Interview

Interview with Wu Ming

Veruska Sabucco

Milan, Italy

[0.1] Abstract—Interview with Wu Ming 1 conducted by Veruska Sabucco. Wu Ming is the collective pen name of five Italian authors who make their works available online through Creative Commons licences.

[0.2] Keyword—Collective authorship

Sabucco, Veruska. 2008. Interview with Wu Ming. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2008.0059.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Wu Ming was born from the Luther Blissett project (http://www.lutherblissett.net/). In the years 1994 to 1999, this pan-European project saw hundreds of artists and performers under the collective name "Luther Blissett" at work to create high-impact fake mediatic events aimed at showing how gullible and shallow mainstream media are and to denounce the daily cranking out of attention-catching news. Luther Blissett's novel, Q (1999), is probably best known as one of the first copyleft publications in Italy.

[1.2] In January 2000, the Blissett project over, five writers joined forces under the collective name Wu Ming and started publishing books both collectively and singly. Books written by a single writer, such as Stella del mattino (Morning Star) (2008), are signed with the collective pen name, Wu Ming, followed by the number corresponding to the writer of the book, in this case, Wu Ming 4.

[1.3] The Wu Ming Foundation (http://www.wumingfoundation.com/) is more focused on literary production, but it follows in Blissett's footsteps: the books are released under a Creative Commons license (http://creativecommons.org/), and the writers hold a critical stance about copyright and its extensions. Blissett's and Wu Ming's books are available in a variety of formats at their Web site on their download page (http://www.wumingfoundation.com/italiano/downloads.shtml).

[1.4] What follows is Veruska Sabucco's e-mail interview with Wu Ming 1.

[1.5] The following TWC editorial staff member assisted in the interview: Mafalda Stasi.

2. Interview

[2.1] Q: Let's start with the collective pen name, Wu Ming. On your Web page, you state that the media often portray Wu Ming negatively as a fictional entity used to hide your real names and identities—which, by the way, are well known. Pen names are not exactly a novelty in the publishing industry (or in the media industry, as you point out). In fandom, people rarely use their real names. Even Homer himself is suspected to be nothing more than a collective pen name. Where does this anonymous writer paranoia you find in the Italian media system come from?

[2.2] WM1: The paradoxical thing about these misrepresentations is that some of them are done in good faith. It may happen that even people who review our books quite favorably end up describing "Wu Ming" as "the name behind which the authors hide their identity." The fact that "Wu Ming" means "Anonymous" leads critics to think we are anonymous ourselves, even if they actually know our real names. It is an interesting case of knee-jerk opinion. And it's an interesting contradiction as well. Bands, groups, and collectives usually have collective names, but bands, groups, and collectives are few and far between in the realm of literature as we have known it. Collective literary writing is still seen as inappropriate by some well-placed conservatives. These conservatives are the big cheese both in academic circles and in the cultural supplements of daily papers. However, I'm not worried. I'm not even annoyed. We're just feigning irritation for the sake of, you know, rebel rhetoric. These people need someone to tell them that they're pompous and ignorant, and we duly render that service.

[2.3] Q: Does Wu Ming represent "the death of the author"? Are you saying that the name of the writer is not important because what's important are the multimedia narratives created by the multiple entities behind the same pen name? Where does this stance put Wu Ming in the ongoing battles over copyright?

[2.4] WM1: I'm not particularly interested in the debate on the death of the author. I don't bear any grudge against authors in and of themselves. We're authors ourselves. However, we believe that the author is overrated. There's too much bad rhetoric around the author. Some of those people are too full of themselves, and there's a whole system thriving on their being full of themselves, and on the public contemplating in awe their selfish attitude. Authors have no supernatural powers. Quite a few of them don't even have anything to say. Their only asset is that they know how not to say it. They have the language to say nothing at all and be praised about it. As for the copyright battle—it is no mystery that all our books are freely reproducible, they can be downloaded from our Web site, and people can distribute them in any way they please, as long as distribution remains free and they don't ask for any money. If they make money, we want a slice of the cake.

[2.5] Q: With your latest creation, Manituana (2007), you create a work that is complete by itself, but you encourage readers to join the fictional world by submitting fan fictions, fan videos, and music. You say people can "work together on the creation of the Manituana world." On the one hand, you authorize and even ask for fan fiction: "In the months and years that follow, we will gladly receive, select, and publish the writings and ficlets that you write when the fancy strikes you, as long as these live and breathe the world we are building." On the other, on your Web page, you will only publish a selection of the fan fiction you receive. What are the selection criteria—quality of writing? ethics? Aren't you afraid you are going to create a sort of fan works hierarchy, approved fan creators versus unapproved ones?

[2.6] WM1: As a matter of fact, so far we have published a little more than 99% of what we received. There were only two cases of stuff that was really, really badly written or performed. We wrote back and asked them to do some more work to improve the quality of their output. We didn't suggest them how to do that—there are really no guidelines. They reworked and resubmitted it, and in the end, we published new versions of their stuff. The only circumstance where we would use ethics as a criterion would be if our creations are hijacked to repackage and spread fascist/racist ideologies. In that case, our reaction would be violent. I can't think of another example of an unapproved creator. We always give second chances. Anyway, unapproved fan creators can always put their own stuff elsewhere on the Web. They're free to do what they want.

[2.7] Q: Your Web page/story is at the center of the wheel: everything refers to it, and it's a center-periphery communication, like TV or cinema. Would you like your fans to create horizontal webs of communication and creation that you know nothing about and that you cannot control?

[2.8] WM1: They already exist. For example, role-playing game communities play games that take inspiration from our works. They don't bother to contact us, and nine times out of ten, we're totally in the dark about it. That's good. Why know everything?

[2.9] Q: What about out-of-control, spiraling-outward fan fictions that contradict the Wu Ming philosophy? For example, what if someone posts racist fan fictions?

[2.10] WM1: If something like that happens, the most important thing will be: no one dare think that we're involved in such filth.

[2.11] Q: Fan fiction is often considered low-quality writing. It is true that much of it is actually badly written as well as technically poorly prepared, with misspellings and random punctuation. It is also true that it's not as much the quality of it as it is its meaning—the collective world building is a way of sharing powerful imaginary copyrighted creations and manipulating them. Fanon, unofficial fan-generated canon, is a consequence of this process, a consequence I assume Wu Ming is interested in. Would you take inspiration from characters created by fan writers and use them? Work with them, write more short stories about them or explore situations presented in Manituana fan fictions? Again, what about the legal aspect of it?

[2.12] WM1: Yes, we would do it. It would be a pleasure. So far, it hasn't happened, but who knows? The legal aspect is not a problem. Because people can use our stuff as long as they don't make a profit, it would be the same the other way around. If we decided to make commercial use of anything, we'd stipulate a contract and share royalties with the creator or creators.

[2.13] Q: Overall, can Manituana and the new Stella del mattino (which is about Lawrence of Arabia) be considered to be in the genre of real people fiction—that is, fan fiction not about characters but about existing people?

[2.14] WM1: Well, there are also imaginary characters. In a recent essay, I have called the kind of books that are being written in Italy the New Italian Epic. It isn't a defined genre, and it isn't a movement either. I described it as an "electrostatic field" surrounding a number of literary works written in the past few years.

[2.15] Q: Overall, the New Italian Epic is an "electrostatic field" surrounding books by different writers that look very different but share, deep down, something in common. Creators use the literary means they deem "right" (regardless of genre, tone, or language) to reach their end. New Italian Epic is not a self-referential postmodernist tongue-in-cheek genre; writers make a stand. Other characteristics shared by New Italian Epic books and an in-depth analysis of the genre can be found in the essay "The New Italian Epic" in the online magazine Carmilla (http://www.carmillaonline.com/archives/2008/04/002612.html).

[2.16] WM1: The most famous book of this sort is Gomorra (2006; Gomorrah, English-language edition, 2007), by our friend Roberto Saviano, but we're talking about dozens of works that are changing the national literary landscape.

[2.17] Q: Let's talk about your introduction to Convergence Culture (2006), by Henry Jenkins. Jenkins is not exactly a celebrity here in Italy. How do you know him, and what was your role in having Convergence Culture translated?

[2.18] WM1: I ordered Convergence Culture a few days after it was published. I read it, got enthusiastic about it, and passed it on to my colleagues. We got in touch with Henry Jenkins, we corresponded for a while, and we started to popularize some of his concepts in the Italian blogosphere. Our friend Loredana Lipperini, who is a journalist, interviewed him. An Italian publisher got interested, Henry signed the contract, the publisher asked us to write the introduction.

[2.19] Q: In your introduction to Convergence Culture, you write, "In the best of possible worlds, this book being published would be like an earthquake in the Italian debate about the Internet and new communication technologies." Italian sociologist Alberto Abruzzese's books about what he calls the "culture industry" are very different in style from Jenkins's, but they offer a similar point of view on the subject. Still, the Italian debate about Internet or pop culture is confined. What is your take on it?

[2.20] WM1: Abruzzese wrote some excellent texts and some pamphlets with ideas that were disputable but interesting, but he is no acafan the way Henry is. Abruzzese is an academic, a semiologist, with all the consequences and connotations related to that. My take on the issue is that style and content can't be separated. You can't theorize one way and practice another. Henry's style is perfectly consistent with his position—indeed, his style is the very embodiment of those positions. While you're reading, you can feel that the author has been there, that he merged with the fan communities, that his observation is related to his being a participant. You can actually see the geeky kid that Henry once was—and in a way still is. His books are warm, even tender. He's truly, madly, deeply involved in the subjects he writes about, and yet he manages to maintain a critical distance. Only an acrobat can do that. Henry's texts have more potential to reach people who don't read theoretical texts, people who may not attend classes in media studies but who practice convergence every day. In Italy, there's still a wide gap between the people who write theory and the people who indulge in the practice. Henry's works are a great inspiration for anyone wanting to be a bridge builder.

[2.21] Q: Fandom studies in Italy are sporadic. Most of the research is about manga and anime subculture, as in La bambola e il robottone (The Doll and the Mechanoid). Why do you think pop culture, in all its complexity, is still being ignored or disparaged? Do you think the situation is going to change shortly?

[2.22] WM1: Incredible as it may sound, after all these years, many Italian intellectuals still cling to Horkheimer and Adorno's overall condemnation of the culture industry. They don't realize that the culture industry as we know it is dying. They don't realize to what extent the Internet is changing the game. A few days ago I was listening to the radio, and an old writer whom I have always respected, Gianni Celati, was asked his opinion about the Internet. He started saying awfully stupid things, like "There is nothing meaningful on the Internet" and "The Internet reminds me of Stalin's Russia—there's the same dictatorship, the same control of language." It was blatantly clear that he didn't have the slightest clue what he was talking about. Most likely, he's never actually seen a Web page. He's completely Web 0.0, but he has an opinion—nay, he lays down the law. After hearing him on the radio, I don't respect him anymore. And you wonder why pop culture in its complexity is ignored or disparaged?





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