Public Domain: One Way Forward

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As a writer who constantly needs to have multiple books open at my work-table, as well as poetry, news stories, films, and my own notes, I’m always annoyed at how much SIMPLER this process could be if many of these materials were freely available online. Now, lots of people complain about issues of ‘access’, but, even more important is the fact that new artists must reasonably engage with older works. This includes extended quotation, the re-use of elements and narratives, and other forms of appropriation that, if we’re dealing with the public domain, can all be done without the fear of lawsuits. Combine this fact with the proliferation of e-readers, and quality publishers, such as Delphi Classics, who neatly collate and optimize complete editions of writers’ and painters’ works for a mere $2-$3, and you have not only a way of deepening culture at an exponential rate, but a new business model, as well, wherein publishers have an incentive to perfect these otherwise free works by adding ‘extras’ (images, biographical notes, technical scholarship, etc.) that would simply be impossible in print books.

But, instead, America has a public domain model that allows copyright throughout the author’s lifetime (understandable, and justified) PLUS 75 years… that is, long enough for descendants to skim off of an artist’s riches, then further entomb them in a network of family lineage, publisher demands, and the divvying up of who-gets-what, as opposed to a more rational approach that would ensure culture benefits, first– which is, of course, the true aim of most great artists, who, being dead, can live in one way only. On a personal level, I’ve been annoyed, for instance, at the fact that I could not excerpt Wallace Stevens’s great Yellow Afternoon in full, in my own novel, Doors & Exits, no matter how relevant, or how long ago he’s entered the social imagination, decades after he’s died. On a deeper level, though, there’s something else amiss, and it has to do with the future of one of the best and most neglected poets of the 20th century: James A. Emanuel, whose current issues re: the public domain should alarm anyone with a genuine interest in art.

According to Dan Schneider’s recent essay on James Emanuel and the public domain, Emanuel was, prior to Schneider’s 2001 discovery, championing, and interview with the man in 2007, pretty much unknown. There were no interviews, very few poems online, and no essays on the man outside of what might be found in obscure academic circles, in a godawful niche called ‘black studies’– because, after all, that’s what the clueless academics have pinned him as, a BLACK poet who “wrote about racism” (to quote the New York Times obituary), despite Emanuel having many poems attacking this very condescension.

Today, however, his reputations seems better. This is despite the fact that his Collected Poems are still out of print, and can run for around $200 on Amazon, up from the $15 or $20 … Continue reading →

If George Orwell’s none too good, you better say why.

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George Orwell is a social force, but not really an artist.

George Orwell is a social force, but not really an artist.

I recently came across an article posted over at Reddit (link to discussion), re: George Orwell, and it immediately struck me as one of those faux ‘bad-boy’ envious types. This is not because the writer, Will Self, argues that Orwell was a literary mediocrity– in fact, I’d agree with this claim, even if I might be a little more charitable. The issue, really, is Self’s argument, in one of those moments wherein a person comes to the right conclusion about something, but seems to have little to no clue as to why it’s right. This always get me dismissive, because what good is a good opinion if its trajectory is unknown, and its origin dubious? In fact, it means that as the thinker hits upon new phenomena, he’ll be unable to analyze it, ill-equipped as he is for such tasks, and dependent on luck. Such is the case, here, and Will Self’s argument, after a series of overdone digressions, can be broken down as follows:

Orwell isn’t very good because he is too ‘unadorned’. In fact, he’s not simply a mediocrity, but– and after hundreds of potential examples, Self settles on Orwell– the ‘Supreme Mediocrity’ of recent English memory, mostly because he is too plain. In fact, Self goes on to blame his ‘prose style’, as if style, in and of itself, can be good or bad, rather than what is DONE within this style. He then points to the following Orwell quote as an explanation of the writer’s mediocrity:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Not exactly groundbreaking literary analysis, what with the invocations of ‘general collapse’, ‘decadence’, and other alarums that have been bandied about since the dawn of civilization, but not necessarily wrong, either. Language DOES go through periods of atrophy and decay, language IS abused via poor understanding of terms and definitions, categories, the mis-use of cliches, the non-belief in language, as a whole. And, of course, Orwell’s claim that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes” is 100% correct, and is, in a very real sense, a good explanation for art as a whole: that art is a means of higher communication, and that standard English, ghetto-talk, curse words, holy words, Latinisms, neologisms, derivations, non-derivations, etc., are not preferable to one another. They are simply ONE means to the same goal: Continue reading →