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.