Writers’ festivals aren’t an imaginary republic of letters – they are political arenas



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After Germaine Greer was apparently uninvited from the Brisbane Writers Festival, author Richard Flanagan questioned whether the festival was giving into the social media ‘mob’.

Leigh Boucher, Macquarie University

Once again, we are in the middle of a public spat about who should get to speak at a writers’ festival in Australia. It appears the Brisbane Writers Festival uninvited Bob Carr and Germaine Greer (the festival has said neither author had been signed to a contract for appearances). In a context where #metoo has demonstrated the potency of social media mobilisation, it would seem the festival has erred on the side of caution rather than inflame the Twitterverse with contentious speakers.

Richard Flanagan issued a forceful response, questioning the festival’s “courage”. Flanagan argued with palpable frustration that this was indicative of a tendency to silence ideas that rub “against the grain of conventional thinking” and it is in danger of becoming a festival “Approved by Twitter Bots”. For Flanagan, this and other moments like it endanger the operation of the “republic of letters” that nourishes our democratic life.

Carr’s and Greer’s publisher has queried the “disinvitation”, suggesting it seems “counter to the ethos of freedom of speech”.

This debate is, in part, a contest over the ethics of public life and what rules should govern speaking privileges within it. The writers’ festival is hardly a politically neutral space in which the most virtuous ideas win the day through their intellectual force and merit; these are curated programs that adhere to visible and invisible rules of admission.




Read more:
I’m right, you’re wrong, and here’s a link to prove it: how social media shapes public debate


Perhaps Flanagan would do well to remember that his ideal republic of letters was an intellectual community that took shape in specific ways during the Enlightenment. This intellectual community of philosophers forged many of the ideas we take as common sense, like the importance of freedom of speech to democratic culture. But it too had rules of admission.

The conventions of this imaginary republic were profoundly gendered and racialised. It was a space that assumed a white male perspective as the norm and tended to uphold rather than critique gender and racial inequalities. Some historians even suggest that women’s participation in public life in Europe declined over the 18th century as the imaginary republic exerted more influence.

While 200 years of political transformation has meant our public life can admit the ideas of people who don’t look like Voltaire or Rousseau, there are certainly cultural legacies of these formulations. Bucketloads of research demonstrates how, for example, university students grant male professors much more authority than their female colleagues. So too, all kinds of male misbehaviour is excused as the cost of genius. Perhaps the writers’ festival author that Flanagan expects to arrive drunk and tardy would be an example of this.

Gendered ideas are clearly part of the DNA of this contest, often in quite subtle ways. It is no coincidence that the forces Flanagan and others suggest endanger our democratic culture include young feminists emboldened by networks of support on various social media platforms. Social media have provided a space in which a new generation of feminist voices is holding older forms of authority to account.

Indeed, Flanagan’s examples of this dangerous policing of public life are revealing. Junot Diaz, Germaine Greer and Lionel Shriver have all had their sexual, racial and gender politics brought into question at recent writers’ events.




Read more:
Lionel Shriver and the responsibilities of fiction writers


Diaz’s gut-wrenching account of his sexual abuse as a child was soon followed by multiple female voices who raised questions about the impact of his adult behaviour on others. His authority was called into question and he withdrew from a set of public engagements. This represents for Flanagan some kind of calamity.

Flanagan argues that the stories about Diaz remain unproved accusations and, as a consequence, we do him an injustice if we let these accusations alone exclude him from public life. However, as the #metoo moment has demonstrated, the rules of admission for public life tend to conceal rather than reveal sexual misconduct.

We need to ask tough questions about whose voices are more readily heard and what these limitations make invisible. Sometimes that might mean different voices are granted authority and others step back. The social media world that Flanagan fears is limiting our democratic life has, in some cases, provided a space for the articulation of young feminist voices to call into question male authority and the gendered privilege of artistic genius.

The idea that social media is somehow destroying our public culture is hardly a new one; the mob mentality that sometimes unfolds to sustain the pleasures of virtuous condemnation are worth thinking critically about. So, too, it clearly encourages the polarisation of political views.

When Michael Cathcart ran into uncomfortable territory around race in his interview with Paul Beatty last year, the baying continued on Twitter for the next week. This was partly a moment in which Cathcart’s older ideas about how to read and understand texts crashed into more recent political norms about who can and cannot speak about what topics, and who can use what language.

To be sure, these voices certainly have a tendency towards virtuous outrage about harm. As Jacqueline Rose recently argued, rigid calculations of harm sometimes do not allow for the messiness of everyday life. A politics conducted in single images and outraged tweets will always struggle with political nuance.

However, #metoo can also be read as a politics that has flourished on social media because the present rules of public life will not fully admit these young female voices. The moment we are living through right now is, in part, a contest over how we should decide who gets to speak.

The ConversationI’m not sure Flanagan’s idealising of the profoundly gendered republic of letters offers a useful solution to this historically specific rupture. I suspect both sides of this debate might benefit from thinking carefully about the rules they implicitly and explicitly hope to enforce on our public culture, but I’m pretty sure dismissing young feminists as a social media “mob” is hardly productive.

Leigh Boucher, Senior Lecturer – Modern History, Macquarie University

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

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Don’t Feel Like Writing?


The link below is to an article with some suggestions as to what to do when you don’t feel like writing.

For more visit:
http://thewriteconversation.blogspot.com/2018/07/what-to-do-when-i-dont-feel-like-writing.html

The science of the plot twist: How writers exploit our brains


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Vera Tobin, Case Western Reserve University

Recently I did something that many people would consider unthinkable, or at least perverse. Before going to see “Avengers: Infinity War,” I deliberately read a review that revealed all of the major plot points, from start to finish.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to share any of those spoilers here. Though I do think the aversion to spoilers – what The New York Times’ A.O. Scott recently lamented as “a phobic, hypersensitive taboo against public discussion of anything that happens onscreen” – is a bit overblown.

As a cognitive scientist who studies the relationship between cognition and narratives, I know that movies – like all stories – exploit our natural tendency to anticipate what’s coming next.

These cognitive tendencies help explain why plot twists can be so satisfying. But somewhat counterintuitively, they also explain why knowing about a plot twist ahead of time – the dreaded “spoiler” – doesn’t really spoil the experience at all.

The curse of knowledge

When you pick up a book for the first time, you usually want to have some sense of what you’re signing up for – cozy mysteries, for instance, aren’t supposed to feature graphic violence and sex. But you’re probably also hoping that what you read won’t be entirely predictable.

To some extent, the fear of spoilers is well-grounded. You only have one opportunity to learn something for the first time. Once you’ve learned it, that knowledge affects what you notice, what you anticipate – and even the limits of your imagination.

What we know trips us up in lots of ways, a general tendency known as the “curse of knowledge.”

For example, when we know the answer to a puzzle, that knowledge makes it harder for us to estimate how difficult that puzzle will be for someone else to solve: We’ll assume it’s easier than it really is.

When we know the resolution of an event – whether it’s a basketball game or an election – we tend to overestimate how likely that outcome was.

Information we encounter early on influences our estimation of what is possible later. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading a story or negotiating a salary: Any initial starting point for our reasoning – however arbitrary or apparently irrelevant – “anchors” our analysis. In one study, legal experts given a hypothetical criminal case argued for longer sentences when presented with larger numbers on randomly rolled dice.

Plot twists pull everything together

Either consciously or intuitively, good writers know all of this.

An effective narrative works its magic, in part, by taking advantage of these, and other, predictable habits of thought. Red herrings, for example, are a type of anchor that set false expectations – and can make twists seem more surprising.

A major part of the pleasure of plot twists, too, comes not from the shock of surprise, but from looking back at the early bits of the narrative in light of the twist. The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before. This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage.

Remember that once we know the answer to a puzzle, its clues can seem more transparent than they really were. When we revisit early parts of the story in light of that knowledge, well-constructed clues take on new, satisfying significance.

Consider “The Sixth Sense.” After unleashing its big plot twist – that Bruce Willis’ character has, all along, been one of the “dead people” that only the child protagonist can see – it presents a flash reprisal of scenes that make new sense in light of the surprise. We now see, for instance, that his wife (in fact, his widow) did not snatch up the check at a restaurant before he could take it out of pique. Instead it was because, as far as she knew, she was dining alone.

Even years after the film’s release, viewers take pleasure in this twist, savoring the degree to which it should be “obvious if you pay attention” to earlier parts the film.

The pluses and minuses of the spoiler

At the same time, studies show that even when people are certain of an outcome, they reliably experience suspense, surprise and emotion. Action sequences are still heart-pounding; jokes are still funny; and poignant moments can still make us cry.

As UC San Diego researchers Jonathan Levitt and Nicholas Christenfeld have recently demonstrated, spoilers don’t spoil. In many cases, spoilers actively enhance enjoyment.

In fact, when a major turn in a narrative is truly unanticipated, it can have a catastrophic effect on enjoyment – as many outraged “Infinity War” viewers can testify.

If you know the twist beforehand, the curse of knowledge has more time to work its magic. Early elements of the story will seem to presage the ending more clearly when you know what that ending is. This can make the work as a whole feel more coherent, unified and satisfying.

Of course, anticipation is a delicious pleasure in its own right. Learning plot twists ahead of time can reduce that excitement, even if the foreknowledge doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the story itself.

The ConversationMarketing experts know that what spoilers do spoil is the urgency of consumers’ desire to watch or read a story. People can even find themselves so sapped of interest and anticipation that they stay home, robbing themselves of the pleasure they would have had if they’d simply never learned of the outcome.

Vera Tobin, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University

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

Writing’s power to deceive



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Even common knowledge isn’t immune.
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Andrew Elfenbein, University of Minnesota

When I was researching and writing my new book, “The Gist of Reading,” I wanted to explore long-held assumptions about reading and how we process what we read.

Some of these assumptions have changed through time. For example, as novels became popular in the 18th century, many warned that they were dangerous and had the potential to cultivate ignorance and immorality in readers, especially female ones.

Today, many would consider that view antiquated. People probably think that reading a narrative – fiction or otherwise – might be able to influence a reader’s opinions or personal beliefs. But their prior knowledge of real-world facts should be safe.

For example, readers might read a story in which a character mentions in passing that Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump, won the 2016 election. This shouldn’t influence readers’ ability to quickly respond that Trump was the real winner, right?

And yet I came across a substantial amount of psychology work that has demonstrated how reading stories – both nonfiction and fiction – has a powerful ability to distort readers’ prior knowledge.

Did George Washington really become president?

In psychologist Richard Gerrig’s 1989 study “Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty,” Gerrig developed short, nonfictional narratives about well-known events, such as the election of George Washington as president of the United States, that he gave to participants.

Some participants read a version of the narrative that foregrounded facts that made it doubtful Washington would become the president; others read a narrative that made his presidency seem likely.

Readers who read the doubtful version took longer to verify that he had indeed become president (or to recognize that a sentence denying that he had become president was not true).

Even though they knew Washington eventually became president, simply reading a very short narrative had enough power to make readers significantly less sure of what they already knew.

While Gerrig’s experiment presented readers with nonfictional stories about real events, another study demonstrated that reading a short fictional story containing falsehoods presented as facts can make readers more likely to treat them as facts, even if readers have previously shown that they know the truth.

In the study, participants took an online survey that quizzed them on their world knowledge – for example, identifying the world’s largest ocean (the Pacific) – and then had them rate how confident they were in their answer.

Two weeks later, the same participants read two fictional stories and were warned that these stories might contain some false information. The stories actually contained inaccurate versions of the very facts that the readers had been tested on two weeks earlier. For example, in one story, a character (incorrectly) mentioned, in passing, that the Indian Ocean was the world’s largest.

After reading the stories, the participants took the same world knowledge test they had taken two weeks earlier. The inaccurate information turned out to have a serious effect: Readers did worse on the world knowledge test after reading the stories than they had done two weeks before. In particular, questions they had gotten right two weeks earlier they now got wrong – even for the questions that they had answered most confidently on the earlier test.

And remember: All of this happened despite the fact that readers had been explicitly told that the stories would contain inaccurate information.

Pushing back against misinformation

Given our struggle to discern misinformation from fiction, psychologists have been interested in exploring how it to combat it. It seems especially vital to develop strategies that make people smarter about what they are gleaning from what they read, and to encourage ways to become more skeptical.

In a 2016 article,
psychologist David N. Rapp outlines how to defeat, or at least reduce, the misinformation effect.

Rapp describes four key strategies that have proven especially effective.

First, when readers actively tag information as accurate or inaccurate while they read, inaccuracies lose much of their effect. It’s not enough to know that something you read is incorrect: Unless you actively tag it as wrong while reading it, you may suffer the misinformation effect.

Second, the further removed fiction is from everyday reality, the less vulnerable readers are to believe false facts that may be embedded in it. Rapp and his colleagues found that misinformation in fantasy stories had much less effect on readers’ knowledge than misinformation in more realistic stories. Rapp argues that this could mean readers are able to compartmentalize their response to fiction. Fantasy stories like “The Hobbit” probably have less of an ability to alter real-world knowledge than, say, a piece of historical fiction, like Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which is grounded in historical events but nonetheless riddled with historical inaccuracies.

Third, Rapp found that some inaccuracies are so flagrant that readers do notice them. They may be persuaded that St. Petersburg, rather than Moscow, is the capital of Russia. But it’s much harder to persuade them that Russia’s capital is Brasilia. Brasilia is just too different from anything that readers associate with Russia to make it a convincing capital.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly in today’s climate of “fake news” – readers may be sensitive to the authority of a source. False facts from a generally credible source seem to have more effect than false facts from a disreputable one. The challenge, of course, is that what counts as a credible source to one reader may count as the opposite to another reader.

I find all these psychological experiments telling precisely because they generally avoid having participants read about hot-button issues that may make them feel defensive or partisan.

The traditional suspicion of fiction arose from its ability to excite and engage. Yet the materials in these experiments are comparatively dry – and the fictional information was nonetheless able to cast a spell on the reader.

In other words, even without emotional appeals, by warping the most neutral of facts, readers can easily be persuaded to question or even reverse what they already know.

The ConversationSuch work underscores more than ever that suspicion of reading is not entirely ungrounded. Today, not only is the internet filled with dubious information but there are also deliberate attempts to spread misinformation via social media channels. In this era of “fake news,” scrutinizing the sources of our knowledge has become more critical than ever.

Andrew Elfenbein, Professor of English, University of Minnesota

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

Stories of sex, stars and sharks amongst the best Australian science writing in 2017



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Everyone loves a story about giant sharks.
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Sarah Keenihan, The Conversation

We’re proud to have five The Conversation authors featured in the The Best Australian Science Writing 2017, edited by Michael Slezak, and with a foreword by Emma Johnston.

The book was launched at The Australian Museum. The blurb says:

Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating, or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.

This is what we’re all about at The Conversation – making sure that all our articles are supported by evidence, and at the same time helping readers see the relevance, the importance, the nuances but also the joy of science and technology.

Our selected authors are good examples.

In Peter Ellerton’s What exactly is the scientific method and why do so many people get it wrong?, he explains there’s a big difference between science and pseudoscience. But if people don’t understand how science works in the first place, it’s very easy for them to fall for the pseudoscience.

In Gender equity can cause sex differences to grow bigger, Rob Brooks writes that moves toward gender equity in opportunity – including the dismantling of patriarchal power structures – might, paradoxically, also widen sex differences.

Robert Fuller’s piece How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia’s highway network likens many thousand year old Indigenous travel techniques with modern day GPS tracking. Aboriginal people have long used the stars to help remember routes between distant locations, and these routes are still alive in our highway networks today.

John Long tackles the myth that giant predators might still be cruising around our oceans in Giant monster Megalodon sharks lurking in our oceans: be serious!. Yes, giant sharks did once exist in our oceans – but these went extinct many millions of years ago.

Also included in the book is regular The Conversation author Alice Gorman, with her piece Trace Fossils: The Silence of Ediacara, the Shadow of Uranium, which we republished from Griffith Review State of Hope. The essay won the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2017, which recognises the best short, non-fiction piece of science writing for a general audience.

These The Conversation pieces are presented in the book alongside 27 other selected science essays published in Australia during 2017, and written by scientists, journalists, philosophers and writers.

The ConversationScience writer and artist Margaret Wertheim received the UNSW Scientia Medal for Science Communication at the book launch, and prizes for science writing by students in years 7-10 were also awarded.

Sarah Keenihan, Section Editor: Science + Technology, The Conversation

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

We, robot: the computer co-authoring a story with a human writer



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Leah Henrickson, Loughborough University

In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories about robotics, Asimov explores the possibilities of human-computer interaction. How can humans and computers co-exist? How can they work together to make a better world?

A research group from the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam and the Antwerp Centre for Digital Humanities and Literary Criticism recently introduced a new digital creative writing system. Using a graphical interface, an author drafts a text sentence by sentence. Then, the system proposes its own sentences to continue the story. The human and the computer work together to create what the system’s developers call “synthetic literature”.

The paper detailing this project describes the text generation system as an attempt to:

Create a stimulating environment that fosters co-creation: ideally, the machine should output valuable suggestions, to which the author retains a significant stake within the creative process.

How to train your robot

To learn language and sentence structure, the system has been trained using the texts of 10,000 Dutch-language e-books. Additionally, the system was trained to mimic the literary styles of such renowned authors as Asimov and Dutch science fiction author Ronald Giphart by generating sentences that use similar words, phrases, and sentence structures as these authors.

As part of this year’s annual Nederland Leest (The Netherlands Reads) festival, Giphart has been trialling the co-creative writing system to write a tenth I, Robot story. Once Giphart’s story is completed it will be published at the end of a new Dutch edition of Asimov’s classic text. Throughout November, participating libraries throughout the Netherlands will be offering free copies of this edition to visitors to get people thinking about this year’s festival theme: Nederland Leest de Toekomst (The Netherlands Reads the Future).

As Giphart types new sentences into the system’s graphical interface, the system responds by generating a selection of sentences that could be used to continue the story. Giphart can select any of these sentences, or ignore the system’s recommendations altogether.

The point of the system, its developers explain, is to “provoke the human writer in the process of writing”. Giphart says he still considers himself “the boss, but [the system] does the work”. One article even described the system as being ideal “for those who have literary aspirations, but who lack talent”.

Can a computer be creative?

The “synthetic literature” referred to by this system’s developers implies a combined production effort of both human and computer. Of course, the human still guides production. As co-developer Folgert Karsdorp explained: “You have numerous buttons to make your own mix. If you want to mix Giphart and Asimov, you can do that too.” The system follows its user’s direction, responding by using its own capacity for creativity.

But can a computer ever be truly creative? This is a question that the field of computational creativity has been studying since computers were invented. The field generally accepts that a computer can be called creative if its output would be considered creative had it been produced by a human.

Computational creativity debates are all rooted in one underlying question: is the computer merely a tool for human creativity, or could it be considered a creative agent itself? In a discussion about computer-generated art, creativity scholar Margaret Boden noted that:

It is the computer artist [the developer] who decides what input a system will respond to, how the system will respond, how unpredictable the system’s output will be, and how transparent the system’s functionality will be to users.

Even the most unpredictable output, according to Boden, results from choices the computer artist has made. While a developer may not be able to predict a system’s exact output, the output nevertheless reflects the choices the developer has made while programming.

Computer systems can be trained to mimic the language and sentence structure of particular writers.
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The co-creative writing system Giphart is using isn’t able to produce an entire book by itself, but it can produce paragraphs that continue Giphart’s story for him. Giphart, though, ultimately has the power to choose what computer output he uses.

But does this mean that Giphart alone will be credited as the author of his Ik, robot story, or will his computer be given credit as a co-author? It’s still unclear. Although it could be hotly debated whether the creative writing system is just a tool for Giphart’s vision or could be considered an agent itself, we won’t be seeing the demise of human authors any time soon.

One Nederland Leest blog post compares this new method of writing to the evolution of the electric guitar. It may have existed for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until Jimi Hendrix showed us how to really play the instrument that its potential was realised. Similarly, we still need to discover how to “play” this writing system to get the best results, whatever they might be.

So is synthetic literature the future? Maybe. Keep reading to find out.

The ConversationA video explaining the project is available here, in Dutch.

Leah Henrickson, PhD Candidate, Loughborough University

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

Take pity on forensic scientists – crime writers make their lives a nightmare 



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The truth is not always out there.
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Aliki Varvogli, University of Dundee

A blackmailer steals a compromising letter from a woman of high standing. The police know he is keeping this letter in his home, but they cannot find it. Using the latest forensic tools they search every inch of the apartment, recording their efforts as follows:

We examined the rungs of every chair …. and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly.

A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing – any unusual gaping in the joints – would have sufficed to insure [sic] detection.

Back in 1844, this description of the police using a powerful microscope with the promise of instant detection would have dazzled readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Yet this is not what solves the mystery. Instead the private investigator, Auguste Dupin, correctly surmises that the best place to hide such a letter is in plain sight. He finds it on the blackmailer’s mantelpiece.

The story is one of the earliest and best examples of crime fiction. It suggests that science and technology are sometimes not as powerful as empathy or intuition in solving crimes. Indeed, Poe queries science throughout his writings. In one poem he calls it a vulture that preys on the poet’s heart, replacing the magic of a writer’s imagination with its “dull realities”.

Bloody good.

Try telling that to modern readers of crime fiction. These days, forensic scientists are one of the great staples of the genre. They are integral to everything from popular TV franchises like CSI and Line of Duty to blockbuster names like Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver to many of the works showcasing at the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling. There is also something about their incredible achievements that we often overlook: they are often a long way from the reality.

Criminal comforts

We love crime fiction because it is reassuring. Yes, human beings are capable of evil and cruel deeds, but criminals are always caught and usually punished. This formula, as WH Auden suggested in a 1948 essay on the genre, restores us to a “state of grace”. It helps us believe we are basically innocent and good, and that criminality is an aberration.

Forensic science amplifies this sense of comfort in crime fiction: it produces evidence that cannot lie; it brings the most cunning of criminals to justice. In a world with no god and no certainty, these fictional scientists fill a void. They let us think that our world can be examined, analysed and rendered legible. They are modern-day magicians whose wizardry reveals indisputable truths.

Val McDermid.
Fenris Oswin, CC BY-SA

But does forensic science really hold all the answers? Sadly, no. Val McDermid, one of the big names appearing at Bloody Scotland, is one of the few authors who help us understand this. In Out of Bounds (2016) for example, the police are trying to determine whether a man was murdered or shot himself.

The amount of gunshot residue in his hand is inconclusive, we learn, and not inconsistent with a self-inflicted wound. How can scientific evidence be inconclusive? How come scientists talk of things being “not inconsistent”, rather than dealing in certainties?

This is where the trouble begins for forensic experts. Imagine a scientist giving evidence as a witness in court and having to explain the limitations of their field. Jurors are unlikely to appreciate that forensic evidence often relies on human interpretation; that blood spatter patterns or bite mark analysis do not tell a single, compelling and unambiguous story the way they do in books.

Yet the reality of the uncertainty of forensic science was recently laid bare in relation to the DNA laboratory of the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner. Seen as one of the most sophisticated forensics labs in the world, carrying out work for investigators across the US, certain scientists are now claiming some of its methods are unreliable. A group of prominent New York defence lawyers is calling for the inspections watchdog to carry out an investigation.

Meanwhile, America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology recently accused the forensics industry of lagging other professions when it comes to looking into and resolving errors. It said:

In recent years, high visibility errors have occurred at crime labs in almost every state. These have ranged from simple mistakes, such as mislabelling evidence, to testimony that overstates the scientific evidence, to criminal acts.

In thrillers, forensic evidence almost always leads the investigative team to a satisfying conclusion. We never finish a novel thinking the killer might be exonerated when the evidence is re-examined. Even when all is as it should be, forensic scientists have their work cut out trying to communicate the complexity of the evidence, while explaining how it might be both subjective and reliable at the same time.

Not perfect.
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To make their case, scientists need much more than hard facts. They need to make their expertise accessible by using similes, metaphors and narrative examples. In fact, they need to be a little like novelists – which is ironic given that they have to dispel some of the misconceptions created by novelists in the first place.

The ConversationIf there is a consolation in any of this, these experts can at least thank novelists for their public image. No matter how hard they have to work to seek and communicate knowledge, at least forensic scientists will always look glamorous while doing so. They might be the victims of our need for reassurance and certainty, but we don’t tend to treat them with the same hostility as Edgar Allan Poe.

Aliki Varvogli, Senior Lecturer in English and Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching, University of Dundee

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

Women writers’ work is getting lost in translation



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Dr Olga Castro, Aston University

Britain now has a record number of female MPs, more women are on company boards, and work is being done to encourage more women to take up science.

Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age – the invisibility of some groups of women is even more striking.

Some may well say that this inequality is to be more expected in traditional male domains, and that in areas like arts and culture, women are actually far more visible than men. For example, they might argue that a glance at what is available in libraries or bookshops shows that more women writers are being published today, both in the UK and worldwide.

Indeed, in 2015, the BBC surveyed international critics to find the greatest British novels. Their results showed women authors accounted for half of the top 20 titles chosen. However, the same piece also emphasised how these results “stand in stark contrast to most such polls over the past decade”.

Look further into the number of reviews of women writers’ work published in literary magazines, and into the amount of writing prizes awarded to women, however, and a dramatic gender imbalance emerges.

Different gender-specific initiatives attempt to address this problem, such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and organisations like VIDA, working to highlight the gender imbalance in publishing. But there’s still a great wealth of literature out there that is still consistently being overlooked: that of non-English women writers.

Missing translations

So what’s the problem? To begin with, very few books are being translated into English from other languages. In Britain, translated literature makes up only 3.5% of the market, but 7% of book sales.

To challenge this, ongoing work carried about by English PEN – more specifically PEN Translate, a network promoting translations into English of outstanding works in foreign languages – and other organisations such as Literary across Frontiers – a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate based in Wales, aimed at developing intercultural dialogue through translation – is undoubtedly crucial. However, still more must be done.

Readers are missing out on a valuable source of literature.
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The thing is, within that small number of translated works, women writer’s books are consistently undervalued. But women read and women write. Even if it has been traditionally difficult for women writers to have their works published – with many resorting to male pen names to combat sexism – and even if the current publishing market still shows a clear gender bias, globally more fiction than ever before is being authored by women.

Yet, even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies, as shown in recent examples from Galician literature.

The tendency is even worse if we think about outstanding women authors from postcolonial, peripheral and non-hegemonic contexts. There are so many examples of Polish, Italian, Latin American, Czech, Arab, Balkan and Japanese women writers that aren’t translated into English.

Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide and yet there are barely any translations of women authored-literature into English. And that accounts for not only those coming from Portugal or Brazil, but also Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau or East Timor.

The fact that these women are being silenced in translation is not something trivial: in the age of transnational feminism, in which we want to promote truly cross-cultural understandings, we should be facilitating dialogues among women across the globe. And translation can certainly help us do that.

In an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s. But in our still patriarchal world – in which, for example, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been awarded twice out of 21 times to women writers – corrective and positive action measures are indeed very much a necessity.

Supporting the translation of female writers, literary network The English Pen has recently announced a record number of women authors and translators won its annual translation awards. More than half of the 18 award winners were women, with books translated from 14 languages and 16 countries among those honoured. This is indeed a move in the right direction. As was this year’s Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched on International Women’s Day to promote foreign writers in English translation.

The ConversationThe future of feminism is in the transnational, and transnational links can only be made through translation. Women writers the world over should be given a voice, no matter what language they speak and what cultural background they come from. Surely, we all can benefit from this: to carry on denying British readers access to great literature simply because it is authored by women is beyond belief.

Dr Olga Castro, Lecturer in Translation Studies, Aston University

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

The best way to support writers is to feed them new ideas



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Writing has never been easy, but sending writers out to find new ideas and people might be one way to help.
Shutterstock.com

Julian Novitz, Swinburne University of Technology

Books and writing seem to be as popular as ever, but writers are having a hard time making a living from their work. While writers may have always struggled, a number of recent ideas have been put forward suggesting ways to help them out.

Writing in Meanjin, Frank Moorhouse proposed, among other measures, renewable ten-year “national contracts” for mid-to-late career writers. And in the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Eltham describes an initiative that he is working on that would aim to provide literary fellowships for fixed periods of three to four years.

Both writers make the valid point that, as fewer successful writers are able to sustain themselves via book sales and royalties, the role of public support becomes more important. They both argue for the need to radically expand the range of fellowships available to writers.

While more secure fellowships are certainly welcome ideas, there are other ways to support writing that address the current economics. So in the spirit of keeping the conversation going, here are a few thoughts.

The value of books

Moorhouse and Eltham both seem to be arguing for fellowships that might provide the long-term security that many working writers currently lack. This suggests a fundamental shift in the purpose of this kind of writing support.

Individual grants and fellowships have typically been provided as a short-term investment in a writer or author, with a duration ranging from a few months to a year. They are there, ideally, to encourage new projects and innovation – offering opportunities for a concentrated period of work, for research, for travel. The University of Melbourne Asialink arts residencies program is a strong example of this. It offers support to a range of Australian writers and artists to live and pursue creative projects in Asia for six weeks to three months.

Longer-term fellowships would certainly have many benefits for established writers. They help compensate them for cultural labour that is not always adequately rewarded in the literary marketplace. As Moorhouse observes, the value of a book often goes beyond its cover price. Books are read and reread, loaned to family members and friends, speculated upon and debated. They inspire insights, arguments and critical and creative forms of engagement. Singular sales and royalty payments cannot reflect this hidden or social value of a book.

However, the criteria that Moorhouse proposes for his ten-year contracts – multiple publications, international distribution, being the subject of academic research – could cluster a lot of funding around a small number of conventionally successful authors.

A particular kind of writing?

In his article, Eltham suggests that a lack of individual fellowships has contributed to the rising importance of literary prizes in Australia. According to Eltham, prizes have become “the closest thing to a fellowship most Australian writers can aspire to”. In the same vein as Ivor Indyk’s 2015 Sydney Review of Books article, he argues that “‘prize literature’ is now a discernible genre of its own, taken to represent a certain form of middlebrow that is accessible, appealing and safe.” The implication is that the exclusive pursuit of prizes results in stylistically homogenous literary fiction, and that more individual grants and fellowships would provide writers with more freedom to experiment and take risks.

However, shifting a writer’s focus from winning a literary prize to appeasing a grant committee or funding body will not necessarily result in more adventurous fiction. Writing in 1971 about the Commonwealth Literary Fund (which subsidised Australian writers from 1908 to 1973), Maurice Dunlevy reflected on the value of literary fellowships, observing that “the fund has yet to aid the birth of a genius” or even a “classic Australian novel”.

He went on to claim that “the overwhelming number of fellowships have been awarded to well-known mediocrities who have produced mediocre work.” I won’t pretend to know exactly how fair Dunlevy is being to the fellowship writers of this period. But his critique can easily be compared to some of the contemporary objections to Australian prize culture.

There are a number of questions any new fellowships would need to answer. What kinds of literary work and lives would they encourage writers to work towards? What kinds of writing would be eligible for this kind of support? Would it favour the writer who produces a steady output of moderately successful publications over a powerful single work? Or the traditional print-based author over a writer creating innovative material for digital platforms?

Meeting the world

I don’t want to argue against more fellowships for writers (especially since, given the state of arts funding, this would likely be an argument over imaginary money). But we should question whether fellowships of the length that Moorhouse and Eltham are proposing are sustainable or even desirable.

In his 1991 lecture, On Writing, the Canadian author Robertson Davies expressed some of his reservations about the culture of writing grants, noting that even as they seem to offer freedom for writers they also potentially isolate them. Davies argues that, for a writer, a job isn’t just a distraction from the serious business of their craft. It is also a valuable opportunity to “meet the world” in their own particular way, and to find a daily task that keeps them from “writing too much” to the point where “their talent has become diseased, hypertrophied because of the continual gross and indecent solicitation of the imagination”.

I can’t pretend to share Davies’s distain for writing grants, having been the grateful beneficiary of a couple myself. But I think that there is a spleeny contrarian wisdom to his critique that is worth considering.

Relatively few successful authors throughout history have lived professional lives that were focused solely on writing. For many, the kind of subsidy that Eltham and Moorhouse have proposed might not be particularly useful. Being able to focus solely on writing for three, four or ten years might offer some incredible benefits, but it also presents the possibility of isolation, insularity, and a continued dependence on this kind of funding that might be detrimental for a writer’s work in the long run. As Davies writes: “Nothing – including grants – is for nothing”. The kind of freedom they offer always comes at a cost.

The ConversationOn balance, individual funding might be more suited to providing opportunities for travel (like the brilliantly conceived Antarctic Arts Fellowship), cultural exchange, or residencies. These require engagement with the life and rhythms of unfamiliar institutions, offering both emerging and established writers new ways of meeting the world.

Julian Novitz, Lecturer, Writing, School of Media and Communication, Swinburne University of Technology

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