OK, so Brutalism was a stunt. The Book of Fuck was actually The Book of Fuck All Else to Do. But still. Once upon a time (can you see the jokes coming? Can you? Both of them?) we knew where the boundaries were, and we knew who was pushing them (can you now?). Fuck the mainstream said Ben Myers, and Adelle Stripe. And the other one. People oohed and aahed at 3:am and remembered that the klf actually had more to say than the Venga Boys even if everyone else had forgotten it.
In fact, while everyone else was still talking about Amis and McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie and Ishiguro, even though they'd been really quite shit for a good few years; and Zadie Smith was cool even though she went from zero to sellout faster than the Lambo Countach they'd had on their walls as pre-pubescents; and there were whispers about slams and things that had to do with hopping were a little but hip; but actually it was all about the lyric, the sound in your ear the thank-fuck-punk-is-dead return to syncopated sensibilities. While all that was going on there were geeks who got in your face and did stuff that made you nervous you might get glassed or your mum might walk in. But that was kind of the point. And who cares that their influences were Burroughs and Fante and Richard Hell and people old enough to be their dealer's dealer if they'd had a dealer anywhere but their overactive imaginations. Because all we'd really had was three chord shit and Pink Floyd and David Bowie. And all of a sudden we were Where It's At.
We had people who were doing things with language. And saying social stuff. Big social stuff. With odd sentence structures. It was like Brett Easton Ellis and Doug Coupland had had their brains transplanted with a bunch of British nobodies and that's why they seemed so crap all of a sudden. Eventually they got names like The Brutalists. Or The Offbeats. And their CBGB's, their Chelsea Hotel, was 3:am the granddaddy of all literary ezines. And in those early days you sense if they'd had gigs there would have been police raids; and speed-fuelled fights; and taking to the streets to smash the windows of M&S.
And then. Then the boundaries dried up and they found themselves fielding in the slips. They got blogs for The Guardian. and "fuck the mainstream" became Lee Rourke's debut novel The Canal - with an indie publisher (kind of) but a publisher nonetheless. And the granddaddy of anti-culture produced the granddaddy of all sellouts (without even the irony of John Lydon selling butter) and Ben Myerts signed the dotted line with Picador.
And I don't think I've seen a single piece in the papers that stood back and said what the fuck!
WTF is that we have a literary scene - primarily a London literary scene (but the Brutalists were Northern, weren't they? Wasn't that part of the point? - that's as vacucous as Manchester music became in the mid 90s.
Not that this is bad *in itself*. What's bad is how it's being spun (largely by each other). This WAS the *edge*. It's now the flabby middle, but the names are still being spun as edgy. The public is being sold Richard as though it's Book of Fuck. As though IT, the sellout, is at the limits of the written word. Is it any wonder that when they find out it's yet another slightly blank slightly non-linear spin-off of ladlit more via Glamorama than Less Than Zero they think literature is moribund?
And this would be edge (we could call it U3 as much as we could call it 4:am fiction) has attracted around it (hint - edges don't HAVE things around them) a whole world that sells itself as the literary avant garde. But it's not. It's a scenester scam where what matters is playing namedrop bingo with the beautiful people. And that's the problem. People are being sold a pup. I've seen it from the inside, and it's not nice. Not that it's nasty. It's just, well, a shame. Literary Death Match, To Hell With the Lighthouse - high profile events getting the public whipped up about some exciting new things in literature - only to offer them people who may have had something to say (or whose predecessors may have done). Once. But are now part of an inward-looking group who are rather pleased with how cool they are.
And that's where it's harming literature. Today's movers and shakers want to be the first to tell their friends they discovered the new cool. They don't want to stand up and tell their friends they found something no one else likes that they think is the bollox.
Which is no different from the rest of the publishing industry, of course. Fine. But they're selling it like it is, and that's going to be their downfall. The slick, blank, rather shallow Ellis-lite Welsh-liter 4:am fiction they flog is all knob gags and middle class angst and surfaces that are no longer surfaces to expose the shallowness of society, but surfaces that expose the shallowness of the form itself.
There IS a new underground, of course, that has nothing really to do with 3:am (even if some of its practitioners have moved on and stayed fresh) or 4:am or anything else you could name from a clockface. And the irony is, that while cool slowly eats itself, the old industry that's so far behind the scenesters who are behind, might actually be so oblivious they inadvertently pick it up without knowing.
So what is the new underground? Well, it's so underground I probably don't know about it (but unlike the scenester-setters it's my daily quest to look and not be told about it by a style bible). As I've said elsewhere, I think Sean McGahey nailed it in a recent Facebook status update when he talked about those not afraid to stand up and be mocked for being sentimental. As punk gave way to New Romanticism, so I think the age of blank will give way to a new kind of writing that's not ashamed of emotion and adjectives, of scratching the surface and tapping the romance below. It will be unashamed of rather old-fashioned art forms like painting. It will have sweeping palettes, and be somewhat like the Italian horror of the 70s. Modern fairytales, salon culture that's not quite what it seems, burlesque - like the transgressive masterpieces of the 19th century, look here for the really new of the 21st. Look hard and look quick though, because sentimentalism soon becomes dandyism, and the whole thing will have started again before any of it hits the media.