Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Poetry, Perfume and Picaresques

I very rarely post publicity, but because the posters are so beautiful, and "real life" shows are an essential part of what I do as a writer, I'd like to share these two events. Penning Perfumes comes to Oxford on 21 February as part of a national tour (you can book tickets here). It is a wonderful project, whose 2012 tour attracted a lot of attention in the national press, in which poets are sent anonymous samples of perfume ad write what teh scent inspires them to, and perfumers blend scents from poetry - and then an audience experiences both. I'm thrilled to be partof it.
Some of These Things Are Beautiful is my first ever solo show, at Cheltenham Poetry Festival on April 24th. It is is a lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately joyous picaresque across the neon-soaked night cities of the world in search and celebration of lost friends. With influences from Patti Smith and Gregory Corso to Amy Winehouse and The Kills, Some of These Things Are Beautiful is a memoir and a tribute to lives lived short, fast, and full. For people who have forgotten how to live for the moment and how to connect with each other, and a poetic tradition full of family and love that has forgotten how to write about friendship, this show carries a simple warning: cherish the friends you have while you have them. Because one day they will be gone, and all you will be able to do is try and fail to write poetry about how you wish you’d loved them more. You can book tickets here.

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.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Dear Dalkey: "it's satirical" doesn't make you funny, it's the passive-aggressive bigot's stock reply

Dalkey Archive are a wonderful small press I've often mentioned in my "small presses doing great things" spiels. Yet two days ago in an act of career suicide that showed just why they're so desperate to get someone in to do PR they posted a job advert so crass it's had the internet and even figures in a publishing world not exactly known for its espousal of intern rights up in arms. Here's the ad. I can't imagine they'll leave it up so here are some key lines:
"The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who: have already demonstrated a strong interest in literary publishing; are very well read in literature in general and Dalkey Archive books in particular; are highly motivated and ambitious; are determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen; are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards; possess multi-dimensional skills that will be applied to work at the Press; look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU.
      We certainly seek people with relevant experience, but just as important or more so, we seek people who know what a job is, are able to learn quickly, are dedicated to doing excellent work, can meet all deadlines, and happily take on whatever needs to be done. Attitude and work habits, along with various skills, are just as important as experience and knowledge.
    Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.

We will not be able to acknowledge receipt of applications or provide feedback about your application. We will contact only those people whom we wish to ask further questions of or that we intend to interview. Do not contact us about your application."

But it gets worse. John O'Brien from Dalkey felt the need to explain that YES, there is a job but don't get so uptight because it was all written in the spirit of satire. Here's a piece for the Irish Times.

Now, in this explanation he breaks several rules - never explain a joke, but most important never make an explanation that will make you look worse than what you're explaining. As several commenters there point out, he hardly shows a great attitude towards internships.

But my real concern is with the original piece. I will brush over the fact that the last paragraph flagrantly plays fast and loose with people's entitlements under data protection law. What is so awful is the "get a sense fo humour" defence.  "it can't be prejudice because I said it in a funny voice and where's yer sense of humour, whoops was that your bottom I pinched, gotta larf" as I put it on a Facebook thread. This is wrong for several reasons. 

First, and obviously, it's what we associate with sexist dinosaurs who don't get why people don't all just laugh when they've been called demeaning names and had their bottoms pinched. And there's a reason that kind of dinosaur resorts to that kind of defence - they have to because their action is indefensible.

Second, this is passive-aggression at its worst. And bullying thug mob mentality. It's saying "stop whingeing you spoilsport can't syou see how you're ruining everything." It's the kind of exclusionary belittling tactic that has seen political correctness, health and safety, and rights swathed in negative connotations when I can't actually think of three things more fit for celebrating. it's the kind of attitude that leads to people telling the victims of cyberbullying to log off and shut up. It narrows the horizons of the vulnerable at teh expense of the free ranging swagger of the culturally colonial.

Third, this seems to be actually to breach the Equality Act. Not everyone can easily distinguish what's humour and what isn't. Satire is a complex social and psychological mechanism and some people are completely at sea with it. But that wouldn't stop them being amazing interns. They are entitle to take what they see at face value. This isn't a piece of creative writing, it's an advert for a job with a person specification. And whilst Mr O'Brien may think it's amusing, for the person who's just been put in the WRAG group for ESA and is in danger of losing their home and their dignity, this real job (as he's so keen to point out it is) may just make the difference between self-respect and a step on the path to a brighter future or not. Why on earth would he think it funny for them to be forced to pass it over because they just didn't get the humour?

Sorry, I realise I shouldn't even be saying this. I should get my sense of humour bypass looked at instead.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Alt Lit: The Invisible Genre

Alt lit is the writing of the digital age. So why is it almost entirely absent from coverage of the digital publishing revolution?

I submitted the material that forms the bulk of this piece to Futurebook, the digital publishing wing of The Bookseller, on September 15th. I had an acknowledgement on October 3rd. Since then, nothing. As this week has seen Futurebook 2012, the huge, eponymously-run digital publishing conference held in London, I have decided that whilst there is still some topicality I will run the piece myself.

One author defined it simply as “writer plus internet.” It is the only form of writing that not only uses the internet but is about the internet. Everything it does is self-published and digital. Its works include descendants of both modernism and postmodernism, questioning, reflecting, interrupting and contributing to the endless shopping mall of off the peg ideas and memes and collective-speak that is the Web. Its hall of fame includes the likes of Tao Lin and Sam Pink, among the most important writers of our age.

Alt lit should be the poster-genre of the digital publishing revolution. And yet wherever self-publishing and digital publishing are mentioned, alt lit is absent. Thirty seconds with the search bar here reveals the terms “Tao Lin”, “Sam Pink”, “Steve Roggenbuck”, and “alt lit” produce a combined total of zero hits. Why? This silence is particularly curious when the high priest of Alt Lit, Tao Lin, has not only had his breakout novel Shoplifting from American Apparel filmed but will have his new novel, Taipei, published by Vintage.

When Taipei is published, I’m fairly sure Alt Lit will suddenly be everywhere in the industry press. I want to run this piece in part to state loud and clear that when this happens that press will be announcing itself (despite the fact it will undoubtedly claim to be unearthing the new) as utterly reactionary, following and not making the trends, reporting yesterday’s news and not pointing industry figures towards tomorrow’s.

Some of the reasons for the silence I think provide some important questions that the publishing industry could do with asking itself if it is to emerge fully into the digital age many readers are already part of.

Much alt lit uses the internet to engage with the ways in which the internet affects our lives. It is both medium and message and the ebooks arising out of it combine reflection with a playful use of cutting, pasting, remixing and reusing that is more akin to conceptual art and hip hop music than much contemporary literature. Words and pictures are fused into image macros that are rapidly cycled and circulated through the community through likes and reblogs accreting misspelled comments and boosts along the way.

The alt lit community’s (if such a disparate stream of voices can be called a community) introspection and ambitions provide one reason for their low profile. One writer recently posted in a forum “curious to know what ppl's 'end-goals' are re writing and 'alt lit'” and responses such as “by success i mean pride in myself” and “everything I’ve written since I was 14 is oti [on the internet] and searchable” show that goals tend not to be financial. And ebooks, though often produced with immense care and craft, tend to be found on tumblr rather than as .mobi files.

And now we are reaching the two key points. Almost all alt lit is free. And whilst most of it is heavily redacted, very little of it is edited in a way that publishers or readers or media pundits would recognise. Reflecting the open source lives of writers and readers, alt lit starts and ends with the internet, and as such is produced online from an open source ethos and consumed online in an open source way. And it faithfully renders text in which spelling is often an irrelevance and syntax is little other than an excuse for bondage puns.

These are clearly big problems for publishing. The former because when writers aren’t interested in being paid, how do you come up with a sustainable business model based on their work? The latter, because readers, reviewers, even ereading hardware manufacturers still have a clear picture of what a book is and what its content is like.

The question of free is one that the publishing industry is already asking itself quite seriously, though it remains deeply problematic. Not that Alt Lit is the preserve of tumblr sites and Facebook “share”s. A brief trawl trhough Alt Lit Library, a fairly comprehensive list of the movement’s leading titles, reveals some fabulous small presses doing exactly the kind of customer-led ultra-niche publishing that has made the likes of And Other Stories and Melville house so successful in the literary mainstream. Granddaddy of them all is Tao Lin’s own Muumuu House  but there’s a whole plethora publishing excellent work by leading members of the scene. Frank Hinton (who runs the hub site Alt Lit Gossip) has just had first novel Action, Figure published by Tiny Hardcore Press, while Civil Coping Mechanisms publish Noah Cicero, Socrates Adams and will have leading Alt Lit poet Gabby Gabby’s Alone With Other People on their list.

But it is the question of what literature “is” that is most difficult for the publishing industry. It remains something the industry skirts embarrassedly round the edges of. Everywhere digital self-publishing is mentioned you will find people clamouring to justify their work, claiming that it is edited to professional standards. Spelling, formatting, and editing in general are the almost unquestioned touchstone of respectability. Which is why the online phenomenon of fanfiction has been embraced whilst alt lit has been all but ignored.

And when the future is mentioned, and the subject of the new is broached, publishers find themselves limited to talking of apps as the next step beyond ebooks, and commercial interest focuses on the software and hardware that enables content production rather than on curating and distributing content as an art form.

Yet every day we communicate more and more online. Many of us text, message, status, tweet, pin and like more than we talk yet the shelves remain full of spoken dialogue. Our primary means of communication, increasingly shaping the way we think about ourselves and our relationships, are developing their own rules and their own formal priorities yet whilst we are told there is a digital revolution in publishing, epublishing remains recalcitrantly wedded to the old priorities. This is something the industry has to address if it is to avoid missing out altogether on one of the most important and exciting forms of literature around today. As it stands, Alt Lit and everything happening in its incredibly broad penumbra, remains a community of users generating content and distributing it to users. Where there is curation it arises organically from within the community.

I have to say I like this model very much, but it amazes me industry figures from the outside aren’t more interested (to the extent it seems that they won’t even post about it on their websites). I guess the closed system means that to the outside visibility is low because that surface membrane is rarely broken – Alt Lit is somewhat the stealth bomber of literary movements – a hive of high octane high tech activity on the inside, all but invisible on the outside. I wonder if Taipei will breach the surface. Whether Random Penguin suits will come pouring in looking for the next hot thing and trying agitatedly to get their heads round boosting. Quite possibly. What amazes me is that none of them has thought to send out an advance party.

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?