Ollie Brock: Re-imagining the literary essay


I’m a freelance editor,
translator and researcher. I’ll just briefly introduce the project and then I’ve split the rest of it
just into advice I would give to somebody
starting a similar one – research, advice I’d give to somebody
starting a similar project – rights. And that’s about it. The other thing is, I am the visuals
for this presentation, I’m afraid. There are things
I could’ve brought along but we decided it wasn’t really
pertinent to what I’m saying. So, the London Review of Books
won one of the commissions for The Space with a pitch
to reimagine the digital literary essay. And if it isn’t obvious to you
what that means, you aren’t alone. It was deliberately an experiment. And as Will Self, the author
of the essay, has been reminding us, the word originally means an attempt. So it’s a deliberate exploration
of what might be done… that’s new in the literary world
where we are now, because up to here digital publishing
has often tended to mean a facsimile copy of something following the traditional route. You know, later, or at the same time, just sticking it on the internet
or whatever. It’s surprising how much of that
is still going on, considering how long
we’ve been in the digital era. So they wanted to see if you… Can you make a literary writing project
that is digital from its inception? So my part in that was to do research on
ideas that Will Self was sending to me, give him the results of that research
where possible, notes on it where it wasn’t. Hopefully that will have
fed into his creative process, along with a lot of other
digital content that was being produced by staff and students
at Brunel University, where he works, and various other things. He filmed himself going to Prague,
filmed himself writing the essay, which I haven’t seen yet
but I’m looking forward to. And the essay is called Kafka’s Wound and it’s a theory… I won’t attempt to sum it up,
you’ll have to read it to find out, but it’s basically… A wound… The idea of the wound has been used
as a kind of overarching metaphor for a theory about our sense of humour
and also the way we perceive irony following the experiences
of the two great wars, the two world wars, excuse me. So my brief included Kafka manuscripts, footage of Franz Ferdinand’s
assassination in 1914, Prague between the wars, any European public intellectuals
talking about Kafka, German hyperinflation in the 20s, Renaissance paintings
of Christ on the cross featuring the wound from
the centurion’s spear prominently, the Nazi camp at Theresienstadt. And it was video, audio, stills,… text, anything else
that was of interest. And he really deliberately
didn’t make it… He didn’t really give me specific
instructions, quite deliberately. He just gave me those ideas
and said, “Go and find stuff.” And in fact, when I said, “Are you
planning this? Are you planning that?”, he declined to be specific. So he just said, “Find the things
that you think are the best.” So, to come on to practical points
that came out of this, you can imagine that
the institutions I could have consulted, the number of institutions was very big. Because that’s art, war,
medicine, literature. So my first piece of advice
in the section “Advice I’d give to somebody starting a
project like this in terms of research” is to find a few institutions that are
going to be useful and focus on them. I think I possibly made a mistake
of spreading myself too thinly and doing an enormous number of… Well, booking research appointments
straight away at all of the places I could think of, without planning, without investigating first whether
they were going to have much for me. And so I would say that it’s worth researching where to do
your research quite thoroughly. And the next point follows on from that. Once you’ve chosen a few institutions
that you think will be useful, and the two that were most useful to us were the Imperial War Museum,
for obvious reasons, it’s largely about conflict,
the project, or war, and the Wellcome Collection, who have
a huge collection on medical history. The next point is to try and form
a decent relationship there if you can. So where I could, I made a contact and had an initial conversation with somebody who knew
more about the collection than I did, and who can certainly fast-forward you through a process of
looking in an online catalogue. It was very, very helpful. There’s someone
at the Wellcome Collection who is a research engagement officer, and so it is positively his job to help people like me
find the things that we’re looking for. And it is amazing, when you think that you’ve got a library
catalogue on your computer screen, how much more
somebody who knows about it can do with that same screen and keyboard. There’s a corny anecdote about a plumber
going to someone’s house to fix a leak and he listens to the pipes
for, sort of, two or three minutes, takes out a hammer and taps one of them
once and then sends a bill for 100 quid. And the guy says, “You tapped one pipe
with the hammer once. What cost £100?” And he sends an itemised bill that says, “Tap with hammer, £1.
Knowing where to tap, £99.” And I think
that’s really important here. So use other people’s knowledge because I think researchers,
a bit like journalists, can’t be expected to be experts in
a given field at the start of a project unless you’ve been doing it a long time
and that’s why you’re being consulted. So borrow the brains of other people,
I would say. Which takes me on to the next point, which is talk about your project
as much as you can to friends, colleagues, and so on, because you never know what might come
up and save you a lot of research time. The last point in this section
is limit the scope. Because my brief was so big, he said, “Take all these ideas and basically anything else
that occurs to you and find cool stuff,” I had to… And because I was also hired
for an allotted time period, which may be applicable
to projects you’re doing, I had to find a point some way
through that where I needed to say, “This is all getting very interesting but a certain amount of time left,
a lot of practical stuff to do.” And following on from that
is having a good tracking system. And this takes us on to rights. This is a little advert for Google.
Sorry about that. I’m sure other people produce very good
open source, well, wiki spreadsheets, but because I wasn’t working
at the offices of the magazine mostly, but because somebody there was doing
most of the following up on rights, somebody else was doing the technical
receipt of material, and so on, the best way of doing it was for me to manage a spreadsheet
that contained all the info. Then you don’t need to ring people up
and email people, you just consult it,
see if something’s in yet, what format it’s in and so on. Oh, lastly on that, I budgeted my time
for research and rights clearance but I didn’t really think about,
this has been touched on already, how much paperwork would build up. And we had someone at the magazine
looking after that. As far as I can tell, it took up most
of her day for some days, or weeks even, because every time
you apply for something, there’ll usually be two processes. One is the licensing,
the other is production. And those might be completely separate, separate people, departments, costs,
different bits of paper, and you really need to have a person who
is going to be in charge of that process and they really need to have
plenty of time to do it because it isn’t just ticking a box. There’ll be lots of consultation to do
on the precise use and you have to be very sensitive about
material that belongs to other people. So this takes us on to the rights bit. Again, it’s been touched on,
but you can’t start early enough. And, again, a mistake I think I made was staying at the ideas phase
for too long. So I only wanted
to hand something on to the author when I had a decent grasp
on exactly what it was, what the relevance was to the project, and then I regarded
investigating the rights of that as a kind of admin matter. Actually, I don’t think
there’d ever be anything wrong with saying to people as soon as you arrive,
as soon as you start researching, “If I license photos in your archive,
how long would it take to produce them?” “What sort of prices are there?
Are we able to use them in this way?” And then right at the beginning,
you can start narrowing things down. And my chosen corny analogy here is
pushing a trolley round a supermarket. Nobody’s going to accuse you of
shoplifting if you leave it at the door or you put some items back
before you go to the checkout. You can start asking… You can negotiate rights
right up to signing a contract. You don’t want to annoy people
and take up their time unnecessarily. You can go as far as you like
without putting signatures on something to help you practically. So, yes, don’t hesitate to make
practical inquiries from the start, however much fun the research is. And be ready for that
to take up lots of time. I’m going to name a few examples
of things that we’ve used and how we got them. He wanted to look at the ways wounds
have changed in the 20th century. And we needed good depictions of that. And unsurprisingly,
now that I think about it, there aren’t very many pictures
of fresh wounds. It’s quite gory. It’s based on a passage in a Kafka story which features a very graphic
description of a wound. Unsurprisingly,
there aren’t many pictures of fresh wounds from minutes ago
in the trenches because people had other concerns. There are amazing collections
of pictures of people waiting for transfers
to field hospitals, the hospitals themselves, and so on. But I was put on to a series
of pastel portraits of soldiers
who had suffered facial wounds and had plastic surgery reconstruction by an army surgeon who was also
an artist called Henry Tonks. And the practical point here is
that came about from my conversation with the research engagement officer
at the Wellcome who gave me this name. And those things
weren’t in the Wellcome archive, they were with
the Royal College of Surgeons. I’d never have come across
this guy’s name otherwise. So that just came out of a conversation. The next example is
a fascinating, quite appalling film called Hitler Gives a City to the Jews. I don’t know if you know about it. It was a kind of sham documentary made at the Theresienstadt camp
in Czechoslovakia, designed to persuade the world that the… project was a sort of humane,
actually quite positive societal one of collecting up Jewish people,
putting them in these colonies where they were given lots of things
to do, lots of entertainments and so on. And it actually fooled the Red Cross and various other authorities
that were investigating. I got that just by Googling. I just… Someone had mentioned it,
Will Self mentioned it to me, but I just Googled, quite easily found
the National Center for Jewish Film, got in contact with them. They are very used to this, cos you can imagine
it’s a very highly-licensed thing. They sent me a viewing copy from
the States, I watched it, easy process. One point about easy processes is that they’re often with institutions
that are very used to these things because they have important material
which is therefore very expensive. So, a bit like a huge broadcaster, it will usually, in a practical sense,
be very, very smooth, and then get a huge bill at the end. Whereas a smaller organisation,
it’ll tend to be more complicated, there are fewer known processes,
and it will be cheaper. So that’s another Google advert,
I’m afraid. The third example is BBC Newsnight. I think Ben Green said, “Don’t assume
it’s going to be difficult.” And I couldn’t agree more. Because I thought, you know, it’s a BBC presenter
interviewing over a video link John Banville,
the Booker-Prize-winning novelist, about newly-found Kafka manuscripts
in 2010. I thought, “I don’t even want to try.” It was one of those onions
that definitely makes you cry. And it was free. Will Self wrote an email to John
Banville saying, “Can we use this?” He said,
“No idea what I said but go ahead.” I asked our Space mentor,
“Is this going to be hell on earth?” He said, “Let me check.”
He said, “No, it’s free, it’s yours.” So minutes later we had the item
I assumed to be the most complicated, the most rights heavy,
the most expensive. In brief conclusion, this experience of going to
all these different institutions, often not really knowing
what I was looking for… For instance, searching the IWM
audio archive for the word “wound”. You can imagine the results there. Not a very helpful
searching method of mine. It makes me dream of a kind of
supermarket, a one-stop shop, a bit like the Getty Images website, where you look at the thing, it shows
you loads of info, you click on it, license this, answer five questions,
£73, buy. You want that to be… We want one of those for everything,
in one sense. In another, we don’t,
because it would be less creative, probably less interesting, less potential for creative
collaborations and relationships, which I’ve talked about a bit. And the other thing is that
this stuff is valuable and important. And it’s probably important that it remain with the people
who know the most about it. So, one last point,
I know I’m going over my time. A Serbian man called Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and basically triggered
the first world war, there’s a photo of him being arrested. So there isn’t stock footage
of the moment where he shoots him, but there is a photo of him
being dragged away by police. And obviously quite an important guy,
quite an important picture, owned by the Austrian State Archive, who I tried to negotiate with
for a while on this. I don’t speak German,
they don’t really speak English, I got a letter with
lots of numbers and lots of words on. I said, “What does this really mean
for our purposes?” They sent me a letter and a PDF
attachment to an email saying, “We’re not going to negotiate
with you in English.” “We don’t do that. We don’t offer that.” And… you know, that’s fine. They didn’t do anything wrong. They own the stuff.
It’s a very, very important picture. And I don’t speak German.
What can you do? But they really didn’t
do anything wrong, if you like. You just have to accept
that this stuff is important. It’s with people who know how to look
after it and know how important it is and they’re in control,
for better or worse. We used a slightly lower-res one
from the internet. (laughter) Which is in the Commons.
It’s Creative Commons, that version. Just the very high-res one
is with the Austrian State Archive. – A disclaimer, yeah. Thanks.
– (Anthony) OK. Thanks, Ollie. (applause) Captions by internetsubtitling.com

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