Thursday, 13 December 2012

Dear Dalkey: "it's satirical" doesn't make you funny, it's the passive-aggressive bigot's stock reply

Dalkey Archive are a wonderful small press I've often mentioned in my "small presses doing great things" spiels. Yet two days ago in an act of career suicide that showed just why they're so desperate to get someone in to do PR they posted a job advert so crass it's had the internet and even figures in a publishing world not exactly known for its espousal of intern rights up in arms. Here's the ad. I can't imagine they'll leave it up so here are some key lines:
"The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who: have already demonstrated a strong interest in literary publishing; are very well read in literature in general and Dalkey Archive books in particular; are highly motivated and ambitious; are determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen; are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards; possess multi-dimensional skills that will be applied to work at the Press; look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU.
      We certainly seek people with relevant experience, but just as important or more so, we seek people who know what a job is, are able to learn quickly, are dedicated to doing excellent work, can meet all deadlines, and happily take on whatever needs to be done. Attitude and work habits, along with various skills, are just as important as experience and knowledge.
    Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.

We will not be able to acknowledge receipt of applications or provide feedback about your application. We will contact only those people whom we wish to ask further questions of or that we intend to interview. Do not contact us about your application."

But it gets worse. John O'Brien from Dalkey felt the need to explain that YES, there is a job but don't get so uptight because it was all written in the spirit of satire. Here's a piece for the Irish Times.

Now, in this explanation he breaks several rules - never explain a joke, but most important never make an explanation that will make you look worse than what you're explaining. As several commenters there point out, he hardly shows a great attitude towards internships.

But my real concern is with the original piece. I will brush over the fact that the last paragraph flagrantly plays fast and loose with people's entitlements under data protection law. What is so awful is the "get a sense fo humour" defence.  "it can't be prejudice because I said it in a funny voice and where's yer sense of humour, whoops was that your bottom I pinched, gotta larf" as I put it on a Facebook thread. This is wrong for several reasons. 

First, and obviously, it's what we associate with sexist dinosaurs who don't get why people don't all just laugh when they've been called demeaning names and had their bottoms pinched. And there's a reason that kind of dinosaur resorts to that kind of defence - they have to because their action is indefensible.

Second, this is passive-aggression at its worst. And bullying thug mob mentality. It's saying "stop whingeing you spoilsport can't syou see how you're ruining everything." It's the kind of exclusionary belittling tactic that has seen political correctness, health and safety, and rights swathed in negative connotations when I can't actually think of three things more fit for celebrating. it's the kind of attitude that leads to people telling the victims of cyberbullying to log off and shut up. It narrows the horizons of the vulnerable at teh expense of the free ranging swagger of the culturally colonial.

Third, this seems to be actually to breach the Equality Act. Not everyone can easily distinguish what's humour and what isn't. Satire is a complex social and psychological mechanism and some people are completely at sea with it. But that wouldn't stop them being amazing interns. They are entitle to take what they see at face value. This isn't a piece of creative writing, it's an advert for a job with a person specification. And whilst Mr O'Brien may think it's amusing, for the person who's just been put in the WRAG group for ESA and is in danger of losing their home and their dignity, this real job (as he's so keen to point out it is) may just make the difference between self-respect and a step on the path to a brighter future or not. Why on earth would he think it funny for them to be forced to pass it over because they just didn't get the humour?

Sorry, I realise I shouldn't even be saying this. I should get my sense of humour bypass looked at instead.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Alt Lit: The Invisible Genre

Alt lit is the writing of the digital age. So why is it almost entirely absent from coverage of the digital publishing revolution?

I submitted the material that forms the bulk of this piece to Futurebook, the digital publishing wing of The Bookseller, on September 15th. I had an acknowledgement on October 3rd. Since then, nothing. As this week has seen Futurebook 2012, the huge, eponymously-run digital publishing conference held in London, I have decided that whilst there is still some topicality I will run the piece myself.

One author defined it simply as “writer plus internet.” It is the only form of writing that not only uses the internet but is about the internet. Everything it does is self-published and digital. Its works include descendants of both modernism and postmodernism, questioning, reflecting, interrupting and contributing to the endless shopping mall of off the peg ideas and memes and collective-speak that is the Web. Its hall of fame includes the likes of Tao Lin and Sam Pink, among the most important writers of our age.

Alt lit should be the poster-genre of the digital publishing revolution. And yet wherever self-publishing and digital publishing are mentioned, alt lit is absent. Thirty seconds with the search bar here reveals the terms “Tao Lin”, “Sam Pink”, “Steve Roggenbuck”, and “alt lit” produce a combined total of zero hits. Why? This silence is particularly curious when the high priest of Alt Lit, Tao Lin, has not only had his breakout novel Shoplifting from American Apparel filmed but will have his new novel, Taipei, published by Vintage.

When Taipei is published, I’m fairly sure Alt Lit will suddenly be everywhere in the industry press. I want to run this piece in part to state loud and clear that when this happens that press will be announcing itself (despite the fact it will undoubtedly claim to be unearthing the new) as utterly reactionary, following and not making the trends, reporting yesterday’s news and not pointing industry figures towards tomorrow’s.

Some of the reasons for the silence I think provide some important questions that the publishing industry could do with asking itself if it is to emerge fully into the digital age many readers are already part of.

Much alt lit uses the internet to engage with the ways in which the internet affects our lives. It is both medium and message and the ebooks arising out of it combine reflection with a playful use of cutting, pasting, remixing and reusing that is more akin to conceptual art and hip hop music than much contemporary literature. Words and pictures are fused into image macros that are rapidly cycled and circulated through the community through likes and reblogs accreting misspelled comments and boosts along the way.

The alt lit community’s (if such a disparate stream of voices can be called a community) introspection and ambitions provide one reason for their low profile. One writer recently posted in a forum “curious to know what ppl's 'end-goals' are re writing and 'alt lit'” and responses such as “by success i mean pride in myself” and “everything I’ve written since I was 14 is oti [on the internet] and searchable” show that goals tend not to be financial. And ebooks, though often produced with immense care and craft, tend to be found on tumblr rather than as .mobi files.

And now we are reaching the two key points. Almost all alt lit is free. And whilst most of it is heavily redacted, very little of it is edited in a way that publishers or readers or media pundits would recognise. Reflecting the open source lives of writers and readers, alt lit starts and ends with the internet, and as such is produced online from an open source ethos and consumed online in an open source way. And it faithfully renders text in which spelling is often an irrelevance and syntax is little other than an excuse for bondage puns.

These are clearly big problems for publishing. The former because when writers aren’t interested in being paid, how do you come up with a sustainable business model based on their work? The latter, because readers, reviewers, even ereading hardware manufacturers still have a clear picture of what a book is and what its content is like.

The question of free is one that the publishing industry is already asking itself quite seriously, though it remains deeply problematic. Not that Alt Lit is the preserve of tumblr sites and Facebook “share”s. A brief trawl trhough Alt Lit Library, a fairly comprehensive list of the movement’s leading titles, reveals some fabulous small presses doing exactly the kind of customer-led ultra-niche publishing that has made the likes of And Other Stories and Melville house so successful in the literary mainstream. Granddaddy of them all is Tao Lin’s own Muumuu House  but there’s a whole plethora publishing excellent work by leading members of the scene. Frank Hinton (who runs the hub site Alt Lit Gossip) has just had first novel Action, Figure published by Tiny Hardcore Press, while Civil Coping Mechanisms publish Noah Cicero, Socrates Adams and will have leading Alt Lit poet Gabby Gabby’s Alone With Other People on their list.

But it is the question of what literature “is” that is most difficult for the publishing industry. It remains something the industry skirts embarrassedly round the edges of. Everywhere digital self-publishing is mentioned you will find people clamouring to justify their work, claiming that it is edited to professional standards. Spelling, formatting, and editing in general are the almost unquestioned touchstone of respectability. Which is why the online phenomenon of fanfiction has been embraced whilst alt lit has been all but ignored.

And when the future is mentioned, and the subject of the new is broached, publishers find themselves limited to talking of apps as the next step beyond ebooks, and commercial interest focuses on the software and hardware that enables content production rather than on curating and distributing content as an art form.

Yet every day we communicate more and more online. Many of us text, message, status, tweet, pin and like more than we talk yet the shelves remain full of spoken dialogue. Our primary means of communication, increasingly shaping the way we think about ourselves and our relationships, are developing their own rules and their own formal priorities yet whilst we are told there is a digital revolution in publishing, epublishing remains recalcitrantly wedded to the old priorities. This is something the industry has to address if it is to avoid missing out altogether on one of the most important and exciting forms of literature around today. As it stands, Alt Lit and everything happening in its incredibly broad penumbra, remains a community of users generating content and distributing it to users. Where there is curation it arises organically from within the community.

I have to say I like this model very much, but it amazes me industry figures from the outside aren’t more interested (to the extent it seems that they won’t even post about it on their websites). I guess the closed system means that to the outside visibility is low because that surface membrane is rarely broken – Alt Lit is somewhat the stealth bomber of literary movements – a hive of high octane high tech activity on the inside, all but invisible on the outside. I wonder if Taipei will breach the surface. Whether Random Penguin suits will come pouring in looking for the next hot thing and trying agitatedly to get their heads round boosting. Quite possibly. What amazes me is that none of them has thought to send out an advance party.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

"Let Me Explain Myself": Text, Modernism and Concept in Literature

I have just self-published three ebooks of which I am very proud through my new imprint 79 rat press (details and free downloads at the end of this post). These books have caused me no end of problem with one of the thorniest issues in modern art, that has begun to blur over into literature – the question of the text. Interestingly, the problems I've had placing this article elsewhere further highlight the issue.

At the height of Conceptual Art, the accompanying text (as distinct from the often gnomic but frequently none the less blunt title) often provided more substance than the concept-provoking “art” itself. Writing the books All of These Taxonomies are Political, Download Steve Roggenbuck for Free, and The Impossibility of Poetry in a Universe Geared for Entropy I felt every one of the pressures that were brought to bear on conceptual artists and one or two from the literary world.

All of These Taxonomies are Political originally had a one page foreword that amounted to a “text”, a hermeneutic key for unlocking what was happening in the following pages – “what’s this? 91 pages and the only words are cock and cunt? I’m stuck, oh, thank goodness you lovely author, you’ve given me a key.” You can see at least one problem when it’s put like that. It’s rude, and it’s patronising. It says “dear reader, you are too stupid to see that there might actually be a reason for this and far far too clueless to begin to wonder what it might be.”

But there’s a possibly bigger problem related to the question of the death of the author, and the possibility of starting to “explain” what a book “means” or is even “trying to do.” I don’t believe for one minute in the death of the author. I’ve found every explanation I’ve heard something close to hogwash, but it’s still there. The elephant in the room. “You’re playing with the connections between rhythm and mood, form and content, geographic position and hierarchy, gender and body, sex and identity are you? That’s nice, and I should care why?” Now, personally I find that as patronising to the author as the first comment was to the reader. And perhaps I should tackle the subject head on by reinserting the text as my way of saying “well this author isn’t dead.” I have decided not to. I have even removed from one version the injunction that the limericks should be read aloud (and even the fact that they are limericks), and this has caused massive anxiety –of teh “what if that means *no one* gets it?” kind, but I’ve decided to ride with the anxiety. Not because I want to sidestep the question, but because I want to let the text stand and see what additional concepts it throws up by not chaperoning the reader. And for the altogether more borrowed-from-YBA rationale of “why do in a text what you could do in a series of media interviews?”

With Download Steve Roggenbuck for Free the problem was further complicated by the referentialism. Steve Roggenbuck’s Download Helvetica for Free is one of the iconic moments of the alt lit movement. If people don’t know that will they know where to start? And unless I tell them, will they notice that in the 150+ pages I have written Steve’s name in every Microsft Word font except for Helvetica? If I even start talking about it, am I in danger of making the whole book seem nothing more than a one line joke? IS the whole book nothing more than a one line joke? 

Interestingly, I haven't felt this problem with The Impossibility of Poetry... That in itself bothers me. Is it too simple? It is certainly accessible. The title is an obvious flipping on its head of the optimism of Damien Hirst's The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living. And the book itself overtly references Magritte's Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe (though I am not so much talking about simulacrums as the specificity and isolation of every perception). Does that make it less serious? Or more so? I don't honestly know.

Now of course every author has these internal dialogues – will people *get* it, will they see what I’m doing, will they spot the references to deleted scenes from my favourite John Cusack movies? In my experience, in self-published the anxiety is magnified tenfold, because of our natural insecurity that our work will not be give the attention, scrutiny or intellectual credit that a regularly published author is. On the other hand we hear critics telling us to put the book out into the world and shut up about it. As though once we have published it, everyone is part of the debate except us. For those of us for whom writing is a political endeavour that seems very strange. I don’t write to throw detritus into the discursive soup and let it breed whatever cultures it may. With these books in particular and my next, All the Errors that Remain Are the Author’s Own (a book using only one word, “copy” but using all the punctuation and formatting from Helene Hegemann’s cult novel Axolotl Roadkill), I want to contribute to loosening the bonds of our linguistic assumptions to the extent for creating what Luce Irigaray would call the creation of a new language, a language where words are what she would call “angels”, shuttling endlessly and unconnectedly between subjects, emptied of all content but that which each subject seeks to impart to other subjects. They are part of a Poetics of Hope, and the attainment of that Hope means far more to me than the books I have chosen as tools to lever it into place and the concept of “the death of the author” feels like another piece of false-consciousness-inculcation designed not as part of the critical discourse but as part of the structure of a discourse designed to quell hope. But of course those who would have me acknowledge that whilst I may not have fallen over yet I am, indeed, dead have the perfect riposte – that it’s not my place to say that. And so we carry on circling around each other and the only thing we have in common is the text.

And perhaps it is for that reason, that it is the umbilicus linking us all, that I have let the text go out untexted, not to cede ground, but to offer it, in the hope it might be accepted as a Trojan Horse.

I hope you will download, and enjoy (if that is the right word) the books.
all of these taxonomies are political
download the pdf for free by clicking the image above. all other ebook formats are downloadable for free by clcikling this sentence.
An experimental modernist collection of 512 limericks.

This book is an examination of the depth to which the associations we make are hard-wired into us, and the lengths to which we are pushed if we want to free ourselves of these associations.

It puts the question whether we can tunnel so deep inside the constructs that constitute our world, surround ourselves and familiarise ourselves with them so much that they become first banal, then meaningless, then empty, and finally receptacles for our own making of the world anew.

That is to say, it puts the question of the possibility of hope.

I have chosen the limerick format because to many early twenty first century readers in the Anglophone world it is both the most familiar form and that whose association, of jaunty rhythm and glib content, is the one we recognise the most easily. It is, therefore, our perfect Virgil to lead us through the Underworld of ever deepening assumptions of necessary connection that are increasingly hidden from us, where our consciousness of their necessity is increasingly fixed and increasingly false. 

download steve roggenbuck for free
 click on the image above or on this sentence to download the free pdf
"steve roggenbuck" printed in every font on my computer's version of Microsoft Word (except for Helvetica [except on the cover])

the impossibility of poetry in a universe geared to entropy

With a gentle nod to both Damien Hirst and Magritte, this examination of the nature and possibility of repetition asks whether any two experiences can ever be the same, and what that means for the impossibility of communication or escaping from the prison of our own perception. And asks whether maybe that prison is actually what sets us free, and offers a flashlight of hope pointing the way ahead to the possibility of a poetics of hope. Click the image above or anywhere on this sentence to download the pdf for free.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The 1990s: The Decade That Made Me

I've always thougt of myself as a child of the 80s. Love of The Smiths, hatred of Thatcher. That kind of thing. Looking back on half a decade of attempting to kick start a writing career, it's evident that is absolutely not the case. I am a child not of the 80s but the 90s. Pretty much every single influence on my work can be traced back to my immersion in 90s culture. Here's a whistle stop tour of the Art That Made Me. Those of you who know my work will see the points of contacts straightaway. Those who don't will maybe be piqued to go here and try it.

1. 1999 Turner Prize. Unlike many of the people who screamed and rent their garments about the end of the cultural world as personified in Tracey Emin's My Bed, I actually went to the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition. My Bed (just one part of an exhibit that included visceral drawings and video) had a power that left me speechless and converted me once and for all to the confessional in art. That year's prize winner of course was not Emin but Steve McQueen, for Deadpan, a looped video based on a Buster Keaton sketch. McQueen has since become a celebrated film director (Shame). His use of repetition in Deadpan has had me in its thrall ever since I saw it.

2. Monet at the Royal Academy, 1999. The exhibition that had queues stretching half way across London and a gallery staying open 24 hours a day.

3. Pharmacy. Damien Hirst's 1992 exhibition was the first time I was exposed in person to conceptual art.

4. Rachel Whiteread. House. 1993 was the year I first followed the Turner Prize, and fully explored Young British Art, opening up the world of Gillian Wearing, teh Chapmans, Sarah Lucas, the Wilson Twins and Tracey Emin.

5. Sensation. Still THE single most definitive moment in my artistic life, drawing me to it like a fly to the lamp. The mix of chutzpah, irreverence and that is it all on the surface or is it deeper or are we pretending it's deep or are we pretending it's shallow that still wraps me up in knots and makes me want to go and do likewise for literature.

 Skunk Anansie - Secretly. No one does pain and loss like Skin from Skunk Anansie, and few things occupy my writing like pain and loss
Radiohead - Planet Telex. Not the most important Radiohead song (Creep), or my favourite (changes every day), or even my favourite from their seminal album The Bends (Fake Plastic Trees), but like many others, when I put The Bends in the machine and pressed play, this was the song that introduced me to the band and created one of those true "things are never the same again" moments
REM- Ebow the Letter. The 90s was all about unique whiney voices - Brett Anderson, Thom Yorke, but Michael Stipe was top of the pile. And this was also the song that introduced me to Patti Smith.
Suede - Saturday Night - talking of Brett Anderson. If Radiohead are about inner angst, REM about inner political malcontent, and Nirvana about anger, Suede personify the fragility of beauty, which is the single most important theme in my writing. This song is pretty much the final word on the subject.

Garbage - You Look So Fine. And Garbage stand for pure sentimental manipulation, but of the very best kind

1. La Haine. Nearly two decades later, this remains the most searing social drama ever made. Brutal, brilliant, famous for its stunning set pieces - the swoop across Paris' Projects while Fuck the Police blares over the radio, and the bullet in the final shot - this is, at its heart, a deeply humane film that brings universal themes down to the intimate level of three rather hopeless lives in a forgotten part of France, and that use of the zoom of teh specific is something I have tried to capture ever since.

2. The Double Life of Veronique. It is hard to pick a favourite film by Polish master Krzystof Kieslowski, whose Dekalog was the most important piece of TV/cinema of the 80s. His later Three Colours trilogy is raw, exquisite, and emotionally deeply satisfying, but this piece of heart-stopping magical realism is his tour de force. As well as being the metaphor for post-communist Europe, it is, at its centre, an exploration of the attempt of the human spirit to soar above the prison of its surroundings, and ultimately fail in that attempt but to be more beautiful for having tried.

3. The Craft. The film that marked the start of the smart, slcik, campus-bound postmodern horror genre, The Craft, with its pivotal line "we are the weirdos", is the film that made it cool to be an outsider.

4. Man Bites Dog. Released almost at the same time as Reservoir Dogs (I saw them as a double bill at the seedy Penultimate Picture Palace) but to none of teh hype and acclaim, this is far the better of the two films. Following a TV documentary crew as they spend a month filming a serial killer at work, and anticipating many of the TV-centric themes of the really rather lame but much-lauded Wag the Dog it remains the seminal and most damning film on the complicit of the viewer in media excess. Deeply uncomfortable not so much for its stomach-churning content as the fact that it points the lens directly at us in a way the Leveson enquiry never will. It was the direct influence on the 1st person plural passages in my novel Tha Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes.

5. Se7en. Changed the way film and TV credits were done forever and introduced the disturbing industrial feel of Nine Inch Nails and Aphex Twin into mainstream culture.


1. Possession, A S Byatt. Yes, that's right! The only Booker Prize winner I've ever got to grips with,and one that left me with a deep love of intertwining storylines, feminist theory, and nostalgia.

2. Immortality, Milan Kundera. Having devoured, as everyone my age did, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I'll never forget the sense of excitement about the launch of Immortality - the first time I was waiting outside a bookstore (the then Dillons on Broad Street in Oxford) the morning a book was published. At the time I was deeply disappointed by the book. Looking back, it's the best Western book of the decade.

3. NP, Banana Yoshimoto. The perfect book. Heartbreaking, terse, still, beautiful. Deeply unsettling.

4. Hannibal, Thomas Harris. Lecter is an endlessly fascinating character. The blend of the revolting and the highest culture, the intelligent and the primal, strikes at something deep inside us. It was also the book that introduced me to the cemetery of Recoleta.

5. The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama. This book bestrides the 90s. Controversial, quixotic, celebrity-driven pop politics, it continues to cast its shadow.

1. Friends. Let's get it out of the way. I too was addicted to Friends, Frasier, Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. Smart American sitcoms brought sharop writing and cultural referencing to the fore of TV, and with it put TV in the cultural spotlight.

2. Cracker. The best thing on TV. Ever. Introduced me to Jimmy McGovern, the UK's greatest living writer.

3. The White Room. The best music show there's ever been.

4. Eurotrash. The 90s brought pop culture and kitsch to the fore. The Word and The Girlie Show may have been at the extreme and have given us the Lad and Ladette, but it was Eurotrash that introduced the UK to what, actually, was a vast, dazzling array of really rather important culture.

5. The Death of Yugoslavia. It's the subject I come back to again and again. And this is the definitive account of what happened, a genuinely groundbreaking documentary that features remarkable interview footage with all the major figures.

1. The collapse of Yugoslavia. The 80s ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and much of the 90s was an unfolding of that moment, but it was the implosion and cannibalisation of Yugoslavia that I come back to again and again. And the tragedy, years after Bosnia, of Kosovo that still stains the whole of the Western world's conscience.

2. Desert Storm
I may have followed the Falklands War on the news every night, but Desert Storm was the first time that war was truly televised. 24 hours a day. a hypnotic spectacle that implicated the viewer as much as its introduction to the world of "smart weapons" condemned the participants.

3. The death of Kurt Cobain. Each deacde has one defining musical death, it seems. In the 80s it was John Lennon, in our own decade it was Amy, and in the 90s it was Kurt Cobain. It turned him from rock god to Che-like icon. And made his diaries one of the most important books of the decade.

4. Sensation. So influential I'm listing it again.

5. New Labour. Think what you will, for those of my generation (and others) who stayed "up for Portillo" May 1st/2nd 1997 was a collective moment of release, albeit one overshadowedin retrospect by 1997's other "where were you?" moment, the death of Diana, arguably the most important "moment" of the 1990s.

So, what were the events that made you?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

How self-publishers are in danger of losing the high ground to small presses

I read an interesting piece from indie publishing legend Talli Roland this week. She made a very good case as to why she doesn't want to be called indie. Now, we can argue all we like over terminology, but whilst I respect her hugely, and her reasons for saying this, her position is so far from mine that I had to write this response.

Talli's argument, as I understand it, is twofold - first, that she just wants to be seen as an author so that her books aren't prejudged; and second, because, at the quality end, there is no real point of difference between self- and trade publishers. 

I understand both those positions, and in many cases, for many groups of readers, and many authors' goals, they are spot on. But there are some huge points of differentiation, and those points are precisely what makes self-publishing so exciting. As self-publishers, aren’t we supposed to be in the vanguard of innovation, and driving rather than responding to what people want – doing the things big publishers won’t, which is why we didn’t want them to start with? Here are some of those points of differentiation

Blackheath Books, one of the most exciting micro presses run out of the front room of Offbeat pioneer Geraint Hughes, and Zingaro Books, self-publishing imprint of the UK’s leading performance poet, Kate Tempest, make their physical production stand out, using ethically sourced papers and inks, recycled card for their covers, hand-printed end papers, and the highest quality artisanship
- refusing to deal with corporations – when I started the micro-imprint eight cuts gallery press and told people I would be refusing to give my books ISBNs so that Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble wouldn’t be able to stock them, people thought I was nuts. But the publicity I got – big articles in Writers’ Digest and 3:am among others, I’d never have achieved without doing that.
- creating a “house feel” – that’s what made/makes so many independent record labels *so* hot – labels like Stiff and Rough Trade are still legends, and head into the Rough Trade store in Brick Lane and that ethos is still there, right down to the graffiti-friendly loo. They got that because they set out to create it. This is one area I really think in the past two or three years self-publishers have let themselves be overtaken by small trade presses (a species that back in 2007/8 was standing on the edge) who have created exciting, independent, individual, cleverly thought out and skilfully executed worlds around their books – Peirene with their exquisite covers and cult literary salons, And Other Stories – covers again and the unique subscription-ownership model (Peirene also have a great subscription and bundle offer, another area where self-publishers have lost innovative ground to small presses because they’ve started following rather than setting trends), Bluemoose and their combination of fiercely guarded niche (Northern writing) and anarchic marketing; Philistine Press and their “only free” policy combined with the pursuit of books in formats that would otherwise be unpublishable; Melville House’s “art of the novella”. Each of these was started, and at least three of them are still run, by one person with another full-time job who had a great idea and did it from their front room.

A few years ago, self-publishers were the ones doing these innovative, exciting things. When I started, the icons were people like MCM who was live-streaming his keystrokes as he wrote a novel in three days whilst a team of bloggers interacted with readers on twitter to feed him plot points. Now, I rarely see that. Self-publishing has grown up. And that’s great for many because it’s a solid, respectable business model for people to follow. But it is no longer the unequivocal artistic frontier it was, and it is losing out on the chance to be recognised as such as the media increasingly looks for innovation and uniqueness and again and again fails to find it in self-publishing but finds it in small trade presses. I know there are as many positives as negatives about that but I still find it sad, because for me the go it aloners should be the cultural agenda-setters.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

This Is Our Moment

(I am launching my own attempt to curate the literary revolution and bring it to the public with the creation of 79 rat press)

“if a revolution lies in desperate protestations that you’re exactly the same as what went before then I will personally puree my not insubstantial beard and serve it up a Christmas trimmings”

“whereas in the past poets have reused parts of common language, in the internet age the very act of reusing and remixing has become the common parlance”

So we are always being told at any rate. This is Indie Time. The evangelists proclaim either that those who did things the old way are dead or, somewhat more consideredly – as is increasingly the case with more and more indie successes snapping up mainstream deals – that the old way of doing things is dead.

But what exactly does this mean? Whose moment is it? And if this really is their/our moment, what comes next?

Now, I’m a writer so I use metaphors and similes all the time. So I’m allowed a tangent. Because it’s not a tangent at all, it’s a metaphor/simile/foreshadowing/analogy/insert random trope here.

The art world has had moments. Take the refusenik exhibition of 1874 which launched Impressionism on the world. Or the painting of Picasso’s Desmoiselles D’Avignon in 1907. Most famously, of course, there was the moment in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp vandalised the local gents and stuck the graffitied results on the floor of an art gallery.

More recently, the conceptual art of the Young British Artists was launched with the Freeze exhibition of 1988 and then, in 1997, was propelled into water cooler land with Sensation. Of course historians will argue till their bluer in the face than a Picasso period over whether these moments were actual points of pivotal change, but what we can say is that each of them changed forever the way the public thought about art, about what it could be, about – in many cases – what it absolutely wasn’t. And they lifted, however briefly, art to the same conversational level as the weather, sport, or celebrity fashion.

Where is the literary equivalent? Well, there’s no doubt literature had its Modernist moment with Finnegans Wake. Yet for all we are bombarded with news of a literary revolution, I have seen absolutely nothing since the birth of ebooks to justify that talk. What we have is a revolutionary business moment but as long as it remains that, more important as long as that is what we celebrate, there will be no lasting literary legacy.

If we are to see a genuine revolution, what we need to see is twofold. We need to see a groundswell of writers straining at the creative leash. And we need to see the cultural media latching onto that movement. Quite possibly what we need most is a go-between impresario figure of the likes of YBA’s Jay Jopling and Nick Serota, even larger than life writers of the Dali or Picasso ilk.

And yet, if you trawl through the endless blog inches, and increasing column inches, about self-publishing, at all ends of the spectrum from millennial zeal to serious self-publishers, you would be forgiven for thinking that the actual art of writing was a cultural appendix that had long since undergone its appendectomy. Sure, you will find a glut of disclaimers along the “of course the work needs to be good” lines. And you will find endless pleas from self-publishers to be given media and reader space because their editing and professionalism are the equal of the mainstream press.

But, um, forgive me for saying, if a revolution lies in desperate protestations that you’re exactly the same as what went before then I will personally puree my not insubstantial beard and serve it up a Christmas trimmings.

Reading what self-published authors have to say can be deeply depressing. Those who have made sales are delighted they have made sales. Those who haven’t want to know how to make sales. Even the most serious of authors who are turning to self-publishing to get out there the midlist books publishers no longer chance their arms on can be found flooding forums with questions about presentation and marketing, and commenting on the mainstream media about their rigorous quality.

Indeed, we are at such a sad impasse that if a new writer in an online group says they have a book and want to make a living/sell 1000 copies/become a millionaire they are applauded for their vision and welcomed into the bosom, but when I dared to say, a few months ago, that my ambition for writing was to win the Nobel Prize or at the very least leave a lasting mark on literary history, the response was what kind of arrogant so and so do I think I am.

I know a lot of self-publishers won’t like it but I think I can be forgiven for saying that when the ambition to make money is applauded and the ambition to change culture is ridiculed or ignored we have reached some kind of absolute cultural nadir.

And yet.

That, of course, isn’t the complete picture. There are people out there doing amazing things. Whisper it, there are even movements not just springing up on the internet but using the internet as part of the literary medium and engaging with and reflecting upon the way the internet has affected our lives. The granddaddy of them all, Brutalism, has even passed from Myspace and the pages of the seminal 3:am magazine moderately into the mainstream, with this year seeing Ben Myers’ second regularly published (and really rather brilliant) novel, Pig Iron.

If Brutalism offered literature a northern punkishness, and 3:am has been at the centre of a return to the intellectual and formal rigour of Modernism, the alt lit movement has moved literature right into the digital age. Brutalism’s provocative moment came courtesy of Ben Myers’ in your face titled Book of Fuck yet it wasn’t really a what-the-fuck moment. Alt lit, on the other hand, offers us the likes of Steve Roggenbuck’s DOWNLOAD HELVETICAFOR FREE.COM, a collection of 100 MSN Messenger excerpts converted to Helvetica font. It offers a proliferation of flarf, in which text is lifted from the web and reconfigure into something new. And whilst this has similarities to the cut and paste that has been part of poetry for decades, whereas in the past poets have reused parts of common language, in the internet age the very act of reusing and remixing has become the common parlance, which flarf both brings to a reduction ad absurdum and transcends.

Like many movements, alt lit is the product of a particular social and cultural milieu (for those of us long enough in the tooth that is a milieu that feels like it spans back through Kevin Smith's Clerks and Mallrats, through, um, Christian Slater movies - of course the almost manifesto-ish Heathers but also the even more to-the-bone Pump Up the Volume - back to Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction). With its scrutiny of technology and communication, and its use of the jittery, staccato language of the web to reflect the jittery, staccato inner life of anxiety, it is no surprise that it is dominated by the young and affluent, those for whom the hardware of the new discourse is a part of everyday life. But for all its limitation, and its introspection – alt lit has perched itself like a cuckoo almost entirely on the platform of tumblr – and lack of desire to transcend its own discourse, there is a genuine ambition here. This is literature that has created its own rules and whilst there is an awareness, to the point, needless to say, of anxiety, of its influences and context (namecheck Tao Lin, Bukowski, Sam Pink, and Brautigan) it doesn’t seek their approbation or measure itself by them. And some people working in the field, like Penny Goring, have pushed the connections between internet statuses and ecstatic expressionism to its glorious limit.

Other movements will, I am sure, emerge, as access to technology increases. And as and when they do, we have to be ready to encourage, embrace, and champion them. And rather than a constant reactionary harping about the paradigmatic status of the old, if we really do want to see a literary revolution then we need to welcome the new, and all the new rules that come with it, with open arms. We need to ensure that when literature is part of the wider discourse in the cultural and other media, the focus is on the potential of what words can do and not on sales and marketing. And those self-publishers who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, are self-publishing in an effort to make a living need first to use the coverage they receive to champion those artists whose sales may be at zero or even not sought at all, second to welcome the legitimacy of those writers whose ambition has nothing to do with sales, and third, ultimately, to use their influence to campaign the media to cede their place on the cultural pages. The conditions are in place for a genuine literary revolution, but we owe it to culture and to readers to do everything we can to bring it to the public.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

We may have found the Beat, but we haven’t found the groove

This is a repost. I initially wrote it about two years ago for The Spectator Arts Blog "Touching From a Distance" but since they seem to have gone AWOL and my post with it, I thought I'd repost it as I keep wanting to refer to it. It will also lead in to a discussion on the Beats and the current literary scene that seems to be coming back to a head. So I will post some additional thoughts later.

It's also somewhat apposite as the opening line is basically a tribute to how central my mum was to my writing life, and she died of cancer earlier this summer, which is the reason I have been absent. Anyway, I'm back now, and here are the Beats.

My mother was a Beatnik first time round. I remember as a child in the late 70s she’d talk about dances and late nights at the cafĂ© where she worked talking and smoking with exotic itinerants, and how all of a sudden she’d burst out singing “hey, Mr Tambourine Man.” I’d ask her to tell me about her trip round Europe with a couple of female friends and a Morris Minor van, and the different men she’d got engaged to in each country. Of course, she’d never married any of them. “They all wanted to fence me in.” she said, “They didn’t understood I needed to be free.”

Now she and my dad are quite happy travelling the ten miles to the sea, taking a walk along the front and heading back to their garden and their books, and instead of thinking “Oh mother won’t you just shut up, you’re embarrassing me,” I spend my nights reading Ginsberg and writing pastiches of Corso and thinking damn, she was cool.

And with not one, but two major films due, one for each of the Twin Peaks of Beat, Kerouac and Ginsberg, and a major exhibition in DC dedicated to Ginsberg and Dylan, it’s clearly not just me. The whole world’s gone Beat overnight. Why? Is it just a bit like those unfortunate moments in the 90s? You know the ones, the moment when there were not one but two films about Wyatt Earp; the moment when there were not one but two Robin Hoods; the moment when people were still saying “how come Kevin Costner’s always in the one that’s not shit?”

No, it’s more than Kevin Costner. The Beat spirit taps into some things that are happening at a profound social and cultural level. It’s Ginsberg and Corso, Kerouac and Cassady we all want a piece of, but the Beat we’re all swinging to is part of a much older cycle that goes back not to the Road to San Fran or the existential desert of Big Sur, but to the actual deserts inhabited by medieval monks.

More later, but for now, talking of deserts, let’s head to a basement in Shoreditch. The Cellar is the (literally) underground venue where form time to time you will find Literary Death Match, brainchild of Todd Zuniga, and a cross between a book reading, a poetry slam, and that late night cartoon classic Celebrity Death Match. It’s one of a growing number of really rather hip literary nights bursting out of the basements, nights like Book Club Boutique, Bookslam, and To Hell With the Lighthouse, which offer bite-sized chunks of sex, sleaze and outsiderdom coated in music, poetry and pieces of stories. The figures behind these nights wear their Beat influences on their sleeve (a night I spent at The Literature Lounge was punctuated by charismatic MC Anjan Saha extemporising Bukowski.

In other words, the Beats are entering the consciousness of another generation of angel-headed hipsters, and it’s a movement swelling from deep underground. The new literary cool scene has its immediate roots in two places – the slam poetry movement that itself grew out of Hip Hop, and the nether regions of the internet where ezines like 3:am evolved in dark holes of experimentation far from the gaze of the establishment.
So why has this underground scene emerged now, carrying Howl to a new generation of freedom-hungry, suit-shredding acolytes desperate to hunker down in Rockland? 

As tends to be the way with these things, with the Beat spirit, something structurally inherent has locked like Velcro with a social need. Put simply, what the it offers are immediacy – freedom and ecstasy – to a society tired of the distance and referentialism of postmodernism, a society that feels besuited and trapped; and a sense of belonging to a whole generation that wants to see itself as “outsider”.

The deepest antecedents of Beat culture, are very different from the glossy shiny surface of celebrity culture, the lilting lyrical leanings of much contemporary literature, and the endless hall of referential mirrors of postmodernism. Each of these, in their own way, finds its way back to the courts of love, to the troubadours, to an age of confidence and conquest, layer and legend, decadence and dilettantism. Set against this we have the wild ecstatic utterances of Howl, piercing the surface of pretence from a pre-intellectual raw, roar, feel; and we have the ululating cry of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and Kerouac’s On the Road, the noises of a soul yearning into the emptiness, calling out to the desert. Far from the Champagne Courts of Troyes, their cultural origin is with the desert monks, the ecstatic mystics and despairing millenialists (this desert-born apocalypticism is the real link between Ginsberg and Dylan – and there is an excellent piece on their actualrelationship by Sean Wilentz for the New Yorker – they different sides of that mystic coin, the different sound the spirit makes in the wilderness). They are the long dark night of a cultural soul howling to be saved from Moloch.

Into this cultural receptacle, the peg of our disillusioned, downturned society readily fits. As a society we have tried trickle down, and we’ve tried the new left and both have brought us, we are told, to the brink of apocalypse. We are a society that has no idea where its home might be, just that it is not here. We are ripe for the Beats, and now we are being roundly plucked.

And it’s exciting. Of course it’s exciting, because it’s new. And because the raucous epithets and mainlined truths of the Beats are a kick to the groin of a culture that has fatted itself out on beauty and polish and the trinkets of leisure and indulgence.

An article in Vanity Fair points out that we know little of the early Ginsberg, the thin Ginsberg, the Ginsberg who wasn’t a hippy guru, who was just angry and, frankly, cool, and welcomes the redress.

But. But but but. We’re back in the basement of Shoreditch looking out at the crowd in their skinnies and trilbies, loving it up, letting the wildness lap at their Vans, and something is wrong. These aren’t the penniless hipsters who bunked down at the Chelsea in return for a scribbled verse or a sketch or turning a trick and a blind eye. They’ve not come for the Beat. They’ve come for the cool. They’ve come for guru Ginsberg and a sprinkling of his angel-headed dust. Their whoops are from the lips, not the soul. The Beat is their prescription drug and they’re taking their dose, occasional day-patients or madhouse voyeurs in Rockland where Carl Solomon and Allen are far madder than they.

Unlike the Ginsberg of the movie Howl, this New Beat revolution is a spot that’s reached its head. And it’s not a terrible thing. No society will be the worse for listening to ecstatic poetry of a Thursday night. But letting the Beat wash over us won’t give us the answers to society’s gaping sores, it will just provide the aphorisms that make the questions seem less pressing. The answers will come from somewhere else, some dark junked-up corner no one’s noticed, somewhere rather like the places the Beats inhabited, somewhere like the bulletin boards where the likes of 3:am were born. And for the briefest of moments they will be cool. And we’ll see them, and they won’t be cool any more. And we’ll make films about them. And write scholarly articles. And hold retrospectives.