I have always wanted to have the last word only I am not the sort of person who comes up with it on the spur of the moment. For me, to write is to think so the last word usually occurs to me well after the conversation is over. But because the eVolution debate happened online and I have some control it, being one of the creators, I have been able to give myself time to reflect and reread essays and comments, and finally to hone what I want to say.
I would like to begin by digressing.
There is a form of book not yet mentioned in these debates, called samizdat, and I feel that it might be mentioned aptly in this last post, because of what it is and what it signifies about writers and books and readers.
For those who do not know, samizdat was originally a Russian neologism meaning, literally, self-published. It does not mean self-published in the sense that we mostly use and understand it, as a process undertaken by a person unable or unwilling to go the traditional route to publication, via a publisher, who print their own book and makes it available by whatever means they can, also known as vanity publishing. The slur implied by the latter expression is unfair because while much that is self-published is indulgent and badly edited at best, unedited at worst, self publishing has also been a back door in for many great and competent writers who simply could not interest a publisher in their work. Some very big authors started out as self publishers and then found success with traditional publishers, while many a smaller self published author has found ways to sell and promote their work, though it may not be a volume that would satisfy a traditional publisher.
But it is the Russian form of samizdat [səmɨzˈdat] that I want to talk about in this essay. This form of self publishing was not simply a way for a writer to find an audience, but the key form of dissident activity across the Soviet Bloc. Individuals would type out censored publications or those that were unable to be published because the author was proscribed, and pass the book from trusted reader to trusted reader, or, more commonly, the manuscript was farmed out a few pages at a time to a pool of willing typists who would do their part swiftly, using carbon, so that there would be a number of copies that could be bound and circulated.
This practice enabled the evasion of officially imposed censorship but it was fraught with danger as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials. The texts published were not only forbidden material published outside the Soviet, and forbidden within it, but also work by Russian authors proscribed and therefore unable to get their work published. The practice of samizdat, was very far from being motivated by vanity. Indeed many people involved in it were harassed or gaoled. Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivargo and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous work detailing the horrors of the gulag system, Gulg Archipeligo, were both at one time samizdat publications.
My own knowledge of samizdat is not a matter of research but of family. My partner is a Czech writer and musician called Jan Stolba. He has been well published as a poet and critic since communism fell, (in 2007, he received the 2006 FX Salda prize for his book of essays), but during the years when the then Czechoslovakia was occupied and controlled by Russia, his writing was published in samizdat. He told me this quite casually, when he came across a samizdat copy of a book he had written one day when we were cleaning the book shelves. I held the slim little volume, awed because when he explained what it was, I understood it as a symbol of the length to which people will go to in order to write or to read what they choose. It seemed then and still seems to me to be a precious and wonderful thing.
Jan told me in Czechoslovakia, samizdat books were less dangerous to produce than in earlier times in Russia and that samizdat simply took advantage of a loophole. Printing books that were proscribed was not legal and in any case, a private person could have got access to a printer, there being strict regulations governing their operation. But typing was legal, and so books were typed in the ways I have described above, and circulated. Of course the regime was aware of the loophole and was working to close it by trying to criminalise people creating and spreading them, based either on the content of the books, or on the authors, if they were regarded as enemies of the regime. This varied from case to case. Writer Jiri Grusa was jailed for simply writing a novel, while nobel prize winner, poet Jaroslav Seifert, had his new book published both in samizdat, and after some pressure, by an official regime publisher.
When Jan’s mother, Eva Stolbova, received a medal recently, honouring her for, among other things, hiding the library of a major dissident during communism, I remembered what I had been told of samizdat books and had in mind that I would write about them in my final essay for the evolution debate. And reading through the essays this month, and the comments that followed, I was enchanted by the richness and variety and tenderness of the stories people told about what books and stories have meant to them, and sitting down to write my essay about stories told in samizdat, it struck me forcefully how much we need and are shaped by our stories.
And I thought about how writing and reading are inevitably regarded by totalitarian regimes as dangerous and potentially subversive activities, which might undermine the ideals underpinning the abiding power structures. These activities have therefore been ruthlessly controlled to ensure they promote and glorify that power. Anything that did not do this was repressed or stamped out. It is impossible to imagine that any writer, working under these constraints, should not be aware of the potential power of his or her pen to oppose or support the regime. I doubt any writer in Australia or the UK or England ever experienced this dark and heady sense of dangerous potency when they sit down to write, unless they are refugees from countries where writers are routinely harassed and imprisoned for what they write.
I tried to imagine how it would feel to be a writer in a totalitarian society –to know I possessed a dangerous and subversive potential that might be used as a weapon against tyranny and oppression, but which might also be cowed and bent to the will of Big Brother. Reading books like DM Thomas’s The Flute Player has allowed me to enter into that world as a shadow and to wonder if my books, viewed through that paranoid glass, would have been regarded as failing to tow the line. I am no hero, no warrior. So what would I have done, had I been forbidden to publish? Given that I can more easily imagine giving up breathing than writing, I know I would have written. I hope I would have written what I wanted. I might have resorted to samizdat eventually, though had I known people typing or reading my books might be harassed or gaoled, it is possible I might never have tried to publish what I had written. After all, I wrote for years to begin with, never even thinking of publication.
But I am not a proscribed writer in a totalitarian world. I can write what I want and I do. I do not consider readers or editors or critics when I write. I do not think of undermining the regime. I do not feel called upon by duty to write in a certain way or to cover certain events. For me, as I said at the outset, writing is thinking, a seeking of comfort, a solace, a striving to understand my relationship to the world. I would love to think my books incidentally rattled the cages of ideologies and attitudes I find repellent, but that is not at all in my mind when I write. Indeed I aggressively defend myself from any suggestion that I write in order to affect or teach or preach or instruct. Somehow it is important to me, that my writing is not seen in this light.
It struck me at this point that perhaps the purpose of writing and reading was no more a constant and fixed than the nature of reality. The reasons people have written throughout history, are various and subjective and might even change during the course of a lifetime of a reader or writer. Witness all the many ways and means people in the essays produced and accessed stories. Form was surely just another shifty variable. What mattered most was the story itself. The need we have to make and to consume story. Wasn’t that what the essays and the threads of comments unspooling avowed over and over- the importance of story over form; the fact that stories will be told, one way or another, because we humans seem to need them. None of us could conceive of a world without stories. And what was form ultimately, but a vessel for story, moreover one that has been changing and changing over history. Before writing, there was oral story telling or songs and chants acted out or danced by costumed tellers. In this time, stories were regarded as a kind of magic. Then there were clay tablets and pictures on cave walls. Then illuminated books few could read, then printed books and now we have e books and enhanced books and who knows what the next form will be. And no doubt each time the form changed, there was unease. Think of the disquiet when the first monk read silently to himself rather than aloud, as had previously been traditional.
Isn’t that why so many people of my age and older are alarmed by technology they do not understand, by what it seems to ask of them, by how it reduces their knowledge to irrelevancy and anachronism. (Read the below piece by Min, who had to deal with much of the fear and aggression and (at least on my part) doddering incomprehension during the creation and maintenance of the launch site.)
But does not the resistance and unease about new forms of story, along with the nostalgia for print book forms, arise from of our profound need for story, and the fear that somehow, the change in form will deny it to us? Technology is changing so fast that the gadget you brought and struggled to master a month ago, is already obsolete, which means buying and figuring out the next and the next and the next new thing. And if you can’t figure it out, will story be denied to you?
I sympathise. But, I, who grew up in a world with no computers or internet or email or iphone or mobile, use all of these things with increasing ease to negotiate the world. It was no simple matter to get my head around them, but bit by dogged bit, I did. And so, mostly, have all of you. And while we feel we have no control, we do. I have ceased to buy new computers. I don’t use my phone for anything but calls and texts, and I have vowed not to buy anything new, just because it is superseded, until I must. I am committed to not letting the world push me around. I will consider these new things and decide what I want and need. I will not allow my needs be dictated to me. This means if you really don’t want books in other forms, you can exercise your choice and buy them as print books. If not in shops new, then in second hand shops, or online from Amazon or Book Depository, or as simple kindle E books, without enhancement. You can borrow books from the library and go there and read them. You can exchange them with friends.
So, if the fear and aggression and dislike for new forms and the nostalgia for old, merely confirms the necessity for story, this would seem to lead me to conclude that ultimately, form does not matter.
Except that I think it does.
Think of samizdat books. The form of samizdat does not distinguish itself only by the stories it carries but also by its physical self. Hand typed, often blurred with thin crumpled pages possessing numerous typos, enclosed in covers that are deliberately inconspicuous, a samizdat book differs sharply in appearance from texts published by the state and even Western Literature. Samizdat books were, by their form, making a statement, so much so that in time dissidents in the USSR fetishized them to the extent that the form of samizdat took precedence over the ideas expressed within it. The form itself came to signify the resourcefulness and courage and rebellious spirit of its creators, so that the reading of a samizdat book became a prized and clandestine act.
So forms do matter- sometimes, they matter terribly.
And eBooks and enhanced books are as ‘real’ as print books- certainly I think the preceding essays have shown over and over that the notion of ‘real’ is flexible. And as for new forms being less poetic and beautiful, less intense and lovingly conceived, I doubt anyone could think that after reading some of these essays and posts. Coding is clearly already a passionate form of poetry to its converts, and while I might struggle with the technology, I hunger too much for the stories the new forms might offer, to stop struggling to learn how to access them.
And while I might regret the fading of forms of story that have meant much to me, they have not ceased to exist. Nor do I think they will cease to exist. So I can experience the classics in their original form: as print books, or on my kindle as straight unenhanced text. But I can also feel excitement and curiosity about what stories will be told with new technologies and in new forms that we cannot now conceive. Indeed, it may be that new forms are necessary to allow the tales of their time to be told.
For in the same way that we co evolve with our technology, our stories and the forms they come in, co evolve with us, too.
— Isobelle Carmody