Sunday, 20 January 2013

Self-publishers need to forget self-interest to make their case

The ever-articulate Roz Morris, author of the excellent My Memories of A Future Life, makes an excellent point on today's Authors Electric blog. She makes a case against the hypocrisy of a mainstream industry that claims to be right there at the creative cutting edge and yet routinely opts for the safe. Her very important and oft-repeated, not least by me, point is that this leaves self-publishing as the home for the truly original.

"The literary establishment - reviewers, journals and awards organisers - is supposed to find the most notable writing, but publishers are turning those books away."

says Morris. And she's partly right. She cites Andrew Lownie's blog as a culprit in the double standard - and here she's right on the money. But we wouldn't expect agents to take on such works. The figures don't stack up. On the other hand  new, small presses *are* taking on some fabulous new writers doing startlingly original things - Bluemoose, Melville House, Dedalus, Blackheath, Civil Coping Mechanism, the late lamented Grievous Jones and others. And whereas in 2011, my list of wow books was loaded with self-publishing, the most fabulous, original book I've come across in 2012 was Alejandro Zambra's Bonsai, published by Melville House, closely followed by Frank Hinton's Action, Figure published by Tiny Hardcore Press. 

Does this mean there are fewer superb self-published books out there? Not necessarily. Kate Tempest's remarkable Everything Speaks in its Own Way is a truly original, beautifully made masterpiece. But it *is* true that small presses are doing incredible things with truly original authors, and we weaken our case when we fail to acknowledge this.

But I think as self-publishers we really need to wake up to our own tendencies in recommending books. What we really really need as we keep making the essential point about self-publishing and the creative cutting edge  is to keep overgrounding the genuinely startlingly original work we come across. Because that's what will ultimately make our point most powerfully of all.

 This is a major issue I have with many self-publishing review sites, and many self-published authors and the books they talk about - yes, they do a great job for genre fans, but too often they have a "literary fiction" section that points out works that are very similar to what the mainstream is doing, full of exquisite prose and some original ideas, beautifully edited, flowingly written and something no one would complain about their listing. And worse, they make a virtue of this. I'm sorry, but there is only one cake and you can't have it and eat it - you have to decide whether your cake flavour is "self-published books can be as well-made as mainstream published ones" or "self-publishing is the true home of the innovative."

I want to make the case that self-publishing is the place for those genuinely at the cutting edge but at the moment the self-publishing-centred media is often as much to blame as the mainstream media for putting across the message that isn't the case. Too many people are opting for the former flavour, and they have a reason for doing so. Rather, two reasons - they want to answer the most commonly put criticism in the media, and they want to have their own writing taken seriously. They don't want to be laughed at/not taken seriously/worst of all ignored for being on the loony unacceptable fringe. Which is understandable - but I have to say the moment we become afraid to be seen as the loony unacceptable fringe we sort of lose our indie credentials.

It is a real problem for us as self-publishing authors. We want our own work to be read widely and we want to push self-publishing as part of that. The problem is that the really exciting thing about self-publishing is what it can do for our culture, for readers. And if we really want to promote it in all its glory, we need to put aside some of our self-interest and make the strongest case we can. So many of us are also authors concerned to show that we take ourselves seriously as writers by making nice, safe choices for books to recommend that are beautifully written, well-edited, professionally produced so that our standing amongst the cognoscenti is safe, that we rarely stick our own necks out for the tatty, unread pieces of mindbending brilliance that are out there.

It is we, as much as the mainstream, who need to be seeking out the obscure and the breathtaking and then shouting it from the hilltops. A huge thanks to Roz - who is one of those who really does do this.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Andrea Coates: Anger, Ambition, and Alt Lit

One of my favourite things is interviewing people. Especially people who have something either interesting or important to say. Andrea Coates has both. One of the most outspoken and passionate figures in the Alt Lit scene, I first came across her, well, starting a fight somewhere probably, and I've been following her since. She is the self-proclaimed most ambitious person in Alt Lit, and a vocal critic of some of the genre's more shallow tendencies. She is also the author of the forthcoming novel Splendidly in/Sane, with its protagonist Hap'E Blue.

Here I get to talk to her about Alt Lit, ambition, white privilege, and the Great American Novel. Buckle up for the ride!

1. I often think those who care the most about something are those who get angriest with it. What is it about Alt Lit that you care about so deeply, and what makes you angry with it?

I care about the Fact that Other People my Age are writing. I care about my Peers. What makes me Angry is how Little Depth and Creativity the Vast Majority of the Alt Lit Scene demonstrates, yet how convinced it is of its “Alt”ness : Most write a kNock off of Tao Lin’s Prose - Solipsistic Middle Class Minimalism. Those who are promoted within the Scene are those who imitate Best. That and Girls who have Sx with Famous People. Any One with Ambition to creating a Unique Literary and Artistic Style, Any One writing for Bigger Reasons than telling the World what they ate to Day would be pissed off by this.

2. I want to ask a few questions about the question of privilege, because it's something you are actively engaging with. You talk about making your protagonist aware of her privilege as a way of pre-empting criticism. Talk me through that.

Pre-empting Criticism? I think I’m Less concerned about Criticism than my Own Moral Soul. I don’t want to be anOther Middle Class Kid, living in the White Consumer Bubble, Clueless to the World out Side of my Privilege. People like that make me Sad. When People like that are promoted as the Artists of their Day it makes me Sad. Failing to recognize One’s Privilege, as a Kid from the White Middle Class, ensures you will go on Tacitly supporting a System of Genocide and Environmental Xploitation. I can’t live that Way and feel Okay about my Self. Like All Good Rebels, I would rather die fighting the Power than live Richly on the Ill gotten Blood of the Earth.

3. You talk elsewhere on your blog about the invalidity of those outside an oppressed group speaking for it. Going back to the previous question, what practical and theoretical questions does that raise for you as an author whose job, many would say, is to imagine yourself outside of your group (I ask this with particular interest as a middle class white male who has a hidden disability, aware of both my privileged and oppressed status and constantly wrestling with whether and how to transcend that)?

As a White Middle Class Girl, and a Writer of autoBiographical Fiction and Essays ( a Typically Self Absorbed Writer ), I can’t speak on the Sufferings endured by People of Color who live out Side the Capitalist Privilege Bubble. What I can do is see those Sufferings, feel for Other People, and work within my Culture to break down White Supremacy, for Xample. So, I’m inSide and outSide my Culture at the Same Time. I’m like an emBedded Agent. I think that’s the Best we Middle Class Whites can do at this Point. Any Thing else would be inAuthentic.

4. You talk about what makes a great writer and weave this into your discourse about privilege. Do you feel nervous as, by your admission, a white-privileged writer attempting definitions of what makes great culture? How would you go about talking to a writer from a non-privileged background who had a wholly different opinion, and would your backgrounds be relevant to the conversation?

Art is Subjective. We All like Best what relates to us Personally. My Take on what a “Great” Writer is is Hugely Biased. My Education is in “Western Canonical Literature and Philosophy,” which is Overwhelming White, Male, etc., so, those preJudices affect my Opinions, even when I’m reading Books by Ladies of Color, for Xample ( take my Review of Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues : Esi Edugyan is Black, she’s a Lady, so she’s coming at the Canon from the out Side. Her Book had Great Themes and won the Giller in 2011, a Lot of People loved it, but I found her Prose to be Sloppy ). All I can do is be Honest about this Fact, and be willing to hear those who want to challenge my Point of View, eSpecially when it comes to where I’m Biased. After All, as in Art / as in Nature - Diversity is the Name of the Game. I’m Bored of Well off White Males! I want to see Writers of All Back Grounds flourish. That doesn’t mean I’m going to drop my High Standards, it just means we can’t let our Biases blind us. Honestly, whatever you think is Great Writing is Great Writing ( if you think Half Blood Blues is a Great Novel, it is ). The Fun of being an Art Critic, though, is seeing if you can’t get People to come over to your Side of Things. Where Two Equal but Opposing Opinions meet, we have Dialectical Synthesis, we have Xpanded Minds. Maybe I could get this Imaginary Person to see the Beauty of Tolstoy.

5. Alt Lit is a milieu that immerses itself in the digital world. Full participation in it requires the money to buy technology, being born in a place where technology is available, and having the time to write. I would say it therefore   is more prone to being exclusionary than almost any other form of literature. My own feeling is that most practitioners are either completely unaware of the problems of privilege this raises or just dismiss them with a shrug of the shoulders. What's your take?

You’re Xactly Right.

6. Should writers try to change the world?

Hells yes! A Book that doesn’t try to change Any Thing is a Book that goes no where, that has no Momentum, no Legacy.

7. You describe yourself as the most ambitious person in Alt Lit. What is the object of that ambition?

I want to be canonized. I want to sit along Side Dostoyevsky and Joyce and Woolf and Melville as One of the Greatest Novelists who ever wrote. The Great Writers showed me just how Powerful Literature can be. I want to create Some Thing that awes and inspires Others like Tolstoy awed me, like Kafka awed me, like Bolano awed me.

8. OK, now your book Splendid in/Sanity. Your pronouncements have set you a hell of a task to live up to them. What does your book have that other alt lit books don't?

Hahahahhaha. Depth? But that’s an Easy Answer. Like All wanna be Greats, I’m trying to “define a Generation,” to write Some Thing about my Youth that crystallizes what was Unique about being a Teen / Young Adult on Turtle isLand at the Turn of the Millennium. What differentiates my Work from Tao Lin’s, for Xample, and the Majority of Alt Lit by Xtention, is that where his Work Consciously erases the Subjective, the Poetic Spirit within Each of us, in Favour of an “Objective” Cataloguing of Physical non Events ( and this is his Philosophy – a post Modern Materialism ), mine includes as Much Spirit, as Much Emotion, as the Txt can handle. S.i/S: is a Book about a Girl who, despite struggling with Sx and Drug Addiction, wishes to build Utopia. It touches on why Men abuse Women, why Women cling to Men, why Young People take Drugs, the Role of Spirit in the Modern Techno Distopia, how Capitalism shapes our Lives, and how Capitalism can be dismantled. No where else in what is Commonly called “Alt Lit” will you find this Degree of Thematic proFunDity.  Also, the Way I construct Prose is Perfectly Unique. What Writer in English has used Capital Letters like I do?

9. From what I've read of it on your blog, the style is not what I would expect from alt lit. Most alt lit I've read is written in a very close point of view sort of like Burroughs, Kerouac and Brett Easton Ellis put through a blender. Your narrative voice is very distant, impersonal. In a way it's much more "classical" than much contemporary literature...

I studied the Classics because I wanted to be them. So it makes Sense that now I write like them. I was Very Much influenced by the Writers of the Great, Sprawling, “Social” Novels, like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Elliot, I would include Joyce in there - because Ulysses is no Thing if not the Story of Irish Society at the Time - the Authors who made a Point to xplore Life in their Culture from the Poorest to the Richest. S.i/S: includes Characters who drink Malt Liquor in Trailer Parks and Characters who do Blow on their Yatchs. I want to show All of my Society at my Time, and to do that I think you need a Certain Distance to your Narrative Voice – the Omniscient, as they say. Most Alt Lit is Very Personal, and Most Alt Lit is Very Middle Class. It’s like Mumblecore.

10. Why are you so interested in the Great American Novel? I ask that as a writer based in the UK where GANs are by and large a huge turn off with their mix of overwheening ego, overtly misogynistic/colonialist structure, and lack of beauty and invention. On the other hand, most UK writers I admire look enviously to French literary culture. Do you think it's a similar thing in Canada?

Yeah. Definitely. Canadian Literature doesn’t have the Tradition of Bravado American Literature does, and I am drawn to Bravado. For S.i/S:, I Really wanted to combine the Adventurousness, the Brashness, of the Great American Novel with the … I’m going to call it “Landscape Drama” … of the Canadian Novel – that Sense of being Lost in the Wilderness, of the Pioneer needing to survive against All Odds, that Margaret Atwood called the Essence of Canadian Literature in Survival. See, it’s Easy to write a Great Canadian Novel. There’s not that Many of us competing. What I need, if I Really want Success, is to write a Book that is Equally Well received in America. Also, I want to cultivate a Sxe Rivalry with a Potential Great American Novelist. Because I think that would be Funny / a Good Art Project / would bring Some Much Needed Attention to Contemporary Literature.

11. By the age of 30, Andrea Coates would like to have...

Gained a Reputation as One of the Most Promising Living Writers, gotten VICE Magazine to Publicly apologize for its Bigotry, starred in Several of jody franklin’s Films, gone on a Multi Media Tour with my Xtended Artistic Family, LLWAM, and started Work on my Utopia, HRTNRKFRM.

12. By the age of 30, Andrea Coates will have...

Done All that. And let’s throw in a Few Gossipy Romances. I’ll also have had at Least One Kid ( Gulp ). I live on Ambition. My Life is my Ultimate Work of Art. I want it to be as Xciting as Possible.