Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Surprise prize (murmur it)

For reasons barely known even to myself, I’m re-reading Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and noting every instance at which a character blushes.

For different reasons but still obscure ones, CBe won a prize at the Republic of Consciousness event last night. The main prize, the one advertised and for which there were many entries, was won by Eley Williams and Influx Press for Attrib. and other stories: all praise, and congratulations. The prize won by CBe featured in the warm-up half of the evening; it doesn’t have a name (that I’m aware of); it appears to have been invented for the occasion by Neil Griffiths, founding father of the Republic of Consciousness; there were references in his speech to William Gass (whose On Being Blue I happen also to have been re-reading in the past week or so), and to metafiction, and to the two books I published last year under the pen-name Jack Robinson, An Overcoat and Robinson. An Overcoat was on the RoC longlist; it is about (if any novel can be said to be ‘about’ any one thing) Stendhal.

The prize is – has to be – in recognition (and I’m deeply grateful for this) of the quality of the books published by CBe in the past decade, and for that the authors of the books are responsible. See the website. At some point during the summer the prize money will be spent on a party for those authors (plus friends, colleagues, supporters). At another point CBe will be in proud receipt of an RoC conch (above, the working drawings by Laura Hopkins received last night, alongside the book being mined for blushes).

This Friday, 23rd March – anniversary of the death-day of Stendhal: this is an obsession, I know – is the official publication date of Murmur, the third book by Will Eaves to be published by CBe. Murmur is available now – in some (but not enough) bookshops, or from the website. On Saturday at 7.30 pm Will Eaves will be talking about Murmur – and Alan Turing and consciousness and poetry – at the London Buddhist Centre: full details here. Please come.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Lionel Shriver: well-bred panic

I wasn’t going to do this on any public platform, because I’d be getting in over my depth and because of the regular awfulness of the below-the-line comments, but that Lionel Shriver piece in Prospect last month continues to irritate, so.

In a keynote speech on ‘Fiction and Identity Politics’ delivered at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016 (concerning cultural appropriation; reprinted in full in the Guardian) Shriver identified herself as “a renowned iconoclast”. In the article published in Prospect entitled “Writers blocked: how the new call-out culture is killing fiction” she again takes up the role of maverick speaker-of-truth, defending her right to be “mischievous, subversive and perverse” against “the #MeToo and ‘cultural appropriation’ mob”. The whole article reads like one long cry of “political correctness gone mad” from someone on the foot behind the back foot. Her complaint is argued with a sort of plain-speaking reasonableness but no interest – or even curiosity – is evident in how the processes of writing (and who writes), publishing and reception have never been purely literary. And the maverick role, favoured by magazine eds who see some increase in circulation here, is just tedious.

According to Shriver, “the right not to be offended” is taking over all rational, critical discussion, with the result that “we authors now contend with a torrent of dos and don’ts that bind our imaginations and make the process of writing and publishing fearful.” Fearfulness is cousin to paranoia: “popular conflation of art and artist potentially makes the publishability of authors’ work dependent on how we comport ourselves at parties”. A rejection by an editor – “Maybe the editor just thought it was crummy. We’ll never know” – is assumed to be for reasons of “thought crime”. She worries that “The whole apparatus of delivering literature to its audience is signalling an intention to subject fiction to rigid ideological purity tests, unrelated to artistry, excellence and even entertainment, that miss the point of what our books are for.” She worries that “If all modern literature comes to toe the same goody-goody line, fiction is bound to grow timid, homogeneous, and dreary.” She worries a lot.

She worries because, I believe, she’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick. At base, “the #MeToo and ‘cultural appropriation’ mob” is not about virtue-signalling and ideological purity, it is about challenge to power and to privilege. (Shriver knows this, how can she not, but chooses to go into aggressive-defensive mode. She's entitled to this mode, of course, but it's silly. And needless, because the novel is, as Shriver herself says, “magnificently elastic”.)

The list that I wrote in 1963 of books that I’d read that year (when I was aged 12) stretched to around 40 titles; two were by women, one was a translation, none was by a not-white author. Some of those books were, and still are, terrific. But what gets published – and who writes for publication and what gets reviewed and who gets a job in publishing and what gets read and which books get the prizes – has never been determined by purely literary criteria. Publishing is a business and an institution, with built-in privileges. It’s political; it was never, and still isn’t, pure, whatever that is. Between 1963 and now publishing has adjusted, a little, but it has all been so slow, which probably does have to be the case with institutions, which by definition are concerned above all with self-preservation and so by nature are conservative. Shriver’s shock-horror about what gets published and what not being determined by non-literary criteria is not a little naive.

Shriver is not keen on the word privilege: “I can’t be the only one who’s sick up to the eyeballs with that word.” When she mentions marginalised communities, her phrase, she puts them in quote marks, as if she can’t quite believe they really exist. I’m as privileged as Shriver; more so, because I’m not just white but male, and live in the West, and of a certain age (which by pure luck entitled me to be paid to go university and to be able to live cheap in London and a whole lot of other things, and I’ve never had to go to war: I’m part of the most privileged male generation in human history); and if there’s any reason for me writing this, it’s embarrassment – that white people of my peer group should continue to be given space for such nonsense. I know they can seem reasonable. I can seem reasonable myself, sometimes. I’m as full of prejudice as the rest of us.

“Mob” – what a word. Barbarians at the gates. Hi, mob. Let me check your papers: oh, sorry, that clause doesn’t seem to be grammatically correct. “We live in denunciatory times,” says Shriver, licensing for herself a whole lot of denunciation and what comes across as well-bred panic. No, let’s not check the papers, their page after page of tedious questions configured by those with the power to choose what and what not to ask and how to grade the answers. Shriver is worried about the policing of what she writes by non-literary criteria; some acknowledgement that the whole history of writing and publishing has been policed for centuries by power structures that have nothing to do with pure (it’s never pure) literature wouldn’t come amiss. Let’s talk. We can make time for this. There are people in the waiting room who have been waiting for generations. If their sentences, the whole way they use language, can seem beyond what I’m used to, that could be my problem not theirs. If they are running out of patience, don’t blame them.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Alternative alternatives

There’s the way things are usually done (books published, say, or art shows put on) and there are, somewhere down the line and certainly with less money, ‘alternative’ ways. Of course the norm itself is just one possible way of going about things, itself an alternative to many other ways that got biffed to the side, an alternative which survives for reasons more to do with power and habit than reason or common sense or any other kind of sense.

Publishing good books and showing good art do not require an office or gallery in a plush part of town and a very high sum in the overheads column. But to have the work reach lots of people – that’s the tricky bit, because the ways in which new work gets known about and made available are tied into the current norm and are resistant to change.

For books, the distribution system is simply mad; and despite the increasing public profile of small presses (their inclusion on prize shortlists, etc), the system is weighted against them. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement handed all the aces to the big players, who deal in high volume. Amazon’s discounting has forced the cover price of books up (as publishers seek to protect their own margins) and led to the closure of many independent bookshops. Most of the remaining independent bookshops order from one or both of the main wholesalers, and if a title is not in stock with Gardners or Bertrams a customer will usually be told that it’s not available. When I last checked, a bare handful of CBe titles were in stock at the wholesalers (and Gardners list many titles as ‘POS – Publisher out of stock’, which is simply untrue: the titles are in stock with the distributor, Central Books, which supplies the wholesalers). And even if booksellers do have titles on their shelves, they can choose to return them and get their money back.

Any norm is, by definition, not only conservative in itself but relies for its survival on the conservatism of those who accept it as the default way of doing things. Real change won’t happen except through politics. That’s what politics is for. In the meantime, consider not buying from Amazon (there are enough reasons, god knows). Consider, even, buying direct from a publisher’s website (the CBe one is here, but the others have them too). Books are written by single people at their desks, and are read individually too, in chairs or beds or on trains or buses or boats, and though between the writing and the reading there does have to be an arrangement, and involvement with money, it really needn’t stray far from the one-to-one.

Consider also going to an art show that is not ‘sponsored’ by a bank or oil company or auction house, and that may not even be in a public gallery. Year by year, there is an increasing number of exhibitions taking place in pop-up spaces or private homes or studios, most of them free to visit. One of them – open this coming weekend, and by appointment; and, yes, there is some small CBe involvement – is here.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post on this blog – here – to announce that CBe was going into semi-retirement. That’s an ambiguous phrase, and I have some sympathy with those who ask, with a touch of impatience, Make up your mind – are you stopping or aren’t you?

Some things – Trump, say, or the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald – I can say a definite no or yes to. Other things are not so binary. I like being able to bring new books into the world (it’s an extraordinary privilege) but not everything involved in the process: I don’t enjoy, for example, anything associated with the word marketing or applying for funding. CBe continues but at a low level, with a different rhythm: plotted as an electrocardiogram, it will look like I’m falling asleep for long periods, but with sudden peaks of excitement – the latter representing books that I simply cannot not publish.

For example: there will be, in March, Murmur, Will Eaves’s new novel. Or if not exactly ‘novel’, a book that at least will cause booksellers less headache than Will’s last book when they think about where to shelve it. There’s a page on the website for pre-orders. Go there, even click on the 'Add to cart' button if you feel inclined. All pre-ordered books will be sent out – probably in February – with a couple of free flappers. There will be events for the book at the London Buddhist Centre, Bookseller Crow Bookshop and elsewhere. Will Eaves’s previous CBe titles are The Absent Therapist (shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize) and The Inevitable Giftshop (shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award).

Many thanks for support during 2017, during which Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize, Will Eaves’s The Inevitable Giftshop was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award, and Diane Williams’s Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was shortlisted for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize. Jack Robinson’s An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. is currently longlisted for the next Republic of Consciousness Prize.

On Friday, 19 January Tony White will be introducing a screening of the film Wetherby at the London Review Bookshop, and then will be chatting with me about the film. Click here for more details and to book tickets. I wrote a blog post about Wetherby here; Tony's blog post about the film, dating back to 2010, is here.

This time last year I was reading Robinson Crusoe and thinking I was setting up a sort of ‘project’ that would keep me ticking over for the whole year. But it was hard to clear a space in my head from the day-by-day awfulness of what is happening in this country and, impatiently, I published the book in June, to coincide with the General Election. Robinson is still, unfortunately, topical.