Beyond 31st January 2020

The UK looks set to leave the European Union at the end of this week and it is unlikely to join again in my lifetime. It’s a time for a short reflection and a few observations.

First, when it comes to nationality, Brexit has not made me feel more British, or more English or, in fact, more European. It has not actually changed my view of myself much at all. I stand by the remarks I made at the time of the referendum.

Secondly, Brexit has not changed my views of the people who engage in politics, or those who are responsible for the management of major corporations or large institutions. As before, I consider them to be almost exclusively self-regarding, self-seeking, self-important chancers who make decisions to benefit themselves and people like them. I will never understand how we let them get away with it.

Really it seems that Brexit is not really any sort of change at all. On 1st February 2020 Britain will remain a place where inequality, prejudice, ignorance and superciliousness rule in equal measure. If Brexit has not changed my view of myself or of the country, has it changed anything?

The answer, I think, is yes. The way in which British politics have been conducted in past four years, since the time the referendum campaigns began, has helped us to see that political, social and material progress are chimeras. We are not just in a fake news post-fact world; we have reached a different end of history; we are in a post-progress world. Liberalism, democracy – whatever you call it – does not triumph; it damages both human society and the natural world. The bad guys win, again. The rest lose, again. The very idea of progress, the scale of the destruction, is now killing us, all of us.

At the heart of both the Brexit blip and of the far more important climate and ecological disaster is a history of selfishness, and systematic social, racial and gender inequity. It seems unlikely that there will be any coming together, except in the titanic clash of ideologies and sensibilities, in a struggle that will be determined by a straight division of the good, the bad and the ugly.

In the year 2020 and the coming decade Brexit will mean that some will make money, while many will lose livelihoods, homes, health and life itself. In these same years the far greater losses created by climate change will be shared by us all, as droughts, floods, pandemics, wars, crop failures and poisonous air take their toll of human, animal, plant and microbial life around the world.

This decade is important and we need to treat it that way and get on with the job of preserving what we can, as soon as we can, in any way we can. Those who want to work with others in Europe will continue to do so, and will get strength from that. Brexit will not stop us doing what is necessary.

Once, not so very long ago…

These introductory sentences of Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days stand alone.

Been there, done that.

“Once, not so very long ago, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems, or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artefacts and with the people who created them. For those who haunted suburban libraries and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters.”

Jay McInerney, Bright Precious Days, 2016

It’s better to offer authors more

Michael Mont, the fledgling publisher in To Let, the third volume of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, puts Soames right on the matter of author payments.

‘People are quite on the wrong track in offering less than they can afford to give; they ought to offer more, and work backwards.’

Soames raised his eyebrows.

‘Suppose the more is accepted?’

‘That doesn’t matter a little bit,’ said Mont; ‘it’s much more paying to abate a price than to increase it. For instance, say we offer an author good terms – he naturally takes them. Then we go into it, find we can’t publish at a decent profit and tell him so. He’s got confidence in us because we’ve been so generous to him, and he comes down like a lamb, and bears us no malice. But if we offer him poor terms at the start, he doesn’t take them, so we have to advance them to get him, and he thinks us damned screws into the bargain.’

I wonder if any current publisher considers this argument when negotiating terms with an author or their agent.

John Galsworthy, To Let, 1921

Letter to The Author about Climate Change

Here is my letter to The Author (September 2019) urging the Society of Authors and all its members to be at the forefront of telling the truth about the climate emergency, using their unique skills to make positive changes in their own behaviour, and to advocate strong actions at a personal, professional and political level to address climate change.

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The pollution of book merchandise

Publishers, booksellers and authors (particularly children’s authors) looking for a small contribution to the climate emergency could give some thought to reducing or eliminating the proliferation of merchandise sold alongside books. Plastic character models, unnecessary clothing, and a host of other gewgaws, add nothing to the reading experience, but do contribute waste and pollution to the environment.

So why don’t publishers stop licensing these polluting money-spinners, booksellers stop stocking them, and authors (particularly the big names who can wield serious clout in this) tell their agents that their books are not to be used as a basis for these mass market symbols of disdain for the world’s environment.

Holiday Reading

Each time I go on holiday I take along some of the books I’ve bought in recent years but not read, and this year two of the items in the bag spoke of the current British predicament.

On the one hand I have the first three volumes of The Forsyte Saga telling me something about how we got into the mess we are now in (English entitlement, financial chicanery, war and property bubbles), while on the other, Futures and Fictions (a mix of essays and conversations published around the time of Mark Fisher’s death in 2017) offers some pointers of where we may need to go next.

Futures and Fictions contains seventeen contributions, and five stand out in my reading.

*1*

In Stages, Plots and Traumas by Robin Mackay, plot is a many headed term.

It is immediately obvious that “plot” is a semantically rich word. Perhaps uppermost for us is plot in the sense of narrative, but not far behind it would come the conspiratorial sense of the word – the manipulation of affairs by some shady agent or agents behind the scenes. Also current, if less prominent, we find the senses of “plot” as territorial (a plot of land), graphic (plotting a graph), and geometric or projective (plotting one space into another).

The essay talks about how plotting devices (specifically the visual threading of various pictorial and topographical evidence in many TV and movie detective dramas) do not always provide the proof they pretend to, and Mackay stresses the way in which unexpected interventions are often necessary to ‘solve’ various mysteries, either in fictions, dramas or in a psychoanalytic examination. What is shown in any graphic plotting rarely reveals the actual ‘plot’.  It is what happens behind the scenes that is often more vital in the investigation.

The dice are always loaded; continual navigation and reorientation is inevitable.  The essential tool of the detective and the therapist alike are the scalpel and the compass.

This seems like good advice to someone trying, at a distance, to make sense of the world today.

*2*

The second of the pieces to catch my attention is a conversation between Judy Thorne and Mark Fisher about his ideas on ‘Luxury Communism’, the idea that it is already possible for everyone to have enough to lead a fulfilling life if only capitalism didn’t stand in the way.

Positing something like luxury communism as a positive goal means that we can start to see capitalism a force of resistance and obstruction,’ says Fisher. ‘It is only unrealistic from the point of view of a system which cannot be sustained, and which is prepared to risk everything in order to preserve its own fantasies.’

The politics that stresses austerity for some while promoting deregulated wealth for the others is a block to human wellbeing. We all know this, but are not sure what to do about it.

*3*

A later essay may help. In Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation – Labioria Cuboniks tells us that ‘XF rejects illusion and melancholy as political inhibitors’.

The illusion that XF rejects is ‘the blind presumption that the weak can prevail over the strong with no strategic coordination,’ while ‘the malady of melancholia only compounds political inertia, and – under the guise of being realistic – relinquishes all hope of calibrating the world otherwise.

The message might be ‘don’t get mad, organise,’ and do this by a ‘transformation of deliberate construction, seeking to submerge the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in a sea of procedures that soften its shell and dismantle its defences, so as to build a new world from the scraps.’

Things – politically, socially, environmentally – are now at the stage where everything has to change if we are to hope for survival.

*4*

Theo Reeves-Evison’s Surface Fictions points to a world where the meaning of artefacts and artworks may ‘no longer hinge on a straightforward opposition between interior Truth and exterior fiction. In fact, they may not conceal an interior at all. They allow us to see that the surface itself has depth, and that it is only through fiction, understood as an additive process of layering, that we can understand and shape deception’s deception.’

Alternate facts and fake news are textured, and if we know how to look we can betray the architecture of their construction.  We need to learn new ways of looking to ‘see through’ the deceptions.

*5*

Which brings us to the only actual fiction of the collection, a story by Ursula K. Le Guin entitled The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

Omelas is a utopia of sorts – ‘like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.’

There is only one dark spot, and this dark spot makes all the rest possible for the happy people of Omelas whose ‘tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.’ Some, however, when they see this reality, leave Omelas.

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead in the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Who stays? Who walks away? Where can they (we) go? Is there another destination, another outcome to our local, international and global conundrum of political disruption and climate chaos?

When they leave Omelas, some people ‘seem to know where they are going’.

Relaxing with my holiday reading, trying to take a break in the sun, do I?

But this is different

I remember hot tar on the crepe soles of sandals

On a walking day in Lancashire.

 

But this is different, when gas from deep tar

Rattles the dishes and burns up the air.

 

I remember the radiation scares and Strontium 90

Falling on fields and nearby houses,

Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl.

 

But this is different, as human error and rising seas

Capture and contaminate whole oceans at Fukushima and Sizewell.

 

I remember deluges in Peconic, Jos and Bourriège.

Electric storms, forks and flashes, rattling iron sheets.

 

But this is different, when rain combines with tidal surges

And takes away soil and crops, animals and homes, friends and family.

 

I remember black nostrils and blacker snot.

A small face, part hidden by a striped school scarf,

Left with a blackened lone ranger eye-mask of soot.

 

But this is different, when bodies now contain

What humans have created from fossil fuels and ingenuity.

 

I remember Manhattan from afar,

Crushed dark smog under daylong temperature inversions.

 

But this is different, when the smoke is continental

And big trees burn for the first time.

 

I remember frozen seas in Long Island Sound and Helsinki harbour,

Blizzards on the Auvergne high roads,

Midsummer snow in Pyrenean mountain towns.

 

But this is different: kangaroos bouncing in snow.

 

I remember TV weather forecasts that flashed on screen

For five whole days – HOT 100, HUMID 100.

 

But now, in Celsius, this is different.

Thirty-five, forty, forty-five degrees

Too far past the gentle rhythmic heat wave or canicule.

Deadly.

 

I remember long lines of flame across the savannah,

See the charred hillsides of Catalonia.

Northern fields once smoked for months from slag fires below.

 

But this is different. The polar and equatorial regions burn.

The tundra burns. Asian islands burn. Oxygen burns away.

 

I remember following a giraffe along the road,

All around, elephants, wildebeest and zebra.

Sometimes hunted; sometimes poached.

 

But this is different. Carcasses of beast, starving or dismembered,

Litter a continent.

 

I remember a neighbour, a joiner, keeping bees.

We ate the honey and enjoyed loud buzzing.

 

But this is different. No more insect-covered windscreens,

No loudness in the glade, fewer birds and bees to tell of.

 

I remember blackouts, cascading across cities in the tri-state area,

Three-day weeks. Generators kicked in, Tilly lamps and candles.

 

But this is different. Switches trip and don’t recover.

 

I remember sand in the air that stopped all flying

By birds and heavier-than-air machines.

Desert dust from further south, or ash from far away eruptions,

Took its time before an all clear.

 

But this is different. No clear view ahead

And no return to what was clear before.

 

I remember talk of nuclear winter,

Of ozone holes and ultra-violet dangers:

Stirring of a thought that something must be done.

It wasn’t.

 

But this is different. There has been no stop to the wasting and the spoiling;

No remedy to carelessness and greed,

Exploitation and grasping.

 

Now, this is different, and, while we still remember,

The future no longer issues from the past.

 

Now we must prepare to live or die,

In calm or chaos,

With dignity or despair.

 

For this is different.

Publishing and the climate emergency

What can publishers do in the time of climate emergency?

Climate breakdown and mass species extinction now pose a threat to human life on earth. All human culture is affected, including publishing. What can publishers – often slow in reacting to change – do in the race to salvage what will remain of human agency in the coming decades of impending climate chaos?

Here are three ways publishing can react.  Firstly publishing can reduce the environmental damage done by its core activity. Secondly  – like many businesses or activities – publishing can change the way it does business and reduce the damage done. Thirdly, paradigmatic shifts that publishing can make may involve significant change to the nature of publishing, but they may result in a positive impact on the global climate.

The small operational changes that publishing can make now and larger changes that it can make within a few years may have some impact on carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. But it is now time for companies and organisation to imagine a much broader range of possible best and worst cases in the light of current knowledge about the changes happening in the world’s climate, and to begin changing the publishing industry with a new vision for years 2030, 2040 and 2050. It’s time to start now. No delays. No excuses. This is a matter of life and death.

Changing publishing policies and paradigms

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.  Over recent years there’s been some serious engagement by publishers in the environmental effects of their activities, and this has mostly focussed on efforts to use paper and printing processes that reduce the environmental damage done by the industry. The emphasis on sustainability, certification schemes and voluntary codes of practice has almost certainly had some effect on reducing the centuries-old environmental damage done by the practices of the paper, ink and printing industries, but we need to see much more action in these areas, and aim for an overall result of eliminating rather than reducing environmental damage.

All organisations need to change their policies in relation to climate change, as is now being done with transport, where arguments are now going beyond comparing petrol, diesel and electric vehicles to a reframing of the more fundamental changes needed to challenge the private/public transport split, local/distant travel needs, and the levelling of the transport needs of the rich/poor and the rural/urban populations of the world.

In a similar way, publishing must reassess how it operates at all levels. We need to look at how publishing activities affect the local, national and global cultural and economic space, and see how owners and employees can develop better world citizenship as we struggle together to ensure our survival.

The objective must be to build an industry that will both serve and benefit from an honest understanding of how the world might survive; how publishing will look in the very different world that is coming as climate change accelerates; and how publishing can contribute to the way the world’s human, animal and plant populations can try to adapt to the new circumstances of life on earth.

Changing the business models

If the first steps are relatively easy – making sure that all publishing conforms to the standards in current industry recommendations on paper, ink, printing and packaging – the second is much harder. It will require courage, honesty and much more creativity and daring.  As resources become scarcer, publishers must look to publish less, to publish less wastefully, to eliminate overproduction and overconsumption, to produce for the coming times of scarcity as if they were already here.  This will require building new relationships and alliances with contractors and customers, adopting new business and economic models that will radically reform what publishing is all about.

It will not just be about ‘save’, ‘reuse’, ‘repurpose’ or ‘recycle’, but is likely to involve stopping some production altogether – reducing consumption while increasing access and usage, perhaps shifting closer to the ‘commons’ model of publishing, encouraging sharing rather than ownership, liberating the power of private and personal libraries, localising publishing to a street or village level, building business activity around human activity, not around corporate sales and profit.

Digital is not always the answer

For too long publishing has seen the digital as its get-out clause – clean, democratic and liberating – without recognising the environmental cost of digital publishing. The energy cost of digital is high and networks are vulnerable to climate breakdown.  Data processing, storage and transmission technologies used to prepare text, still and moving images, sounds and artificial intelligence, are energy intensive operations using rare resources often obtained by violent and exploitative means; and energy use is at the heart of greenhouse gas emissions and global heating. Publishing must immediately start to reduce its energy usage in the digital sphere.

In this as in all areas, it’s important not to replace one carbon use with another – power for data farms still pollutes and warms the planet, and offshoring production to other countries, exporting your carbon emissions to other pats of the globe, doesn’t work either.

All carbon costs entailed in the whole publishing process – from creator to reader – need to be audited, questions asked and answered. Publishers pride themselves on their creative thinking, so let’s see more of this as we address the urgent issues raised by the climate emergency.

Some questions

As we go further and examine some of the fundamentals. Here are a few questions the industry might ask.

Can publishing rid itself of its own equivalent of the ever-increasing GDP myth and start to reduce title output, see reducing turnover and market share as markers of success? How can publishers plan for successful de-growth?

Can publishers reassert their central role in deciding what to publish, reducing the number of titles published and eliminating publications that are built on a publishing economic model of ever-greater title production? Can publishers be leaders in the move to value quality over quantity?

Can publishers lead the development of a new literacy, one that encourages a new generation of writers and creators who aren’t governed by the (often false) lure of profit from mass consumption, develops audiences based on genuine need (as we have long taught in marketing classes!), and fosters individual creativity and idiosyncrasy rather than creating/making stuff for mass consumption. How does publishing reassert its faith in the individual?

Can publishing encourage more sharing of publications, committing to reinvigorate ‘library’ systems for the coming era of scarce resources? At its core, publishing is about sharing ideas, so how can this role be proudly re-articulated?

Can publishing be a leader in developing ways of personal interaction that do not involve thousands of people using vast resources travelling to events like the Frankfurt Book Fair?

If publishers must occupy offices and warehouses, can they reduce this need as much as possible and adapt these premises to eliminate wasteful heating or air conditioning, equip all buildings with solar panels, wind turbines, insulation and other technologies possible, to create cleaner and more productive workplaces that don’t add to the problems of the climate emergency? Should publishers move their operations to what are – at least for the moment  – more temperate climates?

Is more localisation a fruitful direction of travel for a global publishing industry that has lost contact with many users and readers? How can publishing organisations (even those large corporations that often appear to have no home in the physical world) interact more fruitfully with their local communities, working to improve the resilience of their transport, housing, energy and communications systems, all of which will come under threat as climate change accelerates?

How can publishing improve its credentials as a good citizen and good employer? Employees are people who want the world to survive, who want their children and grandchildren to be able to breathe, eat and drink clean air, food and water. Let’s see a massive move away from the car culture, eliminate personal company cars, provide bikes and buses for employees, work with local councils and communities, and turn car parks into pleasure parks.

The climate emergency is not going away

Many more questions will need to be asked, but publishers have the intelligence and imagination to address them.  Publishers must recognise and communicate the ways in which times are changing and encourage each other to look the changes in the face and start producing responses to the climate emergency, because the climate emergency is not going away.

We have a little over a decade to make radical changes if we hope to avoid the loss of the ecosystem on which life on earth depends. There is no way that publishing and the people who work in it can avoid the effects of climate breakdown, so no moment is too soon for the industry to wake up to the need for serious and significant changes in the ways it does business.

Extinction Rebellion (XR), an organisation that like Greta Thunberg and the school strike has done so much to bring climate breakdown into the public consciousness, operates on three central demands that may be useful here.

The first is Tell the Truth. Publishing needs to acknowledge the truth of the climate breakdown that is already coming and use its publishing skills to communicate this knowledge within its own industry and to customers, users and readers.

The second demand is Act Now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Publishing people and publishing organisations need to start acting without delay. Some methods are already obvious; some require a change of direction and a change of heart; others are as yet unknown and will only emerge as the result of a sustained and collaborative drive to accelerate innovation to make publishing a force in the coming struggle.

The third XR demand is for a Citizens Assembly to determine how climate and ecological justice can be part of the world’s response to the climate emergency. In publishing terms, the industry needs to refocus its constant appetite for seminars, workshops, conferences, book festivals and book fairs towards the development of democratic communications on what must be done about climate change in all parts of the book chain.

All creators and producers, readers and users of publications, institutions and individuals of all kinds, publishing in all its forms, can then make the adaptations that will be needed if publishing is to play its part in helping the world to avoid the worst effects of rapidly accelerating global heating.

For publishing and for publishing people, now is the time for change. Now is the time for telling the truth. Now is the time for action.

Kabuff or Wunderkammer?

Fictional publishers often appear at international book fairs. The setting gives writers the chance to introduce new characters, engineer plot twists and inject the frisson of drunken conversations and illicit sex. The Frankfurt Kabuff, Blaire Squiscoll’s recent work, adds a new twist to this, functioning as a mesmerising deconstruction of what it means to be a publisher and what it means to hang out with publishers at such events. It combines many old publishing tropes, sometimes seeming to be more of a Wunderkammer than a Kabuff.

The central character, Beatrice Deft, is not a publisher but she is someone who loves books, believes in their power to change lives.  She is old school: she smokes, she drinks, she eats meat (there is a flashback subplot of violence against an immigrant at a chicken shop in Australia – don’t ask), she flies. Deft enjoys sex (and Sekt) with Caspian, the hunky German cop, of whom we learn little except for his badge number (6969) and the way he wields his impressive baton.

After a violent intervention by the right-wingers surrounding a publishing firm called White Storm – put down with the help of Tante Fran and the knitting book club – the old left-wing publisher Kurt Weidenfeld steps down from his position at Linksphilosophie Verlag in favour of Adriana, Lotte Frankel takes over from the wannabe demagogue Kristoff Weil, and Beatrice begins a new career as an international publishing consultant, travelling the world to protect international books from future terrorist attacks. The publishing patriarchy is being overturned.

As Beatrice prepares to jet off on her new mission, the familiar figure of a strapping blond catches her attention. There will be further adventures, but they had better hurry, because this old world of international publishing will soon be brought to a juddering halt, not, as this story suggests, by the threat of right-wing terrorism, but by the surveillance state it has created, the security apparatus it spawned, and – in this time of climate breakdown – the impossibility of sustaining all that smoking, drinking, meat-eating and carbon-fuelled travel that are at the core of the international book fair circuit.

Blaire Squiscoll, The Frankfurt Kabuff, 2019