A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

Is this a womb I see before me?

There’s nothing I like more than a good online quiz first thing in the morning, so I have to thank V. S. Naipaul (not, I admit, words I ever thought to string together in a sentence) for his Look at Me, Mummy, Look, Look! publicity rant, in which he stated that he knew (just knew) within a paragraph whether a piece of prose had been written by a man or a woman. The Guardian has done us the kind good service of setting up a quiz, to see if this is indeed the case. (Of course, VSN has the obvious response – if it turns out that most readers don’t know the difference, it’s because we’re not as smart as he is; if we do, case proven. See? Well, you would if you were a man. And as smart as VSN.)

I don’t see, but that’s because we women are little fluffy things, only concerned with the trivial and the domestic and sentimenta—  Oh, wait, is that a kitten I see? Awwww… Oh, sorry, got distracted. And then there’s my ribbon-drawer to tidy up, and then – oh, when I ask, am I going to have time to do such big macho things as sit and write?

Certainly it would have been better if Jane Austen had stuck to her tatting. Her novels, after all, are just sentimental, says the sage of Chromosomal Prose. And as for his ex-editor, who was so good as a ‘taster’ (oh kill me now, please) and editor, when she became a writer, ‘lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh’. Tosh, I tell you, tosh! Although just a teeny-tiny insy-wincy bit of me wonders if his views might just possibly be influenced by the fact that in her first book this very same editor described the feelings of joy and lightness she experienced when VSN took his masculine-prose self off to another publisher, and she realized she wouldn’t have to pretend to like him, or even listen to his woes any more.

Nah, I’m sure he’s above such things.

Oh deary deary me. Well, he’s a sad, bitter, lonely old man. Feel sorry for him. I do. It’s the kind of girlie sentimentality I’m programmed for.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

The Literary-Agent Hyphothesis

A great blog (here) by ‘The Contented Librarian’ (and a great blog-name!), listing 40 literary terms ‘you should know’. I’m not quite sure who the ‘you’ is, since the list seems to veer from the latinate rhetorical terms I was expecting from the title (meiosis) to what seem to me to be everyday common-or-garden speech for people who read (bowdlerize).

But of course a list, any list, is fun, and one where you can score yourself is even better. I didn’t know four, which I think is pretty good. The one I like best, however, is a new one on me: ‘the literary-agent hypothesis’. Contrary to my immediate Paranoid Author Response, this does not indicate that my agent is planning to sack me, or that all the literary agents in London are in a room, and they Are Laughing At Us, but is instead a lit. crit. concept that the author is only the agent for the characters, who are in fact writing the novel, or, as I feel certain the people who discuss this theory say, the ‘text’.

‘Purple prose’, I would have thought, didn’t need a definition. It’s like porn, and everyone knows it when they see it. (In my own case, it is easily identified by the fact that my eyeballs roll so far back in my head that I can see my tonsils whenever I stumble across some.) But perhaps the Contented Librarian’s definition is better: ‘Any text referring to eyes as “orbs” without any sort of irony is automatically guilty of this linguistic sometimes-offense. No matter what. No exceptions. Also, every romance novel ever written. Even if a long-lost manuscript attributed to Bukowski ever materialized and proved a romance novel, it would still be made of purple prose.’

Works for me.

Let’s monetize thinking

Yesterday in the Observer there was a wonderful article on libraries and their function in the 21st century (here), and the various purposes they serve.

The most interesting part (well, it was all interesting — do read it), the most worrying part was, I thought, where one librarian told of the council wanting to ‘measure’ ‘outcomes’:

‘The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output,’ says Ian Stringer. ‘Output was how many books we’d stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that’s an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they’d had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they’d never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that.’

This seems to me to encapsulate the problem with so much of life, really since Thatcher — the idea that everything can be quantified, everything ‘monetized’. We don’t have public transport or publically-owned postal services because they make life a little better for everyone, make the world a slightly better place to live in, but only if they actually make money, not simply pay for themselves, or even cost something.

As one of the librarians said in the Observer article (really, do read it, I’m telling you), if anyone said today, let’s tell everyone we’re taking a bit of their tax-money to build a bunch of buildings, buy books and tell people they can come in and borrow them, all they have to do is return them, well, everyone would say they were nuts. What the piece doesn’t say is how our mindset has altered to make this proposition risible: that in the 19th-century, when the idea of public libraries was first formulated generally, the idea of doing something for the betterment of society seemed normal and worthwhile, while today it seems a joke, an alien concept.

I saw a bit of this myself when I was a baby copy-editor (oh yes, I get around). My nameless corporation (Penguin) invited a bunch of management consultants to ‘stream’, I think was the unattractive word, us to create a range of salary bands. They got each type of employee together and asked questions about what we did. But the questions were not, what did we do, but how did we ‘enrich’ our ‘product’, and what tools did we need to do said ‘enriching’.

Faced with the response that our tools (in those pre-computer days) were pencils and erasers, and that if we were really really really good at our jobs, our ‘enrichment’ was entirely invisible, they were flummoxed. Worse, looking back, I can see from the results that they went back to our Lords and Masters and said we were unnecessary: that our work could be done by anyone, and that paying salaries instead of freelance rates was simply untenable.

Sure enough, long after I left, the copy-editorial department was run down, and manuscripts, as in most publishing houses, are now sent out to freelance editors. There are many, and many are admirable, freelance editors, but what was lost was the pooled communal knowledge, the discussions of ‘What do you think if X’, or the ability for experienced editors to share that experience with younger ones.

To return to libraries: what we have is something that has no price — it is not a ‘profit centre’, it cannot be ‘monetized’. But yes, it ‘enriches’ all of us. To lose it because we cannot put our finger on ‘outcomes’ is a sign of how shallow our societies have become.

Why we need publishers (an author writes…)

The Bookseller, UK publishing’s trade newspaper, has published an online report (here) from the London International Book Fair, just concluded, on a debate that was held between the forces of Light and Dark — sorry, lost my head, between new media and the dinosaurs, erm, publishers.

The blogger mostly comes down on the side of the Brave New World. S/he, however, somewhat sabotages his/her case by the following:

Franklin however reminded us of all that some regard as arrogant, old world and out of synch with today’s changing market. He lead with one could best describe as publishers know best and all else is drose. He went on to crusade against self publishing as if it was the devil and even made the claim that , ‘Free is too much to pay for the vast majority of self-published books,’ but quickly added as any speaker would having stuck the knife in, that “It’s too much to pay for some of the books that come from publishers.”

Now, without wanting to be more of a pain in the butt than I normally am, may I point out:

  • For ‘he lead’, read ‘he led’
  • For ‘with one could best’, read ‘with what one could best’
  • For ‘drose’, read ‘dross’
  • For ‘self publishing’, read ‘self-publishing’
  • For ‘as if it was the devil’, read ‘as if it were the devil’
  • For ‘claim that ,’ read ‘claim that,’
  • Use all double or all single quotes
  • And finally, I would have broken that last sentence up into two.

I could go on and do this to the rest of the post, but kindness (and time) intervenes. My point in even doing this is not malice. I could have written the sentences above too. Because this blog, and many blogs, are reminders that what publishing adds in value is invisible, until it is not there. It adds extra eyes, to prevent us, the authors, from making all the howlers above. It adds people who have spent their lives reading, who want to make us, the authors, look good.

Publishers, although I have my doubts about many (and I am well aware many feel the same about me), are there for a reason. Any single author on his or her own has lived with his or her book for far too long to be able to see its flaws, both big and small.

So, publishers may not survive in the form they have existed in for so long. But please, let’s keep the expertise. We need it.

The BAD way to deal with reviewers

I have given lessons in this, so I know. Pay attention, because just gone viral, online, is how NOT to respond to a review.

A woman named Jaqueline Howett has apparently self-published a novel entitled The Greek Seaman (that’s a sailor, you nasty-minded folk). She received a mixed review online from someone named ‘Big Al’, who thought her story was compelling, but that there were so many grammatical and typographical confusions in the text that he felt most readers would not bother to unravel them in order to reach the rather good story.

The author’s response was to claim he had downloaded the ‘wrong’ version, and she posted good reviews from elsewhere to ‘prove’ there was nothing wrong with her book. Then she claimed that she knew who ‘Big Al’ was and he had a vendetta against her. Other readers posted lines from the book which might have been the type that had caused ‘Big Al’ difficulty, such as

“She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs.”

“Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.”

At which point Ms Howett lost it. Completely. Utterly. Among her responses:

My writing is just fine!

Look AL, I’m not in the mood for playing snake with you, what I read above has no flaws. My writing is fine

You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom. Lots of luck to authors who come here and slip in that!

But my favourite part of the entire sorry saga is the poster who said that, after these posts, ‘I dont think I’m alone in saying, I wouldn’t read your book now if it came with a free puppy.’ Which may be the best one-line review I have ever read.

Full link here.