Why is BoJack Horseman so popular? Simple: it’s real

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If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.

That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:

“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”

Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.

The power of the image

Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.

Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.

In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.

Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.

Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.

Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: 

“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”

The problem with materialism

BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.

An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.

The irrationality of society

For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.

There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.

In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?

Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.

Beyond the fiction of reality

This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.

Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.

And that’s why we need it.

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Originality and self-discovery through reading

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Writers are always told they ought to read more: to learn the rules, to understand the language better, to figure out which stories work and which don’t. As Stephen King notes, you need to “read widely, and constantly work to refine and redefine your own work as you do so.”

Yet is there a greater power literature has that can help improve a writer’s skills? Something that goes beyond a simple ‘monkey see; monkey do’ instruction tool?

German born poet, novelist, and painter Herman Hesse touched upon this power in a 1920 essay simply titled ‘on reading books’. Arguing that reading books helps spark something within our minds that other form of media fail to do, he suggests that the act of reading helps improve our associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. He writes:

At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

Reading, then, can spark a person’s imagination in such a way that genuinely new and unique ideas can flourish. Just as solitary exercise can stimulate the creative energy required to produce original pieces of work (as we’ve detailed here), reading is important to writing, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating – solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

As US President Theodore Roosevelt opined when asked whether he saw there to be any ‘rules’ for the act of reading himself:

“[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

Intriguingly, though reading is a solitary act, it can make a person feel less alone. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay ‘Flight’:

“Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others.”

If it is true that the most important qualities to be a writer are imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus, reading avidly helps curate and foster these skills. Yet in the process of reading so much, we can step beyond simply doing what we ought to be doing, and discover more about the world; and also ourselves.

 

 

How poetry can make you rich

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The treasure chest? Photo courtesy of Forrest Fenn

If more people knew that poetry could make you rich, perhaps there would be fewer bankers and oil tycoons trying to destroy the planet. Yet this is a secret not often spoken: that you really can make your fortune through poetry (well, specifically, one poem).

It all begins with a treasure chest – as so many good stories do – and an ageing octogenarian with a lust for adventure, and literature.

In the late 1980s, Forrest Fenn, a billionaire art dealer, was told he had terminal cancer. Deciding to go out with a bang, he sold his art gallery, many of his possessions, and purchased a suite of ancient artefacts, gold coins, and a Romanesque treasure chest dating from 1150 AD. Within this box he placed his treasure, and prepared to walk into the desert, chest in hand, and end it all with a bottle of whiskey and 52 sleeping pills.

But his cancer never returned. In 2010, Fenn decided to go ahead and hide his treasure anyway (just this time without his accompanying dead body).

He struck out into the wilderness and hid the chest, then wrote a cryptic poem that – if deciphered – would act as a map that would lead one intrepid poetry-loving explorer directly to their fortune.

Eight years later – the chest remains resolutely hidden and unfound. While Fenn claims one hunter came within 200 feet of the treasure, the poem has not been fully deciphered.

If you fancy laying your hand upon an estimated £1.9 million treasure made up of gold coins, pre-Columbian gold animal figures, Chinese jade carvings, a 17th-century Spanish ring with an inset emerald, rubies, sapphires and diamonds, all you have to do is crack the poem, which he included in his memoir ‘The Thrill of the Chase’.

To save you time, we’ve copied the poem out for you here below in its entirety:

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As I have gone alone in there

And with my treasures bold,

I can keep my secret where,

And hint of riches new and old.

 

Begin it where warm waters halt

And take it in the canyon down,

Not far, but too far to walk.

Put in below the home of Brown.

 

From there it’s no place for the meek,

The end is ever drawing nigh;

There’ll be no paddle up your creek,

Just heavy loads and water high.

 

If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,

Look quickly down, your quest to cease,

But tarry scant with marvel gaze,

Just take the chest and go in peace.

 

So why is it that I must go

And leave my trove for all to seek?

The answers I already know,

I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.

 

So hear me all and listen good,

Your effort will be worth the cold.

If you are brave and in the wood

I give you title to the gold.

Seems easy, right? Well, before you embark on your epic adventure, be warned: six treasure hunters have already died in their respective quests for Fenn’s chest. Some have drowned, others have fallen down cliff faces and sheer drops.

When pushed on this matter, Fenn insists the treasure is not in a dangerous or inaccessible place – and suggests people seek the treasure in the warmer months, when the terrain is less hazardous.

Some treasure hunters have branded the entire exercise “nonsense” or “a hoax” – yet Fenn remains unmoved. He claims the chest is in the Rocky Mountains, north of Santa Fe and around 5,000 ft above sea level. Of people who have gone missing or headed out into the desert, he says they have simply misinterpreted his poem:

“If your solve is in the desert. Get a new solve.”

What is perhaps most interesting about this entire endeavor is not that thousands of people worldwide have struck out in the hope of finding buried treasure – but that even more have attempted to decipher and engage with a simple 24-line poem.

Over the years, Fenn’s poem has inspired Talmudic interpretation. One Searcher on the website Fenn Clues posits that, based on the first line, “We are almost surely looking for a location that satisfies ‘alone.’ So, a Solitary Geyser or a Lone Indian Peak would fit the bill.” Other determinations are more arcane. Some ‘searchers’ – as those who have set out to find the treasure refer to themselves – insist the “blaze” in the 13th line refers to a turtle-shaped tattoo on the chest of a character in Marvel’s illustrated version of the 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans.

If only Alfred Lord Tennyson and Sylvia Plath had hidden more chests of ancient treasure – perhaps every English teacher’s job would have been made that much easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Eaves makes Goldsmith Prize shortlist for second time

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Will Eaves makes the shortlist of the Goldsmith Prize for the second time.

The Goldsmith Prize – the literary award for “fiction at its most novel” – has nominated the author for the second time for his acclaimed novel Murmur, inspired by the real-life tragedy of Alan Turing.

Published by CB Editions – an exemplar of quality in independent publishing – Murmur follows The Absent Therapist as the second of Eaves’s books to be nominated for the prize.

It should perhaps come as little surprise to see Eaves on the shortlist once again. His work has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of modern literary writing, with Murmur, in particular, a real treat. As Nothing in the Rulebook’s own Professor Wu wrote:

“For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.”

The Goldsmith Prize was co-founded by Goldsmiths and the New Statesman in 2013 to reward “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. In its four years it has launched new literary stars – Eimear McBride, who won the first prize – and changed the debate around what readers and publishers look for in a novel. Ali Smith has credited the prize with altering the publishing landscape: “The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago,” she told the Bookseller in 2015. “That, to me, is like a miracle.”

At a time when mainstream publishing so often seems concerned with publishing novels that are little more than copies of previously commercially successful novels, literary awards like the Goldsmith Prize are vital in supporting and promoting the work of new and adventurous writers.

Eaves has been joined by five other excellent authors, each with searingly original books of their own that very much hold the potential to reshape the way we approach the construction of novels.

Indeed, as Professor Adam Mars-Jones notes: “the 2018 shortlist offers a tasting menu of all that is fresh and inventive in contemporary British and Irish fiction. There’s poetic language here, not all of it in the verse novel selected, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take.  There’s the language of the streets, fighting to be heard, in Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City and the language of an overmediated world in Olivia Laing’s Twitter-fed Crudo. There’s a cool survey of the unbalanced present in Rachel Cusk’s hypnotic Kudos, while the deceptively quiet unspooling of Gabriel Josipovici’s The Cemetery in Barnes shows the powerful effects that can be achieved without ever raising your voice.’

The full list of shortlisted books is below:

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Rachel Cusk – Kudos

Will Eaves – Murmur

Guy Gunaratne – In Our Mad and Furious City

Gabriel Josipovici – The Cemetery in Barnes 

Olivia Laing – Crudo

Robin Robertson – The Long Take

The winner of the award will be announced on 14 November. More information on the award can be found online.

Check out Nothing in the Rulebook’s interview with Will Eaves here. 

Crime and punishment: rehabilitation through reading

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“In your cell reading, it’s like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus.” – Anonymous prisoner, HMP Pentonville, UK.

3 years ago, the UK High Court overturned a Conservative government-imposed ban on books inside prisons. Campaigners argued that books were an integral part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners, and a number of charities, notably The Reading Agency and Books to Prisoners have long championed literature as a tool of redemption and education.

Let’s explore this in more detail.

Transformation and metamorphosis

Books that seem to be popular among many prisoners are those that hold pertinent messages of transformation, like Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. These stories seem to help inmates craft a new identity for themselves – convincing them of the possibility of not only surviving but even thriving within the tough environment of prison.

And, with an estimated 50% of UK prisoners unable to read or write, the ability to access books, or participate in reading groups, provides not just motivation; but other practical skills, too.

Rod Clark, Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust, explains: “a seemingly simple book can be incredibly valuable to someone serving a prison sentence – from teaching him or her to read, to developing a love of learning, to feeling empathy for characters to encouraging people to tell their own stories”.

A great escape

An age-old, oft-made joke is that you can escape prison by reading a book. But it’s not simple escapism that literature offers those serving hard time; but something far more important – hope. For prisoners who are able to access and engage with literature – at whatever level, freedom doesn’t have to begin for them when their cell doors are opened and they are finally allowed to walk back out onto the streets in some distant future. It can begin immediately – whenever they open up the pages of a book.

This isn’t simple idealism. Rather, it is based on hard evidence that reading can dramatically improve the lives of prisoners. In the Critical Survey, ‘Reading for Life’: Prison Reading Groups in Practice and Theory, research concluded that another vital benefit of providing prisoners with books to read was that it helped alleviate feelings of depression. The author of the survey, Josie Billington, explains:

“A rich, varied, non-prescriptive diet of serious literature […] proved especially important in encouraging participants to engage in discussion and address their depression directly.”

The survey found that, not only were inmates starting to claim direct benefits of feeling happier, more content as a result of the literature they were reading; but that they were becoming more self-aware as a result of reading it. The authors note that there was “a significant proportion” of prisoners who found that, by engaging with specific set texts, they were able to rediscover old or forgotten, suppressed or inaccessible modes of thought, feeling and experience.

That prisoners, then, are often drawn to books about transformation may not be so surprising. For through their engagement with literature, many are undergoing a personal metamorphosis of their own.

As Wolfgang Iser recognised long ago, literature has the power to change and restore. This is because when you read a story, you can find yourself temporarily transported from bad, anxious, troubling or unhappy thoughts because of your absorption in a story. In this way, the relationship between a reader and a fictional work is different from that between an observer and an object – it is different from that between a viewer and a television set, also. It is an active relationship that requires the reader to possess a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend. Readers have to create worlds and characters for themselves, partly through their imagination, and partly guided by the author of any given text.

This is why readers become “caught up in the very thing they are producing,” as Henry James put it, which means “they have the illusion of having lived another life.”

Real rehabilitation

This is a powerful reaction to produce in a human being – and one that helps readers discover new awareness of empathy for others. When readers empathise with people in books, they are mimicking the same empathy they would feel for people in similar situations in real life. For prisoners who have often struggled with notions of the impact their actions have on others, this is a critical part of their rehabilitation.

Again, this proposition is based on hard evidence. In 2014, the UK Ministry of Justice produced a report that indicated prison inmates who had access to educational courses that focused heavily on literature and reading were 8% less likely to reoffend than those who did not have access to such courses.

Freedom through literature

What all this seems to come down to is the way prison, in its current form, is designed not only to keep inmates physically confined; but mentally restricted, too. Yet by closing down the thoughts of prisoners, you restrict the opportunity for their minds to perceive of the world as a land of opportunity and freedom; and instead only as a place of narrow paths that likely follow the same routes that ultimately lead back to prison.

Literature – and access to it – changes such a worldview. Reading helps support the inquisitive mind of the individual human to discover new ways of looking at the world. As John Steinbeck wrote:

“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”

So, let’s make the case to help prisoners free their minds through books; let’s make this the moment when prison libraries are given due attention, improved where necessary, made much more accessible for all prisoners and put at the heart of a learning culture in prisons. Through prison libraries and reading groups, it might be possible to create an oasis of sanity and a door to a new world.

 

 

 

 

Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

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Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

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Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

Not to be published for 100 years: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang is the latest author to join the Future Library project

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You will have to wait a century before you are able to read Han Kang’s Future Library submission. 

Man Booker prize-winning novelist Han Kang has been named as the fifth writer to contribute to the Future Library project – a 100 year artwork that will see her work unpublished until 2114.

Han Kang joins Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, and Elif Shafak as the latest writer to contribute to the public artwork, which was first conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Paterson said there was a familial bond between the authors involved in the project:

“I think there is a thread that connects all the authors together. There is this almost familial bond that we create with them. Like a family tree, and each author follows in the footsteps of the one before and through the annual ceremony we do create a chain of people who are connected through time and through the trees.”

Speaking about Han Kang joining the project, Paterson said:

“Han Kang expands our view of the world. Her stories are disquieting and subversive, exploring violence, cruelty, fleeting life, and the acceptance of human fragility. As 2018’s author, Han Kang makes us confront uncomfortable issues: injustice, pain, mourning and remembering; a shared loss of trust in humankind, alongside the belief in human dignity. She leads us into the very heart of human experience, with writing that is deeply tender, and transformative. I believe her sentiments will be carried through trees, received decades from now, still timeless.”

An entire forest planted to make books

As part of the project, one thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

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A path through the Nordmarka forest – where the footsteps of authors past, present and future will follow. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

“Pray for the fates of both humans and books”

Speaking about joining the project, Han Kang said:

“My first impression of the concept of Future library, was that it was a project about time. It deals with the time scope of one hundred years. In Korea, when a couple gets married, people bless them to live together ‘for one hundred years’. It sounds like almost an eternity.

I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write? Then I imagined a world, where no-one I love exists any longer. And in that world, the trees in Norway still exist, who I once met when I was alive. The clear gap of the lifespan between humans and trees struck me. This meditation is so strong that it has the power to directly open our eyes to the impermanence of our mortal lives and all the more precious fragility of our lives.

Ultimately, Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

Han Kang will hand over her manuscript in the Norwegian forest on Saturday 25 May 2019, everyone is welcome.

Are your darlings dead yet?

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Variations on the well-worn phrase “kill your darlings” have been handed down in writing workshops and guides for decades. Precisely who first coined the term is a matter of some debate, with it being attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, Chekov, G.K. Chesterton, William Faulkner and Allen Ginsberg. It has also been popularised by Stephen King, who wrote: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

But who said what exactly and when isn’t what’s important. What matters is the advice behind it is as good as it ever has been: because it’s true.

“Killing your darlings” offers three main benefits to your work. It can:

1) Enhance your characters and plot, cutting the bits (and people) who don’t quite fit – making your story more compelling
2) Improve the overall quality of your writing, meaning that your reader doesn’t have to drudge through laborious or self-indulgent prose to get at what you’re trying to say
3) Refine your self-discipline, so that you don’t keep wondering why the 3000 page manuscript you keep submitting to agents gets rejected all the time

What to kill…we mean, cut

Killing your darlings is one of the easiest ways to improve your novel. It’s a crucial part of the editing process. Here’s a short list of what you should be getting rid of.

Weak Characters. Those without strong personalities or purpose. Do they enhance your plot or affect your protagonists or antagonists? If not – you better get-a-murdering.

Unnecessary Plot Lines. Will your novel still work just as well even if you don’t have that sub-plot with the casino and the bank heist organised by some minor characters? If yes – then, you guessed it, it’s murdering time.

Note for an example of an unnecessary plot line – see Star Wars Episode VIII: The last Jedi

Pointless Metaphors and Similes. Sometimes we feel like going even further and just saying – cut all these out.

Backstory. If it isn’t plot – cut it out.

Unnecessary Scenes. As with extra plot lines; if the scene doesn’t cut the mustard, get your killing game on.

Bad sex scenes. We have an entire web-page dedicated to this topic. Too many authors (and agents and publishers) seem to think it necessary to include sex scenes so that people will read their book. But if you’ve just stuck a sex scene in there like a bad lover, or if your execution and technique is poor, it’s time to get killing again.

Fluff. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, your novel is nothing more than fanfare. Don’t hide behind unnecessary elements that will put your readers off.

Are you killing yet?

If the above hasn’t got you thinking about what might need to be cut from the work you’re currently writing, perhaps some sage advice on the power of the delete key from some of the finest writers will convince you to start murdering your beautiful little darlings.

Anne Carson – “Edit ferociously and with joy, it is very fun to delete stuff.”

Arthur Quiller-Couch – “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings”.

Ernest Hemingway – “Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much”.

Zadie Smith – “When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.”

Truman Capote – “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Kurt Vonnegut – “Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Helen Dunmore – “Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”

 

 

Familiar history: fascists attack bookstore in London

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With news that a small group of fascists have attacked an independent bookstore in London, it is easy to feel this may be a case of history repeating itself.

Bookmarks announced on 5 August that the store and its staff were attacked by “far right protestors wearing masks” the previous evening.

The owners of the store remained defiant, writing: “We will not let this happen! Never Again!”

Although physical damage to the store and its staff was minimal, the escalation in tactics deployed by right-wing protestors to specifically target a bookstore will appear to many to be a worrying turn of events.

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Nazis burning books in Germany

Watching the video of the attack – described as “an ambush” by one individual recording the video who appears to have the intellectual ability and wit of a rotting dog turd – certainly makes for troubling viewing.

Nothing in the Rulebook‘s very own Professor Wu said:

“Nothing in the Rulebook has previously cautioned against comparing the rise of extreme right wing groups in the US, the UK, and western Europe to the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Yet, as a creative collective (indeed, one which even has the word ‘book’ in our name), attacking a book store is where we draw a line.

There are too many similarities between events taking place today and those witnessed by those generations before us who were forced to live through the horrors of fascism; of persecution, censorship, suppression, restriction of individual liberties, and, ultimately, genocide.

Independent bookstores like Bookmarks play a crucial role in investing in new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds. Attacking places that allow truly free expressions of thought that seek to illuminate new ways of thinking speak to the fear those on the right have of genuine intellectualism. It is a clear sign that they fear the power of the written word; that they wish to disengage with what it represents (creativity; enlightenment; knowledge) so vehemently that they are willing to turn to violent, extreme methods of breaking free from its potential to influence and persuade those who are not so ignorant as them. Such violence is a sure sign for concern.

We now find ourselves in an age where the largest bookseller in the world pays virtually no taxes. Although Amazon allows micro-genres of fiction, such as Dinosaur Erotica, to flourish, it is no friend of the free-thinking liberal, or indeed anyone who would like to see the power of language used to fight the ignorance that threatens to bloom across the world.

At its heart, this attack was an attack on freedom of thought; not simply freedom of speech. The far-right often accuse the left of using political correctness to censor them; yet they are the ones attacking independent bookstores.

We therefore wish our comrades in Bookmarks and in independent bookstores across the world solidarity, success, and friendship. And we urge all readers to sign up to the Bookmarks solidarity event planned to take place in London. More than that – we urge you all to go out and buy books; to read books; and to go out and write them. Fascists wish to silence us, but we will not be silenced.”