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Wed, 17 Jun 2009 06:24
Nigel Warburton is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University and author of numerous books including the bestselling Philosophy: The Basics. He is the interviewer for the popular podcast series Philosophy Bites and his most recent title is Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction.
Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write about Free Speech Nigel?
Nigel Warburton: I was perplexed by the various reactions to the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and wanted to clarify exactly where I stood on the value of free speech in general. I'd been interested in questions of tolerance and its limits before that, but it was the furore around these cartoons that gave me the initial impulse to write. Once I began researching the book I was amazed at how few good books had been written about Free Speech, one of the key public issues of our day.
Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write and research Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction?
Nigel Warburton: It probably took me about a year and a half on and off to write. Just because it's very short (and my book is one of the shortest in the series) it doesn't follow that writing it took less time than a long book. I have in fact written much longer books in less time.
Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a screen? Straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
Nigel Warburton: I generally sketch structures on the back of an envelope, sometimes begin writing by hand, but usually once I get going I type directly onto a laptop. I've also been experimenting with dictation software when I get bored of typing, but it can introduce surreal typos. I write quite quickly and try to make sure that I produce at least a thousand words a day when I've got going with a project. But I don't write every day. Some days I just procrastinate -- this may or may not be part of the writing process. I'm still not sure. I have an office at the end of the garden where I sometimes write, but also do it in cafes, on the train, in libraries and on the kitchen table. Sometimes I put music on, usually classical; sometimes not. The background hubub of a cafe seems to help concentration.
Once I've got a section written, I print it out, carry it around with me, scribble on it, then key in the changes. Then I usually repeat this process. I tend to write under-length and expand from within rather than make a lot of cuts. But sometimes, at a later stage I will cut whole sections and rewrite. If possible I get other people to read a later draft and make changes accordingly. Coming back to a final draft after a gap of a few weeks or more is great as then I can scarcely remember what I wrote, and it is like reading someone else's work. When the proofs come, like most writers, I spot numerous mistakes I've made. I never feel completely happy with what I've written.
Mark Thwaite: The VSIs are very compact -- how did you go about squeezing all your research into such a small frame? Was there anything important you had to leave out!?
Nigel Warburton: Writing a VSI is like writing a haiku -- a good discipline. I concentrated on John Stuart Mill's arguments about Free Speech and their relevance for today. I had originally intended to discuss other writers such as John Millton and look at communitarian critiques of liberal thinking, but to do so would have been to lose some of the book's focus. Had I gone into some of the more complex philosophical arguments I would have betrayed the spirit of this excellent series. Every section of the book could easily be expanded into a book in itself. This is a very rich and controversial topic. I set myself the task of giving a clear exposition of some of the main arguments in a range of areas -- both familiar, such as religious offence, and less familiar such as copyright - rather than a comprehensive coverage of the history of thought about free speech. So in a sense I didn't squeeze all my research in, rather made decisions to leave some aspects of it out.
Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned anything from their responses to your book?
Nigel Warburton: The Internet makes it very easy to find reviews. I usually read these. So far the reviews have been good. One of the reviewers thought I got caught up a bit in my discussion of pornography -- I agree. This is an incredibly difficult issue to get clear about and I don't know of any thinker who has dealt with the free speech issues that arise from it adequately. But I thought it was better to address the issue rather than omit all discussion.
Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction? How did you overcome it?
Nigel Warburton: Free Speech is such a contentious issue. I wanted to give a reasoned personal angle while at the same time providing space for readers to disagree with me; I also tried to provide an overview of some of the main arguments and topics and to include a range of real life examples. To do all of these things at once is a kind of juggling act. I was keen to keep the book very short because I thought that would increase the chances of people reading it from cover to cover, perhaps even in a single sitting. I'm not sure I did completely overcome the difficulty of doing all these things at once, but I do know I managed to keep the book short. My method was ruthless editing.
Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
Nigel Warburton: My ideal reader is someone who is genuinely puzzled about free speech and the issues it raises. I hope I've written in such a way that this reader would have some issues clarified and would be stimulated to further thought (and possibly reading) on the topic. I didn't imagine a person of a particular age, but I hope the book is accessible to anyone from about 16 years upwards.
Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?
Nigel Warburton: I'm finishing a Philosophy textbook, part way through writing a history of philosophy for children, and anticipating writing another VSI -- this one on Aesthetics. With David Edmonds I'm also co-editing a book based on our podcast series Philosophy Bites: that will be published by OUP in 2010.
Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
Nigel Warburton: I'm quite eclectic in my tastes. I love Elmore Leonard as a writer. But I also love David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and some of Kafka's short stories. I'm more drawn to the writing style of Hemingway than Proust.
Mark Thwaite: Favourite quote?
Mark Thwaite: I love the accidental wisdom of Yogi Berra's "When you come to a fork in the road, take it" which was his advice when giving directions how to get to his house, but seems more profound than that.
Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?
Nigel Warburton: Read George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language and take his advice about how to write clearly. If you want to improve your writing style, try reading what you have written out loud. Once you've got going with a book, aim for about a thousand words a day and don't develop fussy habits about the place and time that you work. Learning to type with the correct fingers speeds things up.
Once you've published a book, make sure you register with PLR (Public Lending Right) and the ALCS (Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society) as these organizations collect and distribute money for library and secondary uses (such as photocopying and scanning) -- you might be pleasantly surprised by how much money comes by these routes. I'd also recommend joining the Society of Authors not least because they offer a superb service checking through publishers' contracts.
Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?
Nigel Warburton: I have a weblog at vsi-free-speech.com where I've put links to reviews, podcasts, articles and other material about free speech (including a two minute video of me talking about the book).
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