlikely that each one of them was authorised by the family.

What complicates this scenario is that, as a medical doctor, Ramlakan is also expected to uphold ethical standards that an ordinary writer wouldn’t be subject to. I am not an expert in medical ethics, but there are very few medical details in the book that are not already in the public domain.

In fact, one of the purposes of the book was to counter the rumours and speculation around Mandela’s medical condition in the last years and months of his life. It does this by quietly countering inaccurate statements and setting out the bare facts. It appears that the author made a deliberate effort to avoid breaching confidentiality, and ended up writing a very respectful book.

Some have suggested that the publisher and author were simply attempting to cash in on the Mandela legacy. Whatever their motives, they shouldn’t be the basis for withdrawing a book from public circulation. Taste and motivation are not legal issues.

Censorship

Given that there is no apparent material basis for a legal attack on the book, its withdrawal reveals self-censorship on the part of the publisher. South Africa no longer has censorship laws in place, but an influential family can bring pressure to bear that amounts to the same thing. But also given that the book was already on the market, it should be asked what the effect of the withdrawal will be.

The ConversationWhile fewer copies will be sold in bookshops, and fewer people will have access to it, it’s not possible to entirely withdraw a book from the online market. The book reviews already mention all of the most controversial parts of the book, and the action of withdrawal only serves to highlight them. The best course of action would be to allow the book to circulate freely and to stand – or fall – on its own merits. Anything else is censorship.

Beth le Roux, Associate Professor, Publishing, University of Pretoria

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

Love of bookshops in a time of Amazon and populism



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Saturday is Love Your Bookshop Day –
but bookshops face many challenges.
Shutterstock

Nathan Hollier, Monash University

There was genuine positivity at this year’s Australian Booksellers’ Association Conference in Melbourne in June. The mood was one of camaraderie and optimism at the sharing of good news. And it only brightened with the news that our National Bookshop Day was to be rebranded this year as Love Your Bookshop Day. Why not?

Saturday is that day. Expect to see your local bookshop buntinged, postered, streamered and perhaps offering special bargains. Assuming, of course, you have a local bookshop.

Store numbers have steadied in recent years and, as was reported at the conference, both independent and chain or franchise booksellers are expanding. Children’s book sales in particular are performing well. (“The bookshop is dead. Long live the bookshop,” reads a plaque at Embiggen Books in Melbourne’s CBD.)

But over the past couple of decades the sector has wrestled with the challenges of superstores, GST, the GFC, one-sided international post deals, ebooks and online-only undercutters.

Now the greatest of these online stores, certainly in terms of market share, will soon be competing with Australian bookstores from a new base here. Amazon has secured a massive distribution centre site near Dandenong in outer-eastern Melbourne. Dire predictions for parts of the Australian retail sector have already been made.

Local booksellers too will need to adjust to this new environment, in which Amazon will likely reduce its delivery time and charges significantly. This will place downward pressure on book prices, and thus booksellers’ margins and capacity to survive.

Amazon has itself experimented with physical bookstores in recent times, to underwhelming reviews, but its primary focus has, of course, been on being able to offer “everything” at the “everyday low prices” of its American precursors (and sometime role models), Walmart and Costco.

Today’s booksellers must choose what to put on their shelves from around 7,000 new releases each month. As all of these will be on the “shelves” of Amazon, local booksellers will need to maintain an intimate knowledge of what will appeal to their customer base.

This curatorial role, which has always been part of what good booksellers do, takes on extra importance in the digital age. Curating, one might say, is the opposite approach to that of Amazon, which instead expertly removes barriers to purchasing, encouraging impulse buying. The extra services local booksellers provide, in addition to low prices and the range of stock, will likely need beefing up also. Community building will be the order of the day.

The current shrinkage of review pages of broadsheet newspapers will also hurt many bookshops, as they depend on a degree of consensus as to what is important and valuable to read.

Price instability may well grow in Australia with the arrival of Amazon. Publishers have argued over the decades that this instability also discourages consumer confidence.

The Productivity Commission doesn’t accept arguments in favour of maintaining price levels for some products in order to keep the costs of others down. But regulatory bodies have special challenges when confronted with large, diverse conglomerates, such as Amazon. It has the capacity to drop prices for products in one category (such as books) to maximise competitiveness, while the overall bottom line is propped up by more profitable parts of the business (such as Amazon Web Services).

In the face of aggressive price cutting from firms like … well, Amazon … regulatory bodies concerned with fair prices for consumers are yet to find an effective means of properly accounting for the fact that its success has been partly based on exploiting publicly developed (and funded) technology and infrastructure, determined strategies of tax minimisation, aggressive use of IP and patent law, and sustained intransigence towards its workforce’s self-organisation and unionisation.

Andy Griffiths: a bookshop favourite.
Carol Cho/AAP

On Tuesday morning this past week, a crowd of parents and kids waited in the cold out the front of our local suburban bookshop till, at 9 o’clock, they could rush in and buy the latest Treehouse book, by Andy Griffiths. The bookseller handed out free copies of a quality cookbook to parents. Community spirit, human connectedness and customer loyalty all bloomed nicely.

As the legendary Collins bookseller, Michael Zifcack, recalled in his memoirs,
“I realised early on that customer service was the secret of successful bookselling.”

I’ll be heading to that local shop on Saturday, but can also, of course, appreciate the access to more or less every available product that online shopping provides. No doubt there is room for both retail models within our society.

What remains most important, when thinking about the health of the book industry here, is that no matter how cheap we make these products, there won’t be effective demand for them unless people have the time and desire to read.

The ConversationThis desire, in turn, rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society. For all of us, that challenge is ongoing and, broadly speaking, we will get the books and bookshops we deserve.

Nathan Hollier, Director, Monash University Publishing, Monash University

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

Writing is the air I breathe: Publishing as an Inuit writer


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Cover art from “Annie Muktuk and Other Stories,” Norma Dunning’s first book filled with sixteen Inuit stories which portray the unvarnished realities of northern life via strong and gritty characters.
(University of Alberta Press)

Norma Dunning, University of Alberta

I am Norma Dunning. I am a beneficiary of Nunavut; my ancestral ties lie in the village of Whale Cove. I have never been there. My folks left the North shortly before my birth. I am southern Inuk, born and raised.

I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t want to take the criticism.

I didn’t want to take the reworking of my words into a form that is standard Western format, or into the practices that are expected and accepted within literary work. I know that I do not write in the ways that most non-Indigenous writers do. I didn’t want my work re-colonized.

I have a small reputation of being a poet, and my poetry manuscript is usually rejected twice a year. Over the last seven years, I am often invited to read my poetry at various local events. I am very honoured to have been asked, but I am the poet who shows up without her book of published poems. I am the poet with her work attached to a clipboard. I am surprised that my first published work, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, is a book of short stories. There’s irony in that.

Inuit peoples live in two worlds

Writing for me is not a hobby. Writing is a part of my being, a part of daily living. It is for me what breathing is for others. It is physical in that if I am not creating a story or a poem, I do not feel well. I know that of myself. It is spiritual and emotional. Producing the written word is the only place where I can be who I am, without expectations, without criticism and without someone looking over my shoulder telling me that I am wrong.

Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival.

When I was studying for my BA degree, my minor was in creative writing. I have since taken many university creative writing courses and I received two prestigious awards for my efforts through the University of Alberta. Creative thinking is a requirement for my doctoral work, and taking writing courses has helped me. However, the other students in the writing classes were not always supportive. I heard their criticisms every week.

While not every class was good or productive, I was exposed to the writing of non-Inuit poets and writers from long ago. I enjoyed their old works, which were new to me. I thought about how they could spend time running up hill and down dale and always remain writing in their predictable and trained writing format. I cannot write about butterflies or bumblebees. In time, I published the odd poem here and there, but never a story. The stories were mine. It took many years to decide to share them.

Deciding to publish

Until one winter afternoon, close to Christmas. I was standing in a lineup at a post office. It was a long line, filled with people wanting their packages to exotic places to be stamped “Express!” I held my thick, brown envelope addressed to the University of Alberta Press close to my chest. I thought I could do this another day, but I knew that if I stepped out of the lineup, I would never send that envelope out anywhere. When I was asked if I wanted a rush delivery, I gasped, “No!”

The longer it took for anyone to read my work, the longer I was safe. The longer the characters that I had created could stay only mine. If no one ever read it, I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The longer the envelope took to deliver, the longer my creative world belonged to only me. I didn’t hear back from the press for over a year. I kept telling myself that was OK. Things take time. Inuit are patient.

When I was told that the press accepted my work, I was stunned. Perhaps part of being an Indigenous writer is the expectation of rejection. I did not get what I was used to. I was assigned to my editor, who is a Namibian man, born and raised. He knows colonialism very well. He lives it, like me. The path to publishing became less complicated. I knew one thing; my words were safe with him. He got it.

However, there was one long discussion over the use of a comma or a period. I had written the sounds of two Inuit women throat singing. I had written it without any grammar. I knew how the song sounded in my head, but what I had to think about was a non-Inuit readers’ understanding.

I sang it to myself for 45 minutes. Was it “Oooma” insert period or “Oooma” insert comma? There were emails and phone calls around two simple sentences. I learned to think about how grammar shapes understanding. What if I was a foreigner reading this passage; how would it sound in my head? We worked it through because my editor took the time to build a good working relationship with me. He didn’t dive in and try to make me or my words “right.” He didn’t push for the quick fix that I know all too well. When non-Inuit do that, it is a signal for me to run.

As Aboriginal artists, we inherently analyze the people around us, because we walk inside two worlds. Aboriginal artists do the hard work, the heavy lifting. We put out into the world the truth of Canada’s grand narrative. Aboriginal artists take the whispered secrets and put them onto paper. It is not easy work.

The ConversationIf my book does any one thing, I hope it brings other Inuit writers to a publisher. I hope other Inuit writers realize that they can do this too. They can put their work out there. They can publish. Be fearless. Stand by your words, and believe that no matter where you stand, you are Inuk.

Cover art from
(University of Alberta Press)

Norma Dunning, PhD candidate, Department of Educational Policy Studies, Indigenous Peoples Education, University of Alberta

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

Worth reading: Future visions of women, war, time and space



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Former Globe and Mail newspaper reporter turned novelist Omar El Akkad contemplates his debut book American War in his publisher’s Toronto office in this 2017 file photo.
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Bryan Gaensler, University of Toronto

Editor’s note: The Conversation Canada asked our academic authors to share some recommended reading. In this instalment, Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer who wrote about life in 2167, highlights a few of his recent picks.

My passion is science fiction. Here are my favourite sci-fi books that I’ve read this year:
 

The Power by Naomi Alderman.
Handout

The Power

by Naomi Alderman (Penguin)

Women around the globe spontaneously develop the ability to deliver electric shocks through their fingertips. As they begin to use this power to intimidate, control and kill, the world order is turned upside down.

A spectacular novel, and surely the favourite to sweep all the sci-fi book awards for 2017. People can be both cruel and good-intentioned, often at the same time. Introduce a new power imbalance, and society is abruptly transformed. Wonderful writing, and a whopper of a story twist. Turns The Handmaid’s Tale on its head.

American War by Omar El Akkad.
Handout

American War

by Omar El Akkad (McClelland & Stewart)

A hundred years from now, Florida has vanished under the seas, the Bouazizi Empire is the new world superpower, and the United States has begun its second civil war. In the South, a young woman ends up in a refugee camp and is slowly radicalized into terrorism.

An intense, moving portrait of a future America that maybe isn’t the future after all. The characters are complex and the story is all too real. A spectacular debut.

 

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai.
Handout

All Our Wrong Todays

by Elan Mastai (Doubleday Canada)

Tom Barren travels back in time, accidentally alters the course of history, and returns to a horrifically changed, dystopian present day. The catch? Tom grew up in a utopia of flying cars and moon bases, and the dystopia that he finds himself trapped in is our timeline, warts and all.

A gem of a story that provides several new twists on time travel. If you’ve screwed up the timeline, should you fix it? What if there were two different ways to travel through time, with different rules and different consequences? And under all of this is the classic sci-fi question writ on the scale of billions of lives: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few? Hard to put down, with a lovable lead character.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.
Handout

4 3 2 1

by Paul Auster (McClelland & Stewart)

The life story of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born in 1947 in Newark, N.J. Except that this is the story of four identical Fergusons, each of whom take divergent paths as their lives play out.

A tour de force story of adolescence and the path not taken. It’s hard to believe a single author could possibly cram so many real-life details, emotions and characters into a single book. Extraordinarily memorable and engaging.

 

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.
Handout

The Collapsing Empire

by John Scalzi (Tor)

Humans have spread throughout a galactic empire, our worlds interconnected by faster-than-light wormholes. But what happens to trade, the economy and civilisation itself when the wormholes start to break down?

The ConversationA fun and fast-spaced space opera, centred on some forthright women and some fresh ideas. In the spirit of Asimov’s Foundation, Scalzi explores the theme of the downfall of empire on a galaxy-spanning scale.

Bryan Gaensler, Director, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto

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

Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël: a tale of two authors



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Chawton House Library

Catriona Seth, University of Oxford

Two prominent writers died in July 1817. The first was arguably the most famous woman in Europe. The other was a country clergyman’s daughter whose life had revolved around her family and her home county.

Germaine de Staël travelled widely and her work had been translated into several languages. She was the only daughter of wealthy Swiss banker Jacques Necker, who became finance minister to Louis XVI, and was brought up in the stimulating environment of Parisian society. She published major treatises on the influence of passions on individuals and nations, on literature and its relationship to society, not to mention on Germany (1813). She wrote on Marie Antoinette’s trial, on peace, on translation, on suicide.

Her novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne or Italy (1807) were bestsellers throughout Europe. She was also a commentator on, and historian of, the French Revolution in texts which only appeared after her death. Most periodicals felt that anything she penned, fact or fiction, political or philosophical, was worthy of a mention – whether to praise or to condemn it.

Unlike Staël’s father, George Austen encouraged his daughter Jane’s literary pursuits: he bought her notebooks for her early stories, gave her a mahogany writing desk and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get her work into print in 1797. Jane Austen’s first published book, Sense and Sensibility, “a new novel by a lady”, which came out in 1811, bore no author’s name on its title page. The same would go for the other novels published in her lifetime – all sold well and brought a welcome income but, to the outsider, nothing could connect them with the discreet woman who, through her richer brother’s generosity, lived with her mother and sister in a cottage on his estate.

Death notices

Staël’s death in Paris was widely reported. The Monthly Magazine, before commenting at length on the funeral arrangements, opened a “Further Notice of Madame de Staël” with the following assertion:

To speak of the literary celebrity of Madame de Staël, of the elevated talent which distinguished her, of all the talent which placed her among the first writers of the age, would be to speak of all things known to all France and to all Europe … To speak of her generous opinions, her love for liberty, her confidence in the powers of intelligences and of morality, confidence which honours the soul which experiences it, would be, perhaps, in the midst of still agitated parties, to provoke ill-disposed impressions.

Germaine de Staël: her thoughts on the French Revolution.
Online Library of Liberty

Staël had been reviled for her political ideas, caricatured by the gutter press for her unconventional looks and lifestyle, exiled by several regimes, and treated by Napoleon as a personal enemy, to the extent that it was said that the emperor recognised three powers in Europe: England, Russia and Madame de Staël.

When the unmarried “Miss Jane Austen” died in Winchester four days after Staël, the announcement her family (probably) wrote recalled she was the daughter of a clergyman and acknowledged that she was the author of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. It added:

Her manners were most gentle, her affections ardent, her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.

Future biographical notes, including the one penned by her nephew – A Memoir of Jane Austen – developed this image. He wrote of his aunt:

Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course. Even her fame may be said to have been posthumous: it did not attain to any vigorous life till she had ceased to exist. Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement.

Bestseller: but who is it by?
Lilly Library, Indiana University via Wikimedia Commons

To this day, in the only authenticated portrait of her – a sketch by her sister Cassandra – she looks the part in her simple cap and dress, so unlike Staël’s flamboyant turban and scarlet gown. More than “Miss Austen”, she is “Jane Austen”, someone to whom we feel we can relate. Her admirers, readers but also cinephiles who have enjoyed the adaptations, come from all the corners of the earth, are known as “Janeites”.

Many of Staël’s works have long been out of print or available only in pricey scholarly editions. She is recognised as one of the forerunners of 19th-century liberalism but does not have the common appeal and widespread recognition that time has brought to Austen.

Contrasting legacies

The seeds for the “fickle fortunes” – to borrow the title of the current exhibition at Chawton House (the “Great House” lived in by her brother Edward Austen-Knight which is now home to a library of early women’s writing) – of the international literary superstardom of Austen and the waning of Staël’s fame are partly present in these obituaries.

Austen’s family cleverly crafted a reputation for demureness and devotion to both God and family as a way of deflecting from the sometimes ambiguous contemporary attitude towards women authors. Her life was presented as quintessentially English and uneventful and her character as modest and self-effacing – in many ways the opposite of Staël’s.

In a late addition to his biographical sketch about his sister, 15 years after the death of both women, Henry Austen claimed that when invited to a party Staël was due to attend, Austen “immediately declined”.

The ConversationThis probably imaginary anecdote illustrates an essential reason for Austen’s success: yes, she is a great writer, but so too is Staël. Austen’s existence threatened nobody. Staël’s championing of republican ideals, consideration of the role of emotion in politics and use of fiction to promote geopolitical and societal reflections meant her life could be discussed and her works forgotten. Considering them jointly can help us question what shapes our canon of great writers.

Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature, University of Oxford

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

The Library of Congress opened its catalogs to the world. Here’s why it matters



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The Library of Congress is in Washington, D.C.
Valerii Iavtushenko/Shutterstock.com

Melissa Levine, University of Michigan

Imagine you wanted to find books or journal articles on a particular subject. Or find manuscripts by a particular author. Or locate serials, music or maps. You would use a library catalog that includes facts – like title, author, publication date, subject headings and genre.

That information and more is stored in the treasure trove of library catalogs.

It is hard to overstate how important this library catalog information is, particularly as the amount of information expands every day. With this information, scholars and librarians are able to find things in a predictable way. That’s because of the descriptive facts presented in a systematic way in catalog records.

But what if you could also experiment with the data in those records to explore other kinds of research questions – like trends in subject matter, semantics in titles or patterns in the geographic source of works on a given topic?

Now it is possible. The Library of Congress has made 25 million digital catalog records available for anyone to use at no charge. The free data set includes records from 1968 to 2014.

This is the largest release of digital catalog records in history. These records are part of a data ecosystem that crosses decades and parallels the evolution of information technology.

In my research about copyright and library collections, I rely on these kinds of records for information that can help determine the copyright status of works. The data in these records already are embodied in library catalogs. What’s new is the free accessibility of this organized data set for new kinds of inquiry.

The decision reflects a fresh attitude toward shared data by the Library of Congress. It is a symbolic and practical manifestation of the library’s leadership aligned with its mission of public service.

Some history

To understand the implications of this news, it helps to know a bit about the history of library catalog records.

Today, search engines let us easily find books we want to borrow from libraries or purchase from any number of sources. Not long ago, this would have seemed magical. Search engines use data about books – like the title, author, publisher, publication date and subject matter – to identify particular books. That descriptive information was gathered over the years in library catalog records by librarians.

Card catalog at the Library of Congress.
Rich Renomeron/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The library’s action sheds light on this unseen but critical network. This infrastructure is invisible to most of us as we use libraries, buy books or use search engines.

For many, the idea of a library catalog conjures up the image of card catalogs. The descriptions contained in catalog records are “metadata” – information about information. Early catalog records date back to 1791, just after the French Revolution. The revolutionary government used playing cards to document property seized from the church. The idea was to make a national bibliography of library holdings confiscated during the Revolution.

For many years, library collections were organized individually. As the number of books and libraries grew, the increased complexity demanded a more consistent approach. For example, when the Library of Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in 1815, it arranged its collections around Jefferson’s personal system organized around the themes of memory, reason and imagination. (Jefferson based this on Francis Bacon’s own model.) The library sought to arrange its collections on that model into the 19th century.

Books on my shelf, marked with KF and HB. The K indicates that the book relates to law, the H that it relates to social science. The second letter indicates a subcategory.
Melissa Levine, CC BY

As the number of books and libraries grew, a more systematic approach was needed. The Dewey Decimal System appeared in 1876 to tackle this challenge. It combined consistent numbers (“classes”) with particular topics. Each class can be further divided for more specific descriptions.

In the 1890s, the library developed the Library of Congress Classification System. It is still used today to predictably manage millions of items in libraries worldwide.

Catalogs, cards and computers

By the 1960s, systematic descriptions made the transition from analog cards to online catalog systems a natural step. Machine-Readable-Cataloging (or MARC) records were developed to electronically read and interpret the data in bibliographic cataloging records. The structured categorization coincided naturally with the use of computers.

Now, MARC records too are on the way out, making room for more modern and flexible standards.

The Library of Congress remains a primary – but not the only – source for catalog records. Individual libraries produce catalog records that are compiled and circulated through organizations like OCLC. OCLC connects libraries around the globe and offers an online catalog. WorldCat coordinates catalog records from many libraries into a cohesive online resource. Groups like these charge libraries through membership fees for access to the compiled data. Libraries, though, typically do not charge for the catalog records they produce, instead working cooperatively through organizations like OCLC. This may evolve as more shared effort and crowdsourced resources can be combined with the library’s data in ways that improve search and inquiry. Examples include SHARE and Wikipedia.

One month later

In the short time since the Library of Congress’ data release, we see inklings of what may come. At a Hack-to-Learn event in May, researchers showed off early experiments with the data, including a zoomable list of nine million unique titles and a natural language interface with the data.

For my part, I am considering how to use the library’s data to learn more about the history of publishing. For example, it might be possible to see if there are trends in dates of publication, locations of publishers and patterns in subject matter. It would be fruitful to correlate copyright information data retained by the U.S. Copyright Office to see if one could associate particular works with their copyright information like registration, renewal and ownership changes. However, those records remain in formats that remain difficult to search or manipulate. The records prior to 1978 are not yet available online at all from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Colleagues at the University of Michigan Library are studying the recently released records as a way to practice map-making and explore geographic patterns with visualizations based on the data. They are thinking about gleaning locations from subject metadata and then mapping how those locations shift through time.

There’s a growing expectation that this kind of data should be freely available. This is evidenced by the expanding number of open data initiatives, from institutional repositories such as Deep Blue Data here at the University of Michigan Library to the U.S. government’s data.gov. The U.K.‘s Open Research Data Task Force just released a report discussing technical, infrastructure, policy and cultural matters to be addressed to support open data.

The ConversationThe Library of Congress’ action demonstrates an overarching shift in use of technology to meet historical research missions and advance beyond. Because the data are freely available, anyone can experiment with them.

Melissa Levine, Lead Copyright Officer, Librarian, University of Michigan

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

Refuge in a harsh landscape – Australian novels and our changing relationship to the bush



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Summer afternoon, Templestowe by Louis Buvelot, 1866. The bush was commonly seen by 19th-century writers as a place of despair.
Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Hickey, La Trobe University

In 1790, Watkin Tench, the first officer with the First Fleet and a member of the fledgling British colony, stood on what we now know to be “The Heads” of Sydney, hungry and pining for news of England:

Here on the summit of the hill, every morning from daylight until sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon in hope of seeing a sail. At every fleeting speck which arose from the bosom of the sea, the heart pounded and a telescope lifted to the eye…

Tench’s palpable yearning for the mother country is an early account of British despair upon first settlement in Australia. One hundred years later, the sentiment remained. Many settlers were still unhappy with their surrounds, as evidenced in Edward Dyson’s musings in his 1898 short story The Conquering Bush:

The bush is sad, heavy, desparing; delightful for a month, perhaps, but terrible for a year.

In Barbara Baynton’s works, meanwhile, tales of harsh female experiences were set against even harsher Australian landscapes, devoid of respite or pleasure. In her 1896 short story The Chosen Vessel, a young wife and mother left alone in her bush home is stalked, raped and murdered by a swagman:

More than once she thought of taking her baby and going to her husband.
But in the past, when she had dared to speak of the dangers to which
her loneliness exposed her, he had taunted and sneered at her.

For over 200 years, the white sentiment of desolation and anxiety about this “untamed” land has pervaded much of Australian literature. Children went missing, men went mad, and women suffered what writer Henry Lawson called the “maddening sameness” in The Drover’s Wife and Others Stories. “Oh, if only I could go away from the bush!” wails Lawson’s central character in The Selector’s Daughter.

Desolate refuge

The works of these early writers did much to reveal the challenging realities of the bush. Those eking out an existence in a land where soil and weather disagreed with European sensibilities and practices were met with hard work. And what a place to work! There was little room for bucolic tranquillity in a land of drought, flood and searing heat.

Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.
Picador

But, in the 21st century, there has been a change in how Australians read and write about the bush. Author and ecologist Tim Flannery, for one, urged his fellow country men and women to “develop deep, sustaining roots in the land” in his address as Australian of the Year in 2002 – which is what many of our contemporary writers seek to do. Unlike their predecessors, they’re increasingly likely to write about the bush as a destination for escape, rather than a place from which to flee.

Author Tim Winton’s Dirt Music does exactly that, as told through the tribulations of protagonist Luther Fox. After being forced out of his small south-west Australian town White Point for the crime of theft, he does not flee to the city; instead he journeys to a more remote region: the Kimberley.

Lost, injured and starving, Fox does not curse the land for his fate. Rather, he accepts his minor place in the universe and begins to come to terms with his family history through listening to and appreciating the powerful land:

He knows he lives and that the world lives in him. And for him and because of him. Because and despite and regardless of him.

Others, like Peter Temple in the The Broken Shore, highlight the beauteous potential of working with the land, as opposed to fighting it.

When the novel’s protagonist, Joe Cashin, leaves the city to return to his home town on the cold, south-west coast of Victoria, he does so a shattered man. With only the battering winds, shrieking cold and his dogs as company, Joe attempts to rebuild the home of his ancestors. He does not curse the sea for the death of his father or bemoan the land or its conditions. Rather, he finds a way to live in it alongside the people he grew up with:

Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquid ambers and maples his great-grandfather’s brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness…

Other authors such as Robert Drewe, Kate Grenville, Cate Kennedy, Murray Bail and Jenny Spence also create plots that entail leaving the city and finding refuge and peace in the Australian bush. This is a markedly different trajectory from that of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife or even the doomed schoolgirls in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, who journey through the scrub and rock to never return.

For the love of farmland

This sentiment toward the land does not aim to romanticise one’s “return” to nature. Rather, it’s as much concerned with exploring the cultural practices intrinsic to Australian land.

This is most apparent in literary interpretations of farming, or “pastoral” literature (writing that idealises country life). UK scholar Terry Gifford has coined a key term to consider here: “post-pastoral”, which is a “discourse that can both celebrate and take responsibility for nature without false consciousness”.

Gifford’s view is that post-pastoral is provisional and can be adapted to different regions. It does not idealise rural life. Nor does it exist only to highlight the harsh realities of life on the land. Rather, it seeks new ways of looking at the pastoral in all its forms.

In Australian writing, we appear to have an emerging “co-pastoral” discourse – a place where humans and the land co-exist. Humans do not, after all, always have to be the agents of disaster, and the land does not always have to be mundane and unforgiving.

Christie Nieman’s 2014 novel As Stars Fall.
Pan Macmillan Australia

This is the case for Winton’s follow-up play to Dirt Music, Signs of Life, where we learn that Luther Fox and his partner Georgie return from the Kimberley to live and work on the Fox family farm. At the end of the play, Georgie resolves to harvest olives on the land.

Christie Nieman’s 2014 novel, As Stars Fall, follows the story of a family stricken with grief after the death of a mother in a bushfire. The children and their new friend, a daughter of farmers, begin to heal by uniting to save an endangered bush stone-curlew – an injured bird whose chicks also perished in the flames. The farming father is an avid birdwatcher who, in the end, suggests building a native refuge for the stone-curlew on his property.

“Farmers aren’t what a lot of people think they are,” writes the mother who dies in the fire.

They care a lot about their land and the wild animals that live there. They really do want to know the best things to do, and how to help the natural environment in a way that doesn’t hurt their own livelihoods.

Here, Nieman attempts to cast new light on farm culture, as one deserved of respect rather than contempt.

Another key figure is Australian bush romance writer Rachael Treasure, whose work fits firmly in the co-pastoral lens. The bestselling author of five books and self-confessed “bushland babe” supports sustainable farming and partly uses her work for advocacy. Treasure says she “consciously writes for a wide audience, because storytelling is the most powerful vehicle to convey your message”.

The Farmer’s Wife by Rachael Treasure.
HarperCollins

Her message is that regenerative agricultural practices, such as pasture cropping, are the only way forward – not only to feed the country, but to heal a damaged land. If this needs to be told with a healthy mix of humour, tragedy and passion under the gum trees, then so be it.

“For the first time in her life, she saw the land with clear vision,” Treasure writes of her main character, Bec Saunders, in The Farmer’s Wife – who against the wishes of her husband and father, begins to farm without fertiliser, pasture crop, and build ground cover. Bec hopes that her children will “never see a sod turned again in their lifetime” and vows to “celebrate the seasons, not fight them”.

In this sense, Treasure’s work in The Farmer’s Wife is not environmentalist “green” literature. Farms mean clearing, crops, machinery, pesticides and animals whose hooves destroy the fragile landscape and whose methane contributes to greenhouse gases.

Co-pastoral literature does not dismiss the manufactured gardens, the introduced plants or the people who admit to wanting to work the land for profit. Nor does it forget the original Aboriginal landowners whose agricultural practices we now value. It does, however, seek to establish harmony between humans and the land.

Australian literature has long straddled this line between interpretations of bush life as harsh and incompatible, or of mutual benefit and interconnectedness.

The ConversationBut in fleeing to it, seeking refuge from it and working with it, our authors allow us, unlike the homesick Tench, to turn the telescope inward, toward the land and to ourselves.

Margaret Hickey, Lecturer in Academic Communication, La Trobe University

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

Explainer: what is ‘fair dealing’ and when can you copy without permission?



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Fair dealing allows Australians to use copyrighted content for news and reporting.
antb/Shutterstock

Nicolas Suzor, Queensland University of Technology

Copyright law sometimes allows you to use someone else’s work – as long as it’s fair. In Australia this is called “fair dealing”, and it’s different to the law in the US, which is called “fair use”.

These exceptions are safety valves in copyright law – they allow lots of beneficial uses that society has agreed copyright owners should not be able to charge for, or worse, prevent.

There’s a serious ongoing debate about whether Australia should update its copyright laws and introduce fair use. The current law is not easy to understand – our research shows that Australian creators are often confused about their rights – and many think we already have fair use.

Fair dealing: What can you do in Australia?

The key difference between “fair use” and “fair dealing” is that Australia’s “fair dealing” laws set out defined categories of acceptable uses. As we will see, “fair use” in the US is much more flexible.

Australian copyright law sets out five situations where use of copyrighted material without permission may be allowed:

  • research or study
  • criticism or review
  • parody or satire
  • reporting the news
  • provision of legal advice.

We’ll explain the first four, as they’re most useful to the average Australian.

Research or study

You do not need permission to copy a reasonable portion of copyrighted material if you are studying it or using it for research. You do not have to be enrolled in school or a university course to rely on the research or study exception.

For example:

  • you can make a copy of a chapter of a book to study it
  • you can print or take screenshots of content you find on the web for your research
  • you can include quotes or extracts of other work when you publish your research.

The main thing to watch out for is how much you copy. It’s fair to photocopy a book chapter but not the whole book.

Criticism or review

It is lawful to use a work without permission in order to critique or review it.

Criticism or review involves making an analysis or judgement of the material or its underlying ideas. It may be expressed in an entertaining way, or with strong opinion, and does not need to be a balanced expression to be fair.

For example, a film critic does not need permission to play a short clip from a film they are reviewing. They may also use film clips from other movies to compare or contrast.

Ozzy Man Reviews runs a popular channel that reviews existing material, relying on the fair dealing exceptions.

It’s also legal to quote an excerpt of a book or song lyrics, or to reference a photograph in another publication as part of a review or critique of the work.

You need to be really critiquing your source material. So, for example, a review video that is really just the highlights of a film or show probably won’t be fair.

This is something that tripped up Channel 10 in its clip show, The Panel. When the panellists discussed and critiqued the clips they showed, it was generally fair dealing. But when they just showed clips that were funny, a court found them liable for copyright infringement.

Reporting the news

You don’t need permission to use existing copyrighted material while reporting on current or historic events. The law is designed to ensure that people can’t use copyright to stifle the flow of information on matters of public interest.

The key issue to check here is whether a work has been used in a way that is necessary to report the news. If the material is just used incidentally, to illustrate a story or provide entertainment, it won’t count as fair dealing.

Parody or satire

It is legal to use another person’s copyrighted material without their permission to make fun of them, or to make fun of another person or issue.

Making something funny is not sufficient to rely on this exception. The use must be part of some commentary (express or implied) on the material or some broader aspect of society.

FriendlyJordies is known for his satirical videos that comment on and criticise politics and everyday life in Australia.

When is a use ‘fair’?

Fair dealing only applies when the use is “fair”.

When assessing fairness in Australia, there are a number of relevant considerations, including:

  • how important copying is to your work (“nature and purpose of the use”)
  • the type of work being copied (less original works may not be protected as strongly as more creative works)
  • whether it is easily possible to get a licence within a reasonable time at an ordinary commercial price
  • the effect of your copying on the potential market for the original
  • the amount taken from the original work
  • whether attribution has been given to the original author.

Generally, a use will be fair if you are copying for a valid reason, you don’t copy more than you need, you give attribution where possible, and your work is not directly competing in the market against the original.

Things to remember:

  • Is copying necessary? Copying has to be necessary for one of the purposes above. This means that it might be fair to copy part of a song to review it, but it won’t be fair if you’re just using the song as background music.
  • Copy no more than you need. Sometimes you need to copy the entirety of an existing work – if you’re critiquing a photograph, for example. Usually, though, you should only copy the parts that are necessary. You can’t get away with showing a whole TV episode in order to critique one scene.
  • It’s usually not fair if you’re competing with the original. This is often the most important factor. When you copy existing material for your own study, to report on the news, or to create a parody, you usually won’t be undercutting the market for the original. But if you’re just repackaging the original material in a way that might substitute for it – a consumer might be satisfied with your work instead of the original – then your use probably won’t be fair.

How is ‘fair use’ different – what can’t you do with fair dealing?

In the United States, the law is more flexible, because it can adapt to allow fair use for purposes that lawmakers hadn’t thought of in advance.

Some of the things that are legal without getting permission in the US but not in Australia include:

Adapting to new technologies: Fair use is flexible enough to adapt to change, but fair dealing is not. For example, in the US, fair use made it legal to use a VCR to record television at home in 1984. In Australia, this wasn’t legal until parliament created a specific exception in 2006 – just about the time VCRs became obsolete.

Artistic use: In Australia, it’s legal to create a parody or a critique, but not to use existing works for purely artistic purposes. For example, Australian law makes it largely unlawful for a collage artist to reuse existing copyright material to create something new.

Machinima uses game environments to create new stories – but is not legal in Australia without permission from the game’s publisher.

Uses that document our experiences: Media forms a big part of our lives, and when we share our daily experiences, we will often include copyright material in some way. Without fair use, even capturing a poster on a wall behind you when you take a selfie could infringe copyright.

In a famous example, Stephanie Lenz originally had an adorable 29-second clip of her baby dancing to a Prince song removed from YouTube, due to her use of the song. She was able to get it put back up under US fair use law – but an Australian wouldn’t have that right.

Stephanie Lenz’s “dancing baby” video is legal under US “fair use”, but would likely infringe copyright in Australia.

Technical and non-consumptive uses: The internet we love today is built on fair use. When search engines crawl the web, making a copy of every page they can in order to help us find relevant information, they’re relying on fair use.

Under Australian law, even forwarding an email without permission could be an infringement of copyright.

The copyright reform debate

Two recent government reports, from the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Productivity Commission, have recommended that Australia simplify its copyright law by introducing fair use.

Many of us copyright academics have written here extensively in support of fair use over the past few years, but there are still many myths about what the law would do.

It’s been suggested that introducing fair use here would provoke a “free for all” use of copyrighted work, but that hasn’t happened in the US. In fact, some of the same major studios that oppose fair use in Australia are at pains to point out that they support fair use in the US because it is vital to commercial production that happens there.

The Motion Picture Association of America, for example, says that “Our members rely on the fair use doctrine every day when producing their movies and television shows”.

To put it simply: we don’t think that fair use will harm creators.

The “fair” in fair use means that it’s not about ripping off creators – it mainly allows uses that are not harmful. But we do think that fair use would provide an important benefit for ordinary Australians – both creators and users.

The ConversationKatherine Gough, a musician and law student at Queensland University of Technology, co-authored this article.

Nicolas Suzor, Associate professor, Queensland University of Technology

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

Millennial bashing in medieval times


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In Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur,’ a character complains that young people are too sexually promiscuous.
The British Library

Eric Weiskott, Boston College

As a millennial and a teacher of millennials, I’m growing weary of think pieces blaming my generation for messing everything up.

The list of ideas, things and industries that millennials have ruined or are presently ruining is very long: cereal, department stores, the dinner date, gambling, gender equality, golf, lunch, marriage, movies, napkins, soap, the suit and weddings. In true millennial fashion, compiling lists like this has already become a meme.

A common thread in these hit pieces is the idea that millennials are lazy, shallow and disruptive. When I think of my friends, many of whom were born in the 1980s, and my undergraduate students, most of whom were born in the 1990s, I see something different. The millennials I know are driven and politically engaged. We came of age after the Iraq War, the Great Recession and the bank bailout – three bipartisan political disasters. These events were formative, to an extent that those who remember the Vietnam War might not realize.

The idea that young people are ruining society is nothing new. I teach medieval English literature, which gives ample opportunity to observe how far back the urge to blame younger generations goes.

The most famous medieval English author, Geoffrey Chaucer, lived and worked in London in the 1380s. His poetry could be deeply critical of the changing times. In the dream vision poem “The House of Fame,” he depicts a massive failure to communicate, a kind of 14th-century Twitter in which truths and falsehoods circulate indiscriminately in a whirling wicker house. The house is – among other things – a representation of medieval London, which was growing in size and political complexity at a then-astounding rate.

Geoffrey Chaucer.
Wikimedia Commons

In a different poem, “Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer worries that future generations will “miscopy” and “mismeter” his poetry because of language change. Millennials might be bankrupting the napkin industry, but Chaucer was concerned that younger readers would ruin language itself.

Winner and Waster,” an English alliterative poem probably composed in the 1350s, expresses similar anxieties. The poet complains that beardless young minstrels who never “put three words together” get praised. No one appreciates old-fashioned storytelling any more. Gone are the days when “there were lords in the land who in their hearts loved / To hear poets of mirth who could invent stories.”

William Langland, the elusive author of “Piers Plowman,” also believed that younger poets weren’t up to snuff. “Piers Plowman” is a psychedelic religious and political poem of the 1370s. At one point, Langland has a personification named Free Will describe the sorry state of contemporary education. Nowadays, says Free Will, the study of grammar confuses children, and there is no one left “who can make fine metered poetry” or “readily interpret what poets made.” Masters of divinity who should know the seven liberal arts inside and out “fail in philosophy,” and Free Will worries that hasty priests will “overleap” the text of the mass.

On a larger scale, people in 14th-century England began worrying that a new bureaucratic class was destroying the idea of truth itself. In his book “A Crisis of Truth,” literary scholar Richard Firth Green argues that the centralization of the English government changed truth from a person-to-person transaction to an objective reality located in documents.

Today we might see this shift as a natural evolution. But literary and legal records from the time reveal the loss of social cohesion felt by everyday people. They could no longer rely on verbal promises. These had to be checked against authoritative written documents. (Chaucer himself was part of the new bureaucracy in his roles as clerk of the king’s works and forester of North Petherton.)

In medieval England, young people were also ruining sex. Late in the 15th century, Thomas Malory compiled the “Morte d’Arthur,” an amalgam of stories about King Arthur and the Round Table. In one tale, Malory complains that young lovers are too quick to jump into bed.

“But the old love was not so,” he writes wistfully.

If these late medieval anxieties seem ridiculous now, it’s only because so much human accomplishment (we flatter ourselves) lies between us and them. Can you imagine the author of “Winner and Waster” wagging a finger at Chaucer, who was born into the next generation? The Middle Ages are misremembered as a dark age of torture and religious fanaticism. But for Chaucer, Langland and their contemporaries, it was the modern future that represented catastrophe.

These 14th- and 15th-century texts hold a lesson for the 21st century. Anxieties about “kids these days” are misguided, not because nothing changes, but because historical change cannot be predicted. Chaucer envisioned a linear decay of language and poetry stretching into the future, and Malory yearned to restore a (make-believe) past of courtly love.

But that’s not how history works. The status quo, for better or worse, is a moving target. What’s unthinkable to one era becomes so ubiquitous it’s invisible in the next.

Millennial bashers are responding to real tectonic shifts in culture. But their response is just a symptom of the changes they claim to diagnose. As millennials achieve more representation in the workforce, in politics and in media, the world will change in ways we can’t anticipate.

The ConversationBy then, there will be new problems and a new generation to take the blame for them.

Eric Weiskott, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College

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

From The Secret Garden to Thirteen Reasons Why, death is getting darker in children’s books



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Young adult literature is starting to explore death in depth.
Lionsgate

Erin Farrow, Victoria University

The inevitable and universal nature of death has made it a popular topic of children’s literature. While death has appeared in these stories for centuries, death in young adult novels has become much darker and more complex.

The recent controversy over Netflix’s adaptation of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which depicts the aftermath of teen suicide, shows that dealing with death in kids’ fiction can be fraught. While some defended the show’s graphic depiction of suicide, others argued it was gratuitous and dangerous.

This raises the question of whether children’s literature and young adult fiction is still a safe place to discuss death. At the recent Emerging Writer’s Festival panel, Sex, Death and YA, young adult literature was celebrated for exploring such complex themes. While there may be a trend toward darker themes in literature written for a young adult audience, there is still room for hope.

Charlottes’ Web (1973) manages to deal with death by making the subject a spider instead of a person.
Hanna-Barbera Productions

Putting death on the page

When early works of children’s literature broached the topic of death, it was usually to show how the protagonist copes in the aftermath of the death of a family member or friend. In many of these early works, depictions of death were softened for the reader, occurring outside the text. For instance, Mary’s parents in The Secret Garden (1911) die “off page”, which acts as a plot device to facilitate Mary’s arrival at Mistlethwaite Manor, where she discovers the secret garden. Charlotte’s Web (1952) softens the blow by making the characters non-human – in this case a spider.

Modern young adult novels are different. These texts not only depict young adult protagonists dealing with the aftermath of a loved one’s death, but also the trauma of witnessing it. Such as in the case of The Outsiders (1967), when the 14-year-old protagonist Ponyboy is present when his best friend Johnny dies in hospital and when Dally, a member of Ponyboy’s gang, is killed by the police.

In recent years, young adult novels have featured their protagonists doing the killing. The characters in books such as Harry Potter (1997), The Hunger Games (2008) and Tomorrow When the War Began (1993), struggle not only with the inevitability of death and the pain of losing loved ones, but also with the guilt and ethical dilemma of having to kill to survive.

The Fault in our Stars, both novel and film, deals with a terminally-ill character.
Fox 2000 studios

Life after death

There has recently been an influx of novels that present death from the perspective of the protagonist. These novels show characters who are terminally ill, presenting a rarely explored viewpoint in young adult novels – the perspective of dying. In books such as Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender (2005), Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (2007) and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) the protagonist portrays the fear and pain of dying, the challenge of accepting one’s own mortality and the guilt of leaving their loved ones to cope after their death.

Other recent novels come from the perspective of someone who is already dead. They speak to the reader, and sometimes even their own friends and family, from beyond the grave, such as in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall (2010) and, although technically not a young adult novel, in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which has been widely read by young people.

In the beginning of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why it is made clear that the protagonist, Hannah Baker, has taken her own life. As the novel continues, Hannah’s story and the reasons for her actions are disclosed through a series of tapes, 13 in total, all recorded before her death.

The Netflix series also demonstrates the shift of how death is portrayed to an adolescent audience. While Asher’s novel leaves the method of Hannah’s suicide largely undisclosed, the series, released ten years after the book, portrays the suicide in excruciating detail.

Talking about death

There are many children’s picture books, such as The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and Harry & Hopper written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, that talk about death to help parents discuss the concept with young children, possibly for the first time. When talking to kids about loss and grief the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel recommends the use of “storybooks” to explain death, stating that, “It is important to recognise children’s feelings and speak with them honestly and directly about death and grief”.

John Marsden’s Tomorrow series graphically depicts the effect of war on adolescents.
Goodreads

Why is the honest and direct depiction of death in young adult novels often so controversial? Perhaps it comes from a desire to shelter young readers from topics such as war, terrorism, and human mortality – topics that young adult readers not only read about in the news and on social media, but experience. Or perhaps it is because depicting death is seen to be void of hope. But possibly the idea of hope has also shifted, away from a fairytale notion of happily ever after and towards a reality that acknowledges the existence of darkness and light.

The ConversationThere is little research on the possible benefits of discussing death with young people. For those who are yet to be affected by the death of a loved one, reading about it from the perspective of another young adult can offer a way of building resilience. For those readers who have experienced the death of a family member or friend, being able to read about the experiences of others can offer consolation. Death is an indisputable part of adolescent lives, and books can provide a place for them to reflect on its influence on life.

Erin Farrow, PhD Candidate and Academic Sessional, Victoria University

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