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.


  1. I couldn’t agree more, Dan. Since joining the ranks of the “Indies”, I’ve been paralysed by the anxiety associated with becoming an efficient social media marketer, blogger, PR specialist and online “personality”, which the self-publishing journey seems to demand of me. Writing – good, bad or indifferent – appears to have as little importance as processed sandwich filling for the successful “Writer”, barely mentioned in passing – the way you might toss a tin of spam into your supermarket trolley. The discussion is all about attracting and retaining readers, while “literature” seems to have become an embarrassingly uncool term.

    The Internet revolution is a technical revolution – a revolution of means and access as opposed to one of content or quality. The need to search-engine optimise your blog text in order to be read means that the words themselves have become nothing more than cheap markers to attract the attention of robot crawlers. I think a true revolution in electronic content will only come about once writers start exploring the visual and organisational tools which the Internet offers – hyperlinking, SEO, the non-linear nature of the Internet – as part of their literary exploration, using these techniques in their stories’ online structure and in ebooks – and so abandoning the constrictive blueprint of the print book for new formats.

  2. "The discussion is all about attracting and retaining readers, while “literature” seems to have become an embarrassingly uncool term."
    Sadly too true. You have a fabulous website, btw - and I love the reviews linking one of your books to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown!

  3. Great piece. My only disagreement with you, Dan, is your reverence for the art czars like Jopling and Serota - the international art market is now really a form of investment banking and I think the last thing we want literature to do it to emulate it. Of course, the art world can create celebrities without much public engagement other than a stroll through a gallery (and most people who have an opinion about, say Emin or Hirst probably haven't even done that) - the problem with books is you have to take time to read them.

    But perhaps looking for revolution in the novel is simply looking in the wrong place, just as any manifesto that thinks self-publishing is a 'movement' is bound to fail - in fact, most of the rhetoric around self-publishing is notable for its conservatism and its desire to emulate what it professes to oppose.

    Maybe the time for Moments and Movements is over. Maybe now, in advanced capitalist societies like our own, there is only the Market. How we challenge that is, at the very least, um, interesting. But is a ramshackle edifice that has been constructed around us, it is groaning under the weight, the cracks are showing...

    Keep on keepin' on, as they used to say...

  4. yes, Roland, I have a lot of qualms about that too - the fact that a lot of YBAs are essentially Thatcher's little children.

    "Maybe now, in advanced capitalist societies like our own, there is only the Market"
    wouldn't that be depressing? And even the thought that it might be true makes me want to do anything I can to show it's not.

    "most of the rhetoric around self-publishing is notable for its conservatism and its desire to emulate what it professes to oppose."
    yes, I was reading Talli Roland's piece a couple of days ago (http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/please-dont-call-me-an-indie-author/) which is just the latest in that trend. It's incredibly depressing. We might have been utterly clueless, but I'm sure when we started self-publishing nearly four years ago we felt an artistic as well as a commercial excitement - that we'd been freed from something more significant than direct access to the market.

    Absolutely agree about novels, however you define them, not being the right place to look. There's a lot about alt lit that's naive and far less original than it thinks it is (Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman spring to mind as predecessors even before the literary ones like Brett Easton Ellis. Even B S Johnson in his own way), but there's also a lot that's really exciting - not least the sense of a Movement.

    I'll keep on keeping on, don't worry!

  5. I'm with you, Dan - and I think that the potential of different media, and our response to it, should include a capacity to make mistakes, to risk work that the purists will deride, to 'try it and see.' I don't mean that to include failing to attend to basic things like grammar and spelling; rather to play with words in a different way, to see what happens - and if it doesn't 'work' (whatever that means) then nobody comes down on us and assumes the whole movement is rubbish. The whole point, surely, is experimenting - and we can only do that if it is safe to get it 'wrong' occasionally.

    (I write this, even though my own books are relatively conventional!)

  6. yes, the freedom to get it wrong is one of the most liberating things of all about self-publishing, with no one wielding the contract for the next book over you as either a carrot or a stick!

  7. think spelling and grammar are up for grabs, also :)

    Penny Goring