Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, “Toilet Books” on iPlayer (until 23 March 2009)

In a world of stratified markets, every special interest gets its own TV channel. If you’re hot for cars and stuff that explodes, you can watch Dave. If you like racy exploitation docs, there’s Channel 4. If you can simply never see too many expensively formulaic dramas about sexcrimes, Hallmark is your friend with a rolling schedule of Law And Order: SVU. So I’m expecting that very soon one of the networks will announce the launch of a channel to service my very own special interest: middle-aged men looking uncomfortable in suits while getting eloquently profane about how shit modern life is.

It could be called “Charlie” after the current king of being funny and a bit sneery. The idents could feature the channel’s stars looking really annoyed. You could even build the marketing campaign around pathetic puns on the channel’s name (“Coming up: Mark Kermode on Charlie!” – oh, how the laughter will ring out). Anyway, until someone picks up my obviously amazing idea, I’m going to be watching the very brilliant and funny Stewart Lee Comedy Vehicle on BBC2, Mondays, 10pm.

Last night, Stewart took on publishing in a routine that kicked at bloated blockbusters, misery memoirs, celebrity clag, the self-destructive discount economics of publishing and the depressing influence of supermarkets on bookselling (“Get yer books! Pile up the books! Get a multipack of books! Why not take an extra book home, put it in the freezer!”). “Did Willian Tyndale burn at the stake in 1536 in the cause of vernacular English literature so that you could read The Gospel According To Chris Moyles? No he didn’t,” says Lee. And he’s got a mardy, elitist, excellent point. Books can be radical and world-shaking, not just something you chuck in the trolley with the other consumables:

What does it tells us about our civilisation when the book is held in such low esteem that it’s possible to append the word “book” to the word “toilet” and make the compound word “toilet book”. […] Library book, yes. Children’s book, yes. Poetry book, yes. Toilet book, no. Toilet paper, yes. Toilet brush, yes. Toilet duck, you can have toilet duck. Toilet book, no.

Copyright kills

Copyright kills innovation (via No Rock And Roll Fun). During my masters in 2005, we had a tutorial about digital publishing and one of the texts for the class was this 1999 article by John Sutherland. After some descriptions of sharp practice by academic publishers, Sutherland gets down to the meat of what’s bothering him: the LRB, the TLS and the Guardian have all started republishing his work digitally, without paying a further fee. I don’t remember there being much sympathy for Sutherland among the aspiring young academics in the room. For one thing, I think most of us would have accepted publication on much worse terms than Sutherland was getting, and happily. For another, Sutherland’s distinction between the online and paper versions of a journal seemed absurd: the Guardian is the Guardian, whether it’s published in paper and ink or zeroes and ones. And lastly, I thought at the time of the seminar that there was something rather greedy about expecting to be paid in perpetuity for any piece of work. Sutherland’s final flourish in the article felt unearned:

One has to weigh advantages. The growth of databases and electronic archives is something to be encouraged. On the other hand, it would be unnatural not to feel alarmed at the commercial stranglehold which their creation permits. […] Freelance authors, as the romantic name for them implies, are less constrained than employees. Subservience is as corrosive in journalism as it is in academic research. Freedoms of thought and expression are at risk. Is this a price worth paying for the new conveniences of knowledge?

As students, the benefits of accessible knowledge were pretty obvious to us; the dangers of John Sutherland feeling “subservient”, not so much. After all, if knowledge isn’t accessible, it doesn’t matter how excellent it is. And as someone now trying to make money from writing, I’m more frustrated by my work being held offline than I am by the idea that there are people reading my words for free: I want to be able to use earlier work to advertise myself for new jobs, and I can’t do that through a convenient website when the publisher owns the copyright. I’m not denying that there’s a case for copyright, but the difference between my feelings and those expressed by Sutherland is that I expect being a writer to involve, you know, writing – rather than ticking along on the royalties from past work.

Paperhouse reads: Karen magazine

This arrived yesterday:

Karen cover

A magazine made out of the ordinary.

I ordered Karen after reading about it on Magculture. The magazine, put together by Karen Lubbock, has a very simple tagline which makes it something very unlike standard lifestyle junk. It’s about Karen – things she cooks, people she meets, stuff she thinks – but in an unassuming and generous way that makes it, more or less, about everything.


The thing is this financial crisis has hit the middle class that’s why it’s in thew news all the time. Maybe the middle class, will stop worrying about e-numbers now. […] What really matters goes across the board. It goes across class. What is it though? We’ve got to re-find it because everything has been covered over and hidden with s–t for years.

This is the only part of Karen that’s like a manifesto. The rest of the mag enacts it: what really matters is the food you eat, the people you live among, tatoos, mole trapping, found objects, snips of conversation. It’s absorbing and intelligent. The layout is supremely simple and supple: Helvetica, white backgrounds, point-and-shoot photographs combine artfully and and unfussily to make a magazine that’s beautifully consistent and subtly unexpected page-to-page.

Why do people buy unnecessary items?

Karen feels like an essential. Jeremy of Magculture talks about the best magazines being “a world apart, a place to escape to”: Karen is a place you disappear into and return from changed, refreshed, more fond and respectful of everyday life. It’s something really and truly out of the ordinary.


Some businesses trade in inconvenient physical artefacts as the vehicle for something else that’s actually desirable: the record industry sells CDs to people who want music, the film industry sells DVDs to people who want movies, the publishing industry sells books and magazines to people who want words. CDs and DVDs are niggling technological upstarts compared to the mighty book, and while the record and film industry have choked bitterly on the idea that consumers can now get what they want through the internet without the intermediary of a shiny little disc, books have been pretty much aloof from the internet’s ravening appetites.

Not any longer, according to Colin Robinson’s diary piece for the LRB, in which a redundant book editor explains the changes in the book market which led to him losing his job and ends up foretelling the DEATH OF SOCIETY. No, really. After totting up the sales of the Kindle, Robinson turns to look at “a wider, if less concrete threat to book publishing from the internet”:

Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

This is your basic social-networking-is-killing-social-life keening, a gentler version of the pathetic ‘Facebook is a terrifying instrument of youth decay (maybe)’ story that was knocking around the other week. The depressing thing about Robinson’s version of the ‘internets are bad’ theme is that he’s using it to discount what should be publishing’s best hope and mimicking the stupidities of the record industry by fixating on the idea that publishers sell books – instead of understanding that what readers want isn’t a hunk of paper, but the words printed on it.

Fair enough, Robinson’s just lost his job and that’s got to shake a body up. But ranting against mass literacy and specialisation is pointless: you can’t undo social developments just because they’re bad for publishers. Either the industry works out how to make a living from the internet, or it dies – and when the Authors Guild Of America does things like pressuring Amazon to remove the text-to-speech option from the Kindle, it seems as though publishing has already decided to go down fighting everyone.

There are a few assumptions in Robinson’s piece that feel right. Word processors and the internet make the production and distribution of text easier. The ability of the internet to put you in touch with people like you possibly gives more people the feeling that there’s an audience for their idea and encourages them to write. That’s not exactly the “increasingly self-centred society” that Robinson is berating, even if it does suggest likely problems with confirmation bias. And worse, Robinson has sort of missed the whole nature of publishing on the internet. Bloggers perpetually link to and comment on each other. Robinson’s piece, which is a straight posting of print material, not only doesn’t link to any other pages, it doesn’t even mention any other writers or what they have to say. From the evidence of his own column, it doesn’t seem like it’s the internet that has the problem with reading and listening.

Rupert Murdoch, champion of standards

Let’s not dwell on the journalistic atrocities he’s been responsible for,  Rupert Murdoch definitely knows about making money from the media. And if he says that:

Our competitors will be sorely tempted to take the easy beat, to reduce quality in the search for immediate dividends. […] Let me be very clear about our company: where others might step back from their commitment to their viewers, their users, readers and customers – we will renew ours.

then maybe just maybe constant margin-cutting (see today’s earlier post) isn’t such a bang-up solution to the traditional media’s problems. Or maybe it’s an ingenious bluff, and once all the other media companies have smothered themselves with production staff, News International will shake the lot off and romp home on Myspace-derived content. You never can tell with Murdoch.

Per Standard Blogging Procedure…

[Apology for not blogging here.] [Heartfelt resolution to blog more in future here.] [Explanation for lack of blog activity here.]

Actually, the explanation for lack of blog activity is here and here. It’s my first time making real magazines and – thanks to our dedicated commissioning eds, stunning contributors, fabulously talented art guy, and heroic publisher – the results are pretty impressive. Hitting the newstands mid-October.