Saturday, 7 November 2009

Literature's the new Art: so who's Jay Jopling?

Well, no one's actually said literature is the new art. Apart from me. Most people say it's the new music and they've got a point. Even more people say it's NOT the new music and talk about how literature can't use the gigs & merch model. And they're wrong. About the latter bit, anyway. But what I can't help feeling is that, whilst the music industry is something from which we can learn a lot - about downloads and gigging, and connecting with fans and streamlining businesses; it's actually to the art world we should be looking to understand literature.

I'm always sniping about Goldsmiths and CSM in the 90s and how they were glorified school tie networks, and how the MA Creative Writing from UEA threatened to become the same, but that's not what I mean.

What I mean is this: literature, with a publishing industry on its knees and a load of creative talent chomping to escape the shackles, is shaping up to be the next YBA (Young British artists - Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Michael Landy, Gavin Turk, sam Talyor Wood, The Chapman Brothers, The Wilson Twins et al ad inf).

It's not to do with new tech - not directly, anyway. It's more that I see more and more groups of writers outside the mainstream coming closer and closer to the big time by doing things their way. People like MCM, groups like Jet-Pack and Backword Books, our own beloved Year Zero, salons like Book Club Boutique. Perhaps most groundbreaking in her own way - and you'll laugh at me for saying - Catherine O'Fynn with her mild unassuming "this is just how I did it" approach.

It felt for a little while as though we may have got there a few years ago - as though someone had finally swept Amis and McEwan and Swift out with a broom and replaced them with a hungry new generation of people hungry to put ideas on paper. But A M Homes and Monica Ali and even the Great White Teeth Hope Zadie Smith just got subsumed into the same old same old mainstream. At least Tracey Emin took 20 years to sell out!

So what went wrong with the last generation of new hope? Well, to answer that, take a look at what went right with YBA. If one wants to generalise hideously and lay oneself open to all kinds of loopholes, then one can lay the answer at the feet of two men. And neither was called Saatchi.

What happened for YBA were Jay Jopling and Nick Serota. Curators. Jay Jopling, for those of you of more tender years than me, was the owner of White Cube, the gallery that not only showcased but promoted the work of the fledgeling YBAs. He was the PT Barnum, the - should we rather say - Malcolm MacLaren of YBA - the man who made everytone else think pickled sharks were cool. Nick Serota, of course, was the legendary Tate curator responsible for the Turner Prize.


That's what the literary world lacked when White Teeth, Brick Lane, The End of Alice hit the shelves. People who were prepared to take a generation - not just one or two but a wave - and bring them to the public. People who spotted talent, nurtured it, showed it off, and didn't care if there was a place for it in the mainstream - because through force of showmanship and chutzpah they created a parallel and more exciting space.

And that's the big issue the literary sphere faces today if it's going to see all that talent blossom into a golden age, a movement, a new dawn on the public consciousness, a whole fistful of cliches that boil down to one thing: getting the general public talking about books.

Because whether it was marvelling at the brilliance of Whiteread's inside-out house, or spitting disgust at Chris Ofili's dung-filled portraits, Emin's unmade bed, or Hirst's pregnant cow cut in two, the thing Jopling and Serota did was get people talking about art. And not just artworks. A decade or so ago you could walk down a high street in the UK and hear your average Jane and Joe Public discussing what art meant. When was the last time that happened with books? Sure, we talk about vampires or Lost Symbols, but you can't stand at the bus stop and hear people jibe "Ah, but is it literature?"

And that's what we need. We need someone to make the general public talk - with gasps of delight and disgust - about books. About this book and that book and "what is literature?"

So who will it be? You'd think it'd be a publisher, wouldn't you? Vicky Barnsley, maybe, at HC, or Jessica Weiner at Harper Studio, maybe even Scott Pack at Fifth Estate. They're doing good things, all of them. But. Oh but but but.

Maybe the agents then. What about? Well, precisely. Most writers will have heard of Nathan Bransford. Lovely guy. Enthusiastic. And his authors, his individual, exciting, but somehow with a common sense of purpose authors are? Well, precisely (to repeat myself).

So who WILL be the Jay Jopling of the Literary World? Richard Nash, of Soft Skull and Cursor fame, believes it will be him. No, whatever he tells you, he DOES. And he may be right. Maybe.

I'll give a good guess. A good guess is that it'll be one of two people. It'll be a celeb - an Oprah or a Richard & Judy (and you could make a case they've partially done it already, scoff ye not) who says "I'm gonna say f*ck mainstream books. I'm gonna have me a book club and choose me the best most exciting damn books on the planet WHEREVER they come from" and shouts them from the hills. Or it'll be the person who sets up a prize with a million pound pot for the best self-published book of the year (or maybe even the best unsigned ebook - and, by the way, where ARE the ebook only awards? hmmmmmm - and hires a team of rockstars as judges.

Just a guess. And trust me - one of them WILL happen. Within 18 months.

Or it could be one of us.

Now there's a thought.


  1. I'm already providing the pole of "Ah yes, but is it literature?"

    Books are too dusty to be rock'n'roll sexy, though the emphasis on platform building and getting the author's personality may change this. harder for individual author to throw a TV out of pre-Reading hotel without looking like a plonker. In a band dynamic, you may just get away with it.

    Literature also not commodified enough to compete with 'owning' artworks and inflating a market based on the value it will stand. You can say make it a more prime product, of cloth bound and majuscule title or some such, but it is still a mass produced clone product, unlike the works of the YBA you cite.

    I did like a work of Sarah Lucas I once saw. I went home and wrote a play based on her central image. Otherwise, well you know my feelings on that particular scene ... let's just say it puts me in the same camp as Bily Childish and I hate to be manouevred into that particular alliance...

  2. A propos of nothing, someone should do the equivalent of a hashtag story by threading together all the word verification words into a piece.

  3. Love that idea (verification word story).

    What's interesting about art, though, is that the hype WASN'T about antics (but the Tracey Emin v Brain Sewell face-off was TV gold). Nor was it about the prices - it was about White Cube, The Turner Prize, and Sensation

  4. I know whatever I say you'll say I actually don't believe :-) but I nevertheless believe I'm not being a curator but rather empowering and channeling into communities/imprints an existing network of microcuratorial impulses...

    Which is not to say that one of the other things you describe won't happen. I think they'll all happen, the Oprahs, the Prizes, the Yous, the Thems.

  5. Great post. As someone who lives in the world of English professors, I think a good start would be some movement in Academia (yeah I know good luck with that) because I actually believe in their role as curators, but in order to be relevant there must be change and there must be a willingness -- a drive -- to embrace genres other than what they consider to be literature without being fearful we will lose or water down our literary works. (As someone obsessed with literature, and all its existential glory, that is the last thing I want.)

    And of course, at some point there must be people in Academia who want to be a bridge between The Academy and the realities of the digital revolution. This is something I have been thinking a lot about, actually.

  6. Hey Richard - thank you so much for coming over! Forgive me for getting semantic. To start with the negative - I'm not 100% sure of your business model - but we've had that discussion. The impotrant point is I think you canbe a community empowerer AND a curator.

    And I think Joplin and the physical gallery is the perfect illustration of how. The curation comes from selecting the starting materials - the set of players you want to work with. And then giving them the space (a gallery, White Cube) and saying OK, go for it, and whatever you produce in that space, I'm going to sell the world because I believe it'll be great because it's been made by you. That kind of curation is all about selecting and then having the confidence to let what you've selected do its thing whist you tell the world about it. Which, to my mind, is also community empowerment fo a sort - and is quite close to what you're doing.

    And to clear one point up - I think inasmuch as THAT is what you're doing it's a very good thing. The genre you're working in isn't my thing, but that formal content of what you're doig is the highst profile version of something approximating what I'm talking about that we've got. So in my books, you're very much on the side of the angels (which means I come across as disagreeing with you more than I do with those on the opposite side - because we always like to argue details most with people who share common ground - it's also more fruitful).

  7. @Lou I was in academia as a student for 10 years, and have been in admin there for 4 now. You have a point but sometimes I despair of my academic colleagues. someone like Nick Serota certainly had an academic edge that did no harm. When I was a student Terry Eagleton was busy doing his bit - but I fear it filtered down very little to the public consciousness. The problem in academia is this terrible snobbishness about being "popularist" - those who engage and inspire the genral public (like Dawkins and Hawking and even Marcus du Sautoy) are instantly ridiculed by those in academe. Which I have a feeling is a very British problem - I've spent time with the most inspirational American academics like Martha Nussbaum, and they are taken deadly seriously. I'm off to follow you on twitter - stay in touch.

  8. And @Lou, whilst over at Year Zero we don't footnote our blog posts, we unashamedly talk about what the heck we want without worrying about it being too academic - I HOPE our prose isn't deserty dry as a result.

  9. Tracy Emin V Brian Sewell - didn't see it myself, but clearly a Reg Grundy moment.This is what literature needs, but can't see it happening somehow. I would be prepared to take off my sandal and throw it at Melvyn Bragg, not least on account of his teribble books, but I don't think it's going to happen somehow.

  10. Ken Tynan vs Johnny Rotten almost did as much for Tynan as the Pistols!

    Melvyn Bragg, eh. Did you ever see A Time to Dance on tele? soft porn misogynist tat of the highest order.

  11. I'm wondering what the implications of the debate over the word "curator" means to you at this juncture? Curate, as one interpretation has it, as in dead things?

    I want to do everything I can do to escape the structures of the literary process, from writing to publishing (or not). I am running like hell from the gatekeeper-agent process of weeding out the creative, innovative, and offbeat in favor of the literary mush we see in mall bookstores and ladies' Tuesday book clubs. (ANOTHER book about an Afghan woman? PLEASE...)

    So to consider a shepard-leader-curator is not something I look too favorably on as a writer who is already facing an uphill battle in gathering an audience of readers.

    Hope that wasn't too tangential.


  12. I agree with everything you say, especially the points about snobbery. My problem is that I returned to school later -- after living a pretty crazy and footnote free life -- so I am still pretty much an outsider, and from my vantage point there is so much wasted. But I do believe the rebel must also say yes to something, even though it seems futile.

  13. Why I take issue with you Dan is that the gallery system creates and handful of superstars at the expense of the vast bulk of artists. Works are bought and sold as investments on a value system created by a few powerful figures - it has little to do with how those works are perceived by the public except when it breaks into the world of celebrity and fashion. And all my practising artist friends see HIrst and Emin in rather the same way we might see J.K.Rowling and Dan Brown. I think the art world stinks.

    If Monica Alia or Zadie Smith or D.B.C.Pierre didn’t fulfil their initial promise, is that really the fault of the publishing industry or did they simply not carry on to write the novels we hoped they would?

    As struggling authors it's easy to develop a victim mentality, but I don't think there is a conspiracy against us. The simple fact is that we are working in a market where supply far outstrips demand. The print-on-demand revolution has produced and avalanche of books - Lulu, who printed our books, publish 1000 new titles every day.

    I believe we do need small, focused independent publishers who can promote new authors and new writing and critics who can see what it happening, but for that to happen, we have got to write the books. I'd like to think that there is some radical, underground movement that is writing books that are very different and more exciting than the books on the table in my local bookshop.

    And - with the risk of upsetting a few people - I just don't think that is true. Having spent the last couple of years on on-line writing sites what depresses me is that how conservative so much of the writing is. There is a lot of good writing, sure, but very little great writing and even less, writing that seems to be doing something very different from the books that are already on the shelf. Books that, once you start reading you are compelled to finish because they are just so fucking good.

    If we want to create our own "Sensation" we've got to make the work first.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Interesting post, Dan.

    Like Roland, I'm cynical about the gallery system. My workshop is round the corner from White Cube 2, and I wrote a character based loosely on Jay Jopling:

    He’s very good at setting up profitable cycles of discovery, investment, promotion and sales; he’s the Emperor’s tailor.

    Though maybe this is what we need...

  16. @jenn yes, curator is a controversial word. I mean it here in the sense I outlined to Richard - a person who is prepared to believe in the new and exciting, give them space to do their thing, and tell the world about them.

    @Lou "the rebel must also say yes to something, even though it seems futile." That's a pretty good motto.

  17. @Roland very good points I hope I can engage with although I want to say at the start, if I've said anything that suggests a victim mentality on behalf of the struggling author I apologise unreservedly. I have always tried to be a critic of chippy, victimist writers and to show writers what CAN be done rather than dwelling on what CAN'T - this piece was intended as a call to action for more people to do what Richard is already doing - for me the statement that publishers & agents can't do it is just a statement of fact.

    I don't blame the industry at all for Ali and Smith's incorporation therein. There was nowhere else for them to go, true, so in a way it's a matter of happenstance. But if there is blame (which I'm not saying there is), it lies with them as authors.

    A brief not on galleries. And I'm delighted @Lexi has joined us because I know you are someoen else with some experience of the inside of a cultural sphere other than writing. I concede that my argument is almost Reaganesque, and I'm throwing it out there to be discussed rather than dogma for that reason - because if someone can come up with a beter answer, PLEASE DO - that's what calls to action are about. And that's why I love richard for all I have disagreements - he's trying something new, andthat's always better than bemoaning.

    Why is my argument Reaganesque - well, it's essentially trickle-down isn't it. the point is at the moment there are NO exciting superstars of literary fiction - no one people on the street talk about. And I'm saying that it's better to have some than none because that creates a space of opportunity. Yes, that's trickle-down. But to the extent I think those stars can come from teh underground, it's bottom-up.


  18. @Roland "If we want to create our own "Sensation" we've got to make the work first"

    We disagree on this, I'm afraid. To an extent anyway. It's a chicken and egg argument, andyou're saying chicken and I'm saying (70%) egg. I agree with the wording as you've put it, but not the sentiment. If we're going to have that body of work, there needs to be a talent pool - I agree with your disappointment in 99.9% of work on writers' sites, then again the most exciting writers aren't on writers sites. I think there is a talent pool.

    But I think fro talent to develop into the kind of body of work that can create a literary Sensation, it needs the space to do so. Yes, that is something the internet allows us - because it brings writers together to share ideas, so talent pools can grow together. And yes, writers are luckier than artists because the cost of their materials is nothing and they don't need studios. But they do need to be given metaphorical space and real time - that is what publishers can't really do (or maybe won't do - see Harper Studio's blog and comments a few days ago on how the US views France) for economic reasons. For a literary Sensation, a large enough group of like-minded writers needs to be given five or more years together and told "we don't care what you do in the meanwhile - just get on with it" - there needs to be no pressure to produce results. They need to be allowed to write bad books, to launch failed experiments, to fail againand again and again and still be given thetime and space to carry on AND (and this is possibly the only real thing a curator can do that they will find it hard to do as a group on their own -because writers ARE creatures of self-doubt and despair who take their own failures more to heart than critical assessments of them) STILL BE TOLD IT DOESN'T MATTER. Still have Jay out front telling the world about the amazing group working away on the studio, and telling the members of the group to keep on and not worry. My only real concern about exciting collective projects is that their members wil perceive themselves to be failures too early on and not see the apprenticeship and the failures out for long enough to emerge with their body of work.

  19. No, I'd never accuse you of victim mentality, Dan!

    It seems to me, in our society, cultural revolutions occur when the behemoth of mainstream media gets way out of touch with the reality of significant part of society. Independents arise to fulfil the need, the grow bigger then merge into the mainstream. Then the process starts all over again.

    Yes, the publishing industry has got fat and lazy and the literary novel is ever more marginalised. Yes, there are certainly a lot of people whose cultural appetite is not being fed, but I've yet to get a sense of an alternative literary model that's coming from left field, stuff that's too weird or dangerous or exciting for mainstream publishers. Maybe you've seen it, but I haven't. Maybe I'm just wrong.

    Or maybe the exciting new writing is just not happening in the form of the novel. Our problem is that we are not just competing with the current literary scene, but the whole history of the written word. Too many great books in the library we'll never get time to read.

  20. "Or maybe the exciting new writing is just not happening in the form of the novel"

    Roland, I think that's a lot of it. I'm not really able to judge on poetry because I'm not expert enough, but there are some way out things going on the are exciting (I love the Thomas Stolperer project, for example, although it seems to have gone to ground). Of course, there are more things still that are just gimmicky - textnovels, twitternovels etc - even geo-specific novels will be gimmicks - but out of gimmicky play, something worthwhile CAN emerge. Tech is no substitute for ideas, but tech 7 ideas in harmony can take you places.

    Flash fiction is interesting. I've only started to "get" it very recently, but I think it's got real possibilities - although it kind of blurs with the old Baudelairean prose poem ina way, so it's actually quite old-fashioned.

    The problem with experimental is that it can often come across liek a bad sixth form project - and that sort of needs to be allowed to happen in case something emerges from it.

    I think you were in on our Schlock of the New debate, weren't you. I think what I think is that I don't know what the new and exciting will look like - but the talent to produce it is there, just not enough spaces to nurture that talent, maybe

  21. Unlike others here maybe, I'm not particularly committed to the form of the novel - I'm a filmmaker at heart, and also interested in plays, performance and all the myriad other uses of the written word. Those who love novels have got plenty to read already, and, since I'm not young any more I can't pretend I'm the voice of a new generation. It's quite possible that if something new and exciting happens to the literary novel, I won't feel part of it; it's equally possible the new and exciting literary thing won't be a novel at all.

    There's three things to fit together here: the things you want to say, a viable form of communication, and the audience who is ready to hear them. For me, those three elements are always in flux.

  22. Roland I largely agree with your analysis, especially my exposure to online writing communities and works that can push their way onto the display tables in bookshops. What genuinely 21st Century novel - breaking away from those of the 20th - have there been in the first 9 years of tis century? None I can think of. Historical glut does mean readers have plenty of "classics" to keep them busy.

    I think a large part of any impetus gets ditched by self-censorship by writers who view the market and adjudge it to be genre or fairly stolid LitFic and adapt their approach accordingly. New outlets may loosen this self-strangulation a tad, but it is very piecemeal and atomised for all the internet's bringing us together.

    @Dan " a large enough group of like-minded writers needs to be given five or more years together " - YZW members seem very like-minded in our views and approach, but we cannot be charged with producing like minded works, so how could such a grouping be expected to produce a corpus of work to lead us out of the cultural desert? At best we could become an umbrella of works that people trusted for quality, but not in any coherent wave sense I don't think.

  23. This is kind of like something I posted on Authonomy:

    the real question at the heart of the contemporary publishing problem is how to engage and increase readers. Publishing is under attack on three fronts. The first is the sales chain, which is ever more narrow. The second is the pressure from would-be writers who are increasing exponentially in number. The third is the rise of social media, which is luring even die-hard readers away from books (how many Authonomites now spend day and night on the web rather than read, as they might have done in the not-too-recent past?)

    Opening up new avenues for new writers will only increase the supply pressure. Without a reader-centric strategy, any new ventures are doomed to fail.

  24. @Alex Hi. We've fenced a little in t'other place. I can't tell quite whether you think I agree or disagree with you - but my point is that we need the public to talk about literature in the streets the way they were about art in the 90s - so yes, it's all abnout the reader fom that point of view - and getting more people excited about the thought of reading books. We can do that as writers to some extent - by providing great books and by engaging through blogs and readings - but it is something that those with chutzpah can do exceptionally well. Curators, as I've said a couple of times - do two things on this model - they give writers space, and they get the world slathering for the writers' work.

    @Roland "There's three things to fit together here: the things you want to say, a viable form of communication, and the audience who is ready to hear them. For me, those three elements are always in flux."
    That's a very nice summation

    @Sulci - I agree - there has yet to be a great 21st Century novel. As for us lot - heaven forfend we ever try to do anything unified. We're a bunch of voices crying in the arid desert of the cultural soul. I like hanging out with people who ask the same questions I do, though - and I like the idea of being a trusted umbrella (never having had one of those in real life). I don't think for one minute the YBAs thought of themselves as doing the same thing. They just hung out, shot the breeze and did too many substances together.
    What you have made me think - and it goes with your pieces on pain & non-linearuty, and Heikki's concrete mixer piece that's waiting - is that each of us should write something of a personal from the heart & mind piece on what our big questions are and what we try to do when we write

  25. Sulci Collective said..."I think a large part of any impetus gets ditched by self-censorship by writers who view the market and adjudge it to be genre or fairly stolid LitFic and adapt their approach accordingly."

    Interesting point. I wonder where you draw the line between 'self-censorship' to fit a notion of the market and writing something that people actually want to read, or adjusting how you write so you can communicate with the audience you want to reach. Of course it varies greatly from writer to writer, but if no one gets what I'm doing, I feel I'm doing something wrong.

    Is trying to find the themes that people actually want to read about, the ideas the can engage with compromise?

    This is what I meant above when I referred to the three elements - the things you want to say, the means of saying them, and the audience. A notion of the 'market' or the 'audience' isn't going to change what I want to say, but it might change how I say it.

  26. @Dan as mentioned, I'm short on time at the moment, just wanted to say *great* post, *great* conversation.

    My own two cents is that I would love to see people coming together in the fashion of the C86 music scene in the mid-80's. New Music Express had a lot of readership, everybody had Sony Walkmans and mix-tape culture was at a high. Guitar-pop was taking on Hip-hop. C86 was an definitely an engineered phenomenon, and Malcolm McLaren would have been proud, and yet, that casette became something iconic.

    A combination of *existing readership*, *technological* platform and healthy *competition* between two radically different and yet oddly compatible genres would be what it takes to recreate this sort of phenomenon. And a lot of luck.


  27. Piers - thank you. I love the competition element. I hadn't really thought of that - like Twilight coming out the same day as Harry Potter.

    For me it was Blur and Oasis - same effect though.

  28. Interesting...

    '...That's what the literary world lacked... People who were prepared to take a generation - not just one or two but a wave - and bring them to the public. People who spotted talent, nurtured it, showed it off, and didn't care if there was a place for it in the mainstream - because through force of showmanship and chutzpah they created a parallel and more exciting space....'

    But did the infamy of some from that 'brit pack' translate into a greater interest in art..? I personally don't think so. Sure it made for some stark attention & some cute headlines, and even brought serious wealth to a chosen few. But to sustain a 'new wave' you need a more meaningful momentum, a background hum of interest that doesn't wane when the Sun no longer print pictures of dung or split cows. And that never happened.

    The trouble is that the type of writing that you (and I) are interested in will *by definition* attract a minority interest. And whilst it's possible to punture the popular consciousness, sustaining public interest is an entirely different matter. That would require a movement of the cultural/philosphical tectonic plates. And I'm buggered if I know how to achieve that.

    Earl Grey

  29. sustain is exactly the right word. I DO think the YBAs managed that - for a surprising while, anyway. I agree you and I do not write mainstream stuff - but that's part of the challenge - to get the public at large thinking about literary questions without us selling out the quality of our work. I want to know if it can be done - probably not, but it's a goal worth aiming at, isn't it?

  30. Oh for sure - and if I have any bright ideas...

    I'll be tracking your ideas ;-)

  31. Post is very useful. Thank you this usefull information.