I Hate the Internet

I first heard about Jarett Kobeks’ novel “I hate the Internet” from John Higgs, who  told me about the book’s comparison between corporations making money from user-generated content and the publishers that stole from Jack Kirby. As the book puts it, “The business practices of the American comic-book industry have colonized Twenty-First Century life“. Kobek goes on to say that “The only difference being that Marvel, like, you know, actually paid Jack Kirby before he was screwed. Twitter didn’t pay its creators.” John described the book as being more of an argument than a novel, but it appealed to me. It’s also apparently the first self-funded book to be reviewed in the New York times.

The book explicitly claims that it is a bad book: “The writer of this novel gave up trying to write good novels when he realized that the good novel, as an idea, was created by the Central Intelligence Agency. This is not a joke. This is true.” As Kobel explains, “the CIA funded both The Paris Review and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the latter the prototype of a swarm of creative writing courses” Vice recently published an article, How the CIA infiltrated the world’s literature,  which gives some background on this.

I read the book in one go. It’s the sort of novel I love, falling into the category described by David Shield’s Reality Hunger, blurring non-fiction with fiction. It’s also very much a meta-fiction: one chapter is abandoned in favour of a summary of the arguments it was meant to make. It’s written in a similar mode to Kurt Vonnegut, albeit more cynical (there is even a science fiction writer among the characters, with the plots of his books described).

The novel is mostly a collection of rants about the modern world. It contains some vicious critiques of social media, all despairing: “How do you reason with people who make arguments about human dignity on machines built by slaves in China? How do you reason with people whose primary expression comes pre-branded by Twitter?

One of my favourite aspects of the book was its references to comic books. At one point, the Internet is described as “a wonderful resource for artist engagement, expanding a fan base, and reading about the feud between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison“. The last of these is a subject that has fascinated me – I was one of the supporters of the Last War in Albion Kickstarter, which produced the first volume of an epic history of this feud. The book’s description of Grant Morrison is harsh but amusing:

“Other than the oodles of quality which seeped from his work, Morrison’s principle distinguishing feature was that he had the bad luck of being a comic-book writer at the same time as Alan Moore. To paraphrase the preeminent comics critic Andrew Hickey… if Alan Moore had not existed, Grant Morrison would have been considered the single greatest writer in the history of the medium”

There is a definite danger in how social media overwhelms our communications and culture. In 2017, having a blog feels anachronistic. As Facebook, twitter and Medium expand, content gets boosted according to how well they achieve these company’s aims. A good example of this is the article The Three Reasons Youtubers Keep Imploding. I’m not sure what the answer is, although the Indie Web offers a glimmer of hope.

The Guardian interviewed Kobek in December. It was a fairly depressing read. Kobek said:

Interviewer: Reading your book made me think that we simply haven’t even had the language to criticise the internet until now. That there’s been no outside to the internet. No place to oppose it from…

Kobek: I think the outside is publishing, actually. I mean publishing in the most Platonic sense of the word, rather than the squalid industry that we have. I think that books actually can be anything. Publishing’s response to the internet has been completely pathetic, but God, if there’s going to be an opposition, a response, it’s not going to come in the form of tweets

Maybe the future is zines, maybe it’s something else. By the end of the book I felt quite despairing, and emailed John Higgs to tell him so. And, he reminded me there are good things about the Internet, and Kobel’s critique is not the only way of looking at things. “Pessimism is easier, of course, but pessimism is for lightweights”.

But Kobek is right, there is a problem to be faced here. As he said in his Guardian interview:

we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.

A book about Chalk

Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk is about abuse and folklore and the magic of pop-music. It’s the sort of book that burrows deep into my obsessions (one of its reference points is the Long Man of Wilmington). There’s a lot I can say about this book, and the conversations I’d have in person are very different to what I’d write in a blog post. It’s a book of complicated thoughts and feels.

I heard of the book through an interview with John Scalzi. It proved as shocking as Cornell warned – the incident at the start of the book, which triggers what follows, is very hard to read.

The book contains powerful chains of symbols – chalk outlines, downlands, pre-Roman Britain. There are the tarot suits scattered throughout the story – are the snooker cues wands, the knife a sword? Chalk turns up in different forms, not least on the snooker clues.

Cornell described the book as being about narrative, and the character of Angie has her own form of magic, very different to the narrator’s. The idea of pop music as magic seem familiar from Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram universe, but Cornell’s take on the idea is fresh. It’s a magic of lyrics, where the record at number one tells you what is coming in the future. Bananarama becomes a sort of triple goddess of young one, serious one and leader, but “They’re missing someone. There should really be a secret fourth member, or one we only hear about later”. Reference books listing British pop charts provide birth charts.

One thing I particularly liked was the headmaster’s announcement “[School] is a microcosm of the world. We prepare you for your place in it. History has set out a path for you. We lead you along it” – the school here is a world where the narratives compete. The distortions to this world are grounded while having the scale of cosmic horror, again reminiscent of Pratchett – there is a danger of something breaking through.

I’ve spoken mostly about the mythic aspects of the book. There’s also some very good, very raw writing about the effects of bullying and abuse, about the way in which these things persist in the world. The ending is the right one, true to the book, but it’s far from the one I wanted. But that’s the sort of discussion that works better in person than in books.

Louise said there was chalk in every room now.

A new Brighton bookshop

Last week, I wrote about the sad demise of the PS Brighton bookshop. There was also some good Brighton bookshop news recently, with a new place opening in the open market, run by John Shire.

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John has been running The Smallest Bookshop in Brighton for some time, with tiny batches of books available at different locations around the town. The new venue doesn’t really qualify as small, as there are lots of books available. Some really good ones too – the shop sells a number of books that I love. On my first quick visit I replaced a book I previously owned that had been surrendered before my last house move.

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(I think that is why Brighton has so many good second hand books available – most people don’t have room to keep many, and have to discard books they would otherwise keep)

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John is also owner of Invocations Press, which has published a number of excellent books. Among them is Bookends, John’s “Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade”. It records many much-loved and much-missed shops, and includes a bibliopolyography listing all known Brighton bookshops. It is also a very amusing book, with some brilliant asides – my favourite being the claim that “all books about Brighton are legally obliged to mention [Aleister] Crowley

4/3/17 – Over on Facebook, John wrote: “Worth mentioning too that it would have been impossible without the help of Mark at Ububooks in the Open Market who shares the majority of the Unit as well. So, a greater range of books than you could shake a stick at. Which you are welcome to do. As long as it’s not muddy and bits don’t fall off it. And you buy something after you’ve had your unusual fun.

The Odditorium Book

On October 6th, the Odditorium book will be released, and includes sections written by Dr Bramwell, Jo Keeling, John Higgs, Sarah Angliss and others.

The book’s full title is The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world. It contains various biographies of lesser-known people who changed the world in some way, large or small:

Learn about Reginald Bray (1879-1939), a Victorian accountant who sent over 30,000 singular objects through the mail, including himself; Cyril Hoskin (1910-1981), a Cornish plumber who reinvented himself as a Tibetan lama and went on to sell over a million books; and Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), a journalist who battled a tirade of prejudice to pursue an aquatic-based theory of human evolution, which is today being championed by David Attenborough.

I’ve written two pieces for the book. The first is on Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an Antarctic explorer who wrote The Worst Journey in the World; and Harry Bensley, an adventurer who claimed to have walked around the world disguised by a knight’s helmet.

It’s so exciting to see the book finally coming to print, having been involved since the early pitching sessions, sending in lists of people I thought should be included (I was sad Nek Chand didn’t make it). There are some fascinating figures – I’m most excited about reading John Higgs writing about Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and I think there’s also a chapter on Bob Flanagan.

The book is available for pre-order from Amazon; and if you’re in Brighton there is a launch event on October 14th.

Stranger than we can Imagine

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This weekend saw the launch of John Higgs’ new book Stranger than we can Imagine. It was also the first chance I’d had to read the copy I bought a few weeks ago at the Wilderness Festival, where I spoke just after John. His book on the KLF is one of my favourite books, so I’d been looking forward to this for some time. It’s a pretty bold undertaking, being a history of the twentieth century and takes its title from a quote by the physicist Sir Arthur Eddington.

Apparently a review in a history journal said that, rather than being the Great Man theory of history, this is the strange person history. The figures Higgs picks are marginal: Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, Emperor Norton, Mark Everett. There is a fantastic portray of Von Neumann as a supervillain, which vividly illustrates the madness of cold war strategy. The book’s theme is the shifting frames of reference at the start of the century in areas such as psychology, politics, science and literature. My favourite quote is the cautious claim that “If you were feeling  brave you could argue that Einstein was a modernist scientist, although to do so would annoy a lot of physicists”

I tend to be a little nervous about popular accounts of physics. Over the years I’ve read too many accounts of quantum entanglement that veered off into telepathy. The handling of science here is careful and thoughtful without being dry, particularly the discussions of special relativity.

(The time traveller and poet Rosy Carrick recently teased me for the class of degree I earned and, yes, I was much less successful than she was as an undergraduate. However, I feel that I achieved the aims JA Smith set out in his teaching: “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”)

Another interesting discussion is about the alleged riots at the opening night of Stavinsky’s rite of Spring. Like the riots that were said to have happened in response to Tzara’s random poetry, there is little evidence that this happened. Higgs dismantles the myth, then turns to a surprising conclusion: “An actual riot only tells us about the impact of the performance on one particular day. A mythic riot, on the other hand, shows us that the impact of the music transcends that point in time. Myths don’t just crop up anywhere.”

The narrative of the book emerges quite late, and for a while I wasn’t sure if there was a story to be told, but the conclusion is fascinating. Something happened in the 20th century and this book provides an interesting explanation of what this was.

PS – Higgs raises an interesting question about UFOs through his outline of a discussion by Jung. UFOs, according to Jung, are a modern manifestation of things seen through the ages, such as fairies and angels. Since the cameraphone became ubiquitous, UFO sightings have dropped off – what is going to replace them?

 

Big Game Hunting in the Second Hand Bookshop

(This is a post from the literaturenetwork back in July 2009. The piece questions some of the things we have lost in the Internet age, a question that drives my PhD research. If I was to write this article today it would be aggressively political. Second hand bookshops are being driven out of business through the combined assault of Amazon and high-street charity shops. While this can easily be ascribed to the march of 'technological progress', the endangered status of the second hand bookshop touches on some very important political issues – for example, fair taxation, local shopping and the importance and financing of art. I've not written that article and probably won't so here's the original…)

The Internet is wonderful thing. So wonderful that it’s easy to forget how much fun buying books in the real world can be.

I love buying things on-line. No matter how strange or obscure the item I want, there always seems to be someone selling it. The most interesting thing I’ve bought recently is a mid-nineties guide to British second hand book shops. This book, by the mysterious Driffield, is long out of date: most of the shops listed that I remember from 15 years back are no more. The guide would likely be little use in navigating present-day second hand bookshops (although I sometimes day-dream about trying).

Instead it reads like a strange volume of speculative fiction, perhaps something Jeff Vandermeer might have devised – maybe drif’s guides are the first examples of paperpunk. Driffield himself has also appeared as a literary character, notably appearing and disappearing in Iain Sinclair’s books (for example, ‘White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings’ and City of Disappearances respectively). He was described by Iain Sinclair as “the punning diarist to a dying book trade”.

Driffield’s guides are full of acronyms (FARTS – Follows you around recommending the stock; GOB – Grand old bore ; KEENON – Keen on stocking if they could get it) and strange obsessions – the link between vegetarian restaurants and book shops, tales of skulduggery and multi-page rants about ‘British Fail’. One edition even claimed Guilford did not exist. Driffield’s frustrations are written up as epic adventure, with wonderful sketches of shops, such as the one where he “discovered how to cure thrush with carrots.”

Reading Drif’s guides and remembering long-lost bookshops brought back the fun I had trawling bookshops as a teenager. I’d sneak away from school and search through basements and shops for treasures, maybe a Michael Moorcock book I’d not seen before or recent hardbacks I couldn’t afford to buy new. I kept a list of the books I wanted to find and was always thrilled when I could cross one off. Looking for books was almost as much fun as reading them – more so when the book failed to meet my expectations.

Buying books in the 21st century is different. Amazon astutely saw that books could be bought without the buyer handling the product and their empire has grown, sweeping away physical bookshops. Over the years Amazon has added more features, one of the most interesting being Amazon Marketplace, which offers new and second hand books from sellers worldwide. Readers can search hundreds, maybe thousands of bookshops with a single web request and cheap copies of out of print books can arrive within days. This, and similar services, have made buying second hand books incredibly easy.

But something has been lost. When ordering books from Amazon, my only communication with the seller is to leave a comment on the feedback page. In real-world bookshops I came to know some of the sellers, and could spend ages chatting while deciding which paperbacks to buy and which I’d risk leaving for next time. And, of course, in real bookshops I’d occasionally find books I’d never expected, the sort of random associations and serendipity you can’t build into recommendation engines.

I’ve not been out trawling second hand bookshops for a long time now. For a start I have less free time: it’s easy to skip school but harder to play truant from a job. The sheer efficiency of Amazon marketplaces has seduced me from the secondhand bookshop. Sometimes I wish I had less money and more time, because then I’d be trawling second-hand bookshops again.

According to Driffield “Book dealing is a form of big-game hunting.” There is more to books than words and I miss questing for books. Borges said that heaven would be a library. I disagree. For me heaven would be an endless, dusty, second hand book-shop.

My favourite books of 2011

At the end of the year, it's fun to look back at the books that I've read and pick out the ones I liked most. In 2011 I read 105 books, most of which were non-fiction. Here are my ten favourites, in no particular order:

Bookends: A Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade by John Shire is a fascinating description of an obscure topic. Shire's book runs from the early days of the town through to current times, and brought back memories of bookshops that I loved. As well as being a good history it is also entertaining and personal, with some entertaining asides, such as the observation that all books on Brighton are required to mention Aleister Crowley.

Thirteen by Sebastian Beaument came highly recommended by Scott Pack. It's a novel about a Brighton taxi driver who finds himself in a slowly developing Lynchian nightmare. The end of the book was a little disappointing, but the opening was one of the weirdest, creepiest things I've ever read.

Erinna Mettler's Starlings is a 'daisy-chain novel' set in Brighton. It's well researched and contains a fascinating range of characters and periods (although it did let itself down a little by not mentioning Crowley).

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was a somewhat frustrating book, in that I hated the first half. I found its metafictional aspects glib and irritating and considered drowning it in the bath. I'm glad I didn't since the second part made up for it. Death In Varanasi was a fascinating description of a city I've visited in the past and where I plan to spend some time in 2012.

Another book which I half-liked was Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow by Brian Fawcett. The book is once again divided into two. The top half is a collection of post-modern short-stories, some of which I found a little dated. The bottom section of each page contained a devasting analysis of the Khmer Rouge's atrocities and the West's response, .

I meant to write a long post about Jane Bussman's The Worst Date Ever, but that is currently lost in my drafts folder. Partly this is because the topics Bussman deals with are so huge. The Worst Date Ever is a clever book pretending to be dumb. It's very hard to talk about the book without getting trapped in complicated issues. In short: a celebrity journalist explores the conflict in Uganda. I regret not taking the time to finish my post about it and will try to do so in the Spring. It's well worth reading – I was shocked at the West's shameful complicity in the conflict.

Another book I failed to write about was Kenneth Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing. The book's title sounds like a gimmick but it is a fascinating and exciting account of what the Internet means for writing. Goldsmith started as a fine artist and this background gives him some amazing insights into where literature might be headed. It's surprising, approachable, fun.

I love pop-economics books and The Undercover Economist is one of the best I've read. The section of Fair-Trade coffee was particularly shocking. Grant Morrison's Supergods was just the mix of memoir, metafiction and comics criticism that I hoped for, and I'm looking forward to reading it again.

The book that's likely to have the most long-term effect on me is London Calling, Barry Miles' counter-cultural history of London. This is a fascinating history of underground movements in London during the  20th century. I read it on a beach in February and one particular paragraph stuck in my head, sparking some ideas that may take up much of the next few years:

"…with the coming of the Internet, underground publication has effectively disappeared. There can be no avant-garde unless there is a time-delay before the public knows what you are doing… whereas artists in the sixties could work for years with no media coverage, the hardest thing now is to not have thousands of hits on Google or a page on Wikipedia."

I received a Kindle as a Christmas gift. I'd always avoided them before, scared of being seduced, but it's going to come in very useful in my travels over the coming weeks (books are heavy). I suspect that it will change the way I read significantly. I'm looking forward seeing what is one my list of favourite books of 2012, and what form they take.

In Loving Memory of Bunny

I love the tiny plaques on memorial benches, the way they attempt to describe lives with a short sentence or two. Often they leave me wondering about the person described and wanting to know more. One that I find particularly interesting is on the Undercliff walk, near the Ovingdean gap. Its text is simple: "In loving memory of Bunny". It makes me think of Bunny Munro, the title character in Nick Cave's book, The Death Of Bunny Munro, who lived in the area near this bench. I don't know the person that the bench actually memorialises so, for me, it's one of those strange moments where fiction and reality overlap. 

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How Stewart Lee escaped his certain fate

I bought Stewart Lee's book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, to help myself through a hangover last weekend. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be to read transcripts of three shows that I'd already seen, but the book includes some massive footnotes discussing the routines and Lee's life, all of which proved fascinating. 

Stewart Lee interests me since he is someone who obviously cares about his craft. He talks in detail about his work, and how it relates to the comedians he loves, many of whom I'd not heard of before I read references to them in Lee's interviews. Lee also has some fantastic set-pieces, my favourite being his attack on Richard Littlejohn for Littlejohn's disgraceful comments on the Ipswich murders 

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Lee talks about his career and its current status. Inspired by Daniel Kitson, Lee has deliberately aimed for a smaller audience of people who love his work. He's a good example of someone with 1000 true fans

A few favourite quotes from the book:

"…my teenage comedy hero John Hegley told me you only need a few thousand fans. And if they all give you ten pounds a year, you're away. And I thought about all the musicians I like – the folk singers and free jazzers and alternative country cowpokes and persistent punk veterans who all hang on in there, on small labels, selling self-released CDs for cash out of suitcases after gigs and operating within viable margins, tour, rest, tour, rest and sell some CDs. They survive" [p31]

"I am arrogant, I admit, but when I say things like this onstage I have chosen to be arrogant for comic effect and hope, in part, that the comments reflect badly on me, creating a distancing effect between me and the audience. I hope they admire the comedy, but I'd rather they didn't enjoy the show just because they liked me as a person. It seems cheap." [p68]

"For the middle part of my thirties I'd been barely earning a living. I was like a punch-drunk prizefighter with no other viable skills who thought there might still be a battle to be won. And I realised that stand-up was just one man on a stage in the room. And so stand-up was infinite. And I had been a fool to doubt it." [p39] 

I like that last quote because it reminds me of something Harvey Pekar said about comic books, which is often quoted by Warren Ellis: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."

Recent reading

I've read a lot of books since my last reading post so this is a quick catch-up of the most interesting ones:

  • Die Hard Mod by Charlie McQuaker is a short book but it's great fun. The story is set in Brighton and mentions lots of well-known places. I loved the fast and effective style, which led to a great set-piece at the end. If you live in Brighton, you should definitely read this. There's a review by Paolo Hewitt here.
  • Jaws was a good quick read, described by Peter Benchley as "a first novel about a fish". I can't see myself reading much more Peter Brenchley, although if a copy of 1994's White Shark falls into my lap then I won't be able to resist "the story of a Nazi-created genetically engineered shark/human hybrid".
  • What was Lost was recommended by Scott Pack and was good enough that I read it by torchlight in my tent at a festival. It's about a shopping centre, and really captures the horror of lunch-breaks and days off. One thing that annoyed me was that the back of the book gave away the structure of the book – it would have been lovely to read this not knowing where it was going.  My favourite line, from a girl who wants to be a detective: "Although Sam Spade is not seen at any point in The Maltese Falcon shopping for stationery, Kate knew how important premium office supplies were to an effective investigator"
  • I read Einstein's Dreams because it was compared to Sum,
    which I read in April. The similarities are notable. However, I think
    Einstein's dreams is the better book, since it asks more relevant questions about our lives – which of the worlds it describes are we living in? My copy of the book was
    augmented by notes from a previous owner. She seemed to be studying the stories in college and had, I felt, had missed the point at times. I thought it better not to email her and point this out.
  • I was initially inspired to explore the Bizarro genre by a post from Damien G. Walter. My appetite was further whetted by Bluejoh, who'd read Baby Jesus Butt Plug and said "It's still with me, in a way that a lot of books aren't". I bought one of the Bizarro starter kits and was mostly unimpressed, but House of Houses is one of the most interesting fantasy novels I've read. It's not Tolkien by any means but it is a truly weird novel, which asks the deep philosophical question: what is a house? While the text sometimes seems immature, it's also one of the strangest and most
    inventive novels I've read. True fantasy.

The Secret State was a fascinating but bleak book by Peter Hennessey.
Now that the world has survived the Cold War, it seems less insane than
it did (In August 1991, the head of the JIC, Sir Percy Cradock,
produced champagne, "toasting the intelligence community as a whole
on the demise of the Cold War with the words "We didn't have a
war. We
did win").
Despite this, some of the memos from the time remain chilling.

Looking back, the Cold War seems like a very strange period of history. As historian Michael Howard pointed out, "War is now seen as being a matter for governments and not for
peoples; an affair of mutual destruction inflicted at remote distances
by technological specialists operating according to the arcane
calculations of strategic analysts. Popular participation is considered
neither necessary nor desirable
"
– and this despite, as Hennessey
points out, the certainty of massive civilian casualties.

The book was fascinating. One of the
strangest moments was the discussion of how a nuclear submarine checks
whether Britain has been destroyed – one test was whether the Today programme was still broadcasting.