We The Humanities: Interview with Simon Groth, if:book

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

Today we’re joined by Simon Groth, a Brisbane-based writer and editor who also leads if:book Australia, exploring the future of literature in the digital age.

Simon is currently completing a doctoral thesis at Queensland University of Technology, which “sits somewhere between creative writing and media studies.” 

He explains:

I’m looking at how digital tools can be (and are being) used to change the relationship between writers and readers. In particular, I’ve been fascinated by the technical innovation of experimental writers from around the 1960s. These writers took radical steps such as removing the binding of books in order to give the reader greater control over the narrative.

Part of what I’m investigating is how contemporary digital tools can bring greater nuance and subtlety to this kind of innovation. It also means I have to write a novel-length work without a predetermined order of chapters, which at some point I’ll be turning over to a small group of ‘play testers’. Basically, it’s been a three-year study into how I like to make things difficult for myself.

My undergrad is in occupational therapy. I kind of fell into it because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. It was a great undergrad degree though: a lot of science (anatomy, physiology, sociology), psychology, health, and then a ton of electives where you were given a free hand to study whatever you wanted. So of course I chose to study Australian literature and Russian because that’s really what I was passionate about, apparently. Not much has changed really. I mean I still love Australian literature obviously and I’m still fascinated by Russian language and culture for no very good reason. It’s handy to know I can get from a train station to a hotel in Moscow, once I finally get there (it won’t be any time soon).

FWIW I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

How has your experience in occupational therapy shaped your relationship to the book, your research, and your creative work?

I didn’t work all that long as an OT, it’s been more influential in the way it has shaped my perception of the world. OT involves a lot of technical and analytical thought combined with strong empathy and a broader sense of social justice. The connection from that to my current work I’ll leave as an open question.

My experience at LifeTec (I spent nearly ten years there in a variety of roles) was hugely significant. LifeTec Queensland is an advisory service on assistive technology for people with a disability. For me it was a constant reminder that 1) “technology” can be as simple as a device to turn taps or as complex as home automation and 2) technology at its best can transform anyone’s life for the better. I get frustrated when “technology” is reduced to whizz-bang-silicon-valley-apps-and-gizmos rubbish or when it’s regarded uncritically, either positively or negatively (in other words, technological determinism makes me grumpy). Technology is a tool and its what we make with it that determines its influence.

It was kind of obvious to combine all this with my lifelong love of stories and books.

Books are in a really interesting space as a  technology with at least 500 years behind it and it’s unclear exactly how the book itself is changing. Too much commentary in this space is dictated by personal prejudices, something I try very hard to avoid. How *I* like to read is irrelevant. But I do think we’re in the early stages of a long slow change in how we read and how “the book” fits within that is a space we’ll be exploring for generations.

Brisbane was long seen as a cultural backwater. Does that still apply in the digital age? What has changed and what is still in the process of changing?

What’s changed I think is that binary notion of centre vs backwater. Isolation works differently now and the the distinctions are a little fuzzier and the labels much more fluid. Brisbane’s culture and how it views itself today is deeply informed by its long hibernation in the 70s and 80s and that’s important in a foundational sense. But today we can be connected to communities anywhere. I feel very much in tune with people in Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco, Vancouver, London… It’s not the same as being there, but then you can’t be everywhere and I really like the weather here. Keep in mind I’m thinking about this from a writing perspective. Performing arts are a different story altogether.

My bias here is definitely towards writing and music (which is the other thing I’m hugely passionate about even though I haven’t even mentioned until now). Brisbane was the kind of place where artists would have to create something and then tell people about it and cultivate an audience and then set up a venue and get the liquor licenses (or avoid the cops) and…etc… A great independent scene in music and publishing came out of this, especially once the political fog lifted. Independence for the most part wasn’t a stylistic choice, it was a necessity and all of it was hugely informed by the aesthetics of punk.

Arts and activism for a long time were intertwined. There’s a great quote I think from Robert Forster (I might be wrong about that) saying that just being in a band was a political statement. People didn’t form bands because they were already fantastic musicians (usually far from it). That’s obviously changed but the attitude and style of that era have cast a long shadow. An arts infrastructure has built up around us now and that’s a positive thing, but I like to think that the art we crate still has a few rough edges, a bit of mongrel about it.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

To run if:book Australia is an extraordinary privilege. I can’t believe I get to do this, to be honest. I love working with writers, editors and designers. I love following a line of thought all the way down a series of bizarre rabbit holes. And I love the thought that maybe (just maybe) we might be able to change the broader perceptions of the book’s place in reading and writing culture. And I can’t think of a better way to explore the future of the book than, you know, making books.

What upcoming projects should we know about?

Rumours of My Death is a remix project that pairs three contemporary writers with counterparts from the nineteenth century. The project aims to highlight issues of IP and copyright around the Public Domain, to explore literary remix culture, and to examine the broader question of how Australia has changed in the last 150 years or so. The first two works in the project were published to the web and to Twitter and the final will appear soon in print. We’ll be talking about about it at the if:book site in coming months and we’d really like it to prompt a wider discussion around the issues it raises.

Keep an eye on our Twitter feed and web site and feel free to get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Thanks to Simon for taking the time to answer a few questions. Go check out his work at the links above.

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