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.