Boyd Tonkin: An epoch-making shift in the literary landscape

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The Independent Culture

At an EU publishing conference, I witnessed a persuasive young German from Google Europe spar with a centuries-old tradition of bookselling and librarianship, suavely embodied by the head of external affairs at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Since then, writers' groups have worried long and hard about protecting copyright and revenue. Publishers in America have now gone to law against Google, while rival internet giants (Yahoo!, Microsoft) and publishers (Macmillan) have tried to get in on the digitised-content act.

Now, my instinct (and maybe yours) is always to support little-guy producers against corporate behemoths. In the case of Google Print, with its breakneck rush into the mass scanning of copyright material, that instinct may be correct. Yet the age of the net will demand a fresh legal model of remuneration for writers, and the ostrich position will only take us so far. Here, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society has pioneered a new agreement that beefs up online rights. That struggle continues. In the meantime, we can also try to turn this row around.

Granted, the multinational monsters of the web want to suck up and then spit out literary work for nothing (or next to nothing). But what can online material offer to print publishers, as a fount of inspiration and a source of products? Rather a lot, as it happens. For an example, look at We Are Iran, edited and translated by Nasrin Alavi and published by Portobello Books (£12.99).

This is not the first example of a book made out of blogs; the Iraq war spawned a couple. It does, I think, count as the finest so far: an eye-opening collage of extracts from the (roughly) 64,000 Farsi-language bloggers now at work in Iran, threaded by Alavi's illuminating analysis.

The title aims to tease, and to provoke. This online Iran - young, liberal, freedom-seeking and rights-hungry - sounds a world away from the electorate which, this spring, gave a presidential mandate to the Islamist hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the blog selection does make room for many political dissidents and reforming clerics, as well as for a host of fun-starved youngsters to whom figures such as Marilyn Manson, Harry Potter and David Beckham matter more than any mullah. Though even the mullahs have moved - the clergyman Hussein Khomeini, to take one stunning example, has stated that his grandfather simply did not have the authority to slap a fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

Alavi's theme-by-theme compilation, with the background filled in by her expert commentary, adds up to a vibrant portrait of a dynamic but thwarted nation - two thirds of Iranians are under 30. Bloggers may not yet rank as typical citizens, in Iran or anywhere else. Nonetheless, their energy, mischief and sheer courage - with jail a real risk - allow us to "eavesdrop on the clandestine conversations of a closed society".

The form of We Are Iran counts for as much as its content. Weaving the web material into a seamless narrative, with photos and cartoons scattered throughout, Alavi deserves to attract an audience far wider than the usual specialist readership for works on Middle Eastern affairs. Many literary folk have been quick to complain that online ventures steal from the culture of print. Yet the traffic, as this book proves and others surely will, can profitably run both ways.