by Sunita

I’ve only watched one episode of Game of Thrones (don’t @ me, I read the first three books and that was more than enough). But I was fascinated by this NYT Magazine article on visiting the Westeros sets and locations in Northern Ireland, written by an Irishman. The blending of the real and the artificial, and the way in which the artificial overlays the real, is understandable but also troubling. What happens when we create Disneyfied landscapes in places with real history? And what happens when our mental images are dominated by the way they stand in for fake worlds and start to erase the real ones?

Less than half an hour after the tour bus left the pickup point, I realized we were no longer in Northern Ireland, but had entered the realm of Westeros. We were passing Stormont Castle, on the outskirts of Belfast. This was theoretically the seat of Northern Ireland’s government, but for over two years now this executive office — jointly controlled by the right-wing loyalist (and largely Protestant) Democratic Unionist Party and the left-wing republican (and largely Catholic) Sinn Fein — had languished in a state of indefinite suspension thanks to a densely complex sequence of disagreements. The tour guide made no mention of this notable landmark, and the reason he made no mention of it, I further understood, was that it had nothing to do with “Game of Thrones.”

This has already happened in a non-political way in New Zealand, with the landscape being associated with the Lord of the Rings movies rather than its own history.

Somewhat relatedly, I was listening to a radio report on the Notre Dame fire as it was happening, and there was an interview with someone who had immediately set about creating online video libraries of photos of the cathedral and its interiors. Which is great, but virtual visits aren’t substitutes for actual visits. I understand not everyone can visit historical and artistic monuments (I’ve never visited the Parthenon, and I doubt I’ll ever see Petra), but we do a disservice to them and to ourselves when we elide the difference between looking at a two-dimensional or even three-dimensional virtual representations with the actual tactile and optical experience of seeing the real thing. For my whole life I’ve told people that however many photographs you’ve seen of the Taj Mahal, it will not prepare you for its beauty. Marble in person is just different than marble in a photograph or video, and you can’t fully appreciate the Taj’s perfect proportions until you see it in situ. It’s OK not to have seen it (none of us will see everything we want to). It’s not OK to act as if Google Earth is a satisfying substitute.

I’ve been fascinated lately by novels grappling with the Spanish Civil War, most notably Soldiers of Salamis and In the Night of Time. But I hadn’t really thought much about the long-term cultural consequences beyond the obvious, i.e., the killing of artists like Garcia Lorca, since what I’m reading is more about the politics and individual responses to events. This article in The Conversation highlights another, much less talked-about aspect of Franco’s regime: the effect on literature. For most of the Franco period all books had to be submitted to censors before publication, and even when that requirement was lifted a soft censorship continued. But more than 40 years after Franco’s death and the transition to democracy, those censored texts are still the ones people read:

Franco’s censorship laws sought to reinforce Catholicism and promote ideological and cultural uniformity. The censors enforced conservative values, inhibited dissent and manipulated history, especially the memory of the civil war. Sexually explicit material was banned, as were alternative political views, improper language and criticisms of the Catholic church.

Spain abandoned these policies after Franco’s death in 1975, yet most of the same texts are still widely available today. Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is available in more than 20 different Spanish-language editions, for instance, including an electronic one, all of which lack two extended passages that according to the censors glorified Satan. James Baldwin’s Go and Tell it on the Mountain is only available in a version with cuts that include references to birth control and details about the sex lives of the main characters. The publication of this expurgated text is sponsored by none other than UNESCO.

What’s striking about this is that most people aren’t aware it’s going on. You can’t fight what you don’t see.

Courtesy of Nate at The Digital Reader, here’s a Vox story on product placement in books. I’d forgotten about Beryl Bainbridge’s Bulgari novel and the outcry over her “selling out.” The story is only partly amusing, though, because it points out that one of the reasons for lack of product placement is lack of return for the advertisers.

Weldon says she thinks part of the outraged response to The Bulgari Connection was specific to the era. “The novel at the time was seen as a sacred form,” she said. “It is not anymore.”

“That was a very different time in publishing,” agreed publishing consultant Jane Friedman over the phone. “That’s when publishing was running large. It was the height of Barnes & Noble.” If The Bulgari Connection were to come out today, in a post-Amazon world, she suggested, the response would be more muted.

But, she added, it’s unlikely that it would come out today. “Books don’t have that wide of a reach,” she said. “The potential audience is pretty modest, and it’s gotten even more modest since 2001.”

I hate to agree with this but I do. I was thinking about this when the Marie Kondo craze reappeared last year. When her books came out there was a spate of articles around Kondo-ing, but it was nothing compared to the reaction to the Netflix series. TV and movies just draw a lot bigger audience than books do, because we (not we the readers of this blog, but the social we) spend a lot more time watching than reading.