Where does the weirdness go?

The price of second-hand books seems to have fallen in Brighton. On my last trip I picked up some good books including The Secret State, The Manual of Detection and a volume of Eldridge Cleaver speeches, all for two pounds each.

I also picked up a copy of Toby Litt's i play the drums in a band called Okay. I'd read a couple of the chapters as short stories so thought I would give the book a try, although books about rock bands are generally disappointing. This turned out to be a lovely novel. It's written as a rockstar's autobiography and makes an episodic sweep across his life. The book's origin as disconnected short stories works well. In fact, it's arguable that the book is actually a short stort collection – but, if it is, then it's one of those rare collections where the selection and sequencing make the stories far stronger.

Another cheap book I picked up recently was Warren Ellis's Crooked Little Vein. I'd expected this to be entertaining but I've been surprised at how much it's made me think. The book explodes with ideas like godzilla bukkake / macroherpetophiles, Aaron Sorkin as a CIA plant, saline infusion, the ethics of human/canine relationships and the meaning of America. But the book also has some interesting things to say about what the Internet means for fringe culture:

"Consider this, though. If I've seen it on the Internet, is it still underground? 'Underground' always connoted something hidden, something difficult to see and find. Something underneath the surface of things, yes? But if it's on the Internet – and I do praise the Lord that I lived long enough to see such a thing – it cannot possibly be underground."

We live in a time when anything interesting is quickly propagated on twitter. Jokes can be stale within hours. Hype cycles can be so fast that they never recover from the 'trough of disillusionment'. There is less time for things to brew in secret before being brought to light – it's ridiculously to throw up a website for a minor project. And that may be a bad thing, it may not, but things have definitely changed. Crooked Little Vein might look like be an extended gross-out at points, but it's also a very clever little book and well worth reading.

Resisting the resistance

Sven Birkerts has written a lovely essay, Resisting the Kindle, which questions the idea of e-books.  Birkerts wrote the fascinating Gutenberg Elegies and, while I disagree with most of what he says, I think his critiques are important.

Birkerts "[perceives] in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding", with the e-book reader exchanging access for context.  Birkerts sees literature as "deeply contextual and historicized", giving an example of what he means:

"Somebody referenced a poem by Wallace Stevens but couldn’t think of the line. Her neighbor said “Wait—” and proceeded to Blackberry (yes, a verb) the needed words. It took only seconds. Everyone bobbed and nodded—it was the best of all worlds.  My response was less sanguine. I imagined an info-culture of the near future composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call. I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens … as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts… Turning up a quote by tapping a keyboard is not the same as, say, going to Bartlett’s—it short-circuits all contact with the contextual order that books represent."

Derrida claimed "the end of the book is the beginning of literature".  Technology threatens a certain type of reading.  But it also ushers in new forms of literature, new forms of writing and understanding.  I imagine e-book readers will, in time, provide their own forms of association and context, without being bound by the physical constraints of books or libraries.  Imagine being able to follow Steven's life and work through every book published on him and not needing to wait for inter-library loans to check citations.  Birkerts' essay outlines some risks of electronic books, but doesn't make the case that they outweigh the possibilities and opportunities of escaping the book.

On ‘edgy fucking litzine bollocks’

There's an interesting debate on the asalted blog about 'edgy fucking litzine bollocks'. Since some of the details have been obscured it's hard to tell exactly what happened, but essentially, an editor made an unfriendly rejection of a story; in retaliation, a friend of the rejectee "went to a greeking generator and mixed up some chunks of random text with expletives, and sent it to the editor along with a preposterous bio" (I'm assuming a greeking generator is something like this). This story has now been accepted and published.

Which is a brilliant story, but makes me nervous with its echoes of the Sokal hoax.  This was when a physicist had a paper published in a (non peer reviewed) 'postmodern cultural studies journal'. This was then used as a stick with which to beat the whole of critical theory. In fact the only thing the experiment showed was that a single journal had published an article based on the writer's authority rather than their understanding of the article's content. The problem was that the simple story (physicist pulls one over on kooky postmodernists) is easier to discuss than the more complicated issues behind it, which make Sokal a less clever and heroic figure than he often appears.

I'm prepared to give the literary journal in question the benefit of the doubt. Without naming names and allowing me to read the submission in context, the story of the journal accepting a random story is simply a morality fable.

For example, a piece constructed of seemingly-random text may well have made a powerful point in context with the other pieces in the journal. One could even imagine this piece being published in an ironic attack on avant-garde writing. A good editor should not be selecting the best pieces received, rather the pieces that advance their aims and work best as a group.

There are also questions of authorship here. Just because the author claims a piece is worthless doesn't make it so – Francis Bacon was known to destroy his own priceless works because he disliked them. It is possible that this piece is in fact a radically good avant-garde piece of writing. (One of the mistakes made by the victims in the Sokal affair was changing their opinions of Sokal's work after the hoax was revealed – would the editor here stand by the work selected?) The text in question is also not entirely a stream of random words – it has been processed and had (expletive) words added. Does that not count as a work of authorship? (And what about the authorship of the person who wrote the generator?).

There's another problem here in that, as Vanessa Gebbie has pointed out in the past, different markets are often incompatible. I read a lot of avant-garde poetry during my MA and, while I didn't appreciate all of it, that didn't mean other people couldn't be excited and moved by it. A couple of the comments I've seen on 'litzine bollocks' have become general attacks on a certain style of literature.

The original post in this debate is interesting because the people involved have read the pieces and know the full story. But, without that background, just because something is easy to mock doesn't mean it deserves it.

Sara – can we name the magazine and the (fake) author?

Who’d want to write a novel?

One of the best things I've read recently is John Lanchester's introduction to BS Johnson's novel Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry.  The essay opens:
"Many people, entirely reasonably, regard the novel as an exhausted form, one whose heroic period at the center of human culture has passed.  Others choose to dedicate all their creative efforts to the novel, as if it were still an all-important medium.  It is difficult to belong simultaneously to both groups, but BS Johnson did, and the resultant tension fuelled the extraordinary decade of creativity he enjoyed between the publication of his first novel… and his death by suicide"

Johnson is quoted as saying "If a writer's chief interest is in telling stories… then the best place to do it now is in television, which is technically better equipped and will reach more people than a novel can today".  In a world where adaptation to a film seems to be the crowning glory of a novel that seems pretty obvious.  After all, how many stories have been successfully adapted from film to book?

Johnson is interesting as someone who acknowledged the limits of the novel.  I've been finding the idea of a straightforward novel increasingly difficult.  The linear novel, written in a single unified voice, is obsolete.  Life is a series of intersecting texts, with fiction simply part of a stream of information, alongside messages from friends, adverts and 'news'.  House of Leaves is far closer to my experience than Wuthering Heights, as great a book and an achievement as the latter is.  The world needs books whose form reflects it.