A website is worth a million books in the case of Writer’s Block, a web-based visualization of Iranian literary censorship that spans the 1979 Islamic Revolution through to last year. Small Media, the group behind the site, synthesizes decades of data from the country's official publishing record, the Iran Book House (IBH), into a mock e-book, broken up into introduction, chapters, and epilogue. Each subdivision gauges the significance of literary events, tracks significant figures, and weighs gender and genre politics for an epic click-through experience on the modern state of books. For years now, Iran's cultural censorship has factored heavily in Small Media's work. In their episodic coverage of the issue, the group amalgamated incidents of what they call publication "paralyses," cases of against-all-odds filmmaking, and more. In the same format as their current work, they highlighted Iran's "digital media landscape" with the 6-part report, Revolution Decoded. The object of these antecedents was a generalized approximation of the government's interference in culture—an umbrella topic which gets honed in Writer's Block to a discrete artistic branch, and flushed out with author interviews and neat data visualizations. Despite the project's specificity, the group encountered many of the same research roadblocks as before. Of course, with nearly a million titles in the Iran Book House database, it should come as no surprise—and it didn't to the Small Media team, who mapped a detour around the statistic hold-ups. "Hoovering" (their term) the information from the IBH using OutWit Hub, a simple media tool, they were able to extract the narrative of the past 36 years of published and un-published literature. To find out what happened next, we talked to Small Media about Writer's Block and the shifting status of literature in Iran.
The Creators Project: First off, can you briefly describe the project for me, in your own words?
Small Media: We have visualized the contents of Iran's Book House—the official record of all the books published in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (almost one million!) resulting in a beautiful interactive website and report called Writer’s Block. Writer’s Block uses visualization and storytelling to explore the past, present, and future of the Iranian publishing sector. Throughout the narrative, the viewer gains new insight into the effects of corruption, economic crises, and arbitrary censorship. We’ve also interviewed authors, poets, publishers, and former politicians, and their stories provide a perfect qualitative counterbalance to the narrative.
What is the Iran Book House?
The Iran Book House is the officially-recognized index of all the books published in Iran since the Revolution of 1979 (over one million). It lists a ton of information about each book, ranging from their year of publication, to their print run, Dewey decimal code, and cover price. The Book House isn’t just for books—it also lists all the publishers that’ve been active since 1979. We were able to link up this database with the book index, allowing us to connect books and publishers with their publishing houses, allowing us to see even more patterns in Iranian publishing.
I noticed that “Writer’s Block: Iranian Literary Censorship and Diaspora Publishing” is a subsection of your previous work on Iranian media. Tell me about the connection between this project and Revolution Decoded.
We have been following this topic since 2011 when we published “Cultural Censorship in Iran: A State of Emergency.” While doing the research for that report, we discovered that censorship goes beyond just burning or banning books. The Iranian government gives paper subsidies to publishers that work with its propaganda, and blacklists authors who don’t. Books that toe the official line are purchased in bulk and distributed to libraries across the country; books that contravene the unwritten ‘red lines’ are most certainly not. And authors revert to the worst form of censorship—self-censorship. All books have to be submitted to the Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Guidance for approval to be published, so Iranian authors tend not to submit books they think won’t be published. Not only that, it’s difficult to find publishers willing to take a risk on the boldest authors. And because authors can only submit completed manuscripts, writing something that might not get permission is a pretty big risk to take.
What did research entail?
We did a lot of desk research to build on our knowledge of book publishing and censorship in Iran. After scraping the Iran Book House database, we set up a ‘research server’ in-house, which we used to create really rudimentary graphs and tables and experiment with different narratives. The data was too huge to use existing tools, so we had some really talented backend developers build our custom research tool for us. After that, our information designers and researchers worked together to uncover the best stories, and then to find the best paths through those stories. It’s a really complicated topic, and from the beginning we wanted to make sure it would be something that everyone could enjoy. We ended up putting a lot of the more in-depth and nuanced findings in the report to keep the interactive strong and simple.
Are there any specific stories from the interviews that stood out to you?
There were a couple. The one that packed the biggest gut punch was that of Payam Feili, an openly gay Iranian writer who’d previously had one of his works published during the liberal Khatami period. Under Ahmadinejad, his translator was threatened by the authorities and stopped working for him, and his works were rejected outright by Iran’s book censors. Payam turned to overseas Iranian publishers for support and was involved in a very high-profile campaign against censorship in 2013; this caused a lot of problems for him back in Iran and he has since fled the country and is living in exile.
You mention that your design is inspired by Persian aesthetics. Where did you look for inspiration?
Although the project itself would always be digital (due to the ease of sharing), we knew that we wanted to draw inspiration from ancient Persian miniatures; small paintings or illustrations, often made up of vibrant colors and patterns, that could be used as separate pieces of artwork or as part of an album. The British Library uploaded 15,000 Persian manuscripts online in 2014 which provided our main source of inspiration and a fantastic database to work with. Although at times tedious to navigate through, we picked up on the use of gold flecks or painting and decided to use this color for decorative elements throughout. This gold in contrast with the faded color palette that was also prevalent and the vibrant illustrations recreates the feeling of an old Persian manuscript.
How long did it take you and your team to finish the site (from conception to completion)?
In some senses the project took four years, in others it took a couple of months. The beginnings of the idea started to form while we were working on “Cultural Censorship in Iran”, and we started doing some tests with data scraped from the database to see what we would uncover just over a year ago. It has been a labor of love and we are really pleased with how it’s turned out!
What impact do you hope this project will have?
We believe that this report serves as a useful map to the major issues facing Iranian writers and publishers, the slow growth of opportunities afforded to them, and highlights a number of potential avenues for further research and analysis. Iran is a country brimming with articulate, imaginative, and bold creativity—it is immensely important that this talent is not squandered. We have suggested several avenues for change at the end of our report including pushing publishers and authors towards E-publication and to encourage Diaspora publishers to offer valuable creative space for Iran-based writers.
How do you envision the future of Writer’s Block, after its release?
If it takes off, and there’s interest in it, we’ll keep adding to it. The cutoff point for the data was the end of 2014, and there might be some interesting changes over the next couple of years with Rouhani as president. We’re supposed to be seeing a return to the cultural thaw of Khatami’s period, but so far that hasn’t happened.
For more tales of creativity in the face of censorship, watch the first episode of The Creators Project's Art World series, A New Wave of Iraqi Cinema:
Click here to see more of Small Media's investigative works. Related: