In the beginning, or in what suffices as the beginning for the purposes of this post, thoughtful Samuel Richardson sat at his desk thinking about men and women (but more particularly women) and how they should behave in civilised society. He decided to write a book of conduct, otherwise known as a conduct book, but as he set out to write the thing he started to think of examples and scenarios. Then he thought about the kinds of people that would need to learn from these scenarios. Then he found himself putting together these scenarios in to some sort of plausible narrative, so the 'kinds of people' became characters. Then he found that he'd written really quite a lot and had actually invented something nobody had ever seen before in quite the same way. He decided to call it a 'Big Collection Of Fictional Stuff That Has Interesting Things Happening In It.'
But somebody else decided actually that it was a bit of a poor name, all things considered, and decided to call it a 'Novel'.
The novel was called 'Pamela', and was also otherwise known as 'Virtue Rewarded'. Lots and lots of people enjoyed 'Pamela', but there were some people that most assuredly did not, and it wasn't because it was a 'novel' but because it featured a serving girl who becomes the property of a wealthy man, who then uses her in all sorts of unconscionable ways, who then through the girl's 'virtue' becomes a Changed Man and they marry and live happily ever after. All this despite the fact that he'd been an absolute tool throughout most of the relationship. But back then society's moral were a little different to our own, because they didn't object to the tale of an abusive relationship made good, as much as they objected to the notion that a poor girl could evolve above her station.
It just goes to show, some people don't like change, don't like for their safe little worlds to be upset, whereas other people welcome it - and are enthralled by it.
One of the people who didn't much dig old Sammy's story was Henry Fielding. He wrote a book which, though considerably shorter, has also been termed a novel, but was perhaps more akin to the newspaperslashmagazine we Brits know as Private Eye, for it's tongue in cheek reportage style. It was called 'Shamela'. In this strange and carnivalesque tale Henry subverted Mr Richardson's characters, to make it appear that the serving girl of the story was manipulating the wealthy benefactor to her own greedy ends.
There wasn't really any such thing as copyright back then which, however right or wrong we might deem that to be, made all the borrowing and referencing make for extremely interesting reading on the part of the audience. You could even say these stories 'sprouted' from one another. There's a term for this in academic circles - it's called 'Intertextuality'.
Fast forward two hundred and sixty-two (ish) years to the present day and a lot of things have changed. Many many more frontiers have been broken. We have barreled right through the modernist era into the post-modernist era, which is also the era of many other things prefixed by post; post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-colonialist etcetera etcetera. It's like the critics and the academics want us to think that we are in the after-effect, that any literary movement of any significance has already happened, and thus that there are no more frontiers, no more limits, no more challenges for writers any more.
Except I don't believe that. Not by a long chalk. Because there are still voices that haven't been heard.
There is a philosopher called Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who wrote a tract, now famous in academic circles, called 'Can The Subaltern Speak?' In it she talks about people who, because of their position in a society that oppresses them, are unable or unwilling to communicate their true plight. These voices are not, and may never be, heard.
We are a long way from being able to hear the voices of the subaltern, but at Cowbird we can at least hear voices that might never normally find an audience. At Cowbird we are not only telling stories but we are communicating with one another, not in banal throwaway messages like on Twitter or Facebook, but through heartfelt vignettes, short stories, poems, anecdotes, philosophies. This is groundbreaking, because we are no longer authors and artists alone, talking to a world that cannot talk back. We are international. We are intertextual. We are vulnerable. We are strong. We are creative. We are inspirational. We are breaking boundaries. We are in a fine tradition for breaking frontiers.
(PS The photo taken above is of an interactive art installation called 'Wish You Were Where?', created by Debbie Goldsmith and Hilary Jack, that features a stack of luggage assembled together and a collection of tags that people can write on their favoured destination. To try and be clever I wrote 'LOST' on mine but you might struggle to make it out on the picture.)
(PPS Special thanks must go to Steve Pountney for providing me with the inspiration for this post, as his last entry reminded me of the fundamental interconnectedness of all people and things, across time and through space.)