Monday, February 18, 2008

Whom do we serve?

Madeleine L'Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time and many other works wrote:

“When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping in of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look, and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don’t remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work.”

Here she describes the act of writing as something that is done both consciously, but also unconsciously or what she calls "a moment of unselfconsciousness" which means "letting go and serving the work."

Sister Wendy Beckett, the narrator of several BBC documentaries on the history of art, told Bill Moyers in an interview that "all great art is a visual form of prayer, although the artist may not know it." Often Sister Wendy would stand before a painting in the National Gallery in London or elsewhere and talk about how a painting went beyond the artist - if it was only just an extension of the artist's imagination, an artist's invention, it would be interesting, but it would not be art. Art transcends the artist, art is a collaboration with the Holy Spirit and great art is greater than the artist. The art is greater because it is true.

The artist serves the work, not the other way around. In fact, much of the artist's adventure is made up of letting go, of giving up control, of setting it free as much as a mother raises her child to be independent.

J.K. Rowling has been making statements of late describing her relationship with the work, her series of books on Harry Potter. But she doesn't use artistic words to describe her relationship with the work. For example, J.K. Rowling has consistently described the creation of her work as her invention. "I spent a lot of time inventing the rules for the magical world so that I knew the limits of magic. Then I had to invent the different ways wizards could accomplish certain things. Some of the magic in the books is based on what people used to believe really worked, but most of it is my invention." Over and over again we find Rowling describing her creative process as though she was an inventor.

We can't really imagine L'Engle or C.S. Lewis or even J.R.R. Tolkien describing themselves in a similar way. In fact, when you read their commentaries of their own works, they seem to relate to the work as though it all ready existed and they merely found it. They are adventurers who have been to those "undiscovered countries" and have returned to bear witness to what they saw.

This afternoon at home, I came across a book called "The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia," which was published in 2006. When it uses the word "Encyclopedia," it means it. It is a big, coffee table sized book, 735 pages long with a CD included that contains references, cross references, and cross-cross references of every song, musician, idea, footnote, more footnotes, and even more references to anything written or sung by Bob Dylan in forty years. And it was written before Bob's Radio Show went on the air - which will end up being a Volume Two all by itself. It is an interpretation of Dylan's works, a glossary and explanation of terms, references, titles, objects, writers, personalities, biographies, places, events - the list goes on and on about what could be said is an "invented" persona called "Bob Dylan." Put together by one Dylan expert, it is that one man's catalogue - his interpretation of what matters most in Bob Dylan's life and career.

An entire book - in fact, an entire library still cannot contain or explain the mystery that is this "invented" persona called "Bob Dylan." Is he real - or is he invented?

The mystery has fueled several generations of speculation about his music as many have tried to solve the riddles that abound in his works. His current radio series just adds to that mystery. Every so often he grants an interview or he writes a book and instead of having it all explained, he just produces even more mystery. When asked about that by 60 Minutes a few years ago, Dylan merely smiled and said, "It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I'm holding up my end … to get where I am now." Ed Bradley then asks him, who did he make the bargain with? "With the Chief Commander," Dylan replied. "In this earth and in the world we can't see."

Since the release of Deathly Hallows there has been a "powering down" in the HP reading community regarding discussions and musings concerning her work. Podcasts have announced that they are ending. Discussion Boards are dormant. It's as though the air has gone out of the tires. While people are still discussing the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and even Shakespeare himself, J.K. Rowling has made it quite clear that if there's going to be any official explanations about her work, they are going to come directly from her, the inventor.

She went on a U.S. Tour where she spent considerable time "explaining" the works to agreeable children and fans, staying away from more in-depth interviews with those who would seek to explore the deeper meanings of her work (like John Granger, for example) - and how much of it she knows herself and how much she actually doesn't know. It's as if she doesn't want to enter the realm of discussing the process of her "inventions" as it may reveal, as Dylan has, and that no one can completely invent "art" out of nothing, especially when it comes to literary works.

Why is this?

It appears that there is now a full fledge war breaking out over traditional publishing methods and the global forms of communication now available through the net. This is true not only with literary works, but music as well, as we learned recently from Paul McGuinness, manager of U2, who offered quite a tirade recently against iTunes and other electronic forms of music dissemination. He wants to slice up the pie and get a percentage out of every bit of the pie. If you buy a song on iTunes, he wants there to be charge for every single use of that song - be it burned to a CD for you own use, loaded on to your iPod for your own use, or saved on your computer for your own use. Anything less, Paul says, is "stealing."

Copyright laws are not necessarily international, but trademark laws can be - and so all of J.K. Rowling "inventions" are trademarked or branded, which - like Mickey Mouse - can be controlled by the corporation. The Golden Arches are the Golden Arches in Peoria as well as Peking. What has been true for corporate brands now seems to be pursued by corporate publishing entities seeking the same branding for literature, the written word.

The words themselves are brands.

Now it's not just music or images or brands that corporations are charging can be "stolen" - but now it could be actual words. The words themselves are branded. No wonder J.K. Rowling calls herself an inventor rather than a writer.

Several years ago, TimeWarner hit websites very hard about using images from the Harry Potter films, threatening webmasters with lawsuits if they used the images. Disney had all ready been quite successful in having its images removed from websites that were not controlled by them. Warner Brothers was following in their footsteps and then, suddenly, it all stopped. It was as though a new marketing scheme was now being employed where - instead of threatening lawsuits against enthusiastic fans - they would actually encourage the use as another way to market the films and products. They have now mastered that by cultivating the webmasters to be "insiders" in the Warner Brothers marketing scheme. Other corporations have followed suit.

Well, except for one webmaster: Steve Vander Ark, who did not apparently play along so well. He received enormous support for his Harry Potter Lexicon - so much so that J.K. Rowling bestowed on him one of her early Fan Site Awards and talked about how much that site helped her in the writing of the books.

But when he went to publish the Lexicon in traditional print, it turned out that Warner Brothers had laid out a minefield with its trademarking of the "words" from the books and not just the images from the films. If he used the words, "invented" by J.K.Rowling and published those "words" he was stealing. In copyright law you can use "quotes" in your works with attribution, but now with trademark law being applied to intellectual property - even individual words, to use that word alone would be stealing that word. To publish an encyclopedia using trademark words would be an infringement on the inventor's control. Steve Vander Ark is now sued for using the trademarked words in his published but not-yet released Encyclopedia. His case is now being defended by the law center at the University of California Law School at Stanford.

What Time Warner seems to be banking on is that if the trademarking of intellectual property is upheld in the U.S. Courts, that the same came applied to the internet worldwide. Then it will not just be images that will be controlled - but actual words - and words are what really matters on the internet.

In order to have free speech one needs free words. If the words are trademarked, what will be free? Stanford, just up the road from Berkeley, seems to be paying attention. Are we?

Let's use one of J.K.Rowling's trademarked words to make the point. That word is Horcrux. According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, citing a "Diary" entry by J.K. Rowling on her website, a Horcrux "is the receptacle in which a wizard has hidden a fragment of his soul for the purposes of attaining immortality." It is considered evil and dark.

Is that not what the practice of trademarking words to control the intellectual property and its use is? Is it not a way to hide fragments of an artist's soul into those "words" for the purpose of attaining a different sort of immortality - a financial and controlling global immortality? A corporate immortality? Perhaps.

But at what cost to intellectual freedom of speech and expression? At what cost to the artistic creativity of generations to follow?

No longer could there be opinion pieces published in books on what constitutes a Horcrux or how Horcruxes are at work metaphorically in our culture or what a Horcrux™ might mean in the life of J.K. Rowling. Anything having to do with the writing about Horcruxes™, as in an encyclopedia or in a descriptive essay will be controlled by the "inventor" (formerly known as the author) in her vaguely-promised Scottish Book.

Let us recall again Madeleine L'Engle's description of the art of creating stories when she reminded us that "there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work." Serving the work and letting go spurs on more creativity and opens windows into the soul which inspires even more creativity.

It is anything but a Horcrux™.

NOTE: Conversation may be brewing over at ShellCottage as well.


Anonymous said...

In Walking on Water, Cosmos from Chaos, Madeleine L'Engle describes writing (art) as a huge lake being filled with rivers great and small. Our work is to serve the lake with our contribution, whether it is powerful, or mere trickles.

That idea has carried me along for 28 years.

M Polli said...

Mary, great piece. I almost feel bad for Jo as she is so bound by all of these laws. It's maddening with it gets to such a point that the fandom is so heavily restricted. There are two sides to every story. Jo has hers. But not allowing such a resourceful and well known website dedicated and promoting the creator's invention, write something in about that, I think is a little mad. I don't know who is pulling the strings here. I would rather hope it's WB and not Jo. She has always seemed so grateful to her fanbase, I don't want to see her tarnish her relationship with us. She has written such a wonderful series that ended so magically with Deathly Hallows... I was under the impression that the short and rather off the cuff epilogue (the only thing that so many of us fans seem to actually dislike about book seven as she did a great job with the rest, IMO) was so that she could hand over the series to her fandom and let us explore it as she has for the last eighteen years. She may have 'invented' the work Horcrux but that doesn't mean others can't legally publish HP related material. It is getting all a little crazy really.

Oh and just one little thing I wanted to share...
I must say most of the boards and forums I tend to are still very active. Podcasts may be slowing down and the forums may not be as active because our fandom thrived upon theories and speculation. It was huge and the base of so many podcasts and forums. Now a lot of that is gone. And with the impending Encyclopedia coming out, it seems there won't be much left for the fandom to really get their teeth into. THough I still see a lot of activity at the forums I visit. They wren't as busy before and during the release of book seven but neither were the LotR forums before or now that the movies are all done with.
And you have to look at the audience that the fandom consists of. It was largely younger adults and children. Whilst they ,may now not be petrolling the forums like before, things such as wizard rock, Potter art and fan fiction are out in huge numbers, bigger now before. And look at the adult communities like SoG and Hogs Pro. They still have their large adult fanbases, and very few have dwindled in numbers. Where as Lewis and Tolkein's fanbases' are generally older, and thus I find more are expressing themselves via forums where as the HP generation has almost moved onto other medias such as music, art and fan fiction, all being very big commodities today. It's quite amazing how this group of fans has really taken the fanbase to a whole new level.

Lets just hope WB and Jo can allow us to enjoy it without constricting us to the point of loosing interest.

GREAT essay. You bring up a lot of great points.