Monthly Archives: April 2013

Old Writers, New Media

IMG_4587So, there I am, a write eejit, feeling overwhelmed by the level of New Media I haven’t mastered, when a thought occurs to me: How would writers in the past have handled today’s plethora of media technology. Would they have passed the proverbial buck and remained scratching away with their goose quills, or clacking away at their typewriters? Or would they have embraced it wholeheartedly? Given that many of the most enduring writers were ahead of their time, it stands to reason that they would have been hanging ten on the New Media wave. I posed the question to my wonderful, tech savvy, and well-read teen, and we riffed mightily. Here are the conclusions we came to.

Samuel Beckett, who rose to the challenge of reducing his later work to its most simple form, would be Lord of the Tweet: All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Worstword Ho, 1983) His retweet stats would be legendary.

Oscar Wilde, master of the sassy one-liner,  would have millions of followers on Twitter, and probably go mano-a-mano with Beckett in a twitter war: minimalism versus flamboyant provocatism: There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

Who can deny Shakespeare the title of King of the Sound Bite: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. (Twelfth Night)

Charles Dickens, a whizz-kid when it came to growing his audience, cornered the market on the serialized format, starting with The Pickwick Papers in 1836. “It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.” “But suppose there are two mobs?” suggested Mr. Snodgrass. “Shout with the largest,” replied Mr. Pickwick. He’d write epic, multi-chapter fan fiction. And Thomas Hardy would write epic Charles Dickens fan fiction.

Wordsworth would go apeshit over Instagram.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
IMG_4577 That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils…
(“The Daffodils”, 1807)

Jane Austen, Fairy Godmother of the RomCom, would give Julian Fellowes a run for his money, optioning the movie rights to all her bestsellers. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. (Letter to Mr. Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, 1815)

Mark Twain would have several Kickstarter projects running at once.

Mary Shelley would be tickled pink by the possibilities of CGI when bringing her ‘Modern Prometheus’ to life for the big screen, and insist on 3D. She and Ridley Scott would have long conversations about prosthetics. Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred. (Frankenstein, 1818)

Louisa May Alcott would be very active on Pinterest.

The Bronte sisters, well-known cat lovers, would, no doubt, find it impossible not to post cute kitty videos on YouTube.

Virginia Woolfe would make cryptic and overly personal Facebook updates. We have been to Rodmell, and as usual I come home depressed – for no reason. Merely moods. Have other people as many as I have? That I shall never now. And sometimes I suppose that even if I came to the end of my incessant search into what people are and feel I should know nothing still. (Diary entry, 1925)

Edgar Alan Poe, the big Emo, would post morose poetry, and black-and-white giffs of Bergman movies to his Tumblr account.                                                                                                                    But see, amid the mimic route                                                                                                                        A crawling shape intrude!                                                                                                                                A blood-red thing that writhes from out                                                                                                    The scenic solitude!                                                                                                                                          It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs                                                                                               The mimes become its food,                                                                                                                       And seraphs sob at vermin fangs                                                                                                                   In human gore imbued. (“The Conqueror Worm,” 1843)

James Joyce would embrace the challenge of writing a novel on his cell phone, and cause a minor scandal when his sexting with Nora accidentally goes public.

No doubt, these old dogs could teach us some new tricks.



High Jinks in the Harem


You’re a write eejit when you’re visiting the harem of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and all you can think of is that life here must have been an endless Turkish soap opera.

Forget the sex—the depiction of the harem as a den of endless orgies and plump naked women lying around, ripe for the plucking is largely a construct of the Western imagination—can you imagine the intrigues and scandals that went down? One would give a major body organ (and some did) to be a fly on the wall in the harem.

Harem paiting

John Frederick Lewis

The harem was the main living quarters of the Sultan, his dear old Mum, sisters, wives, children, consorts, female servants, and of course his concubines. It was a world of women—with the exception of the Sultan’s most trusted eunuchs, and the young princes who remained there until they came of age. The name harem says it all: sacred inviolable place, or forbidden place.

Each group had their own buildings, clustered around a courtyard. For example, The Courtyard of the Concubines, The Queen Mother’s Courtyard, or the Eunuchs Courtyard. There was a strict hierarchy in play. Novices lived on the upper floors, while senior staff, and most favored lived on the ground floor. The chummier you were with the Sultan, the closer your proximity to his chambers.

The Sultan’s mother—and yes, that would make her the mother of all mother-in-laws—wielded serious political clout, as did his wives. These lucky few could bend the ear of the Sultan in a highly confidential setting.

Courtyard of the Favourites

Courtyard of the Favourites


As you wander around from one stunning, tiled room to another, you can’t help imagining what it must have been like to be a young concubine in the 17th century. For a start, you’d need the prerequisite bona fides even to be considered for concubinage: be well-brought up from a family eager to curry favor with the court (or a kidnapped prisoner), young, intelligent, and relatively attractive—no hairy mustache or body odor. On arrival at the palace, you’d be handed over to a strapping, black eunuch who’d show you to your living quarters at the very top of the harem complex, far away from the luxurious quarters of the most favored consorts, and even further from the wives’ quarters, and so far away from the sultan’s boudoir you barely ever caught a glimpse of him. You’re dreams (if you weren’t pining for that cute village boy you’d left behind) of becoming one of the sultan’s favorite wives and bearing him lots of fat sons, and eventually becoming a great and powerful lady, all while leading a life of leisure and opulence, would be fading fast. You’d probably be put in charge of an older concubine who’d “aged-out” or never made it to the big leagues. And it would be her responsibility to show you all the tricks of the trade. All around you, you’d hear snippets of gossip from your fellow novices, and chatter from the eunuchs overseeing the household: who was in favor, who had betrayed a confidence, who had tried to run away. And sooner or later you’d be sucked into the daily dramas and intrigues of the harem, and find yourself succumbing to petty jealousies. Why was that snotty cow from Ephesus picked to dine with the Sultan and not me? She’s got fat ankles. Or, why did that girl with fur all over her back like a bear get to dance for the Queen Mother? You might find yourself second-guessing your special abilities; maybe my singing voice is rather like the screeching of the gulls. Or comparing yourself unfavorably to those around you: My bottom will never bounce like Zeynep’s when I walk. Before you know it, you’re in a right funk and instead of rejoicing in the good fortunes of your fellow inmates, enjoying their camaraderie, and learning from their experiences, you’re envying their success, and mixing up herbal potions to give your rivals genital warts.

Okay, so you’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this—this world is not too different from the world of writers. As we struggle with yet another rejection, it’s hard not to occasionally look on the achievements of our fellow writer’s without a touch of envy.

Permit me to flog this Turkish harem analogy to its death. Let’s plunge into the Hamam or traditional Turkish bath house. Here, in a scene that could be lifted from a Fellini movie, luscious naked women of all shapes and sizes, lounge on the heated marble slabs. Once the steam has opened the pores, the women take turns scrubbing each other, and massaging away the tensions of daily life, leaving a healthy glow of bonhomie.

As a community of writers, instead of indulging in petty jealousies and insecurities, we should all learn to be back scrubbers and ego massagers, knowing that our turn will come, and oh, how good it will feel.

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