Untangling the Web #3

String of pearls
Creative Commons License photo credit: James Jordan

Hi all and

welcome to yet another edition of Untangling the Web. In this post I’ll be discussing the mammoth Google Books deal, followed by a rant encompassing many people’s opinion on literary prizes, and finally some useful links for the literature-inclined. As always, thanks go to my main sources of links: @AustLiterature, @Meanjin, and @OverlandJournal.

News:

A Short History of Google Books (and if they have their way, Nearly Everything):

Google. You love them, I love them. And even if you don’t love them, you’ve almost certainly used their home page quite a few times in your life, and you know about their rapidly expanding range of web-based products. Right now you can sign up and get access to Google Documents, Google Reader, Google Scholar, Google Photo (Picasa), Google Video (YouTube), Google Maps, and Google Books. Today it’s that last item on the list that I’d like to talk about. Google Books is a huge project undertaken by Google to provide an online, searchable database of books. That sounds good, right? A massive digital archive of books that may include those that are out of print and therefore unobtainable, being made available for free online for all to access. As always, there a little more to it than that.

When it comes to scanning things and putting them online, it’s not long before the issue of copyright creeps in. Google has begun scanning millions–literally millions, they’re up to around 12 million at time of writing–of books through their Library and Partner projects. While they do have safeguards in place that result in only public-domain works being fully searchable, and measures in place to prevent the copying of text and downloading of copyrighted material, publishers argue that the act of scanning, saving, and storing copyrighted works in their databases is a violation of copyright. This argument was embodied in a lawsuit against Google undertaken by the Author’s Guild of America and the Association of American Publishers. While this lawsuit did not go to court, Google did enter into a settlement agreement with the parties involved. This settlement agreement has gone back and forth between parties and the latest news on it is that the U.S. Justice Department has stated that the settlement is inadequate due to a failure to address copyright and antitrust concerns.

And let’s not pull any punches here, the concerns are very real. While Google has a ‘don’t be evil’ policy, they still have to justify their actions as not being so. At the moment the spin is the preservation of the written word. After all, they say, the great library of Alexendria burned down three times. And the preservation of the ancient tomes that are in libraries is a great use for the scanning technology. But we’re not just talking about libraries here. Google wants to scan and store every book. And it’s the way they are going about this that is drawing criticism. If you have ever installed software that comes bundled with other software (usually called ‘crapware’–things like internet toolbars and the like) you’ll have noticed that the box that says ‘Yes! Count me in! Install this ridiculously useless toolbar on my computer!’ comes pre-ticked. This is known as an ‘opt out’ way of doing things, and it’s exactly how Google is treating the Google Books deal. Authors are assumed to be complying with the Google Books settlement unless they go to a website and opt out. And approximately 6,500 authors did exactly that, lead by such names as Quentin Blake, Zadie Smith and Ursula Le Guinn. Reasons cited for doing so include not having anything to lose by opting out, but potentially everything to lose by remaining in and the effect the deal might have on the copyright of their books. It’s a very tricky situation, as the ownership of copyrighted works would essentially be transferred to Google.

Under the terms of the agreement, ‘…[authors] will receive $60 per full book, or $5 to $15 for partial works. In return, Google will be able to index the books and display snippets in search results, as well as up to 20% of each book in preview mode. Google will also be able to show ads on these pages and make available for sale digital versions of each book. Authors and copyright holders will receive 63 percent of all advertising and e-commerce revenues associated with their works.’ (summation from here). Essentially, Google is gaining permission to put together a huge digital library from which they can make ad revenue and sell e-books. This is big business, make no mistake.

So what happens now? If the settlement goes through and Google gains permission to place public domain works in full, and copyrighted works partially on the net, we’ll all gain access to a huge and informative resource. But what about the rights of copyright holders? And what happens to fair use? Google has decided it wants to do something and has set about doing it, and it seems that while the litigation world has scrambled to try and place terms and boundaries on what the Google machine can and can’t do, it has done so in a much more patchwork fashion than might have occured if Google had asked questions first and acted later.

Further reading:
Google has aggregated all the positive feedback on their project at this page.
The details of the settlement agreement, if you’re a lawyer and into that kind of thing.

Rant:

Arbiters and the arbitrary: the literary prize

Ever since I was just a wee lad in primary school (well, relatively wee–I’ve been one of those beanpole kids right from the word go) I’ve loved getting awards. Who doesn’t? Whether they were the gaudy plastic statues with a gold metallic finish that our teeball teams handed out at the end of the season, or the coveted book prizes for dux of each year, the feeling of recognition and the thrill of being The One for that fifteen minutes has always excited me. Of course, the kinds of awards you get in primary school are pretty easy to justify: you got the most answers right on your addition and subtraction test, or you hit the most home runs around the park. But what happens when the conditions for awards are subjective? Enter the world of awards for creativity and, more specifically, the elusive literary prize.

The issue of the legitimacy of literary prizes has been around for as long as there have been folks to disagree with the chosen winners. By saying that I’m not trying to be antagonistic towards those who critique the receivers of prizes. After all, if there were no dissenters there would be no issue to talk about and everybody would be unanimous in their praise for the winner of each and every literary prize. But it is a rare, if not extinct, piece of writing that unites all its readers, and this is exactly what makes creative arts so exciting and interesting and downright confusing. Lately, partly as a result of the cancellation of the Australia-Asia Literary Award, and partly because the issue is practically seasonal in its discussion, there has been a lot of talk about what attitude, if any, Australian writers should take to literary prizes. Where do they fit in? How can we guarantee that our best writing is winning them? What are they really rewarding?

Over at his blog, Samuel Cooney found himself pondering a contentious question, ‘Why do we insist on placing quantitative value — first, second, third — on creative works that so obviously work in a qualitative fashion?’ It’s a damn good one, too. See, along with my fondness for writing I have a fondness for mathematics and all the ‘hard’ sciences that are derived from it. Throughout my university career I have been graded according to whether I have written an answer that is right or wrong. There’s nothing more to it than that. I cannot fathom how you can assign a grade to a piece of art. What possible scale exists to compare it to? In a learning environment, a good teacher might compare a student’s attempts and grade according to growth, but I doubt there are many good teachers out there. And once you take the writer and the grade/prize out of a learning environment and remove familiarity between author and piece and judge, there is no yardstick beyond that of personal taste. This may seem like a cynical view, but you will find it backed up time and time again if you have a wander through the 40 years of judging piece that the Booker prize ran on its 40th anniversary. Once you see how arbitrary and subject to personalities one of the supposedly most prestigious writing awards is, it almost makes you want to give up and never submit a piece of writing again. For if it can happen to those giants of judging, it can certainly happen to even the most eager of fledgling editors. Geordie Williamson sums up an excellent article (and you really must read the entire thing because it’s brilliant) with the provocative statement that:

‘Prize culture, like aristocratic patronage, makes a lottery of literature, in which one, sometimes unworthy, winner obliterates the hopes of a thousand others.’

If you were to peruse a short list, or even a long list, of books for a national prize, this sense of lottery is obvious. How can you even begin to judge Tim Winton against Richard Flanagan against Murray Bail against Louis Nowra against Christos Tsiolkas? They each write beautifully in their own individual style, as far removed from each other as they are from you and I. (For yet more insight into the judging procedure, listen to the review with Geordie on ABC’s The Book Show.)

But that isn’t the main thrust of Sam’s blog post. Of more concern is the example that such lauded books have on the community they are awarded in. Multiple Miles Franklin Award winner Tim Winton has often been referred to as possessing the voice of Australia. Similarly, Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel The Slap garnered many awards and had critics nodding over how accurately it portrayed Australian life. But whose Australia are we talking about here? By holding these books up as unique examples of what we perceive as being ‘Australian’ are we not precluding any other interpretation? If I wrote a story located in coastal Australia that featured no daredevil surfers, or a suburban tale of family relationships that contained no power-hungry alpha males, would that now be considered innaccurate? By holding a book as being worthy of merit, we are enforcing the ideal present in that book. We are saying ‘Yes, this is correct, this is good, this is the best.’ But what can we, the reader do if we find that such an assertion contradicts our own feelings towards the prize winner? Write a letter? Bitch about it on our blogs?

Ryan Paine has something to say about this at his blog. He points to alternative sources of literature such as Chris Flynn’s Torpedo mag, which could easily be compared to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern for its attitude towards a definition of literature. But as Ryan points out, while we can’t do much about the big-name critical prizes, there are readers’ choice awards such as the Inky Awards or the micro-fiction competition 12words that directly poll readers. Is this method of crowd aggregation the answer? Probably not, since at the moment gaming the system is quite an easy thing to accomplish. But it shows that there are different models out there besides the big-name prize, big-name judges method.

However, sticking our head in the alternative sand isn’t going to make these prizes go away. Remember, these are worth big cash money. An emphasis of late in both the wider Australian workplace and the literary scene has been on the ageing population of Australia, and the subsequent ‘emerging writers’ that this phenomenon has produced. I use emerging somewhat ironically, since a lot of those writers classified as such have been around for quite a some time, but have been obscured by the names that are repeatedly awarded prizes. Rather than effectively pumping up the salaries of these big names, shouldn’t the government and other prize-keepers be spreading the love around to try and foster the kind of broad growth that results in more dynamic long lists? Okay, sure, authors need to eat and winning the big lump sum prizes can help with that, but the encouragement that an emerging or fledgling writer would feel on receiving a nomination for a government-funded prize would be immense. I would rather see 20 emerging or partly established authors receive a $1,000 prize than one author receive a $20,000 prize (though I can most certainly be considered biased in this situation, given my hobby/fledgling writer status).

Literary prize culture isn’t going to change any time soon. The media still needs their stars to invite to Sunrise, and publishers still need stickers to pin to the front of books to boost sales. But if we can start generating discussion for alternative means of awarding great writers now, then who knows? One of the people joining in the chatter could be a future dispenser of a grant, and we may begin to see real shift in attitude in the way prizes are awarded.

Other links of interest:

Long live fiction: A guide to fiction online.

Helen Garner in conversation with Jennifer Byrne.

Ten rules for writing fiction, parts one and two.

MJ Hyland on writing fiction being really tricky shit.

3 Comments

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  1. Good topic Phil. Literary prizes, even the small local ones, have always perplexed me.

    On a local competition level, your work is usually subjected to the opinion of one or two readers who are of a limited age/demographic. This combined with the need to sell the output of many competitions, an anthology, can sway things a lot.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable that competition administrators should be up front with what demographic they are trying to hit, and who the judges are.

    It’s all so one way – reading the winning story of any competition rarely supplies any “winning” lessons or insight for those who enter. You walk away with the distinct feeling that you really didn’t enter a competition at all, you simply put your best piece forward and had it read by someone who either liked it or didn’t.

    I could handle this subjectivity if it weren’t for the fact that sending off for a competition and hearing back takes so much time, often ripping your best story out of circulation for months.

    Entry mechanisms are archaic; printed submissions, self addressed envelopes, money orders…To have to pay $6 to get out a $10 money order and send the story by snail mail, only to get an answer 4 months later is pretty ridiculous.

    Email me the results! You’re not doing me a favour by giving me a signed hard copy of your crap letterhead. And use paypal, it’s cheaper for me and for you. Give us a short list after the first month so those of us who don’t make it can submit elsewhere.

    As a comparison, I recently had the pleasant experience of sending a story to Andromeda Spaceways. They know what they are doing. You email it, get an email confirmation straight away along with a tracking number which you can use on their website to track your story through their “digital slush pile”. Within seven days you know if you’ve gotten through to the second round.

    This is what the internet was for.

    And yes, very much agree that there needs to be more “new writer” prizes. Same goes for applying for a grant – all but one asks for at least work of full length published fiction. How is this supporting the development of new literary perspectives?

  2. Cthulhu Ftaghn

    A good compromise to the literary awards would be to include ten honorable mentions that won $1000 each, and one “main” winner that wins $10000. I like both systems, and adding ten winners makes it easier for aspiring writers to win, even if it is a small prize.

  3. @Mark:I totally agree on the money order thing. There have even been times when I have simply not been able to find the time to get to a Post Office and get my entry off before the deadline! In fact if my memory serves I’ve still got an entry sitting in an envelope somewhere for a competition last year. This is more of an issue for us living in Perth than perhaps it is for other cities, but still, as you say, PayPal exists and is easy to set up. Why not use it?

    Oh my, you’ve hit a sore point with me on the manuscript issue. Creative writing is not my career, it’s my hobby. I don’t have the time or the funds to be able to sit down and bang out a manuscript, hence my predilection for short stories. Even keeping that in mind, having a manuscript just lying around waiting to be sent off is hardly going to be a common occurrence for new writers, even if they are studying a creative writing course. And if they do have one lying around, the chances are pretty good it’s unproofed or draft quality. It seems like another one of those ‘need experience to get experience’, or ‘need funds to get funds’ kind of Catch-22s.

    Also, pity we didn’t get to catch up at the PWF, I’d have liked to bend your ear over all these issues. (:

    @Cthulhu: Absolutely. There are some awards that already follow that prescription; the Commonwealth Foundation Diversity Short Story Competition being the one that readily leaps to mind. They award one overall winner, plus five regional winners, and around 20 special mentions (though I’m not certain they get a cash prize). That sort of tiered structure would be a wonderful boon to a lot of prizes that currently only award money to the ‘winner’.

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