Wednesday 3 November 2010

4:am fiction : writing in the slips

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.


  1. Hi Dan,

    My google alerts just picked up your mention of my night. Have to say I don't think the night is about appearing cool - I work really hard to get the best writers I can every month that I think people will want to come along and listen to. The night is free and listed in the broadsheets, on facebook and through a mailing list and anyone is very welcome to come. But I appreciate your right to an informed opinion, of course, although I'm not sure I've ever seen you at the night.

    To Hell with the Lighthouse

  2. This seems like a plea/rant to be more-counterculture-than-thou, which — when I see it — tends to strike me as attention-begging, fist-waving. Point the finger at the "cool kids," and define yourself in opposition, and thus claim counter-cool for yourself.

    To the lit point, I'm if the Literary Death Match is perceived as cool, and that translates to people showing up that aren't your typical lit-event goers, then fuck yeah. Can't think of anything cooler than luring onlookers that end up fans of at least one of the performers. Moreover, we're in every bit as much a hunt as you, To Hell With..., and the other lit nerds to find transcendent excellence on the page and off it.

    I have more to say, but it's just easier to have these kind of back/forths over a pint. Gratefully, I'm back in Europe, making that easier.

  3. "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."

    My time has come.

    Great, great rant, Dan. As always.

  4. Thank you both. I have to say, the reference to the literary events was kind fo slipped in as an "oh, and as well" to a point that is primarily about the written not the spoken word. And to clarify, because yes, of course I need to clarify and details are always best back and forthed, I think *anything* that gets people reading is great, and anything that gets people talking about literature is great, and events like yours are right at the forefront of that.

    I'll come back to the specific events but the problem is with the way these then get projected to the media. I reviewed an extraordinary collection of poetry earlier this year, Valve Works by Rob Sherman - whom I subsequently met at LDM100 in London. It's published (free) as an ebook by Philistine Press, and as a limited ed incredibly beautiful zine, and I'd recommend it thoroughly to both of you and anyone else. It's a beautiful series of illustrated Keatsian odes to different parts of the body. Thoughtful, sensitive, and enough to get the most hardened cynic whooped up about poetry. It was sent to me along with a note from the publisher about how they published work at the cutting edge of literature. And that almost deflated the whole thing. It's not cutting edge. But it IS bloody brilliant, and should be sold as just that. That's my problem - you get articles like the one in the Guardian this summer about the new trend in lit nights and they spin them as hot, hip, and happening, and something culturally edgy. It's the spin not the nights I have a thing with.

    But most of all my problem is with the way the literary scene works, and the way that writers who were on the outside saying something new are sold as though they still were when they've long been assimilated - Todd, I don't know what things are like in the States but in the UK there IS a scene, and in order to get reviews in the right places and mentions in the right nespaper a newcomer has to go and search it out and fit into it. By and large, not exclusively I'm sure. Reviewers and columnists are realy wary of being the first to talk about something. They'd rather be first to break a story they know everyone else is about to break too - which means there is a focus on quite a small number of writers in a small number of places (exactly the same problem as art, of course, there's nothing the literary-peripheral industries are doing that's uniquely heinous), so a writer has to get themselves to those places and play their rules. Just like they would to get a publisher if they wanted to be mainstream. And that kind of manouevring takes the egde off.

  5. And that's where I circle back to the dangers of bringing new people to something that's been sold (not necessarily by the organisers - I think LDM's promo material is a riot) a particular way. It's like a first real life date if you've put on an online act. You can end up leaving people feeling missold. So when (and it's books not events I really mean here, though I think that Guardian article did a disservice) we're told a book is fresh, the brilliant new face of contemporary whathaveyous, and it turns out to be what Brett Easton Ellis was doing 20-something years ago, we think "oh, well if that's the exciting new stuff in books I'll go back to my DVDs". Less media hype about new and edgy, more about content, and a willingness to look for the new and great not the next big thing is what I'm asking for.

    On THWTL no, I haven't been owing to the lateness and the Londonness and my living in the sticksness, and I would like to go - I would particularly have liked to go to see Natasha Solomons. But only because I know you already, otherwise I'd feel a little intimidated that I was intruding. I think that's the problem with there being a scene - to people not in it, it can remind them of all the times at school they were ostracised, beaten, taunted and shunned for being on the outside. I genuinely think the London scene feels like this - I'm lucky enough to have spent 20 years since school developing a thick skin and not giving a flying what people think of the fact I'm large, beardy (OK, that's only 8 years), have odd taste, and, ahem, wear a leather jacket so I've come and met the people behind the image and they've all been very nice, and many positively lovely - but without that experience, I wouldn't have done, and I'd have just assumed literature was another of those circles that had no place for me.

    Todd, LDM is slightly different because, being American, it's distanced from the UK scene and like I say your promo stuff is great. You come across as, well, a bit of a geek I'd be happy to go and talk to at a bar, who has this whacky idea about getting people into literature. And that's great. And I had a super time at my so far only LDM. There was a bit of them and us with the seating arrangements (there was a reserved area from which a couple of my friends were ejected - fair enough - whilst another competitor who was allowed an entourage of fans in the area) that felt a bit alienating but the spirit of the event itself was great.

  6. Yes, Philippa, I think it has. There are some really exciting things going on that are blurring the arts (google something alled "Concrete Operational"). Also, real emotioal depth and an emphasis on beauty. The same honest messages as the blank generation or whatever one calls them, maybe present in some places, but wrapped in a different - and deeper - package. And not necessarily in straight literary fiction as a genre

  7. Well, I don't care how cool they appear to be. I don't care how they published their work, or how much of an *edge* anything thought they had.

    I care that they have contributed to 20 years of 'greed is good' and added 'inhuman is better'. As if cruelty was the last fetish.

    It's got no soul. Fuck it all.

  8. What makes you call Melville House only "kind of" an indie publisher?

  9. Dennis, what constitutes "indie" in publishing - just like the music industry - is one those things that's impossible to pin down. To someone sitting in Hachette Towers, a place like mhp is beyond the indie-as-fuck pale; to someone slumming out zones on a bootlegged photocopier mhp is The Establishment. Indie can mean anything from "not big 6" to 100% DIY and everything in between. And most of them do amazing things in their niche. The point I was making is that the movement of which Rourke was a part was so out there it feels like he's shifted centreward to go with mhp.

  10. Dan,

    The way you feel about these events reminds me of how I used to feel going to McSwy's events — I felt not-included, but the thing is: that was all ego on my part. McSwy's is great, and has been hugely supportive of the different things I've done that make sense for them to be supportive of (proper English?). So, it was all in my head, and I felt somehow that I wasn't good enough to belong. Now, I don't have that problem. But, looking back, I see that was on me, and it deals more with my own sense of actually giving a shit (I wanted to be accepted, because I felt McSwy's was an ideal counter-culture to the alienating Big 6 that I felt far from).

    As for MPH: Totally indie. I see why you'd say what you did, but man, I'll tell you, the people that have to fight hard to compete, because they don't have a huge infrastructure (like the BIg 6), they're indie. If they succeed a bit, it doesn't make it any less so.

  11. Todd, McSweeney's is a humdinger of an example - it absolutely splits people down the middle here. Before the generalisations, I want to say direct to you how excited I was talking to Suze about LDM and getting a feel for the way you find readers. And I'm very excited about showing you what Oxford's got. I absolutely agree that we should support what we think is great (I remember posting a comment on a Times article that hadn't credited Emma with her hard work for THWTL). And at the end of the day all of us are in it for the same thing - to get people whooped up about literature. But supporting each other on the central cause and the things we agree with should never stop us calling out where we see a problem.

    On mhp, I absolutely don't have a problem with them - they look like a fantastic outfit. I was charting the progress of the career of someone like Rourke (Myers being the prime example, though), pointing out that these authors who once were really outside the mainstream but are no longer. Which isn't a bad thing. BUT they are still being sold as the cutting edge when they no longer are. And their prose style has become in its own way paradigmatic. It's not the fresh exciting thing it once was but it's still being presented as such (it's not unique to literature - it happened with punk, with New Romanticism, with Northern Soul - the moment the mainstream media picks up something it's no longer cutting edge by and large because there's a media lag).

    The problem comes when new readers take a look and see that there's nothing new to say to their lives - then they'll lose faith in literature as a whole.

    There is also (and it again is in no way unique to literature) a tendency for genuine underground movements to be pounced upon by scenesters the moment it hits a sniff of the media. Again, nothing wrong with that - but there is a real danger of the newly-embraced underground believing the hype and turning its attention to the being cool aspect not to its roots which were about the words themselves.

    In order to stay fresh, basically (the short of this very long comment), movements that are at this juncture need, in order to stay exciting, 1. to remain focused on the thing that made them break out in the first place, not the other stuff that comes with breaking out and 2. to be very sure of itself and self-confident in its dealings with a mainstream that suddenly want a piece of the action - make them come to you not you to them.

    As for me, I do worry what would happen if eight cuts gallery suddenly got picked up and run with - yet at the same time we want the best for our authors. It's something we all have to look at, but as a project we have a very clear agenda of presenting work in a multi-format, highly-curated fashion that provokes thought in the audience and remains 100% true to the author's vision. I'm delighted to do anything with anyone that doesn't compromise that.

    To expand on the last bit, I know Emma made a point about the piece I chose to read at LDM and whether it was appropriate. yes, it was said in humour but it's pertinent because it has come up more than once. It's quite clear from the web what I write, and what I represent with my writing (confessional urban fiction that deals with questions of identity and relationship by never flinching). I wasn't dis-invited. I read my best piece because I wanted to give it an airing, but I also vchose it because it has black humour that I thought would suit LDM. I didn't compromise but I tried to enter the spirit of the event. It has come up most frequently not witbh relation to the sexuality of our pieces, but the frank way we deal with suicide. And where we are really asked to limit ourselves at an event where we feel that would misrepresent us, I hope I'll make the right choice (sure, I understand why people ask it, I'll out them for it which is fair enough, but I have to stay focused on those ideals)

  12. what a load of old shite. you sound like a bit of a jealous sort really. the canal is really good, melville house are definitely (last time i checked) and indie, and why shouldnt ben myers - or indeed "the other one" - tony o'neill - have signed with majors? i think any movement is about reaching the maximum amount of people possible, and i remember at the time plenty of statements being made to that effect. you sound like one of those people who starts to hate your favorite band as soon as other people got into them. "sell out!' jesus christ, oure basically someone who is trapped being 15 for the rest of their lives. kind of sad, really.

  13. Most of the bands I like are big - not in a Benny Goodman kind of way. I also like reading Dan Brown. I have nothing against anyone reaching out to large numbers. The problem is with three things - when something is sold to the public as new that no longer is; when in order to reach larger numbers someone moves away from what they were doing; and when things are sold as cool rather than for quality. The first and last of these are rarely anything to do with the artist themselves. What I'm saying is you can't really both sign big time and be sold as right at the edge - again, not really anything to do with the writers in question so much as the media portrayal thereof. What I'd really like to see is the mainstream media being a little faster on the ball picking these movements up in the first place, rather than pretending to discover new things that aren't new. It's great that Ben and Lee are getting media coverage - they should have had it years ago when they were really news, and the part of the media that's there to tout what's new should now have moved on.

    I agree on reflection the tone of this piece is too snarky, and that's detracted from the point I was making - but hey, when the Brutalists stuck two fingers to the mainstream they were being snarky. They had a very good point. I think I do too - there is a serious media lag, and the people who are ultimately losing out are the public. There IS a media lag in other art forms of course - but not as much - it's par for the course for music journalists to go round tiny gigs, keep their ears open both to the grapevine and myspace, and try to be the first to out a new talent. I don't think that's the case so much in literary journalism (AND I think there's less of a feed up the chain from tiny zine to mainstream press - and we really miss out not having the equivalent of BBC Introducing). The same journalists who moan about the decline of interest in literature are often the ones who aren't going out of their way to find genuinely exciting new stuff for readers to get buzzed up about.

    I apologise unreservedly for personal offence caused to Ben and Lee by using them as examples (and of course to Todd and Emma, but I want to reiterate that this piece wasn't really about literary nights) but there IS a scene that sells itself as more than it is, and does so to a public who deserve the goods to do what it says on the tin. So I'm agreeing with what you say about reaching large numbers - but it's the media that create the large numbers, and they really should be a little less introspectivce, a little less lazy and sold on promoting what they've known about for quite some time - and start looking for new stuff, stop being keen to be the first to mention something they know is going mainstream, and start being keen to mention something for no other reason than they think it's good.

  14. I cant wait to see your post soon. Your article is so convincing that I never stop myself to say something about it.
    You’re doing a great job.