A Bizarre Calm

For much of today BBC Radio 4 has served up a banquet for anyone with an interest in any or all of the following: reading, writing, publishing and authors. I was lucky enough to be behind the wheel of a car for some of the juiciest courses, starting with the final instalment of Robert McCrum’s three-part series, The Sins of Literature.

Ostensibly this episode was about plagiarism – an issue I have more than a passing interest in – having recently researched and written some articles on the subject for Encyclopaedia Britannica and CILIP. But the thirty minute programme covered a far greater range of ideas than just copying and theft: from Malcolm Gladwell proposing that we inhabit an interregnum between print and digital – the end of which will see seismic changes in copyright law, to novelist Sarah Waters on creating pastiches of Victorian genres partly through absorbing herself in the literature of the time, and then pushing the boundaries further than her earlier counterparts could.

A particularly striking feature of McCrum’s conversations with male and female authors on both sides of the Atlantic was the sequence of pithy observations from English journalist and novelist Will Self. Love him or hate him, Self is never short of the bon mot with a twist. In one short programme he likens authors to performing seals and describes the risks of contagen authors face when immersing themselves too deeply in the work of others. For this long-time observer of the book industry, his remark about how “bizarrely calm” publishers seem in the face of the impact of electronic reproduction and dissemination of writers’ work struck the most resonant chord.

This is first class public service broadcasting: a brilliantly balanced radio programme, available for seven days on the Radio 4 website. Give yourself a treat: go listen.

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