Preamble: I owe this blog a post or two. Just one so far this year, in January, when there was a fuss about festivals not paying authors decently, and I was suggesting that mainstream publishers taking advantage of unpaid interns is more worth shouting about. I stand by this. Lip-service to ‘diversity’ while having got rid of the trade unions and thereby being free to make free use of the free labour of those who can afford to live in London without wages is a nonsense.
Anyway. For starters, here, this review of Will Eaves’s new book from CBe, The Inevitable Gift Shop. It is, to put it mildly, complimentary. I’m pleased, and grateful. Here’s the opening para: ‘An artistic movement is forming. One that is open to spontaneity, artistic risk, emotional urgency and one which flies against traditional models. Will Eaves’s latest book, The Inevitable Gift Shop, is an example of this movement displayed in written form. We may call it a book at first mention, rather than a novel or a collection of poetry, because really this is simultaneously both of these things, and at the same time, something else and something new entirely. A combination of prose, poetry, literary critique and philosophy, it is collage, it is memoir, it is anything and everything that you want it to be. If there were rules to writing – which there aren’t (probably) – this book is rewriting them.’
But not new. The border controls between genres – despite the standard bookshop shelving labels: ‘fiction’, ‘non-fiction’, ‘poetry’, ‘memoir’, ‘travel’, ‘crime’ – have been relaxed for some time. It’s like the EU. Markson, Ondaatje, Sebald, Teju Cole, Hanna Krall, Emmanel Carrère, Anne Carson, Valeria Luiselli … Many more. Even the 19th-century ‘realist’ novelists twisted and turned (Stendhal, in The Red and the Black: ‘Here the author wants to put in a page full of dots. – That would show very little grace, said the editor’ – and the passage continues.) Claire Louise Bennett, asked at an LRB shop event last year whether Pond was short stories or novel or: ‘It’s just writing, innit?’
I’m enamoured of hybrids; the CBe list hosts several. The book from another publisher, Les Fugitives, that the CBe website hosts is hybrid. I think bookshops should have category labelled ‘mongrel’. But the trade doesn’t make it easy. When you publish a book and register it on the Nielsen central databank, from which everyone else – booksellers, Amazon, etc – takes their data, you have to give it a BIC (Book Industry Communication) code. Why? It does help booksellers, who can’t be expected to read everything. It’s pretty sophisticated. ASZJ is Dance and other perfoming arts/ Juggling. FJMV is Fiction & related items/ Adventure/ Vietnam war fiction. DCF is Poetry by individual poets. There is no BIC labelling that adequately categorises The Inevitable Gift Shop – or, I suspect, a fair few other books.
For the apportioning of fame, the labelling continues: prizes for novels, for short stories, for poetry, for flash fiction, for journalism, for memoirs. For eligibility, they have to define, to restrict. I once asked a major organiser in the short-story scene whether one of Lydia Davis’s short shorts might be considered for one of the short story prizes and she said, without any hesitation, no. But the Goldsmiths is relaxed about ‘novel’ and the Forward is relaxed about ‘poetry’. (Last year’s Forward prize went to the Claudia Rankine book – which, though the publisher categorised it as poetry, is to me essay, polemical prose – but that’s just me doing my own counter-labelling.)
A friend used to run a bookshop, and when people applied to work there part of the process was her asking where they’d shelve some titles she named. This was, obviously, a way of finding out how widely read the applicants were, but it wasn’t an absolute measure, other things counted too. Nothing wrong with an honest not knowing. Sometimes there is no right answer.