Some unexpected praise this week from an unusually elevated source. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, giving the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp lecture, singled out Bookarmy as a ‘digital disrupter’: covering its niche “with a conviction, range, depth and passion that a portmanteau print-based newspaper cannot match”.
A big surprise, and a real shot in the arm for all involved. Even if we were wheeled out as a threat to our own sister companies…
Bookarmy is a rather clever site – completely free – where, once you’ve registered, you can share your passion for books with thousands of others. You can join forums around types of books, or individual books. You can have virtual discussions with authors, link your reading group to others, publish your own reviews and so on. Apart from the authors themselves, there are no “authority” figures here.
Compare it with, say the Times books pages. Here the reverse is true: the emphasis is on “expert” reviews by critics, with not much interest in what you might have to say about a particular book. There is a kind of book group, but you would have to say that interactivity is not the feature it most promotes…
…BookArmy is a telling illustration of two aspects of the digital world.
- One is the ability of digital disrupters (in this case, even within the same company) to take one bit of a newspaper and do it with a conviction, range, depth and passion that a portmanteau print-based newspaper cannot match, especially in digital form. It is the unbundling of newspapers.
- And the second is the only hope of matching the power of the these digital disrupters is to harness the same energy and technologies which they are using.
The lecture is a rather good summary of the current (and future) state of journalism: you can read it all on the Guardian site…
Writers can be a masochistic kind. For many of the greatest authors of the canon, the only thing more pleasurable than ascending mountains of prose was moaning about just how hard it was. Hemingway, who might have laboured more than most to craft long books from short sentences, summed it up succinctly. “There is nothing to writing,” he quipped. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Why do it? is an obvious question. More interesting: why insist on doing it alone? For a hundred years modern authors have prided themselves on doing things differently: they write about things they shouldn’t; they write in made-up languages; they write their books backwards. But surprisingly few of them have been prepared to break that final taboo – not writing the whole thing themselves.
From Stonehenge to Strictly Come Dancing, history’s lessons convey pretty convincingly that the best things happen when clever people collaborate. It’s not just that the mavericks fall foul of their peers; unable or unwilling to access the support and knowledge of their peers and predecessors, lone guns simply fail.
So why are literature’s loners so often feted for ploughing their own, isolated furrow? Why do we quite admire the soloists whose names sit on the spines of our most popular books? Why do we pretend not to notice that the single-minded, cold-blooded, rampant individualism that we celebrate in the most determined authors is not all that distant from the qualities we detest in the common-or-garden office psychopath?
It’s certainly worth asking if the cult of the solo author diminishes the variety and quality of the books on our shelves. The rest of the cultural world seems to have learnt long ago that solitary slog is hardly the quickest route to great results, and as audiences we don’t very much seem to mind. The most acclaimed television series of our day are written by teams numbering 3 to 30. From the Beatles to the Bangles, some of the most popular music of the century is credited to several musicians. Even journalists regularly share bylines – if it’s worth sharing the efforts of two or three people to create one thousand-word article, how much more effective to enlist a team to create something a hundred times as long?
Admittedly, the dirty business of books hardly encourages collaboration amongst the writing community. In today’s crowded bookshops, marketing one new author is hard; marketing two is madness – so the vast majority of collaborating writers still hide their identities behind singular pen names. Equally, the great literary prizes don’t encourage authors to turn up en masse. Teams of screen-writers win BAFTA awards; collaborating artists have won the Turner. Yet the individuality of British literary prizes is actually enshrined in their Terms and Conditions – according to their literature the Orange Prize will be given to ‘a woman’ who produces the best book; the Booker Prize is intended for ‘an author’.
“Two people writing a novel is like three people having a baby”, wrote Evelyn Waugh. Waugh could turn a fine phrase, and without much assistance from anyone else. But if we accept his opinion without question we might just end up with the books, and the writers, that we deserve.